Letters on Literature,
by Andrew Lang.  London and New Youk: Longmans,
Green & Co.
the peculiar success which Mr. Lang achieved in
his Letters to Dead Authors,
the captivated public became clamorous to know
what he might have to say on living celebrities.
The volume* before me is Mr. Lang’s discreet response.
The task he here undertakes is one before which
he wisely hesitated. Yet he has succeeded in it,
by reason of his delicacy, his subtility of appreciation,
his beguiling humor, and his Scottish caution.
Only half a dozen of the letters, in truth, are
concerned with the perilous subject of contemporary
writers; but in these he is at his best. The others,
on such themes as Fielding, Gerard de Norval,
Lucretius, Virgil, Ancassin and Nicolette, Plotinus,
Rochetoucauld, etc., etc., are written in a modern
spirit to imaginary correspondents of this nineteenth
are perhaps more accomplished critics now writing
than Mr. Lang, but there are more, I feel sure,
who so combine sound critical judgement with the
finest graces of style. Whatever Mr. Lang writes
is literature. The assured and inimitable touch
is never lacking. There is a persistent flavor
of Theocritus, of the Greek anthology, anthology,
and of delighted wanderings in Proveneal song.
All this is blended with modern sympathies, the
spirit of alert inquiry, and a fondness for coquetries
of phrase which sometimes come very near the verge
of slang. Such is the apparent lightness of these
pages that we often fail to realize just how sane
and temperate are the doctrines which we are imbibing.
Yet, with all his good sense, he reiterates the
hackneyed lament that poetry has fallen into disfavor.
"Poor poetry!" says he, with misplaced
condolence. "Now we dwell in an age of democracy,
and poetry wins but a feigned respect, more out
of courtesy, and for old sake’s sake, than for
liking." This is an age which gives Tennyson
his $25 000 a year for his singing, and Browning
his $10 000, and Swinburne, with his comparatively
limited appeal, $5 000! The complaint is an idle
and unfounded one. The rewards above named may
not seem vary large in themselves, but they go
with an influence and repute which are not to
be measured in dollars.
judge of Mr. Lang’s insight as a critic, one need
only read his brief but adequate comparison of
Tennyson and Browning. In order to delight in
the one, he does not find it necessary to inveigh
against the other. He admires both heartily, though,
as might be expected from his own artistic and
lovely verse, he sets the greater store by the
Laureate. After a judicious searching out of the
inevitable flaws which, like flies to amber, are
to be found even in Tennyson, he thus sums up:
"He is with Milton for learning, with Keats
for magic and vision, with Virgil for graceful
recasting of ancient golden lines." With
regard to Browning, after admitting that "it
is hardly to be hoped that ‘Sordillo,’ or ‘Red
Cotton Night Cap Country,’ or ‘Fifine,’ will continue
to be struggled with by posterity," he reaches
the following wise conclusion: "No perversity
of humor, no voluntary or involuntary harshness
of style, can destroy the merit of these poems
(Men and Women), which have nothing like them
in the letters of the past, and must remain without
successful imitators in the future. They will
last all the better for a certain manliness of
religious faith—something sturdy and assured—not
moved by winds of doctrine, not pattering with
doubts, which certainly is one of Mr. Browning’s
attractions in this fickle and shifting generation.
He cannot be forgotten while, as he says,
A chorus ending of Euripides,
men that they are creatures of immortality, and
move a thousand hopes and fears.