Some years ago, when the Pall Mall Gazette sent round to all sorts and conditions of eminent men, inviting lists of “The Hundred Best Books”—the first serious attempt to introduce a decimal system into Great Britain—I remember that these eminent men’s replies disclosed nothing so wonderful as their unanimity. We were prepared for Sir John Lubbock, but not, I think, for the host of celebrities who followed his hygienic example, and made a habit of taking the Rig Vedas to bed with them. Altogether their replies afforded plenty of material for a theory that to have every other body’s taste in literature is the first condition of eminence in every branch of the public service. But in one of the lists—I think it was Sir Monier Williams’s—the unexpected really happened. Sir Monier thought that Mr. T.E. Brown’s The Doctor was one of the best books in the world.
Now, the poems of Mr. T.E. Brown are not known to the million. But, like Mr. Robert Bridges, Mr. Brown has always had a band of readers to whom his name is more than that of many an acknowledged classic. I fancy it is a case of liking deeply or scarce at all. Those of us who are not celebrities may be allowed to have favorites who are not the favorites of others, writers who (fortuitously, perhaps) have helped us at some crisis of our life, have spoken to us the appropriate word at the moment of need, and for that reason sit cathedrally enthroned in our affections. To explain why the author of Betsy Lee, Tommy Big-Eyes and The Doctor is more to me than most poets—why to open a new book of his is one of the most exciting literary events that can befall me in now my twenty-ninth year—would take some time, and the explanation might poorly satisfy the reader after all.
My Morning with a Book.
But I set out to describe a morning with a book. The book was Mr. Brown’s Old John, and other Poems, published but a few days back by Messrs. Macmillan & Co. The morning was spent in a very small garden overlooking a harbor. Hazlitt’s conditions were fulfilled. I had enjoyed enough food and sleep to last me for some little time: few people, I imagine, have complained of the cold, these last few weeks: and the book was not only new to me for the most part, but certain to please. Moreover, a small incident had already put me in the best of humors. Just as I was settling down to read, a small tug came down the harbor with a barque in tow whose nationality I recognized before she cleared a corner and showed the Norwegian colors drooping from her peak. I reached for the field-glass and read her name—Henrik Ibsen! I imagined Mr. William Archer applauding as I ran to my own flag-staff and dipped the British ensign to that name. The Norwegians on deck stood puzzled for a moment, but, taking the compliment to themselves, gave me a cheerful hail, while one or two ran aft and dipped the Norwegian flag in response. It was still running frantically up and down the halliards when I returned to my seat, and the lines of the bark were softening to beauty in the distance—for, to tell the truth, she had looked a crazy and not altogether seaworthy craft—as I opened my book, and, by a stroke of luck, at that fine poem, The Schooner.