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Artist, who is trained both to see and tell, or inspired, even without seeing, to divine what things have been and must be. If only men of action had always understood these simple truths, from how many bad books should we have been saved !
Until 1892 George Wyndham had served no rigid apprenticeship to literature. Hitherto he had amused his leisure with making verses, and had discovered for himself in which provinces of the past he might wander at his ease. He had not learned the value of discipline and self-criticism. And then there began the friendship with W. E. Henley, which completely changed his outlook upon letters. The friendship was well matched, and fortunate for them both. George Wyndham brought to Henley, condemned perforce to a life of physical inactivity, something of the outside world—the strife of parties and the hopes, too often remote, of sound government. He confronted the settled wisdom of forty-three with the inspiring vitality of eight-andtwenty. Henley, on the other hand, with his ready gift of sympathy, received the new-comer enthusiastically. He did far more than this. He opened to him, generously, the stores of his deep and wide knowledge. He accepted him, so to say, as a pupil in letters. He showed him short cuts to the right understanding of poetry and of prose, which he had reached for himself by toiling along the stony, tedious high road of experiment. He advised him what to read; he lent him books; he corrected his taste, where he thought it needed correction; and he
proved of what value apprenticeship may be, even in the craft of letters. Thus he gave aim and purpose to George Wyndham's desultory studies, and the letters, which they exchanged, show how swiftly their accidental acquaintance grew into an equal and lasting friendship.
It was Henley who took the first step. He wrote from the office of The National Observer, hoping, as an editor and a stranger, that, since the party was in opposition, George Wyndham might have leisure to contribute from time to time to the journal. The response came (on 22nd October 1892), in an article criticising Mr. Morley and Lord Rosebery, and called Whistling for the Wind.' Henceforth George Wyndham was of the inner council of The National Observer, which he aided not only with his pen but with the sound advice of a practical politician; and he was amply repaid by the training, which taught him to surrender his love of 'ancient artifice' to the necessity of a plain statement. When The National Observer passed into other hands, and was succeeded by The New Review, of which its contributors at least possess the happiest memory, George Wyndham embraced the venture with an ardour of enthusiasm. He kept a sanguine eye upon the triumphant success, in which he had a simple faith, and which never came. He performed all the duties of a director with unfailing zeal ; he touted for copy,' like an old hand; having come under the spell of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, he did his best to help the two causes of Imperialism and The New Review, whose Editor preached the doctrine pure and undefiled, by persuading the South Africans to set forth their views in its pages. More than this : he dared to desert, now and again, the stony ground of politics for the garden of verse, and to show the specimens of his gathering in the pages of the review. Thus, he proved himself a good comrade, full of hope always and fertile in resource, as those who worked with him will not forget. And it was not his fault nor Henley's that the readers of the ’nineties found things better suited to their taste than The New Review.
But Henley did George Wyndham a far greater service than give him an insight into the triumphs and failures of periodical literature. In November 1894 he set him to work upon an introduction to North’s Plutarch. He could not have designed for him a happier enterprise, and George Wyndham buckled him to the task with a delight not unmingled with misgiving. He knew well the difficulty of the undertaking. “Somebody has truly said,' he had written just before in a letter, that no one can write Poetry after they are forty, nor Prose before it.' And here he was at thirty embarked upon a sea of prose, not knowing when and how he would come to port. The gift of expression was always his, even though hitherto in his full life he had left it untutored, and he sat himself down resolutely to the ungrateful task of castigation. The art of writing has to be learned,' said he, like everything else, by practice.' And the conquest which he made of a stubborn medium is all the more to his credit, because he had no natural love of prose. 'I have never cared much for prose, however excellent,' he told Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, when the work was done, which does not abound naturally in vivid images. My delight in the Elizabethan and in some modern French writers, is largely derived from their use of imaginative colour.' But he tackled his new task with the same zeal wherewith he addressed sport or politics, and he was rewarded by finding as many chances as he could wish for the use of the colour which he loved.
Scholarship is largely a matter of temperament, and George Wyndham, though he had left Eton early to go into the army, could not expel the temperament, which nature had implanted within him. He had but to call upon a reserve of strength, half-suspected, to be generously answered.
With untiring diligence he read the Lives in Amyot's French as well as in North's English. To trace Shakespeare's debt in Coriolanus, Cæsar, and Antony was a task very near to the heart of one whose love of Shakespeare was not greater than his understanding. So he pegged steadily at Plutarch, 'in growing terror at his increasing size,' and like all good workmen found a real joy in the work. 'He is a very jolly fellow to live with,' he wrote, and I shall be sorry to say “Good-bye.”
Meanwhile Henley was always at his side with encouragement and good counsel. When George Wyndham complained that he lacked learning, 'In any case,' replied Henley, “it isn't learning (socalled) that is wanted. It is instinct and it is brain.' So Henley liked ‘his idea no end, and told him it was perfectly plain sailing. "'Tis as easy as lying, said he. And then he showed irresistibly the advantages George Wyndham would reap from the field of letters. "You'll not make the worse
Prime Minister or even Irish Secretary,' he wrote, ' for having done a good piece of critical literature.' And again he asked : ‘How do the wrestlings
It is good to see you at it ! It means, I think, a style, which is a thing worth having, at whatever cost!' Indeed it meant a style, and much else besides an increased and reasoned understanding of men and books.
It was not all praise that Henley gave to George Wyndham. He knew how to mingle with the praise salutary warnings. You have the writing instinct,' he wrote in February 1895, “but you have not fostered and developed it, on the one hand; on the other, you have more or less deboshed it by hallooing and singing of anthems ; that is, by public speaking and making verses. You love a phrase like pie, and are all for altisonancy and colour. But—! You forget to “jine your flats.” You write at a heat, and don't concern yourself enough with the minutiae—the little foxes whose absence spoils the vineyard's whole effect-by which the good stuff is made to show in its goodness. Here is a sound lesson in style, imparted with a certain heat, which Henley himself was quick to mitigate. 'I fear,' he added, 'I have played the schoolmaster too fiercely and with too much passion.' But when the work was finished, and on the eve of publishing, Henley has no doubt as to its success. 'I can't help thinking,' he said, 'this is going to be a pleasant experience for you—it has been that already)—and to give you a reputation outside politics. We shall seethat also.'
That the essay on Plutarch gave George Wyndham a reputation outside politics is certain. It has stood the test of twenty years, and seems a better piece