A Romantic Aristocra
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26 ] A Romantic Aristocrat1 It is impossible to overlook the merits of scholarship and criticism exhibited by George Wyndham’s posthumous book,2† and it is impossible to deal with the book purely on its merits of scholarship and criticism. To attempt to do so would in the first place be unfair, as the book is a posthumous work, and posthumous books demand some personal attention to their writers.3 This book is a collection of essays and addresses, arranged in their present order by Mr. Whibley; they were intended by their author to be remodelled into a volume on “romantic literature”; they move from an ingenious search for the date of the beginning of Romanticism, through the French and English Renaissance, to Sir Walter Scott.4 In the second place, these essays represent the literary work of a man who gained his chief distinction in political life. In the third place, this man stands for a type, an English type. The type is interesting and will probably become extinct. It is natural, therefore, that our primary interest in the essays should be an interest in George Wyndham. Mr. Charles Whibley, in an introduction the tone of which is well suited to the matter, has several sentences which throw light on Wyndham’s personality . What issues with surprising clearness from Mr. Whibley’s sketch is the unity of Wyndham’s mind, the identity of his mind as it engaged in apparently unrelated occupations. Wyndham left Eton for the army; in barracks he “taught himself Italian, and filled his leisure with the reading of history and poetry” [vii]. After this Coldstream culture there was a campaign in Egypt;5 later, service in South Africa accompanied by a copy of Virgil. There was a career in the Commons, a conspicuous career as Irish Secretary. Finally, there was a career as a landowner – 2400 acres. And throughout these careers George Wyndham went on not only accumulating books but reading them, and occasionally writing about them. He was a man of character, a man of energy. Mr. Whibley is quite credible when he says: Literature was for him no parergon, no mere way of escape from politics . If he was an amateur in feeling, he was a craftsman in execution;6 [xxxv] and, more significantly, [ 27 a romantic aristocrat With the same zest that he read and discoursed upon A Winter’s Tale or Troilus and Cressida, he rode to hounds, or threw himself with a kind of fury into a “point to point,” or made a speech at the hustings, or sat late in the night talking with a friend. [viii] From these and other sentences we chart the mind of George Wyndham, and the key to its topography is the fact that his literature and his politics and his country life are one and the same thing. They are not in separate compartments, they are one career. Together they made up his world: literature , politics, riding to hounds. In the real world these things have nothing to do with each other. But we cannot believe that George Wyndham lived in the real world. And this is implied in Mr. Whibley’s remark that: George Wyndham was by character and training a romantic. He looked with wonder upon the world as upon a fairyland. [xv] Here is the manifestation of type. There must probably be conceded to history a few “many-sided” men. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci was such. George Wyndham was not a man on the scale of Leonardo, and his writings give a very different effect from Leonardo’s notebooks. Leonardo turned to art or science, and each was what it was and not another thing. But Leonardo was Leonardo: he had no father to speak of, he was hardly a citizen, and he had no stake in the community .7 He lived in no fairyland, but his mind went out and became a part of things. George Wyndham was Gentry. He was chivalrous, the world was an adventure of himself. It is characteristic that on embarking as a subaltern for Egypt he wrote enthusiastically: I do not suppose that any expedition since the days of Roman governors of provinces has started with such magnificence; we might have been Antony going to Egypt in a purple-sailed galley. [vii] This is precisely the spirit which animates his appreciation of the Elizabethans and of Walter Scott; which guides him toward Hakluyt and North.8 Wyndham was enthusiastic, he was a Romantic, he...