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Old and New Masters by Robert Lynd

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painful--her mouth is bad and good--her profile is better than her
full face, which, indeed, is not full but pale and thin, without
showing any bone--her shape is very graceful, and so are her
movements--her arms are good, her hands bad-ish--her feet
tolerable--she is not seventeen [nineteen?]--but she is ignorant
monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling
people such names--that I was forced lately to make use of the term
_minx_; this is, I think, not from any innate vice but from a
penchant she has of acting stylishly. I am, however, tired of such
style, and shall decline any more of it.

Yet before many months he was writing to the "minx," "I will imagine you
Venus to-night, and pray, pray, pray, pray to your star like a heathen."
Certain it is, as I have already said, that it was after his meeting
with Fanny Brawne that he grew, as in a night, into a great poet. Let us
not then abuse Keats's passion for her as vulgar. And let us not attempt
to make up for this by ranking him with Shakespeare. He is great among
the second, not among the first poets.

VI

HENRY JAMES

1. THE NOVELIST OF GRAINS AND SCRUPLES

Henry James is an example of a writer who enjoyed immense fame but
little popularity. Some of his best books, I believe, never passed into
second editions. He was, above all novelists, an esoteric author. His
disciples had the pleasure of feeling like persons initiated into
mysteries. He was subject, like a religious teacher, to all kinds of
conflicting interpretations. He puzzled and exasperated even intelligent
people. They often wondered what he meant and whether it was worth
writing about. Mr. Wells, or whoever wrote _Boon_, compared him to a
hippopotamus picking up a pea.

Certainly he laboured over trifles as though he were trying to pile
Pelion on Ossa. He was capable, had he been a poet, of writing an epic
made up of incidents chosen from the gossip of an old maid in the upper
middle classes. He was the novelist of grains and scruples. I have heard
it urged that he was the supreme incarnation of the Nonconformist
conscience, perpetually concerned with infinitesimal details of conduct.
As a matter of fact, there was much more of the aesthete in him than of
the Nonconformist. He lived for his tastes. It is because he is a
novelist of tastes rather than of passions that he is unlikely ever to
be popular even to the degree to, which Meredith is popular.

One imagines him, from his childhood, as a perfect connoisseur, a
dilettante. He has told us how, as a child, in New York, Paris, London,
and Geneva, he enjoyed more than anything else the "far from showy
practice of wondering and dawdling and gaping." And, while giving us
this picture of the small boy that was himself, he comments:

There was the very pattern and measure of all he was to demand:
just to _be_ somewhere--almost anywhere would do--and somehow
receive an impression or an accession, feel a relation or a
vibration.

That is the essential Henry James--the collector of impressions and
vibrations. "Almost anywhere would do": that is what makes some of his
stories just miss being as insipid as the verse in a magazine. On the
other hand, of few of his stories is this true. His personality was too
definitely marked to leave any of his work flavourless. His work
reflects him as the arrangement of a room may reflect a charming lady.
He brings into every little world that he enters the light of a new and
refined inquisitiveness. He is as watchful as a cat. Half his pleasure
seems to come from waiting for the extraordinary to peep and peer out of
the ordinary. That is his adventure. He prefers it to seas of bloodshed.
One may quarrel with it, if one demands that art shall be as violent as
war and shall not subdue itself to the level of a game. But those who
enjoy the spectacle of a game played with perfect skill will always find
reading Henry James an exciting experience.

It would be unfair, however, to suggest that the literature of Henry
James can be finally summed up as a game. He is unquestionably a
virtuoso: he uses his genius as an instrument upon which he loves to
reveal his dexterity, even when he is shy of revealing his immortal
soul. But he is not so inhuman in his art as some of his admirers have
held him to be. Mr. Hueffer, I think, has described him as pitiless, and
even cruel. But can one call _Daisy Miller_ pitiless? Or _What Maisie
Knew_? Certainly, those autobiographical volumes, _A Small Boy and
Others_ and _Notes of a Son and Brother_, which may be counted among the
most wonderful of the author's novels, are pervaded by exquisite
affections which to a pitiless nature would have been impossible.

Henry James is even sufficiently human to take sides with his
characters. He never does this to the point of lying about them. But he
is in his own still way passionately on the side of the finer types. In
_The Turn of the Screw_, which seems to me to be the greatest
ghost-story in the English language, he has dramatized the duel between
good and evil; and the effect of it, at the end of all its horrors, is
that of a hymn in praise of courage. One feels--though a more perverse
theory of the story has been put forward--that the governess, who fights
against the evil in the big house, has the author also fighting as her
ally and the children's. Similarly, Maisie has a friend in the author.

He is never more human, perhaps, than when he is writing, not about
human beings, but about books. It is not inconceivable that he will live
as a critic long after he is forgotten as a novelist. No book of
criticism to compare with his _Notes on Novelists_ has been published in
the present century. He brought his imagination to bear upon books as he
brought his critical and analytical faculty to bear upon human beings.
Here there was room for real heroes. He idolized his authors as he
idolized none of his characters. There is something of moral passion in
the reverence with which he writes of the labours of Flaubert and Balzac
and Stevenson and even of Zola.

He lied none of them into perfection, it is true. He accepted, and even
advertised their limitations. But in each of them he found an example of
the hero as artist. His characterization of Flaubert as the "operative
conscience or vicarious sacrifice" of a styleless literary age is the
pure gold of criticism. "The piety most real to her," Fleda says in _The
Spoils of Poynton_, "was to be on one's knees before one's high
standard." Henry James himself had that kind of piety. Above all recent
men of letters, he was on his knees to his high standard.

People may wonder whether his standard was not, to an excessive degree,
a standard of subtlety rather than of creative imagination--at least, in
his later period. And undoubtedly his subtlety was to some extent a
matter of make-believe. He loved to take a simple conversation, and, by
introducing a few subtle changes, to convert it into a sort of
hieroglyphics that need an interpreter. He grew more and more to believe
that it was not possible to tell the simple truth except in an involved
way. He would define a gesture with as much labour as Shakespeare would
devote to the entire portrait of a woman. He was a realist of civilized
society in which both speech and action have to be sifted with
scientific care before they will yield their grain of motive. The
humorous patience with which Henry James seeks for that grain is one of
the distinctive features of his genius.

But, it may be asked, are his people real? They certainly are real in
the relationships in which he exhibits them, but they are real like
people to whom one has been introduced in a foreign city rather than
like people who are one's friends. One does not remember them like the
characters in Meredith or Mr. Hardy. Henry James, indeed, is himself the
outstanding character in his books. That fine and humorous collector of
European ladies and gentlemen, that savourer of the little lives of the
Old World and the little adventures of those who have escaped from the
New, that artist who brooded over his fellows in the spirit less of a
poet than a man of science, that sober and fastidious trifler--this is
the image which presides over his books, and which gives them their
special character, and will attract tiny but enthusiastic companies of
readers to them for many years to come.

2. THE ARTIST AT WORK.

Henry James's amanuensis, Miss Theodora Bosanquet, wrote an article a
year or two ago in the _Fortnightly Review_, describing how the great
man wrote his novels. Since 1895 or 1896 he dictated them, and they were
taken down, not in shorthand, but directly on the typewriter. He was
particular even about the sort of typewriter. It must be a Remington.
"Other kinds sounded different notes, and it was almost impossibly
disconcerting for him to dictate to something that made no responsive
sound at all." He did not, however, pour himself out to his amanuensis
without having made a preliminary survey of the ground. "He liked to
'break ground' by talking to himself day by day about the characters and
the construction until the whole thing was clearly before his mind's
eye. This preliminary talking out the scheme was, of course, duly
recorded by the typewriter. "It is not that he made rough drafts of his
novels-sketches to be afterwards amplified. "His method might better be
compared with Zola's habit of writing long letters to himself about
characters in his next book until they became alive enough for him to
begin a novel about them." Henry James has himself, as Miss Bosanquet
points out, described his method of work in _The Death of a Lion_, in
which it is attributed to his hero, Neil Paraday. "Loose, liberal,
confident," he declares of Faraday's "scenario," as one might call it,
"it might be passed for a great, gossiping, eloquent letter--the
overflow into talk of an artist's amorous plan."

Almost the chief interest of Henry James's two posthumous novels is the
fact that we are given not only the novels themselves--or, rather, the
fragments of them that the author had written--but the "great,
gossiping, eloquent letters" in which he soliloquized about them. As a
rule, these preliminary soliloquies ran to about thirty thousand words,
and were destroyed as soon as the novel in hand was finished. So
delightful are they--such thrilling revelations of the workings of an
artist's mind--that one does not quite know whether or not to
congratulate oneself on the fact that the last books have been left mere
torsos. Which would one rather have--a complete novel or the torso of a
novel with the artist's dream of how to make it perfect? It is not easy
to decide. What makes it all the more difficult to decide in the present
instance is one's feeling that _The Sense of the Past_, had it been
completed, would have been very nearly a masterpiece. In it Henry James
hoped to get what he called a "kind of quasi-turn-of-screw effect."
Here, as in _The Turn of the Screw_, he was dealing with a sort of
ghosts--whether subjective or objective in their reality does not
matter. His hero is a young American who had never been to Europe till
he was about thirty, and yet was possessed by that almost sensual sense
of the past which made Henry James, as a small boy, put his nose into
English books and try to sniff in and smell from their pages the older
world from which they came. The inheritance of an old house in a London
square--a house in which the clocks had stopped, as it were, in
1820--brings the young man over to England, though the lady with whom he
is in love seeks to keep him in America and watch him developing as a
new species--a rich, sensitive, and civilized American, untouched and
unsubdued by Europe. This young man's emotions in London, amid old
things in an atmosphere that also somehow seemed mellow and old, may, I
fancy, be taken as a record of the author's own spiritual experiences as
he drew in long breaths of appreciation during his almost lifelong
wanderings in this hemisphere. For it is important to remember that
Henry James never ceased to be a foreigner. He was enchanted by England
as by a strange land. He saw it always, like the hero of _The Sense of
the Past_, under the charm ... of the queer, incomparable London
light--unless one frankly loved it rather as London shade--which he had
repeatedly noted as so strange as to be at its finest sinister."

However else this air might have been described it was signally not
the light of freshness, and suggested as little as possible the
element in which the first children of nature might have begun to
take notice. Ages, generations, inventions, corruptions, had
produced it, and it seemed, wherever it rested, to be filtered
through the bed of history. It made the objects about show for the
time as in something "turned on"--something highly successful that
he might have seen at the theatre.

Henry James saw old-world objects in exactly that sort of light. He knew
in his own nerves how Ralph Pendrel felt on going over his London house.
"There wasn't," he says, "... an old hinge or an old brass lock that he
couldn't work with love of the act." He could observe the inanimate
things of the Old World almost as if they were living things. No
naturalist spying for patient hours upon birds in the hope of
discovering their secrets could have had a more curious, more hopeful,
and more loitering eye. He found even fairly common things in Europe, as
Pendrel found the things in the house he inherited, "all smoothed with
service and charged with accumulated messages."

He was like the worshipper in a Spanish church, who watches for the
tear on the cheek or the blood-drop from the wound of some
wonder-working effigy of Mother and Son.

In _The Sense of the Past_, Henry James conceived a fantastic romance,
in which his hero steps not only into the inheritance of an old house,
but into 1820, exchanging personalities with a young man in one of the
family portraits, and even wooing the young man's betrothed. It is a
story of "queer" happenings, like the story of a dream or a delusion in
which the ruling passion has reached the point of mania. It is the kind
of story that has often been written in a gross, mechanical way. Here it
is all delicate--a study of nuances and subtle relationships. For Ralph,
though perfect in the 1820 manner, has something of the changeling
about him--something that gradually makes people think him "queer," and
in the end arouses in him the dim beginnings of nostalgia for his own
time. It is a fascinating theme as Henry James works it out--doubly
fascinating as he talks about it to himself in the "scenario" that is
published along with the story. In the latter we see the author groping
for his story, almost like a medium in a trance. Like a medium, he one
moment hesitates and is vague, and the next, as he himself would say,
fairly pounces on a certainty. No artist ever cried with louder joy at
the sight of things coming absolutely right under his hand. Thus, at one
moment, the author announces:--

The more I get into my drama the more magnificent upon my word I
seem to see it and feel it; with such a tremendous lot of
possibilities in it that I positively quake in dread of the
muchness with which they threaten me.

At a moment of less illumination he writes:--

There glimmers and then floats shyly back to me from afar, the
sense of something like _this_, a bit difficult to put, though
entirely expressible with patience, and as I catch hold of the tip
of the tail of it yet again strikes me as adding to my action but
another admirable twist.

He continually sees himself catching by the tip of the tail the things
that solve his difficulties. And what tiny little animals he sometimes
manages to catch by the tip of the tail in some of his trances of
inspiration! Thus, at one point, he breaks off excitedly about his hero
with:--

As to which, however, on consideration don't I see myself catch a
bright betterment by not at all making him use a latch-key?... No,
no--no latch-key--but a rat-tat-tat, on his own part, at the big
brass knocker.

As the writer searches for the critical action or gesture which is to
betray the "abnormalism" of his hero to the 1820 world in which he
moves, he cries to himself:--

Find it, find it; get it right, and it will be the making of the
story.

At another stage in the story, he comments:--

All that is feasible and convincing; rather beautiful to do being
what I mean.

At yet another stage:--

I pull up, too, here, in the midst of my elation--though after a
little I shall straighten everything out.

He discusses with himself the question whether Ralph Pendrel, in the
1820 world, is to repeat exactly the experience of the young man in the
portrait, and confides to himself:--

Just now, a page or two back, I lost my presence of mind, I let
myself be scared, by a momentarily-confused appearance, an
assumption, that he doesn't repeat it. I see, on recovery of my
wits, not to say of my wit, that he very exactly does.

Nowhere in the "scenario" is the artist's pleasure in his work expressed
more finely than in the passage in which Henry James describes his hero
at the crisis of his experience, when the latter begins to feel that he
is under the observation of his _alter ego_, and is being vaguely
threatened. "There must," the author tells himself--

There must be sequences here of the strongest, I make out--the
successive driving in of the successive silver-headed nails at the
very points and under the very tops that I reserve for them. That's
it, the silver nail, the recurrence of it in the right place, the
perfection of the salience of each, and the trick is played.

"Trick," he says, but Henry James resorted little to tricks, in the
ordinary meaning of the word. He scorns the easy and the obvious, as in
preparing for the return of the young hero to the modern world--a
return made possible by a noble act of self-sacrifice on the part of a
second 1820 girl who sends him from her, yet "without an excess of the
kind of romanticism I don't want." There is another woman--the modern
woman whom Ralph had loved in America--who might help the machinery of
the story (as the author thinks) if he brought her on the scene at a
certain stage. But he thinks of the device only to exclaim against it:--

Can't possibly do anything so artistically base.

The notes for _The Ivory Tower_ are equally alluring, though _The Ivory
Tower_ is not itself so good as _The Sense of the Past_. It is a story
of contemporary American life, and we are told that the author laid it
aside at the beginning of the war, feeling that "he could no longer work
upon a fiction supposed to represent contemporary or recent life."
Especially interesting is the "scenario," because of the way in which we
find Henry James trying--poor man, he was always an amateur at
names!--to get the right names for his characters. He ponders, for
instance, on the name of his heroine:--

I want her name ... her Christian one, to be Moyra, and must have
some bright combination with that; the essence of which is a
surname of two syllables and ending in a consonant--also beginning
with one. I am thinking of Moyra Grabham, the latter excellent
thing was in _The Times_ of two or three days ago; the only fault
is a little too much meaning.

Consciousness in artistry can seldom have descended to minuter details
with a larger gesture. One would not have missed these games of genius
with syllables and consonants for worlds. Is it all an exquisite farce
or is it splendidly heroic? Are we here spectators of the incongruous
heroism of an artist who puts a hero's earnestness into getting the last
perfection of shine on to a boot or the last fine shade of meaning into
the manner in which he says, "No, thank you, no sugar"? No, it is
something more than that. It is the heroism of a man who lived at every
turn and trifle for his craft--who seems to have had almost no life
outside it. In the temple of his art, he found the very dust of the
sanctuary holy. He had the perfect piety of the artist in the least as
well as in the greatest things.

3. HOW HE WAS BORN AGAIN

As one reads the last fragment of the autobiography of Henry James, one
cannot help thinking of him as a convert giving his testimony. Henry
James was converted into an Englishman with the same sense of being born
again as is felt by many a convert to Christianity. He can speak of the
joy of it all only in superlatives. He had the convert's sense of--in
his own phrase--"agitations, explorations, initiations (I scarce know
how endearingly enough to name them I)." He speaks of "this really
prodigious flush" of his first full experience of England. He passes on
the effect of his religious rapture when he tells us that "really
wherever I looked, and still more wherever I pressed, I sank in and in
up to my nose." How breathlessly he conjures up the scene of his
dedication, as he calls it, in the coffee-room of a Liverpool hotel on
that gusty, "overwhelmingly English" March morning in 1869, on which at
the age of almost twenty-six he fortunately and fatally landed on these
shores,

with immediate intensities of appreciation, as I may call the
muffled accompaniment, for fear of almost indecently overnaming it.

He looks back, with how exquisite a humour and seriousness, on that
morning as having finally settled his destiny as an artist. "This doom,"
he writes:--

This doom of inordinate exposure to appearances, aspects, images,
every protrusive item almost, in the great beheld sum of things, I
regard ... as having settled upon me once for all while I observed,
for instance, that in England the plate of buttered muffins and its
cover were sacredly set upon the slop-bowl after hot water had been
ingenuously poured into the same, and had seen that circumstance in
a perfect cloud of accompaniments.

It is characteristic of Henry James that he should associate the hour in
which he turned to grace with a plate of buttered muffins. His fiction
remained to the end to some extent the tale of a buttered muffin. He
made mountains out of muffins all his days. His ecstasy and his
curiosity were nine times out of ten larger than their objects. Thus,
though he was intensely interested in English life, he was interested in
it, not in its largeness as life so much as in its littleness as a
museum, almost a museum of _bric-a-brac_. He was enthusiastic about the
waiter in the coffee-room in the Liverpool hotel chiefly as an
illustration of the works of the English novelists.

Again and again in his reminiscences one comes upon evidence that Henry
James arrived in England in the spirit of a collector, a connoisseur, as
well as that of a convert. His ecstasy was that of a convert: his
curiosity was that of a connoisseur. As he recalls his first experience
of a London eating-house of the old sort, with its "small compartments,
narrow as horse-stalls," he glories: in the sordidness of it all,
because "every face was a documentary scrap."

I said to myself under every shock and at the hint of every savour
that this it was for an exhibition to reek with local colour, and
one could dispense with a napkin, with a crusty roll, with room for
one's elbows or one's feet, with an immunity from intermittance of
the "plain boiled" much better than one could dispense with that.

Here, again, one has an instance of the way in which the show of English
life revealed itself to Henry James as an exhibition of eating. "As one
sat there," he says of his reeking restaurant, "one _understood._" It is
in the same mood of the connoisseur on the track of a precious
discovery that he recalls "the very first occasion of my sallying forth
from Morley's Hotel in Trafalgar Square to dine at a house of
sustaining, of inspiring hospitality in the Kensington quarter." What an
epicure the man was! "The thrill of sundry invitations to breakfast"
still survived on his palate more than forty years afterwards. Not that
these meals were recalled as gorges of the stomach: they were merely
gorges of sensation, gorges of the sense of the past. The breakfasts
associated him "at a jump" with the ghosts of Byron and Sheridan and
Rogers. They had also a documentary value as "the exciting note of a
social order in which every one wasn't hurled straight, with the
momentum of rising, upon an office or a store...." It was one morning,
"beside Mrs. Charles Norton's tea-room, in Queen's Gate Terrace," that
his "thrilling opportunity" came to sit opposite to Mr. Frederic
Harrison, eminent in the eyes of the young American, not for his own
sake so much as because recently he had been the subject of Matthew
Arnold's banter. Everybody in England, like Mr. Harrison, seemed to
Henry James to _be_ somebody, or at least to have been talked about by
somebody. They were figures, not cyphers. They were characters in a play
with cross-references.

The beauty was ... that people had references, and that a reference
was then, to my mind, whether in a person or an object, the most
glittering, the most becoming ornament possible, a style of
decoration one seemed likely to perceive figures here and there,
whether animate or no, quite groan under the accumulation and the
weight of.

It is surprising that, loving this new life so ecstatically, James
should so seldom attempt to leave any detailed description of it in his
reminiscences. He is constantly describing his raptures: he only
occasionally describes the thing he was rapturous about. Almost all he
tells us about "the extravagant youth of the aesthetic period" is that
to live through it "was to seem privileged to such immensities as
history would find left her to record but with bated breath." He recalls
again "the particular sweetness of wonder" with which he haunted certain
pictures in the National Gallery, but it is himself, not the National
Gallery, that he writes about. Of Titian and Rembrandt and Rubens he
communicates nothing but the fact that "the cup of sensation was thereby
filled to overflowing." He does, indeed, give a slender description of
his first sight of Swinburne in the National Gallery, but the chief fact
even of this incident is that "I thrilled ... with the prodigy of this
circumstance that I should be admiring Titian in the same breath with
Mr. Swinburne."

Thus the reminiscences are, in a sense, extraordinarily egotistic. This
is, however, not to condemn them. Henry James is, as I have already
said, his own greatest character, and his portrait of his excitements is
one of the most enrapturing things in the literature of autobiography.
He makes us share these excitements simply by telling us how excited he
was. They are exactly the sort of excitements all of us have felt on
being introduced to people and places and pictures we have dreamed about
from our youth. Who has not felt the same kind of joy as Henry James
felt when George Eliot allowed him to run for the doctor? "I shook off
my fellow-visitor," he relates, "for swifter cleaving of the air, and I
recall still feeling that I cleft it even in the dull four-wheeler."
After he had delivered his message, he "cherished for the rest of the
day the particular quality of my vibration." The occasion of the message
to the doctor seems strangely comic in the telling. On arriving at
George Eliot's, Henry James found one of G.H. Lewes's sons lying in
horrible pain in the middle of the floor, the heritage of an old
accident in the West Indies, or, as Henry James characteristically
describes it:--

a suffered onset from an angry bull, I seem to recall, who had
tossed or otherwise mauled him, and, though beaten off, left him
considerably compromised.

There is something still more comic than this, however, to be got out of
his visits to George Eliot. The visit he paid her at Witley under the
"much-waved wing" of the irrepressible Mrs. Greville, who "knew no law
but that of innocent and exquisite aberration," had a superb conclusion,
which "left our adventure an approved ruin." As James was about to
leave, and indeed was at the step of the brougham with Mrs. Greville,
G.H. Lewes called on him to wait a moment. He returned to the
doorstep, and waited till Lewes hurried back across the hall, "shaking
high the pair of blue-bound volumes his allusion to the uninvited, the
verily importunate loan of which by Mrs. Greville had lingered on the
air after his dash in quest of them":--

"Ah, those books--take them away, please, away, away!" I hear him
unreservedly plead while he thrusts them again at me, and I scurry
back into our conveyance.

The blue-bound volumes happened to be a copy of Henry James's own new
book--a presentation copy he had given to Mrs. Greville, and she, in
turn, with the best intentions, had tried to leave with George Eliot, to
be read and admired. George Eliot and Lewes had failed to connect their
young visitor with the volumes. Hence a situation so comic that even its
victim could not but enjoy it:--

Our hosts hadn't so much as connected book with author, or author
with visitor, or visitor with anything but the convenience of his
ridding them of an unconsidered trifle; grudging, as they so
justifiedly did, the impingement of such matters on their
consciousness. The vivid demonstration of one's failure to
penetrate there had been in the sweep of Lewes's gesture, which
could scarcely have been bettered by his actually wielding a broom.

Henry James Was more fortunate in Tennyson as a host. Tennyson had read
at least one of his stories and liked it. All the same, James was
disappointed in Tennyson. He expected to find him a poet signed and
stamped, and found him only a booming bard. Not only was Tennyson not
Tennysonian: he was not quite real. His conversation came as a shock to
his guest:--

He struck me as neither knowing nor communicating knowledge.

As Tennyson read _Locksley Hall_ to his guests, Henry James had to pinch
himself, "not at all to keep from swooning, but much rather to set up
some rush of sensibility." What a lovely touch of malice there is in his
description of Tennyson on an occasion on which the ineffable Mrs.
Greville quoted some of his own verse to him:--

He took these things with a gruff philosophy, and could always
repay them, on the spot, in heavily-shovelled coin of the same
mint, since it _was_ a question of his genius.

Henry James ever retained a beautiful detachment of intellect, even
after his conversion. He was a wit as well as an enthusiast. _The Middle
Years_, indeed, is precious in every page for its wit as well as for its
confessional raptures. It may be objected that Henry James's wit is only
a new form of the old-fashioned periphrasis. He might be described as
the last of the periphrastic humorists. At the same time, if ever in any
book there was to be found the free play of an original genius--a genius
however limited and even little--it is surely in the autobiography of
Henry James. Those who can read it at all will read it with shining
eyes.

VII

BROWNING: THE POET OF LOVE

Browning's reputation has not yet risen again beyond a half-tide. The
fact that two books about him were published during the war, however,
suggests that there is a revival of interest in his work. It would have
been surprising if this had not been so. He is one of the poets who
inspire confidence at a time when all the devils are loosed out of Hell.
Browning was the great challenger of the multitude of devils. He did not
achieve his optimism by ignoring Satan, but by defying him. His courage
was not merely of the stomach, but of the daring imagination. There is
no more detestable sign of literary humbug than the pretence that
Browning was an optimist simply because he did not experience sorrow and
indigestion as other people do. I do not mean to deny that he, enjoyed
good health. As Professor Phelps, of Yale, says in a recent book,
_Robert Browning: How to Know Him:--_

He had a truly wonderful digestion: it was his firm belief that one
should eat only what one really enjoyed, desire being the
infallible sign that the food was healthful. "My father was a man
of _bonne fourchette_," said Barett Browning to me "he was not very
fond of meat, but liked all kinds of Italian dishes, especially
with rich sauces. He always ate freely of rich and delicate things.
He would make a whole meal off mayonnaise."

Upon which the American professor comments with ingenuous humour of a
kind rare in professors in this hemisphere:--

It is pleasant to remember that Emerson, the other great optimist
of the century, used to eat pie for breakfast.

The man who does not suffer from pie will hardly suffer from pessimism;
but, as Professor Phelps insists, Browning faced greater terrors than
pie for breakfast, and his philosophy did not flinch. There was no other
English writer of the nineteenth century who to the same degree made all
human experiences his own. His is poems are not poems about little
children who win good-conduct prizes. They are poems of the agonies of
life, poems about tragic severance, poems about failure. They range
through the virtues and the vices with the magnificent boldness of
Dostoevsky's novels. The madman, the atheist, the adulterer, the
traitor, the murderer, the beast, are portrayed in them side by side
with the hero, the saint, and the perfect woman. There is every sort of
rogue here half-way between good and evil, and every sort of half-hero
who is either worse than his virtue or better than his sins. Nowhere
else in English poetry outside the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer is
there such a varied and humorous gallery of portraits. Landor's often
quoted comparison of Browning with Chaucer is a piece of perfect and
essential criticism:--

Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse.

For Browning was a portrait-painter by genius and a philosopher only by
accident. He was a historian even more than a moralist. He was born with
a passion for living in other people's experiences. So impartially and
eagerly did he make himself a voice of the evil as well as the good in
human nature that occasionally one has heard people speculating as to
whether he can have led so reputable a life as the biographers make one
believe. To speculate in this manner, however, is to blunder into
forgetfulness of Browning's own answer, in _How it Strikes a
Contemporary_, to all such calumnies on poets.

Of all the fields of human experience, it was love into which the
imagination of Browning most fully entered. It may seem an obvious thing
to say about almost any poet, but Browning differed from other poets in
being able to express, not only the love of his own heart, but the love
of the hearts of all sorts of people. He dramatized every kind of love
from the spiritual to the sensual. One might say of him that there never
was another poet in whom there was so much of the obsession of love and
so little of the obsession of sex. Love was for him the crisis and test
of a man's life. The disreputable lover has his say in Browning's
monologues no less than Count Gismond. Porphyria's lover, mad and a
murderer, lives in our imaginations as brightly as the idealistic lover
of Cristina.

The dramatic lyric and monologue in which Browning set forth the
varieties of passionate experience was an art-form of immense
possibilities, which it was a work of genius to discover. To say that
Browning, the inventor of this amazingly fine form, was indifferent to
form has always seemed to me the extreme of stupidity. At the same time,
its very newness puzzles many readers, even to-day. Some people cannot
read Browning without note or comment, because they are unable to throw
themselves imaginatively into the "I" of each new poem. Our artistic
sense is as yet so little developed that many persons are appalled by
the energy of imagination which is demanded of them before they are
reborn, as it were, into the setting of his dramatic studies. Professor
Phelps's book should be of especial service to such readers, because it
will train them in the right method of approach to Browning's best work.
It is a very admirable essay in popular literary interpretation. One is
astonished by its insight even more than by its recurrent banality.
There are sentences that will make the fastidious shrink, such as:--

The commercial worth of _Pauline_ was exactly zero.

And:--

Their (the Brownings') love-letters reveal a drama of noble passion
that excels in beauty and intensity the universally popular
examples of Heloise and Abelard, Aucassin and Nicolette, Paul and
Virginia.

And, again, in the story of the circumstances that led to Browning's
death:--

In order to prove to his son that nothing was the matter with him,
he ran rapidly up three flights of stairs, the son vainly trying to
restrain him. Nothing is more characteristic of the youthful folly
of aged folk than their impatient resentment of proffered hygienic
advice.

Even the interpretations of the poems sometimes take one's breath away,
as when, discussing _The Lost Mistress_, Professor Phelps observes that
the lover:--

instead of thinking of his own misery ... endeavours to make the
awkward situation easier for the girl by small talk about the
sparrows and the leaf-buds.

When one has marvelled one's fill at the professor's phrases and
misunderstandings, however, one is compelled to admit that he has
written what is probably the best popular introduction to Browning in
existence.

Professor Phelps's book is one of those rare essays in popular criticism
which will introduce an average reader to a world of new excitements.
One of its chief virtues is that it is an anthology as well as a
commentary. It contains more than fifty complete poems of Browning
quoted in the body of the book. And these include, not merely short
poems like _Meeting at Night_, but long poems, such as _Andrea del
Sarto, Caliban on Setebos_, and _Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came._
This is the right kind of introduction to a great author. The poet is
allowed as far as possible to be his own interpreter.

At the outset Professor Phelps quotes in full _Transcendentalism_ and
_How it Strikes a Contemporary_ as Browning's confession of his aims as
an artist. The first of these is Browning's most energetic assertion
that the poet is no philosopher concerned with ideas rather than with
things--with abstractions rather than with actions. His disciples have
written a great many books that seem to reduce him from a poet to a
philosopher, and one cannot protest too vehemently against this dulling
of an imagination richer than a child's in adventures and in the passion
for the detailed and the concrete. In _Transcendentalism_ he bids a
younger poet answer whether there is more help to be got from Jacob
Boehme with his subtle meanings:--

Or some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt,
John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about.

With how magnificent an image he then justifies the poet of "things" as
compared with the philosopher of "thoughts":--

He with a "look you!" vents a brace of rhymes,
And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs
And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all--
Buries us with a glory, young once more,
Pouring heaven into this poor house of life.

One of the things one constantly marvels at as one reads Browning is the
splendid aestheticism with which he lights up prosaic words and
pedestrian details with beauty.

The truth is, if we do not realize that he is a great singer and a great
painter as well as a, great humorist and realist, we shall have read him
in vain. No doubt his phrases are often as grotesque as jagged teeth, as
when the mourners are made to say in _A Grammarian's Funeral_:--

Look out if yonder be not day again.
Rimming the rock-row!

Reading the second of these lines one feels as if one of the mourners
had stubbed his foot against a sharp stone on the mountain-path. And
yet, if Browning invented a harsh speech of his own far common use, he
uttered it in all the varied rhythms of genius and passion. There may
often be no music in the individual words, but there is always in the
poems as a whole a deep undercurrent of music as from some hidden river.
His poems have the movement of living things. They are lacking only in
smooth and static loveliness. They are full of the hoof-beats of
Pegasus.

We find in his poems, indeed, no fastidious escape from life, but an
exalted acceptance of it. Browning is one of the very few poets who,
echoing the Creator, have declared that the world is good. His sense of
the goodness of it even in foulness and in failure is written over half
of his poems. _Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came_ is a fable of life
triumphant in a world tombstoned with every abominable and hostile
thing--a world, too, in which the hero is doomed to perish at devilish
hands. Whenever one finds oneself doubting the immensity of Browning's
genius, one has only to read _Childe Roland_ again to restore one's
faith. There never was a landscape so alive with horror as that amid
which the knight travelled in quest of the Dark Tower. As detail is
added to detail, it becomes horrible as suicide, a shrieking progress of
all the torments, till one is wrought up into a very nightmare of
apprehension and the Tower itself appears:--

The round squat tower, blind as the fool's heart.

Was there ever such a pause and gathering of courage as in the verses
that follow in which the last of the knights takes his resolve?:--

Not see? because of night perhaps?--why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay--
"Now stab and end the creature--to the heft!"

Not hear? When noise was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears,
Of all the lost adventurers my peers--
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.

There they stood, ranged along the hillside, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set.
And blew. "_Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came_."

There, if anywhere in literature, is the summit of tragic and triumphant
music. There, it seems to me, is as profound and imaginative expression
of the heroic spirit as is to be found in the English language.

To belittle Browning as an artist after such a poem is to blaspheme
against art. To belittle him as an optimist is to play the fool with
words. Browning was an optimist only in the sense that he believed in
what Stevenson called "the ultimate decency of things," and that he
believed in the capacity of the heroic spirit to face any test devised
for it by inquisitors or devils. He was not defiant in a fine attitude
like Byron. His defiance was rather a form of magnanimity. He is said,
on Robert Buchanan's authority, to have thundered "No," when in his
later years he was asked if he were a Christian. But his defiance was
the defiance of a Christian, the dauntlessness of a knight of the Holy
Ghost. Perhaps it is that he was more Christian than the Christians.
Like the Pope in _The Ring and the Book_, he loathed the association of
Christianity with respectability. Some readers are bewildered by his
respectability in trivial things, such as dress, into failing to see his
hatred of respectability when accepted as a standard in spiritual
things. He is more sympathetic towards the disreputable suicides in
_Apparent Failure_ than towards the vacillating and respectable lovers
in _The Statue and the Bust._ There was at least a hint of heroism in
the last madness of the doomed men. Browning again and again protests,
as Blake had done earlier, against the mean moral values of his age.
Energy to him as to Blake meant endless delight, and especially those
two great energies of the spirit--love and heroism. For, though his work
is not a philosophic expression of moral ideas, it is an imaginative
expression of moral ideas, as a result of which he is, above all, the
poet of lovers and heroes. Imagination is a caged bird in these days;
with Browning it was a soaring eagle. In some ways Mr. Conrad's is the
most heroic imagination in contemporary literature. But he does not take
this round globe of light and darkness into his purview as Browning did.
The whole earth is to him shadowed with futility. Browning was too
lyrical to resign himself to the shadows. He saw the earth through the
eyes of a lover till the end. He saw death itself as no more than an
interlude of pain, darkness, and cold before a lovers' meeting. It may
be that it is all a rapturous illusion, and that, after we have laid him
aside and slept a night's broken sleep, we sink back again naturally
into the little careful hopes and infidelities of everyday. But it seems
to me that here is a whole heroic literature to which the world will
always do well to turn in days of inexorable pain and horror such as
those through which it has but recently passed.

VIII

THE FAME OF J.M. SYNGE

The most masterly piece of literary advertising in modern times was
surely Mr. Yeats's enforcement of Synge upon the coteries--or the
choruses--as a writer in the great tradition of Homer and Shakespeare.
So successful has Mr. Yeats been, indeed, in the exaltation of his
friend, that people are in danger of forgetting that it is Mr. Yeats
himself, and not Synge, who is the ruling figure in modern Irish
literature. One does not criticize Mr. Yeats for this. During the Synge
controversy he was a man raising his voice in the heat of battle--a man,
too, praising a generous comrade who was but lately dead. The critics
outside Ireland, however, have had none of these causes of passion to
prevent them from seeing Synge justly. They simply bowed down before the
idol that Mr. Yeats had set up before them, and danced themselves into
ecstasies round the image of the golden playboy.

Mr. Howe, who wrote a sincere and able book on Synge, may be taken as a
representative apostle of the Synge cult. He sets before us a god, not a
man--a creator of absolute beauty--and he asks us to accept the common
view that _The Playboy of the Western World_ is his masterpiece. There
can never be any true criticism of Synge till we have got rid of all
these obsessions and idolatries. Synge was an extraordinary man of
genius, but he was not an extraordinarily great man of genius. He is not
the peer of Shakespeare: he is not the peer of Shelley: he is the peer,
say, of Stevenson. His was a byway, not a high-road, of genius. That is
why he has an immensely more enthusiastic following among clever people
than among simple people.

Once and once only Synge achieved a piece of art that was universal in
its appeal, satisfying equally the artistic formula of Pater and the
artistic formula of Tolstoi. This was _Riders to the Sea. Riders to the
Sea_, a lyrical pageant of pity made out of the destinies of
fisher-folk, is a play that would have been understood in ancient Athens
or in Elizabethan London, as well as by an audience of Irish peasants
to-day.

Here, incidentally, we get a foretaste of that preoccupation with death
which heightens the tensity in so much of Synge's work. There is a
corpse on the stage in _Riders to the Sea_, and a man laid out as a
corpse in _In the Shadow of the Glen_, and there is a funeral party in
_The Playboy of the Western World._ Synge's imagination dwelt much among
the tombs. Even in his comedies, his laughter does not spring from an
exuberant joy in life so much as from excitement among the incongruities
of a world that is due to death. Hence he cannot be summed up either as
a tragic or a comic writer. He is rather a tragic satirist with the soul
of a lyric poet.

If he is at his greatest in _Riders to the Sea_, he is at his most
personal in _The Well of the Saints_, and this is essentially a tragic
satire. It is a symbolic play woven out of the illusions of two blind
beggars. Mr. Howe says that "there is nothing for the symbolists in _The
Well of the Saints_," but that is because he is anxious to prove that
Synge was a great creator of men and women. Synge, in my opinion at
least, was nothing of the sort. His genius was a genius of decoration,
not of psychology. One might compare it to firelight in a dark room,
throwing fantastic shapes on the walls. He loved the fantastic, and he
was held by the darkness. Both in speech and in character, it was the
bizarre and even the freakish that attracted him. In _Riders to the Sea_
he wrote as one who had been touched by the simple tragedy of human
life. But, as he went on writing and working, he came to look on life
more and more as a pattern of extravagances, and he exchanged the noble
style of _Riders to the Sea_ for the gauded and overwrought style of
_The Playboy._

"With _The Playboy of the Western World_," says Mr. Howe, "Synge placed
himself among the masters." But then Mr. Howe thinks that "Pegeen Mike
is one of the most beautiful and living figures in all drama," and that
she "is the normal," and that

Synge, with an originality more absolute than Wordsworth's,
insisted that his readers should regain their poetic feeling for
ordinary life; and presented them with Pegeen with the stink of
poteen on her, and a playboy wet and crusted with his father's
blood.

The conception of ordinary life--or is it only ordinary Irish life?--in
the last half-sentence leaves one meditating.

But, after all, it is not Synge's characters or his plots, but his
language, which is his great contribution to literature. I agree with
Mr. Howe that the question how far his language is the language of the
Irish countryside is a minor one. On the other hand, it is worth noting
that he wrote most beautifully in the first enthusiasm of his discovery
of the wonders of Irish peasant speech. His first plays express, as it
were, the delight of first love. He was always a shaping artist, of
course, in search of figures and patterns; but he kept his passion for
these things subordinate to reality in the early plays. In _The Playboy_
he seemed to be determined to write riotously, like a man straining
after vitality. He exaggerated everything. He emptied bagfuls of wild
phrases--the collections of years--into the conversations of a few
minutes. His style became, in a literary sense, vicious, a thing of
tricks and conventions: blank-verse rhythms--I am sure there are a
hundred blank-verse lines in the play--and otiose adjectives crept in
and spoilt it as prose. It became like a parody of the beautiful English
Synge wrote in the noon of his genius.

I cannot understand the special enthusiasm for _The Playboy_ except
among those who read it before they knew anything of Synge's earlier and
better work. With all its faults, however, it is written by the hand of
genius, and the first hearing or reading of it must come as a revelation
to those who do not know _Riders to the Sea_ or _The Well of the
Saints._ Even when it is played, as it is now played, in an expurgated
form, and with sentimentality substituted for the tolerant but
Mephistophelean malice which Synge threaded into it, the genius and
originality are obvious enough. _The Playboy_ is a marvellous
confection, but it is to _Riders to the Sea_ one turns in search of
Synge the immortal poet.

IX

VILLON: THE GENIUS OF THE TAVERN

It is to Stevenson's credit that he was rather sorry that he had ever
written his essay on Villon. He explains that this was due to the fact
that he "regarded Villon as a bad fellow," but one likes to think that
his conscience was also a little troubled because through lack of
sympathy he had failed to paint a just portrait of a man of genius.
Villon was a bad fellow enough in all conscience. He was not so bad,
however, as Stevenson made him out. He was, no doubt, a thief; he had
killed a man; and it may even be (if we are to read autobiography into
one of the most shocking portions of the _Grand Testament_) that he
lived for a time on the earnings of "la grosse Margot." But, for all
this, he was not the utterly vile person that Stevenson believed. His
poetry is not mere whining and whimpering of genius which occasionally
changes its mood and sticks its fingers to its nose. It is rather the
confession of a man who had wandered over the "crooked hills of
delicious pleasure," and had arrived in rags and filth in the famous
city of Hell. It is a map of disaster and a chronicle of lost souls.
Swinburne defined the genius of Villon more imaginatively than Stevenson
when he addressed him in a paradoxical line as:

Bird of the bitter bright grey golden morn,

and spoke of his "poor, perfect voice,"

That rings athwart the sea whence no man steers,
Like joy-bells crossed with death-bells in our ears.

No man who has ever written has so cunningly mingled joy-bells and
death-bells in his music. Here is a realism of damned souls--damned in
their merry sins--at which the writer of _Ecclesiastes_ merely seems to
hint like a detached philosopher. Villon may never have achieved the
last faith of the penitent thief. But he was a penitent thief at least
in his disillusion. If he continues to sing _Carpe diem_ when at the age
of thirty he is already an old, diseased man, he sings it almost with a
sneer of hatred. It is from the lips of a grinning death's-head--not of
a jovial roysterer, as Henley makes it seem in his slang
translation--that the _Ballade de bonne Doctrine a ceux de mauvaise Vie_
falls, with its refrain of destiny:

Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.

And the _Ballade de la Belle Heaulmiere aux Filles de Joie_, in which
Age counsels Youth to take its pleasure and its fee before the evil days
come, expresses no more joy of living than the dismallest _memento
mori._

One must admit, of course, that the obsession of vice is strong in
Villon's work. In this he is prophetic of much of the greatest French
literature of the nineteenth century. He had consorted with criminals
beyond most poets. It is not only that he indulged in the sins of the
flesh. It is difficult to imagine that there exists any sin of which he
and his companions were not capable. He was apparently a member of the
famous band of thieves called the Coquillards, the sign of which was a
cockle-shell in the cap, "which was the sign of the Pilgrim." "It was a
large business," Mr. Stacpoole says of this organization in his popular
life of Villon, "with as many departments as a New York store, and, to
extend the simile, its chief aim and object was to make money. Coining,
burglary, highway robbery, selling indulgences and false jewellery,
card-sharping, and dice-playing with loaded dice, were chief among its
industries." Mr. Stacpoole goes on to tone down this catalogue of
iniquity with the explanation that the Coquillards were, after all, not
nearly such villains as our contemporary milk-adulterators and sweaters
of women. He is inclined to think they may have been good fellows, like
Robin Hood and his men or the gentlemen of the road in a later century.
This may well be, but a gang of Robin Hoods, infesting a hundred taverns
in the town and quarrelling in the streets over loose women, is
dangerous company for an impressionable young man who had never been
taught the Shorter Catechism. Paris, even in the twentieth century, is
alleged to be a city of temptation. Paris, in the fifteenth century,
must have been as tumultuous with the seven deadly sins as the world
before the Flood. Joan of Arc had been burned in the year in which
Villon was born, but her death had not made saints of the students of
Paris. Living more or less beyond the reach of the civil law, they made
a duty of riot, and counted insolence and wine to themselves for
righteousness. Villon, we are reminded, had good influences in his life,
which might have been expected to moderate the appeal of wildness and
folly. He had his dear, illiterate mother, for whom, and at whose
request, he wrote that unexpected ballade of prayer to the Mother of
God. He had, too, that good man who adopted him, Guillaume de Villon,
chaplain of Saint Benoist--

mon plus que pere
Maistre Guillaume de Villon,
Qui m'a este plus doux que mere;

and who gave him the name that he has made immortal. That he was not
altogether unresponsive to these good influences is shown by his
references to them in his _Grand Testament_, though Stevenson was
inclined to read into the lines on Guillaume the most infernal kind of
mockery and derision. One of Villon's bequests to the old man, it will
be remembered, was the _Rommant du Pet au Diable_, which Stevenson
refers to again and again as an "improper romance." Mr. Stacpoole has
done a service to English readers interested in Villon by showing that
the _Rommant_ was nothing of the sort, but was a little epic--possibly
witty enough--on a notorious conflict between the students and civilians
of Paris. One may accept the vindication of Villon's goodness of heart,
however, without falling in at all points with Mr. Stacpoole's tendency
to justify his hero. When, for instance, in the account of Villon's only
known act of homicide, the fact that after he had stabbed the priest,
Sermoise, he crushed in his head with a stone, is used to prove that he
must have been acting on the defensive, because, "since the earliest
times, the stone is the weapon used by man to repel attack--chiefly the
attack of wolves and dogs"--one cannot quite repress a sceptical smile.
I admit that, in the absence of evidence, we have no right to accuse
Villon of deliberate murder. But it is the absence of evidence that
acquits him, not the fact that he killed his victim with a stone as well
as a dagger. Nor does it seem to, me quite fair to blame, as Mr.
Stacpoole does by implication, the cold and beautiful Katherine de
Vaucelles for Villon's moral downfall. Katherine de Vaucelles--what a
poem her very name is!-may, for all one knows, have had the best of
reasons for sending her bully to beat the poet "like dirty linen on the
washing-board." We do not know, and it is better to leave the matter a
mystery than to sentimentalize like Mr. Stacpoole:--

Had he come across just now one of those creative women, one of
those women who by the alchemy that lives alone in love can bend a
man's character, even though the bending had been ever so little,
she might have saved him from the catastrophe towards which he was
moving, and which took place in the following December.

All we know is that the lady of miracles did not arrive, and that in her
absence Villon and a member of companion gallows-birds occupied the dark
of one winter's night in robbing the chapel of the College de Navarre.
This was in 1456, and not long afterwards Villon wrote his _Petit
Testament_, and skipped from Paris.

We know little of his wanderings in the next five years, nor do we know
whether the greater part of them was spent in crimes or in reputable
idleness. Mr. Stacpoole writes a chapter on his visit to Charles of
Orleans, but there are few facts for a biographer to go upon during this
period. Nothing with a date happened to Villon till the summer of 1461,
when Thibault d'Aussigny, Bishop of Orleans, for some cause or other,
real or imaginary, had him cast into a pit so deep that he "could not
even see the lightning of a thunderstorm," and kept him there for three
months with "neither stool to sit nor bed to lie on, and nothing to eat
but bits of bread flung down to him by his gaolers." Here, during his
three months' imprisonment in the pit, he experienced all that
bitterness of life which makes his _Grand Testament_ a "De Profundis"
without parallel in scapegrace literature. Here, we may imagine with Mr.
Stacpoole, his soul grew in the grace of suffering, and the death-bells
began to bring a solemn music among the joy-bells of his earlier
follies. He is henceforth the companion of lost souls. He is the most
melancholy of cynics in the kingdom of death. He has ever before him the
vision of men hanging on gibbets. He has all the hatreds of a man
tortured and haunted and old.

Not that he ever entirely resigns his carnality. His only complaint
against the flesh is that it perishes like the snows of last year. But
to recognize even this is to have begun to have a just view of life. He
knows that in the tavern is to be found no continuing city. He becomes
the servant of truth and beauty as he writes the most revealing and
tragic satires on the population of the tavern in the world's
literature. What more horrible portrait exists in poetry than that of
"la belle Heaulmiere" grown old, as she contemplates her beauty turned
to hideousness--her once fair limbs become "speckled like sausages"?
"La Grosse Margot" alone is more horrible, and her bully utters his and
her doom in the last three awful lines of the ballade which links her
name with Villon's:--

Ordure amons, ordure nous affuyt;
Nous deffuyons honneur, il nous deffuyt,
En ce bordeau, ou tenons nostre estat.

But there is more than the truth of ugliness in these amazing ballads of
which the _Grand Testament_ is full. Villon was by nature a worshipper
of beauty. The lament over the defeat of his dream of fair lords and
ladies by the reality of a withered and dissatisfying world runs like a
torment through his verse. No one has ever celebrated the inevitable
passing of loveliness in lovelier verse than Villon has done in the
_Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis._ I have heard it maintained that
Rossetti has translated the radiant beauty of this ballade into his
_Ballad of Dead Ladies._ I cannot agree. Even his beautiful translation
of the refrain,

But where are the snows of yesteryear,

seems to me to injure simplicity with an ornament, and to turn natural
into artificial music. Compare the opening lines in the original and in
the translation, and you will see the difference between the sincere
expression of a vision and the beautiful writing of an exercise. Here is
Villon's beginning:--

Dictes-moy ou, n'en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine?
Archipiade, ne Thais,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine?

And here is Rossetti's jaunty English:--

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora, the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?

One sees how Rossetti is inclined to romanticize that which is already
romantic beyond one's dreams in its naked and golden simplicity. I would
not quarrel with Rossetti's version, however, if it had not been often
put forward as an example of a translation which was equal to the
original. It is certainly a wonderful version if we compare it with most
of those that have been made from Villon. Mr. Stacpoole's, I fear, have
no rivulets of music running through them to make up for their want of
prose exactitude. Admittedly, however, translation of Villon is
difficult. Some of his most beautiful poems are simple as catalogues of
names, and the secret of their beauty is a secret elusive as a fragrance
borne on the wind. Mr. Stacpoole may be congratulated on his courage in
undertaking an impossible task--a task, moreover, in which he challenges
comparison with Rossetti, Swinburne, and Andrew Lang. His book, however,
is meant for the general public rather than for poets and scholars--at
least, for that intelligent portion of the general public which is
interested in literature without being over-critical. For its purpose it
may be recommended as an interesting, picturesque, and judicious book.
The Villon of Stevenson is little better than a criminal monkey of
genius. The Villon of Mr. Stacpoole is at least the makings of a man.

X

POPE

Pope is a poet whose very admirers belittle him. Mr. Saintsbury, for
instance, even in the moment of inciting us to read him, observes that
"it would be scarcely rash to say that there is not an original thought,
sentiment, image, or example of any of the other categories of poetic
substance to be found in the half a hundred thousand verses of Pope."
And he has still less to say in favour of Pope as a man. He denounces
him for "rascality" and goes on with characteristic irresponsibility to
suggest that "perhaps ... there is a natural connection between the two
kinds of this dexterity of fingering--that of the artist in words, and
that of the pickpocket or the forger." If Pope had been a contemporary,
Mr. Saintsbury, I imagine, would have stunned him with a huge mattock of
adjectives. As it is, he seems to be in two minds whether to bury or to
praise him. Luckily, he has tempered his moral sense with his sense of
humour, and so comes to the happy conclusion that as a matter of fact,
when we read or read about Pope, "some of the proofs which are most
damning morally, positively increase one's aesthetic delight."

One is interested in Pope's virtues as a poet and his vices as a man
almost equally. It is his virtues as a man and his vices as a poet that
are depressing. He is usually at his worst artistically when he is at
his best morally. He achieves wit through malice: he achieves only
rhetoric through virtue. It is not that one wishes he had been a bad son
or a Uriah Heep in his friendships. It is pleasant to remember the
pleasure he gave his mother by allowing her to copy out parts of his
translation of the _Iliad_, and one respects him for refusing a pension
of L300 a year out of the secret service money from his friend Craggs.
But one wishes that he had put neither his filial piety nor his
friendship into writing. Mr. Saintsbury, I see, admires "the masterly
and delightful craftsmanship in words" of the tribute to Craggs; but
then Mr. Saintsbury also admires the _Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady_--a
mere attitude in verse, as chill as a weeping angel in a graveyard.

Pope's attractiveness is less that of a real man than of an inhabitant
of Lilliput, where it is a matter of no importance whether or not one
lives in obedience to the Ten Commandments. We can regard him with
amusement as a liar, a forger, a glutton, and a slanderer of his kind.
If his letters are the dullest letters ever written by a wit, it is
because he reveals in them not his real vices but his imaginary virtues.
They only become interesting when we know the secret history of his life
and read them as the moralizings of a doll Pecksniff. Historians of
literature often assert--mistakenly, I think--that Pliny's letters are
dull, because they are merely the literary exercises of a man
over-conscious of his virtues. But Pliny's virtues, however tip-tilted,
were at least real. Pope's letters are the literary exercises of a man
platitudinizing about virtues he did not possess. They have an
impersonality, like that of the leading articles in _The Times_. They
have all the qualities of the essay except intimate confession. They are
irrelevant scrawls which might as readily have been addressed to one
correspondent as another. So much so is this, that when Pope published
them, he altered the names of the recipients of some of them so as to
make it appear that they were written to famous persons when, as a
matter of fact, they were written to private and little-known friends.

The story of the way in which he tampered with his letters and arranged
for their "unauthorized" publication by a pirate publisher is one of the
most amazing in the history of forgery. It was in reference to this that
Whitwell Elwin declared that Pope "displayed a complication of
imposture, degradation, and effrontery which can only be paralleled in
the lives of professional forgers and swindlers." When he published his
correspondence with Wycherley, his contemporaries were amazed that the
boyish Pope should have written with such an air of patronage to the
aged Wycherley and that Wycherley should have suffered it. We know, now,
however, that the correspondence is only in part genuine, and that Pope
used portions of his correspondence with Caryll and published them as
though they had been addressed to Wycherley. Wycherley had remonstrated
with Pope on the extravagant compliments he paid him: Pope had
remonstrated with Caryll on similar grounds. In the Wycherley
correspondence, Pope omits Wycherley's remonstrance to him and publishes
his own remonstrance to Caryll as a letter from himself to Wycherley.

From that time onwards Pope spared no effort in getting his
correspondence "surreptitiously" published. He engaged a go-between, a
disreputable actor disguised as a clergyman, to approach Curll, the
publisher, with an offer of a stolen collection of letters, and, when
the book was announced, he attacked Curll as a villain, and procured a
friend in the House of Lords to move a resolution that Curll should be
brought before the House on a charge of breach of privilege, one of the
letters (it was stated) having been written to Pope by a peer. Curll
took a number of copies of the book with him to the Lords, and it was
discovered that no such letter was included. But the advertisement was a
noble one. Unfortunately, even a man of genius could not devise
elaborate schemes of this kind without ultimately falling under
suspicion, and Curll wrote a narrative of the events which resulted in
seriously discrediting Pope.

Pope was surely one of the least enviable authors who ever lived. He had
fame and fortune and friends. But he had not the constitution to enjoy
his fortune, and in friendship he had not the gift of fidelity. He
secretly published his correspondence with Swift and then set up a
pretence that Swift had been the culprit. He earned from Bolingbroke in
the end a hatred that pursued him in the grave. He was always begging
Swift to go and live with him at Twickenham. But Swift found even a
short visit trying. "Two sick friends never did well together," he wrote
in 1727, and he has left us verses descriptive of the miseries of great
wits in each other's company:--

Pope has the talent well to speak,
But not to reach the ear;
His loudest voice is low and weak,
The Dean too deaf to hear.

Awhile they on each other look,
Then different studies choose;
The Dean sits plodding o'er a book,
Pope walks and courts the muse.

"Mr. Pope," he grumbled some years later, "can neither eat nor drink,
loves to be alone, and has always some poetical scheme in his head."
Swift, luckily, stayed in Dublin and remained Pope's friend. Lady Mary,
Wortley Montagu went to Twickenham and became Pope's enemy. The reason
seems to have been that he was more eager for an exchange of compliments
than for friendship. He affected the attitude of a man in love, when
Lady Mary saw in him only a monkey in love. He is even said to have
thrown his little makeshift of a body, in its canvas bodice and its
three pairs of stockings, at her feet, with the result that she burst
out laughing. Pope took his revenge in the _Epistle to Martha Blount_,
where, describing Lady Mary as Sappho, he declared of another lady that
her different aspects agreed as ill with each other--

As Sappho's diamonds with her dirty smock;
Or Sappho at her toilet's greasy task
With Sappho fragrant at an evening mask;
So morning insects, that in muck begun,
Shine, buzz, and fly-blow in the evening sun.

His relations with his contemporaries were too often begun in
compliments only to end in abuse of this kind. Even while he was on good
terms with them, he was frequently doing them ill turns. Thus, he
persuaded a publisher to get Dennis to write abusively of Addison's
_Cato_ in order that he might have an excuse in his turn for writing
abusively of Dennis, apparently vindicating Addison but secretly taking
a revenge of his own. Addison was more embarrassed than pleased by so
savage a defence, and hastened to assure Dennis that he had had nothing
to do with it. Addison also gave offence to Pope by his too judicious
praise of _The Rape of the Lock_ and the translation of the _Iliad_.
Thus began the maniacal suspicion of Addison, which was expressed with
the genius of venom in the _Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot._

There was never a poet whose finest work needs such a running commentary
of discredit as Pope's. He may be said, indeed, to be the only great
poet in reading whom the commentary is as necessary as the text. One can
enjoy Shakespeare or Shelley without a note: one is inclined even to
resent the intrusion of the commentator into the upper regions of
poetry. But Pope's verse is a guide to his age and the incidents of his
waspish existence, lacking a key to which one misses three-fourths of
the entertainment. The _Danciad_ without footnotes is one of the
obscurest poems in existence: with footnotes it becomes a perfect epic
of literary entomology. And it is the same with at least half of his
work. Thus, in the _Imitations of Horace_, a reference to Russell tells
us little till we read in a delightful footnote:

There was a Lord Russell who, by living too luxuriously, had quite
spoiled his constitution. He did not love sport, but used to go out
with his dogs every day only to hunt for an appetite. If he felt
anything of that, he would cry out, "Oh, I have found it!" turn
short round and ride home again, though they were in the midst of
the finest chase. It was this lord who, when he met a beggar, and
was entreated by him to give him something because he was almost
famished with hunger, called him a "happy dog."

There may have been a case for neglecting Pope before Mr. Elwin and Mr.
Courthope edited and annotated him--though he had been edited well
before--but their monumental edition has made him of all English poets
one of the most incessantly entertaining.

Pope, however, is a charmer in himself. His venom has graces. He is a
stinging insect, but of how brilliant a hue! There are few satires in
literature richer in the daintiness of malice than the _Epistle to
Martha Blount_ and the _Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot_. The "characters" of
women in the former are among the most precious of those railleries of
sex in which mankind has always loved to indulge. The summing-up of the
perfect woman:

And mistress of herself, though china fall,

is itself perfect in its wit. And the fickle lady, Narcissa, is a
portrait in porcelain:

Narcissa's nature, tolerably mild,
To make a wash, would hardly stew a child;
Has even been proved to grant a lover's prayer.
And paid a tradesman once, to make him stare;...
Now deep in Taylor and the Book of Martyrs,
Now drinking citron with his Grace and Chartres;
Now conscience chills her and now passion burns;
And atheism and religion take their turns;
A very heathen in the carnal part,
Yet still a sad, good Christian at the heart.

The study of Chloe, who "wants a heart," is equally delicate and witty:

Virtue she finds too painful an endeavour,
Content to dwell in decencies for ever--
So very reasonable, so unmoved,
As never yet to love, or to be loved.
She, while her lover pants upon her breast,
Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
And when she sees her friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a chintz exceeds mohair!...
Would Chloe know if you're alive or dead?
She bids her footman put it in her head.
Chloe is prudent--would you too be wise?
Then never break your heart when Chloe dies.

The _Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot_ is still more dazzling. The venom is
passionate without ever ceasing to be witty. Pope has composed a
masterpiece of his vanities and hatreds. The characterizations of
Addison as Atticus, and of Lord Hervey as Sporus:

Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk--

Sporus, "the bug with gilded wings"--are portraits one may almost call
beautiful in their bitter phrasing. There is nothing make-believe here
as there is in the virtue of the letters. This is Pope's confession, the
image of his soul. Elsewhere in Pope the accomplishment is too often
rhetorical, though _The Rape of the Lock_ is as delicate in artifice as
a French fairy-tale, the _Dunciad_ an amusing assault of a major
Lilliputian on minor Lilliputians, and the _Essay on Criticism_--what a
regiment of witty lines to be written by a youth of twenty or
twenty-one!--much nearer being a great essay in verse than is generally
admitted nowadays. As for the _Essay on Man_, one can read! it more than
once only out of a sense of duty. Pope has nothing to tell us that we
want to know about man except in so far as he dislikes him. We praise
him as the poet who makes remarks--as the poet, one might almost say,
who makes faces. It is when he sits in the scorner's chair, whether in
good humour or in bad, that he is the little lord of versifiers.

XI

JAMES ELROY FLECKER

James Elroy Flecker died in January 1915, having added at least one poem
to the perfect anthology of English verse. Probably his work contains a
good deal that is permanent besides this. But one is confident at least
of the permanence of _The Old Ships_. Readers coming a thousand years
hence upon the beauty, the romance and the colour of this poem will turn
eagerly, one imagines, in search of other work from the same pen. This
was the flower of the poet's genius. It was the exultant and original
speech of one who was in a great measure the seer of other men's
visions. Flecker was much given to the translation of other poets, and
he did not stop at translating their words. He translated their
imagination also into careful verse. He was one of those poets whose
genius is founded in the love of literature more than in the love of
life. He seems less an interpreter of the earth than one who sought
after a fantastic world which had been created by Swinburne and the
Parnassians and the old painters and the tellers of the _Arabian
Nights_.

"He began," Mr. J.C. Squire has said, "by being more interested in his
art than in himself." And all but a score or so of his poems suggest
that this was his way to the last. He was one of those for whom the
visible world exists. But it existed for him less in nature than in art.
He does not give one the impression of a poet who observed minutely and
delightedly as Mr. W.H. Davies observes. His was a painted world
inhabited by a number of chosen and exquisite images. He found the real
world by comparison disappointing. "He confessed," we are told, "that he
had not greatly liked the East--always excepting, of course, Greece."
This was almost a necessity of his genius; and it is interesting to see
how in some of his later work his imagination is feeling its way back
from the world of illusion to the world of real things--from Bagdad and
Babylon to England. His poetry does not as a rule touch the heart; but
in _Oak and Olive_ and _Brumana_ his spectatorial sensuousness at last
breaks down and the cry of the exile moves us as in an intimate letter
from a friend since dead. Those are not mere rhetorical reproaches to
the "traitor pines" which

sang what life has found
The falsest of fair tales;

which had murmured of--

older seas
That beat on vaster sands,

and of--

lands
Where blaze the unimaginable flowers.

It was as though disillusion had given an artist a soul. And when the
war came it found him, as he lay dying of consumption in Switzerland, a
poet not merely of manly but of martial utterance. _The Burial in
England_ is perhaps too much of an _ad hoc_ call to be great poetry. But
it has many noble and beautiful lines and is certainly of a different
world from his mediocre version of _God Save the King_.

At the same time, I do not wish to suggest that his poetry of illusion
is the less important part of his work. The perfection of his genius is
to be sought, as a matter of fact, in his romantic eastern work, such as
_The Ballad of Iskander, A Miracle of Bethlehem, Gates of Damascus_,
and _Bryan of Brittany_. The false, fair tale of the East had, as it
were, released; him from mere flirtation with the senses into the world
of the imagination. Of human passions he sang little. He wrote oftener
of amorousness than of love, as in _The Ballad of the Student of the
South._ His passion for fairy tales, his amorousness of the East,
stirred his imagination from idleness among superficial fancies into a
brilliant ardour. It was these things that roused him to a nice
extravagance with those favourite words and colours and images upon
which Mr. Squire comments:

There are words, just as there are images, which he was especially
fond of using. There are colours and metals, blue and red, silver
and gold, which are present everywhere in his work; the progresses
of the sun (he was always a poet of the sunlight rather than a poet
of the moonlight) were a continual fascination to him; the images
of Fire, of a ship, and of an old white-bearded man recur
frequently in his poems.

Mr. Squire contends justly enough that in spite of this Flecker is
anything but a monotonous poet. But the image of a ship was almost an
obsession with him. It was his favourite toy. Often it is a silver ship.
In the blind man's vision in the time of Christ even the Empires of the
future are seen sailing like ships. The keeper of the West Gate of
Damascus sings of the sea beyond the sea:

when no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.

Those lines are worth noting for the way in which they suggest' how much
in the nature of toys were the images with which Flecker's imagination
was haunted. His world was a world of nursery ships and nursery
caravans.

"Haunted" is, perhaps, an exaggeration. His attitude is too impassive
for that. He works with the deliberateness of a prose-writer. He is
occasionally even prosaic in the bad sense, as when he uses: the word
"meticulously," or makes his lost mariners say:

How striking like that boat were we
In the days, sweet days, when we put to sea.

That he was a poet of the fancy rather than of the imagination also
tended to keep his poetry near the ground. His love of the ballad-design
and "the good coloured things of Earth" was tempered by a kind of
infidel humour in his use of them. His ballads are the ballads of a
brilliant dilettante, not of a man who is expressing his whole heart and
soul and faith, as the old ballad-writers were. In the result he walked
a golden pavement rather than mounted into the golden air. He was an
artist in ornament, in decoration. Like the Queen in the _Queen's Song_,
he would immortalize the ornament at the cost of slaying the soul.

Of all recent poets of his kind, Flecker is the most successful. The
classical tradition of poetry has been mocked and mutilated by many of
the noisy young in the last few years. Flecker was a poet who preserved
the ancient balance in days in which want of balance was looked on as a
sign of genius. That he was what is called a minor poet cannot be
denied, but he was the most beautiful of recent minor poets. His book,
indeed, is a treasury of beauty rare in these days. Of that beauty, _The
Old Ships_ is, as I have said, the splendid example. And, as it is
foolish to offer anything except a poet's best as a specimen of his
work, one has no alternative but to turn again to those
gorgeously-coloured verses which begin:

I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep
Beyond the village which men still call Tyre,
With leaden age o'ercargoed, dipping deep
For Famagusta and the hidden sun
That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire;
And all those ships were certainly so old--
Who knows how oft with squat and noisy gun,
Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
The pirate Genoese
Hell-raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit and corpses up the hold.
But now through friendly seas they softly run,
Painted the mid-sea blue or shore-sea green,
Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold.

That is the summary and the summit of Flecker's genius. But the rest of
his verse, too, is the work of a true and delightful poet, a faithful
priest of literature, an honest craftsman with words.

XII

TURGENEV

Mr. Edward Garnett has recently collected his prefaces to the novels and
stories of Turgenev, and refashioned them into a book in praise of the
genius of the most charming of Russian authors. I am afraid the word
"charming" has lost so much of its stamp and brightness with use as to
have become almost meaningless. But we apply it to Turgenev in its
fullest sense. We call him charming as Pater called Athens charming. He
is one of those authors whose books we love because they reveal a
personality sensitive, affectionate, pitiful. There are some persons
who, when they come into a room, immediately make us feel happier.
Turgenev seems to "come into the room" in his books with just such a
welcome presence. That is why I wish Mr. Garnett had made his book a
biographical, as well as a critical, study.

He quotes Turgenev as saying: "All my life is in my books." Still, there
are a great many facts recorded about him in the letters and
reminiscences of those who knew him (and he was known in half the
countries of Europe), out of which we can construct a portrait. One
finds in the _Life of Sir Charles Dilke_, for instance, that Dilke
considered Turgenev "in the front rank" as a conversationalist. This
opinion interested one all the more because one had come to think of
Turgenev as something of a shy giant. I remember, too, reading in some
French book a description of Turgenev as a strange figure in the
literary circles of Paris--a large figure with a curious chastity of
mind who seemed bewildered by some of the barbarous jests of civilized
men of genius.

There are, indeed, as I have said, plenty of suggestions for a portrait
of Turgenev, quite apart from his novels. Mr. Garnett refers to some of
them in two excellent biographical chapters. He reminds us, for example,
of the immense generosity of Turgenev to his contemporaries and rivals,
as when he introduced the work of Tolstoy to a French editor. "Listen,"
said Turgenev. "Here is 'copy' for your paper of an absolutely
first-rate kind. This means that I am not its author. The master--for he
is a _real_ master--is almost unknown in France; but I assure you, on my
soul and conscience, that I do not consider myself worthy to unloose the
latchet of his shoes." The letter he addressed to Tolstoy from his
death-bed, urging him to return from propaganda to literature, is
famous, but it is a thing to which one always returns fondly as an
example of the noble disinterestedness of a great man of letters. "I
cannot recover," Turgenev wrote:--

That is out of the question. I am writing to you specially to say
how glad I am to be your contemporary, and to express my last and
sincere request. My friend, return to literary activity! That gift
came to you whence comes all the rest. Ah, how happy I should be if
I could think my request would have an effect on you!... I can
neither walk, nor eat, nor sleep. It is wearisome even to repeat it
all! My friend--great writer of our Russian land, listen to my
request!... I can write no more; I am tired.

One sometimes wonders how Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could ever have
quarrelled with a friend of so beautiful a character as Turgenev.
Perhaps it was that there was something barbarous and brutal in each of
them that was intolerant of his almost feminine refinement. They were
both men of action in literature, militant, and by nature propagandist.
And probably Turgenev was as impatient with the faults of their strength
as they were with the faults of his weakness. He was a man whom it was
possible to disgust. Though he was Zola's friend, he complained that
_L'Assommoir_ left a bad taste in the mouth. Similarly, he discovered
something almost Sadistic in the manner in which Dostoevsky let his
imagination dwell on scenes of cruelty and horror. And he was as
strongly repelled by Dostoevsky's shrieking Pan-Slavism as by his
sensationalism among horrors. One can guess exactly the frame of mind he
was in when, in the course of an argument with Dostoevsky, he said: "You
see, I consider myself a German." This has been quoted against Turgenev
as though he meant it literally, and as though it were a confession of
denationalization. His words were more subtle than that in their irony.
What they meant was simply: "If to be a Russian is to be a bigot, like
most of you Pan-Slav enthusiasts, then I am no Russian, but a European."
Has he not put the whole gospel of Nationalism in half a dozen sentences
in _Rudin?_ He refused, however, to adopt along with his Nationalism the
narrowness with which it has been too often associated.

This refusal was what destroyed his popularity in Russia, in his
lifetime. It is because of this refusal that he has been pursued with
belittlement by one Russian writer after another since his death. He had
that sense of truth which always upsets the orthodox. This sense of
truth applied to the portraiture of his contemporaries was felt like an
insult in those circles of mixed idealism and make-believe, the circles
of the political partisans. A great artist may be a member--and an
enthusiastic member--of a political party, but in his art he cannot
become a political partisan without ceasing to be an artist. In his
novels, Turgenev regarded it as his life-work to portray Russia
truthfully, not to paint and powder and "prettify" it for show purposes,
and the result was an outburst of fury on the part of those who were
asked to look at themselves as real people instead of as the
master-pieces of a professional flatterer. When _Fathers and Children_
was published in 1862, the only people who were pleased were the enemies
of everything in which Turgenev believed. "I received congratulations,"
he wrote,

almost caresses, from people of the opposite camp, from enemies.
This confused me, wounded me; but my conscience did not reproach
me. I knew very well I had carried out honestly the type I had
sketched, carried it out not only without prejudice, but positively
with sympathy.

This is bound to be the fate of every artist who takes his political
party or his church, or any other propagandist group to which he
belongs, as his subject. He is a painter, not a vindicator, and he is
compelled to exhibit numerous crooked features and faults in such a way
as to wound the vanity of his friends and delight the malice of his
enemies. Artistic truth is as different from propagandist truth as
daylight from limelight, and the artist will always be hated by the
propagandist as worse than an enemy--a treacherous friend. Turgenev
deliberately accepted as his life-work a course which could only lead to
the miseries of being misunderstood. When one thinks of the long years
of denunciation and hatred he endured for the sake of his art, one
cannot but regard him as one of the heroic figures of the nineteenth
century. "He has," Mr. Garnett tells us, "been accused of timidity and
cowardice by uncompromising Radicals and Revolutionaries.... In an
access of self-reproach he once declared that his character was
comprised in one word--'poltroon!'" He showed neither timidity nor
cowardice, however, in his devotion to truth. His first and last advice
to young writers, Mr. Garnett declares, was: "You need truth,
remorseless truth, as regards your own sensations." And if Turgenev was
remorseless in nothing else, he was remorseless in this--truth as
regards both his own sensations and the sensations of his
contemporaries. He seems, if we may judge from a sentence he wrote about
_Fathers and Children_, to have regarded himself almost as the first
realist. "It was a new method," he said, "as well as a new type I
introduced--that of Realizing instead of Idealizing." His claim has, at
least, this truth in it: he was the first artist to apply the realistic
method to a world seething with ideas and with political and
philosophical unrest. His adoption of the realistic method, however, was
the result of necessity no less than of choice. He "simply did not know
how to work otherwise," as he said. He had not the sort of imagination
that can invent men and women easily. He had always to draw from the
life. "I ought to confess," he once wrote, "that I never attempted to
create a type without having, not an idea, but a living person, in whom
the various elements were harmonized together, to work from. I have
always needed some groundwork on which I could tread firmly."

When one has praised Turgenev, however, for the beauty of his character
and the beautiful truth of his art, one remembers that he, too, was
human and therefore less than perfect. His chief failing was, perhaps,
that of all the great artists, he was the most lacking in exuberance.
That is why he began to be scorned in a world which rated exuberance
higher than beauty or love or pity. The world before the war was afraid
above all things of losing vitality, and so it turned to contortionists
of genius such as Dostoevsky, or lesser contortionists, like some of the
Futurists, for fear restfulness should lead to death. It would be
foolish, I know, to pretend to sum up Dostoevsky as a contortionist; but
he has that element in him. Mr. Conrad suggests a certain vice of
misshapenness in Dostoevsky when he praises the characters of Turgenev
in comparison with his. "All his creations, fortunate or unfortunate,
oppressed and oppressors," he says in his fine tribute to Turgenev in
Mr. Garnett's book, "are human beings, not strange beasts in a
menagerie, or damned souls knocking themselves about in the stuffy
darkness of mystical contradictions." That is well said. On the other
hand, it is only right to remember that, if Turgenev's characters are
human beings, they (at least the male characters) have a way of being
curiously ineffectual human beings. He understood the Hamlet in man
almost too well. From Rudin to the young revolutionist in _Virgin Soil_,
who makes such a mess of his propaganda among the peasantry, how many of
his characters are as remarkable for their weakness as their unsuccess!
Turgenev was probably conscious of this pessimism of imagination in
regard to his fellow man--at least, his Russian fellow man. In _On the
Eve_, when he wished to create a central character that would act as an
appeal to his countrymen to "conquer their sluggishness, their weakness
and apathy" (as Mr. Garnett puts it), he had to choose a Bulgarian, not
a Russian, for his hero. Mr. Garnett holds that the characterization of
Insarov, the Bulgarian, in _On the Eve_, is a failure, and puts this
down to the fact that Turgenev drew him, not from life, but from
hearsay. I think Mr. Garnett is wrong. I have known the counterpart of
Insarov among the members of at least one subject nation, and the
portrait seems to me to be essentially true and alive. Luckily, if
Turgenev could not put his trust in Russian men, he believed with all
his heart in the courage and goodness of Russian women. He was one of
the first great novelists to endow his women with independence of soul.
With the majority of novelists, women are sexual or sentimental
accidents. With Turgenev, women are equal human beings--saviours of men
and saviours of the world. _Virgin Soil_ becomes a book of hope instead
of despair as the triumphant figure of Marianna, the young girl of the
Revolution, conquers the imagination. Turgenev, as a creator of noble
women, ranks with Browning and Meredith. His realism was not, in the
last analysis, a realism of disparagement, but a realism of affection.
His farewell words, Mr. Garnett tells us, were: "Live and love others as
I have always loved them."

XIII

THE MADNESS OF STRINDBERG

The mirror that Strindberg held up to Nature was a cracked one. It was
cracked in a double sense--it was crazy. It gave back broken images of a
world which it made look like the chaos of a lunatic dream. Miss
Lind-af-Hageby, in her popular biography of Strindberg, is too intent
upon saying what can be said in his defence to make a serious attempt to
analyse the secret of genius which is implicit in those "115 plays,
novels, collections of stories, essays, and poems" which will be
gathered into the complete edition of his works shortly to be published
in Sweden. The biography will supply the need of that part of the public
which has no time to read Strindberg, but has plenty of time to read
about him. It will give them a capably potted Strindberg, and will tell
them quietly and briefly much that he himself has told violently and at
length in _The Son of a Servant, The Confession of a Fool_, and, indeed,
in nearly everything he wrote. On the other hand, Miss Lind's book has
little value as an interpretation. She does not do much to clear up the
reasons which have made the writings of this mad Swede matter of
interest in every civilized country in the world. She does, indeed,
quote the remark of Gorki, who, at the time of Strindberg's death,
compared him to the ancient Danubian hero, Danko, "who, in order to help
humanity out of the darkness of problems, tore his heart out of his
breast, lit it, and holding it high, led the way." "Strindberg," Miss
Lind declares, "patiently burnt his heart for the illumination of the
people, and on the day when his body was laid low in the soil, the
flame of his self-immolation was seen, pure and inextinguishable." This
will not do. "Patiently" is impossible; so is "pure and
inextinguishable." Strindberg was at once a man of genius (and therefore
noble) and a creature of doom (and therefore to be pitied). But to sum
him up as a spontaneous martyr in the greatest of great causes is to do
injustice to language and to the lives of the saints and heroes. He was
a martyr, of course, in the sense in which we call a man a martyr to
toothache. He suffered; but most of his sufferings were due, not to
tenderness of soul, but to tenderness of nerves.

Other artists lay hold upon life through an exceptional sensibility.
Strindberg laid hold on life through an exceptional excitability--even
an exceptional irritability. In his plays, novels, and essays alike, he
is a specialist in the jars of existence. He magnified even the smallest
worries until they assumed mountainous proportions. He was the kind of
man who, if something went wrong with the kitchen boiler, felt that the
Devil and all his angels had been loosed upon him, as upon the righteous
Job, with at least the connivance of Heaven. He seems to have regarded
the unsatisfactoriness of a servant as a scarcely less tremendous evil
than the infidelity of a wife. If you wish to see into twhat follies of
exaggeration Strindberg's want of the sense of proportion led him, you
cannot do better than turn to those pages in _Zones of the Spirit_ (as
the English translation of his _Blue Book_ is called), in which he tells
us about his domestic troubles at the time of the rehearsals of _The
Dream Play._

My servant left me; my domestic arrangements were upset; within
forty days I had six changes of servants--one worse than the other.
At last I had to serve myself, lay the table, and light the stove.
I ate black broken victuals out of a basket. In short, I had to
taste the whole bitterness of life without knowing why.

Much as one may sympathize with a victim of the servant difficulty, one
cannot but regard the last sentence as, in the vulgar phrase, rather a
tall order. But it becomes taller still before Strindberg has done with
it.

Then came the dress-rehearsal of _The Dream Play._ This drama I
wrote seven years ago, after a period of forty days' suffering
which were among the worst which I had ever undergone. And now
again exactly forty days of fasting and pain had passed. There
seemed, therefore, to be a secret legislature which promulgates
clearly defined sentences. I thought of the forty days of the
Flood, the forty years of wandering in the desert, the forty days'
fast kept by Moses, Elijah, and Christ.

There you have Strindberg's secret. His work is, for the most part,
simply the dramatization of the conflict between man and the irritations
of life. The chief of these is, of course, woman. But the lesser
irritations never disappear from sight for long. His obsession by them
is very noticeable in _The Dream Play_ itself--in that scene, for
instance, in which the Lawyer and the daughter of Indra having married,
the Lawyer begins to complain of the untidiness of their home, and the
Daughter to complain of the dirt:

THE DAUGHTER. This is worse than I dreamed!

THE LAWYER. We are not the worst off by far. There is still food in
the pot.

THE DAUGHTER. But what sort of food?

THE LAWYER. Cabbage is cheap, nourishing, and good to eat.

THE DAUGHTER. For those who like cabbage--to me it is repulsive.

THE LAWYER. Why didn't you say so?

THE DAUGHTER. Because I loved you. I wanted to sacrifice my own
taste.

THE LAWYER. Then I must sacrifice my taste for cabbage to you--for
sacrifices must be mutual.

THE DAUGHTER. What are we to eat then? Fish? But you hate fish?

THE LAWYER. And it is expensive.

THE DAUGHTER. This is worse than I thought it!

THE LAWYER _(kindly)._ Yes, you see how hard it is.

And the symbolic representation of married life in terms of fish and
cabbage is taken up again a little later:--

THE DAUGHTER. I fear I shall begin to hate you after this!

THE LAWYER. Woe to us, then! But let us forestall hatred. I promise
never again to speak of any untidiness--although it is torture to
me!

THE DAUGHTER. And I shall eat cabbage, though it means agony to me.

THE LAWYER. A life of common suffering, then! One's pleasure the
other one's pain.

One feels that, however true to nature the drift of this may be, it is
little more than bacilli of truth seen as immense through a microscope.
The agonies and tortures arising from eating cabbage and such things
may, no doubt, have tragic consequences enough, but somehow the men whom
these things put on the rack refuse to come to life in the imagination
on the same tragic plane where Prometheus lies on his crag and Oedipus
strikes out his eyes that they may no longer look upon his shame.
Strindberg is too anxious to make tragedy out of discomforts instead of
out of sorrows. When he is denouncing woman as a creature who loves
above all things to deceive her husband, his supreme way of expressing
his abhorrence is to declare: "If she can trick him into eating
horse-flesh without noticing it, she is happy." Here, and in a score of
similar passages, we can see how physical were the demons that endlessly
consumed Strindberg's peace of mind.

His attitude to women, as we find it expressed in _The Confession of a
Fool, The Dance of Death_, and all through his work, is that of a man
overwhelmed with the physical. He raves now with lust, now with
disgust--two aspects of the same mood. He turns from love to hatred with
a change of front as swift as a drunkard's. He is the Mad Mullah of all
the sex-antagonism that has ever troubled men since they began to think
of woman as a temptress. He was the most enthusiastic modern exponent of
the point-of-view of that Adam who explained: "The woman tempted me."
Strindberg deliberately wrote those words on his banner and held them
aloft to his generation as the summary of an eternal gospel. Miss
Lind-af-Hageby tells us that, at one period of his life, he was
sufficiently free from the physical obsessions of sex to preach the
equality of men and women and even to herald the coming of woman
suffrage. But his abiding view of woman was that of the plain man of the
nineteenth century. He must either be praising her as a ministering
angel or denouncing her as a ministering devil--preferably the latter.
It would be nonsense, however, to pretend that Strindberg did not see at
least one class of women clearly and truly. The accuracy with which he
portrays woman the parasite, the man-eater, the siren, is quite
terrible. No writer of his day was so shudderingly conscious of every
gesture, movement, and intonation with which the spider-woman sets out
to lure the mate she is going to devour. It may be that he prophesies
against the sins of women rather than subtly analyses and describes them
as a better artist would have done. _The Confessions of a Fool_ is less
a revelation of the soul of his first wife than an attack on her. But we
must, in fairness to Strindberg, remember that in his violences against
women he merely gives us a new rendering of an indictment that goes back
to the beginning of history. The world to him was a long lane of
oglings, down which man must fly in terror with his eyes shut and his
ears covered. His foolishness as a prophet consists, not in his
suspicions of woman regarded as an animal, but in his frothing at the
mouth at the idea that she should claim to be treated as something
higher than an animal. None the less, he denied to the end that he was a
woman-hater. His denial, however, was grimly unflattering:--

I have said that the child is a little criminal, incapable of
self-guidance, but I love children all the same. I have said that
woman is--what she is, but I have always loved some woman, and been
a father. Whoever, therefore, calls me a woman-hater is a
blockhead, a liar, or a noodle. Or all three together.

Sex, of course, was the greatest cross Strindberg had to bear. But there
were hundreds of other little changing crosses, from persecution mania
to poverty, which supplanted each other from day to day on his back. He
suffered continually both from the way he was made and from the way the
world was made. His novels and plays are a literature of suffering. He
reveals himself there as a man pursued by furies, a man without rest. He
flies to a thousand distractions and hiding-places--drink and lust and
piano-playing, Chinese and chemistry, painting and acting, alchemy and
poison, and religion. Some of these, no doubt, he honestly turns to for
a living. But in his rush from one thing to another he shows the
restlessness of a man goaded to madness. Not that his life is to be
regarded as entirely miserable. He obviously gets a good deal of
pleasure even out of his acutest pain. "I find the joy of life in its
violent and cruel struggles," he tells us in the preface to _Miss
Julia_, "and my pleasure lies in knowing something and learning
something." He is always consumed with the greed of knowledge--a phase
of his greed of domination. It is this that enables him to turn his
inferno into a purgatory.

In his later period, indeed, he is optimist enough to believe that the
sufferings of life cleanse and ennoble. By tortuous ways of sin he at
last achieves the simple faith of a Christian. He originally revolted
from this faith more through irritation than from principle. One feels
that, with happier nerves and a happier environment, he might easily
have passed his boyhood as the model pupil in the Sunday-school. It is
significant that we find him in _The Confession of a Fool_ reciting
Longfellow's _Excelsior_ to the first and worst of his wives. Strindberg
may have been possessed of a devil; he undoubtedly liked to play the
part of a devil; but at heart he was constantly returning to the
Longfellow sentiment, though, of course, his hungry intellectual
curiosity was something that Longfellow never knew. In his volume of
fables, _In Midsummer Days_, we see how essentially good and simple were
his ideas when he could rid himself of sex mania and persecution mania.
Probably his love of children always kept him more or less in chains to
virtue. Ultimately he yielded himself a victim, not to the furies, but
to the still more remorseless pursuit of the Hound of Heaven. On his
death-bed, Miss Lind tells us, he held up the Bible and said: "This
alone is right." Through his works, however, he serves virtue best, not
by directly praising it, but by his eagerly earnest account of the
madness of the seven deadly sins, as well as of the seventy-seven deadly
irritations. He has not the originality of fancy or imagination to paint
virtue well. His genius was the genius of frank and destructive
criticism. His work is a jumble of ideas and an autobiography of raw
nerves rather than a revelation of the emotions of men and women. His
great claim on our attention, however, is that his autobiography is true
as far as the power of truth was in him. His pilgrim's progress through
madness to salvation is neither a pretty nor a sensational lie. It is a
genuine document. That is why, badly constructed though his plays and
novels are, some of them have a fair chance of being read a hundred
years hence. As a writer of personal literature, he was one of the bold
and original men of his time.

XIV

"THE PRINCE OF FRENCH POETS"

It is difficult nowadays to conceive that, within half a century of his
death, Ronsard's fame suffered so dark an eclipse that no new edition of
his works was called for between 1629 and 1857. When he died, he was, as
M. Jusserand reminds us, the most illustrious man of letters in Europe.
He seemed, too, to have all those gifts of charm--charm of mood and
music--which make immortality certain. And yet, in the rule-of-thumb
ages that were to follow, he sank into such disesteem in his own country
that Boileau had not a good word for him, and Voltaire roundly said of
him that he "spoiled the language." Later, we have Arnauld asserting
that France had only done herself dishonour by her enthusiasm for "the
wretched poetry of Ronsard." Fenelon, as M. Jusserand tells us,
discusses Ronsard as a linguist, and ignores him as a poet.

It was the romantic; revival of the nineteenth century that placed
Ronsard on a throne again. Even to-day, however, there are pessimistic
Frenchmen who doubt whether their country has ever produced a great
poet. Mr. Bennet has told us of one who, on being asked who was the
greatest of French poets, replied: "Victor Hugo, helas!" And in the days
when Hugo was still but a youth the doubt must have been still more
painful. So keenly was the want of a national poet felt that, if one
could not have been discovered, the French would have had to invent him.
It was necessary for the enthusiastic young romanticists to possess a
great indigenous figure to stand beside those imported idols
--Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, and Dante. Sainte-Beuve, who brought out a

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