Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Charles L. Graves
Charles Stuart Calverley (18311884)
[Charles Stuart Calverleythe family had borne the name of Blayds since the beginning of the century, but resumed their old name of Calverley when C. S. C. was one-and-twentywas born in 1831. From Harrow he went with a scholarship to Balliol, and won the University Prize for a Latin poem; but subsequently migrated to Christs College, Cambridge, took a high place in the Classical Tripos, and was elected Fellow of his College. His published works consist of Verses and Translations, Fly Leaves, and two volumes of translations. He was called to the Bar, but while still a young man was incapacitated by a severe skating accident from pursuing his career or engaging in literary work. He died in 1884.]
OF the three beloved Cambridge RhymersCalverley, J. K. Stephen, and A. C. Hiltonwho adorned and enlivened English belles lettres by their wit and humour in the last half of the nineteenth century, Calverley stood first in time, in equipment, and in achievement. We have the testimony of Dr. Butler, who sat next him in the Sixth at Harrow, and of Sir John Seeley, who lived with him on terms of unbroken intimacy at Cambridge, that as a young man he was not widely read and that his stock of acquired knowledge was small. But he seemed to know without reading; he had a wonderful memory, a singularly catholic taste, and an exquisite and severe appreciation of classical form and rhythm. His favourite studies at Harrow were Pickwick and Virgil. But while his knowledge of Dickens was extensive and peculiar, he was equally devoted to Thackeray, who, according to Seeley, was his favourite English author. In style, he was most influenced by Virgil, and probably Milton; but his audacity was always restrained by a perfect taste, and he thus presented the engaging spectacle of a humorist who divorced scholarship from pedantry and combined reverence for formand good formwith complete unconventionality of outlook. He owed little to his forerunners in the genre in which he became famous, but there are many lines in Canning which foreshadow Calverleys peculiar genius for sudden absurdity, notably the couplet:
The feathered tribe with pinions cleave the air;
Not so the mackerel, and still less the bear.
Calverleys fondness for unexpected effects had a physical parallel in his passion as a boy and a young man for taking extraordinary jumps, especially if he did not know where he would alight on the other side of the obstacle. On one memorable occasion, recorded by Dr. Butler, he lit on his head, but was none the worseand one may say the same of most of the violent transitions in his verses. At any rate no one suffered but himself. The perfect good temper that endeared him to his friends never failed him in his most critical moods. If, as it has been said of him, he shows more intellectual affinity to the author of The Rape of the Lock than to the author of The Excursion, he was entirely free from the spiteful venom of Pope. His mockery was never disfigured by malice. He made no enemies even among those of the genus irritabile whom he ridiculed for their morbibity, their obscurity, or their sentimentality. His function was that of a caricaturist rather than that of a satirist, but it was backed by sound criticism and common sense. Sir John Seeley tells us that to him all people were curious and ridiculous, but they were never contemptible.
Of vers de société in the strict sense there is little in the work of Calverley. He was not unsocial, but his Muse had little traffic with Mayfair; he was not a follower of Praed or a rival of Locker. But though his unsophisticated intellect could not put up with rules or the pretty Decalogue of Mode, he was, in spite of a brief period of acute conflict with authority at Oxford, neither a Bohemian nor a rebel. As one of his most intimate friends says, he entered into and enjoyed much of what he ridiculed. He had great gifts but no ambition. It was his love to saunter along the high road of life, an amused onlooker of the follies of mortals, but with a deep reverence, at the back of all his freakishness for all that was honest and lovely and of good report. This underlying seriousness sometimes emerges in his verse, notably in the beautiful concluding stanzas of Dover to Munich, and it is worthy of note that those who knew him best were men of serious aims and high ideals who loved the man even more than they admired his gifts. The secret of his charm is hard to define. The element of surprise was seldom lacking, and surprise is of the essence of recreation. Again, in the words of the Latin epitaph, neminem tristem fecit. He had the joyous intrepidity and the reckless gaiety of boyhood along with the ripe and curious felicity of the trained scholar, the dashing ease of the brilliant amateur, and the calculated elegance of the fastidious artist. These qualities have earned for him an enduring place among writers of humorous verse, apart from the special service which he rendered in the domain of parody. What Jeffrey said, in his review of Rejected Addresses, of the higher functions of literary travesty as revealed by the brothers Smith, applies with even greater force to Calverley. His essays in this genre were few in number but of supreme excellence, for they not only showed an unerring instinct for pillorying mannerisms, but an extraordinary gift of impersonationof assuming the mental habit of the writer. With him parody ceased to be a crude mechanical exercise in verbal substitution, and became a legitimate weapon of criticism, as it has remained ever since in the hands of its best exponents.