THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK SOCIETY

various authors on T. L. Peacock

Biographical and Critical Excerpts


THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK is not, and never was, a popular author. He is for the scholar, the man of leisure, and the literary antiquarian, an abiding source of delight. He is not a professional novelist who sets out to tell a story and hurries along to get it told, but a leisured person, full of good sense and humour of a satirical kind, who adopts a mildly fictional form to discourse his opinions upon things like art, literature, politics, and wine. Peacock was born at Weymouth in 1785, and was educated at a private school. he often gibes at the Universities, but he acquired by his own energies an extraordinary wealth of knowledge in the literature of all countries. He had already written poetry, but was nearly thirty before he began to write his "novels." His first important novel, Headlong Hall, was written in 1816, and Nightmare Abbey in 1818. In the following year, on the strength of his literary talents, the Directors of the East India Company gave him a post worth at first 800 a year, and afterwards more than 2,500, with a pension. Strange as this appointment may seem, it was amply justified, for Peacock was the man who started a steam service to India, and his work in his office was long and faithful. In 1822 he wrote Maid Marian, a cynical story of Robin Hood's day. Seven years later The Misfortunes of Elphin (probably his best work) dealt with the Arthurian legends in an unconventional spirit. Crotchet Castle was written in 1831, and finally, after an interval of thirty years, Gryll Grange. He lived a retired life, among his friends being Lord Broughton, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt. Shelley is said to be the original of the character of Scythrop in Nightmare Abbey. Peacock is essentially a satirist, and the favourite objects of his satire were the Radical notions of his day, especially such politicians as Lord Brougham and Lord John Russel. The "Lake poets" come in for their share of ridicule. Some of Peacock's songs, scattered up and down his novels, such as the drinking songs in Elphin, Love and Age in Gryll Grange, the Massacre of Macpherson, and the War Song of Dinas Vawr, are unrivalled for vigour and point.
---from The Wordsworth Epoch [volume viii in Epochs of English Literature] by J. C. Stobart, London. (1907), pp. 25-26.
[In the same volume, Stobart stated: "Shelley is the greatest lyric poet that the world has ever seen." (ibid., p. 19)]



PEACOCK, Thomas Love (1785-1866), satirist, essayist, and poet, the son of a London glass merchant, though brought up by his mother. He inherited private means just sufficient to enable him to live as a man of letters. He had published two volumes of verse when, in 1812, he met [P.B.] Shelley, whose close friend he afterwards remained. Peacock's prose satires, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817), and Nightmare Abbey (1818), survey the contemporary political and cultural scene from a radical viewpoint. Formally they owe most to two classical genres: the 'Anatomy', or miscellaneous prose satire, and the Socratic dialogue, especially perhaps Plato's Symposium which, like many of Peacock's convivial arguments, takes place over a dinner table. The satiric debate is diversified by a romantic love-plot, increasingly important in Crotchet Castle (1831) and Gryll Grange (l860-1), and by amusing, clever songs. Peacock's fictional world is an exceptionally pleasant one, for he assembles his characters in English country houses, and sends them on excursions into mountain and forest scenery. In Maid Marian (1822) and The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829) he varies his format by employing a historical setting, 12th-cent. England and 6th-cent. Wales, but the topical satirical reference remains unmistakable. Peacock's early volumes of poetry are of antiquarian interest, but Rhododaphne (1818) is a fine and historically important poem, in the mythological manner of Keats's 'Lamia'; Peacock also wrote some touching lyrics, especially 'Long Night Succeeds Thy Little Day' (1826) and 'Newark Abbey' (1842). Of his satirical poems and squibs, The Paper Money Lyrics (1837) lampoon the dogmas of political economists and the malpractices of bankers. Peacock's sceptical attitude to the fashionable cult of the arts is apparent in his two most sustained critical essays, 'Essay on Fashionable Literature' (a fragment, written 1818) and 'The Four Ages of Poetry' (1820) . . .
---from The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford. (2000), pp 773-74. [All Peacock's novels, as well as "The Four Ages of Poetry," The Paper Money Lyrics and Rhododaphne, are featured in separate entries in this excellent reference book.]



PEACOCK's character is well delineated in few words by Sir Edward Strachey: 'A kindhearted, genial, friendly man, who loved to share his enjoyment of life with all around him, and self-indulgent without being selfish.' He is a rare instance of a man improved by prosperity; an element of pedantry and illiberality in his earlier writings gradually disappears in genial sunshine, although, with the advance of age, obstinate prejudice takes its place, good humoured, but unamenable to argument. The vigour of his mind is abundantly proved by his successful transaction of the uncongenial commercial and financial business of the East India Company; and his novels, their quaint prejudices apart, are almost as remarkable for their good sense as for their wit. But for this penetrating sagacity, constantly brought to bear upon the affairs of life, they would seem mere humorous extravaganzas, being farcical rather than comic, and almost entirely devoid of plot and character. They overflow with merriment from end to end, though the humour is frequently too recondite to be generally appreciated, and their style is perfect. They owe much of their charm to the simple and melodious lyrics with which they are interspersed, a striking contrast to the frigid artificiality of Peacock's more ambitious attempts in poetry. . . .
---from Richard Garnett's entry for Peacock in The Dictionary of National Biography edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Oxford. (1937-38), vol. xv, p. 591.



AN IRONIST necessarily pays a toll; if he flatters some readers, he excludes other from his point of view. Swift won royal dismay rather than the anticipated praise for his Tale of a Tub, and Peacock too has been misunderstood, sometimes by those who prided themselves on knowing him best, Even Shelley, long familiar with his work, completely mistook the import of 'The Four Ages of Poetry'. At other times, Shelley did understand Peacock's satire, and he enjoyed it too. His occasional bafflement, his delight in and distrust of Peacock's irony typifies the response of Peacock's contemporaries to his work. Some applauded his tolerance and wit. Some shouted in horror about his iconoclasm. But for the most part Peacock amused and was tolerated. He was, as he remained, a favourite with many without being widely read.
---from Thomas Love Peacock by Carl Dawson, London. (1968), pp. 13-14.



TEMPORALLY, at least, Peacock is a link between our own age and the Age of Reason. He lived through the French Revolution and the Great Exhibition; he could have read his first book to Nelson and his last to Bernard Shaw; Dr. Johnson died a year before his birth, and Yeats was born a year before his death. He both preceded and survived Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Macauley; he was contemporary both with Rowlandson and with Landseer. In spite of the immense changes through which he lived, Peacock did not mould himself to the fashions and fancies of each generation, and remained, until his death in the middle of the nineteenth century, a perfect example of the eighteenth century man. But if he was unadaptable he was also highly observant, and from the his standpoint of good-humoured cynicism, self-conscious malice, and urbane if slightly crotchety rationality could let fly at a greater diversity of targets than falls to the lot of most satirical writers. He knew and criticized three ages---the rational-epicurean, the romantic, and the Victorian. Is it any wonder that he is among the greatest of English satirists? . . .
  It is not easy to assess Peacock's place in literature, since his peculiar and distinctive flavour repels some as strongly as it attracts others, while the lamentable clumsiness of which he is occasionally guilty is not easily forgiven by those who do not appreciate his felicities. His faults are serious and persistent. His irrational prejudices, though few in number, recur with irritating frequency, and his favourite dummies---Scotchmen, Lake poets, paper currency---are set up and pelted down with tiresome regularity. Peacock suffered from the serious disability of understanding only what was of interest to him, yet in his endeavours to be intellectually catholic, he could not refrain from thrusting into all his novels lifeless personifications of views he found boring or ridiculous. Science was one of his blindest spots, and his scientists, from Mr. Asterias and his mermaids in Nightmare Abbey to Dr. Morbific and Mr. Henbane in Crotchet Castle, are invariably colourless and unconvincing. In the latter novel Peacock himself seems to have realised this, for he kills of Henbane and Morbific before the grand finale.
  If these are recurrent vices of the novels, there are also recurrent and (if one can use such an adjective in this connection) unnecessary virtues. In his volumes of verse Peacock shows no more than mediocre ability, yet included in his novels are some of the finest choruses and drinking songs in the language. The great Headlong-ap-Headlong chorus in Headlong Hall and the "If I drink water while this doth last" of Crotchet Castle are superb examples of a now vanished form, while Mr. Cypress's song in Nightmare Abbey is as Byronic, in the best sense, as anything Byron himself ever wrote. Peacock also displays a gift of natural description that is perhaps a little unexpected in a writer of his genius, and his talents in this direction, though seldom exerted, have been compared, not unfavourably, with Scott's.
  Peacock's importance rests not upon such incidental merits, but upon the character of his work as a whole. He is the first novelist to write purely for an intelligent, highly educated public who would be expected to find amusement in mental rather than physical or emotional contortions. Previously, the writer of fiction had always endeavoured to make ideas more palatable by the introduction of extraneous circumstances, and so typically a Peacock character as Dr. Pangloss [in Voltaire's Candide] required the Lisbon earthquake to illustrate opinions that Dr. Folliott would have expounded over the dinner table. With the possible exception of Aldous Huxley, who adopts strikingly similar methods, no modern writer seems directly influenced by Peacock, but the precedents he introduced have undoubtedly broadened the scope of the novel in general. It would be foolish to claim any absolute greatness for him: it is enough to admit that he is supreme in his own field and that he has exerted a persuasive and valuable influence on many of his most distinguished successors. . . .
  Peacock was in perpetual opposition to popular ideas, and his novels are the best literary presentation of critical, witty, destructive talk against the theories of a fashionable intelligentsia. In the climate of his world sense and sensibility predominate, and if soul and sensuality are absent there are adequate compensations. The novels appeal to the curious, humorous, cynical mind, and for that reason are sure of a certain immortality. At their best, and often at their worst, they reflect the personality of their author, and with all their faults are never cheap or commonplace. For Peacock, in his own crabbed way, was an admirable specimen of the civilized man.
---from the introduction by John Mair to Three Novels [Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, Crotchet Castle] by Thomas Love Peacock, Edinburgh. (1940), pp. vii, xi-xii



THE INTERPRETATION of Peacock's character, which is reflected so strongly in all his writings, is a facinating study in the evaluation of evidence, and certainly calls for the careful balancing of 'opposite and discordant qualities'. Richard Garnett, his principal Victorian biographer, writes of him resectfully as 'a kind-hearted, genial, friendly man who loved to share his enjoyment of life with all around him, and self-indulgent without being selfish'. On the other hand, J. J. Mayoux, one of Peacock's shrewdest critics, wrote in 1933: ['Peacock's soul was lukewarm: he was no more incapable of beliefs and opinions, and generous ones at that, than the general run of mankind; but he never felt himself attached to his opinions, either by a strong personal feeling, or by any moral sense.' from Un Epicurien anglais---translation from Author's footnote] And our conclusion is likely to be that, in spite of his obvious intellectual gifts, his penetrating analysis, and his powerful pen, there was an important deficiency in his make-up: in spite of the place that love occupies in his novels (and his poems) there was an absence of essential warmth in his temperament, and in spite of his many denunciations of human follies, he lacked the important element of moral seriousness. A we fit the pieces of the pattern together, noticing the early precocity, the obtrusive pedantry, the cutting facility with words which sometimes becomes an insipid facetiousness, the lifelong mother-dependence, the idealized romantic situations (both in his life and in his works), the proposal at a distance of eight years, the almost pathological concern with food---all suggest a somewhat self-centred and restricted personality, which has some parallels with other English satirists such as Swift, Wilde, and Shaw. [Each one of whom was Irish.] There are times when he very nearly convinces us that his 'reasonable', moderate characters, such as Mr. Forester, Dr. Folliott, or Mr. Hilary, represent the essential Peacock, concerned---

To reconcile man as he is to the world as it is, topreserve and improve all that is good, and destroy or alleviate all that is evil, in physical and moral nature.

But too often this impression fades as one feels how Peacock's own attitude is ultimately represented by Squire Headlong or Ebenezer Mac Crotchet, collectors and purveyors of ideas rather than searchers for truth. The fragment of a Dialogue on Friendship after Marriage, of 1859, aptly states this basic playfulness:

Amaryllis has been to Rome where she has found a fashionable amusement which they call controversies. A question is proposed, and there is a trial of skill as to what can be said on both sides.

Thus, a course of reading in Peacock can be very highly entertaining, very valuable as a training of the intellect, as a warning against extremes of doctrine or of sentiment, as an insight into a vast range of moral and intellectual aberrations, but we are defeated if we attempt to discover any kind of central wisdom. His deep-rooted inability to be fair to Wordsworth's best poetry seems a further illustration ofthis point. From the works of Shakespeare, it is possible (in Doctor Johnson's phrase) 'to collect a system of civil and economic prudence', but we cannot find out inthe end what Peacock felt to be supremely important. The Aristotelian doctrine of the mean between extremes is fairly clearly implicit in his presentation of opposites, but it is never embodied with any lasting conviction, and while we may receive numerous intimations about the gustations of life, there is little that points towards the need for a co-ordinating philosophy: little that truly informs and educates our feelings. In the tradition of a different kind of discourse, we can say that Peacock is essentially deficient in a 'religious' sense. The conflicts in his novels end, not in a final clarification and reconciliation, but in a drinking song, a feast, a fashionable marriage.
---from A Peacock Selection edited by H. L. B. Moody, London. (1966) pp. xvii-xviii



ANY EXPLANATION of [Peacock] that fails to remark the baffled idealist will be inadequate. Thus, Lord Houghton's view of him as an eighteeth-century man cast up into the nineteeth century will not do; it misses what is essential in Peacock. He has nothing of that rather solemn rationality and that love of over-simplified first principles which are characteristic of that earlier century, and he has a romantic gusto and a kind of intellectual high spirits which are equally uncharacteristic of that century. We do not fare better if, following other critics, we regard him merely as a man of letters who happened to be a man of the eworld or, if you will, the spokesman of plain common sense. That he was a man of the world and had abundant common sense is evident from his life, but it is much less evident from his literature, so whimsical and crotchety itself, so brimmed with queer high spirits, that men of the world have passed it by and plain common sense has merely stared in bewilderment. It was precisely when he sat down to write, and assembled in his Nightmare Abbeys and Crotchet Castles the fantastic creatures and odd notions in which he delighted, that Peacock ceased to be simply a man of the world, that e gave common sense a holiday. Oytherwise he would never have bothered his head about such people and such notions. Such a person as some of his critics have sketched for us would never have produced---for his own good pleasure,too, it must be remembered---fiction of su unusual and whimsical a character. It is Peacock's peculiar relation to ideas, loving them and yet not being able to accept them, it is his attitude towards the enthusiastic theorist and the crank, to whom he is always attracted but whom he can never join, it is the baffled idealist in him, taking refuge in laughter, that explain why his fiction takes such a form and why his satire and humour have this distinctive character.
  When we talk of him 'taking refuge in laughter', however, we are referring to his mind's secret motives, its inmost springs. We do not mean to imply that there was any sense of strain, that his laughter was forced, that he deliberately, knowingly, turned satirist to protect himself, as so many rather proud, timid and self-conscious persons frequently do. After all, Peacock enjoyed laughing. He had wit and delighted in exercising it. Wit, satire, irony, were his diversions. These are obvious facts and yet they are very frequently overlooked. Peacock himself overlooked them when he came to discuss the subject of comic fiction. Like more than one comic writer before him, he makes the mistake of ignoring the play element in comic writing and of over-emphasising the serious reformatory purpose of its authors, so that we are left to suppose that every time a comic writer sketches a droll scene he sees himself castigating folly and remedying social abuses. This is, of course, to take far too utilitarian a view of Comedy, and to mistake the character of its authors, whose real motives cannot be found on this level of social reform. The comic writer casts about and finds a number of targets so that he can exercise his wit and create laughter, and it is only afterwards that he discovers that these targets of folly were really a public danger and that he himself was inspired at the time by a serious reformatory purpose, that he does not enjoy and welcome folly but only wishes to banish it from the world. In reality, he laughs at the world, just as the romantic poet cries out in wonder or despair at it, for his own good pleasure, instinctively expressing himself in this way. What we should ask about him is not what purpose he had in mind but why his pleasure should take this form, how he comes to find in wit and laughter his characteristic means of expression. In examining Peacock's character, we have tried to answer these questions. He himself must have known in his heart of hearts that his view of comic writing was a partial one and did not really cover his own practice. There is more of himself in that speech of the friar's in Maid Marian:

The world is a stage, and life is a farce, and he that laughs most has most profit of the performance. The worst thing is good enough to be laughed at, though it be good for nothing else; and the best thing, though it be good for something else, is good for nothing better.

There speaks the humorist. Ironically enough, many of Peacock's critics have fallen into the same error in their treatment of him, and have exalted the satirist with a serious purpose at the expense of the genuine humorist in him, though it is the humorist that has kept him alive.
  There is a valuable reference to Peacock in Shelley's Letter to Maria Gisborne. It concludes:
                   . . . His fine wit
    Makes such a wound, the knife is lost in it;
    A strain too learned for a shallow age,
    Too wise for selfish bigots; let his page
    Which charms the chosen spirits of his time,
    Fold itself up for a serener clime
    Of years to come, and find its recompense
    In that just expectation.

The first phrase is very significant. This widening of the wound until the knife itself is lost in it marks the transition from the satirist to the humorist. The peculiar character of Peacock's wit does not allow him to remain a satirist, making a neat incision with the knife of purposeful and reformatory satire, but turns him into a humorist, who no longer seeks to mend the world but simply laughs at its incongruities. It is here that he parts company with Shelley, who wanted his friend to use his wit for the purpose of reforming the world and delighted in the most polemical chapters of Melincourt. But Shelley, in one of those intuitive flashes of critical genius that mark that poem of his, recognises this progression of Peacock's. Whenever the satirist in Peacock is closely examined, as we saw when we considerd his political satire, he is discovered merging into the humorist. The satire is so frequently double-edged that it loses all polemical force and is seen to be absolute humour of a dry and sardonic character: the knife is lost in the wound. ---from Thomas Love Peacock by J. B. Priestley, London. (1966), pp. 198-201.



THE FIRST of the novelists [of the Romantic era] worth considering is Peacock, who is, indeed, nine-tenths pure humour. He is frequently described as a satirist, but his gives a wrong idea of both his aims and achievements. All his strange tales contain satire---one of them, the weakest, Melincourt, contains a great deal---but he had really no object in writing them than to laugh at the world. He was not a reformer, or a moralist, or even a cynic, though there is a kind of ripe disillusionment behind his bland irony. What makes him a unique figure is that he is a humorist who chooses to play with ideas and with hardly anything else. He brings fun into the high and dry atmosphere of exposition and debate. His favourite butts are philosophical enthusiasts, especially those who believe that one thing alone will save the world. He fastens upon the cranks. And yet it cannot be said that he makes himself the spokesman of common sense, of the common man, for obviously he likes ideas and philosophical enthusiasts, and even cranks, so long as they are genial cranks. His novels create a little world of their own, in which nobody does anything but eat and drink and talk and occasionally travel and make love. Talk is the action in these novels. We spend most of our time in them sitting round a well-stocked table, listening to rather absurd and unlikely people arguing with tremendous gusto. They never convince one another, these people of his, but they talk away, pass the bottle, sing a song or two, and are as happy as any people we ever met in or out of fiction. All this is amusing enough, but Peacock would not occupy this position he does if it were not for his superb style, which is precise and finely tuned and yet saturated with wit and humour. To begin quoting from such delightful things as Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle, his two best novels, of talk, would be fatal, for we should have to go on throughout the rest of the chapter; but we can spare a little space for a passage or two from The Misfortunes of Elphin, which is his best tale---a little masterpiece of genial irony---and is singularly undervalued. It is there we meet Prince Seithenyn, the best comic toper outside Shakespeare, and a master of strangely fuddled logic. What an astonishing speech is that in which he defends his policy of doing nothing to the embankment in his charge! He admits that it is decayed, but remains unruffled:

Decay is one thing, and danger is another. Everything that is old must decay. That the embankment is old, I am free to confess; that it is somewhat rotten in parts, I will not altogether deny; that it is any the worse for that, I do most sturdily gainsay. It does its business well; it works well; it keeps out the water from the land; and it lets in the wine upon the High Commissioner of Embankment. Cupbearer, fill. Our ancestors were wiser than we: they built in their wisdom: and, if we should be so rash as to try to mend it, we should only mar it. . . .

  That some parts of it are rotten does not trouble him at all; he has his exquisite reasons:

But I say, the parts that are rotten give elasticity to those that are sound: they give their elasticity, elasticity, elasticity. If it were all sound, it would break by its own obstinate stiffness: the soundness is checked by the rottenness, and the stiffness is balanced by the elasticity.

  And what a reeling ripe logic there is in his denial of his own death, when he turns up again after being missing for twenty years:

"Sethenyn," said Taliesin, "has slept twenty years under the waters of the western sea, as King Gwythno's Lamentations have made known to all Britain."
"They have not made it known to me," said Seithenyn, "for the best of all reasons, that one can only know the truth: for, if that which we think we know is not truth, it is something we do not know. A man cannot know his own death; for, while he knows anything, he is alive; at least, I never heard of a dead man who knew anything, or pretended to know anything; if he had so pretended, I should have told him to his face he was no dead man. . . ."

  This does not give any idea of Peacock in his favourite part, as the comedian of ideas, or "the laughing philosopher," but it is a good specimen of his original and altogether delightful humour. That humour finds its way into verse as well as prose, as the various songs in the novel testify. There is nothing better of its kind in English than the War Song of Dinas Vawr [. . .]
Peacock's best work is now a century old, yet his reputation is steadily growing. His sophisticated ironic humour---like dry old sherry---will never be to everybody's taste, but more and more readers are discovering in this relatively obscure eccentirc author a genuine, a unique humorist.
---from English Humour by J. B. Priestley, London. (1929), pp. 87-90



THE VARIOUS surprises which Peacock sprang on Shelley after his departure to Italy did not impair their friendship, even if what Shelley wrote to Peacock and what he wrote to other people were sometimes at variance. As we have seen, he wrote to congratulate Peacock on his marriage; but soon afterwards he wrote to Maria Gisborne:

                    And there
    Is English Peacock, with his Mountain Fair
    Turned into a Flamingo;---that shy bird
    That gleams i' the Indian air---have you not heard
    When a man marries, dies, or turns Hindoo,
    His best friends hear no more of him?---but you
    Will see him, and will like him too, I hope,
    With the milk-white Snowdonian Antelope
    Matched with this camelopard. His fine wit. . .

Maria Gisborne had, with her husband, recently come to London, having met the Shelleys in Italy. The introduction to Peacock effected by Shelley was similarly ambivalent. He wrote telling Peacock that Gisborne was a bore; and Maria Gisborne wrote to Mary Shelley saying that the Peacocks had not yet approached them, and that, in view of what Mary had said, perhaps it was just as well. When the meeting did occur, it was a suucess, and Mrs Gisborne wrote to Mary Shelley to say that it was one of the pleasantest evenings they had spent since they had arrived.
---from Thomas Love Peacock by Felix Felton, London. (1972), p. 178



PEACOCK'S was not a powerful mind, but it was a mind existing in admirable balance, and one capable of forming, and rendering persuasive, equitable views. Shelley's matrimonial vagaries constituted a worthy testing-ground here. Peacock saw and asserted the merits as well as the limitations of Harriet Shelley; despite much provocation, he maintained an equally fair view of Harriet's more intellectual if less attractive supplanter, Mary Godwin. He enters the Shelley period as something of a dilettante poetaster. He emerges from it as a man of integrity and judgement, and also as a man of affairs. When Shelley left for Italy in 1818, Peacock---who was never to see him again---transacted his London business. When Shelley was drowned in 1822, Peacock and Lord Byron became his joint executors. [Not so--see below.]
---from Thomas Love Peacock by J. I. M. Stewart, London. (1963), pp. 8-9



AS SOLE executor (Byron had excused himself from the legacy) [Peacock] now set about trying to extract some money from Sir Timothy [Shelley] on behalf of Mary [Shelley] and her infant son. It was like getting blood out of a stone. Sir Timothy's limit was 100 a year, but his lawyer, William Whitton, as helpful as he could be in his position, explored the possibilities of a reversion. Mary had no patience with these delicate negotiations. 'Is not Peacock very lukewarm and insensible in this affair?' she asked Maria Gisborne in a letter of 17 September. William Godwin, asked the same question, replied that Peacock was not lukewarm but assiduous. Then Mary, though well aware of Sir Timothy's aversion to seeing anything of Shelley's or hers in print, tried to raise money by getting John Hunt to print Shelley's Posthumous Poems with a preface of her own. Peacock, who had known nothing about it till he heard from Whitton, when 300 copies had already been sold, managed to get the rest withdrawn. He also prevented the publication of a companion volume of prose.
  In 1825 Sir Timothy agreed to a further 100, but when, in the following year, Mary again rushed into print with her novel, The Last Man, by the author of 'Frankenstein', he sent 50 with a curt statement that no more was to be expected. After the death of Charles, Shelley's son by Harriet, Sir Timothy would still have nothing to do with Mary, but was persuaded to see her son, who was now the heir, in the presence of a solicitor, and agreement was finally fixed for an allowance of 250 per annum. As the Halliford editors remark, few executors have earned their legacy so well.
---from Felix Felton, op. cit., p. 181



IN THE AUTUMN of 1812 Peacock first met Shelley in London, no doubt through Hookham, who was Shelley's bookseller. Shelley was just twenty. The two men had in common an enthusiasm for literature, particularly for Greek literature. Equally important, they were poets. But whereas Shelley was a great poet, Peacock was a minor one. Fortunately, however, Shelley admired Peacock's poems.
  Peacock did not share many of Shelley's enthusiasms, and the reason why his friends and hangers-on called Peacock a "cold man" was that he thought they were ridiculous.
  Peacock did not however think Harriet was silly; he liked her and remained her friend, speaking up for her during her life and long after her death.
  Harriet, though she was deeply in love with Shelley, was beginning to tire of his vagaries and to long for a more conventional existence, which her hateful sister urged her to demand. When Peacock went to stay with the Shelleys at Bracknell it was natural that Harriet should feel he was on her side. For at Bracknell Shelley was surrounded by sentimentalists, who shared his views on religion and politics but, as Peacock says of them:
  "Every one of them adopting some of the articles of the faith of their general church, had each nevertheless, some predominant crotchet of his or her own which left a number of open questions for earnest and not always temperate discussion. I was sometimes irreverent enough to laugh at the fervour with which opinions, utterly unconducive to any practical result, were battled for as matters of the highest importance to the well-being of mankind: Harriet Shelley was always ready to laugh with me, and we therefore lost caste with some of the more hot-headed of the party."
  Peacock's visit to Bracknell was short, but it made an indelible impression and his friendship with Shelley provided him with characters, one of whom, J. F. Newton, the Zodiacal mythologist who believed in a return to the golden age, reappears in more than one of his novels.
  Yet Peacock was far from being a mere scoffer. He shared many of Shelley's political views, in particular his love of individual liberty, and his hatred of a Government founded on corruption and pocket-boroughs, which, after the defeat of Buonaparte, was engaged in imposing police-states in Europe and curtailing the liberty of the subject at home. Like Shelley he could not forgive the apostasy of the Lake poets from their earlier principles, and Southey is roughly handled in most of his novels. He applauded Cobbett's radical individualism, and his hatred of slavery led him to abstain from the use of sugar and rum, the products of slave labour.
  Peacock was however incapable of abstract enthusiasm---of enthusiastic belief for its own sake. He clung to realities and to the good things he knew. When Shelley fell passionately in love with Mary Godwin, aged sixteen, and, after vainly attempting to persuade Harriet to join in a ménage à trois as the sister of his soul, eloped with Mary, Peacock maintained his friendship both with Shelley and with Harriet. The Bracknell reformers, on the other hand, were scandalised.
  Peacock's defence of Harriet and his temperate statement of the facts, many years later, led to his being the target of violent and quite unjustified attacks by my grandfather, Richard Garnett, who however, in later years, expressed his regret for his "unjust and uncharitable" words. The reason for the attacks was that Richard Garnett shared the concern of his friends, Sir Percy and Lady Shelley, to prove that Shelley had not "forsaken Harriet for Mary merely because he liked Mary better"---which " could not be justified by any code of morality"---but that "after an insanable breach with Harriet he had transferred his affections elsewhere, which would have had the approbation of Milton."
  Dr Leslie Hotson's discovery of Shelley's letters to Harriet, which were filed by the Westbrook family to deprive Shelley of the eustody of his ehildren, has shown that these hopes, so important to lovers of Shelley in 1862, were vain, and vindicated Peaeoek's reputation for loyal friendship and disinterested truthfulness. Shelley had in fact been blind to the enormous moral importance of being off with the old love before he was on with the new. He loved Mary passionately and Harriet tenderly and would have liked to ive with both of them together. Although EPeacock liked Harriet and did not like Mary, and was disliked by her, he saw that Mary was intellectually better suited to Shelley. After Harriet's suieide, Shelley eonsulted Peacock and an Etonian friend, Sir Lumley Skeffington, as to whether he should marry Mary. They advised him to marry her at once and Shelley did so. Shelley was maturing rapidly and his friendship with Peacock grew steadily closer until he and Mary left England forever. He appointed Peacock, who had already acted as his agent in some business matters, as the executor of his will, and left him a legacy of 2000, which he accepted, when it became payable, in 1844..
---from the introduction to David Garnett (ed.), The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, Vol. I, London (1963), pp. xi-xiii.



JUDGED as a critical thesis, The Four Ages of Poetry is merely a concoction for the purpose of depreciating what it calls 'that egregious confraternity of rhymsters, known by the name of the Lake Poets'. and some others as well. Shelley cannot have been worried by this. Nor can he have failed to see that the general trend of the piece is ironical, so that what Peacock intends is itself a defence of true poetry. But Shelley was presumably sensitive to that ambiguity which we have remarked as fundamental to his friend's mind. The cyclic view of poetry propounded in the essay has very little substance. But there lurks in it---ready to take what weight we please---an argument drawing upon Locke and upon the empirical and utilitarian traditions which followed him: the argument that, in an age of advancing science, the poetic activity must be progressively circumscribed and finally wither away. It was this that roused Shelley and produced his finest venture into prose.
  But Shelley might never have been aware of The Four Ages of Poetry---and A Defence of Poetry, in consequence, might never have been written---had Peacock not been Shelley's friend.
---from J. I. M. Stewart, op. cit., pp. 32-33



FAR MORE than Hogg, Medwin, Trelawny or anybody else until the egregiously dull Professor Dowden, we have a feeling that Peacock is a reliable chronicler. When he tells us of Shelley's living 'chiefly on tea and bread and butter, drinking occasionally a sort of spurious lemonade, made from some powder in a box', we may be confident that the spuriousness of the lemonade hasn't been invented by way of good measure, When Shelley, accepting Peacock's prescription, changes his diet to 'three mutton chops, well peppered' and Peacock declares 'the success was obvious and immediate', we needhave no hesitation in believing that it was so. And this holds, too, of his rather astonishing account of Shelley's delusions. This is the best part of the Memoirs---not so much because of its bizarre character as because of the perfection of tone with which the amusing, yet ominous, spectacle is presented to us. Reading the account of the mysterious incident of Williams in 1816, we may be disposed to doubt whether the maintenance of a cool and rational scepticism was as therapeutic as Peacock in his psychiatric innocence believed. But we cannot doubt that here, and after a long interval of years, is one of the most consummate pieces of reporting in the language. Peacock is one of our greatest creators of the fantastic. And here was the fantastic created for him by God. It is wonderful that he felt no challenge; that he humbly and so perfectly recreated the thing in itself, forty years on.
---ibid., p. 34



PEACOCK. . . has a finished prose style which has balance and rhythm. He places emphasis in the right place, and uses just the correct incisive force which makes his prose such a fit instrument for satire. His sentences may be said to resemble a serpent fastening on its prey, whose venom is not the least deadly because of the symmetrical and glittering beauty of its coiling form.
  Perhaps the definiteness of the quality of Peacock's satire has obscured somewhat the more positive qualities of his prose and verse, which spring from enthusiasm and admiration, not from criticism in its more negative aspect. For even in his verse it is his satiric song "The War-Song of Dinas Vawr" which has gained the praise of critics.[1] Although, with the exception of his War-Song, his verses lack the precision and penetrating force of his prose, yet there is a certain lyrical quality which makes them linger pleasantly in the memory, like the echo of one of the mountain streams of which he writes. He may not enter the realms of the highest poetry in context or form, yet there is a spontaneous freshness which makes the poetic effect of his poem, taken as a unity, greater than that of the separate stanza or line. The introduction into [The Misfortunes of Elphin] of the bards and the bardic circle, with their competitive festal gatherings, gives the author the opportunity of putting into the mouths of Taliesin and others, Welsh songs and poems which are often his own translations and adaptations. These manifest on the part of Peacock a personal love of Nature and Welsh scenery.
  Especially interesting to the Arthurian student is a free rendering of "Avallenau Myrddhin"--Merlin's Apple-Trees--from the poem in the Black Book of Caemarthen. The six verses given below illustrate its descriptive charm, not untouched with melancholy. [2]

          Fair the gift to Merlin given,
          Apple-trees seven score and seven;
          Equal all in age and size;
          On a green hill-slope, that lies
          Basking in the southern sun,
          Where bright waters murmuring run.

          Just beneath the pure stream flows;
          High above the forest grows;
          Not again on earth is found
          Such a slope of orchard ground:
          Song of birds, and hum of bees,
          Ever haunt the apple-trees.

          Lovely green their leaves in spring;
          Lovely bright their blossoming:
          Sweet the shelter and the shade
          By their summer foliage made:
          Sweet the fruit their ripe boughs hold,
          Fruit delicious, tinged with gold.

          Gloyad, nymph with tresses bright,
          Teeth of pearl, and eyes of light,
          Guards these gifts of Ceidio's son,
          Gwendol, the lamented one,
          Him, whose keen-edged, sword no more
          Flashes 'mid the battle's roar.

          War has raged on vale and hill:
          That fair grove was peaceful still.
          There have chiefs and princes sought
          Solitude and tranquil thought:
          There have kings, from courts and throngs,
          Turned to Merlin's wild-wood songs.

But the singer hears the sound of the battle axe and fears his apple-trees are doomed.

          "Well I know, when years have flown,
          Briars shall grow where ye have grown:
          Them in turn shall power uproot;
          Then again shall flowers and fruit
          Flourish in the sunny breeze,
          On my new-born apple-trees." [3]

.
  Thus Peacock in this tale, The Misfortunes of Elphin, by his skilful reconstruction and humorous treatment of incidents, makes a noteworthy contribution to the Welsh side of the Arthurian legend.

 1 Especially Professor Saintsbury in Introduction to Macmillan's edition of The Misfortunes of Elphin.
 2 Given with more literal translation in W.F. Skene, Four Ancient Books of Wales, 1868, p. 373. References to Merlin's Apple-Trees is also found in Vita Merlini (line 90 ff.).
 3 From the The Misfortunes of Merlin [sic], chap. xv. In the Imrama, Irish travel tales, apples are a characteristic of the Other-world.

---from Margaret J.C. Reid, The Arthurian Legend: Comparison of Treatmen in Modern and Mediæval Literature: a Study in the Literary Value of Myth and Legend, New York and London. (1970) [first published 1938] p. 112-14.



See also an excerpt on Peacock and the Noble Savage by Hoxie Neale Fairchild from The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism and "Thomas Love Peacock" by Sir Walter Raleigh from on Witers and Writing.

Thomas Love Peacock


selected & edited by Informal, and last updated on 23 Jan. 2001