Publication: The New York Times
New York, NY, United States
MRS. BROOKFIELD AGAIN.
A Charming Book About William Brookfield and Some of His Famous Friends.
In "The Cambridge Apostles" (Scribner,) a book of singular interest and charm, Mrs. Charles Brookfield has given a brief sketch of William Henry Brookfield and of twelve illustrious Cambridge men who were his friends and correspondents—Joseph Henry Blakesley, Charles Buller, Arthur Henry Hallam, John Mitchell Kemble, Henry Lushington, Frederick Denison Maurice, Richard Monckton Milnes, James Spedding, John Starling, Alfred Tennyson, Richard Chenevix Trench, George Stovin Venables.
Of these Mrs. Brookfield does not narrate the histories , save to give a slight framework of the leading events which shaped their lives. Her object is, by means of their letters and of some account of their friendships, their thoughts, their aims in life, to present, so far as may be a portrait of each man as he was known to those who stood nearest.
"The Apostles" was a name originally applied in a spirit of banter to "The Cambridge Conversazione Society," a group of brilliant undergraduates, its number limited to twelve, who met once a week, when one read an original essay, the others talking it over with the utmost frankness and freedom.
In "those dawn-golden times" of the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century youth was not only seething with speculation, penetrated with a fine distain of everything selfish, petty, false, filled to the brim with poetry, but it had the courage of its enthusiasms, it was ebullient with the consciousness of its own powers. "The world is one great thought," cried Jack Kemble, "and I am thinking it!"
Unworldliness seems to have been a characteristic of this remarkable sodality. "The gospel of getting on" seems to have been as remote from their thought as their sobriquet would imply. Envy was unknown among them. Each rejoiced in another's laurels. Each was quick and proud to recognize his superior in the gifts shared by all. Each a poet, they united with acclaim in crowning Tennyson King of them all. Long before he was Laureate of England he was Laureate of the "Apostles."
We observe, too, that the "Apostleship"—the mutual understanding, sympathy, and help, the thorough camaraderie—was not merely a feature of college years, but in life. Ecen marriage made no difference in the friendships, little in the customs of the "Apostles"; nor did the diverging interests and pursuits of mature years, and this because the links binding them together were not forged from youthful interests of the passing hour, but from the things that really matter—things of character and of mind.
Perhaps because their gifts were "so pure and obvious," perhaps because of the keen scalpel of criticism to which they subjected each other in their weekly meetings, certain it is that in after years not one of the "Apostles" ever assumed a pose, or sank to the miserable level of the "self-conscious literary lion," Each was intent to the last upon continuing to be the man who had made the name, and would have scorned to go around airing it.
Both letters and talk are so full of sayings witty and pregnant that when we have closed the book it fairly bristles with marks for reference. We can quote but a few of the many striking passages Brookfield writes:
Speaking of Carlyle to Greg, I asserted him to be a profoundly religious man "Oh, yes," says Greg, "that is always very noticeable when you find a man with a religion without a creed."
"Gladstone's method of impartiality," declares Milnes, "is being furiously earnest on both sides of the question." And to Milnes, "when he had accomplished something still more fantastic than his usual fantasies," Buller remarked, "I often think, Milnes, how puzzled your Maker must be to account for your conduct."
Spadding thus characterizes Edward FitzGerald:
He is the Prince of Quietists. * * * Half the self-sacrifice, the self-denial, the moral resolution which he exercises to keep himself easy would amply furnish forth a martyr or a missionary. His tranquility is like a pirated copy of the peace of God.
A few typographical errors disfigure a volume unusually excellent in its format, a joy to both eye and hand. We note "Spencer" for "Spenser," "write" for "quite." And a sentence rendered contradictory for its printing.
The interest of the book is heightened by portraits of all the subjects of its sketches, says Henry Lushington; nor are these portraits disappointing, except, perhaps, that of John Sterling.
We cannot take our leave of these "Cambridge Apostles" without observing how conclusively they refute the dictum that from man of brilliant parts ordinary decency of life is not to be expected. As "the divine fire" flamed high and bright in every member of this society, it burned out the baser passions. As Tennyson was their Laureate, so they seem to have risen to his conception of the highest manhood, expressed in his tribute to the Prince Consort, and in his lines on Sir Galahad and King Arthur. They seem to have been of the opinion that some subjects should not be written about at all, and to have held the Apostolic view as to the "Think on these things."
It is of the nature of an accolade to be admitted to the elect circle. Mrs. Brookfield's readers cannot but have a sense of distinction conferred upon them.
Verily, "There were giants in the earth in those days," and yet "the beautiful fact remains that that which impresses and delights us most is not their marvelous accomplishment, but the warm and faithful attention they bore for one another. Our minds are dazzled by their separate achievements, but our hearts are warmed by their mutual love. It was the spirit of helping, not of outstripping each other which stimulated these faithful friends on their way." Their greatness of soul exceeded their greatness of ability.
|Date completed:||October 31, 2009 by: Bob Berry;|