The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 7. Sir Leslie Stephen

Sir Leslie Stephen showed a similar diversity of interests. The first volume that bore his name was the collection of agreeable essays on mountaineering entitled The Playground of Europe; but he had already published anonymously a series of humorous and satirical Sketches from Cambridge, and, under initials, a grave statement of the case for the North in the United States civil war. Yet another vein is opened in Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking; for Stephen was one of the numerous men of letters who were troubled by difficulty of reconciling modern thought and the discoveries of modern science with traditional beliefs. Before this volume appeared, however, Stephen had become editor of The Cornhill Magazine, a post which he held from 1871 till 1882, when he assumed the still heavier burden of editing The Dictionary of National Biography. Stephen seems to have felt, at times, that editorial work was drudgery; but, at least, as contributor to The Cornhill Magazine, he had a free hand; and the three series of Hours in a Library made up of his articles may fairly be taken to show him at his best as a critic. On the other hand, the plan of the great Dictionary necessarily limited his freedom, and the 378 articles covering 1000 pages which he contributed to it must be read with this consideration in view. They are, essentially, biographical, and only incidentally critical. The necessity of thus conforming to a plan, however, meant to Stephen by no means what it would have meant to such a critic as Coleridge or as Arnold. That his natural bent was towards biography is shown not only in his Studies of a Biographer, but in all his fine contributions to the two series of “English Men of Letters,” and, above all, in the admirable monograph on Johnson. Stephen’s most ambitious and weightiest books, however, lie outside the sphere both of literary criticism and of biography. They are contributions to philosophy—History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century and The English Utilitarians—and have been considered elsewhere in the present volume. Like the fine essay, An Agnostic’s Apology, they reveal Stephen as a rationalist, and suggest an explanation of his limits as a critic. His ear was keen for what is heard in literature, but a little dull to what is overheard; and, so, he is apt to be warmer in writing about the school of Pope than he is when he deals with the romantic poets.

The tendency of periodicals, the contributions to which, until recently, have been unsigned, has been to make the literary life, for a time, flow, as it were, underground. Thus, Leslie Stephen was nearly forty before his name became familiar to the public outside literary circles. Though Richard Garnett was a younger man by several years, a different mode of publication gave him a status in literature earlier than Stephen. He sought fame first as a poet; but, though he had a true lyrical gift, it was neither very strong nor very original; and, so, the poetical strain in him does better service in imparting an aroma to his criticism than when it impels him to write verse. He was a master of the art of writing literary biography, and nothing of the same kind shows a defter touch than his unpretending but masterly primer on Coleridge or his monograph on Carlyle. The most original of his works is The Twilight of the Gods, a collection of singular tales in which he shows an unexpected power of sarcasm.