ALL the twenty-first century instruments agree that in this cybernetic age that quaint Victorian artefact, that wily old literary bird, the Man of Letters, has virtually joined the inept dodo and misfortunate great auk, along with the woolly mammoth and the muffin-man, in the categories of extinction. No cyberfigure he.
Indeed, it is as long as forty years ago that Evelyn Waugh bore premature witness to the Man of Letters' dignified exodus. Writing, in his unfinished autobiographical fragment, A Little Learning (1964), of his father, Arthur Waugh, he described him as a Man of Letters, belonging to 'a category like the Maiden aunt's, that is now almost extinct'.
But what, it may after so long a lapse of time be reasonably inquired, precisely was a 'Man of Letters'? Originally, the term simply denoted a scholar; then, gradually, it came to be applied to authors in general. In its ultimate, and more restrictive sense, the Man of Letters is to be defined as one who lives and dies by literature-the bearded figure comfortably ensconced at his desk in the bow-window looking out over the lawn and the rhododendrons. The antidote, of course, to the solipsistic gloom of the bookman as prisoner, seated alone at the desk's dead wood is, apart from publication and acclaim, a break away to the company of his like-minded cohort, to secure which there arose such institutions as the informal Rhymers' Club, at Fleet Street's ale and sawdust Cheshire Cheese, and the more formal wining-and-dining calibre clubs, such as the Sette of Odd Volumes, meeting monthly at, usually, Limner's Restaurant.
It was the accepted duty of the Man of Letters to contribute to the cultural atmosphere of his time, to carry a flag. Tragically, he did not nurture a single-stranded interest, but was required to exhibit commitment in more than one area-essays, criticism, reviews, novels, poetry, biographies. And there should be an output, a product, not just self-absorbing and self-absorbent meditation.
Robustness was not an essential ingredient, although the Man of Letters frequently lived to rustication and ripe old age. But there were traps along the way. Solitariness was one; others were angst and alcohol. As he faces his own personal decline, the Man of Letters' worst sorrow is to leave his treasured books; he paces his shelves and says goodbye to his old friends.
The Man of Letters survives today only in pale imitation-in parts of Academia, where, however, specialization has taken away the breadth and depth of the old-time archetype.
A typical example of the classic species was Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), who hailed from my home-town, Liverpool. Originally destined for the world of commerce, he started off apprenticed to accountancy in a dreary 'penitentiary of the mathematics'. Kicking over the clerk's high stool, he nested briefly in a 'Literary Loft', a book and flower filled room which he and his Mildred, the pretty young waitress who had served him at the city cafe where he lunched and whom he was to marry, rented on the top storey of a dingy office pile in the city. Soon he was to move on to London and celebrity, becoming John Lane of the Bodley Head's reader, 'Logroller', book columnist of the Star newspaper, and a literary lion of the metropolis of the Nineties. He became especially famed for the length and luxuriance of his hair, and when he wrote a pamphlet entitled If I Were God by Richard Le Gallienne, a wag riposted, 'If I were Richard Le Gallienne, by God, I'd get my hair cut!'
Mildred died. Richard had not during their two and a half years of married life proved either a faithful or a flawless husband. Widowed, and with a little child, he felt violent pangs of transient remorse, and hymned his dead wife in vintage Nineties poet's minor melody:
She's somewhere in the sunlight strong, Her tears are in the failing rain, She calls me in the wind's soft song, And with the flowers she comes again. Yon bird is but her messenger, The moon is but her silver car; Yea! sun and moon are sent by her, And every wistful waiting star.
Richard was to marry twice more, but his continual drinking and womanising turned his personal life into a shambles. Even so, he somehow contrived to publish forty-odd volumes of poems, essays, criticism, and novels.
In 1901, he paid an extended visit to the New World, which drew the following tongue-in-cheek lament from Max Beerbohm:
O witched by American bars, Pan whistles you home on his pipes. We love you for loving the stars, But what can you see in the stripes?
In 1902, Richard returned to America. He was never to live in England again. For the next forty-five twilit years of eclipse, he was to carry on, a true Man of Letters, indomitably writing--in Nassau, Paris, and Menton. It was there, during the Second World War, that he and his third wife, both now old and frail and frequently hungry, were offered tempting easements if he would only agree to broadcast for the Germans. Though exiled for nearly half a century, he steadfastly refused. He died aged eighty-one and was buried close by Aubrey Beardsley in the beautiful hill-top cemetery at Menton.
The moral of this story is that the Man of Letters does not satisfactorily transplant to alien literary climes, and that it were healthier for him to eschew a life of nomadic adventurings. There were, of course, exceptions--such as Robert Louis Stevenson--but, in general terms, the original quiet study which saw the first flowering of success seems to have preserved a prosperous concentration. Minds which wander are not the same as minds that are far ranging.
Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, Liverpool has in fact proved to be the native heath of a number of Men of Letters. Richard Le Gallienne, William Watson, Hall Caine, and William Tirebuck were among the aspirant literary lion cubs nurtured by James Ashcroft Noble (1845-1896), the Maecenas of Merseyside. Himself a Man of Letters to his ink-stained finger-tips, he edited the short-lived Liverpool Argus, contributed mightily to the leading literary reviews of the day, and wrote three books, the best known of which was The Sonnet in England (1893). By 1892 he had quit Liverpool for London, and it was there that he met and encouraged the 16-year-old Edward Thomas, who would subsequently marry his daughter, Helen. Ailing for some time, Noble died, aged only fifty-one. But he is best remembered enjoying the Man of Letters' life in the book-lined back room at the end of the passage--his study--overlooking the tiny flower-filled garden of his Wandsworth villa, sitting smoking Three Castles cigarettes and sipping all day from his vital supporting tumbler of weak whisky and water, covering sheet after sheet with his small, thick handwriting, or lying on the sofa by the window reading the latest book for review.
Noble's protege, William Watson (1858-1935), was to achieve considerable contemporary success as a poet. As a man, however, he was markedly less admirable. He proved a selfish, egocentric, ungrateful, and treacherous recipient of Noble's many kindnesses. He was a lifelong unconscionable womaniser, and it was his heartless treatment of the daughter of Noble's friend, Alexander Ireland--he of The Book-Lover's Enchiridion--that led to the final unhealed breach between them. Throughout his life Watson's conduct was unpleasant and churlish. He has been described as 'a somewhat odious character' and a 'derivative, verbose, post-Tennysonian, poet on the make', for whom Lachrymae musarum could well be left unshed. It was his really dreadful verse-and-worse sycophancy to Lloyd George that won him his knighthood. A Man of Letters? Well ... yes, but more aptly, a man of French letters, for, ever hopeful, he carried a bag of them with him in his luggage wherever he went.
An altogether more congenial son of Liverpool, who became a Man of Letters almost by accident, was Augustine Birrell (1850-1933). His father, a Baptist minister, had left Kirkcaldy and settled in the city on the Mersey. Young Birrell had from his earliest years been a keen collector of books. Beginning his working life as an articled clerk in a solicitor's office, the windfall of an unexpected legacy made it possible for him to go up to Cambridge, where he read for the Bar. He was one of the Sons of Ishmael, a small debating society, the members of which suddenly decided that it would be good fun to bring out between them a book of essays. But when it came to the crunch, one by one the proposed contributors withdrew. Undeterred, Birrell decided to go it alone, wrote the entire book himself, titled it with judicial flavour Obiter Dicta, and paid for 250 copies to be printed. It proved a runaway success, rapidly going through half-a-dozen impressions. A second collection of lightweight essays, again legalistically styled, Res Judicatae, appeared in 1892, and was in due season followed by studies in the English Men of Letters series of William Hazlitt and Andrew Marvell.
Taken as a whole, the criticism produced by the Men of Letters throughout the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century was dauntingly didactic. By the dawn of the 1880s, however, the literary climate was becoming set far fairer, and the persuasive voice of the belle-lettrist was heard in the land. The germinated seeds of the Education Acts of the 1870s were upshooting to soften the harsher crags of life, and popular newspapers and magazines catering for the newly-developing reading public were proliferating towards the approaching time of their full efflorescence.
Outstanding among the new breed of critics called forth by changed circumstance was Andrew Lang (1844-1912). He was in effect a don--Fellow of Merton--turned journalist. 'Dear Andrew of the brindled hair', R.L.S. called him, and he disguised behind a pose of droopy, aristocratic, unruffled and unrufflable calm, and languid drawling voice, a capacity for work that was truly prodigious. He was, moreover, renowned for the speed with which he could dash off an article in a railway compartment, a cricket pavilion, or in whatever place he could snatch a few minutes. Where critics of the older school would bring forth laborious lay sermons, he would trot out a diverting confection of a causerie. And, in addition to a formidable stack of articles and critiques, he kept up a steady stream of more solid productions--a rainbow of volumes of fairy-tales, biographies, novels, collections of essays, and poetry. He made significant contributions to the study of anthropology, the influence of which can be seen in Freud's Totem and Taboo, wrote about ghosts and dreams, and was a distinguished translator from the Greek, most particularly of Homer.
Reversing the Langian scenario, George Saintsbury (1845-1933) was a journalist who became a don, ascending from Fleet Street to the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. So it was that, after spending 27 years practising freelance journalism in London, he moved, in 1890, north of the Border, to spend the next 25 years as a highly respected professor. He was a Man of Letters of the heavier type, bringing forth a large number of serious works, surveying and criticising various tracts and epochs of English and French literature. A haunter of bookshops since his childhood, spent north and west of Kensington Gardens, he was a dyed in the wool bookman, and was perhaps the last Man of Letters to have read 'everything'. His learning was as vast as was his obstinacy immense in the matter of accepting change. It may well be that the face-burning memory of his Second in Greats pricked him on throughout the barren strength of post-Oxford years, spent as a reluctant schoolmaster, to a prodigious programme of reading, directed towards the beating of the literary scholars at their own game. In 1915, at the age of seventy, he resigned, made the supreme sacrifice of selling his library and wine cellar--in a bad market--came south again, and moved into a set of rooms in the Royal Crescent at Bath, where he could be occasionally glimpsed through the window, a strange antediluvian figure with black skull-cap and patriarchal beard, as he sat there 'housebound but reading and writing insatiably while his sight permitted'. It was in these final vintage days that be attained with his Cellarbook a far wider than purely literary reputation and, indeed, had a vinous connoisseurs' club named after him.
One of the new magazines designed to cater for the increased appetite for knowledge consequent upon the implementing of the Education Acts was the founding in 1886 of the British Weekly, a powerful Nonconformist organ edited by William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1933), a Free Church minister from Aberdeen turned professional Man of Letters. And very successful he was, too, self-satisfiedly seeing himself as in the direct Dissenting line of the Reverend George Gilfillan (1813-1878), pontificating weekly in the persona of Claudius Clear on the merits and demerits of the latest wares on the book market, serving up nourishing bowls of thick Kailyard soup sentimentality, as surely behoved one who was the friend and biographer of Ian MacLaren, the perpetrator of the best-selling novel Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush. Nicoll was simultaneously the editor of the extremely successful popular literary monthly the Bookman. Founded in October, 1891, it survived for 43 years, until December, 1934. In 1889, Nicoll established himself at Bay Tree Lodge, Hampstead, where, in some considerable comfort, he flourished! There is preserved a delightful vignette of the Bookman of Letters in his library of some 25,000 volumes, occupying the upper storey which he had built on to the wing of his splendiferous Frognal mansion. Visualise a long vista of crowded bookcases projecting on to a floor also piled high with heaps of books, magazines, and newspapers. Between these, a narrow, winding rivulet-track of rugs leads up to the armchair of the happy bibliophile, who is to be seen dimly manifest amid clouds of tobacco smoke by the fireside. In this sanctuary he is to be found, his punishing day's tally of work completed, sitting content, smoking endless pipes and gossiping with bookish friends the moon down the sky. He also received a knighthood through his friend, Lloyd George. Here in his Hampstead haven, at a full life's end, he died in 1923, his seventy-second year, whispering to one of his nurses, 'I believe everything that I have written about immortality'.
Surely the most significant Man of Letters to emerge from the ranks of what is generally regarded as the lesser fin-de-siecle crowd was Arthur Symons (1865-1945), whose pioneering, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) was to prove seminal, introducing French Symbolisme to English literary culture, and, incidentally, introducing also the poetry of Laforgue to T.S. Eliot, which, he was later to confess, 'affected the course of my life'.
The son of a West country Wesleyan Methodist minister, Symons was a precocious youth, self-educated in English and French literature, who, joining the newly-founded Browning Society in 1881, when he was sixteen, came to the attention of the Society's co-founder, Dr. Frederick James Furnivall, who invited him to write Introductions to Venus and Adonis, and other works for the Shakespeare Quartos Facsimiles series, which he was then in process of editing. So impressed was Furnivall that he suggested to Symons that he should write a primer on Browning. An Introduction to the Study of Browning, Symons' first book, was duly published in 1886. Its author was just twenty-one. He was to become the complete Man of Letters--poet, critic of the seven arts, editor, essayist, translator, short story and travel writer, and Herrick of the music-halls. Unlike so many of his contemporaries--Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson--Symons did not die young, but he suffered a life-dimming tragedy--the Man of Letters gone to madness. It came upon him in Italy, in the city of Venice, where, in September 1908, he and his wife, Rhoda, were staying at a Palazzo that gave on to the Grand Canal. For some weeks presignatory intimations of insanity had been whispering in his ear and distorting his conceptions of his visions and envisionings. He heard, too, amplified by his mania, the awful sounds of the lunatics in the asylum on the island of St. Clemente. On September 26th, a Saturday, what he described as 'the thunderbolt from hell' fell on him. Leaving Rhoda behind in Venice, he journeyed alone to Bologna, where he took a room for himself at the Grand Hotel Brun. And there the shrieking wind of madness suddenly rose to smite him with all-piercing force. Staggering through the alien streets, he lost all consciousness of himself in a vortex, a whirling maelstrom, of hideous and terrifying hallucinatory images and imaginings. Rhoda arrived. He raved and raged and cursed, and, refusing to return with her to London, sped off, alone again, to Ferrara. It was in a cafe there that, mistaken by two Bersiglieri for a crazed vagrant, he was carried off to Ferrara's ducal Palazzo Vecchio, thrown into a dungeon cell, where, manacled hand and foot, he was left, with neither food nor drink, in darkness and in terror, to struggle with the grimacing faces of his clamouring hallucinations. Rescued through the good offices of the Italian Ambassador, he was returned safely to England, where he was certified insane, and spent long months in Brooke House, an asylum in Upper Clapton Road. But the gods relented. In April 1910, Symons, more or less restored, and, having been wrongly diagnosed at the National Hospital, Queen Square, rejoined his wife at Island Cottage, their country home at Wittersham, in Kent. One of the last photographs of him shows him in his seventeenth-century timbered cottage, resting on a sofa beside the massive open fire chimney corner. Inevitable book in hand, he somehow seems the template of all Men of Letters rolled into one; a Bookman still obstinately reading on the edge of eternity. He was to live on there for another 36 years, outliving Rhoda by eight years. Like many another Man of Letters, the fret and fume of his days in literary London left far behind him, he spent his last years in the wood-smoke calm of a green corner of the English countryside, and found his final bed in the cool, evening shadow of a quiet country churchyard.…