The Yellow Book: A Criticism of Volume I

The Yellow Book A Criticism of Volume I

By Philip Gilbert Hamerton, LL.D.

I—The Literature

THE Editor and Publishers of THE YELLOW BOOK, who seem
to know the value of originality in all things, have con-
ceived the entirely novel idea of publishing in the current number
of their quarterly, a review in two parts of the number immediately
preceding it, one part to deal with the literature, and another to
criticise the illustrations.

I notice that on the cover of THE YELLOW BOOK the literary
contributions are described simply as "Letterpress." This seems
rather unfortunate, because "letterpress" is usually understood
to mean an inferior kind of writing, which is merely an accom-
paniment to something else, such as engravings, or even maps.
Now, in THE YELLOW BOOK the principle seems to be that one
kind of contribution should not be made subordinate to another ;
the drawings and the writings are, in fact, independent. Certainly
the writings are composed without the slightest pre-occupation
concerning the work of the graphic artists, and the draughtsmen
do not illustrate the inventions of the scribes. This independ-


180 The Yellow Book

ence of the two arts is favourable to excellence in both, besides
making the business of the Editor much easier, and giving him
more liberty of choice.

The literary contributions include poetry, fiction, short dramatic
scenes, and one or two essays. The Editor evidently attaches
much greater importance to creative than to critical literature, in
which he is unquestionably right, provided only that the work
which claims to be creative is inspired by a true genius for inven-
tion. The admission of poetry in more than usual quantity does
not surprise us, when we reflect that THE YELLOW BOOK, is
issued by a publishing house which has done more than any other
for the encouragement of modern verse. It is the custom to
profess contempt for minor poets, and all versifiers of our time
except Tennyson and Swinburne are classed as minor poets by
critics who shrink from the effort of reading metrical compo-
sitions. The truth is that poetry and painting are much more
nearly on a level in this respect than people are willing to admit.
Many a painter and many a poet has delicate perceptions and
a cultivated taste without the gigantic creative force that is neces-
sary to greatness in his art.

Mr. Le Gallienne's "Tree- Worship" is full of the sylvan
sense, the delight in that forest life which we can scarcely help
believing to be conscious. It contains some perfect stanzas and
some magnificent verses. As a stanza nothing can be more
perfect than the fourth on page 58, and the fourth on the pre-
ceding page begins with a rarely powerful line. The only weak
points in the poem are a few places in which even poetic truth
has not been perfectly observed. For example, in the first line
on page 58, the heart of the tree is spoken of as being remarkable
for its softness, a new and unexpected characteristic in heart of oak.
On the following page the tree is described as a green and welcome


By Philip Gilbert Hamerton, LL.D. 181

"coast" to the sea of air. No single tree has extent enough to
be a coast of the air-ocean ; at most it is but a tiny green islet
therein. In the last stanza but one Mr. Le Gallienne speaks of
"the roar of sap." This conveys the idea of a noisy torrent,
whereas the marvel of sap is that it is steadily forced upwards
through a mass of wood by a quietly powerful pressure. I dislike
the fallacious theology of the last stanza as being neither scientific
nor poetical. Mr. Benson's little poem, Δαιμονιζόμενοϛ is lightly
and cleverly versified, and tells the story of a change of temper,
almost of nature, in very few words. The note of Mr. Watson's
two sonnets is profoundly serious, even solemn, and the work-
manship firm and strong ; the reader may observe, in the second
sonnet, the careful preparation for the last line and the force with
which it strikes upon the ear. Surely there is nothing frivolous
or fugitive in such poetry as this ! I regret the publication of
"Stella Maris," by Mr. Arthur Symons; the choice of the title
is in itself offensive. It is taken from one of the most beautiful
hymns to the Holy Virgin (Ave, maris Stella !), and applied to a
London street-walker, as a star in the dark sea of urban life. We
know that the younger poets make art independent of morals, and
certainly the two have no necessary connection ; but why should
poetic art be employed to celebrate common fornication ? Ros-
setti's "Jenny" set the example, diffusely enough.

The two poems by Mr. Edmund Gosse, "Alere Flammam"
and "A Dream of November," have each the great quality of
perfect unity. The first is simpler and less fanciful than the
second. Both in thought and execution it reminds me strongly
of Matthew Arnold. Whether there has been any conscious
imitation or not, " Alere Flammam " is pervaded by what is best
in the classical spirit. Mr. John Davidson's two songs are
sketches in town and country, impressionist sketches well done in

a laconic

182 The Yellow Book

a laconic and suggestive fashion. Mr. Davidson has a good
right to maledict "Elkin Mathews & John Lane" for having
revived the detestable old custom of printing catchwords at the
lower corner of the page. The reader has just received the full
impression of the London scene, when he is disturbed by the
isolated word FOXES, which destroys the impression and puzzles
him. London streets are not, surely, very favourable to foxes !
He then turns the page and finds that the word is the first in the
rural poem which follows. How Tennyson would have growled
if the printer had put the name of some intrusive beast at the foot
of one of his poems ! Even in prose the custom is still intoler-
able ; it makes one read the word twice over as thus (pp. 159, 60),
"Why doesn't the wretched publisher publisher bring it out !"

We find some further poetry in Mr. Richard Garnett's transla-
tions from Luigi Tansillo. Not having access just now to the
original Italian, I cannot answer for their fidelity, but they are
worth reading, even in English, and soundly versified.

It is high time to speak of the prose. The essays are "A Defence
of Cosmetics," by Mr. Max Beerbohm, and "Reticence in Litera-
ture," by Mr. Arthur Waugh. I notice that a critic in the New
York Nation says that the Whistlerian affectations of Mr. Beerbohm
are particularly intolerable. I understood his essay to be merely a
jeu d'esprit, and found that it amused me, though the tastes and
opinions ingeniously expressed in it are precisely the opposite of
my own. Mr. Beerbohm is (or pretends to be) entirely on the
side of artifice against nature. The difficulty is to determine
what is nature. The easiest and most "natural" manners of a
perfect English lady are the result of art, and of a more advanced
art than that indicated by more ceremonious manners. Mr. Beer-
bohm says that women in the time of Dickens appear to have
been utterly natural in their conduct, "flighty, gushing, blushing,


By Philip Gilbert Hamerton, LL.D. 183

fainting, giggling, and shaking their curls." Much of that con-
duct may have been as artificial as the curls themselves, and
assumed only to attract attention. Ladies used to faint on the
slightest pretext, not because it was natural but because it was the
fashion ; when it ceased to be the fashion they abandoned the
practice. Mr. Waugh's essay on "Reticence in Literature" is
written more seriously, and is not intended to amuse. He defends
the principle of reticence, but the only sanction that he finds for
it is a temporary authority imposed by the changing taste of the
age. We are consequently never sure of any permanent law that
will enforce any reticence whatever. A good proof of the extreme
laxity of the present taste is that Mr. Waugh himself has been
able to print at length three of the most grossly sensual stanzas in
Mr. Swinburne's "Dolores." Reticence, however, is not con-
cerned only with sexual matters. There is, for instance, a flagrant
want of reticence in the lower political press of France and
America, and the same violent kind of writing, often going as far
beyond truth as beyond decency, is beginning to be imitated in
England. One rule holds good universally ; all high art is reticent,
e.g., in Dante's admirable way of telling the story of Francesca
through her own lips.

Mr. Henry James, in "The Death of the Lion," shows his usual
elegance of style, and a kind of humour which, though light enough
on the surface, has its profound pathos. It is absolutely essential,
in a short story, to be able to characterise people and things in a
very few words. Mr. James has this talent, as for example in his
description of the ducal seat at Bigwood : "very grand and frigid,
all marble and precedence." We know Bigwood, after that, as if
we had been there and have no desire to go. So of the Princess :
"She has been told everything in the world and has never per-
ceived anything, and the echoes of her education," etc., p. 42. The


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184 The Yellow Book

moral of the story is the vanity and shallowness of the world's
professed admiration for men of letters, and the evil, to them, or
going out of their way to suck the sugar-plums of praise. The
next story, "Irremediable," shows the consequences of marrying a
vulgar and ignorant girl in the hope of improving her, the diffi-
culty being that she declines to be improved. The situation is
powerfully described, especially the last scene in the repulsive,
disorderly little home. The most effective touch reveals
Willoughby's constant vexation because his vulgar wife "never
did any one mortal thing efficiently or well," just the opposite of
the constant pleasure that clever active women give us by their
neat and rapid skill. "The Dedication," by Mr. Fred Simpson,
is a dramatic representation of the conflict between ambition and
love—not that the love on the man s side is very earnest, or the
conflict in his mind very painful, as ambition wins the day only
too easily when Lucy is thrown over. "The Fool's Hour," by
Mr. Hobbes and Mr. George Moore, is a slight little drama
founded on the idea that youth must amuse itself in its own
way, and cannot be always tied to its mamma's apron-strings. It
is rather French than English in the assumption that youth must
of necessity resort to theatres and actresses. Of the two sketches
by Mr. Harland, that on white mice is clever as a supposed remini-
scence of early boyhood, but rather long for its subject, the other,
"A Broken Looking-Glass," is a powerful little picture of the
dismal end of an old bachelor who confesses to himself that his
life has been a failure, equally on the sides of ambition and enjoy-
ment. One of my friends tells me that it is impossible for a
bachelor to be happy, yet he may invest money in the Funds ! In
Mr. Crackanthorpe's "Modern Melodrama," he describes for us
the first sensations of a girl when she sees death in the near
future. It is pathetic, tragical, life-like in language, with the


By Philip Gilbert Hamerton, LL.D. 185

defects of character and style that belong to a close representation
of nature. "A Lost Masterpiece," by George Egerton, is not so
interesting as the author's "Keynotes," though it shows the same
qualities of style. The subject is too unfruitful, merely a literary
disappointment, because a bright idea has been chased away.
"A Sentimental Cellar," by Mr. George Saintsbury, written in
imitation of the essayists of the eighteenth century, associates the
wines in a cellar with the loves and friendships of their owner.
To others the vinous treasures would be "good wine and nothing
more" ; to their present owner they are "a casket of magic liquors,"
a museum in which he lives over again "the vanished life of the
past." The true French bookless bourgeois often calls his cellar
his bibliothèque, meaning that he values its lore as preferable to that
of scholarship ; but Mr. Saintsbury's Falernianus associates his
wines with sentiment rather than with knowledge.

On the whole, the literature in the first number of THE
YELLOW BOOK, is adequately representative of the modern English
literary mind, both in the observation of reality and in style. It
is, as I say, really literature and not letterpress. I rather regret,
for my own part, the general brevity of the pieces which restricts
them to the limits of the sketch, especially as the stories cannot be
continued after the too long interval of three months. As to this,
the publishers know their own business best, and are probably
aware that the attention of the general public, though easily
attracted, is even more easily fatigued.

186 The Yellow Book

II—The Illustrations

ON being asked to undertake the second part of this critical
article, I accepted because one has so rarely an opportunity of
saying anything about works of art to which the reader can quite
easily refer. To review an exhibition of pictures in London or Paris
is satisfactory only when the writer imagines himself to be address-
ing readers who have visited it, and are likely to visit it again.
When an illustration appears in one of the art periodicals, it may
be accompanied by a note that adds something to its interest, but
no one expects such a note to be really critical. In the present
instance, on the contrary, we are asked to say what we think,
without reserve, and as we have had nothing to do with the choice
of the contributors, and have not any interest in the sale of the
periodical, there is no reason why we should not.

To begin with the cover. The publishers decided not to have
any ornament beyond the decorative element in the figure design
which is to be changed for every new number. What is per-
manent in the design remains, therefore, of an extreme simplicity
and does not attract attention. The yellow colour adopted is
glaring, and from the aesthetic point of view not so good as a quiet
mixed tint might have been ; however, it gives a title to the
publication and associates itself so perfectly with the title that it
has a sufficient raison d'être, whilst it contrasts most effectively
with black. Though white is lighter than any yellow, it has not the
same active and stimulating quality. The drawing of the masquers
is merely one of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley's fancies and has no par-
ticular signification. We see a plump and merry lady laughing


By Philip Gilbert Hamerton, LL.D. 187

boisterously whilst she seems to be followed by a man who gazes
intently upon the beauties of her shoulder. It is not to be classed
amongst the finest of Mr. Beardsley's designs, but it shows some
of his qualities, especially his extreme economy of means. So does
the smaller drawing on the back or the volume, which is a fair
example of his ready and various invention. See how the candle-
flame is blown a little to one side, how the candle gutters on that
side, and how the smoke is affected by the gust of air. Observe,
too, the contrasts between the faces, not that they are attractive
faces. There seems to be a peculiar tendency in Mr. Beardsley's
mind to the representation of types without intellect and without
morals. Some of the most dreadful faces in all art are to be found
in the illustrations (full of exquisite ornamental invention) to Mr.
Oscar Wilde's "Salome." We have two unpleasant ones here in
"l'Education Sentimentale." There is distinctly a sort of corrup-
tion in Mr. Beardsley's art so far as its human element is concerned,
but not at all in its artistic qualities, which show the perfection of
discipline, of self-control, and of thoughtful deliberation at the very
moment of invention. Certainly he is a man of genius, and
perhaps, as he is still very young, we may hope that when he has
expressed his present mood completely, he may turn his thoughts
into another channel and see a better side of human life. There
is, of course, nothing to be said against the lady who is touching
the piano on the title-page of THE YELLOW BOOK, nor against
the portrait of Mrs. Patrick Campbell opposite page 126, except
that she reminds one of a giraffe. It is curious how the idea of
extraordinary height is conveyed in this drawing without a single
object for comparison. I notice in Mr. Beardsley's work a persistent
tendency to elongation ; for instance, in the keys of the piano on
the title-page which in their perspective look fifteen inches long.
He has a habit, too, of making faces small and head-dresses enor-


188 The Yellow Book

mous. The rarity of beauty in his faces seems in contradiction
with his exquisite sense of beauty in curving lines, and the
singular grace as well as rich invention of his ornaments. He
can, however, refuse himself the pleasure of such invention when
he wants to produce a discouraging effect upon the mind. See,
for instance, the oppressive plainness of the architecture in the
background to the dismal "Night Piece."

It is well known that the President of the Royal Academy,
unlike most English painters, is in the habit of making studies.
In his case these studies are uniformly in black and white chalk on
brown paper. Two of them are reproduced in THE YELLOW
BOOK, one being for drapery, and the other for the nude form
moving in a joyous dance with a light indication of drapery that
conceals nothing. The latter is a rapid sketch of an intention and
is full of life both in attitude and execution, the other is still and
statuesque. Sir Frederic is a model to all artists in one very rare
virtue, that of submitting himself patiently, in his age, to the same
discipline which strengthened him in youth.

I find a curious and remarkable drawing by Mr. Pennell of that
strangely romantic place Le Puy en Velay, whose rocks are crowned
with towers or colossal statues, whilst houses cluster at their feet.
The subject is dealt with rather in the spirit of Dürer, but with a
more supple and more modern kind of skill. It is topography,
though probably with considerable artistic liberty. I notice one
of Dürer's licences in tonic relations. The sky, though the sun is
setting (or rising) is made darker than the hills against it, and
darker even than the two remoter masses of rock which come
between us and the distance. The trees, too, are shaded capri-
ciously, some poplars in the middle distance being quite dark whilst
nearer trees are left without shade or local colour. In a word,
the tonality is simply arbitrary, and in this kind of drawing it


By Philip Gilbert Hamerton, LL.D. 189

matters very little. Mr. Pennell has given us a delightful bit of
artistic topography showing the strange beauty of a place that he
always loves and remembers.

Mr. Sickert contributed two drawings. "The Old Oxford
Music Hall" has some very good qualities, especially the most
important quality of all, that of making us feel as if we were
there. The singer on the stage (whose attitude has been very
closely observed) is strongly lighted by convergent rays. According
to my recollection the rays themselves are much more visible in
reality than they are here, but it is possible that the artist may
have intentionally subdued their brightness in order to enhance
that of the figure itself. The musicians and others are good,
except that they are too small, if the singing girl (considering her
distance) is to be taken as the standard of comparison. The
pen-sketch of "A Lady Reading" is not so satisfactory. I know,
of course, that it is offered only as a very slight and rapid sketch,
and that it is impossible, even for a Rembrandt, to draw accurately
in a hurry, but there is a formlessness in some important parts of
this sketch (the hands, for instance) which makes it almost without
interest for me. It is essentially painter's pen work, and does not
show any special mastery of pen and ink.

The very definite pen-drawing by Mr. Housman called "The
Reflected Faun" is open to the objection that the reflections in
the water are drawn with the same hardness as the birds and faun
in the air. The plain truth is that the style adopted, which in its
own way is as legitimate as any other, does not permit the artist to
represent the natural appearance of water. This kind of pen-
drawing is founded on early wood-engraving which filled the whole
space with decorative work, even to the four corners.

Mr. Rothenstein is a modern of the moderns. His two slight
portrait-sketches are natural and easy, and there is much life in the


190 The Yellow Book

"Portrait of a Gentleman." The "Portrait of a Lady," by Mr.
Furse, is of a much higher order. It has a noble gravity, and it
shows a severity of taste not common in the portraiture of our
time ; it is essentially a distinguished work. Mr. Nettleship gives
us an ideal portrait of Minos, not in his earthly life, as king of
Crete, but in his infernal capacity as supreme judge of the dead.
The face is certainly awful enough and implacable :

Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia :
    Esamina le colpe nell'entrata ;
    Giudica e manda, secondo ch'avvinghia.

The book-plate designed by Mr. Beardsley for Dr. Propert has
the usual qualities of the inventor. It seems to tell a tale of hope-
less love. The other book-plate, by Mr. Anning Bell, is remark-
able for its pretty and ingenious employment of heraldry which
so easily becomes mechanical when the draughtsman is not an

On the whole, these illustrations decidedly pre-suppose real
artistic culture in the public. They do not condescend in any
way to what might be guessed at as the popular taste. I notice
that the Editor and Publishers have a tendency to look to young
men of ability for assistance in their enterprise, though they accept
the criticism of those who now belong to a preceding generation.

MLA citation: Hamerton, Philip Gilbert. "The Yellow Book: A Criticism of Volume I." The Yellow Book 2 (July 1894): 179-90. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. [Date of access].