Sunday, 19 January 2014


Mr. Walter Besant contributes a very interesting paper about Rabelais :

" It is not impossible that England will yet learn to appreciate more hugely this glorious wit and satirist. There may be found some man who has the leisure, and to whom it would be a labour of love, to edit for modern readers the life and voyages of Pantagruel. The necessary omissions could be made without very great difficulty, and the parts to be left out are not inwoven with the web of the whole.   

" Considering him as a great moral teacher, we must remember what things he taught, and that he was the first to teach them in the vernacular. In that time, when only a few had learning, and the old mediƦval darkness was still over the minds of men, consider what things he poured into men's ears. He showed them what a monastery might be, the home of culture, letters, good manners, and gentle life. He taught the value of learning by direct admonition, in the letter of Gargantua, of which I have extracted a piece, and by the example of Pantagruel : the value of good breeding, with a small tincture of letters, in Gargantua ; against the solid arts he contrasts the follies of alchemists, astrologers, and foolish inventors ; he shows that, necessity, against which we pray so fondly, is in reality the parent and founder of all that men have achieved— great Gaster is the first Master of Arts. In brave stolid Friar John he shows a nature open and manly in all except where the monks have spoiled him. He exposes, from the height of his own learning, the shallow pedantry of the schools, and the folly of the people who forget God in their reverence for the Pope ; he paints, in his wondrous panorama of life, the foolish judge, the greedy priest, the cruel inquisition, the lawyer with, his false rhetoric, and the needy adventurer with his shifts, turns, and wiles ; and against all these he sets his wise and tranquil King— whom,no storms terrify, no clamours disquiet; the scholar ; the warrior ; and the loyal servant. I wish there had been one, only one good priest, so that we might extend over Rabelais that veil of perfect charity which might have covered his faults. But priests and monks he hated. The robe he wore was to him a bodily deformity—it corrupted his mind, and narrowed his views. It would be easy to show his wit, his humour, his headlong fun, and that easy jovial spirit which probably rendered him all his life—save when he was crunching crust in pace at Fontenay-le-Comte—the happiest of his kind. But let us, in judging Rabelais, remember him, chiefly as a teacher the like of whom Europe had not yet seen."


In the Rabelais volume of Foreign Classics for English Readers (W Blackwood and Sons), Mr Besant has done his best to discharge what, according to himself, is an almost impossible office. The series of useful little books of which this Rabelais is the latest professes to be designed for " English readers," yet Mr Besant tells us in the opening sentence of his introduction that Rabelais is an author "he must refrain from advising his readers to read in the original." Rabelais he declares is to all but serious students "a closed book." To women in all ages he is sealed. Only to a select few who come "to study and not to laugh," ought the mystery to be revealed. To all others "the man is a buffoon," and the book what Voltaire once called it, "a heap of the grossest filth which a drunken monk could vomit." This is an opinion which, while it tends to a greater admiration of Mr Besant a daring in his attempt to make Rabelais intelligible to English readers, we cannot but think is a little hard on the Curate of Meudon. To warn us not to laugh at Rabelais is to enjoin us not to weep over Romeo and Juliet or the Vicar of Wakefield. It is to recommend us to resist the influence which above all the author was desirous of exercising. For did not Rabelais, then, intend his readers to laugh ? Did he create for us Pantagruel, and Friar John, and Panurge, only that they might set us to serious study? Mr Besant, it seems to us, is guilty of uttering something very like a paradox, and a theory which is scarcely to the advantage of him whom he professes to admire. It is the quality of raising laughter above all that is the distinguishing and the redeeming element in Rabelais. We cannot escape the filth except by laughing. If we are serious, we sink helplessly into that " ramas des grossieres ordures" which Voltaire found to be  the substance of Gargantua and Pantagruel. There is no doubt ample material for serious study in Rabelais ; but to be bidden not to laugh while we are studying is surely an injunction hard to obey. How but by laughter did Rabelais hope to fulfil the end he had in view, supposing, which it would be an injustice to him not to suppose, that he had any serious intent in writing? We shall search Mr Besant's book in vain to discover any other motive in Gargantua and Pantagruel than that which serious students of Rabelais had in all ages discerned. A great part of Rabelais will always remain a mystery. We doubt if the author himself knew very well why he wrote some of his chapters. They appear to be poured out of him in the fulness of his exuberant powers. Mr Besant makes an acute remark when he says that the true way to consider Rabelais is to regard him as "always young." His unnatural life had made him at 50 what most men of genius are at 25. Immured in a cloister from his boyhood, he only seems to have begun life when he fled from his vows and went out into the open world. The pent up stream of his rich and fruitful nature burst out in a flood when the barriers were removed. He wrote with out stopping to consider what was his purpose. He laughed because he must. His humour was too prodigal for his satire, and oft-times flows out of sheer force of the wealth within. In this respect Rabelais differs from all the other great humourists whom the world has seen. He had not the wit of Aristophanes, the art and the truth of Cervantes, the marvellous power of creation which distinguishes Swift, but in the pure laughter-mimicry faculty he perhaps excels them all. His defects are partly due to his age, and partly to his education. His grossness, in which he seems to roll and to revel, is not wholly accounted for by the necessities of satire in his age. Undoubtedly he used it sometimes as a cloak wherein to hide the truths he dared not utter in times when men were burnt for speaking the truth, but a great part of the filth which repels the reader of ordinary stomach in Gargantua and Pantagruel, certainly cannot be explained away on this theory. It is probable that Rabelais was not very serious in his attacks upon the follies and vices of the age. He seems to have been earnest in nothing save in his detestation of monkery, the innermost soul of which he had fathomed, the spirit of which had debased and muddied his own large and genial nature. As a man he was probably a good deal like his own Friar John. As to faith we agree with Mr. Besant in believing that he had none. There have been some who have pretended to discover a hidden purpose to advance the cause of the Reformation in Rabelais' book, but we confess that this appears to us a most strained and far fetched conclusion. Rabelais had none of the stuff out of which religious reformers are made. His life had made him, at forty, earnest in nothing. He had inquired, like Panurge, of the Oracle, and with the same result. Religion was to him associated with monkery, and that he knew to be all false and abominable. A great scholar, he could not take refuge, as some of his contemporaries did, in pure literature or science. "Let every man possess his soul with cheerfulness ; let him eat, let him drink; let him enjoy the golden sunshine, and the purple wine ; let him sing, laugh, and talk with his fellows ; let him exhort and be exhorted continually to study, to the practice of research, to patience, and to charity; let him have faith in the Divine Creator. Live according to the laws of tho world Nature laughs. God rules in sunshine." This was the gospel of Francois Rabelais ; and it is vain to break our head's over any other interpretation of his book. Mr. Besant, perhaps, is inclined to exalt his author a little too much as a teacher and moralist. He was neither the one nor the other, except as any great and original writer necessarily is through force of what he writes. He had a wonderful force and flow of imagination, but it was not controlled as Swift's was by any sense of purpose. He had humour in excess of wit, and thus his creations fail of proportion and shape, and are almost all merely grotesque and monstrous. He seems to have been almost wholly destitute of the faculty of pathos, and thus was deficient in the golden side of humour. He has not left us any single coherent character which lives as Don Quixote lives, or Uncle Toby, or Parson Adams, as a human being. Even his ministers, I grant, are void of form and reality, and do not behave consistently as do the creations of Shakspeare and Swift. Yet with all that, and a language which in its manifold difficulties must repel the most serious student, Rabelais well deserves to take his place among the masters of literature—as almost too great and too various to be made easy to English readers.

The Argus 29 November 1879


 A fervent devotee of Rabelais, Mr Walter Besant, has added one more to the volumes he has written in the brave attempt to popularise the ex-monk of Chinaro. The Readings in Rabelais (W Blackwood and Sons) are a selection from the immortal commentaries of Pantagruel, purged of their grossness and dirt, and of some of their extravagance. Whether such a work will render Rabelais more acceptable to the English reader may be fairly doubted, and certainly the process through which the master is put is one which effectually kills all that is most characteristic in him. A Rabelais clean and decorous is no Rabelais at all. Granted that in him there is no pure fooling —and that is to grant a great deal—that there is much deep wisdom, and insight, and loving kindness—that in many respects Rabelais has contributed much to open the great book of the human heart, and to civilise mankind, it may be doubted whether Mr Besant does not exact too much from his readers in claiming for his idol so high a place in the pantheon of fame. He seems to be aware that Rabelais can never be made popular, though he says a little too much in asserting that neither is Shakspeare nor Milton popular. Who, then, we may ask is popular if Shakspeare is not, and who can be said to have succeeded if Shakspeare did not, seeing that his great aim was to please and be " understanded of the people." We are quite willing to acknowledge that it is high time that Rabelais should cease to be spoken of as though he were merely a buffoon "with a foul mouth and mind." But is it not too much to claim for him the position of a great teacher, the test being, as we are told, "the mutual obligation of man to man," the necessity that we should understand one another, the duty of working for each other ? It may be that this was the purpose of Rabelais ; if so we must allow that the gospel is hidden under a heavy moss of frivolity and obscurity, and that they who take the matter for the spirit itself have some reason on their side. Is it certain that Rabelais had any definite purpose at all in his writings? We are by no means sure that he had. At least it is not necessary that those who admire his richness of humour should be compelled to recognise that he was some kind of evangelist. Every one can laugh at Pantagruels praise of debt, or the description of Gargantua's education, and of Father John in the storm, but how is an enjoyment of what is laughable to depend on a recognition of the philosophy? Tho philosophy, so far as ordinary intellect can make out, culminates and finds its ultimate expression in the worship of the Divine Bottle. That may be a pure allegory and extravagance, but it is quite as real and certainly quite as good as anything else in the book. The truth is that we cannot help feeling that there is some affectation in this attempt to exalt Rabelais as a great moral teacher. We like him better in his rough state, unedited and unexplained. There is quite enough to admire in him—his cheerfulness, his tolerance, his beautiful wit and prodigality of humour, without seeking for any esoteric meanings. Those, however who are too fastidious to read Rabelais in full cannot do better than furnish themselves with Mr Besant's book. His translations are based upon those of Urquhart and Motteux, which, excellent as they are, are certainly not faithful. Mr. Besant has carefully, and with much good taste and judgment revised and re-written the text here printed, and his book will be found as good an introduction, perhaps, to Rabelais as any English reader can have who is not at heart a Rabelaisian.

The Argus 1 March 1884

 The Sydney Morning Herald 30 January 1871,

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