It may be that, save by a few elderly people and certain lovers of old Gentleman's Magazines, the broad anonymous quarto known as The Diary of a Lover of Literature is no longer much admired or even recollected. But it deserves to be recalled to memory, if only in that it was, in some respects, the first, and in others, the last of a long series of publications. It was the first of those diaries of personal record of the intellectual life, which have become more and more the fashion and have culminated at length in the ultra-refinement of Amiel and the conscious self-analysis of Marie Bashkirtseff. It was less definitely, perhaps, the last, or one of the last, expressions of the eighteenth century sentiment, undiluted by any tincture of romance, any suspicion that fine literature existed before Dryden, or could take any form unknown to Burke.
It was under a strict incognito that The Diary of a Lover of Literature appeared, and it was attributed by conjecture to various famous people. The real author, however, was not a celebrated man. His name was Thomas Green, and he was the grandson of a wealthy Suffolk soap-boiler, who had made a fortune during the reign of Queen Anne. The Diarist's father had been an agreeable amateur in letters, a pamphleteer, and a champion of the Church of England against Dissent. Thomas Green, who was born in 1769, found himself at twenty-five in possession of the ample family estates, a library of good books, a vast amount of leisure, and a hereditary faculty for reading. His health was not very solid, and he was debarred by it from sharing the pleasures of his neighbour squires. He determined to make books and music the occupation of his life, and in 1796, on his twenty-seventh birthday, he began to record in a diary his impressions of what he read. He went on very quietly and luxuriantly, living among his books in his house at Ipswich, and occasionally rolling in his post-chaise to valetudinarian baths and "Spaws."
When he had kept his diary for fourteen years, it seemed to a pardonable vanity so amusing, that he persuaded himself to give part of it to the world. The experiment, no doubt, was a very dubious one. After much hesitation, and in an evil hour, perhaps, he wrote: "I am induced to submit to the indulgence of the public the idlest work, probably, that ever was composed; but, I could wish to hope, not absolutely the most unentertaining or unprofitable." The welcome his volume received must speedily have reassured him, but he had pledged himself to print no more, and he kept his promise, though he went on writing his Diary until he died in 1825. His MSS. passed into the hands of John Mitford, who amused the readers of The Gentleman's Magazine with fragments of them for several years. Green has had many admirers in the past, amongst whom Edward FitzGerald was not the least distinguished. But he was always something of a local worthy, author of one anonymous book, and of late he has been little mentioned outside the confines of Suffolk.
It would be difficult to find an example more striking than the Diary of a Lover of Literature of exclusive absorption in the world of books. It opens in a gloomy year for British politics, but there is found no allusion to current events. There is a victory off Cape St. Vincent in February, 1797, but Green is attacking Bentley's annotations on Horace. Bonaparte and his army are buried in the sands of Egypt; our Diarist takes occasion to be buried in Shaftesbury's Enquiry Concerning Virtue. Europe rings with Hohenlinden, but the news does not reach Mr. Thomas Green, nor disturb him in his perusal of Soame Jenyns' View of Christianity. The fragment of the Diary here preserved runs from September 1796 to June 1800. No one would guess, from any word between cover and cover, that these were not halcyon years, an epoch of complete European tranquillity. War upon war might wake the echoes, but the river ran softly by the Ipswich garden of this gentle enthusiast, and not a murmur reached him through his lilacs and laburnums.
I have said that this book is one of the latest expressions of unadulterated eighteenth-century sentiment. For form's sake, the Diarist mentions now and again, very superficially, Shakespeare, Bacon, and Milton; but in reality, the garden of his study is bounded by a thick hedge behind the statue of Dryden. The classics of Greece and Rome, and the limpid reasonable writers of England from the Restoration downwards, these are enough for him. Writing in 1800 he has no suspicion of a new age preparing. We read these stately pages, and we rub our eyes. Can it be that when all this was written, Wordsworth and Coleridge had issued Lyrical Ballads, and Keats himself was in the world? Almost the only touch which shows consciousness of a suspicion that romantic literature existed, is a reference to the rival translations of Burger's Lenore in 1797. Sir Walter Scott, as we know, was one of the anonymous translators; it was, however, in all probability not his, but Taylor's, that Green mentions with special approbation.
In one hundred years a mighty change has come over the tastes and fashions of literary life. When The Diary of a Lover of Literature was written, Dr. Hurd, the pompous and dictatorial Bishop of Worcester, was a dreaded martinet of letters, carrying on the tradition of his yet more formidable master Warburton. As people nowadays discuss Verlaine and Ibsen, so they argued in those days about Godwin and Horne Tooke, and shuddered over each fresh incarnation of Mrs. Radcliffe. Soame Jenyns was dead, indeed, in the flesh, but his influence stalked at nights under the lamps and where disputants were gathered together in country rectories. Dr. Parr affected the Olympian nod, and crowned or checkmated reputations. "A flattering message from Dr. P——" sends our Diarist into ecstasies so excessive that a reaction sets in, and the "predominant and final effect upon my mind has been depression rather than elevation." We think of
The yarns Jack Hall invented, and the songs Jem Roper sung.
And where are now Jem Roper and Jack Hall?
Who cares now for Parr's praise or Soame Jenyns' censure? Yet in our Diarist's pages these take equal rank with names that time has spared, with Robertson and Gibbon, Burke and Reynolds.
Thomas Green was more ready for experiment in art than in literature. He was "particularly struck" at the Royal Academy of 1797 with a sea view by a painter called Turner:
"Fishing vessels coming in with a heavy swell in apprehension of a tempest, gathering in the distance, and casting as it advances a night of shade, while a parting glow is spread with fine effect upon the shore; the whole composition bold in design and masterly in execution. I am entirely unacquainted with the artist, but if he proceeds as he has begun, he cannot fail to become the first in his department."
A remarkable prophecy, and one of the earliest notices we possess of the effect which the youthful Turner, then but twenty-two years of age, made on his contemporaries.
As a rule, except when he is travelling, our Diarist almost entirely occupies himself with a discussion of the books he happens to be reading. His opinions are not always in concert with the current judgment of to-day; he admires Warburton much more than we do, and Fielding much less. But he never fails to be amusing, because so independent within the restricted bounds of his intellectual domain. He is shut up in his eighteenth century like a prisoner, but inside its wall his liberty of action is complete. Sometimes his judgments are sensibly in advance of his age. It was the fashion in 1798 to denounce the Letters of Lord Chesterfield as frivolous and immoral. Green takes a wider view, and in a thoughtful analysis points out their judicious merits and their genuine parental assiduity. When Green can for a moment lift his eyes from his books, he shows a sensitive quality of observation which might have been cultivated to general advantage. Here is a reflection which seems to be as novel as it is happy:
"Looked afterwards into the Roman Catholic Chapel in Duke Street. The thrilling tinkle of the little bell at the elevation of the Host is perhaps the finest example that can be given of the sublime by association—nothing so poor and trivial in itself, nothing so transcendently awful, as indicating the sudden change in the consecrated Elements, and the instant presence of the Redeemer."
Much of the latter part of the Diary, as we hold it, is occupied with the description of a tour in England and Wales. Here Green is lucid, graceful, and refined: producing one after another little vignettes in prose, which remind us of the simple drawings of the water-colour masters of the age, of Girtin or Cozens or Glover. The volume, which opened with some remarks on Sir William Temple, closes with a disquisition on Warton's criticism of the poets. The curtain rises for three years on a smooth stream of intellectual reflection, unruffled by outward incident, and then falls again before we are weary of the monotonous flow of undiluted criticism. The Diary of a Lover of Literature is at once the pleasing record of a cultivated mind, and a monument to a species of existence that is as obsolete as nankeen breeches or a tie-wig.
Isaac D'Israeli said that Green had humbled all modern authors to the dust, and that he earnestly wished for a dozen volumes of The Diary. At Green's death material for at least so many supplements were placed in the hands of John Mitford, who did not venture to produce them. From January 1834 to May 1843, however, Mitford was incessantly contributing to The Gentleman's Magazine unpublished extracts from this larger Diary. These have never been collected, but my friend, Mr. W. Aldis Wright, possesses a very interesting volume, into which the whole mass of them has been carefully and consecutively pasted, with copious illustrative matter, by the hand of Edward FitzGerald, whose interest in and curiosity about Thomas Green were unflagging.