editions, all of which are confirmed as Public Domain in the US unless a copyright notice is included. Thus, we usually do not keep eBooks in compliance with any particular paper edition.
The “legal small print” and other information about this book may now be found at the end of this file. Please read this important information, as it gives you specific rights and tells you about restrictions in how the file may be used.
This etext was created by Don Lainson (email@example.com) & Charles Aldarondo (Aldarondo@yahoo.com)
AND OTHER ESSAYS
By ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
I love people that leave some traces of their journey behind them, and I have strength enough to advise you to do so while you can. –Thomas Gray.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. Literature and Life
3. The New Poets
4. Walt Whitman
7. The House of Pengersick
10. The Visitant
11. That Other One
14. Herb Moly and Heartsease
15. Behold, This Dreamer Cometh
I desire to recourd my obligations to the Editor of the Century Magazine, and to the Editor of the Cornhill Magazine, for their permission to include in this volume certain essays which appeared first in their pages.
A. C. B.
I walked to-day down by the river side. The Cam is a stream much slighted by the lover of wild and romantic scenery; and its chief merit, in the eyes of our boys, is that it approaches more nearly to a canal in its straightness and the deliberation of its slow lapse than many more famous floods–and is therefore more adapted for the maneuvres of eight-oared boats! But it is a beautiful place, I am sure; and my ghost will certainly walk there, “if our loves remain,” as Browning says, both for the sake of old memories and for the love of its own sweet peaceableness. I passed out of the town, out of the straggling suburbs, away from tall, puffing chimneys, and under the clanking railway bridge; and then at once the scene opens, wide pasture-lands on either side, and rows of old willows, the gnarled trunks holding up their clustered rods. There on the other side of the stream rises the charming village of Fen Ditton, perched on a low ridge near the water, with church and vicarage and irregular street, and the little red-gabled Hall looking over its barns and stacks. More and more willows, and then, lying back, an old grange, called Poplar Hall, among high-standing trees; and then a little weir, where the falling water makes a pleasant sound, and a black-timbered lock, with another old house near by, a secluded retreat for the bishops of Ely in medieval times. The bishop came thither by boat, no doubt, and abode there for a few quiet weeks, when the sun lay hot over the plain; and a little farther down is a tiny village called Horningsea, with a battlemented church among orchards and thatched houses, with its own disused wharf–a place which gives me the sense of a bygone age as much as any hamlet I know. Then presently the interminable fen stretches for miles and miles in every direction; you can see, from the high green flood-banks of the river, the endless lines of watercourses and far-off clumps of trees leagues away, and perhaps the great tower of Ely, blue on the horizon, with the vast spacious sky over-arching all. If that is not a beautiful place in its width, its greenness, its unbroken silence, I do not know what beauty is! Nothing that historians call an event has ever happened there. It is a place that has just drifted out of the old lagoon life of the past, the life of reed-beds and low-lying islands, of marsh-fowl and fishes, into a hardly less peaceful life of cornfield and pasture. No one goes there except on country business, no armies ever marshalled or fought there. The sun goes down in flame on the far horizon; the wild duck fly over and settle in the pools, the flowers rise to life year by year on the edges of slow watercourses; the calm mystery of it can be seen and remembered; but it can hardly be told in words.
Now side by side with that I will set another picture of a different kind.
A week or two ago I was travelling up North. The stations we passed through were many of them full of troops, the trains were crammed with soldiers, and very healthy and happy they looked. I was struck by their friendliness and kindness; they were civil and modest; they did not behave as if they were in possession of the line, as actually I suppose they were, but as if they were ordinary travellers, and anxious not to incommode other people. I saw soldiers doing kind little offices, helping an old frail woman carefully out of the train and handing out her baggage, giving chocolates to children, interesting themselves in their fellow- travellers. At one place I saw a proud and anxious father, himself an old soldier, I think, seeing off a jolly young subaltern to the front, with hardly suppressed tears; the young man was full of excitement and delight, but did his best to cheer up the spirits of “Daddy,” as he fondly called him. I felt very proud of our soldiers, their simplicity and kindness and real goodness. I was glad to belong to the nation which had bred them, and half forgot the grim business on which they were bent. We stopped at a junction. And here I caught sight of a strange little group. There was a young man, an officer, who had evidently been wounded; one of his legs was encased in a surgical contrivance, and he had a bandage round his head. He sat on a bench between two stalwart and cheerful-looking soldiers, who had their arms round him, and were each holding one of his hands. I could not see the officer clearly at first, as a third soldier was standing close in front of him and speaking encouragingly to him, while at the same time he sheltered him from the crowd. But he moved away, and at the same moment the young officer lifted his head, displaying a drawn and sunken face, a brow compressed with pain, and looked wildly and in a terrified way round him, with large melancholy eyes. Then he began to beat his foot on the ground, and struggled to extricate himself from his companions; and then he buried his head in his chest and sank down in an attitude of angry despair. It was a sight that I cannot forget.
Just before the train went off an officer got into my carriage, and as we started, said to me, “That’s a sad business there–it is a young officer who was taken prisoner by the Germans–one of our best men; he escaped, and after enduring awful hardships he got into our lines, was wounded, and sent home to hospital; but the shock and the anxiety preyed on his mind, and he has become, they fear, hopelessly insane–he is being sent to a sanatorium, but I fear there is very little chance of his recovery; he is wounded in the head as well as the foot. He is a wealthy man, devoted to soldiering, and he is just engaged to a charming girl . . .”
Now there is a hard and bitter fact of life, very different from the story of the fenland. I am not going to argue about it or discuss it, because to trace the threads of it back into life entangles one at once helplessly in a dreadful series of problems: namely, how it comes to pass that a calamity, grievous and intolerable beyond all calamities in its pain and sorrow and waste, a strife abhorred and dreaded by all who are concerned in it, fruitful in every shade of misery and wretchedness, should yet have come about so inevitably and relentlessly. No one claims to have desired war; all alike plead that it is in self-defence that they are fighting, and maintain that they have laboured incessantly for peace. Yet the great mills of fate are turning, and grinding out death and shame and loss. Everyone sickens for peace, and yet any proposal of peace is drowned in cries of bitterness and rage. The wisest spend their time in pointing out the blessings which the conflict brings. The mother hears that the son she parted with in strength and courage is mouldering in an unknown grave, and chokes her tears down. The fruit of years of labour is consumed, lands are laid desolate, the weak and innocent are wronged; yet the great war-engine goes thundering and smashing on, leaving hatred and horror behind it; and all the while men pray to a God of mercy and loving-kindness and entreat His blessing on the work they are doing.
Is there then, if we are confronted with such problems as these, anything to do except to stay prostrate, like Job, in darkness and despair, just enduring the stroke of sorrow? Is there any excuse for bringing before the world at such a time as this the delightful reveries, the easy happiness, the gentle schemes of serener and less troubled days? The book which follows was the work of a time which seems divided from the present by a dark stream of unhappiness. Is it right, is it decent, to unfold an old picture of peace before the eyes of those who have had to look into chaos and destruction? Would it not be braver to burn the record of the former things that have passed away? Or is it well to fix our gaze firmly upon the peaceful things that have been and will be once more?
Yes, I believe that it is right and wholesome to do this, because the most treacherous and cowardly thing we can do is to disbelieve in life. Those old dreams and visions were true enough, and they will be true again. They represent the real life to which we must try to return. We must try to build up the conception afresh, not feebly to confess that we were all astray. We cannot abolish evil by confessing ourselves worsted by it; we can only overcome it by holding fast to our belief in labour and order and peace. It is a temptation which we must resist, to philosophise too much about war. Very few minds are large enough and clear enough to hold all the problems in their grasp. I do not believe for an instant that war has falsified our vision of peace. We must cling to it more than ever, we must emphasize it, we must dwell in it. I regard war as I regard an outbreak of pestilence; the best way to resist it is not to brood over it, but to practise joy and health. The ancient plagues which devastated Europe have not been overcome by philosophy, but by the upspringing desire of men to live cleaner and more wholesome lives. That instinct is not created by any philosophy or persuasion; it just arises everywhere and finds its way to the light.
To brood over the war, to spend our time in disentangling its intricate causes, seems to me a task for future historians. But a lover of peace, confronted by the hideousness of war, does best to try, if he can, to make plain what he means by peace and why he desires it. I do not mean by peace an indolent life, lost in gentle reveries. I mean hard daily work, and mutual understanding, and lavish help, and the effort to reassure and console and uplift. And I mean, too, a real conflict–not a conflict where we set the best and bravest of each nation to spill each other’s blood–but a conflict against crime and disease and selfishness and greediness and cruelty. There is much fighting to be done; can we not combine to fight our common foes, instead of weakening each other against evil? We destroy in war our finest parental stock, we waste our labour, we lose our garnered store; we give every harsh passion a chance to grow; we live in the traditions of the past, and not in the hopes of the future.
And yet there is one thing in the present war which I do in my heart of hearts feel to be worth fighting for, and that is for the hope of liberty. It is hard to say what liberty is, because the essence of it is the subjugation of personal inclinations. The Germans claim that they alone know the meaning of liberty, and that they have arrived at it by discipline. But the bitterness of this war lies in the fact that the Germans are not content to set an example of attractive virtue, and to leave the world to choose it; but that if the world will not choose it, they will force it upon them by violence and the sword. It is this which makes me feel that the war may be a vast protest of the nations, which have the spirit of the future in their hearts, against a theory of life that represents the spirit of the past. And I thus, with some seeming inconsistency, believe that the war may represent the hope of peace at bay. If the nations can keep this clearly before them, and not be tempted either into reprisals, or into rewarding themselves by the spoils of victory, if victory comes; if it ends in the Germans being sincerely convinced that they have been misled and poisoned by a conception of right which is both uncivilised and unchristian, then I believe that all our sufferings may not be too great a price to pay for the future well-being of the world. That is the largest and brightest hope I dare to frame; and there are many hours and days when it seems all clouded and dim.
We cannot at this time disengage our thoughts from the war; we cannot, and we ought not. Still less can we take refuge from it in idle dreams of peace and security; but at a time when every paper and book that we see is full of the war and its sufferings, there must be men and women who would do well to turn their hearts and minds for a little away from it. If we brood over it, if we feed our minds upon it, especially if we are by necessity non- combatants, it is all apt to turn to a festering horror which makes us useless and miserable. Whatever happens, we must try not to be simply the worse for the war–morbid, hysterical, beggared of faith and hope, horrified with life. That is the worst of evils; and I believe that it is wholesome to put as far as we can our cramped minds in easier postures, and to let our spirits have a wider range. We know how a dog who is perpetually chained becomes fierce and furious, and thinks of nothing but imaginary foes, so that the most peaceful passer-by becomes an enemy. I have felt, since the war began, a certain poison in the air, a tendency towards suspicion and contentiousness and vague hostility. We must exorcise that evil spirit if we can; and I believe it is best laid by letting our minds go back to the old peace for a little, and resolving that the new peace which we believe is coming shall be of a larger and nobler quality; we may thus come to appreciate the happiness which we enjoyed but had not earned; and lay our plans for earning a new kind of happiness, the essence of which shall be a mutual trust, that desires to give and share whatever it enjoys, instead of hoarding it and guarding it.
A wise and unselfish woman wrote to me the other day in words which will long live in my mind; she had sent out one whom she dearly loved to the front, and she was fighting her fears as gallantly as she could. “Whatever happens, we must not give way to dread,” she wrote. “It does not do to dread anything for our own treasures.”
That is the secret! What we must not do, in the time of war, is to indicate to everyone else what their sacrifices ought to be; we must just make our own sacrifices; and perhaps the man who loves and values peace most highly does not sacrifice the least. But even he may try to realise that life does not contradict itself; but that the parts of it, whether they be delightful or dreadful, do work into each other in a marvellous way.
All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality–the story of an escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times–how to escape. The stories of Joseph, of Odysseus, of the prodigal son, of the Pilgrim’s Progress, of the “Ugly Duckling,” of Sintram, to name only a few out of a great number, they are all stories of escapes. It is the same with all love- stories. “The course of true love never can run smooth,” says the old proverb, and love-stories are but tales of a man or a woman’s escape from the desert of lovelessness into the citadel of love. Even tragedies like those of OEdipus and Hamlet have the same thought in the background. In the tale of OEdipus, the old blind king in his tattered robe, who had committed in ignorance such nameless crimes, leaves his two daughters and the attendants standing below the old pear-tree and the marble tomb by the sacred fountain; he says the last faint words of love, till the voice of the god comes thrilling upon the air:
“OEdipus, why delayest thou?”
Then he walks away at once in silence, leaning on the arm of Theseus, and when at last the watchers dare to look, they see Theseus afar off, alone, screening his eyes with his hand, as if some sight too dreadful for mortal eyes had passed before him; but OEdipus is gone, and not with lamentation, but in hope and wonder. Even when Hamlet dies, and the peal of ordnance is shot off, it is to congratulate him upon his escape from unbearable woe; and that is the same in life. If our eye falls on the sad stories of men and women who have died by their own hand, how seldom do they speak in the scrawled messages they leave behind them as though they were going to silence and nothingness! It is just the other way. The unhappy fathers and mothers who, maddened by disaster, kill their children are hoping to escape with those they love best out of miseries they cannot bear; they mean to fly together, as Lot fled with his daughters from the city of the plain. The man who slays himself is not the man who hates life; he only hates the sorrow and the shame which make unbearable that life which he loves only too well. He is trying to migrate to other conditions; he desires to live, but he cannot live so. It is the imagination of man that makes him seek death; only the animal endures, but man hurries away in the hope of finding something better.
It is, however, strange to reflect how weak man’s imagination is when it comes to deal with what is beyond him, how little able he is to devise anything that he desires to do when he has escaped from life. The unsubstantial heaven of a Buddhist, with its unthinkable Nirvana, is merely the depriving life of all its attributes; the dull sensuality of the Mohammedan paradise, with its ugly multiplication of gross delights; the tedious outcries of the saints in light which make the medieval scheme of heaven into one protracted canticle–these are all deeply unattractive, and have no power at all over the vigorous spirit. Even the vision of Socrates, the hope of unrestricted converse with great minds, is a very unsatisfying thought, because it yields so little material to work upon.
The fact, of course, is that it is just the variety of experience which makes life interesting,–toil and rest, pain and relief, hope and satisfaction, danger and security,–and if we once remove the idea of vicissitude from life, it all becomes an indolent and uninspiring affair. It is the process of change which is delightful, the finding out what we can do and what we cannot, going from ignorance to knowledge, from clumsiness to skill; even our relations with those whom we love are all bound up with the discoveries we make about them and the degree in which we can help them and affect them. What the mind instinctively dislikes is stationariness; and an existence in which there was nothing to escape from, nothing more to hope for, to learn, to desire, would be frankly unendurable.
The reason why we dread death is because it seems to be a suspension of all our familiar activities. It would be terrible to have nothing but memory to depend upon. The only use of memory is that it distracts us a little from present conditions if they are dull, and it is only too true that the recollection in sorrow of happy things is torture of the worst kind.
Once when Tennyson was suffering from a dangerous illness, his friend Jowett wrote to Lady Tennyson to suggest that the poet might find comfort in thinking of all the good he had done. But that is not the kind of comfort that a sufferer desires; we may envy a good man his retrospect of activity, but we cannot really suppose that to meditate complacently upon what one has been enabled to do is the final thought that a good man is likely to indulge. He is far more likely to torment himself over all that he might have done.
It is true, I think, that old and tired people pass into a quiet serenity; but it is the serenity of the old dog who sleeps in the sun, wags his tail if he is invited to bestir himself, but does not leave his place; and if one reaches that condition, it is but a dumb gratitude at the thought that nothing more is expected of the worn-out frame and fatigued mind. But no one, I should imagine, really hopes to step into immortality so tired and worn out that the highest hope that he can frame is that he will be let alone for ever. We must not trust the drowsiness of the outworn spirit to frame the real hopes of humanity. If we believe that the next experience ahead of us is like that of the mariners,
In the afternoon they came unto a land In which it seemed always afternoon,
then we acquiesce in a dreamless sort of sleep as the best hope of man.
No, we must rather trust the desires of the spirit at its healthiest and most vigorous, and these are all knit up with the adventure of escape, as I have said. There is something hostile on our track: the copse that closes in upon the road is thick with spears; presences that do not wish us well move darkly in the wood and keep pace with us, and the only explanation we can give is that we need to be spurred on by fear if we are not drawn forward by desire or hope. We have to keep moving, and if we will not run to the goal, we must at least flee, with backward glances at something which threatens us.
There is an old and strange Eastern allegory of a man wandering in the desert; he draws near to a grove of trees, when he suddenly becomes aware that there is a lion on his track, hurrying and bounding along on the scent of his steps. The man flees for safety into the grove; he sees there a roughly built water-tank of stone, excavated in the ground, and built up of masonry much fringed with plants. He climbs swiftly down to where he sees a ledge close on the water; as he does this, he sees that in the water lies a great lizard, with open jaws, watching him with wicked eyes. He stops short, and he can just support himself among the stones by holding on to the branches of a plant which grows from a ledge above him. While he thus holds on, with death behind him and before, he feels the branches quivering, and sees above, out of reach, two mice, one black and one white, which are nibbling at the stems he holds and will soon sever them. He waits despairingly, and while he does so, he sees that there are drops of honey on the leaves which he holds; he puts his lips to them, licks them off, and finds them very sweet.
The mice stand, no doubt, for night and day, and the honey is the sweetness of life, which it is possible to taste and relish even when death is before and behind; and it is true that the utter precariousness of life does not, as a matter of fact, distract us from the pleasure of it, even though the strands to which we hold are slowly parting. It is all, then, an adventure and an escape; but even in the worst insecurity, we may often be surprised to find that it is somehow sweet.
It is not in the least a question of the apparent and outward adventurousness of one’s life. Foolish people sometimes write and think as though one could not have had adventures unless one has hung about at bar-room doors and in billiard-saloons, worked one’s passage before the mast in a sailing-ship, dug for gold among the mountains, explored savage lands, shot strange animals, fared hardly among deep-drinking and loud-swearing men. It is possible, of course, to have adventures of this kind, and, indeed, I had a near relative whose life was fuller of vicissitudes than any life I have ever known: he was a sailor, a clerk, a policeman, a soldier, a clergyman, a farmer, a verger. But the mere unsettledness of it suited him: he was an easy comrade, brave, reckless, restless; he did not mind roughness, and the one thing he could not do was to settle down to anything regular and quiet. He did not dislike life at all, even when he stood half-naked, as he once told me he did, on a board slung from the side of a ship, and dipped up pails of water to swab it, the water freezing as he flung it on the timbers. But with all this variety of life he did not learn anything particular from it all; he was much the same always, good-natured, talkative, childishly absorbed, not looking backward or forward, and fondest of telling stories with sailors in an inn. He learned to be content in most companies and to fare roughly; but he gained neither wisdom nor humour, and he was not either happy or independent, though he despised with all his heart the stay-at- home, stick-in-the-mud life.
But we are not all made like this, and it is only possible for a few people to live so by the fact that most people prefer to stay at home and do the work of the world. My cousin was not a worker, and, indeed, did no work except under compulsion and in order to live; but such people seem to belong to an older order, and are more like children playing about, and at leisure to play because others work to feed and clothe them. The world would be a wretched and miserable place if all tried to live life on those lines.
It would be impossible to me to live so, though I dare say I should be a better man if I had had a little more hardship of that kind; but I have worked hard in my own way, and though I have had few hairbreadth escapes, yet I have had sharp troubles and slow anxieties. I have been like the man in the story, between the lion and the lizard for many months together; and I have had more to bear, by temperament and fortune, than my roving cousin ever had to endure; so that because a life seems both sheltered and prosperous, it need not therefore have been without its adventures and escapes and its haunting fears.
The more one examines into life and the motives of it, the more does one perceive that the imagination, concerning itself with hopes of escape from any conditions which hamper and confine us, is the dynamic force that is transmuting the world. The child is for ever planning what it will do when it is older, and dreams of an irresponsible choice of food and an unrestrained use of money; the girl schemes to escape from the constraints of home by independence or marriage; the professional man plans to make a fortune and retire; the mother dreams ambitious dreams for her children; the politician craves for power; the writer hopes to gain the ear of the world–these are only a few casual instances of the desire that is always at work within us, projecting us into a larger and freer future out of the limited and restricted present. That is the real current of the world, and though there are sedate people who are contented with life as they see it, yet in most minds there is a fluttering of little tremulous hopes forecasting ease and freedom; and there are also many tired and dispirited people who are not content with life as they have it, but acquiesce in its dreariness; yet all who have any part in the world’s development are full of schemes for themselves and others by which the clogging and detaining elements are somehow to be improved away. Sensitive people want to find life more harmonious and beautiful, healthy people desire a more continuous sort of holiday than they can attain, religious people long for a secret ecstasy of peace; there is, in fact, a constant desire at work to realise perfection.
And yet, despite it all, there is a vast preponderance of evidence which shows us that the attainment of our little dreams is not a thing to be desired, and that satisfied desire is the least contented of moods. If we realise our programme, if we succeed, marry the woman we love, make a fortune, win leisure, gain power, a whole host of further desires instantly come in sight. I once congratulated a statesman on a triumphant speech.
“Yes,” he said, “I do not deny that it is a pleasure to have had for once the exact effect that one intended to have; but the shadow of it is the fear that having once reached that standard, one may not be able to keep it up.”
The awful penalty of success is the haunting dread of subsequent failure, and even sadder still is the fact that in striving eagerly to attain an end, we are apt to lose the sense of the purpose which inspired us. This is more drearily true of the pursuit of money than of anything else. I could name several friends of my own who started in business with the perfectly definite and avowed intention of making a competence in order that they might live as they desired to live; that they might travel, read, write, enjoy a secure leisure. But when they had done exactly what they meant to do, the desires were all atrophied. They could not give up their work; they felt it would be safer to have a larger margin, they feared they might be bored, they had made friends, and did not wish to sever the connection, they must provide a little more for their families: the whole programme had insensibly altered. Even so they were still planning to escape from something–from some boredom or anxiety or dread.
And yet it seems very difficult for any person to realise what is the philosophical conclusion, namely, that the work of each of us matters very little to the world, but that it matters very much to ourselves that we should have some work to do. We seem to be a very feeble-minded race in this respect, that we require to be constantly bribed and tempted by illusions. I have known men of force and vigour both in youth and middle life who had a strong sense of the value and significance of their work; as age came upon them, the value of their work gradually disappeared; they were deferred to, consulted, outwardly reverenced, and perhaps all the more scrupulously and compassionately in order that they might not guess the lamentable fact that their work was done and that the forces and influences were in younger hands. But the men themselves never lost the sense of their importance. I knew an octogenarian clergyman who declared once in my presence that it was ridiculous to say that old men lost their faculty of dealing with affairs.
“Why,” he said, “it is only quite in the last few years that I feel I have really mastered my work. It takes me far less time than it used to do; it is just promptly and methodically executed.” The old man obviously did not know that his impression that his work consumed less time was only too correct, because it was, as a matter of fact, almost wholly performed by his colleagues, and nothing was referred to him except purely formal business.
It seems rather pitiful that we should not be able to face the truth, and that we cannot be content with discerning the principle of it all, which is that our work is given to us to do not for its intrinsic value, but because it is good for us to do it.
The secret government of the world seems, indeed, to be penetrated by a good-natured irony; it is as if the Power controlling us saw that, like children, we must be tenderly wooed into doing things which we should otherwise neglect, by a sense of high importance, as a kindly father who is doing accounts keeps his children quiet by letting one hold the blotting-paper and another the ink, so that they believe that they are helping when they are merely being kept from hindering.
And this strange sense of escape which drives us into activity and energy seems given us not that we may realise our aims, which turn out hollow and vapid enough when they are realised, but that we may drink deep of experience for the sake of its beneficent effect upon us. The failure of almost all Utopias and ideal states, designed and planned by writers and artists, lies in the absence of all power to suggest how the happy folk who have conquered all the ills and difficulties of life are to employ themselves reasonably and eagerly when there is nothing left to improve. William Morris, indeed, in his News from Nowhere, confessed through the mouth of one of his characters that there would be hardly enough pleasant work, like hay-making and bridge-building and carpentering and paving, left to go round; and the picture of life which he draws, with its total lack of privacy, the shops where you may ask for anything that you want without having to pay, the guest-houses, with their straw-coloured wine in quaint carafes, the rich stews served in grey earthenware dishes streaked with blue, the dancing, the caressing, the singular absence of all elderly women, strikes on the mind with a quite peculiar sense of boredom and vacuity, because Morris seems to have eliminated so many sources of human interest, and to have conformed every one to a type, which is refreshing enough as a contrast, but very tiresome in the mass. It will not be enough to have got rid of the combative and sordid and vulgar elements of the world unless a very active spirit of some kind has taken its place. Morris himself intended that art should supply the missing force; but art is not a sociable thing; it is apt to be a lonely affair, and few artists have either leisure or inclination to admire one another’s work.
Still more dreary was the dream of the philosopher J. S. Mill, who was asked upon one occasion what would be left for men to do when they had been perfected on the lines which he desired. He replied, after a long and painful hesitation, that they might find satisfaction in reading the poems of Wordsworth. But Wordsworth’s poems are useful in the fact that they supply a refreshing contrast to the normal thought of the world, and nothing but the fact that many took a different view of life was potent enough to produce them.
So, for the present at all events, we must be content to feel that our imagination provides us with a motive rather than with a goal; and though it is very important that we should strive with all our might to eliminate the baser elements of life, yet we must be brave and wise enough to confess how much of our best happiness is born of the fact that we have these elements to contend with.
Edward FitzGerald once said that a fault of modern writing was that it tried to compress too many good things into a page, and aimed too much at omitting the homelier interspaces. We must not try to make our lives into a perpetual feast; at least we must try to do so, but it must be by conquest rather than by inglorious flight; we must face the fact that the stuff of life is both homely and indeed amiss, and realise, if we can, that our happiness is bound up with energetically trying to escape from conditions which we cannot avoid. When we are young and fiery-hearted, we think that a tame counsel; but, like all great truths, it dawns on us slowly. Not until we begin to ascend the hill do we grasp how huge, how complicated, how intricate the plain, with all its fields, woods, hamlets, and streams is; we are happy men and women if in middle age we even faintly grasp that the actual truth about life is vastly larger and finer than any impatient youthful fancies about it are, though it is good to have indulged our splendid fancies in youth, if only for the delight of learning how much more magnificent is the real design.
In the Pilgrim’s Progress, at the very outset of the journey, Evangelist asks Christian why he is standing still. He replies:
“Because I know not whither to go.”
Evangelist, with a certain grimness of humour, thereupon hands him a parchment roll. One supposes that it will be a map or a paper of directions, but all that it has written in it is, “Fly from the wrath to come!”
Well, it is no longer that of which we are afraid, a rain of fire and brimstone, storm and tempest! The Power behind the world has better gifts than these; but we still have to fly, where we can and as fast as we can; and when we have traversed the dim leagues, and have seen things wonderful at every turn, and have passed through the bitter flood, we shall find–at least this is my hope–no guarded city of God from which we shall go no more out, but another road passing into wider fields and dimmer uplands, and to things more and more wonderful and strange and unknown.
LITERATURE AND LIFE
There is a tendency, not by any means among the greater writers, but among what may be called the epigoni,–the satellites of literature, the men who would be great if they knew how,–to speak of the business of writing as if it were a sacred mystery, pontifically celebrated, something remote and secret, which must be guarded from the vulgar and the profane, and which requires an initiation to comprehend. I always feel rather suspicious of this attitude; it seems to me something of a pose, adopted in order to make other people envious and respectful. It is the same sort of precaution as the “properties” of the wizard, his gown and wand, the stuffed crocodile and the skeleton in the corner; for if there is a great fuss made about locking and double-locking a box, it creates a presumption of doubt as to whether there is anything particular in it. In my nursery days one of my brothers was fond of locking up his private treasures in a box, producing it in public, unfastening it, glancing into it with a smile, and then softly closing it and turning the key in a way calculated to provoke the most intense curiosity as to the contents; but upon investigation it proved to contain nothing but the wool of sheep, dried beans, and cases of exploded cartridges.
So, too, I have known both writers and artists who made a mystery out of their craft, professed a holy rapture, as if the business of imagination and the art of setting things down were processes that could not be explained to ordinary people, but were the property of a brotherhood. And thus grow up cliques and coteries, of people who, by mutual admiration, try to console one another for the absence of the applause which the world will not concede them, and to atone for the coldness of the public by a warmth of intimate proximity.
This does not in the least apply to groups of people who are genuinely and keenly interested in art of any kind, and form a congenial circle in which they discuss, frankly and enthusiastically, methods of work, the books, ideas, pictures, and music which interest them. That is quite a different thing, a real fortress of enthusiasm in the midst of Meshech and Kedar. What makes it base and morbid is the desire to exclude for the sake of exclusion; to indulge in solitary raptures, hoping to be overheard; to keep the tail of the eye upon the public; to attempt to mystify; and to trade upon the inquisitive instinct of human beings, the natural desire, that is, to know what is going on within any group that seems to have exciting business of its own.
The Pre-Raphaelites, for instance, were a group and not a coterie. They were engaged in working and enjoying, in looking out for artistic promise, in welcoming and praising any performance of a kind that Rossetti recognised as “stunning.” They were sure of their ground. The brotherhood, with its magazine, The Germ, and its mystic initials, was all a gigantic game; and they held together because they were revolutionary in this, that they wished to slay, as one stabs a tyrant, the vulgarised and sentimental art of the day. They did not effect anything like a revolution, of course. It was but a ripple on the flowing stream, and they diverged soon enough, most of them, into definite tracks of their own. The strength of the movement lay in the fact that they hungered and thirsted after art, clamouring for beauty, so Mr. Chesterton says, as an ordinary man clamours for beer. But their aim was not to mystify or to enlarge their own consequence, but to convert the unbeliever, and to produce fine things.
There is something in the Anglo-Saxon temperament which is on the whole unfavourable to movements and groups; the great figures of the Victorian time in art and literature have been solitary men, anarchical as regards tradition, strongly individualistic, working on their own lines without much regard for schools or conventions. The Anglo-Saxon is deferential, but not imitative; he has a fancy for doing things in his own way. Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron– were there ever four contemporary poets so little affected by one another’s work? Think of the phrase in which Scott summed up his artistic creed, saying that he had succeeded, in so far as he had succeeded, by a “hurried frankness of composition,” which was meant to please young and eager people. It is true that Wordsworth had a solemn majesty about his work, practised a sort of priestly function, never averse to entertaining ardent visitors by conducting them about his grounds, and showing them where certain poems had been engendered. But Wordsworth, as Fitz-Gerald truly said, was proud, not vain–proud like the high-hung cloud or the solitary peak. He felt his responsibility, and desired to be felt rather than to be applauded.
If one takes the later giants, Tennyson had a sense of magnificence, a childlike self-absorption. He said once in the same breath that the desire of the public to know the details of the artist’s life was the most degrading and debasing curiosity,–it was ripping people up like pigs,–and added with a sigh that he thought that there was a congestion in the world about his own fame; he had received no complimentary letters for several days.
Browning, on the other hand, kept his raptures and his processes severely to himself. He never seems to have given the smallest hint as to how he conceived a poem or worked it out. He was as reticent about his occupation as a well-bred stockbroker, and did his best in society to give the impression of a perfectly decorous and conventional gentleman, telling strings of not very interesting anecdotes, and making a great point of being ordinary. Indeed, I believe that Browning was haunted by the eighteenth-century idea that there was something not quite respectable about professional literature, and that, like Gray, he wished to be considered a private gentleman who wrote for his amusement. When in later years he took a holiday, he went not for secret contemplation, but to recover from social fatigue. Browning is really one of the most mysterious figures in literature in this respect, because his inner life of poetry was so entirely apart from his outer life of dinner- parties and afternoon calls. Inside the sacred enclosure, the winds of heaven blow, the thunder rolls; he proclaims the supreme worth of human passion, he dives into the disgraceful secrets of the soul: and then he comes out of his study a courteous and very proper gentleman, looking like a retired diplomatist, and talking like an intelligent commercial traveller–a man whose one wish appeared to be as good-humouredly like everyone else as he conveniently could.
What, again, is one to make of Dickens, with his love of private theatricals, his florid waistcoats and watch-chains, his sentimental radicalism, his kindly, convivial, gregarious life? He, again, did his work in a rapture of solitary creation, and seemed to have no taste for discussing his ideas or methods. Then, too, Dickens’s later desertion of his work in favour of public readings and money-making is curious to note. He was like Shakespeare in this, that the passion of his later life seemed to be to realise an ideal of bourgeois prosperity. Dickens seems to have regarded his art partly as a means of social reform, and partly as a method of making money. The latter aim is to a great extent accounted for by the miserable and humiliating circumstances of his early life, which bit very deep into him. Yet his art was hardly an end in itself, but something through which he made his way to other aims.
Carlyle, again, was a writer who put ideas first, despised his craft except as a means of prophesying, hated literary men and coteries, preferred aristocratic society, while at the same time he loved to say how unutterably tiresome he found it. Who will ever understand why Carlyle trudged many miles to attend parties and receptions at Bath House, where the Ashburtons lived, or what stimulus he discerned in it? I have a belief that Carlyle felt a quite unconscious pride in the fact that he, the son of a small Scotch farmer, had his assured and respected place among a semi- feudal circle, just as I have very little doubt that his migration to Craigenputtock was ultimately suggested to him by the pleasure and dignity of being an undoubted laird, and living among his own, or at least his wife’s, lands. In saying this, I do not wish to belittle Carlyle, or to accuse him of what may be called snobbishness. He had no wish to worm himself by slavish deference into the society of the great, but he liked to be able to walk in and say his say there, fearing no man; it was like a huge mirror that reflected his own independence. Yet no one ever said harder or fiercer things of his own fellow-craftsmen. His description of Charles Lamb as “a pitiful rickety, gasping, staggering, stammering tom-fool” is not an amiable one! Or take his account of Wordsworth- -how instead of a hand-shake, the poet intrusted him with “a handful of numb unresponsive fingers,” and how his speech “for prolixity, thinness, endless dilution” excelled all the other speech that Carlyle had ever heard from mortals. He admitted that Wordsworth was “a genuine man, but intrinsically and extrinsically a small one, let them sing or say what they will.” In fact, Carlyle despised his trade: one of the most vivid and voluble of writers, he derided the desire of self-expression; one of the most continuous and brilliant of talkers, he praised and upheld the virtue of silence. He spoke and wrote of himself as a would-be man of action condemned to twaddle; and Ruskin expressed very trenchantly what will always be the puzzle of Carlyle’s life–that, as Ruskin said, he groaned and gasped and lamented over the intolerable burden of his work, and that yet, when you came to read it, you found it all alive, full of salient and vivid details, not so much patiently collected, as obviously and patently enjoyed. Again there is the mystery of his lectures. They seem to have been fiery, eloquent, impressive harangues; and yet Carlyle describes himself stumbling to the platform, sleepless, agitated, and drugged, inclined to say that the best thing his audience could do for him would be to cover him up with an inverted tub; while as he left the platform among signs of visible emotion and torrents of applause, he thought, he said, that the idea of being paid for such stuff made him feel like a man who had been robbing hen-roosts.
There is an interesting story of how Tennyson once stayed with Bradley, when Bradley was headmaster of Marlborough, and said grimly one evening that he envied Bradley, with all his heart, his life of hard, fruitful, necessary work, and owned that he sometimes felt about his own poetry, what, after all, did all this elaborate versifying amount to, and who was in any way the better or happier for it?
The truth is that the man of letters forgets that this is exactly the same thought as that which haunts the busy man after, let us say, a day of looking over examination-papers or attending committees. The busy man, if he reflects at all, is only too apt to say to himself, “Here have I been slaving away like a stone- breaker, reading endless scripts, discussing an infinity of petty details, and what on earth is the use of it all?” Yet Sir Alfred Lyall once said that if a man had once taken a hand in big public affairs, he thought of literature much as a man who had crossed the Atlantic in a sailing-yacht might think of sculling a boat upon the Thames. One of the things that moved Dr. Johnson to a tempest of wrath was when on the death of Lord Lichfield, the Lord Chancellor, Boswell said to him that if he had taken to the law as a profession, he might have been Lord Chancellor, and with the same title. Johnson was extremely angry, and said that it was unfriendly to remind a man of such things when it was too late.
One may conclude from such incidents and confessions that even some of the most eminent men of letters have been haunted by the sense that in following literature they have not chosen the best part, and that success in public life is a more useful thing as well as more glorious.
But one has to ask oneself what exactly an imaginative man means by success, and what it is that attracts him in the idea of it. Putting aside the more obvious and material advantages,–wealth, position, influence, reputation,–a man of far-reaching mind and large ideas may well be haunted by a feeling that if he had entered public life, he might by example, precept, influence, legislation, have done something to turn his ideas and schemes into accomplished facts, have effected some moral or social reform, have set a mark on history. It must be remembered that a great writer’s fame is often a posthumous growth, and we must be very careful not to attribute to a famous author a consciousness in his lifetime of his subsequent, or even of his contemporary, influence. It is undoubtedly true that Ruskin and Carlyle affected the thought of their time to an extraordinary degree. Ruskin summed up in his teaching an artistic ideal of the pursuit and influence of beauty, while Carlyle inculcated a more combative theory of active righteousness and the hatred of cant. But Ruskin’s later years were spent in the shadow of a profound sense of failure. He thought that the public enjoyed his pretty phrases and derided his ideas; while Carlyle felt that he had fulminated in vain, and that the world was settling down more comfortably than ever into the pursuit of bourgeois prosperity and dishonest respectability.
And yet if, on the other hand, one compares the subsequent fame of men of action with the fame of men of letters, the contrast is indeed bewildering. Who attaches the smallest idea to the personality of the Lord Lichfield whom Dr. Johnson envied? Who that adores the memory of Wordsworth knows anything about Lord Goderich, a contemporary prime minister? The world reads and re-reads the memoirs of dead poets, goes on pilgrimage to the tiny cottages where they lived in poverty, cherishes the smallest records and souvenirs of them. The names of statesmen and generals become dim except to professed historians, while the memories of great romancers and lyrists, and even of lesser writers still, go on being revived and redecorated. What would Keats have thought, as he lay dying in his high, hot, noisy room at Rome, if he had known that a century later every smallest detail of his life, his most careless letters, would be scanned by eager eyes, when few save historians would be able to name a single member of the cabinet in power at the time of his death?
There is a charming story told by Lord Morley, of how he once met Rossetti in the street at Chelsea when a general parliamentary election was going on, and it transpired, after a few remarks, that Rossetti was not even aware that this was the case. When he was informed, he said with some hesitation that he supposed that one side or other would get in, and that, after all, it did not very much matter. Lord Morley, telling the anecdote, said that he himself had forgotten which side DID get in, from which he concluded that it had not very much mattered.
The truth is that national life has to go on, and that very elaborate arrangements are made by statesmen and politicians for its administration. But it is in reality very unimportant. The wisest statesman in the world cannot affect it very much; he can only take advantage of the trend of public opinion. If he outruns it, he is instantly stranded; and perhaps the most he can do is to foresee how people will be thinking some six weeks ahead. But meanwhile the writer is speaking from the soul and to the soul; he is suggesting, inspiring, stimulating; he is presenting thoughts in so beautiful a form that they become desirable and adorable; and what the average man believes to-day is what the idealist has believed half a century before. He must take his chance of fame; and his best hope is to eschew rhetoric, which implies the consciousness of opponents and auditors, and just present his dreams and visions as serenely and beautifully as he can. The statesman has to argue, to strive, to compromise, to convert if he can, to coerce if he cannot. It is a dusty encounter, and he must sacrifice grace and perhaps truth in the onset. He may gain his point, achieve the practicable and the second best; but he is an opportunist and a schemer, and he cannot make life into what he wills, but only into what he can manage. Of course the writer in a way risks more; he may reject the homely, useful task, and yet not have the strength to fit wings to his visions; he may live fruitlessly and die unpraised, with the thought that he has lost two birds in the hand for one which is not even in the bush. He may turn out a mere Don Quixote, helmeted with a barber’s basin and tilting against windmills; but he could not choose otherwise, and he has paid a heavier price for his failure than many a man has paid for his success.
It is probably a wholly false antithesis to speak of life as a contrast to literature; one might as well draw a distinction between eating and drinking. What is meant as a rule is that if a man devotes himself to imaginative creation, to the perception and expression of beauty, he must be prepared to withdraw from other activities. But the imagination is a function of life, after all, and precisely the same holds good of stockbroking. The real fact is that we Anglo-Saxons, by instinct and inheritance, think of the acquisition of property as the most obvious function of life. As long as a man is occupied in acquiring property, we ask no further questions; we take for granted that he is virtuously employed, as long as he breaks no social rules: while if he succeeds in getting into his hands an unusual share of the divisible goods of the world, we think highly of him. Indeed, our ideals have altered very little since barbarous times, and we still are under the impression that resourcefulness is the mark of the hero. I imagine that leisure as an occupation is much more distrusted and disapproved of in America than in England; but even in England, where the power to be idle is admired and envied, a man who lives as heroic a life as can be attained by playing golf and shooting pheasants is more trusted and respected than a rich man who paints or composes music for his amusement. Field sports are intelligible enough; the pursuit of art requires some explanation, and incurs a suspicion of effeminacy or eccentricity. Only when authorship becomes a source of profit is it thoroughly respectable.
I had a friend who died not very long ago. He had in his younger days done a little administrative work; but he was wealthy, and at a comparatively early age he abandoned himself to leisure. He travelled, he read, he went much into society, he enjoyed the company of his friends. When he died he was spoken of as an amateur, and praised as a cricketer of some merit. Even his closest friends seemed to find it necessary to explain and make excuses; he was shy, he stammered, he was not suited to parliamentary life; but I can think of few people who did so much for his friends or who so radiated the simplest sort of happiness. To be welcomed by him, to be with him, put a little glow on life, because you felt instinctively that he was actively enjoying every hour of your company. I thought, I remember, at his death, how hopeless it was to assess a man’s virtue and usefulness in the terms of his career. If he had entered Parliament, registered a silent vote, spent his time in social functions, letter-writing, lobby-gossip, he would have been acclaimed as a man of weight and influence; but as it was, though he had stood by friends in trouble, had helped lame dogs over stiles, had been the centre of good-will and mutual understanding to a dozen groups and circles, it seemed impossible to recognise that he had done anything in his generation. It is not to be claimed that his was a life of persistent benevolence or devoted energy; but I thought of a dozen men who had lived selfishly and comfortably, making money and amassing fortunes, without a touch of real kindness or fine tenderness about them, who would yet be held to have done well and to have deserved respect, when compared with this peace-maker!
And then I perceived how intolerably false many of our cherished ideals are; that apart from lives of pure selfishness and annexation, many a professed philanthropist or active statesman is merely following a sterile sort of ambition; that it is rare on the whole for so-called public men to live for the sake of the public; while the simple, kindly, uncalculating, friendly attitude to life is a real source of grace and beauty, and leaves behind it a fragrant memory enshrined in a hundred hearts.
So, too, when it comes to what we call literature. No one supposes that we can do without it, and in its essence it is but an extension of happy, fine, vivid talk. It is but the delighted perception of life, the ecstasy of taking a hand in the great mystery, the joy of love and companionship, the worship of beauty and desire and energy and memory taking shape in the most effective form that man can devise. There is no real merit in the accumulation of property; only the people who do the necessary work of the world, and the people who increase the joy of the world are worth a moment’s thought, and yet both alike are little regarded.
Of course where the weakness of the artistic life really lies is that it is often not taken up out of mere communicativeness and happy excitement, as a child tells a breathless tale, but as a device for attracting the notice and earning the applause of the world; and then it is on a par with all other self-regarding activities. But if it is taken up with a desire to give rather than to receive, as an irrepressible sharing of delight, it becomes not a solemn and dignified affair, but just one of the most beautiful and uncalculating impulses in the world.
Then there falls another shadow across the path; the unhappiest natures I know are the natures of keen emotion and swift perception who yet have not the gift of expressing what they feel in any artistic medium. It is these, alas! who cumber the streets and porticoes of literature. They are attracted away from homely toil by the perilous sweetness of art, and when they attempt to express their raptures, they have no faculty or knack of hand. And these men and women fall with zealous dreariness or acrid contemptuousness, and radiate discomfort and uneasiness about them.
“A book,” said Dr. Johnson, “should show one either how to enjoy life or how to endure it”–was ever the function of literature expressed more pungently or justly? Any man who enjoys or endures has a right to speak, if he can. If he can help others to enjoy or to endure, then he need never be in any doubt as to his part in life; while if he cannot ecstatically enjoy, he can at least good- humouredly endure.
THE NEW POETS
There’s a dark window in a gable which looks out over my narrow slip of garden, where the almond-trees grow, and to-day the dark window, with its black casement lines, had become suddenly a Japanese panel. The almond was in bloom, with its delicious, pink, geometrical flowers, not a flower which wins one’s love, somehow; it is not homely or sweet enough for that. But it is unapproachably pure and beautiful, with a touch of fanaticism about it–the fanaticism which comes of stainless strength, as though one woke in the dawn and found an angel in one’s room: he would not quite understand one’s troubles!
But when I looked lower down, there was a sweeter message still, for the mezereon was awake, with its tiny porcelain crimson flowers and its minute leaves of bright green, budding as I think Aaron’s rod must have budded, the very crust of the sprig bursting into little flames of green and red.
I thought at the sight of all this that some good fortune was about to befall me; and so it did. When I came back there came a friend to see me whom I seldom see and much enjoy seeing. He is young, but he plays a fine part in the world, and he carries about with him two very fine qualities; one is a great and generous curiosity about what our writers are doing. He is the first man from whom I hear of new and beautiful work; and he praises it royally, he murmurs phrases, he even declaims it in his high, thin voice, which wavers like a dry flame. And what makes all this so refreshing is that his other great quality is an intensely critical spirit, which stares closely and intently at work, as through a crystalline lens.
After we had talked a little, I said to him: “Come, praise me some new writers, you herald of the dawn! You always do that when you come to see me, and you must do it now.” He smiled secretly, and drew out a slim volume from his pocket and read me some verses; I will not be drawn into saying the name of the poet.
“How do you find that?” he said.
“Oh,” I said, “it is very good; but is it the finest gold?”
“Yes,” he said, “it is that.” And he then read me some more.
“Now,” I said, “I will be frank with you. That seems to me very musical and accomplished; but it has what is to me the one unpardonable fault in poetry: it is literary. He has heard and read, that poet, so much sweet and solemn verse, that his mind murmurs like a harp hung among the trees that are therein; the winds blow into music. But I don’t want that; I want a fount of song, a spring of living water.” He looked a little vexed at that, and read me a few more pages. And then he went on to praise the work of two or three other writers, and added that he believed there was going to be a great outburst of poetry after a long frost.
“Well,” I said, “I am sure I hope so. And if there is one thing in the world that I desire, it is that I may be able to recognise and love the new voices.”
And then I told him a story of which I often think. When I was a young man, very much pre-occupied with Tennyson and Omar Khayyam and Swinburne, I went to stay with an elderly business man, a friend of my family. He was a great stout, rubicund man, very good- natured, and he had a voice like the cry of an expiring mouse, shrill and thin. We were sitting after dinner in his big dining- room, several of us, looking out into a wide, dusty garden, when the talk turned on books, and I suppose I praised Swinburne, for he asked me to say some, and I quoted the poem which says
And even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
He heard me attentively enough, and said it was pretty good; but then he said that it was nothing to Byron, and in his squeaky voice he quoted a quantity of Byron, whose poetry, I am sorry to say, I regarded as I might regard withered flowers or worse. His eyes brimmed with tears, and they fell on to his shirt-front; and then he said decisively that there had been no poetry since Byron–none at all. Tennyson was mere word music, Browning was unintelligible, and so forth. And I remember how, with the insolence of youth, I thought how dreadful it was that the old man should have lost all sympathy and judgment; because poetry then seemed to me a really important matter, full of tones and values. I did not understand then, as I understand now, that it is all a question of signals and symbols, and that poetry is but, as the psalm says, what happens when one day telleth another and one night certifieth another. I know now that there can be no deceit about poetry, and that no poet can make you feel more than he feels himself, though he cannot always make another feel as much; and that the worth of his art exists only just in so far as he can say what he feels; and then I thought of my old friend’s mind as I might think of a scarecrow among lonely fields, a thing absurd, ragged, and left alone, while real men went about their business. I did not say it, but I thought it in my folly. So I told my young friend that story; and I said:
“I know that it does not really matter what one loves and is moved by as long as one loves something and is moved by its beauty. But, still, I do not want that to happen to me; I do not want to be like a pebble on the beach, when the water draws past it to the land. I want to feel and understand the new signals. In the nursery,” I said, “we used to anger our governess when she read us a piece of poetry, by saying to her, ‘Who made it up?’ ‘You should say, “Who wrote it?”‘ she would say. But I feel now inclined to ask, ‘Who made it up?’ and I feel, too, like the sign-painter on his rounds, who saw a new sign hung up at an inn, and said in disgust, ‘That looks as if some one had been doing it himself.’ Your poet seems to me only a very gifted and accomplished amateur.”
“Well,” he said rather petulantly, “it may be so, of course; but I don’t think that you can hope to advance, if you begin by being determined to disapprove.”
“No, not that,” I said. “But one knows of many cases of inferior poets, who were taken up and trumpeted abroad by well-meaning admirers, whom one sees now to have had no significance, but to be so many blind alleys in the street of art; they led nowhere; one had just to retrace one’s steps, if one explored them. Indeed,” I said, “I had rather miss a great poet than be misled by a little one.”
“Ah, no,” he said, “I don’t feel that. I had rather be thrilled and carried away, even if I discovered afterwards that it was not really great.”
“If you will freely admit that this may not be great,” I said, “I am on your side. I do not mind your saying, ‘This touches me with interest and delight; but it is not to be reckoned among the lords of the garden.’ What I object to is your saying, ‘This is great and eternal.’ I feel that I should be able to respond to the great poet, if he flashed out among us; but he must be great, and especially in a time when there really is a quantity of very beautiful verse. I suspect that perhaps this time is one that will furnish a very beautiful anthology. There are many people alive who have written perhaps half a dozen exquisite lyrics, when the spring and the soaring thought and the vision and the beautiful word all suddenly conspired together. But there is no great, wide, large, tender heart at work. No, I won’t even say that; but is there any great spirit who has all that and a supreme word-power as well? I believe that there is more poetry, more love of beauty, more emotion in the world than ever; and a great many men and women are living their poetry who just can’t write it or sing it.”
“A perverse generation seeking after a sign,” he said rather grimly, “and there is no sign forthcoming except the old sign, that has been there for centuries! I don’t care,” he added, “about the sign of the thing. It is the quality that I want; and these new poets of whom I have been speaking have got the quality. That is all I ask for.”
“No,” I said, “I want a great deal more than that! Browning gave us the sense of the human heart, bewildered by all the new knowledge, and yet passionately desiring. Tennyson–“
“Poor old Tennyson!” he said.
“That is very ungracious,” I said. “You are as perverse as I was about Byron when the old banker quoted him with tears. I was going to say, and I will say it, that Tennyson, with all his faults, was a great lord of music; and he put into words the fine, homely domestic emotion of the race–the poetry of labour, order, and peace. It was new and rich and splendid, and because it seems to you old-fashioned, you call it mere respectability; but it was the marching music of the world, because he showed men that faith was enlarged and not overturned by science. These two were great, because they saw far and wide; they knew by instinct just what the ordinary man was thinking, who yet wished his life to be set to music. These little men of yours don’t see that. They have their moments of ecstasy, as we all have, in the blossoming orchard full of the songs of birds. And that will always and for ever give us the lyric, if the skill is there. But I want something more than that; I, you, thousands of people, are feeling something that makes the brain thrill and the heart leap. The mischief is that we don’t know what it is, and I want a great poet to come and tell us.”
“Ah,” he said, “I am afraid you want something ethical, something that satisfies the man in Tennyson who
Walked between his wife and child
And now and then he gravely smiled.
But we have done with all that. What we want is people who can express the fine, rare, unusual thoughts of highly organised creatures, and you want a poet to sing of bread and butter!”
“Why, yes,” I said, “I think I agree with Fitz-Gerald that tea and bread and butter are the only foods worth anything–the only things one cannot do without. And it is just the things that one cannot do without that I want the new great poet to sing of. I agree with William Morris that art is the one thing we all want, the expression of man’s joy in his work. And the more that art retires into fine nuances and intellectual subtleties, the more that it becomes something esoteric and mysterious, the less I care about it. When Tennyson said to the farmer’s wife, ‘What’s the news?’ she replied, ‘Mr. Tennyson, there’s only one piece of news worth telling, and that is that Christ died for all men.’ Tennyson said very grandly and simply, ‘Ah, that’s old news and good news and NEW news!’ And that is exactly what I want the poets to tell us. It is a common inheritance, not a refined monopoly, that I claim.”
He laughed at this, and said:
“I think that’s rather a mid-Victorian view; I will confute you out of the Tennyson legend. When Tennyson called Swinburne’s verse ‘poisonous honey, brought from France,’ Swinburne retorted by speaking of the laureate’s domestic treacle. You can’t have both. If you like treacle, you must not clamour for honey.”
“Yes, I prefer honey,” I said, “but you seem to me to be in search of what I called LITERARY poetry. That is what I am afraid of. I don’t want the work of a mind fed on words, and valuing ideas the more that they are uncommon. I hate what is called ‘strong’ poetry; that seems to me to be generally the coarsest kind of romanticism– melodrama in fact. I want to have in poetry what we are getting in fiction–the best sort of realism. Realism is now abjuring the heroic theory; it has thrown over the old conventions, the felicitous coincidences, life arranged on ideal lines; and it has gone straight to life itself, strong, full-blooded, eager life, full of mistakes and blunders and failures and sharp disasters and fears. Life goes shambling along like a big dog, but it has got its nose on the scent of something. It is a much more mysterious and prodigious affair than life rearranged upon romantic lines. It means something very vast indeed, though it splashes through mud and scrambles through hedges. You may laugh at what you call ethics, but that is only a name for one of many kinds of collisions. It is the fact that we are always colliding with something, always coming unpleasant croppers, that is the exciting thing. I want the poet to tell me what the obscure winged thing is that we are following; and if he can’t explain it to me, I want to be made to feel that it is worth while following. I don’t say that all life is poetical material. I don’t think that it is; but there is a thing called beauty which seems to me the most maddeningly perfect thing in the world. I see it everywhere, in the dawn, in the far-off landscape, with all its rolling lines of wood and field, in the faces and gestures of people, in their words and deeds. That is a clue, a golden thread, a line of scent, and I shall be more than content if I am encouraged to follow that.”
“Ah,” he said, “now I partly agree with you. It is precisely that which the new men are after; they take the pure gold of life and just coin it into word and phrase, and it is that which I discern in them.”
“Yes,” I said, “but I want something a great deal bigger than that. I want to see it everywhere and in everything. I don’t want to have to wall in a little space and make it silent and beautiful, and forget what is happening outside. I want a poet to tell me what it is that leaps in the eyes and beckons in the smiles of people whom I meet–people whom often enough I could not live with,–the more’s the pity,–but whom I want to be friends with, all the same. I want the common joys and hopes and visions to be put into music. And when I find a man, like Walt Whitman, who does show me the beauty and wonder and the strong affections and joys of simple hearts, so that I feel sure that we are all desiring the same thing, though we cannot tell each other what it is, then I feel I am in the presence of a poet indeed.”
My young friend shut up the little book which he had been holding in his hand.
“Yes,” he said, “that would be a great thing; but one can’t get at things in that way now. We must all specialise; and if you want to follow the new aims and ideals of art, you must put aside a great deal of what is called our common humanity, and you must be content to follow a very narrow path among the stars. I do not mind speaking quite frankly. I do not think you understand what art is. It is essentially a mystery, and the artist is a sort of hermit in the world. It is not a case of ‘joys in widest commonalty spread,’ as Daddy Wordsworth said. That is quite a different affair; but art has got to withdraw itself, to be content to be misunderstood; and I think that you have just as much parted company with it as your old friend the banker.”
“Well,” I said, “we shall see. Anyhow, I will give your new poets a careful reading, and I shall be glad if I can really admire them, because, indeed, I don’t want to be stranded on a lee shore.”
And so my friend departed; and I began to wonder whether the art of which he spoke was not, after all, as real a thing as the beauty of my almond-flower and my mezereons! If so, I should like to be able to include it and understand it, though I do not want to think that it is the end.
There come days and hours in the lives of the busiest, most active, most eager of us, when we suddenly realise with a shock or a shudder, it may be, or perhaps with a sense of solemn mystery, that has something vast, inspiring, hopeful about it, the solidity and the isolation of our own identity. Much of our civilised life is an attempt, not deliberate but instinctive, to escape from this. We organise ourselves into nations and parties, into sects and societies, into families and companies, that we may try to persuade ourselves that we are not alone; and we get nearest to persuading ourselves that we are at one, when we enter into the secrets of love or friendship, and feel that we know as we are known. But even that vision fades, and we become aware, at sad moments, that the comradeship is over; the soul that came so close to us, smiled in our eyes, was clasped to our heart, has left us, has passed into the darkness, or if it still lives and breathes, has drawn away into the crowd. And then one sees that no fusion is possible, that half the secrets of the heart must remain unguessed and untold. That even if one had the words to do it, one could not express the sense of our personality, much of which escapes even our own conscious and critical thought. One has, let us say, a serious quarrel with a close friend, and one hears him explaining and protesting, and yet he does not know what has happened, cannot understand, cannot even perceive where the offence lay; and at such a moment it may dawn on us that we too do not know what we have done; we have exhibited some ugly part of ourselves, of which we are not conscious; we have stricken and wounded another heart, and we cannot see how it was done. We did not intend to do it, we cry. Or again we realise that we regard some one with a causeless aversion, and cannot give any reason for it; or we see that we ourselves have the same freezing and disconcerting effect upon another; and so after hundreds of such experiences, we become aware at last that no real, free, entire communication is possible; that however eagerly we tell our thoughts and display our temperaments, there must always remain something which is wrapped in darkness, the incommunicable essence of ourself that can blend with no other soul.
But again it is true that all human souls who have an instinct for expression–writers, painters, musicians–have always been trying to do this one thing, to make signals, to communicate, to reveal themselves, to “unpack the heart in words”; and what has often hindered the process and nullified their efforts has been an uneasy dignity and vanity, that must try to make out a better case than the facts justify. For a variety of motives, and indeed for the best of motives, men and women suppress, exalt, refine the presentment of themselves, because they desire to be loved, and think that they must therefore be careful to be admired, just as the lover adorns himself and puts his best foot forward, and hides all that may disconcert interest or sympathy. So that it happens in life that often when we most desire to be real, we are most unreal.
What differentiates Walt Whitman from all other writers that I know, is that he tried to reveal himself, and on the whole contrived to do so with less reserve than any other human being.
“I know perfectly well my own egotism,” he wrote; “I know my omnivorous lines, and must not write any less.” He was not disconcerted by any failure of art, or any propriety, or any apparent discrepancy.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
He had no artistic conscience, as we say.
Easily written, loose-finger’d chords–I feel the thrum of your climax and close.
In the curious and interesting essay called “A Backward Glance over Travel’s Roads,” which he wrote late in life, surveying his work, he admits that he has not gained acceptance, that his book is a failure, and has incurred marked anger and contempt; and he good- humouredly quotes a sentence from a friend’s letter, written in 1884, “I find a solid line of enemies to you everywhere.” And yet, he says, for all that, and in spite of everything, he has had “his say entirely his own way, and put it unerringly on record.” It is simply “a faithful, and doubtless self-willed record,” he says.
That then was Walt Whitman’s programme, surely in its very scope and range worthy of some amazement and respect! Because it is not done insolently or with any braggadocio, in spite of what he calls “the barbaric yawp.” I do not think that anything is more notable than the good-humour and the equanimity of it all. He is not interested in himself in a morbid or self-conscious way; he has not the slightest wish to make himself out to be fine or magnificent or superior–it is quite the other way. He is merely going to try to break down the barriers between soul and soul, to let the river of self ripple and welter and wash among the grasses at the feet of man. He does not wish you to admire it, though he hopes you may love it; there are to be no excuses or pretences; he does not wish to be seen at certain angles or in subdued lights. He casts himself down in his nakedness, and lets who will observe him; and all this not because he is either hero or saint; his proudest title is to be an average man, one of the crowd, with passions, weaknesses, uglinesses, even deformities. He is there, he is just so, and you may take it or leave it; but he is not ashamed or sensitive, nor in any way abashed; he smiles his frank, good-natured smile; and suddenly one perceives the greatness of it! He is neither fanatic nor buffoon; he is not performing like the boxer or wrestler, nor is he sitting mournfully and patiently for the sake of the pence, like the fat man at the fair; he is merely trying to say what he thinks and feels, and if he has any aim at all, it is to tempt others into unabashed sincerity. He cries to man, “If you would only recognise yourself as you are, without pretences or excuses, the dignity which your subterfuges are meant to secure would be yours without question.” It is not a question of good, bad, or indifferent. Everyone has a right to be where he is, and there is a reason for him and a justification too. That is the gospel of Walt Whitman; it may be a bad gospel, or an ugly one, or an indecorous one; but no one can pretend that it is not a big one.
One immense and fruitful discovery Walt Whitman made, and yet one can hardly call it a discovery; it is more perhaps an inspired doctrine, unsupported by argument, wholly unphilosophical, proclaimed with a childlike loudness and confidence, but yet probably true: the doctrine, that is, of the indissoluble union between body and soul. Indissoluble, one calls it, and yet nothing is more patent than the fact that it is a union which is invariably and inevitably dissolved in death; while on the other hand, one sees in certain physical catastrophes, such as paralysis, brain- concussion, senile decay, insanity, the soul apparently reduced to the condition of a sleeping partner, or so far deranged as to be unable to express anything but some one dominant emotion; or, more bewildering still, one sees the moral sense seemingly suspended by a physical disorder. And yet for all that, the doctrine may be essentially and substantially true; the vitality of the soul may be bound up with its power of expressing itself in material terms. It may be that the soul-stuff, which we call life, has an existence apart from its material manifestation, and that individuality, as we see it, may be a mere phenomenon of the passage of a force, like the visibility of electricity under certain conditions; indeed it seems more probable that matter is a function of thought rather than thought a function of matter. It is likely enough that animals have no conscious sense of any division of aims, any antagonism between physical and mental desires; but as the human race develops, the imagination, the sense of the opposition between the reason and the appetite, begins to emerge. Man becomes aware that his will and his wish may not coincide; and thus develops the medieval theory of asceticism, the belief that the body is essentially vile, and suggests base desires to the mind, which the mind has the power of controlling. That conception fitted closely to the feudal theory of government, in which the interests of the ruler and the subject did not necessarily coincide; the ruler governed with his own interests in view, and coerced his subjects if he could; but the new theory of government does not separate the ruler from the state. The government of a state with democratic institutions is the will of the people taking shape, and the phenomena of rule are but those of the popular will expressing itself, the object being that each individual should have his due preponderance; the ultimate end being as much individual liberty as is consistent with harmonious co-operation.
That is a rough analogy of the doctrine of Walt Whitman; namely, that the individual, soul and body, is a polity; and that the true life is to be found in a harmonious co-operation of body and soul. The reason is not at liberty to deride or to neglect the bodily desires, even the meanest and basest of them, because every desire, whether of soul or body, is the expression of something that exists in the animating principle. Take, for example, the case of physical passion. That, in its ultimate analysis, is the instinct for propagating life, the transmission and continuance of vitality. The reason must not ignore or deplore it, but direct it into the proper channels; it may indicate the dangers that it incurs; but merely to thwart it, to regard it with shame and horror, is to establish an internecine warfare. The true function is rather to ennoble the physical desire by the just concurrence of the soul. But the essence of the situation is co-operation and not coercion; and each must be ready to compromise. If the physical nature will not compromise with the reason, the disasters of unbridled passion follow; if the reason will not co-operate with the physical desire, the result is a sterile intellectualism, a life of starved and timid experience. It was here, of course, that Walt Whitman’s view gave offence; he thought of civilisation as a conventional system, cultivating a false shame and an ignoble reserve about bodily processes. But the vital truth of his doctrine lies in the fact that many of our saddest, because most remediable, disasters are caused by a timid reticence about the strongest force that animates the world, the force of reproduction. Whitman felt, and truly felt, that reason and sentiment have outrun discretion. It may be asked, indeed, how this terror of all outspokenness has developed in the human race, so that parents cannot bear to speak to their children about an experience which they will be certain to make acquaintance with in some far more violent and base form. Does this shrinking delicacy, this sacred reserve, mean nothing, it may be asked? Well, it may be said, if this sensitiveness is so valuable that it must not be required to anticipate tenderly and faithfully what will be communicated in a grosser form, then silence is justified, and not otherwise. But to transfer this reticence about a matter of awful concern to some other region of morals, what should we think of the parent who so feared to lessen the affection of a child by rebuking it for a lie or a theft as to let it go out into the world ignorant that either was reprobated? Whitman’s argument would rather be that a parent should say to a child, “There is a force within you which will to a large extent determine the happiness of your life; it must be guarded and controlled. You will probably not be able to ignore or disregard it, and you must bring it into harmonious co-operation with mind and reason and duty. There is nothing that is shameful about its being there; indeed, it is the dominant force in the world. The shameful thing is to use it shamelessly.” Yet the attitude of parents too often is to treat the subject, not as if it were sacred, but as if it were unmentionable; so that the very fact of the child’s own origin would seem to be an essentially shameful thing.
The Greeks, it is true, had an instinct for the thought of the vital interdependence of body and soul; but they thought too much of the glowing manifestation of the health and beauty of youth, and viewed the decay and deformity of the human frame too much as a disgrace and an abasement. But here again comes in the largeness of Whitman’s presentment, that whatever disasters befall the body, whether through drudgery or battle, disease or sin, they are all parts of a rich and large experience, not necessarily interrupting the co-operation of mind and matter. This is the strongest proof of Whitman’s faith in the essential brotherhood of man, that such horrors and wretchednesses do not seem to him to interrupt the design, or to destroy the possibility of a human sympathy which is instinctive rather than a matter of devout effort. Whitman is here on the side of the very greatest and finest human spirits, in that he is shocked and appalled by nothing. He does not call it the best of worlds, but it is the only world that he knows; and the glowing interest, the passionate emotion, the vital rush and current of it, prove beyond all doubt that we are in touch with something very splendid and magnificent indeed, and that no misdeed or disaster forfeits our share in the inheritance. He is utterly at variance with the hideous Calvinistic theory, that God sent some of His creatures into the world for their pain and ruin. Whatever happens to your body or your soul, says Whitman, it is worth your while to live and to have lived. He adopts no facile system of compensations and offsets. He rather protests with all his might that, however broken your body or fatuous your mind, it is a good thing for you to have taken a hand in the affair; and that the essence of the whole situation has not been your success, your dignity, your comfortable obliteration of half your faculties, or on the other hand your failure, your vileness, or your despair, but that just at the time and place at which the phenomenon called yourself took place, that intricate creature, with its bodily needs and desires, its joys of the senses, its outlook on the strange world, took shape and made you exactly what you are, and nothing else. As he says in one of his finest apologues:
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing is scanted.
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are picks its way.
Then too Walt Whitman claims to be the poet, not of the past or even only of the present, but the singer of the future. He says in The Backward Glance, which I have already quoted, and which must be carefully read by anyone who wishes to understand his work–at least in so far as he understood it himself,–“Isolated advantages in any rank or grace or fortune–the direct or indirect threads of all the poetry of the past–are in my opinion distasteful to the republican genius. . . . Established poems, I know, have the very great advantage of chanting the already performed, so full of glories, reminiscences dear to the minds of men.” And he says too that, “The educated world seems to have been growing more and more ennuied for ages, leaving to our time the inheritance of it all.” And he further says: “The ranges of heroism and loftiness with which Greek and feudal poets endow’d their godlike or lordly born characters, I was to endow the democratic averages of America. I was to show that we, here and to-day, are eligible to the grandest and the best–more eligible now than any times of old were.”
This is a lofty claim, boldly advanced and maintained; and here I am on uncertain ground, because I do not suppose that I can realise what the democratic spirit of America really is. Granted, however, that it is a free and a noble spirit, I feel a doubt as to whether it is possible for any nation, at any time in the world’s history, really to take a new start. The American nation is not a new nation; it is in a sense a very old’ nation. It has had a perfectly new and magnificent field for its energies, and it has made a sweep of the old conventions; but it cannot get rid of its inheritance of temperament; and I think that, so far as I can judge, it is too anxious to emphasize its sense of revolt, its consciousness of newness of life. Whitman himself would not be so anxious to declare the ennui of the old, if he did not feel himself in a way trammelled by it. The moment that a case is stated with any vehemence, that moment it is certain that the speaker has antagonists in his eye. There is a story of Professor Blackie at Edinburgh making a tirade against the stuffiness of the old English universities to Jowett, the incisive Master of Balliol. At the end, he said generously, “I hope you people at Oxford do not think that we are your enemies up here?” “No,” said Jowett drily; “to tell the truth, we don’t think about you at all!” The man who is really making a new beginning, serenely confident in his strength, does not, as Professor Blackie did, concern himself with his predecessors at all. Perhaps, indeed, the democratic spirit of America may be quietly glorying in its strength, and may be merely waiting till it suits it to speak. But I do not think it can be said to have found full expression. It seems to me–I may well be wrong–that in matters of culture, the American is far more seriously bent on knowing what has been done in the past even than the Englishman. The Englishman takes the past for granted; he is probably more deeply and instinctively penetrated with its traditions than he knows; but ever since the Romantic movement began in England, about a century ago, the general tendency is anarchical and anti-classical. Writers like Wordsworth, Browning, Carlyle, Ruskin, had very little deference about them. They did not even trouble to assert their independence; they said what they thought, and as they thought it. But the spirit of American literature does not on the whole appear to me to be a democratic spirit. It has not, except in the case of Walt Whitman himself, shown any strong tendency to invent new forms or to ventilate new ideas. It has not broken out into crude, fresh, immature experiments. It has rather worked as the Romans did, who anxiously adopted and imitated Greek models, admiring the form but not comprehending the spirit. A revolt in literary art, such as the Romantic movement in England, has no time to concern itself with the old forms and traditions. Writers like Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Walter Scott, had far too much to say for themselves to care how the old classical schools had worked. They used the past as a quarry, not as a model. But the famous American writers have not originated new forms, or invented a different use of language; they have widened and freshened traditions, they have not thrown them overboard. Neither, if I interpret facts rightly, have the Americans developed a new kind of aristocracy. Whitman’s talk of democratic averages is beside the point. The process of levelling up and levelling down only produces low standards. What the world needs, whether in England or America, is a new sort of aristocracy–simple, disinterested, bold, sympathetic, enthusiastic men, of clear vision and free thought. And what the democracy needs is not an envious dislike of all prominence and greatness, but an eye for all greatness, and an admiration for all courage and largeness of soul. England suspects, perhaps erroneously, that America has founded an aristocracy of wealth and influence and physical prowess, rather than an aristocracy of simplicity and fearlessness. One believes that the competitive, the prize-winning spirit, is even more dominant in America than in England. No one doubts the fierce energy and the aplomb of America; but can it be said that IDEAS, the existence of which is the ultimate test of national vigour, are really more prevalent in America than in England? It all depends, of course, upon whether one values the Greek or the Roman ideal more highly, the interest, that is, of life, or the desire to rule and prosper. If the aim of civilisation is orderliness, then the Roman aim is the better; but if the aim is spiritual animation, then the Greeks are the winners. Yet in the last century, England has been more fruitful in ideas than America, although America is incomparably more interested in education than England is.
But it is hard to balance these things. What remains is the fact that Walt Whitman has drawn a fine democratic ideal. His democrat is essentially a worker, with every sort of vigorous impulse, living life in an ecstasy of health and comradeship, careless of money and influence and position, content to live a simple life, finding beauty, and hope, and love, and labour, enough, in the spirit of the great dictum of William Morris, that the reward of labour is life–not success or power or wealth, but the sense of living fully and freely.
I do not claim that this spirit exists in England yet; but does it exist in America? What, in fact, constitutes the inspiration of the average American; what does he expect to find in life, and to make of life? Whitman has no doubt at all. But in what other American writer does this ideal find expression?
It remains to say a few words about the artistic methods of Walt Whitman. He himself claims no artistic standard whatever. He says that he wishes to create an atmosphere; and that his one aim has been suggestiveness. “I round and finish little, if anything; and could not consistently with my scheme. The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine.”
He says that his purpose has been “not to carry out in the approved style some choice plot of fortune or misfortune, or fancy, or fine thoughts, or incidents or courtesies–all of which has been done overwhelmingly and well, probably never to be excelled . . . but to conform with and build on the concrete realities and theories of the universe furnished by science, and henceforth the only irrefragable basis for anything, verse included–to root both influences in the emotional and imaginative action of the modern time, and dominate all that precedes or opposes them.” He adds, “No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism.”
It is, of course, quite true that no writer is bound by traditions of art, and there is no one who need consider how the thing has been done before, or follow a prescribed code. But for all that, art is not a thing of rules made and enforced by critics. All that critics can do is to determine what the laws of art are; because art has laws underlying it which are as certain as the laws of gravity, even if they are not known. The more permanent art is, the more it conforms to these laws; because the fact is that there is a vital impulse in the human mind towards the expression of beauty, and a vital discrimination too as to the form and method of that expression. Architecture, for instance, and music, are alike based upon instinctive preferences in human beings, the one for geometrical form, the other for the combination of vibrations. It is a law of music, for instance, that the human being prefers an octave in absolute unison, and not an octave of which one note is a semitone flat. That is not a rule invented by critics; it is a law of human perception and preference. Similarly there is undoubtedly a law which determines human preferences in poetry, though a far more complicated law, and not yet analysed. The new poet is not a man who breaks the law, but one who discovers a real extension of it.
The question then, roughly, is this: Whitman chose to express himself in a species of poetry, based roughly upon Hebrew poetry, such as we have in the Psalms and Prophets. If this is a true expansion of the aesthetic law of poetry, then it is a success; if it is not a true expansion, but only a wilful variation, not consonant with the law, it is a failure.
Now there are many effects in Whitman which are, I believe, inconsistent with the poetical law. Not to multiply instances, his grotesque word-inventions–“Me imperturbe!” “No dainty dolce affettuoso I,” “the drape of the day”–his use of Greek and Latin and French terms, not correctly used and not even rightly spelt, his endless iterations, lists, catalogues, categories, things not clearly visualised or even remotely perceived, but swept relentlessly in, like the debris of some store-room, all these are ugly mannerisms which simply blur and encumber the pages. The question is not whether they offend a critical and cultured mind, but whether they produce an inspiring effect upon any kind of mind.
Then too his form constantly collapses, as though he had no fixed scheme in his mind. There are many poems which begin with an ample sweep, and suddenly crumble to pieces, as though he were merely tired of them.
Then again there seem to me to be some simply coarse, obscene, unpleasant passages, not of relentless realism but of dull inquisitiveness. They do not attract or impress; they do not provide a contrast or an emphasis. They simply lie, like piles of filth, in rooms designed for human habitation. If it is argued that art may use any materials, I can only fall back upon my belief that such passages are as instinctively repulsive to the artistic sense as strong-smelling cheeses stacked in a library! There is no moral or ethical law against such a practice; but the aesthetic conscience of humanity instinctively condemns it. When I examine the literature which has inspired and attracted the minds of humanity, whether trained or untrained, I find that they avoid this hideous intrusion of nastiness; and I am inclined to infer that writers who introduce such episodes, and readers who like them, have some other impulse in view, which is neither the sense of beauty nor the perception of art. But if Whitman, or anyone else, can convert the world to call this art, and to enjoy it as art, then he will prove that he understands the law of preference better than I do.
But when all this has been said and conceded, there yet remain countless passages of true and vital beauty, exquisite phrases, haunting pictures, glimpses of perfect loveliness. His poems of comradeship and the open air, his pictures of family life, have often a magical thrill of passion, leaving one rapturous and unsatisfied, believing in the secrets behind the world, and hoping for a touch of like experience.
If I may take one poem as typical of the best that is in Whitman– and what a splendid best!–it shall be “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” from the book called Sea-drift. I declare that I can never read this poem without profound emotion; it is here that he fully justifies his claim to atmosphere and suggestiveness; the nesting birds, the sea’s edge, with its “liquid rims and wet sands”–what a magical phrase!–the angry moan of the breakers under the yellow, drooping moon, the boy with his feet in the water, and the wind in his hair–this is all beyond criticism.
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul) Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it mostly to me? For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you
Now in a moment I know what I am for,–I awake, And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours, A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.
And then he cries to the waves to tell him what they have been whispering all the time.
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night and very plainly before day-break, Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death.
This theme, it will be remembered, is worked out more fully in the Lincoln poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” with the “Song of Death,” too long, alas, to quote here–it would be delightful even to inscribe the words–which seems to me for splendour of language, sweetness of rhythm, and stateliness of cadence–to say nothing of the magnificence of the thought–to be incontestably among the very greatest poems of the world.
If Whitman could always have written so! Then he need hardly have said that the strongest and sweetest songs remained to be sung; but this, and many other gems of poetry, lie in radiant fragments among the turbid and weltering rush of his strange verse; and thus one sees that if there is indeed a law of art, it lies close to the instinct of suppression and omission. One may think anything; one may say most things; but if one means to sway the human heart by that one particular gift of words, ordered and melodiously intertwined, one must heed what experience tells the aspirant–that no fervour of thought, or exuberance of utterance, can make up for the harmony of the firmly touched lyre, and the music of the unuttered word.
There is a little village here near Cambridge the homely, summer- sounding name of which is Haslingfield. It is a straggling hamlet of white-walled, straw-thatched cottages, among orchards and old elms, full of closes of meadow-grass, and farmsteads with ricks and big-timbered barns. It has a solid, upstanding Tudor church, with rather a grand tower, and four solid corner turrets; and it has, too, its little bit of history in the manor-house, of which only one high-shouldered wing remains, with tall brick chimneys. It stands up above some mellow old walls, a big dove-cote, and a row of ancient fish-ponds. Here Queen Elizabeth once spent a night upon the wing. Close behind the village, a low wold, bare and calm, with a belt or two of trees, runs steeply up.
The simplest and quietest place imaginable, with a simple and remote life, hardly aware of itself, flowing tranquilly through it; yet this little village, by some felicity of grouping and gathering, has the rare and incomparable gift of charm. I cannot analyse it, I cannot explain it, yet at all times and in all lights, whether its orchards are full of bloom and scent, and the cuckoo flutes from the holt down the soft breeze, or in the bare and leafless winter, when the pale sunset glows beyond the wold among the rifted cloud-banks, it has the wonderful appeal of beauty, a quality which cannot be schemed for or designed, but which a very little mishandling can sweep away. The whole place has grown up out of common use, trees planted for shelter, orchards set for fruit, houses built for convenience. Only in the church and the manor is there any care for seemliness and stateliness. There are a