WHAT IS A BOHEMIAN?

By Henry Mills Alden

This article appeared in
The Editor's Easy Chair Section Of
 

Harper's new monthly magazine: Volume 19, Issues 109-114 - Page 705 in 1859

The copyright on the article has expired and therefore it can be presented freely on the Internet

What is a Bohemian? It is a name for a gipsy. But what is the Bohemia of Paris? It is the Bohemia of London or New York. That is to say, it is the name of the guild of literary and artistic vagabonds. Privat D'Anglemont, who lately died in a Paris hospital, is gravely announced as the chief of literary Bohemia since the death of Gerard de Nerval.

Bohemia is the realm of vagabondage. It is the modern sphere of the spirit that formerly coursed the world for adventure — but now prefers to explore the universe in a microcosm, and finds a metropolis the best of all. Men of an indomitable irregularity and indolence, who live by their wits and for self indulgence, are Bohemians. They are a genial, generous fraternity, in whom you may securely look for the kindly, but not so surely for the stern and heroic, virtues. They are the great company of ''good fellows," who have a secret contempt for tho processes by which money is acquired, but a profound enjoyment of the pleasures it purchases. In the history of literature there are famous names which illustrate the Bohemian spirit. But it was not until literature became a profession that Bohemians were a guild. Sir Richard Steele was as perfect a specimen as could be produced of the literary Bohemian. Oliver Goldsmith was one of the fair fraternity. But the great Samuel Johnson, the keen Alexander Pope, the cold Joseph Addison, were not. They were literary men — they lived by literature — but they had not the divine contempt of tomorrow which marks the Bohemian.

It is not indispensably necessary that a Bohemian should be arrested for debt, nor be often tipsy, as that gallant knight, Sir Richard Steele, was sometimes known to be. Yet it may be safely averred that a Bohemian, as such, is not a member of the Temperance Society, and that Bohemia at large has rarely a balance at its banker's. It dislikes bills and bores.

Bohemia is a roving kingdom — a realm in the air, lite Arthur's England. Wherever a true Bohemian goes Bohemia goes with him. It is a universal and not a local church, and perpetually sends its emissaries in partibus infdelium. It sometimes happens that, as a gipsy's child turns out to be a prince's child, who naturally dwells in a palace, so the Bohemian is found in fine houses and high society. Yet, like a knight of Arthur, his heart is still loyal to the Round Table, and through the gilded bars of the ceremonies which fence him in he catches glimpses of the free fields of Bohemia. He longs to escape. His heart yearns to tread the turf, moist with heaven's dew of laziness and dreams. Seeing, he sings: and all Bohemia hails and re-echoes the song.

Bohemia is a fairy land upon the hard earth. It is Arcadia in New York or London, in Paris or Rome. Hereabouts you may find it in painters' studios, and in the rooms of authors. Often enough its denizens are clad loosely — seedily, in the vulgate — and they are shaggy as to the head, with abounding hair. Whatever is not "respectable" they are. Respectability is the converse of the Bohemian idea. There are plenty of men among them worthy of respect — but none who are technically respectable. If they are the lees of society, as has been injuriously urged, then they are the richness which settles at the bottom of the cup. Respectability is the pale, thin, emasculated liquor that floats upon the surface and is easily seen through. Bohemia is the nimble essence, the fat substantiality, which "ascends me into the brain," and begets there glorious phantasies.

It is with the Bohemians as with the races. Men die, but man survives. So the Bohemian passes, but Bohemia is immortal. The line of succession is not hereditary. One Bohemian dies — no son of his succeeding — but the fair fraternity is forever enriched by the accession of the lazy, the genial, the careless, and witty. The citizens are removed by various fates. Sometimes it is death. Sometimes a sudden fortune, falling from some unexpected uncle, sweeps them away into regular habits of life. Sometimes matrimony with a golden jointure chains them to the dull routine of society. Sometimes public appointments force them into the decorum of the citizen. Bat though they fall, the ranks are full. "Close up!" is the word that rings along the line.

Epicurus might be the tutelary genius of Bohemia. But if he be, what shall we do with Charles Lamb? Can that light be spared from its shining history? No: and always no. And since he is dear in all Bohemian hearts forever, it follows that the finest forms of heroism are not inconsonant with the true spirit, though they be rare, and that the indolence is of the temperament, and not of the heart or conscience.

Besides, why shall there not be degrees, as in all hierarchies, even the angelic? If Alfred de Musset and Gerard de Nerval and Privat d'Anglemont — if Couture and Leopold Robert and Gavarni — if Steele and Goldsmith, and Fielding and Thackeray are Bohemians, docs it follow that Lamb was not, because he was so different a man? Nay, does it follow that Shakespeare was not, because he was solitary in literature? No, no; Bohemia has Shakespeare without the sheep-stealing. It has Ben Jonson, with his laureate canary. It has old Chaucer, surely, and Marlowe. Suckling, Herrick, and Gay are Bohemians all. Not Milton, indeed, nor Spenser, nor Sidney, nor Donne: nor Bunyan, nor Defoe. But by all sympathy Charles Lamb was a Bohemian.

How many a youth on the verge of college and of manhood looks wistfully into Bohemia! How alluring it hangs before him! How it sings to him, like a soft landscape of Claude! It is all festival to his eye, all dancing and singing; all reclining by purling brooks and telling tales and weaving rhymes. It seems all listening to the far-off sound of praise — for the ocean of the world, of the great public, laves its limits, and the hum of fame, like the music of the sea, seems to him the only sound the soft Bohemians hear.

O wistful youth, to whom Bohemia is that Lotus land "wherein it seemed always afternoon," read Goldsmith's Life, or Lamb's, and ask yourself "Can I be equally heroic, equally pure?" If sincerely you believe you can, then you may say sincerely,'' I, too, am a Bohemian."

Tire voice of the American rooster crying to the nations, "Ha! ha! Yankee-doodle-doo"1." shall be suppressed in the mouth of this Easy Chair as much as possible.

For instance, during the last few months two new periodicals have been started in England—and both, of course, in London. They both sprang, unhappily, out of a diffcrcna? in which famous men took part. Mr. Dickens quarreled with his old publishers, and commenced "All the Year Round," a weekly literary journal, on the plan and of the appearance of " Household Words." He took with him a great many clever writers, as each number has shown. But his old publishers—who had not hesitated to state their case to the public, when they were compelled to; and not without a strong show in their favor—immediately took the Held with a rival periodical, which was to be illustrated.

Upon unrolling their list they revealed a very brilliant spectacle. Thackeray, Tennyson, Charles Reade, Harriet Martineau, Tom Taylor, Leech, Mil| lais, and others, were a host of which even the unshrinking Dickens, with his world of lovers at hia back, might be a little in fear. But there has been no sign of faltering or dismay on either side. The knights and dames haveput quill in rest, and rushed to the charge. Dickens is writing a clear, picturesque, and forcible story in his most melodramatic manner, which appears weekly, and is simultaneously reproduced in Warper's H'edify, with the advantage of a series of original and admirable illustrations by Mr. McLenan. On the other hand, Charles Keade is writing an intensely interesting love-story of three or four centuries ago, which appears in " Once a Week," with the quaintest illustrations, in the style of the wood-cuts at the period of the story. This also is regularly reproduced in Uarpa't tt'eekly. Tennyson has written an exquisite poem in the vein of feeling to which his "May Queen" and "NewYear's Eve" belong; and there have been a great variety of most excellent papers.

Unquestionably the rivalry puts Dickens at bay. It is a grand literary tournament; and it is one in which we most sincerely hope that both may win.

But how rich and how available the literary resources of England are, when two such periodicals may be simultaneously commenced! The weekly numbers show the vigor, the variety, the raciness of the English genius. If in this country we get up a good number of a Magazine once a month, or of a paper once a week, we think we do well. And unquestionably we do a great deal better for our own tastes. These English periodicals would not altogether suit our public. But in point of mere literary merit—of the exhibition of literary power—are we superior to all the world ? Of course, at this point, every patriotic and right-minded American will (if he will pardon a little slang to the Easy Chair) immediately fly off the handle, and declare that he must

Iw a and an , and a most extraordinary kind of who undervalues the productions of his own country, and deliberately asserts that in any other land there can be any thing to compare with the things of the great and glorious, the free and happy, et cetera, et cetera!

The patriotic citizen having thus relieved himself of the customary Yankee-doodle-doo, wo may proceed calmly together, and say what ?

Simply this: that if literary excellence be a legitimate cause of prids to a people, every sensible and patriotic people will do what they can to foster their own literature by the most generous and kindly support. If the public sympathy will authorize publishers to develop the literary talent of the country—so far as it depends upon them—they will not be found wanting. Every number of even1 literary periodical in this country inevitably suggests the question, " Since what is done is so good, why is there not more and better ?"

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