T. G. TUCKER
LITT.D. (CAMB.); HON. LITT.D. (DUBLIN) Professor of Classical Philology in the University of Melbourne
MELBOURNE THOMAS C. LOTHIAN 1914 PRINTED IN ENGLAND
Copyright. First Edition May, 1914.
The following monologues were given as public addresses, mostly to semi-academical audiences, and no alteration has been made in their form. Their common object has been to plead the cause of literary study at a time when that study is being depreciated and discouraged. But along with the general plea must go some indication that literature can be studied as well as read. Hence some of the articles attempt—what must always be a difficult task—the crystallizing of the salient principles of literary judgment.
The present collection has been made because the publisher believes that a sufficiently large number of intelligent persons will be interested in reading it. On the whole that appears to be at least as good a reason as any other for printing a book.
The addresses on "The Supreme Literary Gift," "The Making of a Shakespeare," and "Literature and Life," have appeared previously as separate brochures. Those on "Two Successors of Tennyson" and "Hebraism and Hellenism" were printed in the Melbourne Argus at the time of their delivery, and are here reproduced by kind permission of that paper. The talk upon "The Future of Poetry" has not hitherto appeared in print.
Though circumstances have prevented any development of the powers and work of the two "Successors of Tennyson," there is nothing either in the criticism of those writers or in the principles applied thereto which seems to call for any modification at this date. For the rest, it is hoped that the lecture will be read in the light of the facts as they were at the time of its delivery.
THE SUPREME LITERARY GIFT 9
HEBRAISM AND HELLENISM 53
THE PRINCIPLES OF CRITICISM, APPLIED TO TWO SUCCESSORS OF TENNYSON 95
THE MAKING OF A SHAKESPEARE 147
LITERATURE AND LIFE 191
THE FUTURE OF POETRY 219
The Supreme Literary Gift
When we have been reading some transcendent passage in one of the world's masterpieces we experience that mental sensation which Longinus declares to be the test of true sublimity, to wit, our mind "undergoes a kind of proud elation and delight, as if it had itself begotten the thing we read." We are disposed by such literature very much as we are disposed by the Sistine Madonna or before the Aphrodite of Melos. Things like these exert a sort of overmastering power upon us. Our craving for perfection, for ideal beauty, is for once wholly gratified. Our spirit glows with an intense and complete satisfaction. It would build itself a tabernacle on the spot, for it recognizes that it is good to be there. We do not analyse, we do not criticize, we simply deliver over our souls to a proud elation and delight. Nay, at the moment when we are in the midst of such spontaneous and exquisite enjoyment, we should, in all likelihood, resent any attempt to make us realize exactly why this particular creation of art so fills up our souls down to the last cranny of satisfaction while another stops short of that supreme effect.
And yet, afterwards, when we are meditating upon this strange potency of a poem or a building or a statue, or when we are trying to communicate to others the feeling of its charm, do we not find ourselves importunately asking wherein lies the secret of great art? And, in the case of literature, we think it at such times no desecration of our delight to put a passage of Shakespeare or of Milton beside a passage of Homer, of AEschylus, or of Dante, an essay of Lamb beside a chapter of Heine, a lyric of Burns by one of Shelley, and to seek for some common measure of their excellence.
Suppose that, in these more reflective moments, we can come near to some explanation; suppose we can realize what it is that these supreme writers alone achieve; then, when we read again, the very perfection of their achievement springs forward and comes home to us with a still keener delight. We feel all we felt before, but we enjoy it more, because we understand in some degree why we feel it. Say what we will, we are never really content with an admiration which cannot render to itself a reason. What are all the thousand works of literary criticism called forth by, unless it be by that perpetual question which nags for an answer in all intelligent minds, the question "What is the gift which, behind all mere diction, behind all cadence and rhythm and rhyme, behind all mere lucidity, behind all mere intellect, and behind all variety of subject matter, makes writing everlastingly fresh, admirable, a thing of beauty and a joy for ever"?
Alas! we cannot, indeed, necessarily hope to get that gift into our own power because we can perceive it in the great masters. According to the Apostle, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights." "Their vigour is of the fire and their origin is celestial," says the pagan. The coelestis origo is unpurchasable. Nevertheless, even for the ordinary being who aspires himself to write, there is this practical benefit to be derived from an insight into the truth—that he will know in what the supreme gift does consist. He will not delude himself into fancying that it means merely grammatical accuracy, or a command of words, or tricks of phrase, or a faculty for rhyming, or logical precision, or any of those other commonplace qualities and dexterities which are almost universally attainable.
He will at least aim at the right thing, and, even if he fails, his work will be all the higher for that aim.
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I do not propose to speak in general of great books, but only of great literature. Literature proper is not simply writing. You may tell in writing the most important and unimpeachable truths concerning science and history, concerning nature and man, without being in the least literary. You may argue and teach and describe in books which are of immense vogue and repute, without pretending to be a figure in literature. But, on the other hand, you may be very wrong; logically, scientifically, historically, ethically altogether wrong; and yet you may exercise an irresistible literary fascination over your own generation and all that follow. Charles Lamb speaks disdainfully of books which are no books, things in books' clothing. He had in mind Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, essays on population, treatises on moral philosophy, and so forth. He meant that such works are works, but no literature. Mill's Logic, geographical descriptions, guidebooks, the Origin of Species, whatever may be the value of such volumes for thought or knowledge, they are not literature. There is only one test to apply to such books as those. If their statements are true, if their reasoning is accurate, if their exposition is clear, such works are good of their kind. Nevertheless, it is scarcely literary judgment which judges them. You might as well apply "architectural" criticism to our rows of tin-roofed cottages or to the average warehouse or wool-store or tramshed. These are buildings, but they are not architecture.
Meanwhile Herodotus, with all his superstitions, his credulity and mistakes; Plato, with all his blunders in elementary logic; Homer, with all his naive ignorance of science and the wide world; Dante, despite his cramped outlook; Milton, in spite of his perverse theologizing—these and their like are, and will always be, literature. No matter if Carlyle's French Revolution be in reality as far from the literal truth as the work of Froude, yet Carlyle and Froude are literature, along with Herodotus and Livy and Froissart, while the most scrupulously exact of chronicles may be but books.
The charm of supreme literature is independent of its date or country. The current literary taste varies, we know, at different periods and in different places. There are successive fashions and schools of literature and literary principle—an Attic, an Alexandrian, an Augustan, a Renaissance Italian, an Elizabethan, a Louis Quatorze, a Queen Anne, a nineteenth century Romantic. And yet from each and all of these there will stand out one or two writers, sometimes more, whom we have enthroned in the literary Pantheon, and whose place there among the gods seems only to grow the more assured as time goes on.
Now, what is it that is left, the common residuum, to all these literary masters; to Homer, Sappho, AEschylus, Plato, Theocritus, Juvenal; to Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Moliere; to Goethe, Shelley, Victor Hugo, Carlyle, in spite of all their manifest differences in subject, and style, in ideas and ideals, in range of thought and knowledge? When we have got behind all the varying and often contradictory criticism of their several epochs; when we have stripped away the characteristics which mark a special era; what is there essentially and everlastingly good—in the true sense "classic"—in virtue of which these particular writers renew for themselves with every generation the suffrages of understanding humanity? If there is a "survival of the fittest" anywhere, it is assuredly in art, and especially in the art of literature. Seeing then that writer is so unlike to writer, both in what he says and the way in which he says it, what is that cardinal literary virtue, that quintessential x, in virtue of which both alike are masters in their craft?
The answer is very elusive. Let us seek it, in the Socratic spirit, together.
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But first let me remind you that in order to find the answer, the seeker must possess both literary cultivation and also breadth of mind. Unless we have read widely in literature of many sorts and kinds; unless we have developed a generous catholicity of taste and appreciation, a many-sidedness of sympathy and interest; unless we have corrected our natural idiosyncrasies by what Matthew Arnold, after Goethe, calls a "harmonious expansion of all our powers," we cannot see clearly; we cannot distinguish between the impressions which we derive from literary power and art, and the impressions which we derive from something else to which we happen to be partial, but which is quite irrelevant to the question. Any one who belongs to a particular "school," whether of style or thought; any one who approaches literature with a spirit overweighted by political bias, scientific bias, or religious bias, is disqualified. He cannot hope to stand equally away from, or equally near to, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, and, after setting aside their elements of disagreement, distinguish and admire that which is definitely and for ever admirable in their creations. Do we lack sympathy with the tragic feeling? Do we shrink from it? Then we can be no judges of tragic art, of King Lear or the OEdipus. Have we no sense of humour, or only a gross and vulgar sense of humour? Then we can be no judges of the writings of Cervantes or of Sterne. Are we incapable of ardent idealism? Then we cannot be just to Shelley. Is a capacity for profound reverence and adoration not ours? Then we must not claim to say the last word on Dante. The uncongenial subject prevents us from feeling with the writer, and we therefore fancy a defect of literary power or charm in him, while the defect is all the time in ourselves. We will, for the moment, suppose ourselves to be the ideal critics. And let us first see what the supreme literary gift is not.
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We may admit that, in all literature which the world will not willingly let die, there must be expressed something worth expressing. The matter must be, in some way, of interest. But it appears to signify little how it interests. It may be enlightening, elevating, or inspiriting: it may be profoundly touching: it may be of a fine or gracious sentiment or fancy: it may be startling: it may be simply entertaining. Some people, perhaps, remembering certain French and other fiction, would say that it may even be deliberately wicked. That I do not believe. On the contrary, it is much to the credit of a world which is declared to be so rotten with original sin, that deliberately wicked writing finds so little lasting favour with it. It does gladly let such writing die, however well written. Interest fails, and admiration of the literary skill is speedily swallowed up in disgust. Moreover it is seldom that the true possessor of the supreme literary gift turns it to base ends.
Consummate literature, we have admitted, must be interesting. It would be truer to say that the possessor of the supreme literary gift will make his matter interest us, however light or serious, however literal or imaginative, it may be. But, when once of interest, the matter may be anything you will.
The supreme literary gift, for example, does not imply profundity or originality of thought. Homer and Chaucer are not deep thinkers, nor is Herodotus or Virgil, Burns, Keats, or Tennyson. There need be nothing philosophically epoch-making about a literary creation which is destined to be immortal. Nor yet does the supreme literary gift necessarily imply extraordinary depth of emotion. Of the writers just named Burns and Keats perhaps have this capacity, but the rest—including Tennyson—reveal little of it. We do not find burning passion to be a distinct feature in Plato, in Milton, in Goethe, or in Matthew Arnold, while it is emphatic in Sappho, in Byron, and in Shelley. Again, the supreme literary gift does not imply any special expression of truth or instruction, moral, religious or other. Homer and Dante cannot both be right. If Homer is right, then Dante is lamentably wrong; and if Dante is right, Goethe is unforgivably wrong. Wordsworth cannot be harmonized with Shelley. Milton was a Puritan, Keats a neo-pagan. In the domain of literal and historical truth what becomes of Gulliver's Travels, or Scott's novels, or, for the matter of that, Paradise Lost?
All this is self-evident. Yet, if we do not ask our superlative writers to be heaven-sent teachers, to be prophets, to be discoverers, what do we ask of them? Is it to write in a particular style, in a given lucid style, a given figurative style, or a given dignified style? Nay, it is only very mediocre writers who could obey such precepts. Every supreme writer has his own style, inalienable and inimitable, which is as much a part of him as his own soul, the look in his eyes, or his tones of voice. Bethink yourselves of Carlyle, how his abrupt, crabbed, but withal sinewy and picturesque, prose compares with the pure crystalline sentences of Cardinal Newman, and how these again compare with the quaintly and pathetically humorous chat, the idealized talk of Charles Lamb. Think how easy it is to recognize a line of Shakespeare, of Milton, or of Wordsworth, almost by the ear; how audibly they are stamped with the character of their creator. There are, in fact, exactly as many styles as there are superlative writers. Indeed this individuality of style is the outward and visible sign of their inward and spiritual literary gift, which is the gift to express—oneself.
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Then what does the superlative writer do? The fact is that literature in the proper sense is an art, as much an art as painting or sculpture or music. The supreme masters in literature are artists, and the consensus of the world, though unconsciously, comes to judge them simply as such—not as thinkers or teachers, sages or prophets. They are artists.
And what is the province of art? After all the definitions and discussions are exhausted, we are, I believe, brought down to one solid answer, the answer of Goethe, "art is only the giving of shape and form." That is to say, the object of art, whether in words or colours or shapes or sounds, is simply to give expression to a conception, to a thought, a feeling, an imagined picture which exists in the mind of the artist. His aim is to communicate it truly, wholly, perfectly to the minds of his fellow men, by one of the only two possible channels. By means of art mind can communicate itself to mind either through the eyes or through the ears; by spoken words and music through the ears, by painting and sculpture and written words through the eyes.
I need not dwell upon the thought what a wonderful thing this communication is, whereby the pictures and feelings existing in one brain are flashed upon another brain. Nor need I elaborate the point that this communication is rarely absolute, rarely even adequate. To make people understand, even those who know us best, how difficult that is!
The Greek sculptor Praxiteles conceives a human form of perfect beauty, posed in an attitude of perfect grace, wearing an expression of perfect charm and serenity. It exists but as a picture in his brain; but he takes marble and hews it and chisels it till there stands visible and unmistakable before us his very conception. He has given body and form to his imagination. Perfect artist as he is, he communicates with absolute exactness his mental picture to all the world of them who behold his work.
The Italian painter Raphael conceives a woman of infinite loveliness and purity and tenderness to represent the mother of Christ. How are we to be sharers in that conception? He takes brushes and paint, and there grows upon his canvas the Sistine Madonna, that picture of such mystic potency, which to see at Dresden is never to forget. He stamps upon our minds the very image and the very feeling which were upon his own.
The great musician hears imaginary sounds and harmonies within his brain, proceeding from or accompanying emotions of divers kinds. He forthwith, by arrangements and combinations of musical notes, their times and qualities, communicates to us also those sounds and harmonies; he reproduces in us those same emotions.
Do not say that it is the function of an artist to communicate to us beautiful things or ugly things, things graceful or things profound, things of pleasure or things of grief. Say rather, simply, it is his function, as artist, to communicate—perfectly, absolutely—whatsoever he seeks to communicate, in its form, with its feeling, in its mood; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of his conception and its atmosphere. No doubt the thing of beauty, the profound thing, the thing of joy, is most delightful for the spectator to contemplate; to the artist himself it is apt to be most inspiring, and therefore art seems to be concerned mainly with beauty and joy. But that is the only reason. As artist, his function is simply to body forth, and present to other minds, whatever he conceives, and he is consummate artist just in proportion as he secures that end.
Now take the literary artist. He in his turn conceives a thought, or picture of the imagination or fancy. A feeling may come over him with a gentle grace, a subtle influence, an overmastering passion. A mood—a state of soul—may colour all his view, tinging it with some haunting melancholy or irradiating his whole world till it seems a Paradise. How is he to communicate to us this thought, this picture, this fancy, the grace and subtlety and passion, the precise hues of his mood for sombreness or radiancy? Well, he takes words, and by selecting them, by combining them, by harmonizing them with a master's hand, he sets before us certain magic phrases wrought into a song, an ode, an elegy, or whatsoever form of creation is most apt and true, and he makes us see just what he sees and feel just what he feels, printing it all upon our own brains and hearts.
In this then must lie the essence of the literary gift—in the power of a writer to express himself, to communicate vividly, without mistiness of contents or outline, his own spirit and vision. I repeat that it is irrelevant whether what he sees and feels be beautiful or not, joyful or not, profound or not, even true or not. Nor does it matter either what his style may be. He is a master in the art of writing when he can make his own mind, so to speak, entirely visible or audible to us, when he can express what his inward eye beholds in such terms that we can behold it in the same shape and in the same light—if, for example, when he sees a thing in "the light which never was on sea or land, the consecration and the poet's dream," he can make us also see it in that faery light.
This is no such easy thing. The fact that there are a hundred thousand words in the English dictionary does not make it easier. It is not those who know the most words that can necessarily best express themselves. Neither is it true that, because feeling is real, it can therefore speak. "Out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh" has no such sense as that. Many and many a fine thought is lost to the world, and all the value of many a deep emotion, because he who thinks or feels cannot voice himself, any more than you or I can necessarily take a brush and paint, like Turner, the unspeakable glories of a sunset which our eyes and soul can nevertheless appreciate to the very full. "What makes a poet?" says Goethe, and he replies, "A heart brimful of some noble passion." No doubt the noble passion must be there before a man can be a poet, but equally beyond doubt the passion alone cannot make him one. To say that a heart full of the ardour of religion, of love, of hope, of sorrow or joy, can always express its ardour, is an assertion against which thousands of poor inarticulate human beings would rise in protest. It is simply contrary to experience. There is many a man and woman besides Wordsworth to whom "the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears"; but, unlike Wordsworth, no sooner do these less gifted men and women attempt to express one such thought and impart it to others, than lo! the subtle thought evades them and is gone. They can give it no embodiment in language. Their attempt ends in words which they know to be obscure, cold, trivial, hopelessly ineffectual.
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How unevenly distributed is this power of expression! Let us begin as low in the scale of verbal art as you choose. Let two observers chance to see some previously unknown plant, with novel leaf and flower and perfume. If they could paint the leaf and flower, well and good; but ask each separately to communicate to you in words a mental picture of that plant. Observe how, with equal education in the matter of language, the one will describe you the forms and colours and fragrance in apt and expressive terms and comparisons, which seem to paint it before your eyes. The other plods and halts and fails, and leaves no clear impression. If to the one the flower is just red and pointed, to the other it is, perhaps, a tongue of flame. The one has but literal facts to tell, the other is full of imagination and similitude.
Take a step higher. Have you seen and heard the lark, and studied his movements and his song aloft in the sky of Europe? Can you express simply what you then saw and heard, so that all who have witnessed the same can see and feel it over again? How many words would you take, and how vivid might your picture be? Then compare your effort with Shelley's famous
Higher still and higher From the earth thou springest, Like a cloud of fire; The blue deep thou wingest, And singing still doth soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning Of the sunken sun, O'er which clouds are bright'ning, Thou dost float and run, Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun!
Another step, and we come to a region no longer of outward description, but of thought, of feeling, of delicate fancy, of soaring imagination.
I suppose thousands upon thousands of persons possessed of what our great-grandfathers used to call "sensibility," have felt at eventide, when alone in certain spots, a kind of subduing awe, as if some great spirit-existence pervading all nature were laying a solemn hush upon the world. In various degrees one here and one there can express that feeling, but how many can express it as simply and yet effectually as Wordsworth does:—
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free; The holy time is quiet as a nun Breathless with adoration; the broad sun Is sinking down in its tranquillity; The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the sea: Listen! the mighty Being is awake, And doth with his eternal motion make A sound like thunder—everlastingly!
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To express and body forth: there is room for the manifestation of this prime literary gift in all sort of subjects. It may be shown in a fable of AEsop, in Robinson Crusoe, in a children's story, in Mark Twain's boyish experiences on the Mississippi, in a Barrack-room Ballad of Rudyard Kipling, in Thackeray's Esmond, in Shelley's Ode to a Skylark, in either a comedy of Shakespeare or his Hamlet, in a sonnet of Dante's Vita Nuova or in his Inferno. AEsop's communication of his point of view is final. So is Defoe's communication of mental pictures. So is Mark Twain's of that Mississippi pilotage. So is Kipling's in his Drums of the Fore and Aft, or his Mandalay. These men are all admirable literary artists in their own domains. Each fulfils all that is demanded of his art. If we could keep this fact clearly before us, our judgments of writers might be more discriminating. Do we think Kipling possessed of an extraordinary degree of the literary gift? Who could think otherwise, seeing that he can effect exactly what he sets out to effect by means of words? His scenes and his thoughts—such as they are—start forth living before us. But do we then think a Kipling proved equal to a Shakespeare in sheer excellence of his gift? That is another question. The things which Shakespeare realizes and expresses demand powers of realization and expression more far-reaching and more subtle than are required by those things to which a Kipling gives shape and form. In Shakespeare are multitudes of deep and rare reflections, vivid imaginings, penetrations of sympathy and insight, and all so clearly crystallized, with such apparent ease, that they become ours at once, as if they were natural to us. His communication of the most subtle states of mind is complete. But in a Kipling we cannot pretend that there is infinite subtlety and elusiveness, that there is a cosmic condensing of a whole nebula of spiritual experience. His task was less hard.
And what then of Homer? Can we call his task a difficult one? Is he, too, full of infinitely delicate or far-reaching thoughts and feelings? No. But his aim is to reproduce all the freshness and breeziness of a fresh and breezy atmosphere, to make us live again amid all that simple wholesome strenuousness of the childhood of the western world. That, too, is exceedingly elusive, and almost impossible to catch—immeasurably more difficult than all those coarsely, if strenuously, marked characteristics of the British soldier and other bold figures on the canvas of Kipling.
That, I believe, is the right attitude to assume, when we endeavour to measure the literary power of one writer against that of another—if we must do such a thing at all. It is not the morality or non-morality, the importance or non-importance, the beauty or ugliness, inherent in what is said, which determine the degree of the literary gift. It is rather the relative elusiveness of the thing said, the difficulty of surrounding it, of condensing it, of giving it perfect body, and communicating it in that body. And that is why it is an error to put, let us say Gray, in the foremost rank of literary artists. How well he does this thing! But was it, after all, so transcendently difficult to do?
The vaguer, the deeper, the more comprehensive, the subtler the thought or feeling or fancy, the greater demand is there upon the literary power. One can say no more. It is as in sculpture, which finds it infinitely easier to give embodiment to straining muscles and an agonized face than to carve a statue in perfect restful beauty and with a countenance of benign and strong tranquillity.
Ask a hundred people to write about the spring—simply to describe it with its sights and sounds and odours—and most of them can perform the task more or less well. Ask them to bring home the physical and emotional influence of spring, and many of those who feel that influence most keenly will give up the task. And then comes Chaucer with his few touches, his "blissful briddes" and "fressche flowres," and tells us how "full is my heart of revel and solace," and behold! the passage breathes to the reader's heart the very spirit of youth and springtide.
A simple statement of a simple fact calls for no "literary" gift. A description of externals demands some, but not often a great, degree of it. A thought or feeling, which is suggested by the fact or object, may require either little or much in proportion as the thought or feeling is fine and fugitive. But a mood induced by the thought or feeling generally demands the gift in its highest degree. "A primrose by the river's brim," whether "a yellow primrose 'tis to him," or a dicotyledon, may be outwardly described more and less well; but we require for that purpose only the rudiments of literary prose. But, next, there is the pure and appealing beauty of the flower; and that evokes gathering recognitions of the beauty of nature and its grace to us. Then upon this there steals a feeling of exhilaration in the glad and gay atmosphere of the re-awakening world; and this, again, may open into a whole vista of recollections far back from childhood; and so the result may be one of many moods. We have all this time been brought up a sort of gradient of literary difficulty; and he is the supreme of supreme literary artists who can body forth the most subtle of all these thoughts and moods.
Let me illustrate. Take for the purpose of contrast this passage of purely external description from Cowper:—
Forth goes the woodman, leaving unconcerned The cheerful haunts of man, to wield the axe And drive the wedge in yonder forest drear, From morn to eve his solitary task. Shaggy and lean and shrewd, with pointed ears And tail cropped short, half lurcher and half cur, His dog attends him. Close behind his heel Now creeps he slow, and now with many a frisk, Wide-scampering, snatches up the drifted snow With ivory teeth, or ploughs it with his snout: Then shakes his powdered coat and barks for joy—
and so forth. There you have clear and faithful observation, clearly and faithfully reproduced. I do not want to depreciate the amount of literary skill necessary for putting those right words in their right places. Nevertheless I cannot bring myself to think it particularly remarkable. The picture is distinct, but it is of the eye alone; it involves nothing in the way of imagination, nothing in the way of subtle feeling blending with the sight in the brain of the writer. Next take a stanza from Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis:—
So, some tempestuous morn in early June, When the year's primal burst of bloom is o'er, Before the roses and the longest day— When garden walks and all the grassy floor With blossoms red and white of fallen May And chestnut flowers are strewn— So have I heard the cuckoo's parting cry, From the wet field, through the vext garden trees, Come with the volleying rain and tossing breeze: "The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I."
Now to me that passage expresses something immeasurably more difficult of expression. The whole tone of the environment is reproduced in a few touches. We not only realize the scene, but we also feel in its description the same mood of subtle pensiveness, with its flavour of melancholy, in which the writer saw and felt it. For myself I know that the passage brings back to me, exactly and perfectly, not only a mental picture, but also a frame of mind, which I can recognize across the years which now separate me from those English "garden walks and all the grassy floor" strewn with "blossoms red and white of fallen May and chestnut flowers."
If you have never experienced precisely that frame of mind, you cannot, of course, appreciate the literary power, any more than you can appreciate Shelley's all-exquisite
The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven's light for ever shines, earth's shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity, Until Death tramples it to fragments—
unless you have pondered the mystery of life and eternity somewhat as he had done.
Yes! that must be premised all through. You must have had your own mood of profound world-weariness, before you can appreciate the utter completeness of the cry of Beatrice Cenci:—
"Sweet Heaven, forgive weak thoughts! If there should be No God, no Heaven, no Earth in the void world, The wide, gray, lampless, deep unpeopled world!"
The highest attainment then of literary power is the "exquisite expression of exquisite—that is to say, rarely intense or subtle—impressions." The language, said Wordsworth, should be the "incarnation of the thought." The highest gift of the writer is to make his words and their combinations not clever, not dazzling, not merely lucid, but to make them, by their meanings, their associations, and their musical effects, exactly reproduce what he thinks and sees and feels, just in the special light in which he thinks and sees and feels it.
This involves, of course, a perpetual struggle between thought and language. Language is for ever striving to overtake thought and feeling. Browning indeed may say:—
Perceptions whole, like that he sought To clothe, reject so pure a work of thought As language.
But in this we must not acquiesce. Browning himself, indeed, however immense his range of sympathies, however extraordinary his dramatic insight, falls far short in the purely literary gift. He is not a master of language as Shakespeare was or as Tennyson was. Extremist votaries of Browning are accustomed to say either that he is not obscure at all, or else that his obscurities are inseparable from the thoughts. We must not admit this latter plea until we are prepared to call Isaiah and Shakespeare shallower than Browning.
The transcendent literary artist is always compelling language to express what it had seemed incapable of expressing. Indeed the "advance of literature" often means no more than a greater degree of success in giving recognizable shape to the hitherto vague and elusive, in communicating what was supposed to be incommunicable. Often, when we say that such and such a writer gives us "new glimpses," or "opens up new thoughts," it only means that he has discovered how to express such thoughts, so that we can realize and recognize them. He is not an inventor, but a revealer.
And the highest revealer is the great poet. Poetry is language and music. Musicians tell us that music is intended to impart what language cannot express—something unspeakably more delicate, more subtle, emotionally more powerfully or more tranquillizing. But music must not aim at too much. It cannot really describe action or define thoughts; it can only translate feelings and moods into sounds. Now just as music is always advancing, always endeavouring to fulfil more perfectly the functions of art—which are, as I have said, to communicate the spirit of one human being to his fellows—so language also is ever struggling to enlarge its powers and to do what musicians tell us music alone can do. Language, too, must translate feeling, and moods, but into words. It in a sense invades the region of music. And herein lies the justification—the necessity—for poetry, or for a prose which is virtually poetry in its language and movement and imagination. Poetry, in that broad sense, must always be the literary form for the expression of that which is most difficult to express, I mean of anything which is pervaded by a rare exaltation and passion of feeling, or by a delicate grace and charm.
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Some people pretend to think that poetry is a wholly artificial thing; that it is merely a pleasing trick, when it is not an irritating trick, with language. Well, alas! it is quite natural that many stern spirits should be irritated by verses; for it is entirely true that nine-tenths of what is being, or has been, written in verse might better have been written in prose, or rather not written at all. The young author, and, for the matter of that, the old author, who thinks that he has a perfect right to choose between the verse form and the prose form simply according as he can versify or not, is grievously in the wrong. There is no more justification for, say, a purely didactic poem or descriptive poem than there is for the rhyming which begins somebody's treatise on optics with these egregious words:—
When parallel rays Come opposite ways And fall upon opposite sides.
Everything depends upon the nature of that which a man has to say.
What are the external marks of poetry as distinct from real prose? These: the choice of words of a special emotional or pictorial force, combined with musical cadences, rhythm, and sometimes rhyme. And why are these employed? To tickle the ear? By no means. It is simply because they are most effective agents in that communication of his mood and spirit which is the aim of the artist. When a mere fact has to be stated, there is no defence for verse, unless as an aid to memory, just as we say—
Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.
When a thing can be said just as well in prose, there is no excuse for not putting it in prose. That axiom should kill off half our amateur poets and rid the world of a nuisance. On the other hand, when a thought or a feeling is to be communicated from a mind profoundly stirred, exalted, filled with fervour, or from a mind tingling with exquisite perceptions, then there can be no true and full communication to another mind, unless that mind also is stirred, exalted or made to tingle. Music can so dispose that other mind. So too can language; for, under the influence of poetry of perfect sound, we find stealing over us, thanks largely to the sound, a mood which could never result from prose; and so our minds are polarized to feel the actual thing expressed exactly as the writer feels it, to see it exactly as he sees it. Verse-poetry, therefore, is no idle invention. It has its sound philosophical basis; and where poetry is really demanded by the subject, it is part and parcel of the supreme literary gift to wed the music of the verse so aptly to the thought, that the communication from soul to soul is utterly complete.
Is verse a mere conviction? Let us see. Does any one pretend that his spirit would be just as much moved by the mere sense of this passage of Tennyson, if it were stripped of its verse form and turned into prose:—
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean. Tears from the depths of some divine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In looking on the happy autumn fields, And thinking of the days that are no more.
Dear as remember'd kisses after death, And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd On lips that are for others; deep as love, Deep as first love, and wild with all regret; O Death in Life, the days that are no more.
If he does, let us not envy him his powers of perception or sensation.
Would you feel for Coleridge just the same mood of sympathy, if he told you his sad case in prose, as when he writes:—
A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear, A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, In word or sigh or tear.
Listen once more to this:—
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers, Ere the sorrow comes with years? They are leaning their young heads against their mothers— And that cannot stop their tears. The young lambs are bleating in the meadows; The young birds are chirping in the nest; The young fawns are playing with the shadows; The young flowers are blowing toward the west— But the young, young children, O my brothers, They are weeping bitterly!— They are weeping in the playtime of the others, In the country of the free.
Verily I believe a few of these stanzas of Elizabeth Barrett Browning have more effect in moving the average human soul than forty prose sermons and a hundred prose tracts. And why? Because they express, not mere thoughts, not mere arguments, but a mood, a disposition, a soul.
Verse-poetry can never die. It is for evermore inseparable from the art of communicating the spirit in words.
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The supreme literary gift then is the power to embody even the most subtle conception in a communicable shape. And is this a mere knack, with which brain-power has little or nothing to do? Not so. Observe what the task implies on the part of the writer, over and above his perfect control of words.
It implies, to wit, that he shall first realize those conceptions luminously to himself. Before he can utter them, his brain must have grasped them, formed a vivid picture of them. Most of us, when we become aware of a fancy or a feeling within ourselves, are unable to get it into focus. The power of undergoing a deep emotion, of thinking a far-reaching thought, of experiencing a keen sensation, is, I assert, by no means rare in the world. But as soon as we begin to look steadfastly at it and try to realize to ourselves exactly what it is like and what it means; when we ask ourselves, "what precisely is it I am thinking and feeling?" it evades us; it begins to break up and fade away, like a phantom or like mist. It is as when we think of some one's face, filled with a certain expression. The face starts out before our mind's eye, and for a moment we see it well and truly. But for most of us, unless we are painters, or possess the gift which might make us painters, it is impossible to keep that face, with that expression, steadily before our inward vision. As we gaze upon it, it changes and passes into a blur and refuses to be held.
But the mental retina of the great painter can hold such things as he has seen till he transfers them to the canvas; so can the brain of the great masters who paint for us in words, till they embody them in delicate prose or exquisite poetry. The lack of power to express often comes of a lack of this power to realize; and that power, I believe, is what is meant by "the vision and the faculty divine," and by "shaping imagination," and by other phrases which get so bandied to and fro that the world almost ceases to attach any meaning to them at all.
I remember some years ago, in an essay on Literary Judgment, asserting that the quality which chiefly distinguished the immortal works from the transient was sincerity, single-heartedness, reality of intention and love of the work for the work's sake. That was only a partial view of the truth. It is right in a measure, since that sincerity, that absence of make-believe, in the literary creation is a prime necessity; but it is not sufficient. It is, indeed, a prime necessity, because it means that the superlative writer must write at first hand of things genuinely conceived and realized by his very self. It is, indeed, a prime necessity, because you cannot conjure up vividly and hold in steady view the communicable picture of your feeling or your thought, unless you feel it or think it with all your own being. But the sincerity is only a pre-supposed condition. The supreme literary quality is the power to realize the picture and so body forth the thing thought or felt. The great dramatic genius, for example, first realizes a character and his thoughts and feelings, and then, identifying himself with that character, gives them expression. When Homer imagines Odysseus descending to the nether world and meeting there the shades of heroes whom he had known at Troy, his Odysseus accosts this one or that and receives answer as befits the person. But to Ajax, son of Telamon, Odysseus had indirectly done a wrong, and caused his suicide, and, when the ghost of Ajax appears, Odysseus speaks to it gentle and soothing words of explanation and self-defence. And what does that proud injured Ajax reply? Well, on Homer's brain the picture is very vivid. His brain becomes practically the brain of the very Ajax, and the continuation shows it: "So I spake, but he answered me not a word, and passed on to Erebus after the other spirits of the departed dead." That silence of Ajax is truer than the most scathing of speeches.
So is it with Shakespeare. He sees his characters and realizes their sensations so vividly that his brain and feelings become the brain and feelings of his creations; and thus only does his Lear say with such perfect naturalness, "Pray you, undo this button." Hence, too, all the distinctness of character in his lifelike men and women, be it Hamlet or Falstaff, Cordelia or Lady Macbeth.
"Imagination," "the shaping gift of imagination," is this power of first presenting a thing to your own brain with luminousness. For once etymology lends real aid. Imaginatio is "the making of pictures." It is inseparable from the power of perfect expression.
Why did the people of Verona whisper of Dante, "Yonder is the man who has been in Hell?" Simply because of this power. Dante saw the place of torment in his imagination, not as any of us might see it, vaguely terrible, but clear in every dread and horrid detail. And, having so seen it, he lends to that seeing the gift of expression, and with a few simple verbs and nouns and plain forceful similes he makes his readers see what he had seen. So did it come about that he was regarded as the man who had actually "been in Hell." How far does Milton stand below him in this imaginative vision! Milton, too, describes an Inferno, but it lacks the convincingness of one who has seen it for himself. We could never say that Milton was the man who had "been in Hell."
What is the special power of Carlyle in his dealings with history? It is the power of summoning up visions of the past, standing out clear to the last particular, as if lightning illuminated them against the background of the ages.
I do not know whether any better definition of imagination can be given than that of Ruskin in his Modern Painters. "Imagination is the power of seeing anything we describe as if it were real, so that, looking at it as we describe, points may strike us which will give a vividness to the description that would not have occurred to vague memory, or been easily borrowed from the expressions of other writers." I do not say we can necessarily describe a thing because we so see it, but I do say that we cannot describe it unless we so see it. Therefore the supreme literary gift of communicating exactly what we think and feel, exactly as we think and feel it, involves no mere control of language, but, therewith, an imaginative brain to realize conceptions as vivid pictures. To combine these powers is to be a genius of great rarity.
In one part of the Inferno of Dante it rains fire. To say that much would be enough for the ordinary writer. But Dante not only sees fire falling; he sees exactly how it falls, and the picture in his mind becomes the picture in ours, when he simply says that it fell silently, steadily "as fall broad flakes of snow when winds are still." Perfectly easy, is it not? Yes, for Dante. But for the ordinary writer it would have been no more than "A rain of fire." But what manner of rain, O thou ordinary and inadequate writer? We do not, indeed, want scorching rhetoric and verse piled on verse. We want the "inevitable" word, the simple and the home-coming, the Dantesque. Byron now and again exhibits the power. Mazeppa is bound naked on the wild horse, and—
The skies spun like a mighty wheel, I saw the trees like drunkards reel, And a slight flash sprang o'er my eyes, Which saw no further....
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With the consummate literary artists the picture, whether it be of a real scene, an imagined scene, or a feeling, is given in few but effective strokes. And it is so given simply because they see it all so distinctly. As Longinus says of Sappho's famous ode of passion, the supreme writer seizes upon the essential and salient features, combines them, and trusts to your and my imagination to supply the rest. When a writer welters in words and lines, when he elaborates touch upon touch, you may be sure that he is trying to fill the picture into his imagination, instead of being possessed by an imagination which determine the picture.
In the Ancient Mariner Coleridge describes the passing of the spectral ship:—
The western wave was all aflame, The day was well-nigh done! Almost upon the western wave Rested the broad bright Sun, When that strange shape drove suddenly Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was fleck'd with bars, (Heaven's Mother send us grace!) As if through a dungeon-grate he peer'd With broad and burning face.
Are those her ribs through which the Sun Did peer, as through a grate? And is that Woman all her crew? Is that a Death? and are there two? Is Death that Woman's mate?
The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out; At one stride comes the dark; With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea, Off shot the spectre-bark.
For my own part those words make me see it all fully, vividly. I do not merely behold the scene: I feel the peculiar awe of the narrator. Can you doubt that Coleridge saw this in his brain exactly as if it were real?
When Keats in his mind's eye saw Madeline praying under that Gothic window which was so "innumerable of stains and splendid dyes" he beheld the scene as if he were positively on the spot to paint it. And how does he paint it? What an opportunity for the display of pictorial technique in words! But Keats is not thinking of that. One does not really perceive a myriad little details at such a time. You never do actually see all the things which you would describe if you sat down to think details out one by one. If you had really fixed your eyes on the kneeling Madeline, as Porphyro did on that eve of St. Agnes, you could not also be taking an inventory of the particulars in the situation. The inferior writer forgets this, because he is writing from his wits, and not, as Keats wrote, from the spontaneous picture of imagination. What Keats sees is this:—
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon, And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast, As down she knelt for Heaven's grace and boon; Rose bloom fell on her hands, together prest, And on her silver cross fair amethyst, And on her hair a glory, like a saint.
That is all, and it is enough. A kneeling figure, the wintry moon, and some few of the colours of the glass, described as they fall upon what you would really note, the head and breast and the clasped hands. What would not a Rossetti have done with such material!
These are descriptions. It is the same with emotions. "Pray you, undo this button." The supreme writer does not tear passion rhetorically to pieces. He does not elaborate it till he fritters it away. He condenses it all into the poignant cry which goes straight from heart to heart. What in the circumstances could Burns have said more final than—
Had we never loved sae kindly, Had we never loved sae blindly, Never met and never parted, We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
I know that there are people who cannot see that these four simple lines are the consummate expression of a vast range of feeling. We can only pray that Heaven will some day be merciful to them.
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One word more seems necessary to be said. How can we tell when a writer is succeeding in his effort to communicate, to body forth what he seeks to body forth? Simply by our own complete apprehension, by the universal humanity in us, by the fact that we keenly recognize that such and such a sensation is one in which we have at least shared, but which we have never known how to express. We realize how it has been brought over us by loneliness, mountain solitude, a sunset, great heights, stormy seas, music, sorrow, love, the sound of distant bells, calm evenings, summer and the perfume of the flowers, fine characters, heroic deeds, and a thousand other causes, within us and without: and, when the supreme writer voices it for us, whatever it may be, we feel and know it at once for the final and the perfect.
If that test is not sufficient, I know no other.
Hebraism and Hellenism
Students of the history of society and literature have grown fond of distinguishing between two powerful influences upon our ways of thinking and of looking at life. They find two chief attitudes of mind, two chief animating spirits, so different from each other in the main that they deserve and have received special and practically antithetical names. Our manner of regarding life and society, morals and sentiment, nature and art, is determined by whichever of these two spirits predominates in us. Sometimes one whole nation has its view in almost all things pervaded by the one set of principles; another nation is no less manifestly informed by the other set. At other times it is an individual who stands out in broad spiritual and intellectual contrast with another of the same people and the same age. These two spirits have been called by Matthew Arnold the "Hebraic" and the "Hellenic"; the one Hebraic, because its clearest and most consistent manifestation has been among the Hebrews; the other Hellenic, because its clearest and most consistent manifestation has been among the Hellenes, or ancient Greeks. And not only have these two spirits been specially manifested there, but it is directly from those peoples that two corresponding influences have spread to all the more highly civilized portions of the world. From the Hebrews there has spread one great force, and from the Hellenes another great force, and these two forces have in a larger or smaller measure determined the characters and views of those peoples, who, being neither Hebrews nor Hellenes, had not of themselves developed so intense a spirituality or so active an intellectuality as one or other of these two possessed.
It is rather in their historical aspect that I propose to make some observations upon these two forces.
I feel a natural diffidence and some little constraint in treating such a subject before a specially Hebrew gathering. But the Hebrews of whom I have to speak are not yourselves, but your ancestors, and they are ancestors with a history so remarkable and a spirit so potent that, though I have no share in your pride, I can in a large measure cordially share in your admiration of them. In a large measure, I say, for I propose to show how the mental view and temperament of Israel, when Israel was his truest self, needed to be qualified and corrected by another mental view and temperament—that of the Greeks, when the Greeks were their truest selves. And if there were here any descendant of Pericles or Sophocles or Phidias, I should similarly say to him that, though I feel the keenest zest of admiration for the many sublime things which his Athenian ancestors did and wrote and wrought, yet the full perfection of human character and life was not reached by them, and could not be reached by them, until their own spirit was corrected by another, the spirit exemplified in the Hebrews. You will, I am sure, allow me to say whatever I feel to be just. And that there may be no misconception, let me add that, whenever I speak of the Hebraic spirit, I shall mean, not the spirit which an individual contemporary Hebrew may happen to display, but the spirit which was characteristic of Israel as a nation before the dispersion. In the same way the Hellenic spirit will mean the spirit which was characteristic of the pure Hellene before he was demoralized and adulterated by Roman, Slav, and Turk.
Man, chameleon-like, is apt to take the colour of the land on which he happens to be, and a Jew who lives in modern times, amid social and religious conditions, education, and material circumstances so different from those of ancient Palestine, may differ very widely from the type of the race as we gather it from history and literature. Nor is race everything. Even if the Jews once more gathered together into one nation from all quarters of the earth, we should by no means necessarily behold a people of the same spiritual attributes and ideals as the Hebrews who built the Temple under Ezra, or who fought like lions under the Maccabees. As with the early Saracens, it is often some one great idea or principle which—for the time at least—determines the whole current of a nation's mental and spiritual being. But that idea may gradually lose its intensity and its energizing power, and the Saracen sinks into the voluptuous Mussulman. Hebraism and Hellenism, therefore, mean the diverse spirits of two peoples as they once were, not as they may be now, or will necessarily be again.
One cannot with truth draw absolutely clear and sharp distinctions between the mental processes of different peoples. One cannot say that a Hebrew, in virtue of being a Hebrew, would necessarily act and think thus and thus, while a Greek, in virtue of being a Greek, would necessarily act and think in some other definite way. Here and there a fervid or brooding mind among the Greeks, such as that of AEschylus, might often approach the lines of Hebraism. Here and there some son of Shem must have been mentally constituted more like the sons of Javan. None the less, when we survey the history and study the literature of these two races as a whole, it is impossible not to perceive a clear and consistent difference between their respective ways of looking at things, at life and conduct, sentiment and nature and art.
Max Mueller, speaking of the English people, says that we are Jewish in our religion, Greek in our philosophy, Roman in our politics, and Saxon in our morality. This ingenious remark is, as such absolute analyses are apt to be, only partially true. We have, indeed, borrowed from the Jews, from the Greeks, and from the Romans, in those several departments. But those departments over-lap and interpenetrate each other. The fact is that, in us English, with certain Teutonic qualities ineradically at the bottom of our nature, the modes in which our religion, philosophy, politics, and morality have developed themselves have been determined by a blending of all that we have learned from Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike. In the workings of our intellect and morals, Athens and Jerusalem in particular have operated upon us far more than we can now exactly estimate.
Looking at the matter historically, the special quality and type of Hebraism we must deduce from Hebrew literature, from Hebrew history, from the characteristics of eminent Hebrews, and from the average of testimony to Hebrew character supplied to us by reputable authors, Jew and Gentile, in poetry, drama, fiction, or other forms of literary creation. The special quality and type of Hellenism we must deduce from similar material concerning Greeks and things Grecian. And here I must confess that I am no Hebraist. I am not intimately acquainted with the heterogeneous compilation called the Talmud, nor with Alexandrine and mediaeval Jewish literature. Nevertheless no one brought up strictly in a Christian Church can help becoming in some measure versed in things Hebraic. To be perpetually exercised from early childhood in reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the one great Hebrew document, the Bible; to have its very words and phrases ready to spring to one's lips; to be saturated with its sentiments; to have been made much more familiar with the sayings and doings of Abraham and Joseph, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Ezekiel, than even with those of the kings, heroes, and poets of one's own people—all this cannot but impart to a receptive mind the power of distinguishing with fair accuracy the Hebraic quality from the un-Hebraic. On the other hand, in Hellenic studies I may be allowed to take a more confident stand; and as sometimes the long august procession of Hebrew history and Hebrew letters passes across the mind, and sometimes again the brilliant march of Grecian deeds and Grecian words, one cannot fail to be more and more impressed with the contrast between the excellences or the shortcomings of the two.
Up till the present time, the life and literature of Europe in general has twice passed beneath Hebraic influences, twice beneath Hellenic. Each influence has been greater or less, more or less durable, in different regions; nevertheless there are two clearly distinguishable invasions of the influences in each case. The intellectual influence of Greece was first felt in pagan times, when Greek ideas and Greek philosophy passed westward to Rome and through Rome permeated the peoples under Roman sway. The spiritual influence of Hebraism was first felt when, soon after this, the Christian Jews carried the doctrine of one God amongst the pagans, and when Christianity,—which, however otherwise diverse from Judaism, is none the less its outcome—became the religion of all the European stocks. The first influence which came from Greece was an intellectual influence, the passing of a fresh and stimulating breeze. The first influence of Jerusalem was a moral re-awakening and revelation, the shaking of a rushing mighty wind. The moral principle of Hebraism, in the special guise of Christianity, transformed the whole life and conduct and ideals of European men. What had been virtues in some cases became vices, what had been weaknesses became virtues.
We need not dwell upon this immense change; its nature is known to all, and its source was Jewish. Centuries pass by. The Christianised world has sunk its intelligence beneath the prescriptions of a demoralized Church; the moral impulse of the religion borrowed from the Hebrews has died down into formalism. I speak of the period immediately preceding the later Renaissance and the Reformation. Strange to say, it was in a large measure the Ottoman Turk who came to the rescue. He over-ran Greece, captured Constantinople, and was the cause of a great westward exodus of Greek talent and learning. Italy in particular was filled with Greeks whose profit and pride it was to spread far and wide the literature and culture of their nation. The avidity with which this new learning was received was marvellous; still more marvellous was the effect. It was, in truth, a renaissance, a new birth of intellect. It meant no less than a general revival of the spirit of inquiry, of open-eyed observation, of a desire and a resolve to see things as they were, and not as tradition and dogma had taught men to see them. Italy, France, Germany and England became alive with fresh efforts of the reason, inspired with fresh ideas of taste and beauty in artistic creation, and with new hopes and schemes of progress. The astonishing abundance, the immense variety, and the splendid quality of the Elizabethan literature are due to no other recognisable cause. It was one and the same cause that made Michael Angelo, Shakespeare, and Bacon possible. A new springtime seemed to have dawned upon the world of thought. This was the second period of Hellenic influence, an influence wholly intellectual and artistic.
Following the re-awakening of speculation came the Reformation. The Reformation brought the reading of the Bible at first hand, and a new style of preaching and exhorting directly from it. In religion and morals the reformers fell back upon the Scriptures themselves. They drank in the Scriptures, and therewith the Hebraic spirit which pervades them. In most cases the salutary effect upon character and conduct can hardly be overstated. In other cases there was extravagance and harm. Uncompromisingly, and not very intelligently, did they speak Scripture, think Scripture, and act Scripture, like Hebrews born out of due season. Knox invested himself with the austere authority of the Hebrew prophet; Calvin was fain to hew Agag in pieces before the Lord. The Puritans of England became fanatical in their sombre conception of sin and in the rigour of their exaggerated Hebraism. Here was the second period of Hebraic influence, an influence wholly moral and religious.
In each case the new invasion of the Hellenic spirit precedes, and is the handmaid of, the Hebraic. In each case the influence of Greece is to procure the open mind, that of Jerusalem, to mould the unsteady heart. The Greek works first upon the intellect to make it supple, the Hebrew comes after and gives robustness to the moral will. Such, in the main, is the distinction and the historic sequence of the two forces. We have twice passed under each, and we shall, I believe and hope, feel the strong power of each again, for we sorely need, on the one hand, something to give stamina to our weak moral conceptions, and, on the other, something to give us clear principles of social life, art, and culture.
Let us look a little closer at what our distinction implies.
Physically the unlikeness of Hebrew to Greek was very marked. Allowing for climatic effects, the Hebrew physiognomy has preserved itself until to-day. The true, or at least the ideal, Greek type is almost lost in hybrid forms, yet we know what it was. The ideal Hellene was tall, upright, strong and supple withal, his lightish hair and beard were thick and curling, his features straight and firm, his brow broad, his eyes full and light. The whole form and aspect expressed a healthy zest of life, an open-eyed contemplation of men and things, and a belief in the sovereign virtue of reason. The outward aspect of the Hebrew type is very different from this. The inward difference of the two races was no less great. The essential contrast between them is not one of brow and eye, it is one of thinking and seeing, a contrast between two sets of ideals and principles, two ways of looking at life and the world. Romans like Juvenal, who saw both Greeks and Jews numerous in the imperial city, could only superficially observe that the Jew was unsocial, narrow in his prejudices and obstinate in his superstitions, while the Greek was as devoid of principle as he was brilliantly versatile. The Jew and Greek whom he saw were those of a demoralised period; but in any case the Roman did not understand either; he did not know that each was the representative of a certain important set of principles carried to excess. He would hardly have thought it worth his while to reflect on such a matter. It is otherwise with us, to whom all great human phenomena are of significance for that sound thinking which is essential to progress.
How can we describe in brief and intelligible terms these two spirits, the Hebraic and the Hellenic? One might use many figures of speech. Matthew Arnold's antithesis of Hellenic thinking to Hebraic doing needs much qualification. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that the Hebraic spirit is heat, the Hellenic spirit is light. Hebraism means moral fervour; Hellenism means intellectual sensibility. Hebraism suggests strength of conviction, tenacity of resolve, prophetic vehemence; Hellenism suggests flexibility of thought, adaptability to circumstances, artistic serenity. Hebraism suggests the austere and spiritual life, Hellenism the social and sensuous life. Yet none of these brief antitheses can be wholly or exclusively true. The difference is not thus to be labelled away, any more than one can label the difference between scents of flowers or tones of voices. There are two experiences which are apt to change the whole complexion of things; the one is religious conversion, the other falling in love. Yet how could one sum up the transformation except by those terms "converted" and "in love"? So, when the Hebrew, morally introspective, reliant on some great power outside himself, fervid in his beliefs as in his passions, intense in his imaginations and enthusiasms, is compared with the Hellene, a being intellectually open and curious, artistically sensitive, a cultivator of humanity and its delights, many-sided and self-possessed, by what condensed terms shall one describe their diverse ways of taking the whole of life and its concerns? In default of such terms let us hear a modern descendant of Israel, one who was at the time half thinking of this very distinction. Heinrich Heine, though an apostate from Judaism, and though he liked to fancy himself a Hellene, was nevertheless by constitution a Hebrew. He describes a visit which he paid to Goethe, than whom in form and mind and principle no more perfect Hellene ever lived in Hellas itself. When Heine came face to face with Goethe at Weimar, he tells us that he felt as if Goethe must be Jupiter, and that he involuntarily glanced aside to see whether the eagle was not there with the thunderbolt in his beak. He almost addressed him in Greek, but, finding he "understood German," he made the profound remark that the plums on the road were delicious. And now, hear how Heine draws the contrast between the Hellenic Teuton and himself, the Teutonic Hebrew: "At bottom Goethe and I are opposite natures and mutually repellent. He is essentially a man on whom life sits easily, who looks on enjoyment of life as the highest good, and though at times he has glimpses and vague feelings of the ideal life and expresses them in his poems, yet he has never comprehended it, much less lived it. I, on the contrary, am essentially an enthusiast, that is, so inspired by the ideal as to be ready to offer myself up to it, and even prompted to let myself be absorbed by it. But, as a fact, I have caught at the enjoyments of life, and found pleasure in them; hence the fierce struggle that goes on in me between my clear reason, which approves the enjoyments of life, and rejects the devotion of self-sacrifice as a folly, and my enthusiasm, which is always rising up and laying violent hands on me, and trying to drag me down again to her ancient solitary realm. Up, I ought perhaps to say, for it is still a grave question whether the enthusiast who gives up his life for the idea does not in a single moment live more and feel more than Herr von Goethe in his sixth-and-seventieth year of egotistic tranquillity." Heine was not a typical Hebrew, and hence the struggle of which he speaks; but his words express what we want to have expressed. The true Hellene lives for the sake of life, and for whatsoever things are lovely and charming. The true Hebrew lives for the sake of his idea, and for whatsoever things are of spiritual power.
The consequence is that, while the imagination, the rapture, and the pathos of the Hebrew rose to heights and descended to depths utterly beyond the consciousness of the ordinary Hellene, the Hellenes, on the contrary, attained to a justness of intellectual and artistic perception which formed no part of the ordinary Hebrew culture. The general manner of all the Hebrew prophets, of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, or Joel, is the same—the manner of the fiercest afflatus, of entire abandonment, finding expression in phrases of magnificent solemnity and in imagery of the profoundest awesomeness. This manner the Greeks never show. Not even AEschylus, the most Hebraic of Hellenes, has any passages in which he loses control of his artistic sense. Neither he nor any other Hellene sees ecstatic visions or dreams ecstatic dreams. There is no place in the Greek comprehension for that state of mind which can beget visions like these: "And I looked, and behold! A whirlwind came out of the north, a gray cloud and a fire enfolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire"—with the further visions of living creatures "like burning coals of fire," and the "wheels within wheels," with the rings of them full of eyes. To this there is not and could not be any parallel in the Greek. When the Persian queen in AEschylus dreams the most startling dream of her life, it is obviously a vision constructed by the poet's intellect alone. When Plato sees visions, they, too, are intellectual constructions with the meaning as clear as the words. There is nothing rapt, nothing fantastic. Greek imagery in this region is to Hebrew imagery what the sculpture of Greece is to those weird creations of symbolism at Nineveh and Babylon, the colossal human-faced bulls and the genii with the eagle-head. And if you remind me that I am comparing prophet with poet, and not prophet with prophet, I answer that the poets are the only analogue of the prophets that Greece possessed; and that very fact illustrates what is meant when we say that the Hellenic spirit had no capacity for, the Hellenic view of life no impulse to, that intensity of feeling which could produce imagery so stupendous in such awe-inspiring phrase.
The Hebraic character, therefore, is one of strength and depth. Even now no Jew in fiction is ever a weakling or a trifler. In whatever light he is presented, a Shylock of Shakespeare, an Isaac of Scott, a Nathan of Lessing, a Sidonia of Disraeli—revengeful, avaricious, bigoted, benevolent, magnificent, talented—he is always a character of striking power and intensity. The ancient type of Greek does not appear in modern fiction. If he did, it would be as a subtle reasoner, perfect critic, polished man of the world, full of the intellectual and social graces, ever adaptable to circumstance, choosing his idea and never letting the idea govern him. And, in the matter of loves and hates, it was rather his maxim that one should neither hate nor love over-much, since he might some day come to hate the person he loved and love the person he hated. The Hellenic watchwords "nothing too much"; and "measure in everything"; the Hellenic hatred of "unseasonableness" and dread of "infatuation"—these things show how the ideal of the Greek was ever to be master of himself by aid of reason. The Hebraic spirit, on the contrary, would strive and cry without scruple of measure or season in any matter on which its conscience or desire was fixed.
The Hebraic spirit is uncompromising; it does not readily admit other points of view. Hebrew history, for example, is wholly one-sided, seen wholly in the colour of a Hebrew's feelings. The peoples with whom Israel comes in contact are either so many impious men made to be slain, or they are wicked tyrants, allowed by Heaven to chastise the chosen for some allotted period. This was the necessary outcome of the theocratic principle. How different from history as written by the Greek Thucydides! To that historian facts are so many facts, to be seen as they are, and to be told without undue enthusiasm, without obtrusive expression of moral approval or disapproval. Never since those Hellenic days has a historian been able so perfectly to contemplate the triumphs and disasters of his own country as if himself quite aloof from personal interest or stake in the result. Unclouded vision, purely intellectual observation, could no further go.
With such temperaments and mental habits, what view of life did the Hebrews entertain, and what the Hellenes? Our view of life is in the greatest measure a matter of religion or non-religion, and the Hebrews possessed a highly spiritualised and devotional religion, while the Greeks, if not easy-going polytheists, had at best some rationalistic system of philosophy. The difference is immense. The Hebrew creed, a real and absorbing belief, involved a certain code of laws for the guidance of conduct, certain definite sentiments, certain definite hopes and fears, certain definite axioms as to the aim and end of existence. The highest good and the worst evil had for the Hebrews unmistakable senses. It was not so with the Greeks. They too—when they thought at all—sought for a systematic conception of life, but not for one in which they should be subordinated to some authority outside themselves. They desired to see life steadily and see it whole, but they must do so by the light of their intellect. Their conduct, aims, sentiments, hopes, fears, must depend upon axioms to which their reasoning brought them. What the Hebrews called sin in the sight of Heaven, the Greeks called an error or an offence to society. It was wrong socially, or it was wrong intellectually. Greece therefore had no place for religious fervour. It was tolerant almost to indifference. Athens might arraign Anaxagoras for impiety or Socrates for heresy, but these charges were either mere pretexts or were viewed simply in their social bearing. When a Hebrew speaks of a valley full of dry bones, and of life being breathed into them, we know that he is speaking in the moral sense. A Hellene would have meant a revival of intelligence. The Hebrew prophet speaks of "taking the heart of stone out of them and giving them a heart of flesh." A Plato would rather have spoken of taking the films from their intellectual gaze and opening their eyes to the pure essences of things. The Hebrew would sit in sackcloth and ashes to atone for his offences and to induce the proper spiritual submission. The Hellene would only fast, if he fasted at all, so that he might by his plain living secure high thinking. No ardent missionaries, Jonahs or Pauls, could come out of Greece; it could produce no martyrs. The De Profundis of a Greek would signify, not moral abasement, but physical and mental suffering.
Not that the Hellenes were shallow. Far from it. Racially, indeed, they had neither the Hebraic zeal nor the Hebraic conscience. But of vastly more importance is the fact that in their conception of life they started with different premises. They found themselves in life, their hope ending with life, and their object was to make the best and happiest of it. The hereafter was not pleasant to contemplate. Achilles, when he meets Odysseus in the netherworld, declares that he would rather be a poor labouring thrall on earth than a king among the dead. Had the Hellenes been shown the modern doctrine of evolution, it is easy to fancy how eagerly they would have sprung at it. To the Hebraic spirit it would have been flat, stale, and unprofitable. In a word, while to the best of Hebrews life was almost a sacrament, to the best of Hellenes there was nothing sacramental but intelligence. The national pride of the Hebrews lay in a religious reason—their election as a peculiar people; the national pride of the Greeks lay in the intellectual, social, and artistic culture which distinguished them from the barbaroi. If Hellas had had its Zion, it would have meant a city which was the pre-eminent abode of perfected human thought, society, and arts. "The name of the city of that day shall be the 'Lord is there,'" is of the essence of Hebraism. The Hellene would have thought of a city filled with Hymns to Intellectual Beauty, hymns to Athena, goddess of arts and wisdom, and to Apollo, the embodied idea of light.
In their outlook upon nature, animate and inanimate, there was a corresponding contrast. Neither Greek nor Hebrew, indeed, contemplated nature as we do in modern times. Neither was haunted as with a passion by the beauty and grandeur of woods and streams and hills. To the Hellene, as to Dr. Johnson or to Sydney Smith, nature was but a background for man. Homer's moons and clouds, rainbows and hail-storms, are used for the most part only for similitudes. To the Hebrew the glory of the Heavens and the wonders of the deep are meet subjects upon which to praise the Lord for his wonderful works. At the most, the Hellene found in nature a sensuous delight, a part of the multitudinous joy which, in a healthy condition, he found in all life. It is a mistake, indeed, to suppose that the Greek was insensible to natural beauty. The daffodils, crocuses, anemones, and hyacinths, the countless laughter of the AEgean and the gleaming Cyclades, were delightful to his eye, the trill of the nightingale to his ear; but neither he nor the Hebrew could have felt much sympathy with the state of mind of a Wordsworth, to whom nature, in and for itself, had the effect of a living and inspiring power. Neither would have understood Wordsworth's—
To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Of the Hebrew conception of nature as shown in the Psalms or the book of Job we need say nothing. Let us by an instance or two show just how far the Greek appreciation of it went. In Theocritus a number of friends walk into the country to a harvest festival:—"There we reclined on deep beds of fragrant lentisk, and rejoicing we lay in new-stripped leaves of the vine. And high above our heads waved many a poplar, while close at hand the sacred water from the nymphs' own cave welled forth with murmurs musical. On shadowy boughs the brown cicalas kept their chattering toil. Far off the little owl cried; in the thick thorn-brake the lark and finches sang; the ringdove moaned; the yellow bees were flitting round the springs. All breathed the scent of opulent summer, of the season of fruits. The pears at our feet and apples by our side were rolling plentiful; the tender branches, with wild plums laden, were earthward bowed." Here, it will be seen, the delight is purely sensuous, a delight in sweet sighs, sweet sounds, sweet smells. In the OEdipus Coloneus of Sophocles there is a choral song of somewhat higher note than this: "Stranger, thou hast come to earth's fairest home, to white Colonus, where the nightingale, a constant guest, trills her clear note in the covert of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the God's inviolate bowers, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by wind of any storm; where the reveller Dionysus ever walks the ground, companion of the Nymphs, and, fed by heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms morn by morn with fair clusters, crown of the great Goddess from of yore, and the crocus blooms with golden beam. Nor fail the sleepless founts whence the waters of Cephisus wander, but each day with stainless tide he moveth over the land's swelling bosom for the giving of quick increase."
Yet here, too, so far as the charm is not merely sensuous, Nature is but the background for the passing of the bright Gods to whom humanity owes progress and delights. There is nothing awesome, nothing pride-abasing, in nature to the Hellene as to the Hebrew.
When we come to deal with art, whether plastic art or the art of letters, there stands out the same difference of spirit. And on all sides it is admitted that in this region Hellenism reached nearly to perfection. It is scarcely worth while here to descant upon the work of Phidias or Sophocles, and to analyse its excellence. In the domain of art the word 'Hellenic' implies absolute truth of form, absolute truth of taste, grace and elegance. It means the selecting and simplifying of essentials into an ideal shape; and therefore it implies the absence of all superfluity, incongruousness, bombast, extravagance or purposelessness. The Parthenon and the statue of the grey-eyed goddess standing up in faultless symmetry against the clear blue sky of Attica; Plato's Apology of Socrates breathing serene and lucid thought in language lucid and serene—these are the types of art as understood by the Hellenic spirit. We nowadays prate much of real and ideal. The Greek combined them without prating. The anatomy of a Grecian statue is anatomically true in proportion and in pose, while the whole figure is none the less of an ideal beauty which could rarely have existed outside the imagination. To the French the word emphase has come to mean, not emphasis, but fustian. To the Greeks, with their love of measure, their instinctive avoidance of the "too much," emphase in letters or other arts was irritating and distressful. Mr. Andrew Lang selects a sentence of Macaulay: "Even the wretched phantom who still bore the imperial title stooped to pay this ignominious blackmail." And Mr. Lang justly says: "The picture of a phantom who is not only a phantom, but wretched, stooping to pay blackmail which is not only blackmail, but ignominious, may divert the reader." The Greeks were neither deceived nor diverted by such bad art; their sympathies were chilled, and they called the thing "frigid." Meanwhile the special art of the Hebrews is, perhaps, the art of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, music which is so often joined to profound emotional susceptibility. They had no statuary, their architecture does not remain for us to criticise it, their literature alone supplies us with material for comparison, and even in this there is not that diversity of epic, dramatic, and lyric matter, of history, oratory and philosophy, which we have from Greece. Nevertheless, so far as material offers itself, we find in Hebrew art just those qualities we might expect from Hebraism.
The Hebrews had none of the Hellenic instinct for simplicity and grace and directness. They delighted in deep symbolism and parable, in thunder and lightning of diction and imagery, in pomp and state and grandeur. They felt no scruples about going beyond the golden mean. With them all art of writing or creating was but means to an end, and not an end in itself. Let any one read the Bible and observe its unqualified figures of speech—how the hills skip and the floods clap their hands—and then let them ponder this Hellenic criticism of Longinus: "AEschylus, with a strange violence of language, represents the palace of Lycurgus as 'possessed' at the appearance of Dionysus: 'The hills with rapture thrill, the roof's inspired.' Here Euripides, in borrowing the image, softens its extravagance: and all the mountain felt the God.'"
The Hellene, you observe, is not to let his intellect lose control over his imagination; the Hebrew wholly abandons his imagination to his master passion.
This, you may say, is merely the difference between being inspired and not being inspired; and it may be urged that Plato himself puts the Greek conception otherwise:
"All good poets compose their beautiful poems, not as works of art, but because they are inspired and possessed ... for the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired. When he has not attained to this state he is powerless and unable to utter his oracles. Many are the noble words in which poets speak of the actions which they record, but they do not speak of them by any rules of art, they are inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only."
All of which is true enough, but what it amounts to is this—that artistic rules cannot invent the poetic thought and utterance; it does not mean that the inventing Muse ever ignores the rules of art. And, as a matter of fact, there never is, in Hellenic poetry, anything of utter abandonment. There is reason, warmed and coloured by sentiment and imagination, but reason is never imperilled by any conflagration of emotion.
We began by saying that in all our modern thought and conduct we are either more Hebraic or more Hellenic one than another. In what Carlyle would call our heroes, in our writers, and in our own lives, the one spirit or the other predominates. Happy, but exceeding rare, is he who blends the best elements of both. Literature, perhaps, affords the readiest means of illustration. Not every sentiment, it is true, of modern European letters has been either distinctly Hellenic or distinctly Hebraic in its character. The spirit of romantic poetry, and of the poetry of nature, has no analogy in Greece or Palestine. Nevertheless, inasmuch as no great European writer has failed to pass under the moral influence of Christianity or of Judaism, or to feel directly or indirectly the intellectual influence of Greece, we may, in those great voices of a generation who are called its great writers, listen for the differing tones of these differing forces, as betrayed either in their substance or in their form.
It is not easy to select complete types of one or the other. Roughly, perhaps, one might speak of the Hebraic Dante, Bunyan, or Carlyle; of the Hellenic Johnson, Goethe or Tennyson: but one could not rightly draw up two catalogues of authors and set them in contrast as perfect embodiments, the one of Hebraism, the other of Hellenism. On the other hand, it is not so difficult in the case of a great writer to distinguish his Hebraic from his Hellenic moods and manners, and to gather how far the one element or the other holds the chief sway in him. That Dante's moral force is Hebraic is the natural and correct impression of one who compares the Divine Comedy with the Odyssey of Homer on the one side, and with the Psalms or Isaiah on the other. Yet even in Dante there is a certain repose of contemplation and a careful justness of language which belong rather to the Hellene. The character of Luther, again, might seem wholly Hebraic to those who see him only as a zealot of fiery controversy, so carried out of himself that his very visions of Beelzebub acquired all the vividness of reality. Yet there are times when another spirit is upon him, when his reasoning is cool and colourless as that of a Greek philosopher. The misfortune of Luther is that he could not, as a Melancthon in large measure could, amalgamate the best elements of these complementary natures.
If from the names of English literature one were asked to choose our most Hebraic poet, the name of Milton would perhaps be the first to offer itself to many minds. Yet this would be a mere illusion. We must not confound the subject of poetry with its spirit. The subject of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes is Hebraic; the spirit and manner are by no means so. Distinguish in these works all that which cannot properly be said to belong to the poet himself, the evident paraphrase of Bible language and Bible narrative; set by itself that which is Milton's own imagining; mark the spirit and manner which pervade it; and it will be seen that prophetic fervour is hardly there, profound moral enthusiasm is hardly there. What we chiefly discover is the intellect of a theological student, working in a certain rich material, the magnificent Miltonic diction. The true Hebraic note is rather struck in the sonnet, "Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold," in that fierce reproach of the Church in Lycidas, and in certain passages of his prose. Milton is in fact a Hellene made subject to Hebraic moods by his Hebrew studies, the Puritan Hebraism of his training, and the Hebrew connexion of his subjects. It is when he writes Comus or L'Allegro that he is giving expression to his natural poetic bent. It may seem a paradox if, on the other hand, we say that there was much of Hebraism in one whose purity and justness of language and grace of form seem wholly Hellenic; I mean Shelley. Shelley was intense in imagination, capable of boundless rapture and absorption, subject to white heats of passion and conflagration of moral wrath. In truth his nature was a rare blending, left crude by his early death. As faultless in diction as a Hellene, in philosophical speculation almost a copy of Plato, he was in capacity for reaching the heights and depths of spiritual possession the equal of any Hebrew. And this it is which makes one think that Shelley's early death robbed us of much that would have been of quite supremest worth in poetry.
This is not the time and place to take authors and deal with them one by one, showing how the moral Hebraism is entirely possessed of Bunyan, how entirely Hellenic are the spirit and style of Goethe and the clear criticism and unperturbed intellectual processes of Johnson. I will content myself with touching in no ordered way upon the Hebraic and Hellenic note as it is uttered by one or two passages which I choose almost at random. And first let us hear this passage of Carlyle:—
"A second thing I know. This lesson will have to be learned under penalties. England will either learn it or England also will cease to exist amongst nations. England will either learn to reverence its heroes, and discriminate them from its sham heroes and valets and gas-lighted histories, and to prize them as the audible God's voice amid all inane jargons and temporary market-cries, and say to them with heart loyalty, 'Be ye King and Priest and Gospel and guidance for us,' or else England will continue to worship new and ever new forms of Quackhood and so, with what resiliences and reboundings matter little, go down to the Father of Quacks. Can I dread such things of England? Wretched, thick-eyed, gross-hearted mortals, why will ye worship lies and stuffed cloth suits, created by the ninth parts of men? It is not your purses that suffer, your farm rents, your commerces, your mill revenues—loud as ye lament over these things. No, it is not these alone, but a far deeper than these. It is your souls that lie dead, crushed down under despicable nightmares, atheisms, brain fumes."
What is there here but the uncompromising moral attitude and denunciation of the Hebrew seer? What is there but the same stormy phrase, tumultuous almost to chaos? Carlyle is our own era's type of the Hebraic temperament. Behind him follows Ruskin, a Carlyle tempered by the spirit of Hellenic art without the balance of Hellenic calm. In what Ruskin has to say on how we live and think, his sentences are one and all of Grecian form, but the breath they breathe is Hebrew. I read in Swinburne this address to England:—
Oh thou clothed round with raiment of white waves, Thy brave brows brightening through the gray wet air, Thou lulled with sea-sounds of a thousand caves And lit with sea-shine to thine inland lair: Whose freedom clothed the naked souls of slaves And stripped the muffled souls of tyrants bare: O! by the centuries of thy glorious graves, By the live light of th' earth that was thy care, Live! thou must not be dead! Live! let thine armoured head Lift itself to sunward and the fair Daylight of time and man, Thine head republican, With the same splendour on thine helmless hair Within his eyes kept up a light, Who on thy glory gazed away their sacred sight.