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His Vocation.

Three hundred years since Borrow would have been a gentleman adventurer: he would have dropped quietly down the river, and steered for the Spanish Main, bent upon making carbonadoes of your Don. But he came too late for that, and falling upon no sword and buckler age but one that was interested in Randal and Spring, he accepted that he found, and did his best to turn its conditions, into literature. As he had that admirable instinct of making the best of things which marks the true adventurer, he was on the whole exceeding happy. There was no more use in sailing for Javan and Gadire; but at home there were highways in abundance, and what is your genuine tramp but a dry-land sailor? The Red Man is exhausted of everything but sordidness; but under that round-shouldered little tent at the bend of the road, beside that fire artistically built beneath that kettle of the comfortable odours, among those horses and colts at graze hard by, are men and women more mysterious and more alluring to the romantic mind than any Mingo or Comanch that ever traded a scalp. While as for your tricks of fence your immortal passado, your punto reverso if that be no longer the right use for a gentleman, have not Spring and Langan fought their great battle on Worcester racecourse? and has not Cribb of Gloucestershire that renowned, heroic, irresistible Thomas beaten Molyneux the negro artist in the presence of twenty thousand roaring Britons? and shall the practice of an art which has rejoiced in such a master as the illustrious Game Chicken, Hannibal of the Ring, be held degrading by an Englishman of sufficient inches who, albeit a Tory and a High Churchman, is at bottom as thoroughgoing a Republican as ever took the word of command from Colonel Cromwell? And if all this fail, if he get nobody to put on the gloves with him, if the tents of the Romany prove barren of interest, if the king’s highway be vacant of adventure as Mayfair, he has still philology to fall back upon, he can still console himself with the study of strange tongues, he can still exult in a peculiar superiority by quoting the great Ab Gwylim where the baser sort of persons is content with Shakespeare. So that what with these and some kindred diversions a little horse-whispering and ale-drinking, the damnation of Popery, the study of the Bible he can manage not merely to live but to live so fully and richly as to be the envy of some and the amazement of all. That, as life goes and as the world wags, is given to few. Add to it the credit of having written as good a book about Spain as ever was written in any language, the happiness of having dreamed and partly lived that book ere it was written, the perfect joy of being roundly abused by everybody, and the consciousness of being different from everybody and of giving at least as good as ever you got at several things the world is silly enough to hold in worship as the Toryism of Sir Walter, or the niceness of Popery, or the pleasures of Society: and is it not plain that Borrow was a man uncommon fortunate, and that he enjoyed life as greatly as most men not savages who have possessed the fruition of this terrestrial sphere?

Ideals and Achievements.

He prepared his effects as studiously and almost as dexterously as Dumas himself. His instinct of the picturesque was rarely indeed at fault; he marshalled his personages and arranged his scene with something of that passion for effect which entered so largely into the theory of M. lé Comte de Monte-Cristo. However closely disguised, himself is always the heroic figure, and he is ever busy in arranging discovery and triumph. To his chance-mates he is but an eccentric person, an amateur tinker, a slack-baked gipsy, an unlettered hack; to his audience he is his own, strong, indifferent self: presently the rest will recognise him and he will be disdainfully content. And recognise him they do. He throws off his disguise; there is a gape, a stare, a general conviction that Lavengro is the greatest man in the world; and then as the manner of Lesage commands the adventure ends, the stars resume their wonted courses, and the self-conscious Tinker-Quixote takes the road once more and passes on to other achievements: a mad preacher to succour, a priest to baffle, some tramp to pound into a jelly of humility, an applewoman to mystify, a horse-chaunter to swindle, a pugilist to study and help and portray. But whatever it be, Lavengro emerges from the ordeal modestly, unobtrusively, quietly, most consciously magnificent. Circumstantial as Defoe, rich in combinations as Lesage, and with such an instinct of the picturesque, both personal and local, as none of these possessed, this strange wild man holds on his strange wild way, and leads you captive to the end. His dialogue is copious and appropriate: you feel that like Ben Jonson he is dictating rather than reporting, that he is less faithful and exact than imaginative and determined; but you are none the less pleased with it, and suspicious though you be that the voice is Lavengro’s and the hands are the hands of some one else, you are glad to surrender to the illusion, and you regret when it is dispelled. Moreover, that all of it should be set down in racy, nervous, idiomatic English, with a kind of eloquence at once primitive and scholarly, precious but homely the speech of an artist in sods and turfs if at first it surprise and charm yet ends by seeming so natural and just that you go on to forget all about it and accept the whole thing as the genuine outcome of a man’s experience which it purports to be. Add that it is all entirely unsexual; that there is none with so poor an intelligence of the heart as woman moves it; that the book does not exist in which the relations between boy and girl are more miserably misrepresented than in Lavengro and The Romany Rye; that that picaresque ideal of romance which, finding utterance in Hurtado de Mendoza, was presently to appeal to such artists as Cervantes, Quevedo, Lesage, Smollett, the Dickens of Pickwick, finds such expression in Lavengro and The Romany Rye as nowhere else; and the tale of Borrow is complete enough.


Despite or because of a habit of mystification which obliged him to jumble together the homely Real and a not less homely Ideal, Lavengro will always, I think, be found worthy of companionship, if only as the one exemplary artist-tramp the race has yet achieved. The artist-tramp, the tinker who can write, the horse-coper with a twang of Hamlet and a habit of Monte-Cristo that is George Borrow. For them that love these differences there is none in whom they are so cunningly and quaintly blended as George Borrow; and they that love them not may keep the other side of the road and fare in peace elsewhither.