« PreviousContinue »
summoned to read, could he, inveterate scribbler as well as insatiable bookworm, resist the cacoëthes scribendi to which the original sin of this paper is imputable ?
Mr. Gilfillan is quite aware of the fallacy of overdoing the splendid, at least in the pages of others. Sensibly he condemns that kind of writing which consists in a succession of hops, steps, and jumps, as being in general productive of a feeling of tedium. "It teases and fatigues the mind of the reader. It is like crying perpetually upon a hearer, who is attending with all his might, to attend more carefully. It at once wearies and provokes, insults the reader, and betrays a fear of conscious weakness on the part of the author." Can we laud, as a heavenborn judge, the “Daniel come to judgment" who ignores the heavendescended Γνωθι σεαυτον ; or worship as an impeccable sovereign the David who needs a monitor to whisper, "Thou art the man"—de te fabula narratur? Jean Paul, at the opening of a chapter in one of his novels,† entreats his readers to be indulgent for once, if they find in it an inordinate supply of metaphors and impassioned sentences ; some such prefatory apology might be stereotyped for Mr. Gilfillan's use in his opera or opuscula omnia. For few of them but bristle
Southey compares exuberance of ornament to the style of French engravers, who take off the attention from the subject of their prints by the flowers and trappings of the foreground. "You think," he writes to Ebenezer Elliott, "you can never embroider your drapery too much; and that the more gold and jewels you can fasten on it the richer its effect must be. The consequence is, that there is a total want of what painters call breadth and keeping, and therefore the effect is lost. § A cornucopoeia of imagery often contains ill-assorted fruitage and flowers, and suggests by its heedless outpourings not a few yawns and smiles. To practise the one step from the sublime to the ridiculous is hazardous—yet too soon meets with success; for here too ce n'est que le premier pas qui coute. By Pope's doctrine, it is only the cloud-compelling Queen of Dulness whom such performances delight:
Here motley images her fancy strike,
And one of Mr. Gilfillan's transatlantic critics is fain to avow, that such a perpetual straining after the introduction of prettinesses and gorgeous imagery and inflated metaphors-such an inundation of rhapsodical phrases and transcendental fancies, as characterise that author, had never before occurred to his (the critic's) literary experience. "What a desperate passion for flowers one must have who will not only cull roses, and pinks,
+"The Invisible Lodge."
Second Gallery of "Literary Portraits." "Troilus and Cressida." Act I. § "Life of Southey. A.D. 1809 and 1819." "Dunciad." Book i., 1. 65-70.
and other blossoms, but will put into the same bouquet the dandelion, the flaunting poppy, and even the nightshade and stramony."* In fact, Mr. Gilfillan's diction may not inaptly be described in words of his own, originally applied to a fellow-countryman and oratorical divine, as a "strange, amorphous, Babylonish dialect, imitative, yet original, rank with a prodigious growth of intertangled beauties and blemishes, enclosing amid vast tracts of jungle little bits of clearest loveliness, and throwing out sudden volcanic bursts of real fire amid jets of mere smoke and hot water." From our adoption of the "saving clauses" and "redeeming points" in this description, it will be seen that we do not tax our author with the exclusive production of sheer bombast.
Some of his reviewers do. They can see in his florid complexion nothing but morbid ill-bloodedness. Whereas we are happy to descry and to acknowledge in his flourishes, a not unfrequent felicity, however spoilt in the setting. He gives you his truth, it has been said, precisely as he gets it;"it comes before you as pearls, which have succession, but which have been strung together you scarcely know how." That he has some degree of imaginative power, and an over-teeming fancy, must be evident to all his readers; nor are we inclined to deny him "views not destitute of vigor, and certainly replete with point and vivacity, so that, for the moment, of some happy paragraph we could almost say, “ Ubi bene, nemo melius." But, on the other hand, he is radically deficient in logical calmness, in steadiness of intellectual vision, in comprehension of view, in tact and taste, and in self-knowledge and self-restraint. The reputation of both Robert Hall and John Foster was singularly advanced by the esprit de corps of "denominational" and party influence; and, in like manner, the exalted honours to which Mr. George Gilfillan is, in some quarters, presumed to have attained, are due to a cognate cause. Indiscriminate and unconditional eulogists he has-tant pis pour lui; but they consist either of authorlings, criticasters, and poetasters, who have been praised by him in print, and who gratefully act up to their light of conscience on the "Caw me caw thee" principle; or of Caledonian noncons, proud of such a high-flying theologian, such a rhetorical critic, Thus-one and such a "splendid" writer. 66 Alastor," who has done deeds of dreadful note in prose and verse, affirms that the two "Galleries of Literary Portaits" (whose painter, by-the-way, had patted "Alastor" benignantly on the back) form a "waving forest of grand imagery;" and goes on to say, "no praise of mine could touch the pale of that awful Sinai, whose grand imagery hangs over and folds around it, even as that dread mountain when it shook with the thunder and lightnings of the immediate Godhead; I allude to those grand outpourings of a majestic soul to the eternal, whose crystal floods are gathered within his last great work, The Bards of the Bible' "-which magnum opus, we are subsequently assured, "is an altar raised to the great I AM, piled with golden thoughts and flame-like utterances and over all gradually spreads the night-like majesty of Bible-wisdom, till its religious firmament is sanded. with the brilliant stars of revelation, to which Gilfillan's soul is as the tele
* North American Review, July, 1851.
First Gallery of Literary Portraits, p. 226.
Nov.-VOL. XCVI. NO. CCCLXXXIII.
scope, bringing whole hidden galaxies to view." How these "splendid" writers appreciate one another!
Again, a critic of a more sober school, writing in a short-lived journal, of whose contributors Mr. Gilfillan magna pars fuit, declares that to such a mind as his "all things are possible"-that he is at once the liberal clergyman, the candid critic, the true poet, the laborious student, the graceful essayist, the keen censor, the mature philosopher, the speculative enthusiast, the trained theologian-and concludes with the assertion, "For such a mind we feel convinced there is no place of rest. For such a mind it is not a matter of choice or ambition, but of inevitable necessity, to ascend in due course that chair of which we have already spokenf-to become the common measure' of rising genius-the central truth in the intellect of our time." O ye accepted worthies of contemporary literature-ye master-minds of living authorship-take at once this "notice to quit," and forthwith pale your ineffectual fires before this burning and shining light! Your vocation is gone. Your mission is fulfilled. And he that is least in the kingdom of this new prophet, is greater than you. The days of the Quarterly, Mr. Lockhart, are numbered;-the reign of Maga, O Sheriff of Orkney, is accomplished; henceforth be dumb, and keep still silence, ye singingmen and singing-women, ye Brownings and Tennysons-and barter your histories at the butter-shops, ye Macaulays and Grotes-and light your pipes with your philosophy, ye Hamiltons and Whewells; for lo! at your doors, though ye know it not, is the Coming Man, in the form of a dissenting minister, who is prepared, in broad Scotch, to ask "at" you all sorts of posing questions, if you don't by-and-by get out of his way. He, the central Sun, being risen, what occasion is there for you to twinkle, twinkle, little stars?
But is Mr. Gilfillan responsible for the latria worship of his idolators? Nay; on the contrary, he is surely sagacious enough to be somewhat vexed by the absurd prostration and mummery of their cultus. But he is tolerably complacent, too; and it is the unwarrantable degree of his self-esteem which emboldens us to this freedom of speech. Little likely is it his spirits should be dashed by ought we can indite. "Not a whit, not a whit." He may pair with Monsieur Trissotin himself in Cette intrépidité de bonne opinion,
Cet indolent état de confiance extrême,
Qui le rend en tout temps si content de soi-même,
Excelsior; or, the Realms of Poesie."
+ The "chair" in question is for him, the Coming Man, who shall "sit as Moderator in the sublime assembly of this age," and who, according to the authority from whom we quote, "must tame us by the purged pre-eminence of fasting, and watching, and prayer, and knowledge, and patience," and "must stand before us as the virgin before the lion (!)—and must ride us as the ship the sea"-and must be at once "the critic, the theologian, and the philosopher, with the soul of a saint, and the smile of a friend, and the face of a man. This man-this angel in plain clothes (!)-this viкn аπтεроs who shall recognise the children of light by the freemasonry of kin, is the literary want of our times." And that Mr. George Gilfillan, continues the oracle from which we quote, 'possesses such powers, properties, and aptitudes for this office, as have been combined by no other modern author, is a conviction from which, we think, the impartial reader cannot escape."-Palladium, vol. i., pp. 30, 32, 35.
"Palladium," vol. i., p. 36.
Qui fait qu'à son mérite incessamment il rit,
Furthermore, he is himself forward to justify critical censure, when there is a call for it; meeting the remark of Lord Cockburn's reviewer in the Eclectic, that it would not be graceful to point out the blemishes of the "Life of Jeffrey," by this elegant reply: "That is, you walk along Prince's-street, you see a gentleman whose coat has been torn, and, saying to yourself it would not be graceful to apprise him of such a vulgar accident, you pass forward, and allow the poor fellow to go on amid a general grin till he reaches the North Bridge." Upon this hint, we speak-albeit hopeless of persuading Mr. George Gilfillan that his black coat has an unseemly rent in it, and is in fact a coat of too many colours. To him it is a Joseph's coat, for he has dreamed Joseph's dreams, and seen his brethren bowing down to him, and is entirely persuaded that the ὄναρ ἐστι Διος.
But who is Mr. Gilfillan, now interjects a hitherto patient and muchenduring reader; who is he, and what has he written to deserve all this fuss? His début, then, was in the part of a painter of " Literary Portraits"-of which he has thrown open to the public two "Galleries" -many of the heads being finished off with no little cleverness and originality, but nearly all marred by grotesque touches and queer "effects.' The intensely complacent air of the artist gives him, all the while, the look of a charlatan; and we seem to hear him commenting on his labours in the language of Mascarille, "Les portraits sont difficiles, et demandent un esprit profond: vous en verrez de ma manière qui ne vous déplairont pas." More recently, he has produced what he calls 66 a prose poem," under the title of the "The Bards of the Bible," and which is a tesselated mass of almost beauties and downright absurdities. Sometimes he gives you a paragraph of daring and dashing eloquence; but it either limps off with a lame and impotent conclusion, or is succeeded by some monstrous amalgam of crude conceit and exaggerated diction. Speaking for ourselves, we find little in this book that is calculated to deepen our reverence for the sacred oracles of which it treats:
Ακουε τάνδρος τοῦδε, καὶ σκοπει κλυων
Τα σεμν ̓ ἵν ̓ ἧκει τοῦ θεοῦ μαντευματα.
To the periodical press of the day, Mr. Gilfillan is also a liberal contributor; his name and style being familiar to the readers of the British Quarterly Review, the Eclectic, the Critic, Hogg's Instructor, &c. He has also given notice that he is at present engaged on a history of the Scotch Covenanters; and has occasionally thrown out a hint of his design to perpetrate a novel in Longfellow's style, or an allegory in his own.
He is here presented as a mature specimen of the "splendid" writera class especially in demand among half-educated and fanatical dabblers in literature, who crave stimulants and excitement in the pulpit and the
*Molière: "Les Femmes Savantes."
"Les Précieuses Ridicules." And our Mascarille, too, has, here and there, his Madelon to exclaim, "Je vous avoue que je suis furieusement pour les portraits: je ne vois rien de si galant que cela." (Scene X.)
"Edip. Tyran." 951-2.
review, just as urgently as another class requires them in the melodrama and the romance. Mr. Gilfillan has talent that might be put to better uses. His fertile fancy, his often subtle insight, his singular range of language and wealth of illustration, might, if presided over by a correct taste and clear-sighted judgment, produce works of deep and enduring value. But as it is, he wilfully outrages good feeling and good sense by wayward sallies of bombast. He loves to start an arbitrary analogy, and make it run all lengths, mad as a March hare; or he calls from the vasty deep of his chaotic fancy an imaginary antithesis, makes it his hobby for a page or two, mounts it with the furore of a wild huntsman, and rides it to death,
Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough briar,
Such passages are frequently composed-as it has been observed of the splendidi panni of a celebrated French author-under the guidance of the ear, the truths glanced at being lost in a torrent of jargon and verbiage: the intellect "pauses not, to take cognisance of the value of the thought, and of the very partial and limited extent to which it is either correct or applicable." Links of affinity are forged wholesale, and bound together in hot haste and most admired disorder. A trope is used as crutch to a lame argument, and a halting reason is borne off triumphantly by a suite of similes. A simile of Mr. Savage Landor's fabric may serve to prop up our own arguments and reasons against such writers in general:-"They carry stem and stern too high out of the water, and are more attentive to the bustling and bellying of the streamers than to the soundness of the mast, the compactness of the deck, or the capacity and cleanliness of the hold.”+ And a bad sign of the times it is, when such literature is in request among young, thoughtful, and inquiring minds. Of such-and this is no worthless complimentwe believe Mr. Gilfillan's audience mainly to consist. That the young amongst them will weary of his magnificence as they grow older, and the thoughtful as they compare notes, and the inquiring as they search below the surface, we are sufficiently convinced; but, meanwhile, serious injury is inflicted on the due adjustment and harmonious development of their faculties, intellectual and imaginative, by the diet of "forced-meat" piquancies, and over-spiced cuisine and honeyed sweetnesses, to which they habituate themselves in such a gorgeously decorated salle-à-manger. The climate and living of India do not improve the digestion or brace the constitution of its denizens. As little will the torrid splendours and "nest of spiceries" of the Gilfillan type of authorship invigorate the mental powers of any who are attracted thither by the report of gold mines and "diggings" extraordinary. "Blessed," as saith the Eastern proverb, "is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed." Of the torrid splendours and Indian temperature of Mr. Gilfillan's style, profuse illustrations might be given. His passion for the sanguineous in all its shades is all-absorbing, and indulges itself ad libitum. A schoolboy, colouring his first attempt at a map, is not more lavish of marine blue in painting the ocean, and bays, and lakes, than is this literary portrait-painter of red in all its mixtures-the glowing crimson
"Midsummer Night's Dream,” ii., 1. † "Pericles and Aspasia," § cxxxiv.