Hoxie Neale Fairchild

"Thomas Love Peacock"

from The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism

. . . In this stage of the development of our subject [i.e., the enemies of the Noble Savage], Thomas Love Peacock is the most interesting hostile critic of the savage.
  To call Peacock an "enemy of the Noble Savage" is perhaps to speak rashly. His attitude lacked both the uneasy spleen of Johnson and the conscious political animus of the Anti-Jacobins. For the latter, indeed, he felt strong distaste: his sketch of Mr. Anyside Antijack in Melincourt is scathing.* Liberty he loved too dearly approve the "one-hundred-per-cent English" policy. One cannot easily pigeonhole a man who could make merciless fun of Shelley and at the same time be that pa warm friend. Indeed, Peacock is remarkable for ability to take a position far removed from the strifes of the time. He puts in Mr. Crotchet's mouth the words, "The sentimental against the rational, the intuitive against the inductive, the ornamental against the useful, the intense against the tranquil, the romantic against the classical; these are great and interesting controversies which I should like, before I die, to see satisfactorily settled." Such was Peacock's wise and humane spirit. There can be no doubt, however, that his own tastes were on the side of the rational, the inductive, the useful, the tranquil---in a word, the classical. He liked to poke fun at the more extravagant aspects of romanticism, especially at melancholy and the nature-cult.
  In Headlong Hall, the first of the series,* we find a number of strange characters assembled at the manor of Squire Headlong. Most prominent among the guests are Foster, the perfectibilitarian, and Escot, the deteriorationist. The former has a boundless belief in human progress; the latter maintains that the world is going to the dogs, and holds forth at great length on the superiority of primitive existence.
  Mr. Carl Van Doren, in his Life of Thomas Love Peacock, advances in regard to these characters a theory which seems to me untenable. He writes: "The partial identity of Mr. Escot and Mr. Foster . . . with Peacock and Shelley respectively, probably points to an origin for the story in the duels of opinion which the two friends had fought in their walks of the preceding summer and fall." "It is natural at the outset," we read later, "to suspect that Mr. Foster, whose zealous defence of progress is his principal characteristic, must have been in part suggested to Peacock by the similar habit in Shelley; and it is equally natural to suspect further that Mr. Escot, the pessimist, may very reasonably represent Peacock himself, or, rather, the character he would assume in the presence of such a Shelley as Mr. Foster."*
  Even with the saving grace of the word "partial," these identifications are questionable. Foster, to be sure, is a perfectibilitarian; so was Shelley. But Foster believes that for things to be perfected they need only progress from where they are, while for Shel]ey perfection is to be attained only through sweeping changes in the structure of society which will enable the natural goodness of man to develop freely. In 18I5, Shelley's doctrine of perfectibility is not unlike that of Mr. Higgins, the Anti-Jacobin's mock correspondent, and Shelley's father-in-law in disguise. Foster and Shelley hold very different views.
  Escot is a deteriorationist, and Peacock was certainly opposed to the doctrine of perfectibility. But until the querulousness of old age came upon him, he never asserted that the world was going downhill. He simply repudiated the unphilosophic notion of a law of continuous and inevitable progress, and distinguished clearly between activity and accomplishment. Escot, as citations to follow will abundantly prove, believes in the Noble Savage. Peacock certainly does not believe in the Noble Savage, who, leaving Headlong Hall out of the question, is broadly satirized in Melincourt. It is difficult to see in Escot a mouthpiece for the ideas of Peacock.
  Let us hear Escot, who, while eating a hearty breakfast, discourses on the degeneration of the race through flesh-eating: "The natural and original man . . . Iived in the woods: the roots and fruits of the earth supplied his simple nutriment: he had few desires, and no diseases. But, when he began to sacrifice victims on the altar of superstition, to pursue the goat and the deer, and by the pernicious invention of fire, to pervert their flesh into food, luxury, disease and premature death were let loose upon the world. Such is clearly the correct interpretation of the fable of Prometheus, which is a symbolical portraiture of that disastrous epoch, when man first applied fire to culinary purposes, and thereby surrendered his liver to the vulture of disease."* This sounds like Mr. Higgins, in the first canto of the Progress of Man. It sounds even more like Shelley, who in his notes to Queen Mab devotes a great deal of space to a defence of vegetarianism. We cull the following: "I hold that the depravity of the physical and moral nature of man originated in his unnatural habits of life. . . . The allegory of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of evil . . . admits of no other explanation than the disease and crime that have flowed from unnatural diet. . . . The story of Prometheus is one likewise which, although universally admitted to be allegorical, has never been satisfactorily explained. . . . Prometheus (who represents the human race) effected some great change in the condition of his nature, and applied fire to culinary purposes; thus inventsng an expedient for screening from his disgust the horrors of the shambles. From this rnoment his vitals were devoured by the vsslture of disease. . . . All vice rose frorn the ruin of healthful innocence. Tyranny, superstition, commerce and inequality were then first known, when reason vainly attempted to guide the wanderings of exacerbated passion."* Compare the passages from Headlong Hall and the notes to Queen Mab, especially the italicized portions. If Escot is Peacock, why is he made to deliver a close paraphrase of Shelley's own words?
  I conclude that Escot is not Peacock, that Foster is not Shelley, and that although Foster and Peacock have little in common, there are various points of resemblance between Escot and the young Shelley. The resemblance, however, should not be pressed too closely. The satire of Headlong Hall is typical, whereas Peacock and Shelley are highly individual. Foster and Escot are embodied theories rather than parodied persons. This matter of identity has been discussed at some length, not because of any inborn contentiousness on my part, but simply because Peacock cannot be opposed to the Noble Savage and be Escot at the same time. We may now drop the subject and examine some of the verbal clashes between Foster and Escot.
  The first of these disagreements occurs when Foster and Escot are riding to Headlong Hall in a coach. Foster is delighted by the prosperous appearance of the country through which they are passing. "Everything we look on," he exclaims, "attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection." "These improvements, as you call them," retorts his companion, "appear to me only so many links in the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness: your improvements proceed in a simple ratio, while the factitious wants and unnatural appetites they engender proceed in a compound one; . . . till every human being becomes such a helpless compound of perverted inclinations, that he is altogether at the mercy of external circumstances, loses all independence and singleness of character, and degenerates so rapidly from the primitive dignity of his sylvan origin, that it is scarcely possible to indulge in any other expectation than that the whole species must at length be exterminated by its own infinite imbecility and vileness."
  "You will allow," objects Foster, "that the wild man of the woods could not transport himself over two hundred miles of forest, with as much facility as one of these vehicles transports you and me through the heart of this cultivated country." Escot's answer illustrates admirably that confusion of happiness with satisfaction against which Johnson protested. "I am certain," he says " . . . that a wild man can travel an immense distance without fatigue; but what is the advantage of locomotion? The wild man is happy in one spot, and there he remains; the civilized man is wretched in every place he happens to be in, and then congratulates himself on being accommodated with a machine, that will whirl him to another, where he will be just as miserable as ever."
  Not long after their arrival at the hall, the illuminati whom Squire Headlong has assembled inspect the neighborhood of Mt. Snowdon; and a dispute arises as to whether the scenery might be improved through the services of a landscape architect. Mr. Foster of course takes the affirmative side, but Mr. Escot, equally of course, "did not think that any human being could improve upon it, but had no doubt of its having changed considerably for the worse, since the days when the barren rocks were covered with the immense forest of Snowdon, which must have contained a very fine race of wild men, not less than ten feet high." The great stature of primitive man was one of Lord Monboddo's favorite theses, and is mentioned several times in Melincourt, of which Monboddo is the principal butt. To return for a moment to the point of contention, it is unlikely that Peacock, as Escot, should use one of the pet notions of a man whom he thought ridiculous. The idea is much more characteristic of the youthful Shelley.
  Foster and Escot would naturally fall out about the effects of knowledge upon morals. It is Foster's belief "that men are virtuous in proportion as they are enlightened; and that, as every generation increases in knowledge, it also increases in virtue"---a position much like Dr. Johnson's. "I wish it were so," answers the deteriorationist, ". . . but to me the very reverse appears to be the fact. The progress of knowledge is not general: it is confined to a chosen few of every age. How far these are better than their neighbors, we may examine by and bye. The mass of mankind is composed of beasts of burden. . . . Give me the wild man of the woods; the original, unthinking, unscientific, unlogical savage; in him there is at least some good; but, in a civilized, sophisticated, coldblooded, mechanical, calculating slave of Mammon and the world there is none---absolutely none. . . . Sir, if I fall into a river, an unsophisticated man will jump in and bring me out; but a philosopher will look on with the utmost calmness, and consider me in the light of a projectile." This is a restatement, in concrete form, of the old doctrine of natural pity to which Rousseau had given a new impetus.
  Rousseau's influence, also, perhaps accounts for Escot's opinion that reason is destructive of happiness. "On the score of happiness," he says to Foster, "what comparison can you make between the tranquil being of the wild man of the woods and the wretched and turbulent existence of Milton . . . ? The records of literature demonstrate that Happiness and Intelligence are seldom sisters."
  But the most characteristic of Escot's speeches is the following combination of Rousseauism with one of the young Shelley's pet theories: "The first inhabitants of the world knew not the use either of wine or animal food; it is, therefore, by no means incredible that they lived to the age of several centuries, free from war, and commerce . . . and every other species of desolating wickedness. But man was then a very different animal to what he now is: he had not the faculty of speechj; he was not encumbered with clothes; he lived in the open air. . . . His first dwellings, of course, were the hollows of trees and rocks. In process of time he began to build: thence grew villages; thence grew cities. Luxury, oppression, poverty, misery and disease kept pace with the progress of his pretended improvements, till, from a free, strong, healthy, peaceful animal, he has become a weak, cruel, carnivorous slave."
  Mr. Van Doren is no doubt right in supposing that the debates between Foster and Escot find their origin in actual debates between Peacock and Shelley. The primitivism which Peacock burlesques in Headlong Hall is the primitivism of the boy Shelley, whose ideas at this period were much like those of the young Jacobins of the I790's. It is a remarkable fact that Shelley, until he wrote Alastor, was definitely behind his own times. In 1810 and 1811, he practices a crude and outworn form of Gothicism. From 1812 to 1817, he subscribes to a Godwinism which Godwin himself had abandoned some years earlier. Thus the Noble Savage idea as it appears in Headlong Hall belongs to, say, I795 rather than to I8I6, the date of the book's appearance.
  In Melincourt, which was published in the following year, Peacock adds to the earlier form of the Noble Savage idea the nature-philosophy of Wordsworth. The new combination is seen in the character of Sylvan Forester. He is described by Sir Telegraph Paxarett as "always railing at civilized life, and always holding forth in praise of savages and original men."
  His first appearance sets the key to his conduct throughout the story. Sir Telegraph, meeting him in the mountains of Westmoreland, exclaims, "Who should have dreamed of meeting you in this uncivilized part of the world?" "I am afraid," is Forester's reply, "this part of the world does not deserve the compliment you have bestowed upon it. Within no very great distance from this spot are divers towns, villages and hamlets, in any one of which, if you have money, you may make pretty sure of being cheated, and if you have none, quite sure of being starved---strong evidences of a state of civilization."
  Forester, like Escot, holds that mankind is decreasing in size and strength. This is a favorite tenet of Monboddo's, who is one of the chief victims of Melincourt. According to Forester, man's physical degeneration is due to the fact that "under the influence of civilization . . . the intellectual are confessedly nourished at the expense of the physical faculties. Air, the great source and fountain of health and life, can scarcely find access to civilized man, muffled as he is in clothes, pent in houses, smoke-dried in cities, half-roasted by artificial fire, and parboiled in the hydrogen of crowded apartments."
  From such conditions, Forester loves to flee to the Lake Country, where "Nature seems to have raised her mountain-barriers for the purpose of rescuing a few favored mortals from the vortex of that torrent of physical and moral degeneration which seems to threaten nothing less than the extermination of the human species." Here and elsewhere in Forester's speeches, we are reminded of Wordsworth's letter to C. J. Fox.
  To the Lake Country Forester escorts the fair heroine, Anthelia, remarking, "You will find . . . in the little valley we are about to enter, a few specimens of that simple and natural life which approaches as nearly as the present state of things will admit to my ideas of the habits and manners of the primeval agriculturists, or the fathers of the Roman republic." Anthelia observes that she has always longed to see the pastoral pictures of Spenser and Tasso realized "in the actual inhabitants of the country." Forester replies that even the simple cottagers are doomed to corruption, but that "whatever be the increasing ravages of the Triad of Mammon, avarice, luxury and disease, they will always be the last involved in the vortex of progressive degeneracy, realizing the beautiful fiction of ancient poetry, that, when primeval Justice departed from the earth, her last steps were among the cultivators of the fields."* Observe how natural the transition from belief in the Noble Savage to belief in the English rustic. In I8I7, savages and peasants are still being compared to shepherds of the Golden Age.
  It must not be supposed that Forester is allowed to orate without let or hindrance. He has a dogged opponent in Mr. Fax, who speaks, in some measure at least, for Peacock himself. Mr. Fax has no illusions about the enlightenment, but hopes that good may come from "the general diffusion of moral and political truth." Though there may never be another Homer or Milton, "Lucretius we may yet hope for." The two men hold an argument on progress so serious and fairly-balanced that it rises above the level of burlesque.
  Forester admits that the decay of superstition is beneficial, but questions whether the growth of luxury does not counterbalance the benefits. "The corporeal decay of mankind I hold to be undeniable; the increase of general knowledge I allow: but reason is of slow growth; and if men in general only become more corrupt as they become more learned, the progress of literature will oppose no adequate counterpoise to that of avarice, luxury and disease."
  Fax retorts that though the progress of reason is slow, "the ground which it once has gained it never abandons." In spite of self-interest and prejudice, intelligence gradually diffuses itself through society. Forester insists that the love of truth is "of all qualities . . . the most rare." Pointing to the evils of public life, he says that retirement from the world is the only recourse open to a virtuous man.
  But "if reason be progressive, however slowly," is Fax's reply, "the wise and good have sufficient encouragement to persevere; and even if the doctrine of deterioration be true, it is no less their duty to retard its progress." Retirement, then, should be "consecrated to philosophical labour."
  Forester thinks that theoretical knowledge can never progress rapidly enough to keep pace with the "accelerated depravation of practical morality." Greed governs the world as never before, and "blights the blossoms of love."
  Fax says that greed is as old as human society. Forester shifts ground, and asks " how far the security of property . . . is favorable to the growth of individual virtue." Wealth, replies Fax, is the means of tranquillity and leisure, and from these arise many benefits.
  But Forester thinks that the leisure gained by wealth is used for selfish ends. "The elegant philosopher is much too refined . . . to allow such vulgar subjects as the sufferings of the poor to interfere with his sublime speculations." Fax readily admits that "those elegant philosophers are among the most fatal enemies of the advancement of moral and political knowledge."
  Real "public feeling and national sympathy," according to Forester, exist only among the uncivilized. "The Canadian savages cannot imagine the possibility of any individual in a community having a full meal while another has but half a one: still less could they imagine that one should have two meals, while another had nothing. Theirs is that bond of brotherhood which nature weaves snd civilization breaks, and from which the older nations grow the farther they recede."
  Such conditions are possible, says Fax, in a small and primitive community. We are working through a distressing middle period on the far side of which may be a genuinely free and at the same time civilized existence. "I form the best hopes for my country in the mental improvement of my people."
  Here, of course, nothing is settled, but the setting forth of the two contrasting types of thought is singularly clear and satisfying.
  Another source of dispute between these discordant natures is the supposed beneficent influence of mountain scenery. "A modern poet has observed," says Forester, "that the voices of the sea and the mountains are the two voices of liberty: the words mountain liberty have, indeed, become so intimately associated, that I have never found any one who even thought of questioning their necessary and natural connection."*
  This sentiment is regarded by Mr. Fax as "a most gross delusion." "I have often seen," he continues, "a young man of high and aspiring genius . . . withdrawn from all intercourse with polished and intellectual society, by the distempered idea that he would nowhere find fit aliment for his high cogitations, but among heaths, and rocks, and torrents." "Mountaineers," he insists, "are for the most part a stupid and ignorant race, and where there are stupidity and ignorance, there will be superstition; and where there is superstition, there will be slavery. . . . All I mean to say is, that there is nothing in the nature of mountain scenery either to make men free or to keep them so. The only source of freedom is intellectual light. The ignorant are always slaves, though they dwell among the Andes. The wise are always free, though they cultivate a savannah." Here Wordsworth is quite evidently glanced at.
  An important feature of Melincourt has till now been withheld. In its pages appears a genuine man of nature. Sir Oran Haut-ton, Forester's boon companion, is an orang-utan, "a specimen of the natural and original man." He is strong, healthy, amiable, simple and pleasing in manner. "He was caught by an intelligent negro very young, in the woods of Angola; and his gentleness and sweet temper winning the hearts of the negro and negress, they brought him up in their cottage as the playfellow of their little boys and girls. "Sir Oran was purchased by one Captain Hawltaught, who was "struck with the contemplative cast of his countenance." Though at first homesick almost to the point of death, the noble monkey gradually grew deeply attached to the Captain; and when the latter retired from the sea, accompanied him as gardener.
  Although he never learned to speak, Sir Oran acquired most other human accomplishments. He had a pretty taste in music, and performed creditably on the flute and French horn. His taste for strong drink was equally acute, for the Captain corrupted "the amiable simplicity of the natural man by this pernicious celebration of vinous and spirituous orgies." In spite of this vice, however, Sir Oran remains "a much better man than many that are to be found in civilized countries." He plays an important part in the story, performing many virtuous deeds. He is unanimously elected to Parliament from the borough of Onevote. The noble ape's adventures sometimes recall those of Bage's Hermsprong.
  Through Sir Oran, Peacock means to poke fun at the vagaries of Lord Monboddo, selections from whose Ancient Metaphysics and Progress of Language are employed as footnotes. Practically all the absurd things said by Forester in praise of Sir Oran were actually written by Monboddo. Why Peacock should grant so much attention to Monboddo is not clear. So far as I can find, the Scotchman was not being much read at this time. Possibly he is selected to represent the highest possible degree of absurdity in the philosophy Peacock wishes to satirize. Probably, too, the eccentric Scotchman was kept fresh in Peacock's mind by the similar opinions of Shelley regarding the physical decadence of man.
  But, as we have observed, the rather antiquated primitivism of Monboddo is here mingled with the more recent primitivism which is related to the nature-philosophy of Wordsworth. The virtues of natural man are no longer abstractions floating in the air, but are associated with the healing and inspiring influence of scenery. Peacock is still somewhat behind the times, for by 1816 Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey had forsaken nature-worship. Yet with the exception of Coleridge, who was coming into his own as a damaged archangel, the Lakists were at this time decidedly unpopular because of their "apostacy." Peacock is not alone in reviving their early theories for satirical purposes. His burlesque applies to the Noble Savage of 1798-1802.
  Nightmare Abbey, Peacock's best work, contains nothing which bears directly upon the Noble Savage. Except for Scythrop, who represents a much more Radcliffian youth than the real Shelley of 1818, the characters and their foibles are genuinely contemporary with the satirist. Peacock here glances at sentimentality, Byronic melancholy, and transcendentalism. Even for one who was unusually slow to forget the joke of primitivism, the Noble Savage was no longer worth satirizing. Crotchet Castle (1831) is equally barren of material for us, and Gryll Grange (1861) is wholly beyond our ken.