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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"A Manx Minstrel"

A Manx Minstrel
The Speaker, October 20, 1900

Letters Of T. E. Brown*. Westminster: A. Constable and Co. Poems Of T. E. Brown. London: Macmillan

The letters of T. E. Brown, author of Fo'c's'le Yarns, letters that are in many ways singularly exuberant and entertaining, are further interesting because they raise in a new way the whole problem of the publication of private letters. Let no reader imagine, however, that there is anything lurid about them. Nothing worse is discovered against the morality of Mr. Brown than an admiration of Mr. Hall Caine. No skeleton in the family cupboard is revealed, except the one appalling figure of a father who was such a lover of style that he had a page of some English classic read to him before he answered an invitation. This latter anecdote we have a sort of terror in repeating, because it is so obviously the kind of story that may go the round of the newspapers and the French translation books, and Lord Roberts, Mr. Vanderbilt, Talleyrand and Henri Quatre be successively credited with the habit of giving to the phrase "has much pleasure in accepting" some concentrated flavour of Burke.

There is, we say, nothing moral or immoral about the correspondence: it is mostly full of uproarious levity, and yet, we will venture to say, not altogether in paradox, that it is somewhat too sacred for the light of day. It seems to us that frivolity is, in the secretive sense, far more sacred than seriousness; it is more fragile, more personal, more occult. Any one can see St. Paul's Cathedral, but there may be only two people in the world who can see a particular joke. Biographers are sometimes accused of obtruding themselves: Mr. Irvine's nobler error is rather that he forgets that he, who received most of these letters, was spiritually a collaborator in them. His friend, T. E. Brown, was playing upon his memories and purposes as on a piano: to us he is too often fingering on a dumb keyboard. We fear, as we say, that the rampant camaraderie of these communications will be misunderstood and undervalued: it is not possible, properly speaking, to laugh irreverently at time, death and judgment- for they laugh best who laugh last; but it is possible to laugh very irreverently at a joke.

T. E. Brown, a perfect Celt, has no restraint; his letters are full of "Ho! Ho's!" and "Ha! Ha's!" like the refrain of an Elizabethan lyric. With schoolboy abruptness he makes remarks like "Isn't Browning a ripper?" Throughout the work one feels that Kingsley is a ripper, that Newman is a ripper, that Dr. George MacDonald is a ripper. Now a letter like this is a bond between two men, and when one of them is cut off it, it flaps dismally in the wind. We are quite sure the letter was splendid when Mr. Irvine received it; we wish we had been Mr. Irvine; but we were not, and therefore do not read what he read. The very essence of friendship is in this intermixture, in those great midnight conversations in which the primary colours of separate personalities are mingled into incredible greens and purples, as rich and unrecoverable as a sunset.

The author of Fo'c's'le Yarns was a Manxman, and his poetry and letters are full of a somewhat new and original interpretation of the theory that the proper study of mankind is Man. He speaks of that island as if England and Ireland were dangerous rocks making its approach difficult for the Manx mariner. He was a typical Celt, and the hilarity to which we have alluded was only one side of this walking bundle of emotions. "I am a born sobber," he said. But the most fascinating inconsistency of his character in this respect are the bursts of Chaucerian plainness of speech which give salt to his mystic piety. The born sobber exhibits himself at times with the greatest cheerfulness as a born swearer. There is nothing in him of that mournful wealth of mind and translucient delicacy which give to certain modern Celtophiles the appearance, in the eye of the Philistine, of having a head full of religions and no leg to stand on. Brown had plenty of legs to stand on, like the escutcheon of his own Isle of Man. In fact, the only imaginary portrait we have formed of Mr. Brown is founded on that famous hieroglyph; we are sure that he would stand on one leg and dance with the other two.

Even in the letters, frantic and random as they are, T. E. Brown gives innumerable instances of a genuine literary instinct. The delightful apologue of Matthew Arnold "in one of his raids" carrying away a Philistine maiden is worthy of that great man himself. The remark about his father's literary taste, "to him style was an instinct of personal cleanliness," hits the right nail on the head and is an excellent instance of the thing it describes.

In an appropriate manner we are in a position at the same time to consider the full and handsome edition of Brown's poems which Messrs. Macmillan have published. Those poems are far too voluminous to be accorded a detailed criticism here, but they are also far too remarkable to be passed over without some attempt at a general estimate. They exhibit in a singular manner most of the same merits and defects as the letters, and this is a good sign, for it shows that Brown was that not too common figure, what may be called a unanimous man. On the failing side, for example, they show that buoyant garrulity, that tendency to say too much, that quaint confidence that masses of personal reminiscence will be interesting to a reader, which we have remarked in the letters, but without the excuse of letter-writing. In their exclusive Manx spirit they often show that breezy delusion, not uncommon in small sects and nations, that they have the monopoly of the most obvious things, the spirit which once led a friend of ours to tell us that it was one of the inner doctrines of his church that lying was wrong. One mysterious detail we cannot help thinking is an instance of this, the note on p. 99:- "Jackdaw, Manx pronunciation, jackdaw." It is gratifying to us to learn that in this matter we have been talking the most exquisite Manx from our cradle. On the side of merit, again, they have a racial flavour in a far higher sense. Mr. Yeats himself might not be ashamed of the expression of the Celtic spirit in the lines about "an empty laugh:"-
". . . .God
Who has within himself the secret springs
Of all the lovely, causeless, unclaimed things,
And loves them in his very heart of hearts."
But again, as we have said, there is nothing pallid or frail about his Celticism. It is rather that spirit "brave and gay and faithful" which Stevenson, in his noble speech to the Samoan chiefs, attributed to his ancestor the Gael. The raw materials, at least, for one of the strongest poems that could be written are to be found in the verses called "Risus Dei." The dialect poems, the actual Fo'c's'le Yarns, we may seem to have unduly subordinated, but they are pre-eminently things to be read and not criticised. They suffer from the poet's fluency, but their truth gradually tightens its grip:-
Now the beauty of the thing when children plays is
The terrible wonderful length the days is
is a sentence from all our autobiographies. Altogether, Mr. T. E. Brown may be hailed as one of our recent lyric exponents of what Lord Salisbury called "the Celtic Fringe"- a fringe which is (to the credit of that statesman's humour) considerably wider than the garment. He is smaller than Mr. W. B. Yeats, as Man is smaller than Ireland. But we confess to some personal relief in finding one of our bards of the Gael cocking his feather with full-blooded vanity, as a contrast to those Irish poets who, in dwelling on the memory and wisdom of the green island, have too often forgotten that green is also, throughout her unconquerable history, the colour of folly and of hope.

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