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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 2. Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy

Therefore, in this case, the unshepherded, and for long almost ungrassed, public went not wrong; but it is impossible to say the same of its somewhat earlier divagation in favour of Martin Farquhar Tupper. Proverbial Philosophy, to this day, is and will probably always remain, one of the chief curiosities of literature, perhaps the supremest of all such things in its own special class. The author, from the combined and direct testimony of persons who knew him at different times of his life, was by no means a fool, when he had not a pen in his hand. In his other books of verse, which are numerous, it is possible, as, for instance, in The Crock of Gold, to discover passages, or even poems, of passable or possible poetry of a not very high kind. These volumes were not much bought; and, no doubt, were, as wholes, not very much worth buying. But Proverbial Philosophy, which made his reputation, which sold in unbelievable numbers and which has sometimes earned for him the title “The People’s Poet Laureate,” is such incredible rubbish that it would almost justify the obloquy which has come upon “early Victorian” taste if it were not that even the loose and unregimented criticism of that period itself would have none of it. It furnished the subject of one of the most brilliant of the Bon Gaultier parodies and skits (see post) a few years after its appearance; the very schoolboys (not to mention the undergraduates) of its date seem, from not untrustworthy testimony, to have been taught by their still uncorrupted classical education to revolt against it; and the present writer can give personal evidence that, by the middle of the fifties or thereabouts, it was a hissing and a scorn to all who had any sense of literature, or were ever going to have it. But the great middle, or lower middle, class here, and, still more, in America, steadily bought it till much later; and nobody can refuse it rank as a “document” of what myriads of people thought might be poetry in the beginning of the second third of the nineteenth century.

As such, it can never wholly lose its position; and it would be rash (considering the extraordinary changes of superficial and ephemeral taste which are familiar to the historical student) to say that it can never recover something, at least, of what it has lost. But it would certainly be surprising if it did, especially as, since its time, other examples of popular rubbish have secured, and yet others are, at intervals, likely to secure, equal vogue with the same class of readers. In it “there be truths,” unfortunately always presented as truisms. There is—if not, as lord Foppington sarcastically observed of his lost bride and actual sister-in-law, “a nice marality”—a sound one enough. There is an unflinching adoption of the proverbial form with its strange popular effect. But, over the whole, platitude broods with wings that drop the deadliest tedium: one waits in vain for any phrase that shall give light to the gloom or life to the stagnation; at times, the dullness ferments itself into sheer silliness after a fashion which exasperates instead of relieving. A faint amusement at such an impossible thing ever having been thought possible may support the reader for awhile; but sleep or the relinquishment of his task can be the only “happy ending” of such an adventure.

But, even thus, not quite enough has been said for present purposes about Proverbial Philosophy. An “interlunar cave” of poetical matter for people to fix their eyes on will do much; and an almost entire want of authority in criticism (though, as has been said, even the usually feeble critics of the day would not stand this), will, perhaps, do more. But the inexorable “historic estimate” has something to add. Tupper, (no doubt in the most unconscious way in the world) had hit on the fact, corroborated by that poetical history of which he had probably not much notion (his attempts at transversing Old English poetry prove it), that, in poetic interlunia, irregular rhythms acquire a certain phosphoric light. Proverbial Philosophy is written in a sort of doggerel which, sometimes coming very close to what some call the “accentual” English hexameter, more often strays into a vaguely rhythmical, but quite unmetrical, stave reminiscent of Ossian and Blake, perhaps, and pretty certainly not without influence on Whitman. The intolerable imbecility of the statement of the matter,

  • pay quickly that thou owest;
  • The needy tradesman is made glad by such considerate haste;
  • the infantine egotism of such things as this,
  • I never forced Minerva’s will, nor stole my thoughts from others, (where one feels instinctively that Tupper never came within finger-tip reach of Pallas, and that, if he never stole his thoughts from others, it was, at least, partly because he never knew what was worth stealing)—these things are, or ought to be, balanced, if not compensated, by the reflection that the form, chiefly through Whitman’s transformation, has been largely used since; that the principle of it—the revolt of rhythm against metre—is very much alive at the present day; and that Martin Farquhar Tupper—impossible as he is to read, except as a sandwich of somnolence and laughter; probable as it is that the reading may be interrupted for ever by a paroxysm of utter repudiation of the book to the second-hand stall or the dust-bin—is, in literary history, not a mere cypher. He teaches lessons amazingly different from those which he thought he was teaching; and he utters warnings which never, in the slightest degree, entered his own head. These lessons and warnings have been partially disclosed in the remarks just made; there is no room for more of them. Let it only be added that, if an adventure of the kind of this History be again undertaken “a hundred years hence,” though it is possible that Tupper may be omitted or merely glanced at, the popularity of certain verse-writers of present or recent days will probably form the subject of remarks not very different from those which have appeared here. And it is not quite so probable that, in these new essays of dullness, there will be found any formal originality or impulse from the historical point of view to supply such a solace or setoff as has been pleaded here for the heavy and silly sin of Proverbial Philosophy.