1891 “At the Sign of the Ship”

January 1891

Subheading: Mr. Bridge’s Poems [339–47]

Opening lines: “In the autumn of 1873 was published, by Mr. Pickering, a volume of verse by Robert Bridges, a prettily printed volume in pale blue cloth. It contained many charming lyrics, and other pieces of less equal merit. The author appears to have been dissatisfied with the collection, perhaps with the medley in the collection, for he withdrew it from circulation.” (339).

  • Lang gives a list of Robert Bridges’s poetic productions: “This little bibliographical notice is merely intended to show that the poet has not been idle between 1873 and 1890, when his Shorter Poems (G. Bell & Sons) are at last within the reach of all readers” (339). Lang agrees with Poe that the best poems are short (lyrics). (339)
  • Not everyone can write a readable drama, but “Bridges’s Prometheus is readable” (339).
  • Comparisons with Swinburne’s Atalanta, Arnold’s Merope. Bridges’s other Greek plays discussed (ErechtheusNeroPalicio, the Return of UlyssesAchilles in Scyros, and “exquisitely written” lines from the end of Achilles in Scyros quoted (340–41).
  • However, Lang objects to putting “modern ideas into Homeric lips” (341). “Modern thought and sentiment are better expressed in confessedly modern verse, as in Mr. Bridges’s Shorter Poems. These are truly delightful” (341).
  • Lang finds “memories of Milton, of the Elizabethan and Jacobean lyrists, but the voice is always his own” (341). Lang also compares to Arnold’s poetry (341).
  • Lang quotes extensive excerpts from Bridges’s poems (342–46). “Surely this is a new voice, and a voice to be noted and listened to with gladness, now that so many which charmed us are silent, or rather—for Browning and Matthew Arnold can never be silent—now that they give us no new music” (345).
  • “Mr. Bridges’s verse is not likely to be extremely popular. He is too austere a Muse, his thought too condensed; his personality, as it were, too exclusive and commanding, as displayed in his verses. To some extent he reminds one of Andrew Marvell, and again, in places, of Landor. But there is much in his work, especially in his songs, which cannot but win every one who really cares for poetry at all, while the devotees of poetry will make his whole volume a special treasure and favourite” (346).
  • Lang does not believe Bridges will excel in narrative poetry. “It is at present the rarest of all forms of verse, and only represented well by Mr. Morris’s Life and Death of Jason, and some of the tales in The Earthly Paradise, tales which, I think, permit themselves to be read much more easily than Mr. Morris’s romances in prose” (347).
  • “We cannot exactly say that in [Robert Bridges] we have a new poet, but it is certain that the world has at last a new chance of making acquaintance with a Muse which has too long been a recluse” (347).
  • Some people are “very much interested in literature, and yet not interested in the right way. An American critical paper has lately been asking authors, far and wide, to tell it what they are working at. Surely this is being interested in the wrong way, and spying at ‘half-done work’ (347).
  • Lang gives instances of the Boston journal The Author, “wherein one reads that one has reviewed a novel one has never even heard of . . . that General Lew Wallace writes ‘a small neat hand,’ whereas Mr. Ibsen does not do so . . . and that Mr. Gladstone makes marginalia on all his books, which is more interesting. Moreover, we are informed that Kirk Munroe, ‘the interesting junvenile writer, is passing the winter at Cambridge,’ which makes one marvel how young Mr. Munroe is. . . .” (347). “All this is sehr interessant, is it not? and to know these things is to be literary after the manner of Cathos and Madelon, in Les Précieuses Ridicules” (348).
  • Lang gives an sample of how Shelley’s “Skylark” might be reviewed if published today (348–49).
  • Lang responds to “Mr. Sully’s article on the decline of the fidelity of the Dog (in Longman’s Magazine, December)” and questions whether or not dogs are permitted “to have only one friend, his master?” He discusses two friendly dogs, the latter, “the nicest dog I know” who “never forgets a face. Two years since he met a gentleman once at dinner. In the following year, this gentleman was on the links, at St. Andrews, when he felt something touch his leg. He looked down, and there was Fingal, wagging his tail, and as good as remarking, ‘I think, sir, I had the pleasure of meeting you at Mr. ________’s last year.’ This was true politeness. Had the man been a more intimate friend, Fingla would have run round him with joyful barks. But this did not prevent him from being faithful; he was also of a social and friendly turn” (349).
  • “It is not easy to be canonised, in the Church of Rome. Joan of Arc and Mary Queen of Scots still wait their turn. [Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.] But, as M. Nyrop shows, in Mélusine, the French poplace make saints more readily, by dint of false etymologies. Thus the Roman Sidremum produces Saint Dremond . . .” (349–50)
  • “The growth of a legend is curiously illustrated by a passage in the recently published Diary of Sir Walter Scott” (350). Lang discusses the variants of the tale of the Black Officer, in Scott, in Hogg, and from a person in Loch Awe from whom Lang heard the tale (350).
  • Lang gives “the Chinese theory of photography, ‘also from M. Gaidoz’s paper Mélusine, quoting ‘Tour du Monde,’ xxxi. p. 367 [idea that photographic chemicals ‘distilled from human eyes. . . and that’s why the foreigners pick up our exposed children’]. Lang writes that “it seems like twenty Frenchmen and three Russians were massacred by an intelligent Chinese mob, in 1870, on this very score” (350–51).
  • “A lady offers the following variant of the Dissenting Minister and the Friendly Ghost”: Wesleyan minister carrying money, senses danger, prays, and the danger passes. Later “sent for to the deathbed of a noted footpad and burglar in a slum of Bristol.” This man would only allow this minister to come to his deathbed, and told him that on the occasion, he and a friend were lying in wait for him; they didn’t care that he prayed and sang a hymn, but they did care when “we saw another man on horseback join you. . . . We didn’t care to tackle two of you” (351).

Poetic excerpts quoted: 

  • from Robert Bridges’s Achilles in Scyros (a drama) (340–41)
  • two stanzas from Robert Bridges’s Elegy (342)
  • Robert Bridges’s “I will not let thy go” (342–43)
  • Robert Bridges’s “Elegy, on a Lady whom Grief for the Death of her Betrothed Killed” (343–44)
  • Robert Bridges’s “London Snow” (344–45)
  • from a poem by Robert Bridges on the Thames: “There is a hill beside the silver Thames. . .” (345)
  • Other lines from Bridges’s poetry (346)

February 1891

Subheading: Notes on Fiction [453–58]

Opening lines: “Dr. Johnson defines the novel as a tale ‘usually of love,’ and there is no doubt that most novels, since the Greek romances, have been very full of this passion. In his English Novel during the Time of Shakespeare, M. Jusserand gives some statistics as to the preponderance of fiction in modern English literature. In 1885 there were more books of theology than novels, but novels took the first place in 1887, 1888, 1889. In the last year, 1,040 novels were published. This gives us, at the very least, the stories of 2,080 human hearts; but it would be more fair to multiply the number of novels by nine, allowing for four ‘first lovers’ in each, the villain (generally attracted to the heroine), and four unsuccessful adorers,  male or female. Thus the year 1889 may have provided about 8,000 studies of the passion of love, as it is fair to make allowance for novels in which treasure, or murder, or theology was the main interest.” (453)

  • Lang lists statistics on novels and love stories but wonders whether ‘what is called the ‘love interest'” is really “the main attraction of romance, or whether this is not a mere statistical allusion” (453).
  • Discusses role of love interest in Scott, Richardson, Fielding, Dickens [“there is always a love affair, or more than one, but, except perhaps in the case of Dora, the love affair is not what we remember best, is never what we read Dickens for” (454), Thackeray, Stevenson, Trollope [“love must still be lord of all with Mr. Trollope” (455)], Black, Meredith [“even with him, human character in general and at large much preponderates” (455)], the two Kingleys, the Volsunga Saga (454–55)
  • “This case can be made out well enough, as far as the men novelists of England are concerned; the women, on the other hand, have usually excelled just where men have been less conspicuously successful” (455). Discusses Miss Broughton, Austen’s Anne Elliot, “Perhaps love is not the forte of Miss Braddon, who powerfully interests her male readers in Murder, and her lady students in Millinery. Charlotte Brontë, again, can make her people very thoroughly in love: there is no mistake about Jane Eyre and Lucy Snow. But who remembers the amours in the novels of Mr. Wilkie Collins? Charles Reade and Mr. Besant have here more of the feminine talent: their people are in love, no mistake about it; and Beatrice, in Mr. Haggard’s novel of that name, leaves no room for doubt about her sentiments. Yet there is a great mass of English fiction, and of the best fiction, in which the passion is little more moving to the readers than an algebraic formula” (456).
  • French authors “more successful in touching this passion”: Manon Lescaut, M. Bourget, M. Maupassant. M. Zola, in Un Page d’Amour. “M. Daudet is less of an amorist” (456).
  • Author’s great difficulty is to make the passion seem real. Lang says “an elderly novelist must write about the heart of youth with little more enthusiasm than about the tarts and toffee of his boyhood” (456)
  • “this difficulty of making the matter in hand seem real of course attends the novelist in all his adventures. How is it done? what is the unnamed gift by which a person of no style or culture can tell a story, can make us believe as we read, while another author, full of all accomplishments, puts us off with mere descriptions in place of substantial men, women, and things? The novelist, of course, must have conviction; must convince himself first, as children do when they play at being pirates, hunters, knights of old, explorers, and so forth. The novelist must never, in this sense, put away childish things. As a very small boy, the present essayist could never play at horses,’ for example, from a reasoned certainty that he was not a horse, and that his team, if he drove, were only other small boys and girls. Any one who remembers similar lack of illusions may as well give up the idea of writing novels. He may have observations; he will scarcely have sympathy with the puppets of his fancy; he may write like an angel, he will never persuade anybody to believe his narrative. . . . Generally the want of conviction in the reader comes of want of conviction in the author. He must believe before he can make us ‘believe; and this is a special gift, possessed by many people who are nothing less than literary—by the boatman or the shepherd who tells you a legend—and which is wanting wholly in the deliberate and accomplished author.* It is, perhaps, most frequently absent in the love affairs of novels, and that is why the greatest English novelists live by anything rather than their love stories. Here, as usual, Shakespeare is supreme, and his lovers love with all their hearts and souls (456, 457).
  • M. Daudet’s Jack seems too much like David Copperfield, “One has, throughout, an impression that everything has been carefully preconceived, studied, described, crammed for, that it is not spontaneous,” whether or not Daudet actually read Dickens (457).
  • ‘Naebody ever prays for the puir Devil,’ and nobody prays for nor has a good word for the poor wolf, since he was a sacred animal among the Athenians”: Lang gives an Estonian account of the creation of the wolf and asks that the correspondent who sent it to him “send his name and address,” which Lang has lost. (The wolf was made by the devil, but the formula to give the wolf life, given by the Allfather, was “Arise and hunt the devil,” which the wolf did (458–60).
  • Mashari al Osshac, a “Mohammedan mediæval book” which “bears traces of Christian influence.” A youth gave half his life to raise his betrothed from the dead. She left him for a king who fell in love with her, the youth demanded his half life back, and the woman said she didn’t want it and died (460–61).
  • Lang tells about a letter, “in lithographed form, if we mistake not” whose writer has the presumption to ask authors to send him copies of their works: “Dear Sir,—I am very fond of getting presents of books from authors [a droll taste!]” (461). Lang asks how a similar letter would be received if sent to jewelers (462). Some authors apparently accede to his request though.
  • Lang again discusses caddies; although he wishes success to those trying to regulate their employment, he says the problem is that many of the greens are public and it is difficult to enforce rules (462).
  • “Two Songs,” a poem by Graham R. Tomson (Rosamund Marriott Watson) (462–63)
  • Lang recommends Whispers, a book of poetry by Frances Wynne, whose poetry readers “may have met, and liked. . . in this barque, and in other periodicals” (463). “The title is not very fortunate, but it is long since I have read a more agreeable volume of verse successful up to the measure of its aim and ambition” (463).

*Note the similarity in Lang’s ideas about belief and the capacity for telling good tales here and in Lang’s preface to The Green Fairy Book, published in 1892.

March 1891

Subheading: Lord Houghton [567–71]

Opening lines: “Hawks dinna pyke out hawks’ eyne,’ and perhaps no one who has ever compiled a biography should criticise a biographer. But no one but the biographer, perhaps, has had his thoughts so much occupied with the nature and conditions of biography. Only biographers can feel how vague must be the reviewing of this kind of literature, by persons who do not know what kind and quantity of materials the author had at his command. His difficulty may have been the richness of supply, so that he knew not what to omit, or it may have been the poverty, so that he knew not what to put in. Then the unlucky man is apt to find that half the plums, at least, must be left out of his pudding.” (567)


  • Biographies, and the difficulty of compiling them.
  • “The biographer’s trade, at present, is dominated by fashion or trade-custom. Fashion demands two good large volumes, nobody knows why, and it is not every life, however long and distinguished, that can supply really good filling for those two volumes. Thus the biographer is often almost compelled to insert much that is unessential, much that the reader probably skips. Letters are piled in, and these letters contain a good deal that is not germane to the matter, that does not illustrate character at all” (567)
  • Boswell and Lockhart the best biographers; today many writers their own Boswell, but usually are not their own Johnson and fail to “report the [good] talk for [their] readers” (567–68).
  • Mr. Wemyss’s Reid’s Life, Letters, and Friendships of Lord Houghton (Cassell) (568–70): Lang calls attention to pointlessly included letters; Lang does admire much in the biography, though (“It is certain that the future will know him well in his biography” [570]), and he gives interesting anecdotes; he wishes there had been more about Houghton’s editing of Keats’s Letters and Remains and more on Houghton as a bibliophile (569); he was not impressed with the letters from famous people (569–70), particularly Thackeray’s short note inviting Houghton to dine the next evening  when [Charlotte] Brontë would be there: “We knew before that Miss Brontë had dined with Thackeray, and we wish that a Boswell had been one of the guests” (570). The letters from David Gay are more interesting, though perhaps not representative of the poet (570).
  • “When commenting on Mr. Thackeray’s note to Lord Houghton, I had not read Mrs. Ritchie’s description, in Macmillan’s Magazine, of the dinner to which Lord Hougton was invited . . . . a very young Boswell was present, Miss Thackeray. In her delightful paper, ‘My Witch’s Cauldron,’ she shows us what a failure the party was, how much was expected, nothing attained; how the prim little Northern genius, Miss Brontë, snuffed out the fun, till Mr. Thackeray fled to the club and left his guests in despair” (571).
  • “The discovery of an Aristotelian fragment is exciting much interest among people who know nothing about Aristotle” (571). Lang complains of people not reading Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics but being fascinated by a scrap of the Constitutions; he also complains of non-Greek readers reviewing classical works and making misstatements about them (571).
  • On style: Lang agrees with Schopenhauer that reading works with excellent style can only benefit those who have gifts of their own and can ‘learn the use of them’: otherwise, such reading will only lead to ‘cold dead mannerisms’ and ‘shallow imitat[ion]’ (572).
  • Lang also agrees with Schopenhauer that people today spend most of their time reading the ‘Newest Books; and that for the purpose of getting food for conversation in the circles in which they move. This is the aim served by bad novels’ (572). Bulwer Lytton mentioned here; Lang thinks this is “extremely unjust to Bullwer Lytton . . . but the general statement . . . is correct” (572).
  • Mr. Rutherford’s English Authors, “published at ‘The Constitution Job Office, Atlanta Ga,'” which “gives details about contemporary writers in the style of the New Journalism” and “adds lists of questions for examination,” which Lang includes (572–73): “And what has all this to do with English literature? . . . . Of course the book is probably as much of a joke in American as in England. But it only carries literary gossip to a power slightly higher than its usual force” (573)
  • “Metempsychosis,” a poem by May Kendall (573–74)
  • “I keep racking my brains for the moral—it must have a moral—of Dr. Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, translated by Mr. Gosse (Heinemann). The portrait of Dr. Ibsen is capital. I was certain he was like that” (574). Compares Hedda to M. Becque’s La Parisienne. “One character is nearly as bad and unnatural as the other, but there is no doubt as to which is the more amusing” (574).
  • “The Earliest Crocus,” a poem by Frances Wynne (574–75)
  • “A Finish dog, answering to the name of Förde, wants a home. . . . Has no objection to an Ibsenite. . . . Testimonials to character are necessary. Has no objection to a clergyman’s family, of whatever denomination” (575).

Poems printed in full:

  • “Metempsychosis,” by May Kendall (573–74)
  • “The Earliest Crocus,” by Frances Wynne (574–75)

April 1891

Subheading: “Thackeray and His Biographers.”

Opening lines: “It is generally understand that Mr. Thackeray wished no biography of himself to be written. The only contemporary author who could write that life as it should be done [Anne Thackeray Ritchie] has therefore been obedient to her father’s desire. It is easy to understand and to sympathise with Mr. Thackeray’s reluctance to be made the hero of a biography. Scarce any biographer in the world, except Boswell’s masterpiece, tells the truth, and the whole truth. A man, like Cromwell, wants to be painted warts and all, if he must be painted. No modern biographer is likely to do this kind of work. Either he revels in all the tattle he can collect against and about his subject, or he has a dozen reasons–all excellent–fo not speaking out. Many biographers are prolonged and anecdotic epitaphs. Mr. Thackeray was the last man in the world to enjoy the prospect of this too benevolent immortality.  On the other hand, it is not everyone who wants to have all the trifles of his private life–his petulances, fits of temper, his blunders, his bad luck, dragged into the light. Mr. Carlyle may have thought this desirable; and if so, then, as the Yankee remarks, ‘I guess he got his druther’ (673).


  • Thackeray’s biographies and biographies in general (673)
  • Hoggarty Diamond and elements of Thackeray’s experience, as Lang supposes, in his fiction [unhappy loves, school experiences, gambling, experiences with “minxes” etc.) “We know through his books, and through the Letters published not long ago, all that is essential about Mr. Thackeray” (673–74)
  • Lang not writing “the New Journalism” so won’t tell the tale of one of the minxes (674)
  • We don’t need a biography of Montaigne “we know him as well as Dr. Johnson, out of his own essays” (674)
  • “[V]arious brief stories of [Thackeray’s] life, by the late Mr. Hannay, by Mr. Anthony Trollope, and now, by Mr. Herman Merivale and Mr. Frank T. Marzials. This has been an unlucky little book” (674). The latter book is discussed from pp. 674–678. The following are mentioned: Vanity Fair (676), “Mr. Aytoun, of Blackwood’s] and Thackeray’s withdrawn request for a good review (677), the Kickleburys, the Times, the Saturday ReviewRoundabout Papers, Bulwer Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii, Jeames, Esmond, ‘George Sand and the New Apocalypse,’ Darwinism, Dr. John Brown, faith “there are some who would rather believe and be antiquated with Thackeray than deny and be ‘advanced’ with a multitude of later ‘authorities'” (677), Mr. Dickens, their reconciliation, the Athenæum, Thackeray’s opinion of Sir Walter Scott” (678).
  • “A Highly Valuable Chain of Thoughts” “in the phrase of Wordsworth (though it is not in the style of that author) (678–79)
  • a stanza from Eugene Field’s Little Book of Western Verse (Scribner’s), on fish looking bigger before they are caught (679)
  • Lang wishes Field’s Dutch Lullaby had never been published in The Ship: “The post brings nothing but letters asking leave to set the rhyme to music. Gentlemen composers, please besiege Mr. Field, not me. I believe that Messrs. Osgood, of 45 Albermarle Street, publish Mr. Field’s poems and stories; at all events, in New York Messrs. Charles Scribner’s Sons publish them, and excellent ready meany of them are” (679)
  • Anecdote from The Fishing Gazette, “The Major’s Yarn” about a conjuring show in Japan in which the conjuror throws a ball of string into the air and then climbs up it” (679–80). “This is only the beginning of a ‘yarn’ which is as old as the hills. The late Colonel Yule kindly gave me a set of notes, which I have mislaid, in which the same Oriental narrative was traced through some five hundred years” (680). Lang explains the variants in Ibn Batuto’s account, “Colonel Yule’s note to his Marco Polo,” “modern instances from Indian newspapers,” probability of Ibn Batuto being hypnotized, English writer of the seventeenth century saw in England. “The Fishing Gazette has acquired an incredulous habit from consorting with anglers. But anglers do not lie like golfers. See Golf! See the anecdotes in that deserving serial” (680).
  • He has accumulated verses and apologizes for the late publication of “The Old Year” and “The New Year” (681–82).

Poems Printed in Full: 

  • “A Highly Valuable Chain of Thoughts” (678–79)
  • “The Old Year” (681)
  • “The New Year” (681–682)

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  • See the 1892 “At the Sign of the Ship” summaries.
  • Return to the “At the Sign of the Ship” Table of Contents.