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ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. You will excuse me, my dear Mr Hogg, that I have allowed myself to take a slight precaution before answering your question. The subject you mention is one which has the power, or rather, I should say, the invariable quality, of depressing my spirits to an almost intolerable depth; and unless I counteract that effect by a small, or infinitesimal, dose of this preparation of the poppy, which I keep about me when I am likely to be a participator in literary conversation, I am apt to be reduced to a condition in which I am driven to contemplate suicide — a contemplation equally perverse and in our present condition of being happily or unhappily—for I would not be understood to pass a hasty comment on our advantages and disadvantages-ineffective.
SHEPHERD. Man, ye talk brawly aboot naething; but I was speirin' your opeenion o' contemporary fiction.
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. True, Mr Hogg, and I was about to impart it to you, unworthy of your attention as it may be. My opinion, in short, is that the sufferings—I may go so far as to say the tortures—of contemporary fiction are to be accounted for, or explained by, what I will venture to call the superlatively dismal dictum or suggestion that fiction ought to be an exact copy of life. I regard the man who first propounded this melancholy counsel to have been the author of more widely spread dulness, the annihilator of more gaiety and relaxation, than any man who ever lived.
SHEPHERD. Ay, a dull dowg he maun hae been.
TICKLER. Unfortunately it was Shakespeare.
SHEPHERD. Na, na, Mr Tickler, ye're no' to mak’ fules o’ Mr De Quinshy an’ me: ye're no' to faither it on Weel’um.
TICKLER. “To hold the mirror up to Nature
NORTH. No, Southside; that was the advice to the players, meant merely to correct their extravagance. A decent mirror, moreover, does not show to a wholesome eye every spot and wrinkle on a human face unless it looks too close. The modern realism is to art what the modern photography is to painting: it shows many needless details, while it misses the air, the character, the inner fire and purpose, of a man or of life. Art selects and distinguishes, and even for the sake of truth it is necessary to exaggerate here and to ignore there that the whole may be fair. Realism in the false contemporary sense is an impossible ideal, and were it possible it would be undesirable. But we must not
forget, Mr De Quincey, that there has been a reaction against it, and that once more romance flourishes.
[ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER takes another pill.
SHEPHERD. Mr North, ye suldna hae gar'd him dae that: he'll hae nae appeteet for his supper.
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. I had forgotten that I had previously fortified myself, Mr Hogg; but indeed the taking of an opium pill is an automatic action with me when I hear the mention of contemporary socalled romance. I hardly know which kind of it is the most tedious and irritating the romance which is concerned with other
ages, while it is full of sentiments and attitudes to life which are entirely characteristic of this age; the romance which takes for its hero an ordinary young man of this period and sets him in surroundings impossible and incredible; or the romance which is merely a record of unnecessary and disgusting slaughter.
TICKLER. But a moment since, Mr De Quincey, you complained of the idea that fiction should copy life : now you are condemning these romances because they do not fulfil that condition.
NORTH. By your leave, Southside, there is no contradiction. Fiction may or should represent life with more clearly defined issues and with fewer ugly and irrelevant blemishes than it has, but it must not picture obvious impossibilities. The introduction of a writer's own sentiments among the actions of a previous age is always a dangerous practice, and those authors who rely on a superficial knowledge of history together with an intimate knowledge of the requirements of their more foolish contemporaries in the way of sentiment and “situations”—as I believe the word is-for the accomplishment of plausible imitations of Sir Walter and his French successor Dumas, are unlikely to achieve a success other than commercial. My objection is that they neglect their own times, or at least the ordinary habits and manners of their own times, so completely. It is noticeable that Sir Walter Scott made his greatest novels out of his, or at least out of times within the memory of men then living.
SHEPHERD. Hech, sirs, but that's a sad accoont o' maitters. Can ye no' mind ony exception?
NORTH. Yes, James, and a great one.
Mr Meredith sees the romance of the life round him as well as its problems and its oppositions of character. Witness Harry Richmond, as stirring and manifold a romance as there has been in English since Sir Walter died.
SHEPHERD. I maun e'en confess it, sir; I canna un'erstaun’ the fallow ava',
Mr Meredith has said that to live now, romance must be reinforced by intellectual interest. And as the world grows older in thought and knowledge that is very possibly true.
NORTH. They had, James, and so had those of a later period now past -the novels of Dickens and of Thackeray. That is a fact which the critics of this day seem to doubt.
NORTH. They forget, my dear Shepherd, that to be present a thing does not need to be naked. For example, behind Thackeray's often trivial incidents and trivial talk there is a reserve of intellectual power which the wise man feels --a power incomparably greater, even as it is more modestly employed, than that of nine-tenths of the more noisily intellectual writers, English or French, whom these critics admire. But touching this revival of romance, Mr De Quincey, do you think the taste is genuine and will last ?
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. Not, my dear sir, if we may judge by the transference of romance to the stage. I have lately witnessed the performance of several versions of Dumas' "Three Musketeers,' and if we may suppose, as I think that without want of charity we may, that the literary tastes of the players are representative rather of the majority than the minority of their fellow-countrymen, then it is significant that these players, with very few exceptions indeed, do not seem to have an atom, a breath, a scintilla of romance in their compositions.
SHEPHERD. The stage! Div ye gang aften to the playhouse, sir? For my pairt I hae been waur shockit at thir modern fawrces than I was thon time I saw the opera in the thirties.
SHEPHERD. I ken fine, Mr Tickler, that ye wad be weel pleased aneuch, ye auld sinner that ye are, at thae fawrces an’“ musical comedies.' But what say ye, sir ?
NORTH. I confess, James, that I am parcus cultor et infrequens of the modern playhouse. It seems to me that the managers, being aware that ideas are few, use a careful economy in them, so that when a play of one sort is successful, ten theatres will immediately fit themselves with plays exactly like it. As for example, “The Three Musketeers.” “One of these days, by some strange conjunc
tion of accidents, an intelligent play will be produced, and then, alas! for the playgoing public, it will be a black day if none but intelligent plays are to be produced for a twelvemonth.
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. The public will be as a lost sheep, seeking for the shepherd of sentiment and the watch-dog of coincidence.
SHEPHERD. 0 man! It'll no hae far to gang. But I'm weary o' the stage. What think ye o’ modern poetry, Mr De Quinshy?
[ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER fingers his pill-box, but finally replaces it in his pocket.
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. A great poet died but lately, Mr Hogg
NORTH. A very great poet. The name of Tennyson will be revered so long as the memory of English literature endures. But what would Alfred have been but for the sage counsel of “crusty Christopher”? The discipline was painful to the young poet at the time, but he was wise enough to profit by it. His note of patriotism, I am glad to think, has been well caught up by Mr Kipling.
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. A wonderfully vigorous and versatile writer, sir; but we still have one great poet of the older generation.
SHEPHERD. Ye mean Mr Swinburne? He's a wee thing ower luscious for ma taste.
ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. Mine he pleases to perfection.
NORTH. A vice of most of the others, as of their brothers the novelists, is introspection and the possession by vague and ill-understood ideas. For example, there's Mr Davidson
SHEPHERD. A Scotsman-speak weel o'm
NORTH. Mr Davidson can write pretty songs that might almost have been made by you, James. But he must needs expound theories and philosophies, and so he comes to grief.
SHEPHERD. Ken ye, sir, that in Glesca, o' a' places, they hae a Ballant Club, an' the maist feck o’ the members writes verra tolerable verse? Oor freen', Mr Neil Munro, he's ane o' them,
NORTH. Is it even so ? I am heartily glad to hear it. Ingenuas didicisse feliciter artes, and so forth. But I wish the Odontist had been spared to belong to the club you speak of.
SHEPHERD. Ay, puir auld Pultusky wad hae been blythe to jine sic an association.
TICKLER. But is there no one, Mr North, among the moderns who deserves to be praised ?
NORTH. There are many, my dear Timothy—to be praised gently and quietly. And one great fact, at least, is a light in the semiobscurity of letters to-day. Speaking entirely without prejudice to you, who will listen with an equal absence of it, I merely mention to you the fact that Maga still flourishes.
SHEPHERD. Verra true. An' huz, wha helped to guide her airly days, can weel afford to gie their due to the men 'at cam' efter.
But gin we're to recapeetulate the doings o' Maga's heroes, we maunna forget w'er noble sel's to start wi'.
NORTH. Not much likelihood of that, my dear Shepherd. And we will remember too with reverent and affectionate feelings John Lockhart—perhaps a greater than any in this room, not excepting Mr De Quincey and yourself. But is it not singular how there has never been wanting a race of men to serve Maga? We had our day-we, Maginn, Galt, Delta, and the rest; a brave and merry one it was. But when we vanished from the scene, others came on to fill our places. Uno avulso non deficit alter.
SHEPHERD. O man, man, can ye no' keep clear o' the Lait’n ? But, for a' that, it's a clear case, as ye hae said, Mr North. There was George Cheape, an' Lytton, an' Aytoun, wha wis a verra tower o' strength
TICKLER. And Gleig, the Hamleys, Chesney, and Laurence Lockhart, “the nephew of his uncle," and Mrs Oliphant.
SHEPHERD. Mistress Oliphant! Ah, sirs, yon wis a gran’ wumman, a fine writer, an' a stench freen' o' the hoose o' Blackwood. Her awnnals o' the firm's a fair maisterpiece. No' that I wis a'thegither satisfeed wi' her accoont o' James Hogg. But death clears a' scores, an' sin’ we forgathered on this side o' the Styx, mony a pleesant hoor hae I passed in her company, an’ mony's the time I hae thocht hoo muckle better oor Scots writers o' novelles an' romances micht dae gin they wad condeshend to tak’a gude few leaves oot o' her byuck. I canna thole their deealec'. Whaur wull ye fin' vulgawrity to pawrallel theirs ? Their tongue's no' the gude auld Scots, but the tongue o' wabsters, an' tinklers, an' ither gang-there-out bodies, contawminated by contac' wi' ivery specie o' trash. Hae ye seen