According to Henley's "Prefatory," which self-deprecatingly descibes Views and Reviews (1890) as "less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism" (vi), this essay was "pieced together" from articles in London, Vanity Fair, The Athenaeum. In editing this text for the Victorian Web, I have retained orginal spelling and punctuation, and I included numbers in brackets to indicate page breaks in the print edition in order to enable users of VW to cite or locate the original page numbers. [GPL].

His Novels

Decorative Initial To the general his novels must always be a kind of caviare; for they have no analogue in letters but are the output of a mind and temper of singular originality. To the honest Tory, sworn to admire and unable to comprehend, they must seem inexplicable as abnormal. To the professional Radical they are so many proofs of innate inferiority: for they are full of pretentiousness and affectation; they teem with examples of all mannner of vices, from false English to a delight in dukes; they prove their maker a trickster and a charlatan in every page. To them, however, whose first care is for rare work, the series of novels that began with Vivian Grey and ended with Endymion is one of the pleasant facts in modern letters. These books abound in wit and daring, in originality and shrewdness, in knowledge of the world and in knowledge of men; they contain mauy vivid and striking studies of character, both portrait aud caricature; they sparkle with speaking phrases and happy epithets; they are aglow with the passion of youth, the love of love, the worship of physical beauty, the admiration of whatever is [20-21] costly and select and splendid — from a countess to a castle, from a duke to a diamond; they are radiant with delight in whatever is powerful or personal or attractive — from a cook to a cardinal, from an agitator to an emperor. They often remind you of Voltaire, often of Balzac, often of The Arabian Nights. You pass from an heroic drinking bout to a brilliant criticism of style; from rhapsodies on bands and ortolans that remind you of Heine to a gambling scene that for directness and intensity may vie with the bluntest and strongest work of Prosper Merimée; from the extravagant impudence of Popanilla to the sentimental rodomontade of Henrietta Temple; from ranting romanticism in Alroy to vivid realism in Sybil. Their author gives you no time to weary of him, for he is worldly and passionate, fantastic and trenchant, cynical and ambitious, flippant and sentimental, ornately rhetorical and triumphantly simple in a breath. He is imperiously egoistic, but while constantly parading his own personality he is careful never to tell you anything about it. And withal he is imperturbably good-tempered: he brands and gibbets with a smile, and with a smile he adores and applauds. Intellectually he is in sympathy with character of every sort; he writes as becomes an artist who has recognised that 'the conduct of men depends upon the temperament, not upon a bunch of musty maxims,' and that 'there is a [20/21] great deal of vice that is really sheer inadvertence.' It is said that the Monmouth of Coningsby and the Steyne of Vanity Fair are painted from one and the same original; and you have but to compare the savage realism of Thackeray's study to the scornful amenity of the other's — as you have but to contrast the elaborate and extravagant cruelty of Thackeray's Alcide de Mirobolant with the polite and half-respectful irony of Disraeli's treatment of the cooks in Tancred — to perceive that in certain ways the advantage is not with 'the 'greatest novelist of his time,' and that the Monmouth produces an impression which is more moral because more kindly and humane than the impression left by the Steyne, while in its way it is every whit as vivid and convincing. Yet another excellence, and a great one, is his mastery of of apt and forcible dialogue. The talk of Mr. Henry James's personages is charmingly equable and appropriate, but it is also trivial and tame; the talk in Anthony Trollope is surprisingly natural and abundant, but it is also commonplace and immemorable; the talk of Mr. George Meredith is always eloquent and fanciful, but the eloquence is too often dark and the fancy too commonly inhuman. What Disraeli's people have to say is not always original nor pro- found, but it is crisply and happily phrased and uttered, it reads well, its impression seldom fails of permanency His Wit and Wisdom is a kind of Talker's Guide or Handbook of Conversation. How [22/23] should it be otherwise, seeing that it contains characteristic utterances of a great artist in life renowned for memorable speech?

A Contrast

Now, it you ask a worshipper of him that was so long his rival, to repeat a saying a maxim, a sentence, of which his idol is the author, it is odds but he will look like a fool, and visit you with an evasive answer. What else should he do? His deity is a man of many words and no sayings. He is the prince of agitators, but it would be impossible for him to mint a definition of 'agitation'; he is the world's most eloquent arithmetician, but it is beyond him to epigrammatise the fact that two and two make four. And it seems certain, unless the study of Homer and religious fiction inspire him to some purpose, that his contributions to axiomatic literature will be still restricted to the remark that 'There are three courses open 'to something or other: to the House, to the angry cabman, to what and whomsoever you will. Insober truth, he is one who writes for to-day, and takes no thought of either yesterdays or morrows. For him the Future is next session; the Past does not extend beyond his last change of mind. He is a prince of journalists, [23/24] and his excursions into monthly literature remain to show how great and copious a master of the 'leader ' — ornate, imposing, absolutely insignificant — his absorption in politics has cost the English-speaking world.

His Backgrounds

Disraeli's imagination, at once practical and extravagant, is not of the kind that delights in plot and counterplot. His novels abound in action, but the episodes wear more or less random look: the impression produced is pretty much that of a story of adventure. But if they fail as stories they are unexceptionable as canvases. Our author unrolls themwith superb audacity; and rapidly and vigorously he fills them in with places and people, with faces that are as life and words expressive even as they. Nothing is too lofty or too low for him. He hawks at every sort of game, and rarely does he make a false cast. It is but a step from the wilds of Lancashire to the Arabian Desert, from the cook's first floor to the Home of the Bellamonts; for he has the Seven-League-Boots of the legend, and more than the genius of adventure of him that wore them. His castles may be of cardboard, his cataracts of tinfoil, the sun of his adjurations the veriest figment; but he never lets his readers [24/25] see that he knows it. His irony, sudden and reckless and insidious though it be, yet never extends to his properties. There may be a sneer beneath that mask which, with an egotism baffling as imperturbable, he delights in intruding among his creations; but you cannot see it. You suspect its presence, because he is a born mocker. But you remember that one of his most obvious idiosyncracies is an inordinate love of all that is sumptuous, glittering, radiant, magnificent; and you incline to suspect that he keeps his sneerily for the world of men, and admires his scenes and decorations too cordially to visit them with anything so merciless.

His Men and Women

But dashing and brilliant as are his sketches of places and things, they are after all the merest accessories. It was as a student of Men and Women that he loved to excel, and it is as their painter that I praise him now. Himself a worshipper of intellect, it was intellectually that he mastered and developed them. Like Sidonia he moves among them not to feel with them but to understand and learn from them. Such sympathy as he had was either purely sensuous, as for youth and beauty and all kinds of comeliness; or purely intellectual. as for intelligence, artificiality, servility, [26/27] meanness. And as his essence was satirical, as he was naturally irreverent and contemptuous, it follows that he is best and strongest in the act of punishment not of reward. His passion for youth was beautiful, but it did not make him strong. His scorn for things contemptible, his hate for things hateful, are at times too bitter even for those who think with him; but in these lay his force — they filled his brain with light, and they touched his lips with fire. The wretched Rigby is far more vigorous and lifelike than the amiable Coningsby; Tom Cogit — a sketch, but a sketch of genius — is infinitely more interesting than May Dacre or even the Young Duke; Tancred is a good fellow, and very real and true in his goodness, but contrast him with Fakredeen! And after his knaves, his fools, his tricksters, the most striking figures in his gallery are those whom he has considered from a purely intellectual point of view: either kindly, as Sidonia, or coolly, as Lord Monmouth, but always calmly and with no point of passion in his regard: the Eskdales, Villebecques, Ormsbys, Bessos, Marneys, Meltons, and Mirabels, the Bo- huns and St. Aldegondes and Grandisons, the Tadpoles and the Tapers, the dominant and sub- altern humanity of the world. All these are drawn with peculiar boldness of line, precision of touch, and clearness of intention. And as with his men so is it with his women: the finest are not those he likes best but those who interested him [26-27] most. Male and female, his eccentrics surpass his commonplaces. He had a great regars for girls, and his attitude towards them, or such of them he elected heroines, was mostly one of adoration — magnificent yet a little awkward and strained. With women, married women, he had vastly more in common: he could admire, study, divine, without having; to feign a warmer feeling; and while his girls are poor albeit splendid young persons, his matrons are usually delightful. Edith Millbank is not a very striking figure in Coningsby; but her appearance in Tancred — well, you have only to compare it to the resurrection of Laura Bell, as Mrs. Pendennis to see how good it is.

His Style

Now and then the writing is bad, and the thought is stale. Disraeli had many mannerisms, innate and acquired. His English was frequently loose and inexpressive; he was apt to trip in his grammar, to stumble over 'and which,' and to be careless about the connection between his nominatives and his verbs. Again, he could scarce ever refrain from the use of gorgeous commonplaces of sentiment and diction. His taste was sometimes ornately and barbarically conventional; he wrote as an orator, and his phrases often read as if he had used them [27/28] for the sake of their associations rather than themselves. His works are a casket of such stage jewels of excess as 'Palladian structure,' 'Tusculan 'repose.' 'Gothic pile,' 'pellucid brow,' 'mossy cell,' 'bespangled meads.' He deligted in 'hyacinthine curls' and 'lustrous locks,' in 'smiling 'parterres ' and 'stately terraces.' He seldom sat down in print to anything less than a 'banquet'; he was capable of invoking 'the iris pencil of 'Hope'; he could not think nor speak of the beauties of woman except as 'charms.' Which seems to show that to be 'born in a library,' and have Voltaire — that impeccable master of the phrase — for your chief of early heroes and exemplars is not everything.

His Oratory

It is admitted, I believe, that he had many of the qualities of a great public speaker: that he had an admirable voice and an excellent method; that his sequences were logical and natural, his arguments vigorous and persuasive; that he was an artist in style, and in the course of a single speech could be eloquent and vivacious, ornate and familiar, passionate and cynical, deliberately rhetorical and magnificently fantastic in turn; that he was a master of all oratorical modes — of irony and argument, of stately [28/29] declamation and brilliant and unexpected antithesis, of caricature and statement and rejoinder alike; that he could explain, denounce, retort, retract, advance, defy, dispute, with equal readiness and equal skill; that he was unrivalled in attack and unsurpsssed in defence; and that in heated debate and on occasions when he felt himself justified in putting forth all his powers and in striking in with the full weight of his imperious and unique personality he was the most dangerous antagonist of his time. And yet, in spite of his mysterious and oommlmding influence over his followers — in spite, too, of the fact that he died assuredly the most romantic and perhaps the most popular figure of his time — it is admitted withal that he was lacking in a certain quality of temperament, that attribute great orators possess in common with great actors: the power, that is, of imposing oneself upon an audience not by argument nor by eloquence, not by the perfect utterance of beautiful and commanding speech nor by the enunciation of eternal principles or sympathetic and stirring appeals, but by an effect of personal magnetism, by the expression through voice and gesture and presence of an individuality, a temperament, call it what you will, that may be and is often utterly commonplace but is always inevitably irresistible. He could slaughter an opponent, or butcher a measure, or crumple up a theory with unrivalled [29/30] adroitness and despatch; but he could not dominate a crowd to the extent of persuading it to feel with his heart, think with his brain, and accept his utterances as the expression not only of their common reason but of their collective sentiment as well. He was as incapable of such a feat as Mr. Gladstone's Midlothian campaign as Mr. Gladstone is of producing the gaming scene in The Young Duke or the 'exhausted volcanoes' paragraph in the Manchester speech.

His Speeches as Literature

As a rule — a rule to which there are some magnificent exceptions — orators have only to cease from speaking to become uninteresting What has been heard with enthusiasm is read with indifference or even with astonishment. You miss the noble voice, the persuasive gesture, the irresistible personality; and with the emotional faculty at rest and the reason at work you are surprised — and it may be a little indignant — that you should have been impressed so deeply as you were by such cold, bald verbosity as seen in black and white the masterpiece of yesterday appears to be. To some extent this is the case with these speeches of Disraeli's. At the height of debate, amid the clash of personal and party animosities, with [30/31] the cheers of the orator's supporters to give them wings, they sounded greater than they were. But for all that they are vigorous and profitable yet. Their author's unfailing capacity for saying things worth heeding and remembering is proved in every one of them. It is not eaay to open either of Mr. Kebbel's volumes without lighting upon something — a string of epigrams, a polished gibe, a burst of rhetoric, an effective collocation of words — that proclaims the artist. In this connection the perorations are especially instructive, even if you consider them simply as arrangements of sonorous and suggestive words: as oratorical impressions carefully prepared, as effects of what may be called vocalised orchestration touched off as skilfully and with as fine a sense of sound and of the sentiment to correspond as so many passages of instrumentation signed 'Berlioz' might be.

The Great Earl

Fruits fail, and love dies, and time ranges; and only the whippersnapper (that fool of Time) endureth for ever. Molière knew him well, and he said that Molière was a liar and a thief. And Disraeli knew him too, and he said that in these respects Disraeli and Molière were brothers. That he said so matters [31/32] little now as ever it did; for though the whippersnapper is immortal in kind, he is nothing if not futile and ephemeral in effect, and it was seen long since that in life and death Disraeli, as became his genius and his race, was the Uncommonplace incarnate, the antithesis of Grocerdom, the Satan of that revolt against the yielding habit of Jehovah-Bottles the spirit whereof is fast coming to be our one defence against socialism and the dominion of the Common Fool. He was no sentimentalist: as what great artist in government has ever been? He loved power for power's sake, and recognizing to the full the law of the survival of the fittest he preferred his England to the world. He knew that it is the function of the man of genius to show that theory is only theory, and that in the House of Morality there are many mansions. To that end he lived and died; and it is not until one has comprehended the complete significance of his life and death that one is qualified to speak with understanding of such a life and death as his who passed at Khartoum.

References

Henley, W. E. Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1890. 20-32.


Victorian
Overview Benjamin Disraeli W. E. Henley

Last modified 2000