Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Horace Walpole (17171797)
[The works of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, edited by Miss Berry, were published in 5 vols. 4to. in 1798. In the authors lifetime were printed Ædes Walpolianæ, 1747, 1752, papers in the World, 1753; Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher, 1757; Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, 1758; Fugitive Pieces in Prose and Verse, 1758; Anecdotes of Painting in England, 17621771; Catalogue of Engravers, and The Castle of Otranto, 1765; Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third, 1768; The Mysterious Mother, A Tragedy, 1768; Hieroglyphic Tales, 1785; Essay on Modern Gardening, 1785. The Memoirs of the Last Ten Years of George II. (begun 1751) were published 1822; the Memoirs of the following reign, begun in 1766, finished in 1772, came out in 1845 and 1859. The Reminiscences, written in 1788 for Miss Berry and her sister, were published among the collected works in 1798. The fifth volume of this edition contains letters to various persons: others were published in 1818 (to George Montagu and others), in 1825 (to Lord Hereford), and in 1833 (to Sir Horace Mann). A collected edition was issued in 1840. The publication of further correspondence with Sir Horace Mann in 1843, and of Letters to the Countess of Ossory in 1848, and the Rev. W. Mason in 1851, led to a fuller collection by Mr. Peter Cunningham in 1857, which has not yet been superseded.]
UNHEALTHY and disorganised mind, a bundle of whims and affectations, mask within mask; these are the phrases that go to make up the popular estimate of a writer who was distinguished by the sincerity of his taste and judgment, and by the quickness and truth of his response to all impressions. Horace Walpole wrote and thought exactly as he pleased; his letters are the expression, direct and clear, of a mind that could not condescend to dull its reflections by any compromise about the values of things, or any concession to opinion. He never tampered with his instinctive appreciation of anything. Whether his judgments are sound in themselves is a question of small importance in comparison with his virtue of self-respect and self-restraint. It is because he had a mind of his own and would not pretend to like what he could not like, that he has been pointed out by the literary demagogue.
In the matter of his opinions he was less exceptional or eccentric than he has sometimes been made to appear. While his discrimination was keener, and his sense more delicate than in most people, he did not set himself to disagree with popular opinion. His confidence in himself was so secure that even to find himself in agreement with the vulgar gave him no uneasiness. His opinions are not those of a fantastic or effeminate recluse. No man was ever more alive to the political interests of that century; he is the historian of the inner life of Parliament; the commentator day by day on the news of battles in Germany, America, and India. From the day when Sir Robert Walpole, after his defeat in 1743, drank the health of Lord Stair and Lord Carteret (who were not his friends) for the victory of Dettingen, saying that he did not care by whom the thing was done, so long as it was done, Horace Walpoles letters are an index to the history of England. The falls of ministers, the victories of the wonderful year, the revolutions of America and France are interpolated in a chronicle of vanities. The irony of the historian may be vexatious to some readers, but it does not deprive the letters of their effect as a continuous narrative of unequalled liveliness and spirit. Their injustice is the injustice of the near view. The writer ignored the virtues of many of his contemporaries, frequently with reason. He did not discover in Mr. Pitt, the factious partizan of 1742, any of the qualities which he afterwards was able to recognise in the heroic statesman of the Seven Years War. He wrote what he saw and knew.
In speaking of books and authors, Horace Walpole is little given to dissimulation. His opinions about his contemporaries have been hardly dealt with, as though it were an exceptional thing or a mark of incurable levity to make critical statements that are not generally ratified in the following generation. His opinions are commonly much like Grays. He would rather have written the most absurd lines in Lee than Thomsons Seasons. It will be generally admitted that Walpole was wrong about Thomsons Seasons. But if wrong, he was wrong in no absurd or affected way. The Seasons had not taken his fancy; he confused them with the other didactic blank verse of his time. Walpole in his antipathy to dulness had sworn a feud against monotonous poetry. If one has a mind to be read one must write metaphysical poems in blank verse which have not half the imagination of romances, and are dull without any agreeable absurdity. Only think of the gravity of this wise age that have exploded Cleopatra and Pharamond and approved the Pleasures of the Imagination, the Art of Preserving Health, and Leonidas! I beg the ages pardon; it has done approving these poems and has forgot them. This piece of criticism is sent off to Mr. Conway in the year of Culloden, to amuse him in his garrison at Stirling. It was some time before this, in March 1745 and in a letter to Sir Horace Mann, that he had committed himself in respect of the Seasons:
The town flocks to a new play of Thomsons called Tancred and Sigismunda; it is very dull; I have read it. I cannot bear modern poetry: those refiners of the stage and of the incorrectness of English verse are most wofully insipid. I had rather have written the most absurd lines in Lee than Leonidas or the Seasons, as I had rather be put into the roundhouse for a wrong-headed quarrel than sup quietly at 8 oclock with my grandmother. There is another of these tame geniuses, a Mr. Akenside, who writes Odes: in one he has lately published he says Light the tapers, urge the fire. Had you not rather make gods jostle in the dark than light the candles for fear they should break their heads?
All this may be wrong, but it is unquestionably sane and lively. Have you waded through or into Lord Lyttelton? How dull we may be, if we will but take pains for six or seven and twenty years together. It may be unamiable to write like this, but it is still worse to pretend to admire, without admiring, the tragedy, the epic, the philosophical history.
In the style of his letters as in everything else he has baffled his critics. The phantasm of Strawberry Hill comes between them and the page; his grammar is associated in their minds with ideas of Gothic toy-shops, it is pronounced to be full of affectations, as though writing came by nature. It is true that Walpoles words and phrases are perpetually crying out to be admired. The style is not like that of Cowpers letters, where nothing interrupts the story by distracting attention to the words in which it is told. Nevertheless, in Walpoles letters, the phrases and conceits, however noticeable, are not mere external ornament, they are all alive, they belong to the discourse, they are not stitched on like spangles. To be offended by the style is a gratuitous vexation, and even pitiful, if it stands in the way of a proper acquaintance with the letters. For the matter of them, if matter it be, is one of the most brilliant of all the pageants of Vanity Fair, and the record, from the first letters of the Quadruple Alliance, and the Virgilian reminiscences of Eton and the waters of Thames, to the letter of farewell to the Countess of Ossory, sixty years later, is, throughout, with all its variety and multiplicity of details, a record free from any compromise with things distasteful to the writer. It displays the same vivacity of mind, the same general principles, the same wit and spirit everywhere. No ancient philosopher was ever more secure and self-consistent.
Of his writings, apart from his letters, the Memoirs are the most valuable, the Anecdotes of Painting the most laborious. The latter work, founded upon the papers of Vertue the engraver, is antiquarian rather than literary, an arrangement of documentary materials; it contains, however, in a style often curiously like that of Johnsons Lives, many brilliant passages of biography and criticism. The Memoirs were intended by their author to fill up the gaps in solemn history, by giving an account of particular things apt to be overlooked by the historian, and easily supplied by Horace Walpole. It would be a mistake, however, to look on the Memoirs as an unheroic history, giving the reverse of all contemporary fame; it is not Walpoles business to write the history of battles, but he is far from indifferent to them, as may be seen by reference to his notes on the death of Wolfe, and many other passages besides. The Memoirs are of course deprived of the extraordinary charm that is found only in letters and in no other historical writing whatever; for only letters can give the impression, not of the past time merely, but of the expectations and uncertainties of the past. In reading the letters one catches the look of things as they were when they were happening, and when their meaning was not fully evident: in the Memoirs, revised and corrected by the author, things are fixed, and the conventional interpretation of the historical fact has begun.
Walpoles romance of the Castle of Otranto has lost its former reputation. His aim in writing it is characteristic. His admiration of romantic and Gothic art was one variety of his love of wit; it was the quaintness, the surprises, that he appreciated, not the natural magic such as fascinated the readers of Ossian. The Castle of Otranto was an attempt to vivify the medieval matter and present it in a modern style. To keep the grace and the variety of medieval romance, without any parody of medieval style, or any loss of independence; to deliver romance from the helpless rhetoric of the books of chivalry, and make it modern and ironical, has been the purpose of many stories, from the Orlando Furioso to the Misfortunes of Elphin. Walpoles experiment was one of this sort. It came naturally from his unscrupulous combination of romantic studies with precision of thought; from his antipathy to confused and overburdened forms of literature, together with his intellectual curiosity.