ASPECTS OF LITERATURE
J. MIDDLETON MURRY
NEW YORK: ALFRED A. KNOPF MCMXX
Printed in Great Britain
TO BRUCE RICHMOND TO WHOSE GENEROUS ENCOURAGEMENT I OWE SO MUCH
Two of these essays, 'The Function of Criticism' and 'The Religion of Rousseau,' were contributed to the Times Literary Supplement; that on 'The Poetry of Edward Thomas' in the Nation; all the rest save one have appeared in the Athenaeum.
The essays are arranged in the order in which they were written, with two exceptions. The second part of the essay on Tchehov has been placed with the first for convenience, although in order of thought it should follow the essay, 'The Cry in the Wilderness.' More important, I have placed 'The Function of Criticism' first although it was written last, because it treats of the broad problem of literary criticism, suggests a standard of values implicit elsewhere in the book, and thus to some degree affords an introduction to the remaining essays.
But the degree is not great, as the critical reader will quickly discover for himself. I ask him not to indulge the temptation of convicting me out of my own mouth. I am aware that my practice is often inconsistent with my professions; and I ask the reader to remember that the professions were made after the practice and to a considerable extent as the result of it. The practice came first, and if I could reasonably expect so much of the reader I would ask him to read 'The Function of Criticism' once more when he has reached the end of the book.
I make no apology for not having rewritten the essays. As a critic I enjoy nothing more than to trace the development of a writer's attitude through its various phases; I could do no less than afford my readers the opportunity of a similar enjoyment in my own case. They may be assured that none of the essays have suffered any substantial alteration, even where, for instance in the case of the incidental and (I am now persuaded) quite inadequate estimate of Chaucer in 'The Nostalgia of Mr Masefield,' my view has since completely changed. Here and there I have recast expressions which, though not sufficiently conveying my meaning, had been passed in the haste of journalistic production. But I have nowhere tried to adjust earlier to later points of view. I am aware that these points of view are often difficult to reconcile; that, for instance, 'aesthetic' in the essay on Tchehov has a much narrower meaning than it bears in 'The Function of Criticism'; that the essay on 'The Religion of Rousseau' is criticism of a kind which I deprecate as insufficient in the essay, 'The Cry in the Wilderness,' because it lacks that reference to life as a whole which I have come to regard as essential to criticism; and that in this latter essay I use the word 'moral' (for instance in the phrase 'The values of literature are in the last resort moral') in a sense which is never exactly defined. The key to most of these discrepancies will, I hope, be found in the introductory essay on 'The Function of Criticism.'
THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM 1
THE RELIGION OF ROUSSEAU 15
THE POETRY OF EDWARD THOMAS 29
MR YEATS'S SWAN SONG 39
THE WISDOM OF ANATOLE FRANCE 46
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS 52
THE PROBLEM OF KEATS 62
THOUGHTS ON TCHEHOV 76
AMERICAN POETRY 91
SAMUEL BUTLER 107
THE POETRY OF THOMAS HARDY 121
THE PRESENT CONDITION OF ENGLISH POETRY 139
THE NOSTALGIA OF MR MASEFIELD 150
THE LOST LEGIONS 157
THE CRY IN THE WILDERNESS 167
POETRY AND CRITICISM 176
COLERIDGE'S CRITICISM 184
SHAKESPEARE CRITICISM 194
The Function of Criticism
It is curious and interesting to find our younger men of letters actively concerned with the present condition of literary criticism. This is a novel preoccupation for them and one which is, we believe, symptomatic of a general hesitancy and expectation. In the world of letters everything is a little up in the air, volatile and uncrystallised. It is a world of rejections and velleities; in spite of outward similarities, a strangely different world from that of half a dozen years ago. Then one had a tolerable certainty that the new star, if the new star was to appear, would burst upon our vision in the shape of a novel. To-day we feel it might be anything. The cloud no bigger than a man's hand might even be, like Trigorin's in 'The Sea-gull,' like a piano; it has no predetermined form.
This sense of incalculability, which has been aroused by the prodigious literary efflorescence of late years, reacts upon its cause; and the reaction tends by many different paths to express itself finally in the ventilation of problems that hinge about criticism. There is a general feeling that the growth of the young plant has been too luxuriant; a desire to have it vigorously pruned by a capable gardener, in order that its strength may be gathered together to produce a more perfect fruit. There is also a sense that if the lusus naturae, the writer of genius, were to appear, there ought to be a person or an organisation capable of recognising him, however unexpected his scent or the shape of his leaves. Both these tasks fall upon criticism. The younger generation looks round a little apprehensively to see if there is a gardener whom it can trust, and decides, perhaps a little prematurely, that there is none.
There is reviewing but no criticism, says one icy voice that we have learned to respect. There are pontiffs and potential pontiffs, but no critics, says another disrespectful young man. Oh, for some more Scotch Reviewers to settle the hash of our English bards, sighs a third. And the London Mercury, after whetting our appetite by announcing that it proposed to restore the standards of authoritative criticism, still leaves us a little in the dark as to what these standards are. Mr T.S. Eliot deals more kindly, if more frigidly, with us in the Monthly Chapbook. There are, he says, three kinds of criticism—the historical, the philosophic, and the purely literary.
'Every form of genuine criticism is directed towards creation. The historical or philosophic critic of poetry is criticising poetry in order to create a history or a philosophy; the poetic critic is criticising poetry in order to create poetry.'
These separate and distinct kinds, he considers, are but rarely found to-day, even in a fragmentary form; where they do exist, they are almost invariably mingled in an inextricable confusion.
Whether we agree or not with the general condemnation of reviewing implicit in this survey of the situation, or with the division of criticism itself, we have every reason to be grateful to Mr Eliot for disentangling the problem for us. The question of criticism has become rather like Glaucus the sea-god, encrusted with shells and hung with weed till his lineaments are hardly discernible. We have at least clear sight of him now, and we are able to decide whether we will accept Mr Eliot's description of him. Let us see.
We have no difficulty in agreeing that historical criticism of literature is a kind apart. The historical critic approaches literature as the manifestation of an evolutionary process in which all the phases are of equal value. Essentially, he has no concern with the greater or less literary excellence of the objects whose history he traces—their existence is alone sufficient for him; a bad book is as important as a good one, and much more important than a good one if it exercised, as bad books have a way of doing, a real influence on the course of literature. In practice, it is true, the historical critic generally fails of this ideal of unimpassioned objectivity. He either begins by making judgments of value for himself, or accepts those judgments which have been endorsed by tradition. He fastens upon a number of outstanding figures and more or less deliberately represents the process as from culmination to culmination; but in spite of this arbitrary foreshortening he is primarily concerned, in each one of the phases which he distinguishes, with that which is common to every member of the group of writers which it includes. The individuality, the quintessence, of a writer lies completely outside his view.
We may accept the isolation of the historical critic then, at least in theory, and conceive of him as a fragment of a social historian, as the author of a chapter in the history of the human spirit. But can we isolate the philosophic critic in the same way? And what exactly is a philosophic critic? Is he a critic with a philosophical scheme in which art and literature have their places, a critic who therefore approaches literature with a definite conception of it as one among many parallel manifestations of the human spirit, and with a system of values derived from his metaphysical scheme? Hegel and Croce are philosophical critics in this sense, and Aristotle is not, as far as we can judge from the Poetics, wherein he considers the literary work of Greece as an isolated phenomenon, and examines it in and for itself. But for the moment, and with the uneasy sense that we have not thoroughly laid the ghost of philosophic criticism, we will assume that we have isolated him, and pass to the consideration of the pure literary critic, if indeed we can find him.
What does he do? How shall we recognise him? Mr Eliot puts before us Coleridge and Aristotle and Dryden as literary critics par excellence arranged in an ascending scale of purity. The concatenation is curious, for these were men possessed of very different interests and faculties of mind; and it would occur to few to place Dryden, as a critic, at their head. The living centre of Aristotle's criticism is a conception of art as a means to a good life. As an activity, poetry 'is more philosophic than history,' a nearer approach to the universal truth in appearances; and as a more active influence, drama refines our spiritual being by a purgation of pity and terror. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the very pith and marrow of Aristotle's literary criticism is a system of moral values derived from his contemplation of life. It was necessary that this relation should exist, because for Aristotle literature was, essentially, an imitation of life though we must remember to understand imitation according to our final sense of the theme which is the golden, persistent thread throughout the Poetics. The imitation of life in literature was for Aristotle, the creative revelation of the ideal actively at work in human life. The tragic hero failed because his composition was less than ideal; but he could only be a tragic hero if the ideal was implicit in him and he visibly approximated to it. It is this constant reference to the ideal which makes of 'imitation' a truly creative principle and the one which, properly understood, is the most permanently valid and pregnant of all; it is also one which has been constantly misunderstood. Its importance is, nevertheless, so central that adequate recognition of it might conceivably be taken as the distinguishing mark of all fruitful criticism.
To his sympathetic understanding of this principle Coleridge owed a great debt. It is true that his efforts to refine upon it were not only unsuccessful, but a trifle ludicrous; his effort to graft the vague transcendentalism of Germany on to the rigour and clarity of Aristotle was, from the outset, unfortunately conceived. But the root of the matter was there, and in Coleridge's fertile mind the Aristotelian theory of imitation flowered into a magnificent conception of the validity and process of the poetic imagination. And partly because the foundation was truly Aristotelian, partly because Coleridge had known what it was to be a great poet, the reference to life pervades the whole of what is permanently valuable in Coleridge's criticism. In him, too, there is a strict and mutually fertilising relation between the moral and the aesthetic values. This is the firm ground beneath his feet when he—too seldom—proceeds to the free exercise of his exquisite aesthetic discrimination.
In Dryden, however, there was no such organic interpenetration. Dryden, too, had a fine sensibility, though less exquisite, by far, than that of Coleridge; but his theoretical system was not merely alien to him—it was in itself false and mistaken. Corruptio optimi pessima. He took over from France the sterilised and lifeless Aristotelianism which has been the plague of criticism for centuries; he used it no worse than his French exemplars, but he used it very little better than they. It was in his hands, as in theirs, a dead mechanical framework of rules about the unities. Dryden, we can see in his critical writing, was constantly chafed by it. He behaves like a fine horse with a bearing rein: he is continually tossing his head after a minute or two of 'good manners and action,' and saying, 'Shakespeare was the best of them, anyhow'; 'Chaucer beats Ovid to a standstill.' It is a gesture with which all decent people sympathise and when it is made in language so supple as Dryden's prose it has a lasting charm. Dryden's heart was in the right place, and he was not afraid of showing it; but that does not make him a critic, much less a critic to be set as a superior in the company of Aristotle and Coleridge.
Our search for the pure literary critic is likely to be arduous. We have seen that there is a sense in which Dryden is a purer literary critic than either Coleridge or Aristotle; but we have also seen that it is precisely by reason of the 'pureness' in him that he is to be relegated into a rank inferior to theirs. It looks as though we might have to pronounce that the true literary critic is the philosophic critic. Yet the pronouncement must not be prematurely made; for there is a real and vital difference between those for whom we have accepted the designation of philosophic critics, Hegel or Croce, and Aristotle or Coleridge. Yet three of these (and it might be wise to include Coleridge as a fourth) were professional philosophers. It is evidently not the philosophy as such that makes the difference.
The difference depends, we believe, upon the nature of the philosophy. The secret lies in Aristotle. The true literary critic must have a humanistic philosophy. His inquiries must be modulated, subject to an intimate, organic governance, by an ideal of the good life. He is not the mere investigator of facts; existence is never for him synonymous with value, and it is of the utmost importance that he should never be deluded into believing that it is. He will not accept from Hegel the thesis that all the events of human history, all man's spiritual activities, are equally authentic manifestations of Spirit; he will not even recognise the existence of Spirit. He may accept from Croce the thesis that art is the expression of intuitions, but he will not be extravagantly grateful, because his duty as a critic is to distinguish between intuitions and to decide that one is more significant than another. A philosophy of art that lends him no aid in this and affords no indication why the expression of one intuition should be preferred to the expression of another is of little value to him. He will incline to say that Hegel and Croce are the scientists of art rather than its philosophers.
Here, then, is the opposition: between the philosophy that borrows its values from science and the philosophy which shares its values with art. We may put it with more cogency and truth: the opposition lies between a philosophy without values and a philosophy based upon them. For values are human, anthropocentric. Shut them out once and you shut them out for ever. You do not get them back, as some believe, by declaring that such and such a thing is true. Nothing is precious because it is true save to a mind which has, consciously or unconsciously, decided that it is good to know the truth. And the making of that single decision is a most momentous judgment of value. If the scientist appeals to it, as indeed he invariably does, he too is at bottom, though he may deny it, a humanist. He would do better to confess it, and to confess that he too is in search of the good life. Then he might become aware that to search for the good life is in fact impossible, unless he has an ideal of it before his mind's eye.
An ideal of the good life, if it is to have the internal coherence and the organic force of a true ideal, must inevitably be aesthetic. There is no other power than our aesthetic intuition by which we can imagine or conceive it; we can express it only in aesthetic terms. We say, for instance, the good life is that in which man has achieved a harmony of the diverse elements in his soul. For the good life, we know instinctively, is one of our human absolutes. It is not good with reference to any end outside itself. A man does not live the good life because he is a good citizen; but he is a good citizen because he lives the good life. And here we touch the secret of the most magnificently human of all books that has ever been written—Plato's Republic. In the Republic the good life and the life of the good citizen are identified; but the citizenship is not of an earthly but of an ideal city, whose proportions, like the duties of its citizens, are determined by the aesthetic intuition. Plato's philosophy is aesthetic through and through, and because it is aesthetic it is the most human, the most permanently pregnant of all philosophies. Much labour has been spent on the examination of the identity which Plato established between the good and the beautiful. It is labour lost, for that identity is axiomatic, absolute, irreducible. The Greeks knew by instinct that it is so, and in their common speech the word for a gentleman was the kalos kagathos, the beautiful-good.
This is why we have to go back to the Greeks for the principles of art and criticism, and why only those critics who have returned to bathe themselves in the life-giving source have made enduring contributions to criticism. They alone are—let us not say philosophic critics but—critics indeed. Their approach to life and their approach to art are the same; to them, and to them alone, life and art are one. The interpenetration is complete; the standards by which life and art are judged the same. If we may use a metaphor, in the Greek view art is the consciousness of life. Poetry is more philosophic and more highly serious than history, just as the mind of a man is more significant than his outward gestures. To make those gestures significant the art of the actor must be called into play. So to make the outward event of history significant the poet's art is needed. Therefore a criticism which is based on the Greek view is impelled to assign to art a place, the place of sovereignty in its scheme of values. That Plato himself did not do this was due to his having misunderstood the nature of that process of 'imitation' in which art consists; but only the superficial readers of Plato—and a good many readers deserve no better name—will conclude from the fact that he rejected art that his attitude was not fundamentally aesthetic. Not only is the Republic itself one of the greatest 'imitations,' one of the most subtle and profound works of art ever created, but it would also be true to say that Plato cleared the way for a true conception of art. In reality he rejected not art, but false art; and it only remained for Aristotle to discern the nature of the relation between artistic 'imitation' and the ideal for the Platonic system to be complete and four-square, a perpetual inspiration and an everlasting foundation for art and the criticism of art.
Art, then, is the revelation of the ideal in human life. As the ideal is active and organic so must art itself be. The ideal is never achieved, therefore the process of revealing it is creative in the truest sense of the word. More than that, only by virtue of the artist in him can man appreciate or imagine the ideal at all. To discern it is essentially the work of divination or intuition. The artist divines the end at which human life is aiming; he makes men who are his characters completely expressive of themselves, which no actual man ever has been. If he works on a smaller canvas he aims to make himself completely expressive of himself. That, also, is the aim of the greater artist who expresses himself through the medium of a world of characters of his own creation. He needs that machinery, if a coarse and non-organic metaphor may be tolerated, for the explication of his own intuitions of the ideal, which are so various that the attempt to express them through the persona of himself would inevitably end in confusion. That is why the great poetic genius is never purely lyrical, and why the greatest lyrics are as often as not the work of poets who are only seldom lyrical.
Moreover, every act of intuition or divination of the ideal in act in the world of men must be set, implicitly or explicitly, in relation to the absolute ideal. In subordinating its particular intuitions to the absolute ideal art is, therefore, merely asserting its own sovereign autonomy. True criticism is itself an organic part of the whole activity of art; it is the exercise of sovereignty by art upon itself, and not the imposition of an alien. To use our previous metaphor, as art is the consciousness of life, criticism is the consciousness of art. The essential activity of true criticism is the harmonious control of art by art. This is at the root of a confusion in the thought of Mr. Eliot, who, in his just anxiety to assert the full autonomy of art, pronounces that the true critic of poetry is the poet and has to smuggle the anomalous Aristotle in on the hardly convincing ground that 'he wrote well about everything,' and has, moreover, to elevate Dryden to a purple which he is quite unfitted to wear. No, what distinguishes the true critic of poetry is a truly aesthetic philosophy. In the present state of society it is extremely probable that only the poet or the artist will possess this, for art and poetry were never more profoundly divorced from the ordinary life of society than they are at the present day. But the poet who would be a critic has to make his aesthetic philosophy conscious to himself; to him as a poet it may be unconscious. This necessary change from unconsciousness to consciousness is by no means easy, and we should do well to insist upon its difficulty, for quite as much nonsense is talked about poetry by poets and by artists about art as by the profane about either. Moreover, it is important to remember that in proportion as society approaches the ideal—there is no continual progress towards the ideal; at present society is as far removed from it as it has ever been—the chance of the philosopher, of the scientist even, becoming a true critic of art grows greater. When the aesthetic basis of all humane activity is familiarly recognised, the values of the philosopher, the scientist, and the artist become consciously the same, and therefore interchangeable.
Still, the ideal society is sufficiently remote for us to disregard it, and we shall say that the principle of art for art's sake contains an element of truth when it is opposed to those who would inflict upon art the values of science, of metaphysics, or of a morality of mere convention. We shall also say that the principle of art for art's sake needs to be understood and interpreted very differently. Its implications are tremendous. Art is autonomous, and to be pursued for its own sake, precisely because it comprehends the whole of human life; because it has reference to a more perfectly human morality than other activity of man; because, in so far as it is truly art, it is indicative of a more comprehensive and unchallengeable harmony in the spirit of man. It does not demand impossibilities, that man should be at one with the universe or in tune with the infinite; but it does envisage the highest of all attainable ideals, that man should be at one with himself, obedient to his own most musical law.
Thus art reveals to us the principle of its own governance. The function of criticism is to apply it. Obviously it can be applied only by him who has achieved, if not the actual aesthetic ideal in life, at least a vision and a sense of it. He alone will know that the principle he has to elucidate and apply is living, organic. It is indeed the very principle of artistic creation itself. Therefore he will approach what claims to be a work of art first as a thing in itself, and seek with it the most intimate and immediate contact in order that he may decide whether it too is organic and living. He will be untiring in his effort to refine his power of discrimination by the frequentation of the finest work of the past, so that he may be sure of himself when he decides, as he must, whether the object before him is the expression of an aesthetic intuition at all. At the best he is likely to find that it is mixed and various; that fragments of aesthetic vision jostle with unsubordinated intellectual judgments.
But, in regarding the work of art as a thing in itself, he will never forget the hierarchy of comprehension, that the active ideal of art is indeed to see life steadily and see it whole, and that only he has a claim to the title of a great artist whose work manifests an incessant growth from a merely personal immediacy to a coherent and all-comprehending attitude to life. The great artist's work is in all its parts a revelation of the ideal as a principle of activity in human life. As the apprehension of the ideal is more or less perfect, the artist's comprehension will be greater or less. The critic has not merely the right, but the duty, to judge between Homer and Shakespeare, between Dante and Milton, between Cezanne and Michelangelo, Beethoven and Mozart. If the foundations of his criticism are truly aesthetic, he is compelled to believe and to show that among would-be artists some are true artists and some are not, and that among true artists some are greater than others. That what has generally passed under the name of aesthetic criticism assumes as an axiom that every true work of art is unique and incomparable is merely the paradox which betrays the unworthiness of such criticism to bear the name it has arrogated to itself. The function of true criticism is to establish a definite hierarchy among the great artists of the past, as well as to test the production of the present; by the combination of these activities it asserts the organic unity of all art. It cannot honestly be said that our present criticism is adequate to either task.
The Religion of Rousseau
These are times when men have need of the great solitaries; for each man now in his moment is a prey to the conviction that the world and his deepest aspirations are incommensurable. He is shaken by a presentiment that the lovely bodies of men are being spent and flaming human minds put out in a conflict for something which never can be won in the clash of material arms, and he is distraught by a vision of humanity as a child pitifully wandering in a dark wood where the wind faintly echoes the strange word 'Peace.' Therefore he too wanders pitifully like that child, seeking peace, and men are become the symbols of mankind. The tragic paradox of human life which slumbers in the soul in years of peace is awakened again. When we would be solitary and cannot, we are made sensible of the depth and validity of the impulse which moved the solitaries of the past.
The paradox is apparent now on every hand. It appears in the death of the author of La Formation Religieuse de J.J. Rousseau. One of the most distinguished of the younger generation of French scholar-critics, M. Masson met a soldier's death before the book to which he had devoted ten years of his life was published. He had prepared it for the press in the leisure hours of the trenches. There he had communed with the unquiet spirit of the man who once thrilled the heart of Europe by stammering forgotten secrets, and whispered to an age flushed and confident with material triumphs that the battle had been won in vain. Rousseau, rightly understood is no consoling companion for a soldier. What if after all, the true end of man be those hours of plenary beatitude he spent lying at the bottom of the boat on the Lake of Bienne? What if the old truth is valid still, that man is born free but is everywhere in chains? Let us hope that the dead author was not too keenly conscious of the paradox which claimed him for sacrifice. His death would have been bitter.
[Footnote 1: La Formation Religieuse de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Par Pierre Maurice Masson. (Paris: Hachette. Three volumes.)]
From his book we can hardly hazard a judgment. His method would speak against it. Jean-Jacques, as he himself knew only too well, is one of the last great men to be catechised historically, for he was inadequate to the life which is composed of the facts of which histories are made. He had no historical sense; and of a man who has no historical sense no real history can be written. Chronology was meaningless to him because he could recognise no sovereignty of time over himself. With him ends were beginnings. In the third Dialogue he tell us—and it is nothing less than the sober truth told by a man who knew himself well—that his works must be read backwards, beginning with the last, by those who would understand him. Indeed, his function was, in a deeper sense than is imagined by those who take the parable called the Contrat Social for a solemn treatise of political philosophy, to give the lie to history. In himself he pitted the eternal against the temporal and grew younger with years. He might be known as the man of the second childhood par excellence. To the eye of history the effort of his soul was an effort backwards, because the vision of history is focused only for a perspective of progress. On his after-dinner journey to Diderot at Vincennes, Jean-Jacques saw, with the suddenness of intuition, that that progress, amongst whose convinced and cogent prophets he had lived so long was for him an unsubstantial word. He beheld the soul of man sub specie aeternitatis. In his vision history and institutions dissolved away. His second childhood had begun.
On such a man the historical method can have no grip. There is, as the French say, no engrenage. It points to a certain lack of the subtler kind of understanding to attempt to apply the method; more truly, perhaps, to an unessential interest, which has of late years been imported into French criticism from Germany. The Sorbonne has not, we know, gone unscathed by the disease of documentation for documentation's sake. M. Masson's three volumes leave us with the sense that their author had learnt a method and in his zeal to apply it had lost sight of the momentous question whether Jean-Jacques was a person to whom it might be applied with a prospect of discovery. No one who read Rousseau with a mind free of ulterior motives could have any doubt on the matter. Jean-Jacques is categorical on the point. The Savoyard Vicar was speaking for Jean-Jacques to posterity when he began his profession of faith with the words:—
'Je ne veux argumenter avec vous, ni meme de tenter vous convaincre; il me suffit de vous exposer ce que je pense dans la simplicite de mon coeur. Consultez le votre pendant mon discours; c'est tout ce que je vous demande.'
To the extent, therefore, that M. Masson did not respond to this appeal and filled his volumes with information concerning the books Jean-Jacques might have read and a hundred other interesting but only partly relevant things, he did the citizen of Geneva a wrong. The ulterior motive is there, and the faint taste of a thesis in the most modern manner. But the method is saved by the perception which, though it sometimes lacks the perfect keenness of complete understanding, is exquisite enough to suggest the answer to the questions it does not satisfy. Though the environment is lavish the man is not lost.
It is but common piety to seek to understand Jean-Jacques in the way in which he pleaded so hard to be understood. Yet it is now over forty years since a voice of authority told England how it was to regard him. Lord Morley was magisterial and severe, and England obeyed. One feels almost that Jean-Jacques himself would have obeyed if he had been alive. He would have trembled at the stern sentence that his deism was 'a rag of metaphysics floating in a sunshine of sentimentalism,' and he would have whispered that he would try to be good; but, when he heard his Dialogues described as the outpourings of a man with persecution mania, he might have rebelled and muttered silently an Eppur si muove. We see now that it was a mistake to stand him in the social dock, and that precisely those Dialogues which the then Mr Morley so powerfully dismissed contain his plea that the tribunal has no jurisdiction. To his contention that he wrote his books to ease his own soul it might be replied that their publication was a social act which had vast social consequences. But Jean-Jacques might well retort that the fact that his contemporaries and the generation which followed read and judged him in the letter and not in the spirit is no reason why we, at nearly two centuries remove, should do the same.
A great man may justly claim our deference, if Jean-Jacques asks that his last work shall be read first we are bound, even if we consider it only a quixotic humour, to indulge it. But to those who read the neglected Dialogues it will appear a humour no longer. Here is a man who at the end of his days is filled to overflowing with bitterness at the thought that he has been misread and misunderstood. He says to himself: Either he is at bottom of the same nature as other men or he is different. If he is of the same nature, then there must be a malignant plot at work. He has revealed his heart with labour and good faith; not to hear him his fellow-men must have stopped their ears. If he is of another kind than his fellows, then—but he cannot bear the thought. Indeed it is a thought that no man can bear. They are blind because they will not see. He has not asked them to believe that what he says is true; he asks only that they shall believe that he is sincere, sincere in what he says, sincere, above all, when he implores that they should listen to the undertone. He has been 'the painter of nature and the historian of the human heart.'
His critics might have paused to consider why Jean-Jacques, certainly not niggard of self-praise in the Dialogues, should have claimed no more for himself than this. He might have claimed, with what in their eyes at least must be good right, to have been pre-eminent in his century as a political philosopher, a novelist, and a theorist of education. Yet to himself he is no more than 'the painter of nature and the historian of the human heart.' Those who would make him more make him less, because they make him other than he declares himself to be. His whole life has been an attempt to be himself and nothing else besides; and all his works have been nothing more and nothing less than his attempt to make his own nature plain to men. Now at the end of his life he has to swallow the bitterness of failure. He has been acclaimed the genius of his age; kings have delighted to honour him, but they have honoured another man. They have not known the true Jean-Jacques. They have taken his parables for literal truth, and he knows why.
'Des etres si singulierement constitues doivent necessairement s'exprimer autrement que les hommes ordinaires. Il est impossible qu'avec des ames si differemment modifies ils ne portent pas dans l'expression de leurs sentiments et de leurs idees l'empreinte de ces modifications. Si cette empreinte echappe a ceux qui n'ont aucune notion de cette maniere d'etre, elle ne peut echapper a ceux qui la connoissent, et qui en sont affectes eux-memes. C'est une signe caracteristique auquel les inities se reconnoissent entre eux; et ce qui donne un grand prix a ce signe, c'est qu'il ne peut se contrefaire, que jamais il n'agit qu'au niveau de sa source, et que, quand il ne part pas du coeur de ceux qui l'imitent, il n'arrive pas non plus aux coeurs faits pour le distinguer; mais sitot qu'il y parvient, on ne sauroit s'y meprendre; il est vrai des qu'il est senti.'
At the end of his days he felt that the great labour of his life which had been to express an intuitive certainty in words which would carry intellectual conviction, had been in vain, and his last words are: 'It is true so soon as it is felt.'
Three pages would tell as much of the essential truth of his 'religious formation' as three volumes. At Les Charmettes with Mme de Warens, as a boy and as a young man, he had known peace of soul. In Paris, amid the intellectual exaltation and enthusiasms of the Encyclopaedists, the memory of his lost peace haunted him like an uneasy conscience. His boyish unquestioning faith disappeared beneath the destructive criticism of the great pioneers of enlightenment and progress. Yet when all had been destroyed the hunger in his heart was still unsatisfied. Underneath his passionate admiration for Diderot smouldered a spark of resentment that he was not understood. They had torn down the fabric of expression into which he had poured the emotion of his immediate certainty as a boy; sometimes with an uplifted, sometimes with a sinking heart he surveyed the ruins. But the certainty that he had once been certain, the memory and the desire of the past peace—this they could not destroy. They could hardly even weaken this element within him, for they did not know that it existed, they were unable to conceive that it could exist. Jean-Jacques himself could give them no clue to its existence; he had no words, and he was still under the spell of the intellectual dogma of his age that words must express definite things. In common with his age he had lost the secret of the infinite persuasion of poetry. So the consciousness that he was different from those who surrounded him, and from those he admired as his masters, took hold of him. He was afraid of his own otherness, as all men are afraid when the first knowledge of their own essential loneliness begins to trouble their depths. The pathos of his struggle to kill the seed of this devastating knowledge is apparent in his declared desire to become 'a polished gentleman.' In the note which he added to his memoir for M. Dupin in 1749 he confesses to this ideal. If only he could become 'one of them,' indistinguishable without and within, he might be delivered from that disquieting sense of tongue-tied queerness in a normal world.
If he cheated himself at all, the deception was brief. The poignant memory of Les Charmettes whispered to him that there was a state of grace in which the hard things were made clear. But he had not yet the courage of his destiny. His consciousness of his separation from his fellows had still to harden into a consciousness of superiority before that courage would come. On the road to Vincennes on an October evening in 1749—M. Masson has fixed the date for us—he read in a news-sheet the question of the Dijon Academy: 'Si le retablissement des arts et des sciences a contribue a epurer les moeurs?' The scales dropped from his eyes and the weight was removed from his tongue. There is no mystery about this 'revelation.' For the first time the question had been put in terms which struck him squarely in the heart. Jean-Jacques made his reply with the stammering honesty of a man of genius wandering in age of talent.
The First Discourse seems to many rhetorical and extravagant. In after days it appeared so to Rousseau himself, and he claimed no more for it than that he had tried to tell the truth. Before he learned that he had won the Dijon prize and that his work had taken Paris by storm, he was surely a prey to terrors lest his Vincennes vision of the non-existence of progress should have been mere madness. The success reassured him. 'Cette faveur du public, nullement brigue, et pour un auteur inconnu, me donna la premiere assurance veritable de mon talent.' He was, in fact, not 'queer,' but right; and he had seemed to be queer precisely because he was right. Now he had the courage. 'Je suis grossier,' he wrote in the preface to Narcisse, 'maussade, impoli par principes; je me fous de tous vous autres gens de cour; je suis un barbare.' There is a touch of exaggeration and bravado in it all. He was still something of the child hallooing in the dark to give himself heart. He clutched hold of material symbols of the freedom he had won, round wig, black stockings, and a living gained by copying music at so much a line. But he did not break with his friends; the 'bear' suffered himself to be made a lion. He had still a foot in either camp, for though he had the conviction that he was right, he was still fumbling for his words. The memoirs of Madame d'Epinay tell us how in 1754, at dinner at Mlle Quinault's, impotent to reply to the polite atheistical persiflage of the company, he broke out: 'Et moi, messieurs, je crois en Dieu. Je sors si vous dites un mot de plus.' That was not what he meant; neither was the First Discourse what he meant. He had still to find his language, and to find his language he had to find his peace. He was like a twig whirled about in an eddy of a stream. Suddenly the stream bore him to Geneva, where he returned to the church which he had left at Confignon. That, too, was not what he meant. When he returned from Geneva, Madame d'Epinay had built him the Ermitage.
In the Reveries, which are mellow with the golden calm of his discovered peace, he tells how, having reached the climacteric which he had set at forty years, he went apart into the solitude of the Ermitage to inquire into the configuration of his own soul, and to fix once for all his opinions and his principles. In the exquisite third Reverie two phrases occur continually. His purpose was 'to find firm ground'—'prendre une assiette,'—and his means to this discovery was 'spiritual honesty'—'bonne foi.' Rousseau's deep concern was to elucidate the anatomy of his own soul, but, since he was sincere, he regarded it as a type of the soul of man. Looking into himself, he saw that, in spite of all his follies, his weaknesses, his faintings by the way, his blasphemies against the spirit, he was good. Therefore he declared: Man is born good. Looking into himself he saw that he was free to work out his own salvation, and to find that solid foundation of peace which he so fervently desired. Therefore he declared: Man is born free. To the whisper of les Charmettes that there was a condition of grace had been added the sterner voice of remorse for his abandoned children, telling him that he had fallen from his high estate.
'J'ai fui en vain; partout j'ai retrouve la Loi. Il faut ceder enfin! o porte, il faut admettre L'hote; coeur fremissant, il faut subir le maitre, Quelqu'un qui soit en moi plus moi-meme que moi.'
The noble verse of M. Claudel contains the final secret of Jean-Jacques. He found in himself something more him than himself. Therefore he declared: There is a God. But he sought to work out a logical foundation for these pinnacles of truth. He must translate these luminous convictions of his soul into arguments and conclusions. He could not, even to himself, admit that they were only intuitions; and in the Contrat Social he turned the reason to the service of a certainty not her own.
This unremitting endeavour to express an intuitive certainty in intellectual terms lies at the root of the many superficial contradictions in his work, and of the deeper contradiction which forms, as it were, the inward rhythm of his three great books. He seems to surge upwards on a passionate wave of revolutionary ideas, only to sink back into the calm of conservative or quietist conclusions. M. Masson has certainly observed it well.
'Le premier Discours anathematise les sciences et les arts, et ne voit le salut que dans les academies; le Discours sur l'Inegalite parait detruire tout autorite, et recommande pourtant "l'obeissance scrupuleuse aux lois et aux hommes qui en sont les auteurs": la Nouvelle Heloise preche d'abord l'emancipation sentimentale, et proclame la suprematie des droits de la passion, mais elle aboutit a exalter la fidelite conjugale, a consolider les grands devoirs familiaux et sociaux. Le Vicaire Savoyard nous reserve la meme surprise.'
To the revolutionaries of his age he was a renegade and a reactionary; to the Conservatives, a subversive charlatan. Yet he was in truth only a man stricken by the demon of 'la bonne foi,' and, like many men devoured by the passion of spiritual honesty, in his secret heart he believed in his similitude to Christ. 'Je ne puis pas souffrir les tiedes,' he wrote to Madame Latour in 1762, 'quiconque ne se passionne pas pour moi n'est pas digne de moi.' There is no mistaking the accent, and it sounds more plainly still in the Dialogues. He, too, was persecuted for righteousness' sake, because he, too, proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was within men.
And what, indeed, have material things to do with the purification and the peace of the soul? World-shattering arguments and world-preserving conclusions—this is the inevitable paradox which attends the attempt to record truth seen by the eye of the soul in the language of the market-place. The eloquence and the inspiration may descend upon the man so that he writes believing that all men will understand. He wakes in the morning and he is afraid, not of his own words whose deeper truth he does not doubt, but of the incapacity of mankind to understand him. They will read in the letter what was written in the spirit; their eyes will see the words, but their ears will be stopped to the music. The mystique as Peguy would have said, will be degraded into politique. To guard himself against this unhallowed destiny, at the last Rousseau turns with decision and in the language of his day rewrites the hard saying, that the things which are Caesar's shall be rendered unto Caesar.
In the light of this necessary truth all the contradictions which have been discovered in Rousseau's work fade away. That famous confusion concerning 'the natural man,' whom he presents to us now as a historic fact, now as an ideal, took its rise, not in the mind of Jean-Jacques, but in the minds of his critics. The Contrat Social is a parable of the soul of man, like the Republic of Plato. The truth of the human soul is its implicit perfection; to that reality material history is irrelevant, because the anatomy of the soul is eternal. And as for the nature of this truth, 'it is true so soon as it is felt.' When the Savoyard Vicar, after accepting all the destructive criticism of religious dogma, turned to the Gospel story with the immortal 'Ce n'est pas ainsi qu'on invente,' he was only anticipating what Jean-Jacques was to say of himself before his death, that there was a sign in his work which could not be imitated, and which acted only at the level of its source. We may call Jean-Jacques religious because we have no other word; but the word would be more truly applied to the reverence felt towards such a man than to his own emotion. He was driven to speak of God by the habit of his childhood and the deficiency of a language shaped by the intellect and not by the soul. But his deity was one whom neither the Catholic nor the Reformed Church could accept, for He was truly a God who does not dwell in temples made with hands. The respect he owed to God, said the Vicar, was such that he could affirm nothing of Him. And, again, still more profoundly, he said, 'He is to our souls what our soul is to our body.' That is the mystical utterance of a man who was no mystic, but of one who found his full communion in the beatific dolce far niente of the Lake of Bienne. Jean-Jacques was set apart from his generation, because, like Malvolio, he thought highly of the soul and in nowise approved the conclusions of his fellows; and he was fortunate to the last, in spite of what some are pleased to call his madness (which was indeed only his flaming and uncomprehending indignation at the persecution inevitably meted out by those who have only a half truth to one who has the whole), because he enjoyed the certainty that his high appraisement of the soul was justified.
The Poetry of Edward Thomas
We believe that when we are old and we turn back to look among the ruins with which our memory will be strewn for the evidence of life which disaster could not kill, we shall find it in the poems of Edward Thomas. They will appear like the faint, indelible writing of a palimpsest over which in our hours of exaltation and bitterness more resonant, yet less enduring, words were inscribed; or they will be like a phial discovered in the ashes of what was once a mighty city. There will be the triumphal arch standing proudly; the very tombs of the dead will seem to share its monumental magnificence. Yet we will turn from them all, from the victory and sorrow alike, to this faintly gleaming bubble of glass that will hold captive the phantasm of a fragrance of the soul. By it some dumb and doubtful knowledge will be evoked to tremble on the edge of our minds. We shall reach back, under its spell, beyond the larger impulses of a resolution and a resignation which will have become a part of history, to something less solid and more permanent over which they passed and which they could not disturb.
[Footnote 2: Last Poems. By Edward Thomas. (Selwyn & Blount.)]
Our consciousness will have its record. The tradition of England in battle has its testimony; our less traditional despairs will be compassed about by a crowd of witnesses. But it might so nearly have been in vain that we should seek an echo of that which smiled at the conclusions of our consciousness. The subtler faiths might so easily have fled through our harsh fingers. When the sound of the bugles died, having crowned reveille with the equal challenge of the last post, how easily we might have been persuaded that there was a silence, if there had not been one whose voice rose only so little above that of the winds and trees and the life of undertone we share with them as to make us first doubt the silence and then lend an ear to the incessant pulses of which it is composed. The infinite and infinitesimal vague happinesses and immaterial alarms, terrors and beauties scared by the sound of speech, memories and forgettings that the touch of memory itself crumbles into dust—this very texture of the life of the soul might have been a gray background over which tumultuous existence passed unheeding had not Edward Thomas so painfully sought the angle from which it appears, to the eye of eternity, as the enduring warp of the more gorgeous woof.
The emphasis sinks; the stresses droop away. To exacter knowledge less charted and less conquerable certainties succeed; truths that somehow we cannot make into truths, and that have therefore some strange mastery over us; laws of our common substance which we cannot make human but only humanise; loyalties we do not recognise and dare not disregard; beauties which deny communion with our beautiful, and yet compel our souls. So the sedge-warbler's
'Song that lacks all words, all melody, All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.'
Not that the unheard melodies were sweeter than the heard to this dead poet. We should be less confident of his quality if he had not been, both in his knowledge and his hesitations, the child of his age. Because he was this, the melodies were heard; but they were not sweet. They made the soul sensible of attachments deeper than the conscious mind's ideals, whether of beauty or goodness. Not to something above but to something beyond are we chained, for all that we forget our fetters, or by some queer trick of self-hallucination turn them into golden crowns. But perhaps the finer task of our humanity is to turn our eyes calmly into 'the dark backward and abysm' not of time, but of the eternal present on whose pinnacle we stand.
'I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember. No garden appears, no path, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless without end.'
So, it seems, a hundred years have found us out. We come no longer trailing clouds of glory. We are that which we are, less and more than our strong ancestors; less, in that our heritage does not descend from on high, more, in that we know ourselves for less. Yet our chosen spirit is not wholly secure in his courage. He longs not merely to know in what undifferentiated oneness his roots are fixed, but to discover it beautiful. Not even yet is it sufficient to have a premonition of the truth; the truth must wear a familiar colour.
'This heart, some fraction of me, happily Floats through the window even now to a tree Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale, Not like a peewit that returns to wail For something it has lost, but like a dove That slants unswerving to its home and love. There I find my rest, and through the dark air Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.'
Beauty, yes, perhaps; but beautiful by virtue of its coincidence with the truth, as there is beauty in those lines securer and stronger far than the melody of their cadence, because they tell of a loyalty of man's being which, being once made sensible of it, he cannot gainsay. Whence we all come, whither we must all make our journey, there is home indeed. But necessity, not remembered delights, draws us thither. That which we must obey is our father if we will; but let us not delude ourselves into the expectation of kindness and the fatted calf, any more than we dare believe that the love which moves the sun and the other stars has in it any charity. We may be, we are, the children of the universe; but we have 'neither father nor mother nor any playmate.'
And Edward Thomas knew this. The knowledge should be the common property of the poetry of our time, marking it off from what went before and from what will come after. We believe that it will be found to be so; and that the presence of this knowledge, and the quality which this knowledge imparts, makes Edward Thomas more than one among his contemporaries. He is their chief. He challenges other regions in the hinterland of our souls. Yet how shall we describe the narrowness of the line which divides his province from theirs, or the only half-conscious subtlety of the gesture with which he beckons us aside from trodden and familiar paths? The difference, the sense of departure, is perhaps most apparent in this, that he knows his beauty is not beautiful, and his home no home at all.
'This is my grief. That land, My home, I have never seen. No traveller tells of it, However far he has been.
'And could I discover it I fear my happiness there, Or my pain, might be dreams of return To the things that were.'
Great poetry stands in this, that it expresses man's allegiance to his destiny. In every age the great poet triumphs in all that he knows of necessity; thus he is the world made vocal. Other generations of men may know more, but their increased knowledge will not diminish from the magnificence of the music which he has made for the spheres. The known truth alters from age to age; but the thrill of the recognition of the truth stands fast for all our human eternity. Year by year the universe grows vaster, and man, by virtue of the growing brightness of his little lamp, sees himself more and more as a child born in the midst of a dark forest, and finds himself less able to claim the obeisance of the all. Yet if he would be a poet, and not a harper of threadbare tunes, he must at each step in the downward passing from his sovereignty, recognise what is and celebrate it as what must be. Thus he regains, by another path, the supremacy which he has forsaken.
Edward Thomas's poetry has the virtue of this recognition. It may be said that his universe was not vaster but smaller than the universe of the past, for its bounds were largely those of his own self. It is, even in material fact, but half true. None more closely than he regarded the living things of earth in all their quarters. 'After Rain' is, for instance, a very catalogue of the texture of nature's visible garment, freshly put on, down to the little ash-leaves
'... thinly spread In the road, like little black fish, inlaid As if they played.'
But it is true that these objects of vision were but the occasion of the more profound discoveries within the region of his own soul. There he discovered vastness and illimitable vistas; found himself to be an eddy in the universal flux, driven whence and whither he knew not, conscious of perpetual instability, the meeting place of mighty impacts of which only the farthest ripple agitates the steady moonbeam of the waking mind. In a sense he did no more than to state what he found, sometimes in the more familiar language of beauties lost, mourned for lost, and irrecoverable.
'The simple lack Of her is more to me Than other's presence, Whether life splendid be Or utter black.
'I have not seen, I have no news of her; I can tell only She is not here, but there She might have been.
'She is to be kissed Only perhaps by me; She may be seeking Me and no other; she May not exist.'
That search lies nearer to the norm of poetry. We might register its wistfulness, praise the appealing nakedness of its diction and pass on. If that were indeed the culmination of Edward Thomas's poetical quest, he would stand securely enough with others of his time. But he reaches further. In the verses on his 'home,' which we have already quoted, he passes beyond these limits. He has still more to tell of the experience of the soul fronting its own infinity:—
'So memory made Parting to-day a double pain: First because it was parting; next Because the ill it ended vexed And mocked me from the past again. Not as what had been remedied Had I gone on,—not that, ah no! But as itself no longer woe.'
There speaks a deep desire born only of deep knowledge. Only those who have been struck to the heart by a sudden awareness of the incessant not-being which is all we hold of being, know the longing to arrest the movement even at the price of the perpetuation of their pain. So it was that the moments which seemed to come to him free from the infirmity of becoming haunted and held him most.
'Often I had gone this way before, But now it seemed I never could be And never had been anywhere else.'
To cheat the course of time, which is only the name with which we strive to cheat the flux of things, and to anchor the soul to something that was not instantly engulfed—
'In the undefined Abyss of what can never be again.'
Sometimes he looked within himself for the monition which men have felt as the voice of the eternal memory; sometimes, like Keats, but with none of the intoxication of Keats's sense of a sharing in victory, he grasped at the recurrence of natural things, 'the pure thrush word,' repeated every spring, the law of wheeling rooks, or to the wind 'that was old when the gods were young,' as in this profoundly typical sensing of 'A New House.'
'All was foretold me; naught Could I foresee; But I learned how the wind would sound After these things should be.'
But he could not rest even there. There was, indeed, no anchorage in the enduring to be found by one so keenly aware of the flux within the soul itself. The most powerful, the most austerely imagined poem in this book is that entitled 'The Other,' which, apart from its intrinsic appeal, shows that Edward Thomas had something at least of the power to create the myth which is the poet's essential means of triangulating the unknown of his emotion. Had he lived to perfect himself in the use of this instrument, he might have been a great poet indeed. 'The Other' tells of his pursuit of himself, and how he overtook his soul.
'And now I dare not follow after Too close. I try to keep in sight, Dreading his frown and worse his laughter, I steal out of the wood to light; I see the swift shoot from the rafter By the window: ere I alight I wait and hear the starlings wheeze And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight. He goes: I follow: no release Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.'
No; not a great poet, will be the final sentence, when the palimpsest is read with the calm and undivided attention that is its due, but one who had many (and among them the chief) of the qualities of a great poet. Edward Thomas was like a musician who noted down themes that summon up forgotten expectations. Whether the genius to work them out to the limits of their scope and implication was in him we do not know. The life of literature was a hard master to him; and perhaps the opportunity he would eagerly have grasped was denied him by circumstance. But, if his compositions do not, his themes will never fail—of so much we are sure—to awaken unsuspected echoes even in unsuspecting minds.
Mr Yeats's Swan Song
In the preface to The Wild Swans at Coole, Mr W.B. Yeats speaks of 'the phantasmagoria through which alone I can express my convictions about the world.' The challenge could hardly be more direct. At the threshold we are confronted with a legend upon the door-post which gives us the essential plan of all that we shall find in the house if we enter in. There are, it is true, a few things capable of common use, verses written in the seeming-strong vernacular of literary Dublin, as it were a hospitable bench placed outside the door. They are indeed inside the house, but by accident or for temporary shelter. They do not, as the phrase goes, belong to the scheme, for they are direct transcriptions of the common reality, whether found in the sensible world or the emotion of the mind. They are, from Mr Yeats's angle of vision (as indeed from our own), essentially vers d'occasion.
[Footnote 3: The Wild Swans at Coole. By W.B. Yeats.(Macmillan.)]
The poet's high and passionate argument must be sought elsewhere, and precisely in his expression of his convictions about the world. And here, on the poet's word and the evidence of our search, we shall find phantasmagoria, ghostly symbols of a truth which cannot be otherwise conveyed, at least by Mr Yeats. To this, in itself, we make no demur. The poet, if he is a true poet, is driven to approach the highest reality he can apprehend. He cannot transcribe it simply because he does not possess the necessary apparatus of knowledge, and because if he did possess it his passion would flag. It is not often that Spinoza can disengage himself to write as he does at the beginning of the third book of the Ethics, nor could Lucretius often kindle so great a fire in his soul as that which made his material incandescent in AEneadum genetrix. Therefore the poet turns to myth as a foundation upon which he can explicate his imagination. He may take his myth from legend or familiar history, or he may create one for himself anew, but the function it fulfils is always the same. It supplies the elements with which he can build the structure of his parable, upon which he can make it elaborate enough to convey the multitudinous reactions of his soul to the world.
But between myths and phantasmagoria there is a great gulf. The structural possibilities of the myth depend upon its intelligibility. The child knows upon what drama, played in what world, the curtain will rise when he hears the trumpet-note: 'Of man's first disobedience....' And, even when the poet turns from legend and history to create his own myth, he must make one whose validity is visible, if he is not to be condemned to the sterility of a coterie. The lawless and fantastic shapes of his own imagination need, even for their own perfect embodiment, the discipline of the common perception. The phantoms of the individual brain, left to their own waywardness, lose all solidity and become like primary forms of life, instead of the penultimate forms they should be. For the poet himself must move securely among his visions; they must be not less certain and steadfast than men are. To anchor them he needs intelligible myth. Nothing less than a supremely great genius can save him if he ventures into the vast without a landmark visible to other eyes than his own. Blake had a supremely great genius and was saved in part. The masculine vigour of his passion gave stability to the figures of his imagination. They are heroes because they are made to speak like heroes. Even in Blake's most recondite work there is always the moment when the clouds are parted and we recognise the austere and awful countenances of gods. The phantasmagoria of the dreamer have been mastered by the sheer creative will of the poet. Like Jacob, he wrestled until the going down of the sun with his angel and would not let him go.
The effort which such momentary victories demand is almost superhuman; yet to possess the power to exert it is the sole condition upon which a poet may plunge into the world of phantasms. Mr Yeats has too little of the power to vindicate himself from the charge of idle dreaming. He knows the problem; perhaps he has also known the struggle. But the very terms in which he suggests it to us subtly convey a sense of impotence:—
Hands, do what you're bid; Bring the balloon of the mind That bellies and drags in the wind Into its narrow shed.
The languor and ineffectuality of the image tell us clearly how the poet has failed in his larger task; its exactness, its precise expression of an ineffectuality made conscious and condoned, bears equal witness to the poet's minor probity. He remains an artist by determination, even though he returns downcast and defeated from the great quest of poetry. We were inclined at first, seeing those four lines enthroned in majestic isolation on a page, to find in them evidence of an untoward conceit. Subsequently they have seemed to reveal a splendid honesty. Although it has little mysterious and haunting beauty, The Wild Swans at Coole is indeed a swan song. It is eloquent of final defeat; the following of a lonely path has ended in the poet's sinking exhausted in a wilderness of gray. Not even the regret is passionate; it is pitiful.
'I am worn out with dreams, A weather-worn, marble triton Among the streams; And all day long I look Upon this lady's beauty As though I had found in book A pictured beauty, Pleased to have filled the eyes Or the discerning ears, Delighted to be but wise, For men improve with the years; And yet, and yet Is this my dream, or the truth? O would that we had met When I had my burning youth; But I grow old among dreams, A weather-worn, marble triton Among the streams.'
It is pitiful because, even now in spite of all his honesty the poet mistakes the cause of his sorrow. He is worn out not with dreams, but with the vain effort to master them and submit them to his own creative energy. He has not subdued them nor built a new world from them; he has merely followed them like will-o'-the-wisps away from the world he knew. Now, possessing neither world, he sits by the edge of a barren road that vanishes into a no-man's land, where is no future, and whence there is no way back to the past.
'My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan's poor; No likely end could bring them loss Or leave them happier than before.'
It may be that Mr Yeats has succumbed to the malady of a nation. We do not know whether such things are possible; we must consider him only in and for himself. From this angle we can regard him only as a poet whose creative vigour has failed him when he had to make the highest demands upon it. His sojourn in the world of the imagination, far from enriching his vision, has made it infinitely tenuous. Of this impoverishment, as of all else that has overtaken him, he is agonisedly aware.
'I would find by the edge of that water The collar-bone of a hare, Worn thin by the lapping of the water, And pierce it through with a gimlet, and stare At the old bitter world where they marry in churches, And laugh over the untroubled water At all who marry in churches, Through the white thin bone of a hare.'
Nothing there remains of the old bitter world which for all its bitterness is a full world also; but nothing remains of the sweet world of imagination. Mr Yeats has made the tragic mistake of thinking that to contemplate it was sufficient. Had he been a great poet he would have made it his own, by forcing it into the fetters of speech. By re-creating it, he would have made it permanent; he would have built landmarks to guide him always back to where the effort of his last discovery had ended. But now there remains nothing but a handful of the symbols with which he was content:—
'A Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw, A Buddha, hand at rest, Hand lifted up that blest; And right between these two a girl at play.'
These are no more than the dry bones in the valley of Ezekiel, and, alas! there is no prophetic fervour to make them live.
Whether Mr Yeats, by some grim fatality, mistook his phantasmagoria for the product of the creative imagination, or whether (as we prefer to believe) he made an effort to discipline them to his poetic purpose and failed, we cannot certainly say. Of this, however, we are certain, that somehow, somewhere, there has been disaster. He is empty, now. He has the apparatus of enchantment, but no potency in his soul. He is forced to fall back upon the artistic honesty which has never forsaken him. That it is an insufficient reserve let this passage show:—
'For those that love the world serve it in action, Grow rich, popular, and full of influence, And should they paint or write still it is action: The struggle of the fly in marmalade. The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours, The sentimentalist himself; while art Is but a vision of reality....'
Mr Yeats is neither rhetorician nor sentimentalist. He is by structure and impulse an artist. But structure and impulse are not enough. Passionate apprehension must be added to them. Because this is lacking in Mr Yeats those lines, concerned though they are with things he holds most dear, are prose and not poetry.
The Wisdom of Anatole France
How few are the wise writers who remain to us? They are so few that it seems, at moments, that wisdom, like justice of old, is withdrawing from the world, and that when their fullness of years is accomplished, as, alas! it soon must be, the wise men who will leave us will have been the last of their kind. It is true that something akin to wisdom, or rather a quality whose outward resemblance to wisdom can deceive all but the elect, will emerge from the ruins of war; but true wisdom is not created out of the catastrophic shock of disillusionment. An unexpected disaster is always held to be in some sort undeserved. Yet the impulse to rail at destiny, be it never so human, is not wise. Wisdom is not bitter; at worst it is bitter-sweet, and bitter-sweet is the most subtle and lingering savour of all.
Let us not say in our haste, that without wisdom we are lost. Wisdom is, after all, but one attitude to life among many. It happens to be the one which will stand the hardest wear, because it is prepared for all ill-usage. But hard wear is not the only purpose which an attitude may serve. We may demand of an attitude that it should enable us to exact the utmost from ourselves. To refuse to accommodate oneself to the angularities of life or to make provision beforehand for its catastrophes is, indeed, folly; but it may be a divine folly. It is, at all events, a folly to which poets incline. But poets are not wise; indeed, the poetry of true wisdom is a creation which can, at the best, be but dimly imagined. Perhaps, of them all, Lucretius had the largest inkling of what such poetry might be; but he disqualified himself by an aptitude for ecstasy, which made his poetry superb and his wisdom of no account. To acquiesce is wise; to be ecstatic in acquiescence is not to have acquiesced at all. It is to have identified oneself with an imagined power against whose manifestations, in those moments when no ecstasy remains, one rebels. It is a megalomania, a sublime self-deception, a heroic attempt to project the soul on to the side of destiny, and to believe ourselves the masters of those very powers which have overwhelmed us.
Whether the present generation will produce great poetry, we do not know. We are tolerably certain that it will not produce wise men. It is too conscious of defeat and too embittered to be wise. Some may seek that ecstasy of seeming acquiescence of which we have spoken; others, who do not endeavour to escape the pain by plunging the barb deeper, may try to shake the dust of life from off their feet. Neither will be wise. But precisely because they are not wise, they will seek the company of wise men. Their own attitude will not wear. The ecstasy will fail, the will to renunciation falter; the gray reality which permits no one to escape it altogether will filter like a mist into the vision and the cell. Then they will turn to the wise men. They will find comfort in the smile to which they could not frame their own lips, and discover in it more sympathy than they could hope for.
Among the wise men whom they will surely most frequent will be Anatole France. His company is constant; his attitude durable. There is no undertone of anguish in his work like that which gives such poignant and haunting beauty to Tchehov. He has never suffered himself to be so involved in life as to be maimed by it. But the price he has paid for his safety has been a renunciation of experience. Only by being involved in life, perhaps only by being maimed by it, could he have gained that bitterness of knowledge which is the enemy of wisdom. Not that Anatole France made a deliberate renunciation: no man of his humanity would of his own will turn aside. It was instinct which guided him into a sequestered path, which ran equably by the side of the road of alternate exaltation and catastrophe which other men of equal genius must travel. Therefore he has seen men as it were in profile against the sky, but never face to face. Their runnings, their stumblings and their gesticulations are a tumultuous portion of the landscape rather than symbols of an intimate and personal possibility. They lend a baroque enchantment to the scene.
So it is that in all the characters of Anatole France's work which are not closely modelled upon his own idiosyncrasy there is something of the marionette. They are not the less charming for that; nor do they lack a certain logic, but it is not the logic of personality. They are embodied comments upon life, but they do not live. And there is for Anatole France, while he creates them, and for us, while we read about them, no reason why they should live. For living, in the accepted sense, is an activity impossible without indulging many illusions; and fervently to sympathise with characters engaged in the activity demands that their author should participate in the illusions. He, too, must be surprised at the disaster which he himself has proved inevitable. It is not enough that he should pity them; he must share in their effort, and be discomfited at their discomfiture.
Such exercises of the soul are impossible to a real acquiescence, which cannot even permit itself the inspiration of the final illusion that the wreck of human hopes, being ordained, is beautiful. The man who acquiesces is condemned to stand apart and contemplate a puppet-show with which he can never really sympathise.
'De toutes les definitions de l'homme la plus mauvaise me parait celle qui en fait un animal raisonnable. Je ne me vante pas excessivement en me donnant pour doue de plus de raison que la plupart de ceux de mes semblables que j'ai vus de pres ou dont j'ai connu l'histoire. La raison habite rarement les ames communes, et bien plus rarement encore les grands esprits.... J'appelle raisonnable celui qui accorde sa raison particuliere avec la raison universelle, de maniere a n'etre jamais trop surpris de ce qui arrive et a s'y accommoder tant bien que mal; j'appelle raisonnable celui qui, observant le desordre de la nature et la folie humaine, ne s'obstine point a y voir de l'ordre et de la sagesse; j'appelle raisonnable enfin celui qui ne s'efforce pas de l'etre.'
The chasm between living and being wise (which is to be raisonnable) is manifest. The condition of living is to be perpetually surprised, incessantly indignant or exultant, at what happens. To bridge the chasm there is for the wise man only one way. He must cast back in his memory to the time when he, too, was surprised and indignant. No man is, after all, born wise, though he may be born with an instinct for wisdom. Thus Anatole France touches us most nearly when he describes his childhood. The innocent, wayward, positive, romantic little Pierre Noziere is a human being to a degree to which no other figures in the master's comedy of unreason are. And it is evident that Anatole France himself finds him by far the most attractive of them all. He can almost persuade himself, at moments, that he still is the child he was, as in the exquisite story of how, when he had been to a truly royal chocolate shop, he attempted to reproduce its splendours in play. At one point his invention and his memory failed him, and he turned to his mother to ask: 'Est-ce celui qui vend ou celui qui achete qui donne de l'argent?'
'Je ne devais jamais connaitre le prix de l'argent. Tel j'etais a trois ans ou trois ans et demi dans le cabinet tapisse de boutons de roses, tel je restai jusqu'a la vieillesse, qui m'est legere, comme elle l'est a toutes les ames exemptes d'avarice et d'orgueil. Non, maman, je n'ai jamais connu le prix de l'argent. Je ne le connais pas encore, ou plutot je le connais trop bien.'
[Footnote 4: Le Petit Pierre. Par Anatole France. (Paris: Calmann-Levy.)]
To know a thing too well is by worlds removed from not to know it at all, and Anatole France does not elsewhere similarly attempt to indulge the illusion of unbroken innocence. He who refused to put a mark of interrogation after 'What is God,' in defiance of his mother, because he knew, now has to restrain himself from putting one after everything he writes or thinks. 'Ma pauvre mere, si elle vivait, me dirait peut-etre que maintenant j'en mets trop.' Yes, Anatole France is wise, and far removed from childish follies. And, perhaps, it is precisely because of his wisdom that he can so exactly discern the enchantment of his childhood. So few men grow up. The majority remain hobbledehoys throughout life; all the disabilities and none of the unique capacities of childhood remain. There are a few who, in spite of all experience, retain both; they are the poets and the grands esprits. There are fewer still who learn utterly to renounce childish things; and they are the wise men.
'Je suis une autre personne que l'enfant dont je parle. Nous n'avons plus en commun, lui et moi, un atome de substance ni de pensee. Maintenant qu'il m'est devenu tout a fait etranger, je puis en sa compagnie me distraire de la mienne. Je l'aime, moi qui ne m'aime ni ne me hais. Il m'est doux de vivre en pensee les jours qu'il vivait et je souffre de respirer l'air du temps ou nous sommes.'
Not otherwise is it with us and Anatole France. We may have little in common with his thought—the community we often imagine comes of self-deception—but it is sweet for us to inhabit his mind for a while. His touch is potent to soothe our fitful fevers.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Modern poetry, like the modern consciousness of which it is the epitome, seems to stand irresolute at a crossways with no signpost. It is hardly conscious of its own indecision, which it manages to conceal from itself by insisting that it is lyrical, whereas it is merely impressionist. The value of impressions depends upon the quality of the mind which receives and renders them, and to be lyrical demands at least as firm a temper of the mind, as definite and unfaltering a general direction, as to be epic. Roughly speaking, the present poetical fashion may, with a few conspicuous exceptions, be described as poetry without tears. The poet may assume a hundred personalities in as many poems, or manifest a hundred influences, or he may work a single sham personality threadbare or render piecemeal an undigested influence. What he may not do, or do only at the risk of being unfashionable, is to attempt what we may call, for the lack of a better word, the logical progression of an oeuvre. One has no sense of the rhythm of an achievement. There is an output of scraps, which are scraps, not because they are small, but because one scrap stands in no organic relation to another in the poet's work. Instead of lending each other strength, they betray each other's weakness.
Yet the organic progression for which we look, generally in vain, is not peculiar to poetic genius of the highest rank. If it were, we might be accused of mere querulousness. The rhythm of personality is hard, indeed, to achieve. The simple mind and the single outlook are now too rare to be considered as near possibilities, while the task of tempering a mind to a comprehensive adequacy to modern experience is not an easy one. The desire to escape and the desire to be lost in life were probably never so intimately associated as they are now; and it is a little preposterous to ask a moth fluttering round a candle-flame to see life steadily and see it whole. We happen to have been born into an age without perspective; hence our idolatry for the one living poet and prose writer who has it and comes, or appears to come, from another age. But another rhythm is possible. No doubt it would be mistaken to consider this rhythm as in fact wholly divorced from the rhythm of personality; it probably demands at least a minimum of personal coherence in its possessor. For critical purposes, however, they are distinct. This second and subsidiary rhythm is that of technical progression. The single pursuit of even the most subordinate artistic intention gives unity, significance, mass to a poet's work. When Verlaine declares 'de la musique avant toute chose,' we know where we are. And we know this not in the obvious sense of expecting his verse to be predominantly musical; but in the more important sense of desiring to take a man seriously who declares for anything 'avant toute chose.'
It is the 'avant toute chose' that matters, not as a profession of faith—we do not greatly like professions of faith—but as the guarantee of the universal in the particular, of the dianoia in the episode. It is the 'avant toute chose' that we chiefly miss in modern poetry and modern society and in their quaint concatenations. It is the 'avant toute chose' that leads us to respect both Mr Hardy and Mr Bridges, though we give all our affection to one of them. It is the 'avant toute chose' that compels us to admire the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins; it is the 'avant toute chose' in his work, which, as we believe, would have condemned him to obscurity to-day, if he had not (after many years) had Mr Bridges, who was his friend, to stand sponsor and the Oxford University Press to stand the racket. Apparently Mr Bridges himself is something of our opinion, for his introductory sonnet ends on a disdainful note:—
'Go forth: amidst our chaffinch flock display Thy plumage of far wonder and heavenward flight!'
[Footnote 5: Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Edited with notes by Robert Bridges. (Oxford: University Press.)]
It is from a sonnet written by Hopkins to Mr Bridges that we take the most concise expression of his artistic intention, for the poet's explanatory preface is not merely technical, but is written in a technical language peculiar to himself. Moreover, its scope is small; the sonnet tells us more in two lines than the preface in four pages.
'O then if in my lagging lines you miss The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation....'
There is his 'avant toute chose.' Perhaps it seems very like 'de la musique.' But it tells us more about Hopkins's music than Verlaine's line told us about his. This music is of a particular kind, not the 'sanglots du violon,' but pre-eminently the music of song, the music most proper to lyrical verse. If one were to seek in English the lyrical poem to which Hopkins's definition could be most fittingly applied, one would find Shelley's 'Skylark.' A technical progression onwards from the 'Skylark' is accordingly the main line of Hopkins's poetical evolution. There are other, stranger threads interwoven; but this is the chief. Swinburne, rightly enough if the intention of true song is considered, appears hardly to have existed for Hopkins, though he was his contemporary. There is an element of Keats in his epithets, a half-echo in 'whorled ear' and 'lark-charmed'; there is an aspiration after Milton's architectonic in the construction of the later sonnets and the most lucid of the fragments,'Epithalamion.' But the central point of departure is the 'Skylark.' The 'May Magnificat' is evidence of Hopkins's achievement in the direct line:—
'Ask of her, the mighty mother: Her reply puts this other Question: What is Spring?— Growth in everything—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather, Grass and greenworld all together; Star-eyed strawberry-breasted Throstle above her nested Cluster of bugle-blue eggs thin Forms and warms the life within....
... When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple Bloom lights the orchard-apple, And thicket and thorp are merry With silver-surfed cherry,
And azuring-over graybell makes Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes, And magic cuckoo-call Caps, clears, and clinches all....'
That is the primary element manifested in one of its simplest, most recognisable, and some may feel most beautiful forms. But a melody so simple, though it is perhaps the swiftest of which the English language is capable without the obscurity which comes of the drowning of sense in sound, did not satisfy Hopkins. He aimed at complex internal harmonies, at a counterpoint of rhythm; for this more complex element he coined an expressive word of his own:—