chapter  56
26 Pages

LESLIE STEPHEN, from ‘The Writings of W.M.Thackeray’, 1879

This, of course, is only one aspect of a very complex process; but we see it very clearly represented in Thackeray. Byron, for example, was one of his favourite antipathies. He seldom speaks of him without a manifest dislike. He naturally thinks of him at Athens in connection with the beauty of Greek women, upon which subject, as we know, Byron had uttered various sentiments. ‘Lord Byron,’ observes Thackeray, ‘wrote more cant of this sort than any poet I know of. Think of the “peasant girls with dark blue eyes” of the Rhine-the brown-faced, flat-nosed, thick-lipped dirty wenches! Think of “filling high a cup of Samian wine;” small beer is nectar compared to it, and Byron himself always drank gin. That man never wrote from his heart. He got up rapture and enthusiasm with an eye to the public: but this is dangerous ground, even more dangerous than to look Athens full in the face and say that your eyes are not dazzled by its beauty. The great public admires Greece and Byron. The public knows best. Murray’s Guidebook calls the latter, “our native bard!” Our native bard! Mon Dieu! He Shakspeare’s, Milton’s, Keats’s, Scott’s native bard! Well, woe be to the man who denies the public gods’ [From Cornhill to Cairo, ch. v]. Warrington expresses a similar opinion to Colonel Newcome, though with less energy, for, in truth, less energy was required to meet the flagging tide of Byronic enthusiasm. His view of Scott is hinted a little further on in the same book. ‘When,’ he asks, ‘shall we have a real account of those times and heroes-no good-humoured pageant like those of the Scott romances-but a real authentic story to instruct and frighten honest people of the present day and make them thankful that the grocer governs the world now in the place of the baron?’ In fact, if we think of it, the grocer came in for his turn with Louis Philippe and the English Reform Bill; and the sham glorification of feudalism (the ‘brutal, unchristian blundering feudal system,’ says Thackeray), which

we now see to be the alloy which mixes with Scott’s pure gold, and not, as his early readers imagined, the really valuable element, was growing threadbare like other affectations. The grocer, too, has his faults and may as well hear of them; but they are best poitrayed in plain prose and with unflinching realism.