Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of William Ernest Henley > Text of Alexandre Dumas

An essay by William Ernest Henley

Alexandre Dumas

Title:     Alexandre Dumas
Author: William Ernest Henley [More Titles by Henley]

His Components.

The life of Dumas is not only a monument of endeavour and success, it is a sort of labyrinth as well. It abounds in pseudonyms and disguises, in sudden and unexpected appearances and retreats as unexpected and sudden, in scandals and in rumours, in mysteries and traps and ambuscades of every kind. It pleased the great man to consider himself of more importance than any and all of the crowd of collaborators whose ideas he developed, whose raw material he wrought up into the achievement we know; and he was given to take credit to himself not only for the success and value of a particular work but for the whole thing--the work in its quiddity, so to speak, and resolved into its original elements. On the other hand, it pleased such painful creatures as MM. Querard and 'Eugene de Mirecourt,' as it has since pleased Messrs. Hitchman and Fitzgerald to consider the second- and third-rate literary persons whom Dumas assimilated in such numbers as of greater interest and higher merit than Dumas. To them the jackals were far nobler than the lion, and they worked their hardest in the interest of the pack. It was their mission to decompose and disintegrate the magnificent entity which M. Blaze de Bury very happily nicknames 'Dumas-Legion,' and in the process not to render his own unto Caesar but to take from him all that was Caesar's, and divide it among the mannikins he had absorbed. And their work was in its way well done; for have we not seen M. Brunetiere exulting in agreement and talking of Dumas as one less than Eugene Sue and not much bigger than Gaillardet? Of course the ultimate issue of the debate is not doubtful. Dumas remains to the end a prodigy of force and industry, a miracle of cleverness and accomplishment and ease, a type of generous and abundant humanity, a great artist in many varieties of form, a prince of talkers and story-tellers, one of the kings of the stage, a benefactor of his epoch and his kind; while of those who assisted him in the production of his immense achievement the most exist but as fractions of the larger sum, and the others have utterly disappeared. 'Combien,' says his son in that excellent page which serves to preface le Fils Naturel--'combien parmi ceux qui devaient rester obscurs se sont eclaires et chauffes a ta forge, et si l'heure des restitutions sonnait, quel gain pour toi, rien qu'a reprendre ce que tu as donne et ce qu'on t'a pris!' That is the true verdict of posterity, and he does well who abides by it.



He is one of the heroes of modern art. Envy and scandal have done their worst now. The libeller has said his say; the detectives who make a specialty of literary forgeries have proved their cases one and all; the judges of matter have spoken, and so have the critics of style; the distinguished author of Nana has taken us into his confidence on the subject; we have heard from the lamented Granier and others as much as was to be heard on the question of plagiarism in general and the plagiarisms of Dumas in particular; and Mr. Percy Fitzgerald has done what he is pleased to designate the 'nightman's work' of analysing Antony and Kean, and of collecting everything that spite has said about their author's life, their author's habits, their author's manners and customs and character: of whose vanity, mendacity, immorality, a score of improper qualities besides, enough has been written to furnish a good-sized library. And the result of it all is that Dumas is recognised for a force in modern art and for one of the greatest inventors and amusers the century has produced. Whole crowds of men were named as the real authors of his books and plays; but they were only readable when he signed for them. His ideas were traced to a hundred originals; but they had all seemed worthless till he took them in hand and developed them according to their innate capacity. The French he wrote was popular, and the style at his command was none of the loftiest, as his critics have often been at pains to show; but he was for all that an artist at once original and exemplary, with an incomparable instinct of selection, a constructive faculty not equalled among the men of this century, an understanding of what is right and what is wrong in art and a mastery of his materials which in their way are not to be paralleled in the work of Sir Walter himself. Like Napoleon, he was 'a natural force let loose'; and if he had done no more than achieve universal renown as the prince of raconteurs and a commanding position as a novelist wherever novels are read he would still have done much. But he did a vast deal more. A natural force, he wrought in the right direction, as natural forces must and do. He amused the world for forty years and more; but he also contributed something to the general sum of the world's artistic experience and capacity, and his contribution is of permanent worth and charm. He has left us stories which are models of the enchanting art of narrative; and, with a definition good and comprehensive enough to include all the best work which has been produced for the theatre from AEschylus down to Augier, from the Choephorae on to le Gendre de M. Poirier, he has given us types of the romantic and the domestic drama, which, new when he produced them, are even now not old, and which as regards essentials have yet to be improved upon. The form and aim of the modern drama, as we know it, have been often enough ascribed to the ingenious author of une Chaine and the Verre d'Eau; but they might with much greater truth be ascribed to the author of Antony and la Tour de Nesle. Scribe invents and eludes where Dumas invents and dares. The theory of Scribe is one of mere dexterity: his drama is a perpetual chasse-croise at the edge of a precipice, a dance of puppets among swords that might but will not cut and eggs that might but will not break; to him a situation is a kind of tight-rope to be crossed with ever so much agility and an endless affectation of peril by all his characters in turn: in fact, as M. Dumas fils has said of him, he is 'le Shakespeare des ombres chinoises.' The theory of Dumas is the very antipodes of this. 'All I want,' he said in a memorable comparison between himself and Victor Hugo, 'is four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion'; and his good plays are a proof that in this he spoke no more than the truth. Drama to him was so much emotion in action. If he invented a situation he accepted its issues in their entirety, and did his utmost to express from it all the passion it contained. That he fails to reach the highest peaks of emotional effect is no fault of his: to do that something more is needed than a perfect method, something other than a great ambition and an absolute certainty of touch; and Dumas was neither a Shakespeare nor an AEschylus--he was not even an Augier. All the same, he has produced in la Tour de Nesle a romantic play which M. Zola himself pronounces the ideal of the genre and in Antony an achievement in drawing-room tragedy which is out of all questioning the first, and in the opinion of a critic so competent and so keen as the master's son is probably the strongest, thing of its kind in modern literature. On this latter play it were difficult, I think, to bestow too much attention. It is touched, even tainted, with the manner and the affectation of its epoch. But it is admirably imagined and contrived; it is very daring, and it is very new; it deals with the men and women of 1830, and--with due allowance for differences of manners, ideal, and personal genius--it is in its essentials a play in the same sense as Othello and the Trachiniae are plays in theirs. It is the beginning, as I believe, not only of les Lionnes Pauvres but of Therese Raquin and la Glu as well: just as la Tour de Nesle is the beginning of Patrie and la Haine.


At Least.

And if these greater and loftier pretensions be still contested; if the theory of the gifted creature who wrote that the works of the master wizard are 'like summer fruits brought forth abundantly in the full blaze of sunshine, which do not keep'--if this preposterous fantasy be generally accepted, there will yet be much in Dumas to venerate and love. If Antony were of no more account than an ephemeral burlesque; if la Reine Margot and the immortal trilogy of the Musketeers--that 'epic of friendship'--were dead as morality and as literature alike; if it were nothing to have re-cast the novel of adventure, formulated the modern drama, and perfected the drama of incident; if to have sent all France to the theatre to see in three dimensions those stories of Chicot, Edmond Dantes, d'Artagnan, which it knew by heart from books were an achievement within the reach of every scribbler who dabbles in letters; if all this were true, and Dumas were merely a piece of human journalism, produced to- day and gone to-morrow, there would still be enough of him to make his a memorable name. He was a prodigy--of amiability, cleverness, energy, daring, charm, industry--if he was nothing else. Gronow tells that he has sat at table with Dumas and Brougham, and that Brougham, out-faced and out-talked, was forced to quit the field. 'J'ai conserve,' says M. Maxime du Camp, in his admirable Souvenirs litteraires, 'd'Alexandre Dumas un souvenir ineffacable; malgre un certain laisser-aller qui tenait a l'exuberance de sa nature, c'etait un homme dont tous les sentiments etaient eleves. On a ete injuste pour lui; comme il avait enormement d'esprit, on l'a accuse d'etre leger; comme il produisait avec une facilite incroyable, on l'a accuse de gacher la besogne, et, comme il etait prodigue, on l'a accuse de manquer de tenue. Ces reproches m'ont toujours paru miserables.' This is much; but it is not nearly all. He had, this independent witness goes on to note, 'une generosite naturelle qui ne comptait jamais; il ressemblait a une corne d'abondance qui se vide sans cesse dans les mains tendues; la moitie, sinon plus, de l'argent gagne par lui a ete donnee.' That is true; and it is also true that he gave at least as largely of himself--his prodigious temperament, his generous gaiety, his big, manly heart, his turn for chivalry, his gallant and delightful genius--as of his money. He was reputed a violent and luxurious debauchee; and he mostly lived in an attic--(the worst room in the house and therefore the only one he could call his own)--with a camp-bed and the deal table at which he wrote. He passed for a loud-mouthed idler; and during many years his daily average of work was fourteen hours for months on end. 'Ivre de puissance,' says George Sand of him, but 'foncierement bon.' They used to hear him laughing as he wrote, and when he killed Porthos he did no more that day. It would have been worth while to figure as one of the crowd of friends and parasites who lived at rack and manger in his house, for the mere pleasure of seeing him descend upon them from his toil of moving mountains and sharing in that pleasing half-hour of talk which was his common refreshment. After that he would return to the attic and the deal table, and move more mountains. With intervals of travel, sport, adventure, and what in France is called 'l'amour'--(it is strange, by the way, that he was never a hero of Carlyle's)--he lived in this way more or less for forty years or so; and when he left Paris for the last time he had but two napoleons in his pocket. 'I had only one when I came here first,' quoth he, 'and yet they call me a spendthrift.' That was his way; and while the result is not for Dr. Smiles to chronicle, I for one persist in regarding the spirit in which it was accepted as not less exemplary than delightful.


His Monument.

On M. du Camp's authority there is a charming touch to add to his son's description of him. 'Il me semble,' said the royal old prodigal in his last illness, 'que je suis au sommet d'un monument qui tremble comme si les fondations etaient assises sur le sable.' 'Sois en paix,' replied the author of the Demi-Monde: 'le monument est bien bati, et la base est solide.' He was right, as we know. It is good and fitting that Dumas should have a monument in the Paris he amazed and delighted and amused so long. But he could have done without one. In what language is he not read? and where that he is read is he not loved? 'Exegi monumentum,' he might have said: 'and wherever romance is a necessary of life, there shall you look for it, and not in vain.'

[The end]
William Ernest Henley's essay: Alexandre Dumas