Popular Tales from the Norse, by George Webbe Dasent, , at sacred-texts.com
IN presenting to the world a new edition of Sir George Webbe Dasent's Norse Tales a brief memoir of its author will not be deemed out of place.
The Dasent family is believed to have been originally of French extraction, the name having been traced to an ancient Norman source. It has owned property in the West Indies since the Restoration, and is represented in the island of St. Vincent at the present day. Some of its members were amongst the earliest colonists in St. Christopher's at a time when that island and Martinique were held jointly by the French and the English; and the highest judicial and administrative offices in St. Christopher's, in Nevis, in Antigua, and, more recently, in St. Vincent itself were filled by Sir George Dasent's ancestors. 1
His grandfather was Chief Justice of Nevis when Nelson first served on the West Indian station—so long the battle-ground of England and France for the supremacy of the sea, and the cradle, so to speak, of our naval empire.
His father, John Roche Dasent, son of the Chief
[paragraph continues] Justice of Nevis by his wife, Eleanor Roche, became Attorney-General of St. Vincent the year after Trafalgar.
It was in this volcanic island, perpetually robed in luxuriant tropical vegetation from mountain top to seashore, that the subject of our memoir was born on May 22nd, 1817.
His mother, the second wife of his father, was Charlotte Martha, younger daughter and co-heiress of Captain Alexander Burrowes Irwin, of an ancient Irish family in the counties of Dublin, Meath, and Tipperary, and of the Union Estate in St. Vincent.
Captain Irwin had come with the 32nd Foot to these pleasant summer seas in 1764, and he served with it there for ten years. He did not, however, return to Ireland with his regiment, as, having obtained a grant of land in one of the most fruitful hollows of the old home of the Caribs, he passed the remainder of his life on his estate in St. Vincent, and died there in 1806. His only son, Henry Bury Irwin, captain in the 68th Regiment, was killed at the battle of the Nivelle in the Peninsular War.
Like his father and others of the family before him, George Webbe Dasent was sent over to England to be educated at Westminster School, entering there so long ago as 1830 (after being for a short time at Lendon's well-known preparatory school at Totteridge), when George the Fourth was still upon the throne.
He boarded at Mrs. Stelfox's house, and amongst his schoolfellows were the present Duke of Richmond, Lord Esher, the late Master of the Polls, and Sir John Mowbray, until quite lately the Father of the House of Commons.
He witnessed, as a Westminster boy, the coronation of William the Fourth. The ceremony in the Abbey, and the burning of the old Houses of Parliament a few years later were, he used to say, the things which most impressed themselves upon his boyish memory at the time. Nor was it likely that the agitation prevailing in the country at the time of the great Reform Movement would find much reflection within the walls of St. Peter's College on the Isle of Thorns, although Westminster was then the favoured school of the great Whig families of England.
In 1832 Dasent's father died, and the final emancipation of the slaves a little later proving the death-knell of the commercial prosperity of the West Indian islands, it became increasingly difficult for the proprietors to live upon their estates. The care of the younger children devolved in great measure upon their half-brother John Bury Dasent [late Judge of County Courts, who died, aged eighty-one, in 1888], then a young student of the Middle Temple, residing on very slender means in Serjeants' Inn, Fleet Street.
It so happened that John Sterling, the amiable son of the "Thunderer of the Times," had visited St. Vincent in 1831, shortly before old Mr. Dasent's death, to assume the management of a sugar estate at a place called Colonarie. His health had been very indifferent, and it was hoped that a voyage to the tropics in a sailing-ship on would restore it. An intimacy, not without influence the future career of young George Dasent, as will be seen hereafter, soon sprang up between the two families.
After leaving Westminster, Dasent, went for a time to
[paragraph continues] King's College, London, and it was there that he first became intimately acquainted with his life-long friend and future brother-in-law, John Thadeus Delane. In 1836 they both matriculated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, of which Dr. Macbride was then the Principal, and Jacobson, afterwards Bishop of Chester, the Vice-Principal.
At Oxford, Dasent read hard, and became a good classical scholar, though by no means neglecting the river or the cricket-field, his interest indeed in athletics and any feats of endurance only ceasing with life itself.
He soon became a favourite with Jacobson, as did Delane; and another lasting friendship begun at Magdalen Hall was with Manuel Johnson who, after taking his degree, was appointed to succeed Rigaud as Radcliffe Observer.
Johnson was very popular in the university, and the Observatory became the resort of the leaders of the High Church party in Oxford. Here Dasent, who was a frequent visitor, came for a time under the spell of Newman; but a more enduring religious influence seems to have been exerted over him by Maurice, whose kindly nature never failed to appeal to the young. We gather from Dasent's diary that he rarely missed the university sermon when Newman or Pusey preached, and that so great was the crowd at St. Mary's to hear the latter that undergraduates waited patiently for the doors to open, when a scramble ensued for places, like the rush at the doors of a popular theatre.
In Easter Term 1840 he took his degree, obtaining a Second Class in Classics in the company of James Anthony Froude, Lord Farrer, and the late Mr. John
[paragraph continues] Walter. In his diary he records that he "did not know whether to be pleased or not. On the whole, perhaps, I have no cause to complain as the first and second [classes] are both small, and I have beaten some men thought better than myself, and have been beaten by no one thought worse."
At any rate he was placed in a company not less distinguished in after achievement than is to be found in the first class of the same honours list.
After going down from the university he spent some little time in London, where his mother had now removed from the West Indies. Delane, who about this time was established in the editorial chair of the Times, was in constant association with him, and it was at this early period of his career that Dasent began to write articles for the paper which he afterwards served so faithfully and so well in an official capacity.
Sterling, who had returned from St. Vincent some years before, introduced him to his father, and Dasent became a frequent visitor at the white house in South Place, Knightsbridge. Here he became acquainted with Carlyle, whose works he had long admired, and whose rugged honesty of purpose and independent character proved an immediate attraction to his opening mind; with John Stuart Mill, with Julius Hare, and with Thackeray, the latter then only known to fame from the publication of the Yellow-Plush Papers.
The elder Sterling, in the evening of his days, after he had practically ceased to launch his thunderbolts in the press, loved to gather men of intellect, both young and, round his dinner-table. Carlyle, in his Life of John
[paragraph continues] Sterling, speaks of the miscellany of social faces round him, of his "kindly advice to the young," and of the "frank and joyous parties" at the Knightsbridge house, a "sunny islet" in the literary London of that age.
Dasent next proceeded to Stockholm as secretary to Sir Thomas Cartwright, the British Envoy to the Court of Sweden, having been recommended to him by his old tutor Jacobson as a young man of great promise and ability.
In these days of rapid railway travelling when the Swedish capital has been brought within fifty hours of London, it is interesting to read the description given by him in his Ms. diary of the dangers and difficulties attending a journey to northern Europe during the bitter winter of 1840-41.
After taking leave of his mother, on New Year's Day 1841, he, the only cabin passenger in the ship, embarked on the City of Hamburg, lying off the Tower Stairs, and reached Cuxhaven on the 4th of January, posting the seventy miles on to Hamburg in twenty-nine hours!
Thence the Copenhagen diligence crawled at a snail's pace through Holstein till a heavy fall of snow compelled him to take to a sledge, "escorted," the diary tells its, "by a band of the most savage peasantry it is possible to conceive." The Danish capital was not reached till the 14th of the month; and here he learnt from Sir Henry Wynn, to whom he brought letters of introduction, that he had missed the diligence for Stockholm by a day. In spite, however, of the extreme cold then prevailing, Dasent, whose impetuous nature was always impatient of delay, again resorted to an open sledge contrary to Wynn's advice, and reaching Elsinore he bargained for a boat to carry him to Helsingborg.
But soon after thrusting out from the land "we heard a harsh grating sound against our bows, and found we were on the edge of what seemed to be a boundless sheet of ice on its way from the Baltic to the North Sea, which appeared willing to rest for the night off the harbour of Elsinore." The next day, the ice having shifted a little, Dasent landed safely on Swedish soil, and again taking a sledge, and carrying his provisions with him, he at last reached Stockholm, by dint of travelling night and day in the bitterest of weather, on the twenty-fifth day after going on board ship in the Thames.
At Stockholm he remained about four years, paying however occasional visits to England, and visiting Frankfort-on-the-Main, and other places in Germany, with the Cartwright family.
It was during his stay in Stockholm that he developed that genuine and lasting love of Scandinavian literature and the mythology of the North, with which his name has always been so conspicuously associated. Encouraged by the great Jacob Grimm to master the languages of the North, he soon devoted himself to the study of the Sagas. Few human records, indeed, exist which portray society in its primitive form so graphically, abundantly, and truthfully as the Sagas of Iceland.
"It is with the everyday life of the Icelanders that we feel ourselves thoroughly at home. In the hall of the gallant Gunnar at Lithend, or with the peaceful and law-skilled Njal at Bergthorsknoll, we meet men who think and act as men of noble minds and gentle hearts have ever acted, and will never cease to act, so long as human nature remains the same. Gish, the generous outlaw,
and Snorri, the worldly-wise priest, Mord Valgardson, the wily traitor, and Hallgerda, the overbearing hateful wife, are characters true for all time, whose works and ways are but eminent examples of our common humanity, and at once arouse our sympathy or our antipathy." 1
In 1842 he dedicated his first book to Thomas Carlyle in gratitude for the encouragement he received from him to definitely devote himself to literature.
This was a translation of the Prose, or Younger Edda, and was published at Stockholm. In the course of the following year appeared his Grammar of the Icelandic or Old Norse Tongue, from the Swedish of Erasmus Rask; and his Theophilus in Icelandic, Low German and other Tongues, from mss. to which he had access in the Royal Library at Stockholm, followed in 1845.
He returned to England in the spring of this latter year and joined Delane at the Times Office as assistant editor, a post which he continued to fill with remarkable ability for the next quarter of a century.
Of very different natures each of the two young brothers-in-law, "John Walter's three-year-olds," as they were sometimes called, contributed something which was wanting in the character of the other, and the result was a remarkable smoothness and evenness in the conduct of the paper. Though neither was at any time of his life what could be called a party man the instincts of Delane were decidedly Liberal; and Dasent himself wrote that during his whole tenure of office the columns of the Times "are composed out of the very ore of liberty and progress, and will for ever remain the best monument to his memory."
The late Mr. Mowbray Morris, another brother-in-law of Delane's, became the business manager of the paper, and it is no exaggeration to say that under Delane's able guidance the literary reputation of the Times reached its zenith.
Surrounded by a band of brilliant writers, unsurpassed before or since for the purity of their style and the vigour and soundness of their opinions, Delane commanded the valuable services, in addition to George Webbe Dasent, of Robert Lowe, Abraham Hayward, Henry Reeve (playfully alluded to in Dasent's correspondence with Delane as "Don Pomposo"), Thomas Mozley (Newman's brother-in-law), Laurence Oliphant, Matthew Arnold, and Doctor now Sir William, Russell, the first of all war-correspondents, and at the present day the only survivor of the great Delane dynasty in Printing House Square. Dasent's intimacy with Bunsen also proved of great service to Delane in connection with the foreign policy of the paper. 1
In the happy phraseology of Sir James Graham, the Times through its masterly editing at this period "saved the English language." Dasent's literary activity and capacity for hard work in early middle life was prodigious. Notwithstanding late hours six nights in every week spent in the service of the great newspaper, to which
he contributed in addition to leading articles a large proportion of the reviews of current literature and the biographical notices of eminent men; 1 he worked assiduously at his translation of the Norse Tales of Asbjornsen: one of which, "The Master Thief," first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine for November 1851.
The first collected edition of these celebrated stories appeared in 1859 (the preface is dated from his house, No. 6 Broad Sanctuary, Westminster, December 12th, 1858); and the long introductory essay on the origin and diffusion of popular tales, explaining the migration of these stories from Asia to the north of Europe, which he considered to be the best piece of work he ever did, has been pronounced by so competent an authority as Max Müller to be one of the purest specimens of English literature produced in our own or any other age.
A second edition, greatly enlarged, containing thirteen new tales, and an appendix, consisting of Ananzi stories told by the negroes in the West Indies, was called for within three months. A selection from the Norse tales for the use of children, with illustrations, followed in 1862, and a third edition of the unabridged collection was published in 1888.
The Norsemen in Iceland was published in the Oxford Essays, 1858, a volume which, it is interesting to note, also contained Lord, Salisbury's celebrated article on Parliamentary Reform.
In 1852 Dasent was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, becoming an Advocate in Doctors' Commons in November of the same year. At the time of his death he was one of the last survivors of that ancient legal Corporation.
In 1852 he also took his degree as D.C.L. He now accepted, under Jelf, the post of Professor of English Literature and Modern History at King's College, and the lectures delivered by him in that capacity from 1853 to 1865 were uniformly of a high order of merit, and well deserve publication in a collected form. Through the instrumentality of Lowe, who quickly perceived his value for educational purposes, he was frequently employed henceforth as a Government examiner of candidates for admission to the Army and the permanent Civil Service. In the autumn of 1854 Delane, whose interest in military affairs was always a keen one, was so impressed by Russell's letters from the front describing the pitiable condition of our troops, that he went to the Crimea to see for himself how the war was progressing, leaving Dasent in supreme command at Printing House Square.
During a similar interregnum in the following year Reeve took umbrage at the alterations which the temporary editor thought it necessary to make in his contributions to the paper on foreign policy, but Delane upheld Dasent's line of action, and Reeve withdrew from the Times to assume the editorship of the Edinburgh Review. 1
In addition to all his other work, Dasent wrote constantly for the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, and the principal literary periodicals, including the now defunct Fraser's Magazine, of which he was at one time offered the editorship.
Having been approached by the representatives of Richard Cleasby, who had been for years engaged in collecting materials for an Icelandic-English Dictionary, Dasent warmly interested himself in the task of completing the work. He brought Gúdbrandr Vígfússon, an Icelandic scholar of great industry and intelligence, already well-known for his labours in the field of his native literature, over to England to complete the final revision and arrangement of the manuscripts, and was successful, through the instrumentality of Liddell, in inducing the University of Oxford to bring out the work at the Clarendon Press. For this great undertaking Dasent wrote the introduction and also the life of Richard Cleasby—his only experiment in contemporary biography which has come down to us in book form.
The first edition of Burnt Njal, a work of which we gladly repeat the deliberate judgment of a distinguished American writer that "it is unsurpassed by any existing monument in the narrative department of any literature ancient or modern," 1 appeared in 1861.
He had conceived the notion of giving an English dress to the Njal's Saga so early as in 1843, but, as the preface informs us, it was destined to rank among those things which, begun in youth, must wait for their completion
in middle age. But the delay need not be regretted since it enables us to enjoy this great epic tale in as perfect a form as patient erudition and a genuine love of the most untrodden paths of antiquity could present it.
The interest of this tragic story revolves around the duties and the rights of the blood-feud, and shows us how a man, gentle, generous, and forgiving, like Njal, was, in spite of all his virtues, gradually involved in a network of bloody retaliation; how in spite of all his wise and pacific counsel massacre replied to massacre around him, until he and his whole household perished in blood and fire, leaving, however, a fearful heritage of vengeance to be exacted by Kari, his son-in-law.
In 1861, and again in the following year, Dasent visited Iceland in person, in company with the late Mr. John Campbell of Islay (himself an earnest student of the folklore and popular tales of the Western Highlands) and other friends.
He was received with great cordiality at Reykjavik and entertained at a public banquet by the authorities, who acclaimed him as the foremost Icelandic scholar in Europe. He rode across the gigantic snowfield of the Vatna Jokull, and visited many of the places of interest in the country, whose physical features were already well known to him through its literature.
The adventures of the party on the occasion of Dasent's second visit to Iceland were so humorously described by the late Sir Charles Clifford in his Travels by Umbra, and the disposition and personal appearance of each of the five members of this merry group so admirably
burlesqued, that we make no apology for reproducing their portraits:—
'First—he who by tacit consent was reckoned the head of our party—was surnamed Archibald M'Diarmid. 1
'I believe the addition of esquire is considered a sort of insult in the Highlands, whence he came, so I omit it. M'Diarmid, like Crichton, did all things well, being a first-rate sportsman, a good draughtsman; was a follower of science, and an author to boot.
'He possessed qualities of coolness, deliberation and courage, that would have fitted him to be the leader of a party bound on an expedition far more adventurous than our own.
'He was, moreover, a pleasant companion, but lest it should be thought that I am describing a too perfect character, I will admit that he cherished two superstitions. First, he believed in Ossian; secondly, he held it as an article of faith, not to be doubted, that his tent was completely waterproof.
'Next to him I will introduce Mr. Darwin, 2 a really celebrated personage. He had written a learned book on northern antiquities, in recompense of which a Scandinavian potentate created him a Knight of the second class of the Order of the Walrus, the ribbon of which illustrious Order was suspended across his brawny shoulders. Of Herculean height and strength, with his long black beard descending to his waist, he resembled a Viking of old, and such I conceive he at times supposed himself to be. In fact, so deeply was he imbued with
the spirit of antiquity, that a continual antagonism between the past and the present, or rather, I should say, between the imaginary and the real, existed in his breast.
'He was two gentlemen at once. Though a sincerely religious man, still I cannot help suspecting that in his heart of hearts he looked on Christianity as a somewhat parvenu creed, and deemed that Thor, Odin, Freya, etc., were the proper objects of worship. In dull fact he was an excellent citizen, a householder, paying rates and taxes, an affectionate husband, and the good father of a family; but in the dream, the fancy—"the spirit, Master Shallow"—he was a Berserker, a Norse pirate, ploughing the seas in his dragon-shaped barque, making his trusty falchion ring on the casques of his enemies, slaying, pillaging, burning, ravishing, and thus gratifying a laudable taste for adventure. I fear he preferred the glorious dream to the sober reality. I think he inwardly pined at his own respectability, that he considered himself misplaced in the narrow sphere of duties. But he was a most agreeable comrade.
'Third was Ragner, Lord Lodbrog, an Irish peer, 1 and then a student at the University. He derived his descent from a chieftain of that name, who had slain a dragon after encasing himself in impenetrable hairy breeches; and it was still a custom in his family, out of respect to this ancestor, to wear hirsute nether garments.
'How gay was Lodbrog! the life and soul of our company: his cheerfulness never failed. As he cantered
on ahead of all, Cum spumantis equi foderet calcaribus armos, a crimson sash round his waist, the plumage of the wild swan in his cap, and round his shoulders slung a horn, which had erst, to the great disgust of the Dons, awoke the echoes of Peckwater Quad, he was hailed by us as decidedly the "Skarzmadur" or Dandy of the party.
'Fourth was Mr. X, a member of Parliament, 1 who had come out late in the session. I am not aware that he ever enlightened the senate by his eloquence. He was rather a silent, reserved person, and his chief talent seemed to consist in smoking tobacco. However, to do him justice, he was always good-tempered, lent a willing hand at the packing in the morning, and never bored any of us by quoting bluebooks, which is much to his credit. When he did speak, it was generally to make some citation from the classics or Shakespeare, which was tedious, but happily brief.
'Fifth was Mr. Digwell, 2 a relative of Mr. Darwin, Fellow of a College at Cambridge, and, unfortunately for him, smitten with a taste for Geology, which had impelled him to come to Iceland. He was a tall, thin man, and always carried a hammer to aid him in his favourite pursuit. He also brought an ancient military saddle, which an ancestor of his had used in the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns. On an Iceland pony it seemed somewhat misplaced. Besides his zeal for science, Digwell was passionately fond of poetry, and for hours together would repeat verses, embodying the mysterious
longings of the soul. Unluckily nature had endowed him with another craving entirely opposed to romance; namely a most inordinate appetite.'
Later on in this delightful book, the key to the characters in which is now for the first time made public, is introduced Grimur Thomsen of Copenhagen, under the disguise of 'Mr. Jonson.'
The great success of Burnt Njal led to the publication, in 1866, of Gisli the Outlaw, in which will be found a beautiful map of Iceland, and a second series of popular stories, entitled Tales from the Fjeld, appeared in 1874.
At the beginning of 1870, Mr. Gladstone, to whom he had been made known by Lowe, wrote to offer him the important appointment of one of Her Majesty's Civil Commissioners, and though it was a great wrench to him to sever his long connection with Delane at the Times Office, and an immediate loss of income, after some hesitation he accepted the post on the advice of his family. No longer constrained to work every night into the small hours of the morning, he was now free to go more into London society; and bringing to it, as he did, a well-stored mind, a fund of native humour, 1 great capacity for enjoyment, and rare conversational powers, he became one of its recognised favourites, and a welcome guest, like Delane himself, at its dinner-tables. One of his most
valued friends throughout his lifetime, and they had been up at Oxford together, was William Bromley Davenport, 1 an English sportsman of the best type, and as clever a letter writer as the Victorian Age has produced, though not strikingly successful as a public speaker.
Scarce a ear passed without Dasent's visiting him at his Cheshire home, and the last country visit he ever paid was to his widow at Capesthorne.
Intimate, too, with Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (after whom his youngest son was christened), he was frequently at the Deanery, Westminster, and, like Stanley himself, took the greatest interest in all that concerned the history and archæology of the Abbey, which he had known and loved from boyhood. He was present with the Dean when some of the Royal tombs were opened with a view to the more complete identification of their contents.
At Lord Granville's, both in town and at Walmer Castle, he increased his already extensive knowledge of the political world, and he was a welcome guest at Highclere, at Raby, at Althorp, and at Chatsworth.
He enjoyed the close friendship of Sir Thomas Erskine May (Lord Farnborough), of Matthew Arnold, and the late Sir Charles Bowen—all, like himself, habitués of the
[paragraph continues] Athenæum Club, where his unfailing spirits and cultivated talk were long appreciated. 1
Another very dear friend was the late Sir Robert Meade, the permanent Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office, who was also a neighbour in Berkshire, at Englemere, Mowbray Morris's former home near Ascot Heath.
A member also of the Cosmopolitan Club in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, the favourite resort of such wits as Lord Houghton, and the better-known figures in the political and social world of London, Dasent became as prominent socially as he was already amongst men of letters.
A constant visitor to Baron Meyer de Rothschild at Mentmore in the early seventies, he warmly interested himself with the Baroness in support of the movement for the Oral Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, a scheme generously forwarded by the Rothschild family by every means in their power. In 1872 the Prince of Wales presided at a public dinner in furtherance of the scheme, at which Dasent explained the advantages of the system over any other method of educating deaf mutes and lightening the burden of their lives. For many years he attended the meetings of the Committee of the Association, and strove to influence public opinion on. its behalf.
While continuing to write reviews for the Times, so
long as Delane remained at his post, Dasent now for the first time turned his attention to contemporary fiction. His first novel—The Annals of an Eventful Life 1—issued at first anonymously in 1870, went through several editions in the course of a few months, and has since been frequently re-issued in one volume.
The capacity for fiction displayed in this highly original work, and its instantaneous success, led to his writing Three to One in 1872 and Half a Life in 1874.
To those who knew him well it is easy to see that the latter is mainly autobiographical, and while not amongst his best writings, it will always be interesting for the vivid account in its pages of his Westminster school-days.
The Vikings of the Baltic, an ingenious attempt to dilute the Jomsvikinga Saga into a modern three-volume novel, was published in 1875.
On June 27th, 1876, on Mr. Disraeli's recommendation, Dasent received the honour of knighthood "for public services." 2 He was already a Knight of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog; another compliment which he received from the Danes being a beautiful silver drinking-horn, shaped like a Viking ship, in recognition of his services to Northern literature. On the institution of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, he was invited by the Government
to be one of its original members, and many of its subsequently printed volumes are the result of his personal knowledge of unpublished literary treasures long lying unheeded in the muniment rooms of many an English home.
On the retirement of Sir Thomas Erskine May from the clerkship of the House of Commons in 1886, Gladstone was inclined to appoint Dasent as his successor in that high office, but his infirmity of lameness, the result, in the first instance, of a fall in 1863, aggravated by other accidents of a like nature, was held to be an insuperable obstacle to the efficient discharge of the onerous duties attaching to the post, and he remained at the Civil Service Commission, of which he had become, on the death of Lord Hampton, the official chief. In 1890 he sustained a severe shock through the total destruction by fire of his country house at Tower Hill, Berks, and the loss or grievous damage of much valuable property, including an extensive library dating from his Oxford days, old furniture, pictures, plate, china, and curiosities collected during a long life in all parts of the world.
In this connection it should be mentioned that he was one of the first to give serious attention to the study of hall-marks on plate, long before the appearance of Chaffers's and Cripps's books on this subject, and that he had secured in middle age an unrivalled collection of antique silver, including specimens from the Stowe sale, which he attended in person, and from the Bernal and Hastings collections.
Many choice examples of old Norwich, York, and other provincial work came into his possession, at a time when
the secret of the various alphabetical cycles was known, perhaps, only to himself and the late Mr. Octavius Morgan. A portion of his collection was sold at Christie's in 1875, and realised prices then regarded as enormous, though since largely exceeded on the dispersal at the same rooms of the Milbank and Dunn-Gardner collections. The exhaustive article on "Plate and Plate Buyers," in the Quarterly Review (No. 282) for April 1876—the lamp at which all subsequent writers on Old English Silver have lit their torch—was from his pen.
The thorough grasp and appreciation of the subject therein displayed, the timely warnings as to forgeries, addressed to would-be buyers with long purses but little real knowledge, and the confident prediction expressed by him, and since abundantly verified, that genuine specimens of mediæval and pre-Caroline plate (of which there were some thirty in his own collection), must greatly increase in value as their extreme rarity was better realised, render the whole article of singular interest to collectors at the present day.
With characteristic energy, although his health was now beginning to fail, he applied himself to the task of rebuilding his ruined home, and on his final retirement from the public service in 1892, he withdrew altogether from London society to end his days in the peaceful atmosphere of Windsor Forest, a neighbourhood to which both he and Delane had been strongly attached from their boyhood. His services at the Civil Service Commission are thus commemorated in the opening words of the thirty-sixth Report of that body:—
"This Commission has sustained a heavy loss owing to the
superannuation of Sir George Webbe Dasent at the close of the last financial year. Appointed Commissioner in 1870, before the principle of open competition was applied to the Home Civil Service, he helped, in conjunction with the late Sir Edward Ryan, aided by the late Mr. Theodore Walrond, then secretary to the Commissioners, to organise the new system; he continued to watch over and guide its development; and whatever success has attended its administration has been largely due to his ability and judgment."
He was forced to retire, notwithstanding his unwearied exertions in the public interest, on a very inadequate pension: in such fashion does an ungrateful Treasury reward its best servants. His last contribution to the Times was a letter which appeared on December 6th, 1893, when he wrote from his retirement at Tower Hill to claim the authorship of a classical epigram made on the occasion of the marriage of Mr. Henry Wyndham West to Miss Violet Campbell, which had been wrongly attributed (in a mention of Mr. West's death in the same newspaper) to Abraham Hayward. The epigram ran as follows:—
"Quaerebat Zephyrus brumali tempore florem:
En! Campis Bellis incidit in Violam."
And to the right understanding of this dainty classical morsel it should be added that Mr. West's nickname in early life was "Zephyr," and that he was married in midwinter to Miss Violet Campbell, a sister of Lady Granville, and half-sister of Dasent's old friend, John Campbell of Islay.
Yet another book was to be published under his name before the curtain fell—his masterly translation of the Orkney and Hacon Sagas issued in 1894 for the series of
[paragraph continues] National Historical Publications by the Master of the Rolls; but it should here be stated that in the revision of this work he received great assistance from his eldest son, Mr. John Roche Dasent, C.B., who is himself engaged at the present time in editing the Acts of the Privy Council of England, a task left unfinished by Sir Harris Nicolas.
The publication of these two Sagas completed the labours of more than half a century devoted to the popularisation of the literature of Scandinavia and its bearings upon the history of England. His contemplated Life of Delane, whose vast and unique correspondence passed into his keeping, and fortunately escaped the flames at Tower Hill, is withheld from publication for the present, though it will surely see the light when the times are ripe for it to be given to the world. 1
Dasent's once iron frame at last began to break down, and a gradual decay of his powers set in. For the last year and a half of his life be was confined to his room by a distressing malady, which be bore with admirable fortitude, rarely uttering a word of complaint, though he suffered constant and acute pain. The end came on Thursday, June 11th, 1896, when he passed away, surrounded by his family, at his house at Tower Hill, overlooking the wild landscape of Bagshot Heath, and the woodlands of Swinley which he loved so well.
On the Monday following his remains were quietly interred in the picturesque churchyard of the old forest parish of Easthampstead, where, too, his life-long friend, John Delane, rests from his labours. Dasent married, at St. James's, Piccadilly, in 1846, Fanny Louisa, third daughter of the late Mr. William Frederick Augustus Delane, of Old Bracknell, Easthampstead, the only son of Cavin Delane, of an ancient Irish family in Roscommon and the Queen's County, Serjeant-at-Arms to George the Third, in 1775, by his wife Elizabeth Davenport. By this lady, who survives him, Dasent had four children:—
(1) John Roche Dasent, C.B., educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, assistant secretary to the Board of Education, married in 1878 to Ellen, younger daughter and co-heiress of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Codrington, K.C.B., by whom he has two sons, Manuel and Walter, both in the Royal Navy.
(2) George William Manuel, also at Westminster and Christ Church, accidentally drowned at Oxford in 1872.
(3) Frances Emily Mary.
(4) Arthur Irwin, educated at Eton, and now one of the clerks of the House of Commons, married, 5th February 1901, at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, to Helen Augusta Essex, youngest daughter of the late Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Tippinge, Grenadier Guards, of Longparish House, Hants.
xvii:1 For a detailed pedigree of the family of Dasent, see V. L. Oliver's History of the Island of Antigua. 1894. Volume i. pp. 190-194, and Burke's Landed Gentry, 8th edition, pp. 469, 470.
xxiv:1 Introduction to the Icelandic-English Dictionary, p. xlvii.
xxv:1 Kinglake, who was well acquainted with Delane and competent to appreciate his remarkable talents, has given us an insight into his method of conducting the paper, derived from personal observation of the great editor and the principal members of his staff at their nightly work in Printing House Square.—Invasion of the Crimea, vol. vi. pp. 249-251.
xxvi:1 Much of his best and freshest writing perforce lies buried in the anonymous columns of the Times. Some of his contributions to the paper and the principal reviews were published by him in 1873, in two volumes, entitled Jest and Earnest.
xxvii:1 In his recently-published diary Reeve states that between 1840 and 1855 he wrote nearly two thousand five hundred articles for the paper, and received for them upwards of £13,000.
xxviii:1 See The Saturday Review, vol. xi. p. 429.
xxx:1 John Campbell of Islay.
xxx:2 George Webbe Dasent.
xxxi:1 Then Lord Newry, and now Earl of Kilmorey.
xxxii:1 Charles Cavendish Clifford.
xxxii:2 John Roche Dakyns.
xxxiii:1 His innate love of a joke occasionally illumined the cold print of the Times columns. On one occasion, when he was acting for Delane, a letter came to the office from a Mr. Wieass for publication. The signature was an indistinct scrawl which defied all efforts to decipher, and the name of the writer was printed 'Wiseass.' The writer of the letter p. xxxiv was exceedingly wroth and wrote to complain. To cool the inflamed mind of the correspondent there appeared next morning an editorial excuse. It stated that 'after a careful study of the writer's caligraphy, we came to the conclusion that a difficulty existed as to deciphering the first part of the signature, but there was no mistake as to the latter part.'
xxxiv:1 Late M.P. for North Warwickshire.
xxxv:1 Elected to the Athenæum under the rule which provides for the admission of men "of distinguished eminence in literature, science, or the arts," without the ordeal of the ballot, his name remained on the list of members for forty years.
xxxvi:1 This he wrote at his London house, No. 19 Chesham Place, S.W., whilst lying on his back during the enforced inactivity following on an accident to his knee.
The Queen has knighted Dasent;
Wit well deserves a handle to its name."
—Punch, 8th July 1876.
xl:1 Delane wrote to Reeve, October 22nd, 1874:—"The world moves too quickly for long intervals of suppressed publication," à propos of the Times review of the Greville Memoirs. Dasent wrote the article referred to, and sat up all night to finish it, as was his wont when absorbed in his subject.