Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

of work to-day even than it did when it was first submitted to the eye of the reviewers. Whether its publication aided its author's career is a question not so easily answered. Politics, for the very reason of her dulness, is a jealous mistress, and frowns disapproval upon those who are unfaithful for an hour to her solemn blandishments. There can be no doubt about the cordial reception of the work. George Wyndham's friends (and the Press) were unanimous in appreciation, and George Wyndham took a frank delight in the world's approval. He sunned himself in the warmth of the applause. "Bis das, imo decies et centies," he wrote to Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, I am overwhelmed by your praise of course it is excessive, but I have not the false modesty to deny that I rejoice in having won such praise from you. It pleases me the more in that you select for praise the very field in which I care most to conquer. ... I can't thank you enough for having written your first impression, for even if you revise it, it is everything to know that I exacted it once.' That was the just spirit in which George Wyndham received the plaudits of his friends. The work was done, and the doing of it had brought him what was better worth than those plaudits-the discipline and self-criticism, which hitherto had been absent from his gay facility.

IV

George Wyndham was by character and training a romantic. He looked with wonder upon the world as upon a fairyland. It was fortunate for him, therefore, that in dealing with Plutarch, he

dealt not with the Greek text, of which he knew nothing, but with North's incomparable version. Now the Lives, in travelling by a roundabout road from Greek to English, forgot their origin. They are like a beautiful rose, grafted on a briar-stock. Amyot is joined to the Greek by the link of a Latin translation. North knew no version save Amyot's, and had he been suddenly enabled to read the original, he would not have recognised it. As Shakespeare, in Troilus and Cressida, turned Homer's heroes into the rufflers of his own time, so North gave to the men of Plutarch's Lives the gait and seeming of true Elizabethans. And George Wyndham envisaged North's version as an English book of the sixteenth century, a book lavishly overlaid with all the vivid colours of speech which he loved well. He felt an instant sympathy with North, because he offers Plutarch neither to philosophers nor grammarians, but to all who would understand life and human nature.' This likewise was the purpose of Plutarch, in whom the dramatic sense never slumbered. But he was a clumsy writer of Greek, and had not his work been happily transmuted by Amyot and North, he would hardly have kept a secure hold upon the imaginations of wise men. Shakespeare would not have rifled, Montaigne would not have chosen for his 'breviary,' the book of a writer, of whom a professor might say with truth that his language is deficient not only in Attic purity, but even in rhetorical and grammatical skill, that he constantly impedes his readers with difficulties, occasioned, not by great thoughts struggling for expression,' but by carelessness.'

6

[ocr errors]

However, George Wyndham was unconscious of Plutarch's faults. He knew only the magnificent

6

works composed by Amyot and North on Plutarch's theme; and his enthusiasm flew upon a stronger wing than it would have, had he studied only the prose that came from Charoneia. Above all, he detected in North an essentially English quality, of which he cherished a heart-whole admiration. There was ever in the English temper,' says he, 'a certain jovial forwardness, by far removed both from impertinence and bluster, which inclined us, as we should put it, to stand no nonsense from any body. This natural characteristic is strongly marked in North.' Indeed it is, and North was not merely inclined to stand no nonsense in his prose; he was ready, if need be, and here again George Wyndham was on his side, to fight for his country. It is true that in his work he was an accomplished translator, but he was a knight also, who captained his three hundred men in the Armada year, and who certainly had the pull' in scenes of battle over the Bishop. This combined love of action and of letters chimed perfectly with George Wyndham's temper. With a natural agreement he quotes Plutarch's admirable saying, that 'he understood matters not so much by words, as he came to understand words by common experience and knowledge he had in things.' Perhaps Plutarch never came truly to understand words; assuredly he never came to love them as North and George Wyndham loved them; but all three shared a love of action and swift movement.

George Wyndham's essay, then, is purely romantic in style and purpose. He uses the language of chivalry for Plutarch's heroes. Of Alexander and Demetrius, of Pyrrhus and Eumenes, he says: 'All are shining figures, all are crowned, all are the

b

greatest adventurers in the world; and tumbling out of one kingdom into another, they do battle in glorious mellays for cities and diadems and Queens.' For this very reason that he looked upon his own life as romance, he uses the language of chivalry, and tests his author by his own experience. He brings whatever knowledge he had gained of politics and warfare to the task of interpreting North's Plutarch. He selects therefrom whatever agrees with his own humour-by no means a bad method of commentary, especially upon such a writer as Plutarch. For there is something in Plutarch which is a touchstone of him who reads. In turning over the pages of the Lives, a man may try his own character, may discover his own preferences. Or to choose another image, Plutarch's book is a 'mirror of truth, which clearly reveals the face of him who looks therein. Such was the road of criticism which Montaigne trod. In talking upon paper about Plutarch, as to the first man he met, Montaigne began to sketch himself, and at length succeeded in drawing a full-length portrait of an intimacy which has seldom been surpassed. And George Wyndham, following the same path, humbly and (I think) unconsciously, arrived at the same end of self-portraiture.

In other words, he took the study of the Parallel Lives as an opportunity of explaining the views of the soldier and the statesman that he was: he found in North's Plutarch the reflection of his own mind. He insists upon the political importance of Plutarch; he will have none of the paradox which denies him political understanding; and he insists upon this more gladly, because he looks out upon men and their actions from the same watch-tower as

Plutarch himself. 'Plutarch's methods,' says he, 'at least in respect of politics and war, are not those of analysis or argument, but of pageant and drama, with actors living and moving against a background of processions that live and move.' That is what he too saw in life-pageant and drama and processions, in which he was intent to take his place. With what gusto does he quote from the Lycurgus, the passage which follows: He that directeth well must needs be well obeyed. For like as the art of a good rider is to make his horse gentle and ready at commandment, even so the chiefest point belonging to a prince is to teach his people to obey!' Here the doctrine and the image are equally near to George Wyndham's heart, and wisely does he comment upon Plutarch's words. They set forth his chief political doctrine,' he says.. That the horse (or the man) should play the antic at will is to him plainly absurd: the horse must be ridden, and the many must be directed and controlled. Yet, if the riding, or the governing, prove a failure, Plutarch's quarrel is with the ruler or the horseman, not with the people or the mount. For he knows well that a ragged colt oftimes proves a good horse, especially if he be well ridden and broken as he should be." "

[ocr errors]

Never has the part which should be played by the aristocrat in politics been better defined. If George Wyndham found it in Plutarch's pages, perhaps because he sought it diligently, it was most intimately his own. This need of authority,' he wrote, and the obligation of the few to maintain it-by a natural grace," springing, on the one hand, from courage combined with forbearance; and leading, on the other, to harmony between the

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »