Letters to Dead Authors (1886)

Letters to Dead Authors, by Andrew Lang; 1886;London: Longmans, Green, and co.

Letters to Dead Authors contains twenty-two letters written by Andrew Lang (1844–1912) to bards, poets, and novelists from Homer to Rabelais to Austen. An incredibly prolific writer from the Scottish Borders, Lang’s name can be found on 249 books and thousands of newspaper articles. As a literary critic he inspired love, fear, respect, and laughter. He was sometimes acerbic, sometimes reverential, and usually witty. There is more glowing praise in Letters to Dead Authors than scathing criticism. In fact he expresses a very, very high opinion of most of his correspondents. While this can verge on cloying, it can also be rather beautiful. For example, to Percy Bysshe Shelley he writes: “Watching the yellow bees in the ivy bloom, and the reflected pine forest in the water-pools, watching the sunset as it faded, and the dawn as it fired, and weaving all fair and fleeting things into a tissue where light and music were at one, that was the task of Shelley! ‘To ask you for anything human,’ you said, ‘was like asking for a leg of mutton at a gin-shop.’”

To Homer: “It is because thou art so great, and men so little, that they misdoubt thee… They believe not that one human soul has known every art, and all the thoughts of women as of men, all lives of beasts on hill and plain, all the innocence of childhood, and its beautiful ways, all the delight of battle, the dread of ambush, the slow agony of siege, the storms and the calms of the sea. In thy soul, as in the soul of Zeus, is the whole world mirrored.”

To Edgar Allan Poe: “But to discuss your few and elaborate poems is a waste of time, so completely does your own brief definition of poetry, ‘the rhythmic creation of the beautiful,’ exhaust your theory, and so perfectly is the theory illustrated by the poems.”

If you’d like more Andrew Lang, there is an excellent piece on his life and work in The Scotsman. You can also check out our post on his bibliophilic gem, Books and Bookmen (1886). His crowning achievement remains the twelve colour fairy books (published 1889–1910) in which he and his wife collected, edited and translated 437 fairy stories from across Europe.