To Alexandre Dumas
From Letters to Dead Authors
Sir,—There are moments when the wheels of life, even of such a life as yours, run slow, and when mistrust and doubt overshadow even the most intrepid disposition. In such a moment, towards the ending of your days, you said to your son, M. Alexandre Dumas, 'I seem to see myself set on a pedestal which trembles as if it were founded on the sands.' These sands, your uncounted volumes, are all of gold, and make a foundation more solid than the rock. As well might the singer of Odysseus, or the authors of the 'Arabian Nights', or the first inventors of the stories of Boccaccio, believe that their works were perishable (their names, indeed, have perished), as the creator of 'Les Trois Mousquetaires' alarm himself with the thought that the world could ever forget Alexandre Dumas.
Than yours there has been no greater nor more kindly and beneficent force in modern letters. To Scott, indeed, you owed the first impulse of your genius; but, once set in motion, what miracles could it not accomplish? Our dear Porthos was overcome, at last, by a superhuman burden; but your imaginative strength never found a task too great for it. What an extraordinary vigour, what health, what an overflow of force was yours! It is good, in a day of small and laborious ingenuities, to breathe the free air of your books, and dwell in the company of Dumas's men—so gallant, so frank, so indomitable, such swordsmen, and such trenchermen. Like M. de Rochefort in 'Vingt Ans Après,' like that prisoner of the Bastille, your genius 'n'est que d'un parti, c'est du parti du grand air.'
There seems to radiate from you a still persistent energy and enjoyment; in that current of strength not only your characters live, frolic, kindly, and sane, but even your very collaborators were animated by the virtue which went out of you. How else can we explain it, the dreary charge which feeble and envious tongues have brought against you, in England and at home? They say you employed in your novels and dramas that vicarious aid which, in the slang of the studio, the 'sculptor's ghost' is fabled to afford.
Well, let it be so; these ghosts, when uninspired by you, were faint and impotent as 'the strengthless tribes of the dead' in Homer's Hades, before Odysseus had poured forth the blood that gave them a momentary valour. It was from you and your inexhaustible vitality that these collaborating spectres drew what life they possessed; and when they parted from you they shuddered back into their nothingness. Where are the plays, where the romances which Maquet and the rest wrote in their own strength? They are forgotten with last year's snows; they have passed into the wide waste-paper basket of the world. You say of D'Artagnan, when severed from his three friends—from Porthos, Athos, and Aramis—'he felt that he could do nothing, save on the condition that each of these companions yielded to him, if one may so speak, a share of that electric fluid which was his gift from heaven.'
No man of letters ever had so great a measure of that gift as you; none gave of it more freely to all who came—to the chance associate of the hour, as to the characters, all so burly and full-blooded, who flocked from your brain. Thus it was that you failed when you approached the supernatural. Your ghosts had too much flesh and blood, more than the living persons of feebler fancies. A writer so fertile, so rapid, so masterly in the ease with which he worked, could not escape the reproaches of barren envy. Because you overflowed with wit, you could not be 'serious;' because you created with a word, you were said to scamp your work; because you were never dull, never pedantic, incapable of greed, you were to be censured as desultory, inaccurate, and prodigal.
A generation suffering from mental and physical anæmia—a generation devoted to the 'chiselled phrase,' to accumulated 'documents,' to microscopic porings over human baseness, to minute and disgustful records of what in humanity is least human—may readily bring these unregarded and railing accusations. Like one of the great and good-humoured Giants of Rabelais, you may hear the murmurs from afar, and smile with disdain. To you, who can amuse the world—to you who offer it the fresh air of the highway, the battle-field, and the sea—the world must always return, escaping gladly from the boudoirs and the bouges, from the surgeries and hospitals, and dead rooms, of M. Daudet and M. Zola and of the wearisome De Goncourt.
With all your frankness, and with that queer morality of the Camp which, if it swallows a camel now and again, never strains at a gnat, how healthy and wholesome, and even pure, are your romances! You never gloat over sin, nor dabble with an ugly curiosity in the corruptions of sense. The passions in your tales are honourable and brave, the motives are clearly human. Honour, Love, Friendship make the threefold cord, the clue your knights and dames follow through how delightful a labyrinth of adventures! Your greatest books, I take the liberty to maintain, are the Cycle of the Valois ('La Reine Margot', 'La Dame de Montsoreau,' 'Les Quarante-cinq'), and the Cycle of Louis Treize and Louis Quatorze ('Les Trois Mousquetaires,' 'Vingt Ans Après),' 'Le Vicomte de Bragelonne'); and, beside these two trilogies—a lonely monument, like the sphinx hard by the three pyramids—'Monte Cristo.'
In these romances how easy it would have been for you to burn incense to that great goddess, Lubricity, whom our critic says your people worship. You had Brantôme, you had Tallemant, you had Rétif, and a dozen others, to furnish materials for scenes of voluptuousness and of blood that would have outdone even the present naturalistes. From these alcoves of 'Les Dames Galantes,' and from the torture chambers (M. Zola would not have spared us one starting sinew of brave La Mole on the rack) you turned, as Scott would have turned, without a thought of their profitable literary uses. You had other metal to work on: you gave us that superstitious and tragical true love of La Mole's, that devotion—how tender and how pure!—of Bussy for the Dame de Montsoreau. You gave us the valour of D'Artagnan, the strength of Porthos, the melancholy nobility of Athos: Honour, Chivalry, and Friendship. I declare your characters are real people to me and old friends. I cannot bear to read the end of 'Bragelonne,' and to part with them for ever. 'Suppose Porthos, Athos, and Aramis should enter with a noiseless swagger, curling their moustaches.' How we would welcome them, forgiving D'Artagnan even his hateful fourberie in the case of Milady. The brilliance of your dialogue has never been approached: there is wit everywhere; repartees glitter and ring like the flash and clink of small-swords. Then what duels are yours! and what inimitable battle-pieces! I know four good fights of one against a multitude, in literature. These are the Death of Gretir the Strong, the Death of Gunnar of Lithend, the Death of Hereward the Wake, the Death of Bussy d'Amboise. We can compare the strokes of the heroic fighting-times with those described in later days; and, upon my word, I do not know that the short sword of Gretir, or the bill of Skarphedin, or the bow of Gunnar was better wielded than the rapier of your Bussy or the sword and shield of Kingsley's Hereward.
They say your fencing is unhistorical; no doubt it is so, and you knew it. La Mole could not have lunged on Coconnas 'after deceiving circle;' for the parry was not invented except by your immortal Chicot, a genius in advance of his time. Even so Hamlet and Lærtes would have fought with shields and axes, not with small swords. But what matters this pedantry? In your works we hear the Homeric Muse again, rejoicing in the clash of steel; and even, at times, your very phrases are unconsciously Homeric.
Look at these men of murder, on the Eve of St. Bartholomew, who flee in terror from the Queen's chamber, and 'find the door too narrow for their flight:' the very words were anticipated in a line of the 'Odyssey' concerning the massacre of the Wooers. And the picture of Catherine de Medicis, prowling 'like a wolf among the bodies and the blood,' in a passage of the Louvre—the picture is taken unwittingly from the 'Iliad.' There was in you that reserve of primitive force, that epic grandeur and simplicity of diction. This is the force that animates 'Monte Cristo,' the earlier chapters, the prison, and the escape. In later volumes of that romance, methinks, you stoop your wing. Of your dramas I have little room, and less skill, to speak. 'Antony,' they tell me, was 'the greatest literary event of its time,' was a restoration of the stage. 'While Victor Hugo needs the cast-off clothes of history, the wardrobe and costume, the sepulchre of Charlemagne, the ghost of Barbarossa, the coffins of Lucretia Borgia, Alexandre Dumas requires no more than a room in an inn, where people meet in riding cloaks, to move the soul with the last degree of terror and of pity.'
The reproach of being amusing has somewhat dimmed your fame—for a moment. The shadow of this tyranny will soon be overpast; and when 'La Curée' and 'Pot-Bouille' are more forgotten than 'Le Grand Cyrus,' men and women—and, above all, boys—will laugh and weep over the page of Alexandre Dumas. Like Scott himself, you take us captive in our childhood. I remember a very idle little boy who was busy with the 'Three Musketeers' when he should have been occupied with 'Wilkins's Latin Prose.' 'Twenty years after' (alas and more) he is still constant to that gallant company; and, at this very moment, is breathlessly wondering whether Grimaud will steal M. de Beaufort out of the Cardinal's prison.
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