Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by William Ernest Henley
Charles Kingsley (18191875)
[Born at Holne Vicarage, Devonshire, in 1819, and educated, partly at Helston Grammar School, and partly at Kings College, London, and at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was Rector of Eversley in Hampshire; Professor of Modern History at his old university from 1860 to 1869; and Canon of Westminster in 1872. Chief among his thirty-five publications are The Saints Tragedy (1848), Alton Locke and Yeast (1849), Hypatia (1853), The Heroes (1856), Andromeda (1858), The Water-Babies (1863) and Prose-Idylls (1873). He died in 1875.]
CHARLES KINGSLEY, author on the one hand of Cheap Clothes and Nasty, and of The Water-Babies on the other, was the type of a certain order of modern man: the man of whom much is expected, who is trained up to the fulfilment of many purposes, who is subject to many influences, open to many sorts of impressions, and possessed of many active holds upon life. He came of choice and generous stock; and from the first it was determined for him that he should do something and be somebody. It seems natural that he should have developed into one of the busiest men of his time. His, indeed, was a sane and active mind in a sane and active body, and he made noble use of the endowment. He died after a lifetime of such steady, earnest, and varied endeavour as is within the compass of but few.
As a writer, he is seen to greatest advantage in his prose, which is clear, nervous, full of vivacity and significance, and often very powerful and expressive. His verse, however, has a great deal of merit, and may be read with some true pleasure. He had a capacity for poetry, as he had capacities for many things beside, and he cultivated it as he cultivated all the others. His sense of rhythm seems to have been imperfect. His ear was correct, and he often hit on a right and beautiful cadence; but his music grows monotonous, his rhythmical ideas are seldom well sustained or happily developed. His work abounds in charming phrases and in those verbal inspirations that catch the ear and linger long about the memory:as witness the notes that are audible in the opening verses of The Sands of Dee, the pleasant Isle of Avès of The Last Buccanier, and the whole first stanza of the song of the Old Schoolmistress in The Water-Babies. But, as it is with his music, so is it with his craftsmanship as well. He would begin brilliantly and suggestively and end feebly and ill, so that of perfect work he has left little or none. It is also to be noted of him that his originality was decidedly eclectican originality informed with many memories and showing sign of many influences; and that his work, even when its purpose is most dramatic, is always very personal, and has always a strong dash in it of the sentimental manliness, the combination of muscularity and morality, peculiar to its author. For the rest, Kingsley had imagination, feeling, some insight, a great affection for man and nature, a true interest in things as they were and are and ought to beabove all, as they ought to be!and a genuine vein of lyric song. His work is singularly varied in quality and tone as in purpose and style. Now it is hot and crude and violentviolent without poweras in Alton Lockes Song and The Bad Squire; now, mannered and affected, as in The Red King and the Weird Lady; now, human and pathetic, as in The Last Buccanier and Airly Beacon; now, fierce and random and turbid, as in Santa Maura and The Saints Tragedy; now, aesthetic, experimental, even imitative, as in The Longbeards Saga, Earl Haldanes Daughter, and Andromeda; now rhetorical and vague and insincere, and now natural, simple, direct, large in handling and earnest in expression, as only true poetry can be. There are fine passages everywhere in Kingsley, and of spirit and point he has an abundance. But it is as a writer of songs that the public have chosen to remember him, and they, as it seems to me, are right. The best of his songs will take rank with the second best in the language.
On the whole, Charles Kingsley was not so much a man of genius as a man of many instincts, many accomplishments, and many capacities. He will always be remembered with respect and admiration; for he was, in John Mills phrase, one of the good influences of his time, and an excellent writer beside.