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The second novel produced by Disraeli is called “The Young Duke.' It is the story of a young English nobleman, blasé with fashionable life and tired of inaction, falling in love, and under its inspiration plunging into the only arena of action open to him-politics, and achieving fame and power. Perhaps the work is less purely characteristic of its author than any that he has written; yet it is extremely clever, and contains much powerful writing. Those who seek for objections to it, may say that it makes the attainment of worldly position the summum bonum of life. Will they bear in mind that it was written by a young man ; and of a proscribed race, to whom most of the great roads of life seemed closed, and political power the most unattainable of all earthly things?
In 1831 Disraeli returned to England, and resolved to make an effort to enter public life. Those who are too young to remember the violence of the political agitation going on in those days, when the Reform Bill was still a question and not a fait accompli, must have heard and read much of it. Political differences in 1854 are tame and spiritless when compared to the rancorous animosity of three-and-twenty years ago. No man could remain neutral -no thinking man could help forming an opinion, or espousing a side. Yet let it be remembered, it was not merely a question of Whig or Tory. Radicalism was already born and in a very vigorous childhood, and had something bold and earnest about it, which was fascinating to men of ardent temper, and especially to the young. Disraeli was not a Radical; neither was he exactly a Tory, for the latter name had become perverted. It was no longer the designation of a party guided by the principles of those who founded it: it was merely the name of those who were non-progressionists--who opposed every change as a change, and not in reference to its merits or defects. The keen intellect of Benjamin Disraeli saw this : he was not to be imposed on by a name. He knew that of those who called themselves Tories not one in a thousand knew anything of the principles of Toryism, or had any idea of what they wanted except to oppose the Whigs. In this last object Disraeli was with them, heart and soul. What man of generous emotion and ardent aspiration was ever a Whig in his youth? What can be more repulsive to enthusiasm than the cold doctrines of Whiggism? Hatred of the Whigs--war to the knife with them—was, and ever has been, and to this day is, the most marked of Disraeli's political principles.
Tory-Radicalism is the name that has been bestowed on the doctrines he embraced, when first canvassing for a seat in parliament. We will not stop to dispute the correctness of the name, especially as we are not disposed to enter too deeply on the theme of politics; but, as far as we can judge, the doctrines were, in principle, the same as those of “ Coningsby.”
fourteen years afterwards, or those of The Right Honourable Benjamin
Disraeli was defeated in his first election contest; and in 1832 he
may seem aimless to those who are content to plod along the road of life in the usual routine style-who take to the bar, or the church, or medicine, or the army, and are satisfied to perform the customary duties of their professions, and reap the customary rewards in the shape of gold and a "respectable position in society :" but Contarini is not aimless in a higher sense; he seeks something loftier than material pleasure, perchance he seeks the unattainable, perhaps he is a dreamer. Be it so; but do not scoff, ye who cannot fathom the depths of a poet's heart, ye who cannot measure the heights of a poet's aspirations after the great, the good, the beautiful. Do not scoff, because to your cold northern temperaments his rhapsodies appear extravagant, his visions too gorgeous, his language too ornate. Remember that he (like the author whose creation he is) was of a sunnier clime than yourself—where the pulse beats more quickly, the heart throbs more deeply, and the voice gives utterance to the heart's desires in language more passionate than northern habits engender, or northern taste approves. He who wrote “ Contarini Fleming” is of the impassioned race of Isaiah, and of him who produced the Song of Solomon. Do you doubt his theory of "race?” Every work he has produced, the life he has led, the language he uses, are living and enduring evidences of its indisputable truth.
It must not be supposed that in saying this we are expressing any admiration of the Jews. Our opinion on this point may differ widely from that of Mr. Disraeli; but that their race is the most extraordinary, the most pure, the most marked in its characteristics, for good or for evil-all this we admit most fully. But our space compels us to proceed.
In 1833 another production of Disraeli's pen was given to the world, called “The Wondrous Tale of Alroy.” It is an oriental romance, written in prose-poetry. That the language is overloaded with metaphor and ornament, that it is somewhat inflated, and utterly unconventional, cannot be denied; but all these peculiarities are scarcely defects in a work which is a story of the Hebrews in the twelfth century. At all events this prose
poem gained the warm applause of Thomas Moore, whose own
" Lalla Rookh” is evidence of the value of his opinion on such a subject.
Shortly after this romance, appeared a poem in blank verse—“The Revolutionary Epic.” It was political in its object, and politics and poetry have never amalgamated well. Perhaps it is as well done as the subject admitted ; but certainly it did not succeed, and from that day Mr. Disraeli—to use his own expression—threw his lyre into limbo." We regret it, because he is one of the few living men that we believe to have true poetry in him, and had he selected—were he even now to select--some Hebrew legend for his theme, we believe that his genius would produce a beautiful poem.
At this time Disraeli published a small political pamphlet, called "The Crisis Examined.” Being, like all pamphlets, intended for its day, it is too late to criticise it now; but it may be remarked (and it is a stumbling-block to those who always taunt Disraeli with political inconsistency) that in it he is found advocating two measures which he has fought for in the present day—the Repeal of the Malt Tax and Financial Reform.
In 1835 he stood for Taunton, but was again defeated ; and in this year appeared his Vindication of the British Constitution.” In this work, which is addressed to Lord Lyndhurst, his design is to show the principles of our Constitution, and that true Toryism is identical with them. Bolingbroke is the political writer he most admires, and few who have read that author's works will dispute his choice. Even the abusive biographer we have incidentally referred to is driven to attack Lord Bolingbroke personally, because he cannot refute his arguments; and talks about the kept mistresses and wild extravagances of his youth, and the “ atheism ” of his old age. A writer must indeed be driven to his wits’ end for an argument, when he is obliged to resort to the former accusation; and, with regard to the latter, the term “atheism” is too favorite a one, with those who attack men differing from them in religious opinions, to be worthy of much consideration. Pope addressed his
Essay on Man” to Lord Bolingbroke, who is generally believed to have originated its composition, and whose creed it is supposed to contain. Is this exquisite work, the most perfect ethical poem in any language—a work which was written
“ To vindicate the ways of God to manis this atheistical ?" But the accusation was worthy of the scribbler who, to refute Disraeli's theory of race, produces the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England ! Did he forget that Mr. Disraeli could bring, in support of it, a work somewhat older and more venerable than even the thirty-nine articles-THE BIBLE ?
“ Venetia” was published in the latter part of the year 1836. We like it least of all Disraeli's works. Lord Byron and Shelley figure in its pages, under different names and different worldly circumstances from those in which they actually lived. We do not consider either portrait well drawn, and that of Shelley especially defective; but still “ Venetia," like all that Disraeli has written, contains much that is vivid and beautiful, and will be read with interest and delight by every man of taste.
In 1837 appeared “Henrietta Temple: a Love Story." Keeping in mind its title-that it professed to be no more than “
a love story”
In the same year in which this novel appeared, Disraeli first entered
of the man, and his consciousness of the power that was in him-
How true has been the prophecy! But we know few things more
painful than this scene, whose recollection is almost sufficient to make us doubt, not only of the boasted love of justice and fair-play which are said to distinguish Englishmen, but even of the civilization of such a mob of gentlemen.
Disraeli was not long in fulfilling his prophecy : from 1837 to 1841 he rose greatly as a political character; and the House listened to him, not only without interruption, but with anxiety and attention. During this time he published a tragedy called “Alarcos," which had not much success, though to condemn it as worthless would be absurd. In truth, its drawback is the nature of the plot, which is founded on an old Spanish ballad, and which is in some sense revolting. What bounds would there have been to our admiration of Shelley's tragedy of “The Cenci,” had not the same defect existed in it, though certainly to a far greater extent than in “ Alarcos?"
We are writing a literary, and not a political, sketch of Mr. Disraeli; but still there is so close a connexion between some parts of his political life and of his works, that we cannot properly notice the one without alluding to the other. It will be remembered, then, that in 1843 the party led by Sir Robert Peel called itself “ Conservative,” rejecting the old title of “Tory.” It had thrown away the soul with the name, and had become a very lifeless piece of clay. It was not such as could satisfy the ardent nature of Disraeli. He wanted men to understand principles, and not merely to follow a leader and call that Conservatism. “Coningsby" appeared. It was a political novel, and it surprised the world; not less by its lifelike pictures of living political characters than by the new, the unconventional, the startling, yet really simple and sound principles it announced. Its descriptions of English society in the present day are unrivalled; its portraits, whether of the amiable or the detestable, perfect. But the work is too well known to need much notice at our hands, and our own space is too confined to afford it.
“Sybil; or, the Two Nations,” which followed in 1845, was scarcely less successful than “Coningsby,” though very different from it. In the latter the scenes lie chiefly among the great, the wealthy, and the noble; in “Sybil” they are chiefly among the working-classes. And here let us remark that few writers have displayed more sympathy for the poor and suffering, pourtrayed their misery and degradation more feelingly, or advocated their cause more warmly, than Benjamin Disraeli. Let those who forget, or have not known, the fact, turn to the pages of "Sybil," and be convinced.
The last of Disraeli's works of fiction, “ Tancred; or, the New Crusade," appeared in 1847. It ends so abruptly that the story is evidently unfinished-yet seven years have elapsed since its publication.