And then he proceeded to show what a fine fellow David was; and what a hard knot he was in about Bathsheba, so that (the initial wrong committed) honour might well hesitate in the choice of conduct; and what owls those people were who marvelled because an Eastern tyrant had killed Uriah, instead of marvelling that he had not killed the prophet also. 'Now if Voltaire had helped me to feel that,' said he, 'I could have seen some fun in it.' He loved the comedy which shows a hero human, and yet leaves him a hero, and the laughter which does not lessen love.
It was this taste for what is fine in human-kind, that ruled his choice in books. These should all strike a high note, whether brave or tender, and smack of the open air. The noble and simple presentation of things noble and simple, that was the 'nitrogenous food' of which he spoke so much, which he sought so eagerly, enjoyed so royally. He wrote to an author, the first part of whose story he had seen with sympathy, hoping that it might continue in the same vein. 'That this may be so,' he wrote, 'I long with the longing of David for the water of Bethlehem. But no man need die for the water a poet can give, and all can drink it to the end of time, and their thirst be quenched and the pool never dry - and the thirst and the water are both blessed.' It was in the Greeks particularly that he found this blessed water; he loved 'a fresh air' which he found 'about the Greek things even in translations'; he loved their freedom from the mawkish and the rancid. The tale of David in the Bible, the ODYSSEY, Sophocles, AEschylus, Shakespeare, Scott; old Dumas in his chivalrous note; Dickens rather than Thackeray, and the TALE OF TWO CITIES out of Dickens: such were some of his preferences. To Ariosto and Boccaccio he was always faithful; BURNT NJAL was a late favourite; and he found at least a passing entertainment in the ARCADIA and the GRAND CYRUS. George Eliot he outgrew, finding her latterly only sawdust in the mouth; but her influence, while it lasted, was great, and must have gone some way to form his mind. He was easily set on edge, however, by didactic writing; and held that books should teach no other lesson but what 'real life would teach, were it as vividly presented.' Again, it was the thing made that took him, the drama in the book; to the book itself, to any merit of the making, he was long strangely blind. He would prefer the AGAMEMNON in the prose of Mr. Buckley, ay, to Keats. But he was his mother's son, learning to the last. He told me one day that literature was not a trade; that it was no craft; that the professed author was merely an amateur with a door-plate. 'Very well,' said I, 'the first time you get a proof, I will demonstrate that it is as much a trade as bricklaying, and that you do not know it.' By the very next post, a proof came. I opened it with fear; for he was indeed, as the reader will see by these volumes, a formidable amateur; always wrote brightly, because he always thought trenchantly; and sometimes wrote brilliantly, as the worst of whistlers may sometimes stumble on a perfect intonation. But it was all for the best in the interests of his education; and I was able, over that proof, to give him a quarter of an hour such as Fleeming loved both to give and to receive. His subsequent training passed out of my hands into those of our common friend, W. E. Henley. 'Henley and I,' he wrote, 'have fairly good times wigging one another for not doing better. I wig him because he won't try to write a real play, and he wigs me because I can't try to write English.' When I next saw him, he was full of his new acquisitions. 'And yet I have lost something too,' he said regretfully. 'Up to now Scott seemed to me quite perfect, he was all I wanted. Since I have been learning this confounded thing, I took up one of the novels, and a great deal of it is both careless and clumsy.'
He spoke four languages with freedom, not even English with any marked propriety. What he uttered was not so much well said, as excellently acted: so we may hear every day the inexpressive language of a poorly-written drama assume character and colour in the hands of a good player.