C.H. Herford

"Thomas Love Peacock"

from The Age of Wordworth

THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK, like Ben Jonson, to whom he has some affinity, became one of the best classic scholars of his day without the aid of universities, whose capacity of 'removing knowledge' was a perennial topic of his caustic wit. At sixteen, after a fair schooling, he was let loose upon the British Museum, and during several years spent his time in exploring there the art and literature of the classical world. The classics coloured his style but not his tastes; and his first considerable piece of verse, The Genius of the Thames (181O) which has fairly been called 'the last production of the eighteenth century,' was the result of a quite modern tramp along its banks from end to end.
  Early in 181O he penetrated into the wilder scenery of North Wales, henceforth a second Hellas to his imagination by its mountains and its myths. There he met his Welsh wife of nine years later (Shelley's 'Snowdonian antelope') and, in November, 1812, Shelley himself. Shelley was the single sympathetic link between Peacock and the greater poets of his time, as Peacock himself was to be between Shelley and the cultivated bureaucracy of England. Both owed much to their friendship. Peacock's lively feeling for landscape was a point of access for Shelley's more glowing sense of beauty; and Shelley, a Platonist by birth and a scholar by education, responded instantly to the stimulus of Peacock's Attic culture.
  Peacock in the meantime was casting about for the fit expression which he had obviously not yet found. He translated Greek choruses with a curiously timid adherence to English convention; composed 'comedies and farces' (never published), thin elegiac stanzas (Inscription for a Dell), and satire (Sir Proteus, 1814) rather ferocious than effective.
  The year 1815-16 wa-e a turning-point for Peacock as for Shelley, now neighbours by the Windsor Thames. Their studies were, as Hogg, who often joined them, put it, 'a Mere Atticism.' Here, almost simultaneously with Shelley's Alastor, grew into shape Peacock's Headlong Hall (published 1816). It marks, Dr. Garnett has justly said, Peacock's literary emancipation, as Alastor does Shelley's. 'It shows his final recognition of his deficient appreciation of form, and the futility of his efforts to construct a comedy.' Headlong Hall is at once the slightest and the most artificial of Peacock's novels. But he here discovered one of the two situations in which he is great,---the modern 'comedy of Humours,' displayed without restraints of plot in the easy undress symposia of a bachelor's mansion. But he differs from the great Elizabethan 'humorist,' Jonson, and still more from the author of Pickwick, in that his humours are predominantly those of the intellectual world, and almost exclusively those of the well-bred. The personages of Headlong Hall are still little more than mouthpieces of contending theories, and are drawn at times with boyish violence of touch and ignorance of life. But every element of the Peacockian novel is present in the germ, and the style has already that 'lightness, chastity and strength' for which Shelley afterwards found no praise adequate in Nighimare Abbey. The piquant little tale had a great success, and was soon followed by the more ambitious and elaborate romance of Melincourt (1817), where the Hellenic humanist pokes somewhat stilted fun at the naked savage of Rousseau and the gold (and paper) corruptions of modern Christendom. Nowhere is the Tory strain that complicates Peacock's Liberal sentiment more completely in abeyance than in the crackling derision of the Placemen's quintet, written when the cry for Reform was rising into menace, and when Shelley's companionship was still recent.
  More peculiarly Peacockian was the novel of the next year, Nightmare Abbey (1818). The satire is now transferred from theories to sentiment. Like Jonson in his day, Peacock sports grimly with the various contemporary forms of 'blue devils' which irritated his Attic urbanity. In the Abbey, situate amid a monotony of dykes and windmills, the atrabilious Glowry dispenses a morbid hospitality to illustrious and like-minded guests. The portraits of the metaphysical pessimist (Coleridge), and the sentimental pessimist (Byron), are in the finest style of literary caricature. Still more interesting is the fantasia upon Shelley and his relations with Harriet and Mary, both of whom Peacock knew. Shelley himself read the book with keen relish. He condemned, on the other hand, as 'of the correct, classical school,' his friend's elaborate Rhododaphne (1818), a poem classical, however, in Landor's sense, not in Pope's, and suggestive, like Gebir, of half-suppressed Romantic affinities. These affinities asserted themselves with vigour in the two prose novels which next ensued. Already in August, 1818, he was absorbed in Maid Marion (published 1822), 'a comic romance of the twelfth century,' as he describes it to Shelley, 'which I shall make a vehicle for much oblique satire on all the oppressions that are done under the sun.'
  As a genial cynic who believed that nine-tenths of society were moved by force, gold, and appetite, he drew with keen delight his fancy picture of a society in which these primary instincts were frankly avowed and acted on, without the hypocrisy of form, ceremony, and paper 'promises to pay.' But the greenwood world of Robin Hood possessed a deeper charm for this born lover of sylvan solitudes, this haunter of glen and dingle; and the 'vehicle of oblique satire,' with its plentiful investiture of quips and scoffs, is steeped in the poetry of the woods, and strewn with lyrics of singular magic. Before Maid Marian was finished, Peacock had been appointed (1819) to the examinership in the India House which he held till 1855, and had married the 'mountain maid,' whose romantic figure is probably reflected in 'Marian ' and at least one of his later heroines. His subsequent novels appeared at longer intervals. The Misfortunes of Elphin' (1829) is imagined in an even richer vein of mingled satire and poetry. The fascination of the Saxon~forest was here replaced by the yet subtler fascination of the legends and the wilds of Wales, which Peacock, like Milton and Gray, but in a manner altogether his own, drew within the sphere of Attic lucidity and grace. If he did not fully apprehend the splendid but incoherent poetry of the old bards, he caught not a little of its spirit in the mellow literary beauty of his songs of Elphin and Taliesin. And in the satiric manipulation of the legendary matter he shows comic genius of the highest order. Tradition furnished merely a vague hint of those admirable comic creations, Seithenyn, 'the Welsh Falstaff' as he has justly been called, and Melvas, the militant king, with his warsong, the 'substance,' in Peacock's own phrase, 'of all the appetencies, tendencies and consequences of military glory.'
  In his two remaining novels, Crotchet Castle (1831) and Gryll Grange (186O), Peacock returned to the earlier and easier plan of Headlong Hall. These later galleries of satiric portraiture embody all his often grotesque antipathies in unabated force, but with far riper art; the Scotch, with their paper money, and their Waverley novels, and Coleridge with his mysticism, still do penance for their sins against Attic humanism, but in dialogue of truly Attic quality. And the clerical gourmand of Headlong Hall---'venter--et praeterea nihil'---is replaced by those delightful types of the intellectual epicure, Dr. Folliott and Dr. Opimian.
  The Peacockian novel is a distinct genre in literature. Allied in manner to the French philosophical tale of Voltaire and Marmontel, it stands alone in uniting keen ironic understanding of the eighteenth century with an irrepressible but never fully acknowledged instinct of romance and poetry. In the idealisms of his time Peacock saw only mystification and blue devils, grotesquely discordant with the 'cheerful and solid wisdom of antiquity.' In the Romantic revival itself he saw only the decrepit senilities of the 'Brazen age' of poetry.'* Not merely Wordsworth and Coleridge, but Byron and Scott, had no more implacable assailant. For sixty years he lived in his choice way, pouring derisive laughter upon aa world full of fools' (motto to Gryll Grange). But the laughter was poured along the veins of old legends, kindling all those latent suggestions of humour which the ardent and passionate spirit of English Romanticism habitually ignored. Peacock was, in fact, one of those few genuine poets in whom humour is the native form of poetry; and thus he, in effect, 'revived' Romance in a manner which assimilates him, at whatever distance, not to Voltaire and Marmontel, but to Aristophanes and Heine.

   *  His Four Ages of Poetry justified its existence by provoking Shelley's noble Defence of Poetry (1821). [back]

---from The Age of Wordsworth by C.H. Herfored, Bell and Sons, London. (1960) [first published 1897], pp. 130-34.