Popular Tales From the Norse
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
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
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."
1. Introduction to the Icelandic-English Dictionary, p. xlvii.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.