BLTC Press Titles

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Paradoxes of the Highest Science

Eliphas Levi

The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu, James Legge (trans.)

Nightmare abbey

by Thomas Love Peacock



HAVE nearly finished ' Nightmare Abbey,'" writes Peacock to Shelley about the middle of 1818. "I think

it necessary to make a stand against the encroachments of black bile." Let it be noted that this adversary of the atrabilious was himself the author of " The Philosophy of Melancholy;" and, if Jefferson Hogg's probably exaggerated gossip may be trusted, had posed among his friends as one (Platonically) enamoured of suicide. But set a thief to catch a thief. Nothing could exceed the sanity of Peacock's protest against pessimism except its humour: and it certainly was not uncalled for. Wordsworth, indeed, was a grand example of a thoroughly healthy minded author; but his influence had as yet only affected the higher minds. Three years before the publication of " Nightmare Abbey," an almost perennial spring of the purest, soundest, most thoroughly genial and most thoroughly objective literature that the world had seen since Homer had been unsealed by the publication of " Waverley," but Scott's merits were never adequately recognised by Peacock.

If, however, his protest seems in any respect exaggerated, it is because the morbid stuff that provoked it has mostly made room for fresh developments of the decadence which, in letters as in nature, goes on pari passu with healthy growth, leaving the good literature of the period invested in our eyes with a more representative character than it in fact possessed. We can depend upon Jane Austen, whose young ladies in "Northanger Abbey" are found making it a condition that the novels they procure from the Bath circulating library shall "all be horrid." The titles preserved to us (few will care to explore further) bear out this character, and it is on record that it paid the publisher to bring out Shelley's " St Irvyne " and " Zastrozzi." The fashion of the terrific in fiction and drama had been imported from Germany: naturally enough, for it is but a crude form of romanticism, and the rise of the German romantic school had anticipated the English by twenty years. No one had written more horrifically than the youthful Tieck, soon to develop into the consummate master of humourous poetical persiflage. Coleridge, in a striking sonnet, had asserted that, rather than redescend to the level of ordinary mortality, he would have been willing and even anxious to expire, if he could but have made his famishing father shriek as Schiller had made his. As the taste for these crude effects waned, mind prevailing over matter as it always should, the merely horrible melted gradually into the misanthropic, and Giaour and Corsair took the places of the One-handed Monk and the Castle Spectre. " The ghosts," says Mr Flosky, in this novel, "have been laid, and the devil has been cast into outer darkness, and now the delight of our spirits is to dwell on all the vices and blackest passions of our nature, tricked out in a masquerade dress of heroism and disappointed benevolence." At this juncture Peacock came forward to defend " the cheerful and solid wisdom of antiquity" against Childe Haroldism as impersonated in Mr Cypress, and the Coleridgean transcendentalism of Mr Flosky, and the political methods of " Spartacus Weishaupt, the immortal founder of the sect of the Illuminati;" to say nothing of the blue devils chargeable partly upon climate and domestic worries, partly upon "tea, late dinners, and the French Revolution." If the execution appears fantastic, the object was highly practical: and even in the few particulars in which the satire may seem no longer applicable, it will be found that Attic salt does not readily become obsolete. " Nightmare Abbey" further possesses abiding interest as a contemporary survey of men of eminence, factors in the intellectual life of our own day, from a point of view not frequently taken.

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