Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George Borrow (1803–1881)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Julian Hawthorne (1846–1934)
GEORGE BORROW lived eight-and-seventy years and published ten books. In his veins was mingled the blood of Cornwall and of Normandy; but though proud of this strain, he valued still more that personal independence which, together with his love of strange tongues and his passion for outdoor life, molded his career. His nature was mystical and eccentric, and he sometimes approached—though he never crossed—the confines of insanity; yet his instincts were robust and plain, he was an apostle of English ale and a master of the art of self-defense, he was an uncompromising champion of the Church of England and the savage foe of Papistry, he despised “kid-glove gentility” in life and literature, and delighted to make his spear ring against the hollow shield of social convention. A nature so complicated and individual, so outspoken and aggressive, could not slip smoothly along the grooves of civilized existence; he was soundly loved and hated, but seldom, or never understood. And the obstinate pride which gave projection to most of his virtues was also at the bottom of his faults: he better liked to perplex than to open himself to his associates; he willfully repelled where he might have captivated. Some human element was wanting in him: he was strong, masculine, subtle, persistent; of a lofty and austere spirit; too proud even to be personally ambitious; gifted with humor and insight; fearless and faithful;—but no tenderness, no gentleness, no inviting human warmth ever appears in him; and though he could reverence women, and admire them, and appreciate them also from the standpoint of the senses, they had no determining sway over his life or thought. If there be any man in English history whom such a summary of traits as this recalls, it is Dean Swift. Nevertheless Borrow’s differences from him are far greater than the resemblances between them. Giant force was in both of them; both were enigmas; but the deeper we penetrate into Borrow, the more we like him; not so with the blue-eyed Dean. Borrow’s depths are dark and tortuous, but never miasmic; and as we grope our way through them, we may stumble upon treasures, but never upon rottenness.  1
  A man who can be assigned to no recognized type—who flocks by himself, as the saying is—cannot easily be portrayed: we lose the main design in our struggle with the details. Indeed, no two portraits of such a man can be alike: they will vary according to the temperament and limitations of the painter. It is safe to assert, however, that insatiable curiosity was at the base both of his character and of his achievements. Instincts he doubtless had in plenty, but no intuitions; everything must be construed to him categorically. But his capacity keeps pace with his curiosity; he promptly assimilates all he learns, and he can forget nothing. Probably this investigating passion had its cause in his own unlikeness to the rest of us: he was as a visitor from another planet, pledged to send home reports of all he saw here. His success in finding strange things is prodigious: his strange eye detects oddities and beauties to which we to the manner born were strange. Adventures attend him everywhere, as the powers of earth and air on Prospero. Here comes the King of the Vipers, the dry stubble crackling beneath his outrageous belly; yonder the foredoomed sailor promptly fulfills his own prediction, falling from the yard-arm into the Bay of Biscay; anon the ghastly visage of Mrs. Herne, of the Hairy Ones, glares for a moment out of the midnight hedge; again, a mysterious infatuation drives the wealthy idler from his bed out into the inclement darkness, and up to the topmost bough of the tree, which he must “touch” ere he can rest; and now, in the gloom of the memorable dingle, the horror of fear falls upon the amateur tinker, the Evil One grapples terribly with his soul, blots of foam fly from his lips, and he is dashed against the trees and stones. An adventure, truly, fit to stand with any of mediæval legend, and compared with which the tremendous combat with Blazing Bosville, the Flaming Tinman, is almost a relief. But in what perilous Faery Land forlorn do all these and a thousand more strange and moving incidents take place?—Why, in the quiet lanes and byways of nineteenth-century England, or perchance in priest-ridden Spain, where the ordinary traveler can for the life of him discover nothing more startling than beef and beer, garlic and crucifixes. Adventures are in the adventurer.  2
  Man and nature were Borrow’s study, but England was his love. In him exalted patriotism touches its apogee. How nobly and uncompromisingly is he jealous of her honor, her glory, and her independence! In what eloquent apostrophes does he urge her to be true to her lofty traditions, to trample on base expediency and cleave to the brave and true! In what resounding jeremiads does he denounce woe upon her traitors and seducers! With what savage sarcasm and scorn does he dissect the soul of the “man in black”! No other writing more powerful, picturesque, and idiomatic has been done in this century. He will advocate no policy less austere than purity, courage, and truth. There is in his zeal a narrowness that augments its strength, yet lessens its effect so far as practical issues are concerned. He is an idealist: but surely no young man can read his stern, throbbing pages without a kindling of the soul, and a resolve to be high in deed and aim; and there is no gauging the final influence of such spiritual stimulus. England and mankind must be better for this lonely, indignant voice.  3
  England, and England’s religion, and the Bible in its integrity,—these are the controlling strings of Borrow’s harp. Yet he had his youthful period of religious doubt and philosophic sophism: has he not told how walls and ceilings rang with the “Hey!” of the man with the face of a lion, when the gray-haired boy intimated his skepticism? But vicissitudes of soul and body, aided by the itinerant Welsh preacher, cleansed him of these errors, and he undertook and carried through the famous crusade recorded in ‘The Bible in Spain’—a narrative of adventure and devotion which fascinated and astonished England, and sets its author abreast of the great writers of his time. It is as irresistible to-day as it was fifty years ago: it stands alone; only Trelawny’s ‘Adventures of a Younger Son’ can be compared with it as narrative, and Trelawny’s book lacks the grand central feature which gives dignity and unity to Borrow’s. Being a story of fact, ‘The Bible in Spain’ lacks much of the literary art and felicity, as well as the imaginative charm, of ‘Lavengro’; but within its own scope it is great, and nothing can supersede it.  4
  Gipsydom in all its aspects, though logically a side-issue with Borrow, was nevertheless the most noticeable thing relating to him: it engaged and colored him on the side of his temperament; and in the picture we form of a man, temperament tells far more than intellect because it is more individual. Later pundits have called in question the academic accuracy of Borrow’s researches in the Romany language: but such frettings are beside the mark; Borrow is the only genuine expounder of Gipsyness that ever lived. He laid hold of their vitals, and they of his; his act of brotherhood with Mr. Jasper Petulengro is but a symbol of his mystical alliance with the race. This is not to say that he fathomed the heart of their mystery; the gipsies themselves cannot do that: but he comprehended whatever in them is open to comprehension, and his undying interest in them is due not only to his sympathy with their way of life, but to the fact that his curiosity about them could never be quite satisfied. Other mysteries come and go, but the gipsy mystery stays with us, and was to Borrow a source of endless content. For after sharpening his wits on the ethnological riddle, he could refresh himself with the psychical aspect of the matter, discovering in them the incarnation of one essential human quality, incompletely present in all men. They are the perfect vagabonds; but the germ of vagabondage inheres in mankind at large, and is the source of the changes that have resulted in what we call civilization. Borrow’s nature comprised the gipsy, but the gipsy by no means comprised him; he wandered like them, but the object of his wanderings was something more than to tell dukkeripens, poison pigs, mend kettles, or deal in horseflesh. Therefore he puzzled them more than they did him.  5
  ‘The Gipsies of Spain’ (1841) was his first book about them; ‘Lavengro’ came ten years later, and ‘Romany Rye’ six years after that. In 1874 he returns to the subject in ‘Roman Lavo-lil,’ a sort of dictionary and phrase-book of the language, but unlike any other dictionary and phrase-book ever conceived: it is well worth reading as a piece of entertaining literature. His other books are translations of Norse and Welsh poetry, and a book of travels in ‘Wild Wales,’ published in 1862. All these works are more than readable: the translations, though rugged and unmusical, have about them a frank sensuousness and a primitive force that are amusing and attractive. But after all, Borrow is never thoroughly himself in literature unless the gipsies are close at hand; and of all his gipsy books ‘Lavengro’ is by far the best. Indeed, it is so much the best and broadest thing that he produced, that the reader who would know Borrow need never go beyond these pages. In ‘Lavengro’ we get the culmination of both the author and the man; it is his book in the full sense, and may afford profitable study to any competent reader for a lifetime.  6
  ‘Lavengro,’ in fact, is like nothing else in either biography or fiction—and it is both fictitious and biographical. It is the gradual revelation of a strange, unique being. But the revelation does not proceed in an orderly and chronological fashion: it is not begun in the first chapter, and still less is it completed in the last. After a careful perusal of the book, you will admit that though it has fascinated and impressed you, you have quite failed to understand it. Why is the author so whimsical? Wherefore these hinted but unconfessed secrets? Why does he stop short on the brink of an important disclosure, and diverge under cover of a line of asterisks into another subject?—But Borrow in ‘Lavengro’ is not constructing a book, he is creating one. He has the reserves of a man who respects his own nature, yet he treats the reader fairly. If you are worthy to be his friend, by-and-by you will see his heart,—look again, and yet again! That passage in a former chapter was incomplete; but look ahead a hundred pages and consider a paragraph there: by itself it seems to say little; but gradually you recognize in it a part of the inwoven strand which disappears in one part of the knot and emerges in another. Though you cannot solve the genial riddle to-day, you may to-morrow. The only clue is sympathy. This man hides his heart for him who has the mate to it; and beneath the whimsical, indifferent, proud, and cold exterior, how it heaves and fears and loves and wonders! This is a wild, unprecedented, eloquent, mysterious, artistic yet artless book; it is alive; it tells of an existence apart, yet in contact with the deep things of all human experience. No other man ever lived as Borrow did, and yet his book is an epitome of life. The magic of his personal quality beguiles us on every page; but deeper still lie the large, immutable traits that make all men men, and avouch the unity of mankind.  7
  ‘Romany Rye’ is the continuation of ‘Lavengro,’ but scarcely repeats its charm; its most remarkable feature is an ‘Appendix,’ in which Borrow expounds his views upon things in general, including critics and politics. It is a marvelously trenchant piece of writing, and from the literary point of view delightful; but it must have hurt a good many people’s feelings at the time it was published, and even now shows the author on his harsh side only. We may agree with all he says, and yet wish he had uttered it in a less rasping tone.  8
  Like nearly all great writers, Borrow, in order to get his best effects, must have room for his imagination. Mere fact would not rouse him fully, and abstract argument still less. In ‘Lavengro’ he hit upon his right vein, and he worked it in the fresh maturity of his power. The style is Borrow’s own, peculiar to him: eloquent, rugged, full of liturgical repetitions, shunning all soft assonances and refinements, and yet with remote sea-like cadences, and unhackneyed felicities that rejoice the jaded soul. Writing with him was spontaneous, but never heedless or unconsidered; it was always the outcome of deep thought and vehement feeling. Other writers and their books may be twain, but Borrow and his books are one. Perhaps they might be improved in art, or arrangement, or subject; but we should no longer care for them then, because they would cease to be Borrow. Borrow may not have been a beauty or a saint; but a man he was; and good or bad, we would not alter a hair of him.  9
  The lack of a competent biography of Borrow was removed in 1899 by the publication of W. I. Knapp’s elaborate researches, which form the basis of a succession of books about Borrow for more than a dozen years. Much has been added to our knowledge of his strange adventures, but so far as the main events of his life are concerned there has been little change in the most important details. Borrow was born in 1803 and died in 1881; his father, a soldier, failed to make a solicitor of him, and the youth, at his father’s death, came up to London to live or die by literature. After much hardship (of which the chapters in ‘Lavengro’ describing the production of ‘Joseph Sell’ convey a hint), he set out on a wandering pilgrimage over England, Europe, and the East. As agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society he traversed Spain and Portugal, sending to the Morning Herald letters descriptive of his adventures, which afterwards were made the substance of his books. He married at thirty-seven, and lived at Oulton Broad nearly all his life after. His wife died a dozen years before him, in 1869. She left no children.  10
  His first book, a translation of Klinger’s ‘Faust,’ appeared in 1825; his last, ‘The Gipsy Dictionary,’ in 1874; a volume called ‘Penquite and Pentyre,’ on Cornwall, was announced in 1857, but seems never to have been published. ‘Targum,’ a collection of translations from thirty languages and dialects, was a tour de force belonging to the year 1835.  11

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