Literary Recollections of Max Müller

by Edwin Watts Chubb

A poet whom I knew at Oxford as an undergraduate, and whom I watched and admired to the end of his life, was Matthew Arnold. He was beautiful as a young man, strong and manly, yet full of dreams and schemes. His Olympian manners began even at Oxford; there was no harm in them, they were natural, not put on. The very sound of his voice and the wave of his hand were Jovelike.... Sometimes at public dinners, when he saw himself surrounded by his contemporaries, most of them judges, bishops, and ministers, he would groan over the drudgery he had to go through every day of his life in examining dirty school-boys and school-girls. But he saw the fun of it, and laughed. What a pity it was that his friends—and he had many—could find no better place for him. Most of his contemporaries rose to high position in Church and State, he remained to the end an examiner of elementary schools. Of course it may be said that like so many of his literary friends, he might have written novels and thus eked out a living by potboilers of various kinds. But there was something nobler and refined in him which restrained his pen from such work. Whatever he gave to the world was to be perfect, as perfect as he could make it, and he did not think that he possessed the talent for novels. His saying that "no Arnold can ever write a novel" is well known, but it has been splendidly falsified of late by his own niece. Arnold was a delightful man to argue with, not that he could easily be convinced that he was wrong, but he never lost his temper, and in the most patronizing way he would generally end by, "Yes, yes! my good fellow, you are quite right, but, you see, my view of the matter is different, and I have little doubt it is the true one!" This went so far that even the simplest facts failed to produce any impression on him....

Ruskin often came to spend a few days with his old friends, and as uncompromising and severe as he could be when he wielded his pen, he was always most charming in conversation. He never, when he was with his friends, claimed the right of speaking with authority, even on his own special subjects, as he might well have done. It seemed to be his pen that made him say bitter things.... He was really the most tolerant and agreeable man in society. He could discover beauty where no one else saw it, and make allowance where others saw no excuse. I remember him as diffident as a young girl, full of questions, and grateful for any information. Even on art topics I have watched him listening almost deferentially to others who laid down the law in his presence. His voice was always most winning, and his language simply perfect. He was one of the few Englishmen I knew who, instead of tumbling out their sentences like so many portmanteaus, bags, tugs, and hat-boxes from an open railway van, seemed to take a real delight in building up his sentences, even in familiar conversation, so as to make each deliverance a work of art....

And what a beautiful mind his was, and what lessons of beauty he has taught us all. At the same time, he could not bear anything unbeautiful, and anything low or ignoble in men revolted him and made him thoroughly unhappy. I remember once taking Emerson to lunch with him, in his rooms in Corpus Christi College. Emerson was an old friend of his, and in many respects a cognate soul. But some quite indifferent subject turned up, a heated discussion ensued, and Ruskin was so upset that he had to quit the room and leave us alone. Emerson was most unhappy, and did all he could to make peace, but he had to leave without a reconciliation....

Another though less frequent visitor to Oxford was Tennyson. His first visit to our house was rather alarming. We lived in a small house in High Street, nearly opposite Magdalen College, and our establishment was not calculated to receive sudden guests, particularly a poet laureate. He stepped in one day during the long vacation, when Oxford was almost empty. Wishing to show the great man all civility, we asked him to dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. At that time almost all the shops were in the market, which closed at one o'clock. My wife, a young housekeeper, did her best for our unexpected guest. He was known to be a gourmand, and at dinner he was evidently put out by finding the sauce with the salmon was not the one he preferred. He was pleased, however, with the wing of a chicken, and said it was the only advantage he got from being a poet laureate, that he generally received the liver-wing of a chicken. The next morning at breakfast, we had rather plumed ourselves on having been able to get a dish of cutlets, and were not a little surprised when our guest arrived, to see him whip off the cover of a hot dish, and to hear the exclamation, "Mutton chops! the staple of every bad inn in England." However, these were but minor matters, though not without importance in the eyes of a young wife to whom Tennyson had been like one of the immortals. He was full of interest and inquiries about the East, more particularly about Indian poetry, and I believe it was then that I told him that there was no rhyme in Sanskrit poetry, and ventured to ask him why there should be in English. He was not so offended as Samuel Johnson seems to have been, who would probably have answered my question by "You are a fool, sir; use your own judgment," while Tennyson made the very sensible answer that rhyme assisted the memory....

It was generally after dinner ... that Tennyson began to thaw, and to take a more active part in conversation. People who have not known him then, have hardly known him at all. During the day he was often very silent and absorbed in his own thoughts, but in the evening he took an active part in the conversation of his friends. His pipe was almost indispensable to him, and I remember one time when I and several friends were staying at his house, the question of tobacco turned up. I confessed that for years I had been a perfect slave to tobacco, so that I could neither read nor write a line without smoking, but that at last I had rebelled against the slavery, and had entirely given up tobacco. Some of his friends taunted Tennyson that he could never give up tobacco. "Anybody can do that," he said, "if he chooses to do it." When his friends still continued to doubt and to tease him, "Well," he said, "I shall give up smoking from to-night." The very same evening I was told that he threw his tobacco and his pipes out of the window of his bedroom. The next day he was most charming, though somewhat self-righteous. The second day he became very moody and captious, the third day no one knew what to do with him. But after a disturbed night I was told that he got out of bed in the morning, went quietly into the garden, picked up one of his broken pipes, stuffed it with the remains of the tobacco scattered about, and then having had a few puffs, came to breakfast, all right again.

He once very kindly offered to lend me his house in the Isle of Wight. "But mind," he said, "you will be watched from morning till evening." This was, in fact, his great grievance, that he could not go out without being stared at. Once taking a walk with me and my wife on the downs behind his house, he suddenly started, left us, and ran home, simply because he had descried two strangers coming towards us.

I was told that he once complained to the queen, and said that he could no longer stay in the Isle of Wight, on account of the tourists who came to stare at him. The queen, with a kindly irony, remarked that she did not suffer much from that grievance, but Tennyson not seeing what she meant, replied, "No, madam, and if I could clap a sentinel wherever I liked, I should not be troubled either."

It must be confessed that people were very inconsiderate. Rows of tourists sat like sparrows on the paling of his garden, waiting for his appearance. The guides were actually paid by sight-seers, particularly by those from America, for showing them the great poet. Nay, they went so far as to dress up a sailor to look like Tennyson, and the result was that, after their trick had been found out, the tourists would walk up to Tennyson and ask him, "Now, are you the real Tennyson?" This, no doubt, was very annoying, and later on Lord Tennyson was driven to pay a large sum for some useless downs near his house, simply in order to escape from the attentions of admiring travelers.