Part 5 out of 5
Whether George Sand is still alive as a novelist, apart from her place
as an historic personality, I leave others to decide; but I am very sure
that she would be read a great deal more than she is if she had not so
confidently left her novels--to write themselves. Different, indeed, was
the method of Balzac, toiling year after year at his colossal task of
_The Human Comedy_, sometimes working eighteen hours a day, and never
less than twelve, and that "in the midst of protested bills, business
annoyances, the most cruel financial straits, in utter solitude and lack
of all consolation." But then Balzac was sustained by one of those great
dreams, without whose aid no lasting literature is produced, the dream,
"by infinite patience and courage, to compose for the France of the
nineteenth century, that history of morals which the old civilizations
of Rome, Athens, Memphis, and India have left untold."
To fulfil this he was able to live, for a long period, on a daily
expenditure of "three sous for bread, two for milk, and three for
firing." But doubtless it had been different if his dream had been
prize puppies, a garage full of motor-cars, or a translation into the
Victor Hugo, again, was one of the herculean artists, working, in
Emerson's phrase, "in a sad sincerity," with the patience of an ant and
the energy of a volcano. Of his _Les Miserables_--perhaps the greatest
novel ever written, as it is, I suppose, easily the longest--he said,
"it takes me nearly as long to publish a book as to write one"; and he
was at work on _Les Miserables_, off and on, for nearly fifteen years.
Of his writing _Notre Dame_ (that other colossus of fiction) this quaint
picture has been preserved. He had made vast historical preparations for
it, but ever there seemed still more to make, till at length his
publisher grew impatient, and under his pressure Hugo at last made a
start--after this fashion:
He purchased a great grey woollen wrapper that covered him from head
to foot, he locked up all his clothes lest he should be tempted to
go out, and, carrying off his ink-bottle to his study, applied
himself to his labour just as if he had been in prison. He never
left the table except for food and sleep, and the sole recreation
that he allowed himself was an hour's chat after dinner with M.
Pierre Leroux, or any other friend who might drop in, and to whom he
would occasionally read over his day's work.
Daudet, whose _Tartarin_ bids fair to remain one of the world's types,
like _Don Quixote_ or _Mr. Micawber_, for all his natural Provencal
gift of improvisation and, indeed, from his self-recognized necessity
of keeping it in check, was another strenuous artist. He wrote each
manuscript three times over, he told his biographer, and would write it
as many more if he could; and his son, in writing of him, has this truth
to say of his, as of all living work:
The fact is that labour does not begin at the moment when the
artist takes his pen. It begins in sustained reflection and in the
thought which accumulates images and sifts them, garners and winnows
them out, and compels life to keep control over imagination, and
imagination to expand and enlarge life.
Zola is perhaps unduly depreciated nowadays, but certainly, if Carlyle's
"infinite capacity for taking pains" as a recipe for genius ever was put
to the test, it was by the author of the Rougon-Macquart series. Talking
of rewriting, Prosper Merimee, best known for _Carmen_, is said to have
rewritten his _Colomba_ no less than sixteen times; as our Anglo-Saxon
Kipling, it used to be told, wrote his short stories seven times over.
But, of course, the classical example of the artist-fanatic in modern
times was Gustave Flaubert. His agonies in quest of the _mot propre_,
the one and only word, are proverbial, and are said literally to have
broken down his nerves. Mr. Huneker has told of him that "he would
annotate three hundred volumes for a page of facts.... In twenty pages
he sometimes saved three or four from destruction," and, in the course
of twenty-six years' polishing and pruning of _The Temptation of Saint
Anthony_, he reduced his original manuscript of 540 pages down to 136,
even reducing it still further after its first publication.
On _Madame Bovary_ he worked six years, and in writing _Salammbo_,
which, took him no less time, he studied the scenery on the spot and
exhausted the resources of the Imperial Library in his search for
Flaubert may be said to have carried his passion for perfection to the
point of mania, and it will be a question with some whether, with all
his pains, he can be called a great novelist, after all. But that he was
a great stylist and a master in the art of making terrible and beautiful
bas-reliefs admits of no doubt.
To be a great world-novelist you need an all-embracing humanity as well,
such as we find in Tolstoy's _War and Peace_--but that great book, need
one say, came of no slipshod speed of improvisation. On the contrary,
Tolstoy corrected and recorrected it so often that his wife, who acted
as his amanuensis, is said to have copied the whole enormous manuscript
no less than seven times!
Yes! though it be doubtless true, in Mr. Kipling's famous phrase, that
There are nine and sixty ways
Of inditing tribal lays,
And every blessed one of them is right,
I think that the whole nine and sixty of them include somewhere in their
method those sole preservative virtues of truth to life and passionate
artistic integrity. The longest-lived books, whatever their nature, have
usually been the longest growing; and even those lasting things of
literature that have seemed, as it were, to spring up in a night, have
been long in secret preparation in a soil mysteriously enriched and
refined by the hid processes of time.
THE MAN BEHIND THE PEN
Bulwer's deservedly famous phrase, "The pen is mightier than the sword,"
beneath its surface application, if you think it over, has this further
suggestion to make to the believer in literature--that, as the sword is
of no value as a weapon apart from the man that wields it, so, and no
less so, is it with the pen. A mere pen, a mere sword--of what use are
they, save as mural decorations, without a man behind them?
And that recalls a memory of mine, which, as both great men are now
drinking wine in Valhalla out of the skulls of their critics, there can
be no harm in recalling.
Some years ago I was on an unforgettable visit to Bjoernson, at his
country home of Aulestad, near Lillehammer. This is not the moment to
relive that beautiful memory as a whole. All that is pertinent to my
present purpose is a remark in regard to Ibsen that Bjoernson flashed out
one day, shaking his great white mane with earnestness, his noble face
alight with the spirit of battle. We had been talking of his possibly
too successful attempt to sever Norway from Sweden, and Ibsen came in
"Ibsen," said he, "is not a man. He is only a pen."
There is no necessity to discuss the justice of the dictum. Probably, if
ever there was a man behind a pen, it was Ibsen; but Ibsen's manhood
concentrated itself entirely behind his pen, whereas Bjoernson's employed
other weapons also, such as his gift of oratory, and was generally more
dramatically in evidence. Bjoernson and Ibsen, as we know, did not agree
on a number of things. Thus Bjoernson, like a human being, was unjust.
But his phrase was a useful one, and I am using it. It was misapplied to
Ibsen; but, put in the form of a question, I know of no better single
test to apply to writers, dead or alive, than--
"Is this a man? Or is it only a pen?"
Said Walt Whitman, in his familiar "So Long" to _Leaves of Grass_:
Camerado, this is no book;
Who touches this touches a man.
And, of course, Walt was right about his own book, whether you like the
man behind _Leaves of Grass_ or not; but also that assertion of his
might be chalked as a sort of customs "O.K." on all literary baggage
whatsoever that has passed free into immortality. There is positively no
writer that has withstood the searching examination of time, on whose
book that final stamp of literary reality may not be placed. On every
classic, Time has scrawled ineffaceably:
This is no book;
Who touches this touches a man.
I raise the question of reality in literature in no merely academic
spirit. For those who not only love books, but care for literature as a
living thing, the question is a particularly live issue at the present
time, when not only the quantity of writing is so enormous, but the
average quality of it is so astonishingly good, when technique that
would almost humble the masters, and would certainly dazzle them, is an
accomplishment all but commonplace. At any rate, it is so usual as to
create no special surprise. If people write at all, it is taken for
granted, nowadays, that they write well. And the number of people at the
present time writing not only well, but wonderfully well, is little
short of appalling.
In this, for those who ponder the phenomena of literature, there is less
matter for congratulation than would seem likely at first sight. There
is, indeed, no little bewilderment, and some disquietude. Confronted
with short stories--and novels also, for that matter--told with a skill
which makes the old masters of fiction look like clumsy amateurs;
confronted, too, with a thousand poets--the number is scarcely an
exaggeration--with accomplishments of metre and style that make some
famous singers seem like clodhoppers of the muse, one is obliged to ask
"Are these brilliant writers really greater than those that went
If for some reason, felt at first rather than defined, we answer "no,"
we are forced to the conclusion that, after all, literature must be
something more than a mere matter of writing. If so, we are constrained
to ask ourselves, what is it?
The men who deal with manuscripts--editors, publishers' readers, and
publishers, men not only expert witnesses in regard to the printed
literature of the day, but also curiously learned in the story of the
book unborn, the vast mass of writing that never arrives at print--are
even more impressed by what one might call the uncanny literary
brilliance of the time. They are also puzzled by the lack of a certain
something missing in work which otherwise possesses every nameable
quality of literary excellence. One of these, an editor with an eye as
sympathetic as it is keen, told me of an instance to the point, typical
of a hundred others.
He had been unusually struck by a story sent in to him by an unknown
writer. It was, he told me, amazing from every purely literary point of
view--plot, characterization, colour, and economy of language. It had so
much that it seemed strange that anything at all should be lacking. He
sent for the writer, and told him just what he thought.
"But," he ended, after praise such as an editor seldom risks, "there is
something the matter with it, after all. I wonder if you can tell me
what it is."
The writer was, for a writer so flattered, strangely modest. All he
could say, he answered, was that he had done his best. The editor,
agreeing that he certainly seemed to have done that, was all the more
curious to find out how it was that a man who could do so well had not
been able to add to his achievement the final "something" that was
"What puzzles me," said the editor finally, "is that, with all the
rest, you were not able to add--humanity. Your story seems to have
been written by a wonderful literary machine, instead of by a man."
And, no doubt, the young story-writer went away sorrowful, in spite of
the acceptance of his story--which, after all, was only lacking in that
quality which you will find lacking in all the writing of the day, save
in that by one or two exceptional writers, who, by their isolation, the
more forcibly point the moral.
A wonderful literary machine! The editor's phrase very nearly hits off
the situation. As we have the linotype to set up the written words with
a minimum of human agency, we really seem to be within measurable
distance of a similar automaton that will produce the literature to be
set up without the intrusion of any flesh-and-blood author. In this
connection I may perhaps be permitted to quote a sentence or two from
myself, written _a propos_ a certain chameleonesque writer whose
deservedly popular works are among the contemporary books that I most
A peculiar skill seems to have been developed among writers during
the last twenty years--that of writing in the manner of some master,
not merely with mimetic cleverness, but with genuine creative power.
We have poets who write so like Wordsworth and Milton that one can
hardly differentiate them from their masters; and yet--for this is
my point--they are no mere imitators, but original poets, choosing,
it would seem, some old mask of immortality through which to express
themselves. In a different way from that of Guy de Maupassant they
have chosen to suppress themselves, or rather, I should say, that,
whereas De Maupassant strove to suppress, to eliminate, himself,
their method is that of disguise.
In some respects they remind one of the hermit-crab, who annexes
some beautiful ready-made house, instead of making one for himself.
But then they annex it so brilliantly, with such delightful
consequences for the reader, that not only is there no ground for
complaint, but the reader almost forgets that the house does not
really belong to them, and that they are merely entertaining tenants
on a short lease.
It is not that one is not grateful to writers of this type. Indeed one
is. They not only provide us with genuine entertainment, but, by the
skill born of their fine culture, they make us re-taste of the old
masters in their brilliant variations. One has no complaint against
them. Far from it. Only one wonders why they trouble to attach their own
merely personal names to their volumes, for, so far as those volumes are
concerned, there is no one to be found in them answering to the name of
the ostensible author.
Suppose, for example, that the author's name on the title-page is
"Brown." Well, so far as we can find out by reading, "Brown" might just
as well be "Green." In fact, there is no "Brown" discoverable--no
individual man behind the pen that wrote, not out of the fulness of the
heart, or the originality of the brain, from any experience or knowledge
or temperament peculiar to "Brown," but out of the fulness of what one
might call a creatively assimilated education, and by the aid of a
special talent for the combination of literary influences.
We have had a great deal of pleasure in the reading, we have admired
this and that, we may even have been astonished, but I repeat--there is
no "Brown." In private life "Brown" may be a forceful and fascinating
personality, but, so far as literature is concerned, he is merely a
"wonderful literary machine." He has been able, by his remarkable skill,
to conjure every other writer into his book--except himself. The name
"Brown" on his title-page means nothing. He has not "made his name."
The phrase "to make a name" has become so dulled with long usage that it
is worth while to pause and consider what a reality it stands for. What
it really means, of course, is that certain men and women, by the
personal force or quality of their lives, have succeeded in charging
their names--names given them originally haphazard, as names are given
to all of us--with a permanent significance as unmistakable as that
belonging to the commonest noun. The name "Byron" has a meaning as clear
and unmistakable as the word "mutton." The words "dog" and "cat" have a
meaning hardly more clearly defined than the name "Burns" or "Voltaire."
An oak-tree can no more be mistaken for a willow than Shakespeare can be
confused with Spenser. If we say "Coleridge," there is no possibility of
any one thinking that perhaps we meant "Browning."
The reason, of course, is that these names are as unmistakably "made"
as a Krupp gun or a Sheffield razor. Sincere, intense life has passed
into them, life lived as the men who bore those names either chose, or
were forced, to live it; individual experience, stern or gentle, in
combination with an individual gift of expression.
All names that are really "made" are made in the same way. You may make
a name as Napoleon made his, through war, or you may make it as Keats
made his, by listening to the nightingale and worshipping the moon. Or
you may make it as Charles Lamb made his, merely by loving old folios,
whist, and roast pig. All that is necessary--granted, of course, the
gift of literary expression--is sincerity, an unshakable faithfulness to
In really great writers--or, at all events, in those writings of theirs
by which they immortally exist--there is not one insincere word. The
perishable parts of great writers will, without exception, be found to
be those writings which they attempted either in insincere moments, or
at the instigation of some surface talent that had no real connection
with their deep-down selves.
All real writing has got to be lived before it is written--lived not
only once or twice, but lived over and over again. Mere reporting won't
do in literature, nor the records of easy voyaging through perilous
seas. Dante had to walk through hell before he could write of it, and
men today who would write either of hell or of heaven will never do it
by a study of fashionable drawing-rooms, or prolonged sojourns in the
country houses of the great.
On the other hand, if you wish to write convincingly about what we call
"society," those lords and ladies, for example, who are just as real in
their strange way as coal-heavers and mechanics, it is of no use your
trying, unless you were fortunate enough to be born among them, or have
been unfortunately associated with them all your life. To write with
reality about the most artificial condition necessitates an intimate
acquaintance with it that, at its best, is tragic. Those who would write
about the depths and the heights must have dared them, not merely as
visitors, but as awestricken inhabitants. Similarly, those who would
write about the plain, the long, low levels of commonplace human life,
must have dwelt in them, have possessed the dreary, unlaurelled courage
of the good bourgeois, have known what it is to live out the day just
for the day's sake, with the blessed hope of a reasonably respectable
and comfortable conclusion.
Probably it seldom occurs to us to think what a tremendously rooted life
is needed to make even one lasting lyric, though the strangeness of the
process is but the same strangeness that accompanies the antecedent
preparation of a flower.
How many suns it takes
To make one speedwell blue--
was no mere fancy of a poet. It is a fact of the long sifting and
kneading to which time subjects the material of its perfect things.
One could not get a better example of what I mean than Lovelace's song
_To Lucasta, Going to the Wars_, without which no anthology of English
verse could possibly be published. Why does generation after generation
say over and over, and hand on to its children:
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much
Loved I not honour more.
Is it merely because it is so well written, or because it embodies a
highly moral sentiment suitable to the education of young men? No, it is
because the sword and the pen for once met together in the hand of a
man, because a soldier and a lover and a poet met together in a song.
One might almost say that Lovelace wrote his lyric first with his sword,
and merely copied it out with his pen. At all events, he was first a man
and incidentally a poet; and every real poet that ever sang, whether or
not he wielded the weapons of physical warfare, has been just the same.
Otherwise he could not have been a poet.
When one speaks of the man behind the pen, one does not necessarily mean
that the writer must be a man of dominant personality, suggestive in
every sentence of "the strenuous life," and muscle, and "punch."
Literature might be described as the world in words, and as it takes all
kinds of men to make a world, so with the world of literature. All we
ask is that we should be made aware of some kind of a man. Numerous
other qualities besides "the punch" go to the making of living
literature, though blood and brawn, not to say brutality, have of late
had it so much their own way in the fashionable literature of the
day--written by muscular literary gentlemen who seem to write rather
with their fists than their pens--that we are in danger of forgetting
the reassuring truth.
J.M. Barrie long ago made a criticism on Rudyard Kipling which has
always stayed by me as one of the most useful of critical touchstones.
"Mr. Kipling," said he, "has yet to learn that a man may know more of
life staying at home by his mother's knee than swaggering in bad company
over three continents."
Nor is successful literature necessarily the record of the successful
temperament. Some writers, not a few, owe their significance to the fact
that they have found humanly intimate expression for their own failure,
or set down their weakness in such a way as to make themselves the
consoling companions of human frailty and disappointment through the
generations. It is the paradox of such natures that they should express
themselves in the very record of their frustration. Amiel may be taken
as the type of such writers. In confiding to his _Journal_ his hopeless
inability for expressing his high thought, he expressed what is
infinitely more valuable to us--himself.
Nor, again, does it follow that the man who thus gets himself
individualized in literature is the kind of man we care about or approve
of. Often it is quite the contrary, and we may think that it had been
just as well if some human types had not been able so forcibly to
project into literature their unworthy and undesirable selves. Yet this
is God's world, and nothing human must be foreign to the philosophical
student of it.
All the "specimens" in a natural history museum are not things of
beauty or joy. So it is in the world of books. Francois Villon cannot
be called an edifying specimen of the human family, yet he unmistakably
belongs there, and it was to that prince of scalawags that we owe not
merely that loveliest sigh in literature--"Where are the snows of
yester-year?"--but so striking a picture of the underworld of medieval
Paris that without it we should hardly be able to know the times as
The same applies to Benvenuto Cellini--bully, assassin, insufferable
egoist, and so forth, as well as artist. If he had not been sufficiently
in love with his own swashbuckler rascality to write his amazing
autobiography, how dim to our imaginations, comparatively, would have
been the world of the Italian Renaissance!
Again, in our own day, take Baudelaire, a personality even less
agreeable still--morbid, diseased, if you will, wasting, you may deem,
immense poetic powers on revealing the beauty of those "flowers of evil"
which had as well been left in their native shade. Yet, it is because he
saw them so vividly, cared to see little else, dwelt in his own strange
corner of the world with such an intensity of experience, that he
is--Baudelaire. Like him or not, his name is "made." A queer kind of
man, indeed, but not "only a pen."
Certain writers have made a cult of "impersonality" in literature. They
would do their utmost to keep themselves out of sight, to let their
subject-matter tell its own tale. But such a feat is an impossibility.
They might as well try to get out of their own skins. The mere effort
at suppression ends in a form of revelation. Their mere choice of
themes and manner of presentation, let them keep behind the scenes as
assiduously as they may, will in the end stamp them. However much a man
may hide behind his pen, so that indeed his personality, compared with
that of more subjective writers, remains always somewhat enigmatic, yet
when the pen is wielded by a man, whatever his reticence or his mask, we
know that a man is there--and that is all that concerns us.
On the other hand, of course, there are companionable, sympathetic
writers whose whole stock-in-trade is themselves, their personal charm,
their personal way of looking at things. Of these, Montaigne and Charles
Lamb are among the great examples. It matters to us little or nothing
what they are writing about; for their subjects, so far as they are
concerned, are only important in relation to themselves, as revealing
to us by reflection two uncommonly "human" human beings, whom it is
impossible to mistake for any one else; just as we enjoy the society of
some whimsical talker among our living friends, valuing him not so much
for what he says, but for the way he says it, and because it is he, and
no one else, that is talking.
Again, there are other men whose names, in addition to their personal
suggestion, have an impersonal significance as marking new eras of human
development, such as Erasmus or Rousseau or Darwin; men who embodied
the time-spirit at crucial moments of world change, men who announced
rather than created, the heralds of epochs, men who first took the new
roads along which the rest of mankind were presently to travel, men who
felt or saw something new for the first time, prophets of dawn while yet
their fellows slept.
Sometimes a man will come to stand for a whole nation, like Robert Burns
or Cervantes; or a great, half-legendary age of the world, like Homer;
or some permanent attitude of the human spirit, like Plato.
No fixed star, great or small, in the firmament of literature ever
got there without some vital reason, or merely by writing, however
remarkable. The idea that literature is a mere matter of writing is seen
to be the hollowest of misconceptions the moment you run over any list
of enduring names. Try any such that you can think of, and in every case
you will find that the name stands for something more than a writer. Of
course, the man had to have his own peculiar genius for writing, but the
peculiarity was but the result of his individual being, his own special
way of living his life or viewing the world.
Take Horace, for example. Does he live merely because of his unique
style, his masterly use of the Latin tongue? By means of that, of
course, but only secondarily. Primarily, he is as alive today as he
was when he sauntered through the streets of Rome, because he was so
absolutely the type of the well-bred man of the world in all countries
and times. He lived seriously in the social world as he found it, and
felt no idealistic craving to have it remoulded nearer to the heart's
desire. He was satisfied with its pleasures, and at one with its
philosophy. Thus he is as much at home in modern Paris or London or
New York as in ancient Rome, and his book is, therefore, forever
immortal as the man of the world's Bible.
Take a name so different as that of Shelley. We have but to speak it
to define all it now stands for. Though no one should read a line of
Shelley's any more, the dream he dreamed has passed into the very
life-blood of mankind. Wherever men strive for freedom, or seek to
attune their lives to the strange spiritual music that breathes through
all things--music that none ever heard more clearly than he--there is
Shelley like the morning star to guide them and inspire.
Think what Wordsworth means to the spiritual thought of the modern
world. In his own day he was one of the most lonely and laughed at of
poets, moping among his lakes and mountains and shepherds. Yet, as
Matthew Arnold said, "we are all Wordsworthians nowadays," and the
religion of nature that he found there for himself in his solitude bids
fair to be the final religion of the modern world.
It is the same with every other great name one can think of, be it
Bunyan or Heine, Schopenhauer or Izaak Walton. One has but to cast
one's eyes over one's shelves to realize, as we see the familiar
names, how literally the books that bear them are living men, merely
transmigrated from their fleshly forms into the printed word.
Shakespeare and Milton, yes, even Pope; Johnson, Fielding, Sterne,
Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Carlyle, Dumas, Balzac, Emerson, Thoreau,
Hawthorne, Poe--their very faces seem to look out at us from the
bindings, such vividly human beings were they, with a vision of the
world, or a definition of character, so much their own and no one
else's. One might almost call them patented human beings--patentees of
spiritual discoveries, or of aspects of humanity, whose patents can
never be infringed for all our cleverness.
Said Tennyson, in bitter answer to criticism that began to depreciate
him because of the glibness of his imitators:
All can grow the flower now,
For all have got the seed.
And certainly, as I have already said, the art of literary impersonation
is carried to a pitch today that almost amounts to genius. Yet you have
only to compare the real flower with the imitation, and you will soon
understand the difference.
Take Walter Scott. It is a commonplace to say how much better we do the
historical novel nowadays than he did. At first sight, we may seem to;
in certain particulars, no doubt we do; but read him again, read _Rob
Roy_ or _Quentin Durward_ again, and you will not be quite so sure. You
will realize what an immortal difference there is, after all, between
the pen with a man behind it, and the most brilliant literary machine.
Yes, "the mob of gentlemen that write with ease" is once more with us,
but no real book was ever yet written with ease, and no book has ever
survived, or ever can, in which we do not feel the presence of the
fighting, dreaming, or merely enjoying soul of a man.
BULLS IN CHINA-SHOPS
There are some people of great value and importance in their own
spheres, who, on the strength of the distinction gained there, are apt
to intrude on other spheres of which they have no knowledge, where in
fact they are irrelevant, and often indeed ridiculously out of place.
This, however, does not prevent their trying to assert an authority
gained in their own sphere in those other spheres where they simply do
not belong; and such is the power of a name that is won for any one
thing that the multitude, unaccustomed to make distinctions, accepts
them as authorities on the hundred other things of which they know
nothing. Thus, to take a crude example, the New York Police, which is,
without doubt, learned in its own world, and well-adapted and equipped
for asserting its authority there, sometimes intrudes, with its
well-known _bonhomie_, into the worlds of drama and sculpture, and,
because it is an acknowledged judge of crooks and grafters, presumes
to be a judge and censor also of new plays and nude statues.
Of course, the New York Police is absurd in such a character, absurd as
a bull in a china-shop is absurd; yet, as in the case of the bull with
the china, it is capable of doing quite a lot of damage.
I take the New York Police merely, as I said, as a crude example of,
doubtless, well-meant, but entirely misplaced energy. Actually, however,
it is scarcely more absurd than many similar, if more distinguished,
bulls gaily crashing about on higher planes.
Such are statesmen who, because they are Prime Ministers or Presidents,
deem themselves authorities on everything within the four winds, doctors
of divinity, and general _arbitri elegantiarum_.
Such a bull in a china-shop in regard to literature was the late Mr.
Gladstone. It is no disrespect towards his great and estimable character
to say, that while, of course, he was technically a scholar--"great
Homeric scholar" was the accepted phrase for him--there were probably
few men in England so devoid of the literary sense. Yet for an author to
receive a post-card of commendation from Mr. Gladstone meant at least
the sale of an edition or two, and a certain permanency in public
appreciation. Her late Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria was Mr.
Gladstone's only rival as the literary destiny of the time. To Mr.
Gladstone we owe Mrs. Humphry Ward, to Her Majesty we owe Miss Marie
John Ruskin, much as we may admire him for his moral influence, and
admire, or not admire, him for his prose, was a bull in a china-shop
when he made his famous criticism on Whistler, and thus inadvertantly
added to the gaiety of nations by provoking that delightful trial,
which, farcical as it seemed at the moment, not merely evoked from
Whistler himself some imperishable dicta on art and the relation of
critics to art, but really did something towards the long-drawn
awakening of that mysterious somnolence called the public consciousness
on the strange mission of beauty in this world, and, incidentally of the
status of those "eccentric" ministers of it called artists.
I do not mean to say that bulls in china-shops are without their uses.
John Ruskin is a shining example to the contrary.
One of his contemporaries, Thomas Carlyle, for all his genius, was on
one important subject--that of poetry--as much of a bull in a china-shop
as Ruskin was in art. Great friends as were he and Tennyson, the famous
anecdote _a propos_ of Tennyson's publication of _The Idylls of the
King_--"all very fine, Alfred, but when are you going to do some
work"--and many other such written deliverances suffice to show how
absolutely out of court a great tragic humorist and rhetorician may
be on an art practised by writers at least as valuable to English
literature as himself, say Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats.
Carlyle was a great writer, but the names of these four gentlemen who,
according to his standard, never did any "work" have a strangely
permanent look about them compared with that of the prophet-journalist
of Chelsea and Ecclefechan.
A similar "sage," another of the great conversational brow-beaters of
English literature, Samuel Johnson, though it was his chief business to
be a critic of poetry, was hardly more in court on the matter than
Carlyle. In fact, Dr. Johnson might with truth be described as the King
Bull of all the Bulls of all the China-shops. There was no subject,
however remote from his knowledge or experience on which he would
hesitate to pronounce, and if necessary bludgeon forth, his opinion.
But in his case, there is one important distinction to be made, a
distinction that has made him immortal.
He disported his huge bulk about the china-shop with such quaintness,
with such engaging sturdiness of character, strangely displaying all the
time so unique a wisdom of that world that lies outside and encloses all
china-shops, so unparalleled a genius of common sense, oddly linked
with that good old-time quality called "the fear of God," that in
his case we felt that the china, after all, didn't matter, but that
Dr. Samuel Johnson, "the great lexicographer," supremely did. His
opinions of Scotsmen or his opinions of poetry in themselves amount to
little--though they are far from being without their shrewd insight--and
much of the china--such as Milton's poetry--among which he gambolled,
after the manner of Behemoth, chanced to be indestructible. Any china
he broke was all to the ultimate good of the china-shop. Yet, if we
accept him so, is it not because he was such a wonderful bull in the
china-shop of the world?
There have been other such bulls but hardly another so great, and with
his name I will, for the moment at least, put personalities aside, and
refer to droves rather than to individual bulls. A familiar type of
the bull in the china-shop is the modern clergyman, who, apparently,
insecure in his status of saint-hood, dissatisfied with that spiritual
sphere which so many confiding human beings have given into his
keeping, will be forever pushing his way like an unwelcome, yet quite
unauthoritative, policeman, into that turmoil of human affairs--of which
politics is a sort of summary--where his opinion is not of the smallest
value, though, perforce, it is received with a certain momentary
respect--as though some beautiful old lady should stroll up to a battery
of artillery, engaged in some difficult and dangerous attack, and offer
her advice as to the sighting and management of the guns. The modern
clergyman's interference in the working out of the secular problems
of modern life has no such picturesque beauty--and it is even less
One would have thought that to have the care of men's souls would be
enough. What a world of suggestiveness there was in the old phrase "a
cure of souls"! Men's souls need saving as much today as ever. Perhaps
they were never in greater danger. Therefore, as the proverbial place
for the cobbler is his last, so more than ever the place for the
clergyman is his church, his pulpit, and those various spiritual offices
for which he is presumably "chosen." His vows do not call upon him
either to be a politician or a matinee idol, nor is it his business to
sow doubt where he is paid for preaching faith. If the Church is losing
its influence, it is largely because of its inefficient interference
in secular affairs, and because of the small percentage of real
spirituality amongst its clergy.
But there is a worse intrusion than that of clergymen into secular
affairs. There is the intrusion of the cheap atheist, the small
materialistic thinker, into a sphere of which certainly no clergyman or
priest has any monopoly, that sphere of what we call the spiritual life,
which, however undemonstrable by physical tests, has been real to so
many men and women whose intellects can hardly be called negligible,
from Plato to Newman. I have too much respect for their courageous
sincerity, their nobility of character, as well as for the necessary, if
superficial, destructive work they did, when to do such work meant no
little personal peril and obloquy to themselves, to class Robert
Ingersoll and Charles Bradlaugh with the small fry that resemble them
merely in their imitative negations; yet this is certainly true of both
of them that they were bulls in the china-shop to this extent--that they
confounded real religion with the defective historical evidences of one
religion, and the mythologic assertions and incongruities of its sacred
book. They did splendid work in their iconoclastic criticism of "the
letter" that "killeth," but of "the spirit" that "giveth life" they seem
to have had but little inkling. To make fun of Jonah and the whale, or
"the Mistakes of Moses," had no doubt a certain usefulness, but it was
no valid argument against the existence of God, nor did it explain away
the mysterious religious sense in man--however, or wherever expressed.
Neither Ingersoll nor Bradlaugh saw that the crudest Mumbo-Jumbo
idolatry of the savage does really stand for some point of rapport
between the seen and the unseen, and that, so long as the mysterious
sacredness of life is acknowledged and reverenced, it matters little by
what symbols we acknowledge it and do it reverence.
One may consider that the present age is an age of spiritual eclipse,
though that is not the writer's opinion, and question with Matthew
Now reads in her bosom as clear
As Rebekah read, when she sate
At eve by the palm-shaded well?
Who guards in her breast
As deep, as pellucid a spring
Of feeling, as tranquil, as sure?
At the height of his vision, can deem
Of God, of the world, of the soul,
With a plainness as near,
As flashing as Moses felt
When he lay in the night by his flock
On the starlit Arabian waste?
Can rise and obey
The beck of the Spirit like him.
Yet the sight of one who sees is worth more than the blindness of a
hundred that cannot see. Some people are born with spiritual antennae
and some without. There is much delicate wonder in the universe that
needs special organizations for its apprehension. "One eye," you
remember, that of Browning's _Sordello_--
In all Verona cared for the soft sky.
In these imponderable and invisible matters, many are in a like case
with Hamlet's mother, when she was unable to see the ghost of his
father which he so plainly saw. "Yet all there is I see!" exclaimed the
queen--though she was quite wrong, as wrong as Mr. Ruskin when he could
see nothing in that painting of Whistler's but a cocks-comb throwing a
paint-pot at a canvas and calling it a picture!
Many people who have sharp enough eyes and ears for their own worlds are
absolutely blind and deaf when introduced into other worlds for which
nature has not equipped them. But this by no means prevents their
pronouncing authoritative opinions in those worlds, opinions which
would be amazing if they were not so impertinent. Many literary people
proclaim their indifference to and even contempt for music--as if their
announcement meant anything more than their music deafness, their
unfortunate exclusion from a great art. Mark Twain used to advertise his
preference for the pianola over the piano--as if that proved anything
against the playing of Paderewski. Similarly, he acted the bull in the
china-shop in regard to Christian Science, which cannot be the accepted
creed of millions of men and women of intelligence and social value
without deserving even in a critic the approach of some respect.
But humorists are privileged persons. That, no doubt, accounts for the
astonishing toleration of Bernard Shaw. Were it not that he is a
_farceur_, born to write knock-about comedies--his plays, by the way,
might be termed knock-about comedies of the middle-class mind--he would
never have got a hearing for his common-place blasphemies, and cheap
intellectual antics. He is undeniably "funny," so we cannot help
laughing, though we are often ashamed of ourselves for our laughter; for
to him there is nothing sacred--except his press-notices, and--his
His so-called "philosophy" has an air of dangerous novelty only to those
innocent middle-classes born but yesterday, to whom any form of thought
is a novelty. Methusaleh himself was not older than Mr. Shaw's "original
ideas." In England, twenty years ago, we were long since weary of his
egotistic buffooneries. Of anything "fine" in literature or art he is
contemptuously ignorant, and from understanding of any of the finer
shades of human life, or of the meaning of such words as "honour,"
"gentleman," "beauty," "religion," he is by nature utterly shut out. He
laughs and sneers to make up for his deficiencies, like that Pietro
Aretino who threw his perishable mud at Michael Angelo. So is it always
with the vulgarian out of his sphere. Once he dared to talk vulgarly of
God to a great man who believed in God--Count Tolstoi.
He had written to Tolstoi _a propos_ his insignificant little play _The
Showing up of Blanco Posnet_, and in the course of his letter had said:
"Suppose the world were only one of God's jokes, would you work any less
to make it a good joke instead of a bad one?" Tolstoi had hitherto been
favourably inclined towards Shaw, owing to his friend and biographer Mr.
Aylmer Maude; but this cheap-jack sacrilege was too much for the great
old man, who seemed to know God with almost Matthew Arnold's
plainness as near
As flashing as Moses felt,
and he closed the correspondence with a rebuke which would have abashed
any one but the man to whom it was sent.
Tolstoi was like Walt Whitman--he "argued not concerning God." It is a
point of view which people like Mr. Shaw can never understand; any more
than he or his like can comprehend that there are areas of human feeling
over which for him and other such bulls in china-shops should be posted
the delicate Americanism--KEEP OUT.
THE BIBLE AND THE BUTTERFLY
Once, in my old book-hunting days, I picked up, on the Quai Voltaire, a
copy of the _Proverbs of King Solomon_. Then it was more possible than
today to make finds in that quaint open-air library which, still more
than any library housed within governmental or diplomaed walls, is
haunted by the spirit of those passionate, dream-led scholars that
made the Renaissance, and crowded to those lectures filled with that
dangerous new charm which always belongs to the poetic presentation of
new knowledge--those lectures, "musical as is Apollo's lute," being
given up on the hill nearby, by a romantic young priest named Abelard.
My copy of the Great King's Wisdom was of no particular bibliographical
value, but it was one of those thick-set, old-calf duodecimos "black
with tarnished gold" which Austin Dobson has sung, books that, one
imagines, must have once made even the Latin Grammar attractive. The
text was the Vulgate, a rivulet of Latin text surrounded by meadows of
marginal comments of the Fathers translated into French,--the whole
presided over, for the edification of the young novice, to whom my copy
evidently belonged, by a distinguished Monseigneur who, in French of the
time of Bossuet, told exactly how these young minds should understand
the wisdom of Solomon, told it with a magisterial style which suggested
that Solomon lived long ago--and, yet, was one of the pillars of the
church. But what particularly interested me about the book, however, as
I turned over its yellow pages, was a tiny thing pressed between them, a
thing the Fathers and the Monseigneur would surely have regarded as
curiously alien to their wisdom, a thing once of a bright, but now of a
paler yellow, and of a frailer texture than it had once been in its
sunlit life--a flower, I thought at first, but, on looking closer, I saw
it was, or had once been, a yellow butterfly.
What young priest was it, I wondered, that had thus, with a breaking
heart, crushed the joy of life between these pages! On what spring
morning had this silent little messenger hovered a while over the high
garden-walls of St. Sulpice, flitting and fluttering, and at last darted
and alighted on the page of this old book, at that moment held in the
hands of a young priest walking to and fro amid the tall whispering
trees--delivering at last to him on the two small painted pages of its
wings a message he must not read....
The temptation was severe, for spring was calling all over Paris, and
the words of another book of the Great King whose wisdom he held in his
hand said to him in the Latin that came easily to all manner of men in
those days: _Lo! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the
flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.... Arise, my love, my
fair one, and come away._
The little fluttering thing seemed to be saying that to him as it poised
on the page, and, as his eyes went into a dream, began to crawl softly,
like a rope-walker, up one of his fingers, with a frail, half-frightened
hold, while, high up, over the walls of the garden the poplars were
discreetly swaying to the southern wind, and the lilac-bushes were
carelessly tossing this way and that their fragrance, as altar-boys
swing their censers in the hushed chancel,--but ah! so different an
_The flowers appear on the earth_, he repeated to himself, beguiled for
a moment, _the flowers appear on the earth; and the time of the singing
of birds is come...._
But, suddenly, for his help against that tiny yellow butterfly there
came to him other stern everlasting words:
_The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our Lord
Then it was, if I imagine aright from my old book, that my young novice
of St. Sulpice crushed the joy of life, in the frail form of its little
messenger, between the pages of the book he held in his hand just then,
the book I held in my hand for a while a hundred and fifty years or so
after--the book I bought that morning on the Quai Voltaire--guarding
that little dead butterfly even more than the wisdom of Solomon. I
wonder if, as he crushed that butterfly, he said to himself--in words
that have grown commonplace since his time--the words of that strange
emperor Hadrian--_Animula, vagula, blandula_!
Perhaps I should not have remembered that book-hunting morning in Old
Paris on the Quai Voltaire, when I bought that beautiful old copy of the
_Proverbs of Solomon_--with the butterfly so strangely crushed between
its pages--had it not been for a circumstance that happened to me, the
other day, in the subway, which seemed to me of the nature of a marvel.
Many weary men and women were travelling--in an enforced, yet in some
way humorously understanding, society--from Brooklyn Bridge to the
Bronx. I got in at Wall Street. The "crush-hour" was near, for it was
4:25--still, as yet, there were time and space granted us to observe
our neighbours. In the particular car in which I was sitting, there
was room still left to look about and admire the courage of your
fellow-passengers. Weary men going home--many of them having used them
all day long--have little wish to use their eyes, so all the men in my
car sat silently and sadly, contemplating the future. As I looked at
them, it seemed to me that they were thinking over the day's work they
had done, and the innumerable days' work they had still to do. No one
smiled. No one observed the other. An automatic courtesy gave a seat
here and there, but no one gave any attention to any business but his
own thoughts and his own sad station.
It was a car, if I remember aright, occupied almost entirely by
men-passengers, and, so far as I could see, there were no evidences that
men knew women from men, or _vice versa_, yet, at last, there seemed to
dawn on four men sitting in a row that there was a wonderful creature
reading a book on the other side of the aisle--a lovely young woman,
with all the fabled beauty of the sea-shell, and the rainbow, that
enchantment in her calm pearl-like face, and in the woven stillness of
her hair, that has in all times and countries made men throw up sails
and dare the unknown sea, and the unknown Fates. The beauty, too, that
nature had given her was clothed in the subdued enchantments of the
rarest art. All unconscious of the admiration surrounding her, she sat
in that subway car, like a lonely butterfly, strangely there in her
incongruous surroundings, for a mysterious moment,--to vanish as swiftly
as she had come--and, as she stepped from the car, leaving it dark and
bright with her past presence yet--
I, who had fortunately, and fearfully, sat by her side was aware that
the book she had been reading was lying forgotten on the seat. It was
mine by right of accident,--treasure-trove. So I picked it up, braving
the glares of the four sad men facing me.
Naturally, I had wondered what book it was; but its being bound in
tooled and jewelled morocco, evidently by one of the great bookbinders
of Paris, made it unprofitable to hazard a guess.
I leave to the imagination of lovers of books what book one would
naturally expect to find in hands so fair. Perhaps _Ronsard_--or some
other poet from the Rose-Garden of old France. No! it was a charmingly
printed copy of The New Testament.
The paradox of the discovery hushed me for a few moments, and then I
began to turn over the pages, several of which I noticed were dog eared
after the manner of beautiful women in all ages. A pencil here and there
had marked certain passages. _Come unto me_, ran one of the underlined
passages, _all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest_,--and
I thought how strange it was that she whose face was so calm and still
should have needed to mark that. And another marked passage I noted--_He
was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him
not_. Then I put down the book with a feeling of awe--such as the Bible
had never brought to me before, though I had been accustomed to it from
my boyhood, and I said to myself: "How very strange!" And I meant how
strange it was to find this wonderful old book in the hands of this
wonderful young beauty.
It had seemed strange to find that butterfly in that old copy of the
_Proverbs of King Solomon_, but how much stranger to find the New
Testament in the hands, or, so to speak, between the wings, of an
I found something written in the book at least as wonderful to me as
the sacred text. It was the name of the butterfly--a name almost as
beautiful as herself. So I was enabled to return her book to her. There
is, of course, no need to mention a name as well-known for good works as
good looks. It will suffice to say that it was the name of the most
beautiful actress in the world.
There is a moral to this story. Morals--to stories--are once more
coming into fashion. The Bible, in my boyhood, came to us with no such
associations as I have recalled. There were no butterflies between its
pages, nor was it presented to us by fair or gracious hands. It was a
very grim and minatory book, wielded, as it seemed to one's childish
ignorance, for the purpose which that young priest of St. Sulpice had
used the pages of his copy of the _Proverbs of King Solomon_, that of
crushing out the joy of life.
My first acquaintance with it as I remember, was in a Methodist chapel
in Staffordshire, England, where three small boys, including myself,
prisoned in an old-fashioned high-back pew, were endeavouring to relieve
the apparently endless _ennui_ of the service by eating surreptitious
apples. Suddenly upon our three young heads descended what seemed like a
heavy block of wood, wielded by an ancient deacon who did not approve
of boys. We were, each of us, no more than eight years old, and the book
which had thus descended upon our heads was nothing more to us than a
very weighty book--to be dodged if possible, for we were still in that
happy time of life when we hated all books. We knew nothing of its
contents--to us it was only a schoolmaster's cane, beating us into
silence and good behaviour.
So the Bible has been for many generations of boys a book even more
terrible than Caesar's _Commentaries_ or the _Aeneid_ of Virgil--the
dull thud of a mysterious cudgel upon the shoulders of youth which you
bore as courageously as you could.
So many of us grew up with what one might call a natural prejudice
against the Bible.
Then some of us who cared for literature took it up casually and found
its poetic beauty. We read the _Book of Job_--which, by the way, Mr.
Swinburne is said to have known by heart; and as we read it even the
stars themselves seemed less wonderful than this description of their
marvel and mystery:
_Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the hands of
_Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide
Arcturus with his sons?_
Or we read in the 37th chapter of the _Book of Ezekiel_ of that weird
valley that was full of bones--"_and as I prophesied, there was a noise,
and behold a shaking, and the bones came together bone to bone_,"
surely one of the most wonderful visions of the imagination in all
Or we read the marvellous denunciatory rhetoric of Jeremiah and Isaiah,
or the music of the melodious heart-strings of King David; we read the
solemn adjuration of the "King Ecclesiast" to remember our Creator in
the days of our youth, with its haunting picture of old age: and the
loveliness of _The Song of Songs_ passed into our lives forever.
To this purely literary love of the Bible there has been added within
the last few years a certain renewed regard for it as the profoundest
book of the soul, and for some minds not conventionally religious it has
regained even some of its old authority as a spiritual guide and stay.
And I will confess for myself that sometimes, as I fall asleep at
night, I wonder if even Bernard Shaw has written anything to equal the