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His Essence.

Rabelais is not precisely a book for bachelors and maids at times, indeed, is not a book for grown men. There are passages not to be read without a blush and a sensation of sickness: the young giant which is the Renaissance being filthy and gross as Nature herself at her grossest and her most filthy. It is argued that this is all deliberate is an effect of premeditation: that Rabelais had certain home-truths to deliver to his generation, and delivered them in such terms as kept him from the fagot and the rope by bedaubing him with the renown of a common buffoon. But the argument is none of the soundest in itself, and may fairly be set aside as a piece of desperate special pleading, the work of counsel at their wits’ end for matter of defence. For Rabelais clean is not Rabelais at all. His grossness is an essential component in his mental fabric, an element in whose absence he would be not Rabelais but somebody else. It inspires his practice of art to the full as thoroughly as it informs his theory of language. He not only employs it wherever it might be useful: he goes out of his way to find it, he shovels it in on any and every occasion, he bemerds his readers and himself with a gusto that assuredly is not a common characteristic of defensive operations. In him, indeed, the humour of Old France the broad, rank, unsavoury esprit gaulois found its heroic expression; he made use of it because he must; and we can no more eliminate it from his work than we can remove the quality of imagination from Shakespeare’s or those of art and intellect from Ben Jonson’s. Other men are as foul or fouler; but in none is foulness so inbred and so ingrained, from none is it so inseparable. Few have had so much genius, and in none else has genius been so curiously featured.

His Secret.

It is significant enough that with all this against him he should have been from the first a great moral and literary influence and the delight of the wisest and soundest minds the world has seen. Shakespeare read him, and Jonson; Montaigne, a greater than himself, is in some sort his descendant; Swift, in Coleridge’s enlightening phrase, is ’anima Rabelaesii habitans in sicco’; to Sterne and Balzac and Moliere he was a constant inspiration; unto this day his work is studied and his meanings are sought with almost religious devoutness; while his phrases have passed into the constitution of a dozen languages, and the great figures he scrawled across the face of the Renaissance have survived the movement that gave them being, and are ranked with the monuments of literature. Himself has given us the reasons in the prologue to the first book, where he tells of the likeness between Socrates and the boxes called Sileni, and discourses of the manifest resemblance of his own work with Socrates. ‘Opening this box,’ which is Socrates, says he, ’you would have found within it a heavenly and inestimable drug, a more than human understanding, an admirable virtue, matchless learning, invincible courage, inimitable sobriety, certain contentment of mind, perfect assurance, and an incredible disregard of all that for which men cunningly do so much watch, run, sail, fight, travel, toil, and turmoil themselves.’ In such wise must his book be opened, and the ’high conceptions’ with which it is stuffed will presently be apparent. Nay, more: you are to do with it even as a dog with a marrowbone. ’If you have seen him you might have remarked with what devotion and circumspection he watches and wards it; with what care he keeps it; how fervently he holds it; how prudently he gobbets it; with what affection he breaks it; with what diligence he sucks it.’ And in the same way you ‘by a sedulous lecture and frequent meditation’ shall break the bone and suck out the marrow of these books. Since the advice was proffered, generation after generation of mighty wits have taken counsel with the Master, and his wisdom has through them been passed out into the practice of life, the evolution of society, the development of humanity. But the ‘prince de toute sapience et de toute comedie’ has not yet uttered his last word. He remains in the front of time as when he lived and wrote. The Abbey of Thelema and the education of Gargantua are still unrealised ideals; the Ringing Isle and the Isle of Papimany are in their essentials pretty much as he left them; Panurge, ’the pollarded man, the man with every faculty except the reason,’ has bettered no whit for the three centuries of improvement that have passed since he was flashed into being. We even we have much to learn from Master Alcofribas, and until we have learned it well enough to put it into practice his work remains half done and his book still one to study.