Monday, 2 June 2008

Saintsbury again

I recommended Saintsbury in my last entry so here are a couple of chunks. One of my recent discoveries is the pleasure of essays, 18th and 19th century style. These extracts are from Saintsbury's 1895 essay on William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides I've read parts of long ago, and greatly enjoyed, and his Grammar, recently reissued, which is opinionated and often wrong but very readable. I offer these less as affording unusual insight than as a good read.

"...Let it be added that this vast mass [74 works] is devoted almost impartially to as vast a number of subjects, that it displays throughout the queerest and (till you are well acquainted with it) the most incredible mixture of sense and nonsense, folly and wit, ignorance and knowledge, good temper and bad blood, sheer egotism and sincere desire to benefit the country. Cobbett will write upon politics and upon economics, upon history ecclesiastical and civil, upon grammar, cookery, gardening, woodcraft, standing armies, population, ice houses, and almost every other conceivable subject, with the same undoubting confidence that he is and must be right. In what plain men still call inconsistency there never was his equal. He was approaching middle life when he was still writing cheerful pamphlets and tracts with such titles as The Bloody Buoy, The Cannibal’s Progress, and so on, destined to hold up the French Revolution to the horror of mankind; he had not passed middle life when he discovered that the said Revolution was only a natural and necessary consequence of the same system of taxation which was grinding down England. He denied stoutly that he was anything but a friend to monarchical government, and asseverated a thousand times over that he had not the slightest wish to deprive landlords or any one else of their property. Yet for the last twenty years of his life he was constantly holding up the happy state of those republicans, the profligacy, injustice, and tyranny of whose government he had earlier denounced. …

… Only mention Jews, Scotchmen, the National Debt, the standing army, pensions, poetry, tea, potatoes, larch trees, and a great many other things, and Cobbett become a mere, though a very amusing, maniac. Let him come across in one of his peregrinations, or remember in the course of a book or article, some magistrate who gave a decision unfavourable to him twenty years before, some lawyer who took a side against him, some journalist who opposed his pamphlets, and a torrent of half humorous but wholly vindictive Billingsgate follows; while if the luckless one has lost his estate, or in any way come to misfortune meanwhile, Cobbett will jeer and whoop and triumph over him like an Indian squaw over a hostile brave at the stake. Mixed with all this you shall find such plain shrewd common sense, such an incomparable power of clear exposition of any subject that the writer himself understands, such homely but genuine humour, such untiring energy, and such a hearty desire for the comfort of everybody who is not a Jew or a jobber or a tax eater, as few public writers have ever displayed. And (which is the most important thing for us) you shall also find sense and nonsense alike, rancorous and mischievous diatribes as well as sober discourses, politics as well as trade puffery (for Cobbett puffed his own wares unblushingly), all set forth in such a style as not more than two other Englishmen, whose names are Defoe and Bunyan, can equal."

The other, later extract is about Cobbett’s views:

"It is evident that if he possibly could have it, he would have a society purely agricultural, men making what things the earth does not directly produce as much as possible for themselves in their own houses during the intervals of field labour. He quarrels with none of the three orders,--labourer, farmer, and landowner--as such; he does not want 'the land for the people,' or the landlord's rent for the farmer. Nor does he want any of the lower class to live in even mitigated idleness. Eight hours' days have no place in Cobbett's scheme; still less relief of children from labour for the sake of education. Everybody in the labouring class, women and children included, is to work and work pretty hard; while the landlord may have as much sport as ever he likes provided he allows a certain share to his tenant at times. But the labourer and his family are to have 'full bellies' (it would be harsh but not entirely unjust to say that the full belly is the beginning and end of Cobbett's theory) plenty of good beer, warm clothes, staunch and comfortably furnished houses. And that they may have these things they must have good wages; though Cobbett does not at all object to the truck or even the 'Tommy' system. He seems to have, like a half socialist as he is, no affection for saving, and he once, with rather disastrous consequences, took to paying his own farm labourers entirely in kind. In the same way the farmer is to have full stack yards, a snug farm house, with orchards and gardens thoroughly plenished. But he must not drink wine or tea, and his daughters must work and not play the piano.

…But though there is to be plenty of game, there are to be no game-laws. There is to be no standing army, though there may be a navy. There is to be no, or the very smallest, civil service. It stands to reason that there is to be no public debt; and the taxes are to be as low and as uniform as possible. Commerce, even on the direct scale, if that scale be large, is to be discouraged, and any kind of middleman absolutely exterminated. There is not to be any poetry (Cobbett does sometimes quote Pope, but always with a gibe), no general literature (for though Cobbett's own works are excellent, and indeed indispensable, that is chiefly because of the corruptions of the times), no fine arts--though Cobbett has a certain weakness for church architecture, mainly for a reason presently to be explained. Above all there is to be no such thing as what is called abroad a rentier. No one is to "live on his means," unless these means come directly from the owning or the tilling of land. The harmless fund holder with his three or four hundred a year, the dockyard official, the half-pay officer, are as abhorrent to Cobbett as the pensioner for nothing and the sinecurist. This is the state of things which he loves, and it is because the actual state of things is so different, and for no other reason, that he is a Radical Reformer." (59-61)

Saintsbury, George (1895). ‘William Cobbett’ in Essays in English literature 1780-1860, second series, London: Dent.

No comments: