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The Rhythm of Life and other Essays by Alice Meynell

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This etext was prepared from the 1893 John Lane edition by
David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk

The Rhythm of Life and Other Essays


The Rhythm of Life
A Remembrance
The Sun
The Flower
Unstable Equilibrium
The Unit of the World
By the Railway Side
Pocket Vocabularies
The Point of Honour
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
James Russell Lowell
Domus Angusta
The Lesson of Landscape
Mr. Coventry Patmore's Odes
Innocence and Experience
Penultimate Caricature


If life is not always poetical, it is at least metrical.
Periodicity rules over the mental experience of man, according to
the path of the orbit of his thoughts. Distances are not gauged,
ellipses not measured, velocities not ascertained, times not known.
Nevertheless, the recurrence is sure. What the mind suffered last
week, or last year, it does not suffer now; but it will suffer again
next week or next year. Happiness is not a matter of events; it
depends upon the tides of the mind. Disease is metrical, closing in
at shorter and shorter periods towards death, sweeping abroad at
longer and longer intervals towards recovery. Sorrow for one cause
was intolerable yesterday, and will be intolerable tomorrow; today
it is easy to bear, but the cause has not passed. Even the burden
of a spiritual distress unsolved is bound to leave the heart to a
temporary peace; and remorse itself does not remain--it returns.
Gaiety takes us by a dear surprise. If we had made a course of
notes of its visits, we might have been on the watch, and would have
had an expectation instead of a discovery. No one makes such
observations; in all the diaries of students of the interior world,
there have never come to light the records of the Kepler of such
cycles. But Thomas e Kempis knew of the recurrences, if he did not
measure them. In his cell alone with the elements--'What wouldst
thou more than these? for out of these were all things made'--he
learnt the stay to be found in the depth of the hour of bitterness,
and the remembrance that restrains the soul at the coming of the
moment of delight, giving it a more conscious welcome, but presaging
for it an inexorable flight. And 'rarely, rarely comest thou,'
sighed Shelley, not to Delight merely, but to the Spirit of Delight.
Delight can be compelled beforehand, called, and constrained to our
service--Ariel can be bound to a daily task; but such artificial
violence throws life out of metre, and it is not the spirit that is
thus compelled. THAT flits upon an orbit elliptically or
parabolically or hyperbolically curved, keeping no man knows what
trysts with Time.

It seems fit that Shelley and the author of the IMITATION should
both have been keen and simple enough to perceive these flights, and
to guess at the order of this periodicity. Both souls were in close
touch with the spirits of their several worlds, and no deliberate
human rules, no infractions of the liberty and law of the universal
movement, kept from them the knowledge of recurrences. Eppur si
muove. They knew that presence does not exist without absence; they
knew that what is just upon its flight of farewell is already on its
long path of return. They knew that what is approaching to the very
touch is hastening towards departure. 'O wind,' cried Shelley, in

'O wind,
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?'

They knew that the flux is equal to the reflux; that to interrupt
with unlawful recurrences, out of time, is to weaken the impulse of
onset and retreat; the sweep and impetus of movement. To live in
constant efforts after an equal life, whether the equality be sought
in mental production, or in spiritual sweetness, or in the joy of
the senses, is to live without either rest or full activity. The
souls of certain of the saints, being singularly simple and single,
have been in the most complete subjection to the law of periodicity.
Ecstasy and desolation visited them by seasons. They endured,
during spaces of vacant time, the interior loss of all for which
they had sacrificed the world. They rejoiced in the uncovenanted
beatitude of sweetness alighting in their hearts. Like them are the
poets whom, three times or ten times in the course of a long life,
the Muse has approached, touched, and forsaken. And yet hardly like
them; not always so docile, nor so wholly prepared for the
departure, the brevity, of the golden and irrevocable hour. Few
poets have fully recognised the metrical absence of their Muse. For
full recognition is expressed in one only way--silence.

It has been found that several tribes in Africa and in America
worship the moon, and not the sun; a great number worship both; but
no tribes are known to adore the sun, and not the moon. For the
periodicity of the sun is still in part a secret; but that of the
moon is modestly apparent, perpetually influential. On her depend
the tides; and she is Selene, mother of Herse, bringer of the dews
that recurrently irrigate lands where rain is rare. More than any
other companion of earth is she the Measurer. Early Indo-Germanic
languages knew her by that name. Her metrical phases are the symbol
of the order of recurrence. Constancy in approach and in departure
is the reason of her inconstancies. Juliet will not receive a vow
spoken in invocation of the moon; but Juliet did not live to know
that love itself has tidal times--lapses and ebbs which are due to
the metrical rule of the interior heart, but which the lover vainly
and unkindly attributes to some outward alteration in the beloved.
For man--except those elect already named--is hardly aware of
periodicity. The individual man either never learns it fully, or
learns it late. And he learns it so late, because it is a matter of
cumulative experience upon which cumulative evidence is lacking. It
is in the after-part of each life that the law is learnt so
definitely as to do away with the hope or fear of continuance. That
young sorrow comes so near to despair is a result of this young
ignorance. So is the early hope of great achievement. Life seems
so long, and its capacity so great, to one who knows nothing of all
the intervals it needs must hold--intervals between aspirations,
between actions, pauses as inevitable as the pauses of sleep. And
life looks impossible to the young unfortunate, unaware of the
inevitable and unfailing refreshment. It would be for their peace
to learn that there is a tide in the affairs of men, in a sense more
subtle--if it is not too audacious to add a meaning to Shakespeare--
than the phrase was meant to contain. Their joy is flying away from
them on its way home; their life will wax and wane; and if they
would be wise, they must wake and rest in its phases, knowing that
they are ruled by the law that commands all things--a sun's
revolutions and the rhythmic pangs of maternity.


The difficulty of dealing--in the course of any critical duty--with
decivilised man lies in this: when you accuse him of vulgarity--
sparing him no doubt the word--he defends himself against the charge
of barbarism. Especially from new soil--transatlantic, colonial--he
faces you, bronzed, with a half conviction of savagery, partly
persuaded of his own youthfulness of race. He writes, and recites,
poems about ranches and canyons; they are designed to betray the
recklessness of his nature and to reveal the good that lurks in the
lawless ways of a young society. He is there to explain himself,
voluble, with a glossary for his own artless slang. But his
colonialism is only provincialism very articulate. The new air does
but make old decadences seem more stale; the young soil does but set
into fresh conditions the ready-made, the uncostly, the refuse
feeling of a race decivilising. American fancy played long this
pattering part of youth. The New-Englander hastened to assure you
with so self-denying a face he did not wear war-paint and feathers,
that it became doubly difficult to communicate to him that you had
suspected him of nothing wilder than a second-hand dress coat. And
when it was a question not of rebuke, but of praise, the American
was ill-content with the word of the judicious who lauded him for
some delicate successes in continuing something of the literature of
England, something of the art of France; he was more eager for the
applause that stimulated him to write romances and to paint
panoramic landscape, after brief training in academies of native
inspiration. Even now English voices, with violent commonplace, are
constantly calling upon America to begin--to begin, for the world is
expectant. Whereas there is no beginning for her, but instead a
continuity which only a constant care can guide into sustained
refinement and can save from decivilisation.

But decivilised man is not peculiar to new soil. The English town,
too, knows him in all his dailiness. In England, too, he has a
literature, an art, a music, all his own--derived from many and
various things of price. Trash, in the fulness of its in simplicity
and cheapness, is impossible without a beautiful past. Its chief
characteristic--which is futility, not failure--could not be
achieved but by the long abuse, the rotatory reproduction, the
quotidian disgrace, of the utterances of Art, especially the
utterance by words. Gaiety, vigour, vitality, the organic quality,
purity, simplicity, precision--all these are among the antecedents
of trash. It is after them; it is also, alas, because of them. And
nothing can be much sadder than such a proof of what may possibly be
the failure of derivation.

Evidently we cannot choose our posterity. Reversing the steps of
time, we may, indeed, choose backwards. We may give our thoughts
noble forefathers. Well begotten, well born our fancies must be;
they shall be also well derived. We have a voice in decreeing our
inheritance, and not our inheritance only, but our heredity. Our
minds may trace upwards and follow their ways to the best well-heads
of the arts. The very habit of our thoughts may be persuaded one
way unawares by their antenatal history. Their companions must be
lovely, but need be no lovelier than their ancestors; and being so
fathered and so husbanded, our thoughts may be intrusted to keep the
counsels of literature.

Such is our confidence in a descent we know. But, of a sequel which
of us is sure? Which of us is secured against the dangers of
subsequent depreciation? And, moreover, which of us shall trace the
contemporary tendencies, the one towards honour, the other towards
dishonour? Or who shall discover why derivation becomes
degeneration, and where and when and how the bastardy befalls? The
decivilised have every grace as the antecedent of their vulgarities,
every distinction as the precedent of their mediocrities. No
ballad-concert song, feign it sigh, frolic, or laugh, but has the
excuse that the feint was suggested, was made easy, by some living
sweetness once. Nor are the decivilised to blame as having in their
own persons possessed civilisation and marred it. They did not
possess it; they were born into some tendency to derogation, into an
inclination for things mentally inexpensive. And the tendency can
hardly do other than continue. Nothing can look duller than the
future of this second-hand and multiplying world. Men need not be
common merely because they are many; but the infection of commonness
once begun in the many, what dulness in their future! To the eye
that has reluctantly discovered this truth--that the vulgarised are
not UNcivilised, and that there is no growth for them--it does not
look like a future at all. More ballad-concerts, more quaint
English, more robustious barytone songs, more piecemeal pictures,
more anxious decoration, more colonial poetry, more young nations
with withered traditions. Yet it is before this prospect that the
provincial overseas lifts up his voice in a boast or a promise
common enough among the incapable young, but pardonable only in
senility. He promises the world a literature, an art, that shall be
new because his forest is untracked and his town just built. But
what the newness is to be he cannot tell. Certain words were
dreadful once in the mouth of desperate old age. Dreadful and
pitiable as the threat of an impotent king, what shall we name them
when they are the promise of an impotent people? 'I will do such
things: what they are yet I know not.'


When the memories of two or three persons now upon earth shall be
rolled up and sealed with their records within them, there will be
no remembrance left open, except this, of a man whose silence seems
better worth interpreting than the speech of many another. Of
himself he has left no vestiges. It was a common reproach against
him that he never acknowledged the obligation to any kind of
restlessness. The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, but as he
did none there was nothing for it but that the kingdom of heaven
should yield to his leisure. The delicate, the abstinent, the
reticent graces were his in the heroic degree. Where shall I find a
pen fastidious enough to define and limit and enforce so many
significant negatives? Words seem to offend by too much assertion,
and to check the suggestions of his reserve. That reserve was life-
long. Loving literature, he never lifted a pen except to write a
letter. He was not inarticulate, he was only silent. He had an
exquisite style from which to refrain. The things he abstained from
were all exquisite. They were brought from far to undergo his
judgment, if haply he might have selected them. Things ignoble
never approached near enough for his refusal; they had not with him
so much as that negative connexion. If I had to equip an author I
should ask no better than to arm him and invest him with precisely
the riches that were renounced by the man whose intellect, by
integrity, had become a presence-chamber.

It was by holding session among so many implicit safeguards that he
taught, rather than by precepts. Few were these in his speech, but
his personality made laws for me. It was a subtle education, for it
persuaded insensibly to a conception of my own. How, if he would
not define, could I know what things were and what were not worthy
of his gentle and implacable judgment? I must needs judge them for
myself, yet he constrained me in the judging. Within that
constraint and under that stimulus, which seemed to touch the
ultimate springs of thoughts before they sprang, I began to discern
all things in literature and in life--in the chastity of letters and
in the honour of life--that I was bound to love. Not the things of
one character only, but excellent things of every character. There
was no tyranny in such a method. His idleness justified itself by
the liberality it permitted to his taste. Never having made his
love of letters further a secondary purpose, never having bound the
literary genius--that delicate Ariel--to any kind of servitude,
never having so much as permitted himself a prejudice whereby some
of his delights should be stinted while others were indulged beyond
the sanctions of modest reason, he barely tolerated his own
preferences, which lay somewhat on the hither side of full
effectiveness of style. These the range of his reading confessed by
certain exclusions. Nevertheless it was not of deficiencies that he
was patient: he did but respect the power of pause, and he disliked
violence chiefly because violence is apt to confess its own limits.
Perhaps, indeed, his own fine negatives made him only the more
sensible of any lack of those literary qualities that are bound in
their full complement to hold themselves at the disposal of the
consummate author--to stand and wait, if they may do no more.

Men said that he led a DILETTANTE life. They reproached him with
the selflessness that made him somewhat languid. Others, they
seemed to aver, were amateurs at this art or that; he was an amateur
at living. So it was, in the sense that he never grasped at
happiness, and that many of the things he had held slipped from his
disinterested hands. So it was, too, in this unintended sense; he
loved life. How should he not have loved a life that his living
made honourable? How should he not have loved all arts, in which
his choice was delicate, liberal, instructed, studious, docile,
austere? An amateur man he might have been called, too, because he
was not discomposed by his own experiences, or shaken by the
discovery which life brings to us-that the negative quality of which
Buddhism seems to accuse all good is partaken by our happiness. He
had always prayed temperate prayers and harboured probable wishes.
His sensibility was extreme, but his thought was generalised. When
he had joy he tempered it not in the common way by meditation upon
the general sorrow but by a recollection of the general pleasure.
It was his finest distinction to desire no differences, no
remembrance, but loss among the innumerable forgotten. And when he
suffered, it was with so quick a nerve and yet so wide an
apprehension that the race seemed to suffer in him. He pitied not
himself so tenderly as mankind, of whose capacity for pain he was
then feelingly persuaded. His darkening eyes said in the extreme
hour: 'I have compassion on the multitude.'


Nowhere else does the greater light so rule the day, so measure, so
divide, so reign, make so imperial laws, so visibly kindle, so
immediately quicken, so suddenly efface, so banish, so restore, as
in a plain like this of Suffolk with its enormous sky. The curious
have an insufficient motive for going to the mountains if they do it
to see the sunrise. The sun that leaps from a mountain peak is a
sun past the dew of his birth; he has walked some way towards the
common fires of noon. But on the flat country the uprising is early
and fresh, the arc is wide, the career is long. The most distant
clouds, converging in the beautiful and little-studied order of
cloud-perspective (for most painters treat clouds as though they
formed perpendicular and not horizontal scenery), are those that
gather at the central point of sunrise. On the plain, and there
only, can the construction--but that is too little vital a word; I
should rather say the organism--the unity, the design, of a sky be
understood. The light wind that has been moving all night is seen
to have not worked at random. It has shepherded some small flocks
of cloud afield and folded others. There's husbandry in Heaven.
And the order has, or seems to have, the sun for its midst. Not a
line, not a curve, but confesses its membership in a design declared
from horizon to horizon.

To see the system of a sky in fragments is to miss what I learn to
look for in all achieved works of Nature and art: the organism that
is unity and life. It is the unity and life of painting. The Early
Victorian picture--(the school is still in full career, but
essentially it belongs to that triumphal period)--is but a dull sum
of things put together, in concourse, not in relation; but the true
picture is ONE, however multitudinous it may be, for it is composed
of relations gathered together in the unity of perception, of
intention, and of light. It is organic. Moreover, how truly
relation is the condition of life may be understood from the extinct
state of the English stage, which resembles nothing so much as a
Royal Academy picture. Even though the actors may be added together
with something like vivacity (though that is rare), they have no
vitality in common. They are not members one of another. If the
Church and Stage Guild be still in existence, it would do much for
the art by teaching that Scriptural maxim. I think, furthermore,
that the life of our bodies has never been defined so suggestively
as by one who named it a living relation of lifeless atoms. Could
the value of relation be more curiously set forth? And one might
penetrate some way towards a consideration of the vascular organism
of a true literary style in which there is a vital relation of
otherwise lifeless word with word. And wherein lies the progress of
architecture from the stupidity of the pyramid and the dead weight
of the Cyclopean wall to the spring and the flight of the ogival
arch, but in a quasi-organic relation? But the way of such thoughts
might be intricate, and the sun rules me to simplicity.

He reigns as centrally in the blue sky as in the clouds. One
October of late had days absolutely cloudless. I should not have
certainly known it had there been a hill in sight. The gradations
of the blue are incalculable, infinite, and they deepen from the
central fire. As to the earthly scenery, there are but two 'views'
on the plain; for the aspect of the light is the whole landscape.
To look with the sun or against the sun--this is the alternative
splendour. To look with the sun is to face a golden country,
shadowless, serene, noble and strong in light, with a certain lack
of relief that suggests--to those who dream of landscape--the
country of a dream. The serried pines, and the lighted fields, and
the golden ricks of the farms are dyed with the sun as one might
paint with a colour. Bright as it is, the glow is rather the dye of
sunlight than its luminosity. For by a kind of paradox the luminous
landscape is that which is full of shadows--the landscape before you
when you turn and face the sun. Not only every reed and rush of the
salt marshes, every uncertain aspen-leaf of the few trees, but every
particle of the October air shows a shadow and makes a mystery of
the light. There is nothing but shadow and sun; colour is absorbed
and the landscape is reduced to a shining simplicity. Thus is the
dominant sun sufficient for his day. His passage kindles to
unconsuming fires and quenches into living ashes. No incidents save
of his causing, no delight save of his giving: from the sunrise,
when the larks, not for pairing, but for play, sing the only
virginal song of the year--a heart younger than Spring's in the
season of decline--even to the sunset, when the herons scream
together in the shallows. And the sun dominates by his absence,
compelling the low country to sadness in the melancholy night.


There is a form of oppression that has not until now been confessed
by those who suffer from it or who are participants, as mere
witnesses, in its tyranny. It is the obsession of man by the
flower. In the shape of the flower his own paltriness revisits him-
-his triviality, his sloth, his cheapness, his wholesale
habitualness, his slatternly ostentation. These return to him and
wreak upon him their dull revenges. What the tyranny really had
grown to can be gauged nowhere so well as in country lodgings, where
the most ordinary things of design and decoration have sifted down
and gathered together, so that foolish ornament gains a cumulative
force and achieves a conspicuous commonness. Stem and petal and
leaf--the fluent forms that a man has not by heart but certainly by
rote--are woven, printed, cast, and stamped wherever restlessness
and insimplicity have feared to leave plain spaces. The most ugly
of all imaginable rooms, which is probably the parlour of a farm-
house arrayed for those whom Americans call summer-boarders, is
beset with flowers. It blooms, a dry, woollen, papery, cast-iron
garden. The floor flourishes with blossoms adust, poorly
conventionalised into a kind of order; the table-cover is ablaze
with a more realistic florescence; the wall-paper is set with
bunches; the rigid machine-lace curtain is all of roses and lilies
in its very construction, over the muslin blinds an impotent sprig
is scattered. In the worsted rosettes of the bell-ropes, in the
plaster picture-frames, in the painted tea-tray and on the cups, in
the pediment of the sideboard, in the ornament that crowns the
barometer, in the finials of sofa and arm-chair, in the finger-
plates of the 'grained' door, is to be seen the ineffectual portrait
or to be traced the stale inspiration of the flower. And what is
this bossiness around the grate but some blunt, black-leaded
garland? The recital is wearisome, but the retribution of the
flower is precisely weariness. It is the persecution of man, the
haunting of his trivial visions, and the oppression of his
inconsiderable brain.

The man so possessed suffers the lot of the weakling--subjection to
the smallest of the things he has abused. The designer of cheap
patterns is no more inevitably ridden by the flower than is the vain
and transitory author by the phrase. But I had rather learn my
decoration of the Japanese, and place against the blank wall one pot
plain from the wheel, holding one singular branch in blossom, in the
attitude and accident of growth. And I could wish abstention to
exist, and even to be evident, in my words. In literature as in all
else man merits his subjection to trivialities by a kind of
economical greed. A condition for using justly and gaily any
decoration would seem to be a certain reluctance. Ornament--strange
as the doctrine sounds in a world decivilised--was in the beginning
intended to be something jocund; and jocundity was never to be
achieved but by postponement, deference, and modesty. Nor can the
prodigality of the meadows in May be quoted in dispute. For Nature
has something even more severe than moderation: she has an
innumerable singleness. Her butter-cup meadows are not prodigal;
they show multitude, but not multiplicity, and multiplicity is
exactly the disgrace of decoration. Who has ever multiplied or
repeated his delights? or who has ever gained the granting of the
most foolish of his wishes--the prayer for reiteration? It is a
curious slight to generous Fate that man should, like a child, ask
for one thing many times. Her answer every time is a resembling but
new and single gift; until the day when she shall make the one
tremendous difference among her gifts--and make it perhaps in
secret--by naming one of them the ultimate. What, for novelty,
what, for singleness, what, for separateness, can equal the last?
Of many thousand kisses the poor last--but even the kisses of your
mouth are all numbered.


It is principally for the sake of the leg that a change in the dress
of man is so much to be desired. The leg, completing as it does the
form of man, should make a great part of that human scenery which is
at least as important as the scenery of geological structure, or the
scenery of architecture, or the scenery of vegetation, but which the
lovers of mountains and the preservers of ancient buildings have
consented to ignore. The leg is the best part of the figure,
inasmuch as it has the finest lines and therewith those slender,
diminishing forms which, coming at the base of the human structure,
show it to be a thing of life by its unstable equilibrium. A
lifeless structure is in stable equilibrium; the body, springing,
poised, upon its fine ankles and narrow feet, never stands without
implying and expressing life. It is the leg that first suggested
the phantasy of flight. We imagine wings to the figure that is
erect upon the vital and tense legs of man; and the herald Mercury,
because of his station, looks new-lighted. All this is true of the
best leg, and the best leg is the man's. That of the young child,
in which the Italian schools of painting delighted, has neither
movement nor supporting strength. In the case of the woman's figure
it is the foot, with its extreme proportional smallness, that gives
the precious instability, the spring and balance that are so
organic. But man should no longer disguise the long lines, the
strong forms, in those lengths of piping or tubing that are of all
garments the most stupid. Inexpressive of what they clothe as no
kind of concealing drapery could ever be, they are neither
implicitly nor explicitly good raiment. It is hardly possible to
err by violence in denouncing them. Why, when a bad writer is
praised for 'clothing his thought,' it is to modern raiment that
one's nimble fancy flies--fain of completing the beautiful metaphor!

The human scenery: yes, costume could make a crowd something other
than the mass of sooty colour--dark without depth--and the
multiplication of undignified forms that fill the streets, and
demonstrate, and strike, and listen to the democrat. For the
undistinguished are very important by their numbers. These are they
who make the look of the artificial world. They are man
generalised; as units they inevitably lack something of interest;
all the more have they cumulative effect. It would be well if we
could persuade the average man to take on a certain human dignity in
the clothing of his average body. Unfortunately he will be slow to
be changed. And as to the poorer part of the mass, so wretched are
their national customs--and the wretchedest of them all the wearing
of other men's old raiment--that they must wait for reform until the
reformed dress, which the reformers have not yet put on, shall have
turned second-hand.


The quarrel of Art with Nature goes on apace. The painters have
long been talking of selecting, then of rejecting, or even, with Mr.
Whistler, of supplanting. And then Mr. Oscar Wilde, in the witty
and delicate series of inversions which he headed 'The Decay of
Lying,' declared war with all the irresponsibility naturally
attending an act so serious. He seems to affirm that Nature is less
proportionate to man than is architecture; that the house is built
and the sofa is made measurable by the unit measure of the body; but
that the landscape is set to some other scale. 'I prefer houses to
the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions.
Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human
dignity, is absolutely the result of indoor life.' Nevertheless,
before it is too late, let me assert that though nature is not
always clearly and obviously made to man's measure, he is yet the
unit by which she is measurable. The proportion may be far to seek
at times, but the proportion is there. Man's farms about the lower
Alps, his summer pastures aloft, have their relation to the whole
construction of the range; and the range is great because it is
great in regard to the village lodged in a steep valley in the foot
hills. The relation of flower and fruit to his hands and mouth, to
his capacity and senses (I am dealing with size, and nothing else),
is a very commonplace of our conditions in the world. The arm of
man is sufficient to dig just as deep as the harvest is to be sown.
And if some of the cheerful little evidences of the more popular
forms of teleology are apt to be baffled, or indefinitely postponed,
by the retorts that suggest themselves to the modern child, there
remains the subtle and indisputable witness borne by art itself:
the body of man composes with the mass and the detail of the world.
The picture is irrefutable, and the picture arranges the figure
amongst its natural accessories in the landscape, and would not have
them otherwise.

But there is one conspicuous thing in the world to which man has not
served as a unit of proportion, and that one thing is a popularly
revered triumph of that very art of architecture in which Mr. Oscar
Wilde has confidence for keeping things in scale. Human ingenuity
in designing St. Peter's on the Vatican, has achieved this one
exception to the universal harmony--a harmony enriched by discords,
but always on one certain scale of notes--which the body makes with
the details of the earth. It is not in the landscape, where Mr.
Oscar Wilde has too rashly looked for contempt and contumely, but in
the art he holds precious as the minister to man's egotism, that
man's Ego is defied. St. Peter's is not necessarily too large
(though on other grounds its size might be liable to correction); it
is simply out of relation to the most vital thing on the earth--the
thing which has supplied some secret rod to measure the waves
withal, and the whales, the sea-wall cliffs, the ears of wheat, the
cedar-branches, pines and diamonds and apples. Now, Emerson would
certainly not have felt the soft shock and stimulus of delight to
which he confesses himself to be liable at the first touch of
certain phrases, had not the words in every case enclosed a promise
of further truth and of a second pleasure. One of these swift and
fruitful experiences visited him with the saying--grown popular
through him--that an architect should have a knowledge of anatomy.
There is assuredly a germ and a promise in the phrase. It delights
us, first, because it seems to recognise the organic, as distinct
from the merely constructive, character of finely civilised
architecture; and next, it persuades us that Vitruvius had in truth
discovered the key to size--the unit that is sometimes so obscurely,
yet always so absolutely, the measure of what is great and small
among things animate and inanimate. And in spite of themselves the
architects of St. Peter's were constrained to take something from
man; they refused his height for their scale, but they tried to use
his shape for their ornament. And so in the blankest dearth of
fancy that ever befel architect or builder they imagined human
beings bigger than the human beings of experience; and by means of
these, carved in stone and inlaid in mosaic, they set up a relation
of their own. The basilica was related to the colossal figure (as a
church more wisely measured would have been to living man), and so
ceased to be large; and nothing more important was finally achieved
than transposal of the whole work into another scale of proportions-
-a scale in which the body of man was not the unit. The pile of
stones that make St. Peter's is a very little thing in comparison
with Soracte; but man, and man's wife, and the unequal statures of
his children, are in touch with the structure of the mountain rather
than with that of the church which has been conceived without
reference to the vital and fundamental rule of his inches.

Is there no egotism, ministering to his dignity, that man, having
the law of the organism of the world written in his members, can
take with him, out of the room that has been built to accord with
him, into the landscape that stands only a little further away? He
has deliberately made the smoking chair and the table; there is
nothing to surprise him in their ministrations. But what profounder
homage is rendered by the multitudinous Nature going about the
interests and the business of which he knows so little, and yet
throughout confessing him! His eyes have seen her and his ears have
heard, but it would never have entered into his heart to conceive
her. His is not the fancy that could have achieved these woods,
this little flush of summer from the innumerable flowering of
grasses, the cyclic recreation of seasons. And yet he knows that he
is imposed upon all he sees. His stature gives laws. His labour
only is needful--not a greater strength. And the sun and the
showers are made sufficient for him. His furniture must surely be
adjudged to pay him but a coarse flattery in comparison with the
subjection, yet the aloofness, of all this wild world. This is no
flattery. The grass is lumpy, as Mr. Oscar Wilde remarks with
truth: Nature is not man's lacquey, and has no preoccupation about
his more commonplace comforts. These he gives himself indoors; and
who prizes, with any self-respect, the things carefully provided by
self-love? But when that farouche Nature, who has never spoken to
him, and to whom he has never had the opportunity of hinting his
wishes or his tastes--when she reveals the suggestions of his form
and the desire of his eyes, and amongst her numberless purposes lets
him surprise in her the purpose to accord with him, and lets him
suspect further harmonies which he has not yet learnt to understand-
-then man becomes conscious of having received a token from her
lowliness, and a favour from her loveliness, compared with which the
care wherewith his tailor himself has fitted him might leave his
gratitude cool.


My train drew near to the Via Reggio platform on a day between two
of the harvests of a hot September; the sea was burning blue, and
there were a sombreness and a gravity in the very excesses of the
sun as his fires brooded deeply over the serried, hardy, shabby,
seaside ilex-woods. I had come out of Tuscany and was on my way to
the Genovesato: the steep country with its profiles, bay by bay, of
successive mountains grey with olive-trees, between the flashes of
the Mediterranean and the sky; the country through the which there
sounds the twanging Genoese language, a thin Italian mingled with a
little Arabic, more Portuguese, and much French. I was regretful at
leaving the elastic Tuscan speech, canorous in its vowels set in
emphatic L'S and M'S and the vigorous soft spring of the double
consonants. But as the train arrived its noises were drowned by a
voice declaiming in the tongue I was not to hear again for months--
good Italian. The voice was so loud that one looked for the
audience: Whose ears was it seeking to reach by the violence done
to every syllable, and whose feelings would it touch by its
insincerity? The tones were insincere, but there was passion behind
them; and most often passion acts its own true character poorly, and
consciously enough to make good judges think it a mere counterfeit.
Hamlet, being a little mad, feigned madness. It is when I am angry
that I pretend to be angry, so as to present the truth in an obvious
and intelligible form. Thus even before the words were
distinguishable it was manifest that they were spoken by a man in
serious trouble who had false ideas as to what is convincing in

When the voice became audibly articulate, it proved to be shouting
blasphemies from the broad chest of a middle-aged man--an Italian of
the type that grows stout and wears whiskers. The man was in
BOURGEOIS dress, and he stood with his hat off in front of the small
station building, shaking his thick fist at the sky. No one was on
the platform with him except the railway officials, who seemed in
doubt as to their duties in the matter, and two women. Of one of
these there was nothing to remark except her distress. She wept as
she stood at the door of the waiting-room. Like the second woman,
she wore the dress of the shopkeeping class throughout Europe, with
the local black lace veil in place of a bonnet over her hair. It is
of the second woman--O unfortunate creature!--that this record is
made--a record without sequel, without consequence; but there is
nothing to be done in her regard except so to remember her. And
thus much I think I owe after having looked, from the midst of the
negative happiness that is given to so many for a space of years, at
some minutes of her despair. She was hanging on the man's arm in
her entreaties that he would stop the drama he was enacting. She
had wept so hard that her face was disfigured. Across her nose was
the dark purple that comes with overpowering fear. Haydon saw it on
the face of a woman whose child had just been run over in a London
street. I remembered the note in his journal as the woman at Via
Reggio, in her intolerable hour, turned her head my way, her sobs
lifting it. She was afraid that the man would throw himself under
the train. She was afraid that he would be damned for his
blasphemies; and as to this her fear was mortal fear. It was
horrible, too, that she was humpbacked and a dwarf.

Not until the train drew away from the station did we lose the
clamour. No one had tried to silence the man or to soothe the
woman's horror. But has any one who saw it forgotten her face? To
me for the rest of the day it was a sensible rather than a merely
mental image. Constantly a red blur rose before my eyes for a
background, and against it appeared the dwarf's head, lifted with
sobs, under the provincial black lace veil. And at night what
emphasis it gained on the boundaries of sleep! Close to my hotel
there was a roofless theatre crammed with people, where they were
giving Offenbach. The operas of Offenbach still exist in Italy, and
the little town was placarded with announcements of La Bella Elena.
The peculiar vulgar rhythm of the music jigged audibly through half
the hot night, and the clapping of the town's-folk filled all its
pauses. But the persistent noise did but accompany, for me, the
persistent vision of those three figures at the Via Reggio station
in the profound sunshine of the day.


A serviceable substitute for style in literature has been found in
such a collection of language ready for use as may be likened to a
portable vocabulary. It is suited to the manners of a day that has
produced salad-dressing in bottles, and many other devices for the
saving of processes. Fill me such a wallet full of 'graphic'
things, of 'quaint' things and 'weird,' of 'crisp' or 'sturdy'
Anglo-Saxon, of the material for 'word-painting' (is not that the
way of it?), and it will serve the turn. Especially did the
Teutonic fury fill full these common little hoards of language. It
seemed, doubtless, to the professor of the New Literature that if
anything could convince him of his own success it must be the energy
of his Teutonisms and his avoidance of languid Latin derivatives,
fit only for the pedants of the eighteenth century. Literature
doubtless is made of words. What then is needful, he seems to ask,
besides a knack of beautiful words? Unluckily for him, he has
achieved, not style, but slang. Unluckily for him, words are not
style, phrases are not style. 'The man is style.' O good French
language, cunning and good, that lets me read the sentence in
obverse or converse as I will! And I read it as declaring that the
whole man, the very whole of him, is his style. The literature of a
man of letters worthy the name is rooted in all his qualities, with
little fibres running invisibly into the smallest qualities he has.
He who is not a man of letters, simply is not one; it is not too
audacious a paradox to affirm that doing will not avail him who
fails in being. 'Lay your deadly doing down,' sang once some old
hymn known to Calvinists. Certain poets, a certain time ago,
ransacked the language for words full of life and beauty, made a
vocabulary of them, and out of wantonness wrote them to death. To
change somewhat the simile, they scented out a word--an earlyish
word, by preference--ran it to earth, unearthed it, dug it out, and
killed it. And then their followers bagged it. The very word that
lives, 'new every morning,' miraculously new, in the literature of a
man of letters, they killed and put into their bag. And, in like
manner, the emotion that should have caused the word is dead for
those, and for those only, who abuse its expression. For the maker
of a portable vocabulary is not content to turn his words up there:
he turns up his feelings also, alphabetically or otherwise.
Wonderful how much sensibility is at hand in such round words as the
New Literature loves. Do you want a generous emotion? Pull forth
the little language. Find out moonshine, find out moonshine!

Take, as an instance, Mr. Swinburne's 'hell.' There is, I fear, no
doubt whatever that Mr. Swinburne has put his 'hell' into a
vocabulary, with the inevitable consequences to the word. And when
the minor men of his school have occasion for a 'hell' (which may
very well happen to any young man practising authorship), I must not
be accused of phantasy if I say that they put their hands into Mr.
Swinburne's vocabulary and pick it. These vocabularies are made out
of vigorous and blunt language. 'What hempen homespuns have we
swaggering here?' Alas, they are homespuns from the factory,
machine-made in uncostly quantities. Obviously, power needs to make
use of no such storage. The property of power is to use phrases,
whether strange or familiar, as though it created them. But even
more than lack of power is lack of humour the cause of all the
rankness and the staleness, of all the Anglo-Saxon of commerce, of
all the weary 'quaintness'--that quaintness of which one is moved to
exclaim with Cassio: 'Hither comes the bauble!' Lack of a sense of
humour betrays a man into that perpetual too-much whereby he tries
to make amends for a currency debased. No more than any other can a
witty writer dispense with a sense of humour. In his moments of
sentiment the lack is distressing; in his moments of wit it is at
least perceptible. A sense of humour cannot be always present, it
may be urged. Why, no; it is the lack of it that is--importunate.
Other absences, such as the absence of passion, the absence of
delicacy, are, if grievous negatives, still mere negatives. These
qualities may or may not be there at call, ready for a summons; we
are not obliged to know; we are not momentarily aware, unless they
ought to be in action, whether their action is possible. But want
of power and want of a sense of the ridiculous: these are lacks
wherefrom there is no escaping, deficiencies that are all-
influential, defects that assert themselves, vacancies that proclaim
themselves, absences from the presence whereof there is no flying;
what other paradoxes can I adventure? Without power--no style.
Without a possible humour,--no style. The weakling has no
confidence in himself to keep him from grasping at words that he
fancies hold within them the true passions of the race, ready for
the uses of his egoism. And with a sense of humour a man will not
steal from a shelf the precious treasure of the language and put it
in his pocket.


A fugitive writer wrote but lately on the fugitive page of a minor
magazine: 'For our part, the drunken tinker [Christopher Sly] is
the most real personage of the piece, and not without some hints of
the pathos that is worked out more fully, though by different ways,
in Bottom and Malvolio.' Has it indeed come to this? Have the
Zeitgeist and the Weltschmerz and the other things compared to which
'le spleen' was gay, done so much for us? Is there to be no
laughter left in literature free from the preoccupation of a sham
real-life? So it would seem. Even what the great master has not
shown us in his work, that your critic convinced of pathos is
resolved to see in it. By the penetration of his intrusive sympathy
he will come at it. It is of little use now to explain Snug the
joiner to the audience: why, it is precisely Snug who stirs their
emotions so painfully. Not the lion; they can see through that:
but the Snug within, the human Snug. And Master Shallow has the
Weltschmerz in that latent form which is the more appealing; and
discouraging questions arise as to the end of old Double; and Argan
in his nightcap is the tragic figure of Monomania; and human nature
shudders at the petrifaction of the intellect of Mr. F.'s aunt. Et
patati, et patata.

It may be only too true that the actual world is 'with pathos
delicately edged.' For Malvolio living we should have had living
sympathies: so much aspiration, so ill-educated a love of
refinement; so unarmed a credulity, noblest of weaknesses, betrayed
for the laughter of a chambermaid. By an actual Bottom the Weaver
our pity might be reached for the sake of his single self-reliance,
his fancy and resource condemned to burlesque and ignominy by the
niggard doom of circumstance. But is not life one thing and is not
art another? Is it not the privilege of literature to make
selection and to treat things singly, without the after-thoughts of
life, without the troublous completeness of the many-sided world?
Is not Shakespeare, for this reason, our refuge? Fortunately unreal
is his world when he will have it so; and there we may laugh with
open heart at a grotesque man: without misgiving, without remorse,
without reluctance. If great creating Nature has not assumed for
herself she has assuredly secured to the great creating poet the
right of partiality, of limitation, of setting aside and leaving
out, of taking one impression and one emotion as sufficient for the
day. Art and Nature are separate, complementary; in relation, not
in confusion, with one another. And all this officious cleverness
in seeing round the corner, as it were, of a thing presented by
literary art in the flat--(the borrowing of similes from other arts
is of evil tendency; but let this pass, as it is apt)--is but
another sign of the general lack of a sense of the separation
between Nature and the sentient mirror in the mind. In some of his
persons, indeed, Shakespeare is as Nature herself, all-inclusive;
but in others--and chiefly in comedy--he is partial, he is
impressionary, he refuses to know what is not to his purpose, he is
an artist. And in that gay, wilful world it is that he gives us--or
used to give us, for even the world is obsolete--the pleasure of

Now this fugitive writer has not been so swift but that I have
caught him a clout as he went. Yet he will do it again; and those
like-minded will assuredly also continue to show how much more
completely human, how much more sensitive, how much more
responsible, is the art of the critic than the world has ever dreamt
till now. And, superior in so much, they will still count their
superior weeping as the choicest of their gifts. And Lepidus, who
loves to wonder, can have no better subject for his admiration than
the pathos of the time. It is bred now of your mud by the operation
of your sun. 'Tis a strange serpent; and the tears of it are wet.


Not without significance is the Spanish nationality of Velasquez.
In Spain was the Point put upon Honour; and Velasquez was the first
Impressionist. As an Impressionist he claimed, implicity if not
explicity, a whole series of delicate trusts in his trustworthiness;
he made an appeal to the confidence of his peers; he relied on his
own candour and asked that the candid should rely upon him; he kept
the chastity of art when other masters were content with its
honesty, and when others saved artistic conscience he safeguarded
the point of honour. Contemporary masters more or less proved their
position, and convinced the world by something of demonstration; the
first Impressionist simply asked that his word should be accepted.
To those who would not take his word he offers no bond. To those
who will, he grants the distinction of a share in his
responsibility. Somewhat unrefined, in comparison to his lofty and
simple claim to be believed on a suggestion, is the commoner
painter's production of his credentials, his appeal to the sanctions
of ordinary experience, his self-defence against the suspicion of
making irresponsible mysteries in art. 'You can see for yourself,'
the lesser man seems to say to the world, 'thus things are, and I
render them in such manner that your intelligence may be satisfied.'
This is an appeal to average experience--at the best the cumulative
experience; and with the average, or with the sum, art cannot deal
without derogation. The Spaniard seems to say: 'Thus things are in
my pictorial sight. Trust me, I apprehend them so.' We are not
excluded from his counsels, but we are asked to attribute a certain
authority to him, master of the craft as he is, master of that art
of seeing pictorially which is the beginning and not far from the
end--not far short of the whole--of the art of painting. So little
indeed are we shut out from the mysteries of a great Impressionist's
impression that Velasquez requires us to be in some degree his
colleagues. Thus may each of us to whom he appeals take praise from
the praised: He leaves my educated eyes to do a little of the work.
He respects my responsibility no less--though he respects it less
explicitly--than I do his. What he allows me would not be granted
by a meaner master. If he does not hold himself bound to prove his
own truth, he returns thanks for my trust. It is as though he used
his countrymen's courteous hyperbole and called his house my own.
In a sense of the most noble hostship he does me the honours of his

Because Impressionism is so free, therefore is it doubly bound.
Because there is none to arraign it, it is a thousand times
responsible. To undertake this art for the sake of its privileges
without confessing its obligations--or at least without confessing
them up to the point of honour--is to take a vulgar freedom: to see
immunities precisely where there are duties, and an advantage where
there is a bond. A very mob of men have taken Impressionism upon
themselves in this our later day. It is against all probabilities
that more than a few among these have within them the point of
honour. In their galleries we are beset with a dim distrust. And
to distrust is more humiliating than to be distrusted. How many of
these landscape-painters, deliberately rash, are painting the truth
of their own impressions? An ethical question as to loyalty is
easily answered; truth and falsehood as to fact are, happily for the
intelligence of the common conscience, not hard to divide. But when
the DUBIUM concerns not fact but artistic truth, can the many be
sure that their sensitiveness, their candour, their scruple, their
delicate equipoise of perceptions, the vigilance of their
apprehension, are enough? Now Impressionists of late have told us
things as to their impressions--as to the effect of things upon the
temperament of this man and upon the mood of that--which should not
be asserted except on the artistic point of honour. The majority
can tell ordinary truth, but they should not trust themselves for
truth extraordinary. They can face the general judgment, but they
should hesitate to produce work that appeals to the last judgment,
which is the judgment within. There is too much reason to divine
that a certain number of those who aspire to derive from the
greatest of masters have no temperaments worth speaking of, no point
of view worth seizing, no vigilance worth awaiting, no mood worth
waylaying. And to be, de parti pris, an Impressionist without
these! O Velasquez! Nor is literature quite free from a like
reproach in her own things. An author, here and there, will make as
though he had a word worth hearing--nay, worth over-hearing--a word
that seeks to withdraw even while it is uttered; and yet what it
seems to dissemble is all too probably a platitude. But obviously,
literature is not--as is the craft and mystery of painting--so at
the mercy of a half-imposture, so guarded by unprovable honour. For
the art of painting is reserved that shadowy risk, that undefined
salvation. May the gods guard us from the further popularising of
Impressionism; for the point of honour is the simple secret of the


Tribulation, Immortality, the Multitude: what remedy of composure
do these words bring for their own great disquiet! Without the
remoteness of the Latinity the thought would come too close and
shake too cruelly. In order to the sane endurance of the intimate
trouble of the soul an aloofness of language is needful. Johnson
feared death. Did his noble English control and postpone the
terror? Did it keep the fear at some courteous, deferent distance
from the centre of that human heart, in the very act of the leap and
lapse of mortality? Doubtless there is in language such an
educative power. Speech is a school. Every language is a
persuasion, an induced habit, an instrument which receives the note
indeed but gives the tone. Every language imposes a quality,
teaches a temper, proposes a way, bestows a tradition: this is the
tone--the voice--of the instrument. Every language, by counter-
change, replies to the writer's touch or breath his own intention,
articulate: this is his note. Much has always been said, many
things to the purpose have been thought, of the power and the
responsibility of the note. Of the legislation and influence of the
tone I have been led to think by comparing the tranquillity of
Johnson and the composure of Canning with the stimulated and close
emotion, the interior trouble, of those writers who have entered as
disciples in the school of the more Teutonic English.

For if every language be a school, more significantly and more
educatively is a part of a language a school to him who chooses that
part. Few languages offer the choice. The fact that a choice is
made implies the results and fruits of a decision. The French
author is without these. They are of all the heritages of the
English writer the most important. He receives a language of dual
derivation. He may submit himself to either University, whither he
will take his impulse and his character, where he will leave their
influence, and whence he will accept their education. The Frenchman
has certainly a style to develop within definite limits; but he does
not subject himself to suggestions tending mainly hitherwards or
thitherwards, to currents of various race within one literature.
Such a choice of subjection is the singular opportunity of the
Englishman. I do not mean to ignore the necessary mingling.
Happily that mingling has been done once for all for us all. Nay,
one of the most charming things that a master of English can achieve
is the repayment of the united teaching by linking their results so
exquisitely in his own practice, that words of the two schools are
made to meet each other with a surprise and delight that shall prove
them at once gayer strangers, and sweeter companions, than the world
knew they were. Nevertheless there remains the liberty of choice as
to which school of words shall have the place of honour in the great
and sensitive moments of an author's style: which school shall be
used for conspicuousness, and which for multitudinous service. And
the choice being open, the perturbation of the pulses and impulses
of so many hearts quickened in thought and feeling in this day
suggests to me a deliberate return to the recollectedness of the
more tranquil language. 'Doubtless there is a place of peace.'

A place of peace, not of indifference. It is impossible not to
charge some of the moralists of the last century with an
indifference into which they educated their platitudes and into
which their platitudes educated them. Addison thus gave and took,
until he was almost incapable of coming within arm's-length of a
real or spiritual emotion. There is no knowing to what distance the
removal of the 'appropriate sentiment' from the central soul might
have attained but for the change and renewal in language, which came
when it was needed. Addison had assuredly removed eternity far from
the apprehension of the soul when his Cato hailed the 'pleasing
hope,' the 'fond desire;' and the touch of war was distant from him
who conceived his 'repulsed battalions' and his 'doubtful battle.'
What came afterwards, when simplicity and nearness were restored
once more, was doubtless journeyman's work at times. Men were too
eager to go into the workshop of language. There were unreasonable
raptures over the mere making of common words. 'A hand-shoe! a
finger-hat! a foreword! Beautiful!' they cried; and for the love of
German the youngest daughter of Chrysale herself might have
consented to be kissed by a grammarian. It seemed to be forgotten
that a language with all its construction visible is a language
little fitted for the more advanced mental processes; that its
images are material; and that, on the other hand, a certain
spiritualising and subtilising effect of alien derivations is a
privilege and an advantage incalculable--that to possess that half
of the language within which Latin heredities lurk and Romanesque
allusions are at play is to possess the state and security of a dead
tongue, without the death.

But now I spoke of words encountering as gay strangers, various in
origin, divided in race, within a master's phrase. The most
beautiful and the most sudden of such meetings are of course in
Shakespeare. 'Superfluous kings,' 'A lass unparalleled,'
'Multitudinous seas:' we needed not to wait for the eighteenth
century or for the nineteenth to learn the splendour of such
encounters, of such differences, of such nuptial unlikeness and
union. But it is well that we should learn them afresh. And it is
well, too, that we should not resist the rhythmic reaction bearing
us now somewhat to the side of the Latin. Such a reaction is in
some sort an ethical need for our day. We want to quell the
exaggerated decision of monosyllables. We want the poise and the
pause that imply vitality at times better than headstrong movement
expresses it. And not the phrase only but the form of verse might
render us timely service. The controlling couplet might stay with a
touch a modern grief, as it ranged in order the sorrows of Canning
for his son. But it should not be attempted without a distinct
intention of submission on the part of the writer. The couplet
transgressed against, trespassed upon, shaken off, is like a law
outstripped, defied--to the dignity neither of the rebel nor of the
rule. To Letters do we look now for the guidance and direction
which the very closeness of the emotion taking us by the heart makes
necessary. Shall not the Thing more and more, as we compose
ourselves to literature, assume the honour, the hesitation, the
leisure, the reconciliation of the Word?


It is good to go, now and again--let the American phrase be
permitted--'back of' some of our contemporaries. We never desired
them as coevals. We never wished to share an age with them; we
share nothing else with them. And we deliver ourselves from them by
passing, in literature, into the company of an author who wrote
before their time, and yet is familiarly modern. To read Dr. Oliver
Wendell Holmes, then, is to go behind the New Humorist--into a time
before he was, or his Humour. Obviously we go in like manner behind
many another, but the funny writer of the magazines is suggested
because in reference to him our act has a special significance. We
connect him with Dr. Holmes by a reluctant ancestry, by an
impertinent descent. It may be objected that such a connection is
but a trivial thing to attribute, as a conspicuous incident, to a
man of letters. So it is. But the triviality has wide allusions.
It is often a question which of several significant trivialities a
critic shall choose in his communication with a reader who does not
insist that all the grave things shall be told him. And, by the
way, are we ever sufficiently grateful for that reader, whom the
last few years have given to us, or to whom we have been given by
the last few years? A trivial connexion has remote and negative
issues. To go to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes's period is to get rid
of many things; to go to himself is especially to get rid of the New
Humour, yet to stand at its unprophetic source. And we love such
authors as Dickens and this American for their own sake, refusing to
be aware of their corrupt following. We would make haste to ignore
their posterity, and to assure them that we absolve them from any
fault of theirs in the bastardy.

Humour is the most conspicuous thing in the world, which must
explain why the little humour in Elsie Venner and the Breakfast
Table series is not only the first thing the critic touches but the
thing whereby he relates this author to his following and to the
world. The young man John, Colonel Sprowle with his 'social
entertainment,' the Landlady and her daughter, and the Poor
Relation, almost make up the sum of the comic personages, and fifty
per cent. of the things they say--no more--are good enough to remain
after the bloom of their vulgarity has worn off. But that half is
excellent, keen, jolly, temperate; and because of that temperance--
the most stimulating and fecundating of qualities--the humour of it
has set the literature of a hemisphere to the tune of mirth. Like
Mr. Lowell's it was humour in dialect--not Irish dialect nor negro,
but American; and it made New England aware of her comedy. Until
then she had felt within herself that there was nothing to laugh at.
'Nature is in earnest when she makes a woman,' says Dr. Oliver
Wendell Holmes. Rather, she takes herself seriously when she makes
the average spiritual woman: as seriously as that woman takes
herself when she makes a novel. And in a like mood Nature made New
England and endowed her with purpose, with mortuary frivolities,
with long views, with energetic provincialism.

If we remember best The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, we do so in spite
of the religious and pathetic motive of the greater part of Dr.
Holmes's work, and of his fancy, which should be at least as
conspicuous as his humour. It is fancy rather than imagination; but
it is more perfect, more definite, more fit, than the larger art of
imagery, which is apt to be vague, because it is intellectual and
adult. No grown man makes quite so definite mental images as does a
child; when the mind ages it thinks stronger thoughts in vaguer
pictures. The young mind of Dr. Holmes has less intellectual
imagination than intelligent fancy. For example: 'If you ever saw
a crow with a king-bird after him, you will get an image of a dull
speaker and a lively listener. The bird in sable plumage flaps
heavily along his straightforward course, while the other sails
round him, over him, under him, leaves him, comes back again, tweaks
out a black feather, shoots away once more, never losing sight of
him, and finally reaches the crow's perch at the same time the crow
does;' but the comparison goes on after this at needless length,
with explanations. Again: 'That blessed clairvoyance which sees
into things without opening them: that glorious licence which,
having shut the door and driven the reporter from the keyhole, calls
upon Truth, majestic Virgin! to get off from her pedestal and drop
her academic POSES.' And this, of the Landlady: 'She told me her
story once; it was as if a grain that had been ground and bolted had
tried to individualise itself by a special narrative.' 'The riotous
tumult of a laugh, which, I take it, is the mob-law of the
features.' 'Think of the Old World--that part of it which is the
seat of ancient civilisation! . . . A man cannot help marching in
step with his kind in the rear of such a procession.' 'Young folk
look on a face as a unit; children who go to school with any given
little John Smith see in his name a distinctive appellation.' And
that exquisitely sensitive passage on the nervous outward movement
and the inward tranquillity of the woods. Such things are the best
this good author gives us, whether they go gay with metaphor, or be
bare thoughts shapely with their own truth.

Part of the charm of Dr. Holmes's comment on life, and of the phrase
wherein he secures it, arises from his singular vigilance. He has
unpreoccupied and alert eyes. Strangely enough, by the way, this
watchfulness is for once as much at fault as would be the slovenly
observation of an ordinary man, in the description of a horse's
gallop, 'skimming along within a yard of the ground.' Who shall
trust a man's nimble eyes after this, when habit and credulity have
taught him? Not an inch nearer the ground goes the horse of fact at
a gallop than at a walk. But Dr. Holmes's vigilance helps him to
somewhat squalid purpose in his studies of New England inland life.
Much careful literature besides has been spent, after the example of
Elsie Venner and the Autocrat, upon the cottage worldliness, the
routine of abundant and common comforts achieved by a distressing
household industry, the shrillness, the unrest, the best-parlour
emulation, the ungraceful vanity, of Americans of the country-side
and the country-town; upon their affections made vulgar by
undemonstrativeness, and their consciences made vulgar by
demonstrativeness--their kindness by reticence, and their religion
by candour.

As for the question of heredity and of individual responsibility
which Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes proposes in Elsie Venner, it is
strange that a man whom it had sincerely disquieted should present
it--not in its own insolubility but--in caricature. As though the
secrets of the inherited body and soul needed to be heightened by a
bit of burlesque physiology! It is in spite of our protest against
the invention of Elsie's horrible plight--a conception and invention
which Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes should feel to be essentially
frivolous--that the serpent-maiden moves us deeply by her last 'Good
night,' and by the gentle phrase that tells us 'Elsie wept.' But
now, if Dr. Holmes shall succeed in proposing the question of
separate responsibility so as to convince every civilised mind of
his doubts, there will be curiously little change wrought thereby in
the discipline of the world. For Dr. Holmes incidentally lets us
know that he cherishes and values the instinct of intolerance and
destructiveness in presence of the cruel, the self-loving, and the
false. Negation of separate moral responsibility, when that
negation is tempered by a working instinct of intolerance and
destructiveness, will deal with the felon, after all, very much in
the manner achieved by the present prevalent judicialness,
unscientific though it may be. And to say this is to confess that
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes has worked, through a number of books, to
futile purpose. His books are justified by something quite apart
from his purpose.


The United States have produced authors not a few; among some names
not the most famous, perhaps, on the popular tongue, are two or
three names of their poets; but they have hardly given to the world
more than one man of letters--judicious, judicial, disinterested,
patient, happy, temperate, delighted. The colonial days, with the
'painful' divines who brought the parish into the wilderness; the
experimental period of ambition and attempts at a literature that
should be young as the soil and much younger than the race; the
civil-war years, with a literature that matched the self-conscious
and inexpert heroism of the army;--none of these periods of the
national life could fitly be represented by a man of letters. And
though James Russell Lowell was the contemporary of the
'transcendentalists,' and a man of middle age when the South
seceded, and though indeed his fame as a Yankee humourist is to be
discerned through the smoke and the dust, through the gravity and
the burlesque, of the war, clear upon the other side, yet he was
virtually the child of national leisure, of moderation and
education, an American of the seventies and onwards. He represented
the little-recognised fact that in ripeness, not in rawness,
consists the excellence of Americans -an excellence they must be
content to share with contemporary nations, however much it may cost
them to abandon we know not what bounding ambitions which they have
never succeeded in definitely describing in words. Mr. Lowell was a
refutation of the fallacy that an American can never be American
enough. He ranked with the students and the critics among all
nations, and nothing marks his transatlantic conditions except,
perhaps, that his scholarliness is a little anxious and would not
seem so; he enriches his phrases busily, and yet would seem
composed; he makes his allusions tread closely one upon another, and
there is an assumed carelessness, and an ill-concealed vigilance, as
to the effect their number and their erudition will produce upon the
reader. The American sensitiveness takes with him that pleasantest
of forms; his style confesses more than he thinks of the loveable
weakness of national vanity, and asks of the stranger now and again,
'Well, what do you think of my country?'

Declining, as I do, to separate style in expression from style in
the thought that informs it--for they who make such a separation can
hardly know that style should be in the very conception of a phrase,
in its antenatal history, else the word is neither choice nor
authentic--I recognise in Mr. Lowell, as a prose author, a sense of
proportion and a delicacy of selection not surpassed in the critical
work of this critical century. Those small volumes, Among My Books
and My Study Windows, are all pure literature. A fault in criticism
is the rarest thing in them. I call none to mind except the strange
judgment on Dr. Johnson: 'Our present concern with the Saxons is
chiefly a literary one. . . Take Dr. Johnson as an instance. The
Saxon, as it appears to me, has never shown any capacity for art,'
and so forth. One wonders how Lowell read the passage on Iona, and
the letter to Lord Chesterfield, and the Preface to the Dictionary
without conviction of the great English writer's supreme art--art
that declares itself and would not be hidden. But take the essay on
Pope, that on Chaucer, and that on one Percival, a writer of
American verse of whom English readers are not aware, and they prove
Lowell to have been as clear in judging as he was exquisite in
sentencing. His essay 'On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners' is
famous, but an equal fame is due to 'My Garden Acquaintance' and 'A
Good Word for Winter.' His talk about the weather is so full of wit
that one wonders how prattlers at a loss for a topic dare attempt
one so rich. The birds that nest in his syringas seem to be not his
pensioners only, but his parishioners, so charmingly local, so
intent upon his chronicle does he become when he is minded to play
White of Selborne with a smile. And all the while it is the word
that he is intent upon. You may trace his reading by some fine word
that has not escaped him, but has been garnered for use when his fan
has been quick to purge away the chaff of commonplace. He is thus
fastidious and alert in many languages. You wonder at the delicacy
of the sense whereby he perceives a choice rhyme in the Anglo-Norman
of Marie de France or a clang of arms in the brief verse of Peire de
Bergerac, or touches sensitively a word whereby Dante has
transcended something sweet in Bernard de Ventadour, or Virgil
somewhat noble in Homer. In his own use, and within his own
English, he has the abstinence and the freshness of intention that
keep every word new for the day's work. He gave to the language,
and did not take from it; it gained by him, and lost not. There are
writers of English now at work who almost convince us of their
greatness until we convict them on that charge: they have succeeded
at an unpardonable cost; they are glorified, but they have beggared
the phrases they leave behind them.

Nevertheless Lowell was no poet. To accept his verse as a poet's
would be to confess a lack of instinct, and there is no more
grievous lack in a lover of poetry. Reason, we grant, makes for the
full acceptance of his poems, and perhaps so judicial a mind as his
may be forgiven for having trusted to reason and to criticism. His
trust was justified--if such justification avails--by the admiration
of fairly educated people who apparently hold him to have been a
poet first, a humourist in the second place, and an essayist
incidentally. It is hard to believe that he failed in instinct
about himself. More probably he was content to forego it when he
found the ode, the lyric, and the narrative verse all so willing.
They made no difficulty, and he made none; why then are we reluctant
to acknowledge the manifest stateliness of this verse and the
evident grace of that, and the fine thought finely worded? Such
reluctance justifies itself. Nor would I attempt to back it by the
cheap sanctions of prophecy. Nay, it is quite possible that
Lowell's poems may live; I have no commands for futurity. Enough
that he enriched the present with the example of a scholarly,
linguistic, verbal love of literature, with a studiousness full of


The narrow house is a small human nature compelled to a large human
destiny, charged with a fate too great, a history too various, for
its slight capacities. Men have commonly complained of fate; but
their complaints have been of the smallness, not of the greatness,
of the human lot. A disproportion--all in favour of man--between
man and his destiny is one of the things to be taken for granted in
literature: so frequent and so easy is the utterance of the
habitual lamentation as to the trouble of a 'vain capacity,' so well
explained has it ever been.

'Thou hast not half the power to do me harm
That I have to be hurt,'

discontented man seems to cry to Heaven, taking the words of the
brave Emilia. But inarticulate has been the voice within the narrow
house. Obviously it never had its poet. Little elocution is there,
little argument or definition, little explicitness. And yet for
every vain capacity we may assuredly count a thousand vain
destinies, for every liberal nature a thousand liberal fates. It is
the trouble of the wide house we hear of, clamorous of its
disappointments and desires. The narrow house has no echoes; yet
its pathetic shortcoming might well move pity. On that strait stage
is acted a generous tragedy; to that inadequate soul is intrusted an
enormous sorrow; a tempest of movement makes its home within that
slender nature; and heroic happiness seeks that timorous heart.

We may, indeed, in part know the narrow house by its
inarticulateness--not, certainly, its fewness of words, but its
inadequacy and imprecision of speech. For, doubtless, right
language enlarges the soul as no other power or influence may do.
Who, for instance, but trusts more nobly for knowing the full word
of his confidence? Who but loves more penetratingly for possessing
the ultimate syllable of his tenderness? There is a 'pledging of
the word,' in another sense than the ordinary sense of troth and
promise. The poet pledges his word, his sentence, his verse, and
finds therein a peculiar sanction. And I suppose that even physical
pain takes on an edge when it not only enforces a pang but whispers
a phrase. Consciousness and the word are almost as closely united
as thought and the word. Almost--not quite; in spite of its
inexpressive speech, the narrow house is aware and sensitive beyond,
as it were, its poor power.

But as to the whole disparity between the destiny and the nature, we
know it to be general. Life is great that is trivially transmitted;
love is great that is vulgarly experienced. Death, too, is a heroic
virtue; and to the keeping of us all is death committed: death,
submissive in the indocile, modest in the fatuous, several in the
vulgar, secret in the familiar. It is destructive because it not
only closes but contradicts life. Unlikely people die. The one
certain thing, it is also the one improbable. A dreadful paradox is
perhaps wrought upon a little nature that is incapable of death and
yet is constrained to die. That is a true destruction, and the
thought of it is obscure.

Happy literature corrects all this disproportion by its immortal
pause. It does not bid us follow man or woman to an illogical
conclusion. Mrs. Micawber never does desert Mr. Micawber.
Considering her mental powers, by the way, an illogical conclusion
for her would be manifestly inappropriate. Shakespeare, indeed,
having seen a life whole, sees it to an end: sees it out, and
Falstaff dies. More than Promethean was the audacity that, having
kindled, quenched that spark. But otherwise the grotesque man in
literature is immortal, and with something more significant than the
immortality awarded to him in the sayings of rhetoric; he is
predurable because he is not completed. His humours are strangely
matched with perpetuity. But, indeed, he is not worthy to die; for
there is something graver than to be immortal, and that is to be
mortal. I protest I do not laugh at man or woman in the world. I
thank my fellow-mortals for their wit, and also for the kind of joke
that the French so pleasantly call une joyeusete; these are to smile
at. But the gay injustice of laughter is between me and the book.

That narrow house--there is sometimes a message from its living
windows. Its bewilderment, its reluctance, its defect, show by
moments from eyes that are apt to express none but common things.
There are allusions unawares, involuntary appeals, in those brief
glances. Far from me and from my friends be the misfortune of
meeting such looks in reply to pain of our inflicting. To be clever
and sensitive and to hurt the foolish and the stolid--wouldst thou
do such a deed for all the world? Not I, by this heavenly light.


Simplicity is not virginal in the modern world. She has a
penitential or a vidual singleness. We can conceive an antique
world in which life, art, and letters were simple because of the
absence of many things; for us now they can be simple only because
of our rejection of many things. We are constrained to such a
vigilance as will not let even a master's work pass unfanned and
unpurged. Even among his phrases one shall be taken and the other
left. For he may unawares have allowed the habitualness that besets
this multitudinous life to take the pen from his hand and to write
for him a page or a word; and habitualness compels our refusals. Or
he may have allowed the easy impulse of exaggeration to force a
sentence which the mere truth, sensitively and powerfully pausing,
would well have become. Exaggeration has played a part of its own
in human history. By depreciating our language it has stimulated
change, and has kept the circulating word in exercise. Our
rejection must be alert and expert to overtake exaggeration and
arrest it. It makes us shrewder than we wish to be. And, indeed,
the whole endless action of refusal shortens the life we could
desire to live. Much of our resolution is used up in the repeated
mental gesture of adverse decision. Our tacit and implicit distaste
is made explicit, who shall say with what loss to our treasury of
quietness? We are defrauded of our interior ignorance, which should
be a place of peace. We are forced to confess more articulately
than befits our convention with ourselves. We are hurried out of
our reluctances. We are made too much aware. Nay, more: we are
tempted to the outward activity of destruction; reviewing becomes
almost inevitable. As for the spiritual life--O weary, weary act of
refusal! O waste but necessary hours, vigil and wakefulness of
fear! 'We live by admiration' only a shortened life who live so
much in the iteration of rejection and repulse. And in the very
touch of joy there hides I know not what ultimate denial; if not on
one side, on the other. If joy is given to us without reserve, not
so do we give ourselves to joy. We withhold, we close. Having
denied many things that have approached us, we deny ourselves to
many things. Thus does il gran rifiuto divide and rule our world.

Simplicity is worth the sacrifice; but all is not sacrifice.
Rejection has its pleasures, the more secret the more unmeasured.
When we garnish a house we refuse more furniture, and furniture more
various, than might haunt the dreams of decorators. There is no
limit to our rejections. And the unconsciousness of the decorators
is in itself a cause of pleasure to a mind generous, forbearing, and
delicate. When we dress, no fancy may count the things we will none
of. When we write, what hinders that we should refrain from Style
past reckoning? When we marry--. Moreover, if simplicity is no
longer set in a world having the great and beautiful quality of
fewness, we can provide an equally fair setting in the quality of
refinement. And refinement is not to be achieved but by rejection.
One who suggests to me that refinement is apt to be a mere negative
has offered up a singular blunder in honour of robustiousness.
Refinement is not negative, because it must be compassed by many
negations. It is a thing of price as well as of value; it demands
immolations, it exacts experience. No slight or easy charge, then,
is committed to such of us as, having apprehension of these things,
fulfil the office of exclusion. Never before was a time when
derogation was always so near, a daily danger, or when the reward of
resisting it was so great. The simplicity of literature, more
sensitive, more threatened, and more important than other
simplicities, needs a guard of honour, who shall never relax the
good will nor lose the good heart of their intolerance.


The landscape, like our literature, is apt to grow and to get itself
formed under too luxurious ideals. This is the evil work of that
LITTLE MORE which makes its insensible but persistent additions to
styles, to the arts, to the ornaments of life--to nature, when
unluckily man becomes too explicitly conscious of her beauty, and
too deliberate in his arrangement of it. The landscape has need of
moderation, of that fast-disappearing grace of unconsciousness, and,
in short, of a return towards the ascetic temper. The English way
of landowning, above all, has made for luxury. Naturally the
country is fat. The trees are thick and round--a world of leaves;
the hills are round; the forms are all blunt; and the grass is so
deep as to have almost the effect of snow in smoothing off all
points and curving away all abruptness. England is almost as blunt
as a machine-made moulding or a piece of Early-Victorian cast-iron
work. And on all this we have, of set purpose, improved by our
invention of the country park. There all is curves and masses. A
little more is added to the greenness and the softness of the forest
glade, and for increase of ornament the fat land is devoted to
idleness. Not a tree that is not impenetrable, inarticulate. Thick
soil below and thick growth above cover up all the bones of the
land, which in more delicate countries show brows and hollows
resembling those of a fine face after mental experience. By a very
intelligible paradox, it is only in a landscape made up for beauty
that beauty is so ill achieved. Much beauty there must needs be
where there are vegetation and the seasons. But even the seasons,
in park scenery, are marred by the LITTLE TOO MUCH, too complete a
winter, too emphatic a spring, an ostentatious summer, an autumn too

'Seek to have less rather than more.' It is a counsel of perfection
in The Imitation of Christ. And here, undoubtedly, is the secret of
all that is virile and classic in the art of man, and of all in
nature that is most harmonious with that art. Moreover, this is the
secret of Italy. How little do the tourists and the poets grasp
this latter truth, by the way--and the artists! The legend of Italy
is to be gorgeous, and they have her legend by rote. But Italy is
slim and all articulate; her most characteristic trees are those
that are distinct and distinguished, with lines that suggest the
etching-point rather than a brush loaded with paint. Cypresses
shaped like flames, tall pines with the abrupt flatness of their
tops, thin canes in the brakes, sharp aloes by the road-side, and
olives with the delicate acuteness of the leaf--these make keen
lines of slender vegetation. And they own the seasons by a gentle
confession. Rather than be overpowered by the clamorous
proclamation of summer in the English woods, we would follow June to
this subtler South: even to the Campagna, where the cycle of the
seasons passes within such narrow limitations that insensitive eyes
scarcely recognise it. In early spring there is a fresher touch of
green on all the spaces of grass, the distance grows less mellow and
more radiant; by the coming of May the green has been imperceptibly
dimmed again; it blushes with the mingled colours of minute and
numberless flowers--a dust of flowers, in lines longer than those of
ocean billows. This is the desert blossoming like a rose: not the
obvious rose of gardens, but the multitudinous and various flower
that gathers once in the year in every hand's-breadth of the
wilderness. When June comes the sun has burnt all to leagues of
harmonious seed, coloured with a hint of the colour of harvest,
which is gradually changed to the lighter harmonies of winter. All
this fine chromatic scale passes within such modest boundaries that
it is accused as a monotony. But those who find its modesty
delightful may have a still more delicate pleasure in the blooming
and blossoming of the sea. The passing from the winter blue to the
summer blue, from the cold colour to the colour that has in it the
fire of the sun, the kindling of the sapphire of the Mediterranean--
the significance of these sea-seasons, so far from the pasture and
the harvest, is imperceptible to ordinary senses, as appears from
the fact that so few stay to see it all fulfilled. And if the
tourist stayed, he would no doubt violate all that is lovely and
moderate by the insistence of his descriptions. He would find
adjectives for the blue sea, but probably he would refuse to search
for words for the white. A white Mediterranean is not in the
legend. Nevertheless it blooms, now and then, pale as an opal; the
white sea is the flower of the breathless midsummer. And in its
clear, silent waters, a few days, in the culmination of the heat,
bring forth translucent living creatures, many-shaped jelly-fish,
coloured like mother-of-pearl.

But without going so far from the landscape of daily life, it is in
agricultural Italy that the LITTLE LESS makes so undesignedly, and
as it were so inevitably, for beauty. The country that is formed
for use and purpose only is immeasurably the loveliest. What a
lesson in literature! How feelingly it persuades us that all except
a very little of the ornament of letters and of life makes the
dulness of the world. The tenderness of colour, the beauty of
series and perspective, and the variety of surface, produced by the
small culture of vegetables, are among the charms that come
unsought, and that are not to be found by seeking--are never to be
achieved if they are sought for their own sake. And another of the
delights of the useful laborious land is its vitality. The soil may
be thin and dry, but man's life is added to its own. He has
embanked the hill to make little platforms for the growth of wheat
in the light shadows of olive leaves. Thanks to the metayer land-
tenure, man's heart, as well as his strength, is given to the
ground, with his hope and his honour. Louis Blanc's 'point of
honour of industry' is a conscious impulse--it is not too much to
say--with most of the Tuscan contadini; but as each effort they make
for their master they make also for the bread of their children, it
is no wonder that the land they cultivate has a look of life. But
in all colour, in all luxury, and in all that gives material for
picturesque English, this lovely scenery for food and wine and
raiment has that LITTLE LESS to which we desire to recall a
rhetorical world.


To most of the great poets no greater praise can be given than
praise of their imagery. Imagery is the natural language of their
poetry. Without a parable she hardly speaks. But undoubtedly there
is now and then a poet who touches the thing, not its likeness, too
vitally, too sensitively, for even such a pause as the verse makes
for love of the beautiful image. Those rare moments are simple, and
their simplicity makes one of the reader's keenest experiences.
Other simplicities may be achieved by lesser art, but this is
transcendent simplicity. There is nothing in the world more costly.
It vouches for the beauty which it transcends; it answer for the
riches it forbears; it implies the art which it fulfils. All
abundance ministers to it, though it is so single. And here we get
the sacrificial quality which is the well-kept secret of art at this
perfection. All the faculties of the poet are used for preparing
this naked greatness--are used and fruitfully spent and shed. The
loveliness that stands and waits on the simplicity of certain of Mr.
Coventry Patmore's Odes, the fervours and splendours that are there,
only to be put to silence--to silence of a kind that would be
impossible were they less glorious--are testimonies to the
difference between sacrifice and waste.

But does it seem less than reasonable to begin a review of a poet's
work with praise of an infrequent mood? Infrequent such a mood must
needs be, yet it is in a profound sense characteristic. To have
attained it once or twice is to have proved such gift and grace as a
true history of literature would show to be above price, even gauged
by the rude measure of rarity. Transcendent simplicity could not
possibly be habitual. Man lives within garments and veils, and art
is chiefly concerned with making mysteries of these for the
loveliness of his life; when they are rent asunder it is impossible
not to be aware that an overwhelming human emotion has been in
TOYS, ST. VALENTINE'S DAY --though here there is in the exquisite
imaginative play a mitigation of the bare vitality of feeling--group
themselves apart as the innermost of the poet's achievements.

Second to these come the Odes that have splendid thought in great
images, and display--rather than, as do the poems first glanced at,
betray--the beauties of poetic art. Emotion is here, too, and in
shocks and throes, never frantic when almost intolerable. It is
mortal pathos. If any other poet has filled a cup with a draught so
unalloyed, we do not know it. Love and sorrow are pure in The
Unknown Eros; and its author has not refused even the cup of terror.
Against love often, against sorrow nearly always, against fear
always, men of sensibility instantaneously guard the quick of their
hearts. It is only the approach of the pang that they will endure;
from the pang itself, dividing soul and spirit, a man who is
conscious of a profound capacity for passion defends himself in the
twinkling of an eye. But through nearly the whole of Coventry
Patmore's poetry there is an endurance of the mortal touch. Nay,
more, he has the endurance of the immortal touch. That is, his
capacity for all the things that men elude for their greatness is
more than the capacity of other men. He endures therefore what they
could but will not endure and, besides this, degrees that they
cannot apprehend. Thus, to have studied The Unknown Eros is to have
had a certain experience--at least the impassioned experience of a
compassion; but it is also to have recognised a soul beyond our

What some of the Odes have to sing of, their author does not insist
upon our knowing. He leaves more liberty for a well-intentioned
reader's error than makes for peace and recollection of mind in
reading. That the general purpose of the poems is obscure is
inevitable. It has the obscurity of profound clear waters. What
the poet chiefly secures to us is the understanding that love and
its bonds, its bestowal and reception, does but rehearse the action
of the union of God with humanity--that there is no essential man
save Christ, and no essential woman except the soul of mankind.
When the singer of a Song of Songs seems to borrow the phrase of
human love, it is rather that human love had first borrowed the
truths of the love of God. The thought grows gay in the three
Psyche odes, or attempts a gaiety--the reader at least being
somewhat reluctant. How is it? Mr. Coventry Patmore's play more
often than not wins you to but a slow participation. Perhaps
because some thrust of his has left you still tremulous.

But the inequality of equal lovers, sung in these Odes with a Divine
allusion, is a most familiar truth. Love that is passionate has
much of the impulse of gravitation--gravitation that is not falling,
as there is no downfall in the precipitation of the sidereal skies.
The love of the great for the small is the passionate love; the
upward love hesitates and is fugitive. St. Francis Xavier asked
that the day of his ecstasy might be shortened; Imogen, the wife of
all poetry, 'prays forbearance;' the child is 'fretted with sallies
of his mothers kisses.' It might be drawing an image too
insistently to call this a centrifugal impulse.

The art that utters an intellectual action so courageous, an emotion
so authentic, as that of Mr. Coventry Patmore's poetry, cannot be
otherwise than consummate. Often the word has a fulness of
significance that gives the reader a shock of appreciation. This is
always so in those simplest odes which we have taken as the heart of
the author's work. Without such wonderful rightness, simplicity of
course is impossible. Nor is that beautiful precision less in
passages of description, such as the landscape lines in Amelia and
elsewhere. The words are used to the uttermost yet with composure.
And a certain justness of utterance increases the provocation of
what we take leave to call unjust thought in the few poems that
proclaim an intemperate scorn--political, social, literary. The
poems are but two or three; they are to be known by their subjects--
we might as well do something to justify their scorn by using the
most modern of adjectives--and call them topical. Here assuredly
there is no composure. Never before did superiority bear itself
with so little of its proper, signal, and peculiar grace--

If Mr. Patmore really intends that his Odes shall be read with
minim, or crochet, or quaver rests, to fill up a measure of beaten
time, we are free to hold that he rather arbitrarily applies to
liberal verse the laws of verse set for use--cradle verse and march-
marking verse (we are, of course, not considering verse set to
music, and thus compelled into the musical time). Liberal verse,
dramatic, narrative, meditative, can surely be bound by no time
measures--if for no other reason, for this: that to prescribe
pauses is also to forbid any pauses unprescribed. Granting,
however, his principle of catalexis, we still doubt whether the
irregular metre of The Unknown Eros is happily used except for the
large sweep of the flight of the Ode more properly so called.
Lycidas, the Mrs. Anne Killigrew, the Intimations, and Emerson's
Threnody, considered merely for their versification, fulfil their
laws so perfectly that they certainly move without checks as without
haste. So with the graver Odes--much in the majority--of Mr.
Coventry Patmore's series. A more lovely dignity of extension and
restriction, a more touching sweetness of simple and frequent rhyme,
a truer impetus of pulse and impulse, English verse could hardly
yield than are to be found in his versification. And what movement
of words has ever expressed flight, distance, mystery, and wonderful
approach, as they are expressed in a celestial line--the eighth in
the ode To the Unknown Eros? When we are sensible of a metrical
cheek it is in this way: To the English ear the heroic line is the
unit of metre, and when two lines of various length undesignedly add
together to form a heroic line, they have to be separated with
something of a jerk. And this adding--as, for instance, of a line
of four syllables preceding or following one of six--occurs now and
then, and even in such a masterly measure of music as A Farewell.
It is as when a sail suddenly flaps windless in the fetching about
of a boat. In The Angel in the House, and other earlier poems, Mr.
Coventry Patmore used the octosyllabic stanza perfectly, inasmuch as
he never left it either heavily or thinly packed. Moreover those
first poems had a composure which was the prelude to the peace of
the Odes. And even in his slightest work he proves himself the
master--that is, the owner--of words that, owned by him, are
unprofaned, are as though they had never been profaned; the capturer
of an art so quick and close that it is the voice less of a poet
than of the very Muse.


I shall not ask the commentators whether Blake used these two words
in union or in antithesis. They assuredly have an inseverable union
in the art of literature. The songs of Innocence and Experience are
for each poet the songs of his own separate heart and life; but to
take the cumulative experiences of other men, and to use these in
place of the virginal fruit of thought--whereas one would hardly
consent to take them for ordering even the most habitual of daily
affairs--is to forego Innocence and Experience at once and together.
Obviously, Experience can be nothing except personal and separate;
and Innocence of a singularly solitary quality is his who does not
dip his hands into other men's histories, and does not give to his
own word the common sanction of other men's summaries and
conclusions. Therefore I bind Innocence and Experience in one, and
take them as a sign of the necessary and noble isolation of man from
man--of his uniqueness. But if I had a mind to forego that manner
of personal separateness, and to use the things of others, I think I
would rather appropriate their future than their past. Let me put
on their hopes, and the colours of their confidence, if I must
borrow. Not that I would burden my prophetic soul with unjustified
ambitions; but even this would be more tolerable than to load my
memory with an unjustifiable history.

And yet how differently do the writers of a certain kind of love-
poetry consider this matter. These are the love-poets who have no
reluctance in adopting the past of a multitude of people to whom
they have not even been introduced. Their verse is full of ready-
made memories, various, numerous, and cruel. No single life--
supposing it to be a liberal life concerned with something besides
sex--could quite suffice for so much experience, so much
disillusion, so much deception. To achieve that tone in its fulness
it is necessary to take for one's own the praeterita (say) of Alfred
de Musset and of the men who helped him--not to live but--to have
lived; it is necessary to have lived much more than any man lives,
and to make a common hoard of erotic remembrances with all kinds of

As the Franciscans wear each other's old habits, and one Friar goes
about darned because of another's rending, so the poet of a certain
order grows cynical for the sake of many poets' old loves. Not
otherwise will the resultant verse succeed in implying so much--or
rather so many, in the feminine plural. The man of very sensitive
individuality might hesitate at the adoption. The Franciscan is
understood to have a fastidiousness and to overcome it. But these
poets so triumph over their repugnance that it does not appear. And
yet, if choice were, one might wish rather to make use of one's
fellowmen's old shoes than put their old secrets to use, and dress
one's art in a motley of past passions. Moreover, to utilise the
mental experience of many is inevitably to use their verse and
phrase. For the rest, all the traits of this love-poetry are
familiar enough. One of them is the absence of the word of promise
and pledge, the loss of the earliest and simplest of the impulses of
love: which is the vow. 'Till death!' 'For ever!' are cries too
simple and too natural to be commonplace, and in their denial there
is the least tolerable of banalities--that of other men's

Perfect personal distinctness of Experience would be in literature a
delicate Innocence. Not a passage of cheapness, of greed, of
assumption, of sloth, or of any such sins in the work of him whose
love-poetry were thus true, and whose pudeur of personality thus
simple and inviolate. This is the private man, in other words the
gentleman, who will neither love nor remember in public.


There has been no denunciation, and perhaps even no recognition, of
a certain social immorality in the caricature of the mid-century and
earlier. Literary and pictorial alike, it had for its notice the
vulgarising of the married woman. No one now would read Douglas
Jerrold for pleasure, but it is worth while to turn up that
humourist's serial, Mrs. Caudle's Curtain Lectures, which were
presumably considered good comic reading in the Punch of that time,
and to make acquaintance with a certain ideal of the grotesque.
Obviously to make a serious comment on anything which others
consider or have considered humorous is to put one's-self at a
disadvantage. He who sees the joke holds himself somewhat the
superior of the man who would see it, such as it is, if he thought
it worth his eyesight. The last-named has to bear the least
tolerable of modern reproaches; but he need not always care. Now to
turn over Douglas Jerrold's monologues is to find that people in the
mid-century took their mirth principally from the life of the
arriere boutique. On that shabby stage was enacted the comedy of
literature. Therefore we must take something of the vulgarity of
Jerrold as a circumstance of the social ranks wherein he delighted.
But the essential vulgarity is that of the woman. There is in some
old Punch volume a drawing by Leech--whom one is weary of hearing
named the gentle, the refined--where the work of the artist has vied
with the spirit of the letter-press. Douglas Jerrold treats of the
woman's jealousy, Leech of her stays. They lie on a chair by the
bed, beyond description gross. And page by page the woman is
derided, with an unfailing enjoyment of her foolish ugliness of
person, of manners, and of language. In that time there was,
moreover, one great humourist; he bore his part willingly in
vulgarising the woman; and the part that fell to him was the
vulgarising of the act of maternity. Woman spiteful, woman suing
man at the law for evading her fatuous companionship, woman
incoherent, woman abandoned without restraint to violence and
temper, woman feigning sensibility--in none of these ignominies is
woman so common, foul, and foolish for Dickens as she is in child-

I named Leech but now. He was, in all things essential, Dickens's
contemporary. And accordingly the married woman and her child are
humiliated by his pencil; not grossly, but commonly. For him she is
moderately and dully ridiculous. What delights him as humorous is
that her husband--himself wearisome enough to die of--is weary of
her, finds the time long, and tries to escape her. It amuses him
that she should furtively spend money over her own dowdiness, to the
annoyance of her husband, and that her husband should have no desire
to adorn her, and that her mother should be intolerable. It pleases
him that her baby, with enormous cheeks and a hideous rosette in its
hat--a burlesque baby--should be a grotesque object of her love, for
that too makes subtly for her abasement. Charles Keene, again--
another contemporary, though he lived into a later and different
time. He saw little else than common forms of human ignominy--
indignities of civic physique, of stupid prosperity, of dress, of
bearing. He transmits these things in greater proportion than he
found them--whether for love of the humour of them, or by a kind of
inverted disgust that is as eager as delight--one is not sure which
is the impulse. The grossness of the vulgarities is rendered with a
completeness that goes far to convince us of a certain sensitiveness
of apprehension in the designer; and then again we get convinced
that real apprehension--real apprehensiveness--would not have
insisted upon such things, could not have lived with them through
almost a whole career. There is one drawing in the Punch of years
ago, in which Charles Keene achieved the nastiest thing possible to
even the invention of that day. A drunken citizen, in the usual
broadcloth, has gone to bed, fully dressed, with his boots on and
his umbrella open, and the joke lies in the surprise awaiting, when
she awakes, the wife asleep at his side in a night-cap. Every one
who knows Keene's work can imagine how the huge well-fed figure was
drawn, and how the coat wrinkled across the back, and how the
bourgeois whiskers were indicated. This obscene drawing is matched
by many equally odious. Abject domesticity, ignominies of married
life, of middle-age, of money-making; the old common jape against
the mother-in-law; ill-dressed men with whisky--ill-dressed women
with tempers; everything that is underbred and decivilised;
abominable weddings: in one drawing a bridegroom with shambling
sidelong legs asks his bride if she is nervous; she is a widow, and
she answers, 'No, never was.' In all these things there is very
little humour. Where Keene achieved fun was in the figures of his
schoolboys. The hint of tenderness which in really fine work could
never be absent from a man's thought of a child or from his touch of
one, however frolic or rowdy the subject in hand, is absolutely
lacking in Keene's designs; nevertheless, we acknowledge that here
is humour. It is also in some of his clerical figures when they are
not caricatures, and certainly in 'Robert,' the City waiter of
Punch. But so irresistible is the derision of the woman that all
Charles Keene's persistent sense of vulgarity is intent centrally
upon her. Never for any grace gone astray is she bantered, never
for the social extravagances, for prattle, or for beloved dress; but
always for her jealousy, and for the repulsive person of the man
upon whom she spies and in whom she vindicates her ignoble rights.
If this is the shopkeeper the possession of whom is her boast, what
then is she?

This great immorality, centring in the irreproachable days of the
Exhibition of 1851, or thereabouts--the pleasure in this particular
form of human disgrace--has passed, leaving one trace only: the
habit by which some men reproach a silly woman through her sex,
whereas a silly man is not reproached through his sex. But the
vulgarity of which I have written here was distinctively English--
the most English thing that England had in days when she bragged of
many another--and it was not able to survive an increased commerce
of manners and letters with France. It was the chief immorality
destroyed by French fiction.

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