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The decline of the sentimental

at a private charitable reading, held lately a in Boston, it was noticed that the younger part of the audience responded but slightly in the way of sympathy to Dr. Holmes's poem on the Moore Festival, while to the older guests the allusions seemed all very familiar and even touching. The waning of sympathy for Moore and his ‘Irish Melodies’ simply shows the diminished hold of the sentimental upon us, taking that word to represent a certain rather melodramatic self-consciousness, a tender introspection in the region of the heart, a kind of studious cosseting of one's finer feelings. Perhaps it is not generally recognized how much more abundant was this sort of thing forty years ago than now, and how it moulded the very temperaments of those who were born into it, and grew up under it. Byron had as much to do with creating it as any one in England; but [179] more probably it goes back to Rousseau in France; hardly, I should think to Petrarch, to whom Lowell is disposed to attribute it, and who certainly exerted very little influence in the way of sentimentality on his friend Chaucer. But the Byronic atmosphere certainly spread to Germany, as may be seen by the place conceded to that poet in Goethe's ‘Faust;’ although Goethe's ‘Werther,’ and Schiller's ‘Die Rauber’ showed that the tendency itself was at one time indigenous everywhere. In England, Bulwer and the younger Disraeli aimed to be prose Byrons; and in Moore and Mrs. Hemans, followed by Mrs. Norton and ‘L. E. L.,’ we see the sentimental spirit in successive degrees of dilution.

All the vocal music of forty or fifty years ago —when the great German composers were but just beginning to make their power felt in this country—was of an intensely sentimental description; delightfully so, I might add, for those who were brought up to that kind of enjoyment. Moore's songs, such as ‘Believe Me if all those Endearing Young Charms,’ ‘Fly, fly from the World, O Bessy, with Me,’ ‘The [180] Harp that once through Tara's Halls,’ and a score of others, set the popular key-note; and even his hymns, such as ‘Come, Ye Disconsolate,’ had a similar flavor. The whole vocal literature of the day held the same pitch. Such songs as ‘Go Thou and dream,’ ‘Take hence the Bowl,’ ‘My Soul is Dark,’ ‘The Evening Gun,’ ‘Those Fairy Bells,’ were sung in every drawing-room, by a class of private singers more impassioned and more ardently dramatic than one now hears anywhere, and whose singing afforded a training in the emotional such as no experience of to-day can give. Their strength would now be considered a weakness; the exquisite German songs that now prevail, while far higher in musical quality, offer human feeling itself in a purer, simpler, and doubtless nobler form; but the die-away period had its own fascination—the period when even the military bands marched to the plaintive strains of Mrs. Norton's ‘Love Not.’

In prose literature, as has been said, Bulwer and Disraeli best represented that epoch. The two fashionable novels, par excellence, of a whole generation, were ‘Pelham’ and ‘Vivian [181] Grey.’ In the latter, all the heights of foppery and persiflage did but set off what was then regarded as the unsurpassable pathos of ‘Violet Fane's’ death; and though the consummate dandyism of the companion book had no such relief, yet Bulwer amply made up for it by the rivers of tears that were shed over his ‘Pilgrims of the Rhine.’ Not a young lover of the period who had acquired a decent sentimental education, but was sure to put a flower between the leaves of that work where the author says: ‘Is there one of us who has not known a being for whom it would seem none too wild a fantasy, to indulge such a dream?’ Yes, yes, Bulwer! interpreter of one's visions, everybody had known such an object of emotion; and a thousand plain Susans and Sarahs stood forever enshrined in that romantic creation—‘the beautiful ideal of the world’—when death, or a luckier lover, or parental obduracy, or the mere accident of a family removal from New York to Cincinnati, had banished them from the regions of every day. Far be it from me to speak with disrespect of these emotions; it will presently be shown that they had many advantages; [182] but in their full and unquestioned vigor they certainly belonged to the period when men wore cravats swathed half a dozen times round the neck, and when, as the author of ‘Pelham’ wrote, there was safety in a swallow-tail.

It is not in the English tongue alone that this emotional tendency was expressed, for Lamartine was then much read, and even his travels in the East were saturated with it; and so were the writings of Jean Paul, who then rivalled Goethe in the affections of the newly enrolled students of German, his ‘Siebenkas’ which avowedly records the ‘life, death, and wedding’ of a hero who deliberately counterfeits death, that he and his mismated wife may each espouse the object of a loftier tenderness, was the climax of the sentimental; and yet this preposterous situation was so seriously and sympathetically painted, that probably no one who read the book at that day can now revert to it without emotion. But it is necessary to bear all this in mind in order to understand how all this atmosphere of exaggerated feeling seemed blown away in an instant by the first appearance of Sam Weller on the scene. [183] Dickens himself bore marked traces of the very epidemic he banished, and his Little Nells and Little Pauls were the last survival of the sentimental period; but nevertheless, it was he, more than any one else, who exorcised it; and whatever its merits, he rendered the world a service in that act of grace.

Yet no one can really regret, I should say, to have been born during that earlier period; it suffused life with a certain charm; and though it may sometimes have prematurely exhausted the heart, it oftener kept it young. For as we grow older we revert to the associations of our youth; what prevailed then seems always desirable; if our youth was a period of compression, our age is doubly such, but if that early period had emotional freedom and epanchement, our old age will have the same. Those who were in the current of the transcendental movement that swept through Europe and America half a century ago, will probably always have a touch of sentimentalism in their sympathies, a little exuberance somewhere, even when the outside is hard or constrained; and even those who belong to a later [184] school may show traces of that which prevailed when they were in their cradles, as Howells's volume of poems opens with the sentimental and even beautiful strains of ‘Forlorn.’ This, then, was the path through which he came to Silas Lapham and Lemuel Barker; and very likely, when Mr. Henry James's biography comes to be written, he may yet be found to have begun by taking tremulous footsteps in some such romantic path. After all, sentimentalism is a thing immortal, for it represents the slight overplus and excess of youthful emotion; it bears the same relation to the deeper feelings of later life that the college contests of the football ground bear to life's conflicts. Tennyson, who began by representing it, and then, with a hand far finer than that of Dickens, helped to guide us out of it, has unconsciously described the service done to the age by the epoch of sentimentalism when he paints in his ‘Gardener's Daughter,’ the mission fulfilled by Juliet, the earliest object of his flame:—

The summer pilot of an empty heart
Unto the shores of nothing. Know you not
Such touches are but embassies of love
To tamper with the feelings, ere he found
Empire for life?

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