[Note: I have made the following spelling changes: intransigeant to intransigent, rythm of the secret to rhythm of the secret, accummulated to accumulated, potentious and solemn to portentious and solemn, terrestial to terrestrial, Light-cormer to Light-comer, Aldeboran to Aldebaran, enter competely to enter completely, aplomb and nonchalence to aplomb and nonchalance, Hyppolytus to Hippolytus, abyssmal to abysmal, appelations to appellations, intellectual predominence to intellectual predominance, deilberately outraging to deliberately outraging, pour vitrol to pour vitriol, Gethsamene to Gethsemane, Sabacthani to Sabachthani, conscience-striken to conscience-stricken, abssymal gulfs to abysmal gulfs, rhymmic incantations to rhythmic incantations, perpetual insistance to perpetual insistence, and water-cariers to water-carriers. Next, I have also incorporated the errata listed at the end of the book into the text. Finally, I have standardized all the poetry quotations with indentation and spacing which were not in the original text.]
VISIONS AND REVISIONS
A BOOK OF LITERARY DEVOTIONS
JOHN COWPER POWYS
Ham.—Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers—if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me—with two Provincial roses on my ras'd shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir? Her.—Half a share.
1915 G. ARNOLD SHAW NEW YORK
Copyright, 1915, by G. Arnold Shaw Copyright in Great Britain and Colonies
First Printing, February, 1915 Second Printing, March, 1915 Third Printing, October, 1915
BROOKLYN EAGLE PRESS
To Those who love Without understanding; To Those who understand Without loving; And to Those Who, neither loving or understanding, Are the Cause Why Books are written.
Preface 9 Rabelais 25 Dante 35 Shakespeare 55 El Greco 75 Milton 87 Charles Lamb 105 Dickens 119 Goethe 135 Matthew Arnold 153 Shelley 169 Keats 183 Nietzsche 197 Thomas Hardy 213 Walter Pater 227 Dostoievsky 241 Edgar Allen Poe 263 Walt Whitman 281 Conclusion 293
What I aim at in this book is little more than to give complete reflection to those great figures in Literature which have so long obsessed me. This poor reflection of them passes, as they pass, image by image, eidolon by eidolon, in the flowing stream of my own consciousness.
Most books of critical essays take upon themselves, in unpardonable effrontery, to weigh and judge, from their own petty suburban pedestal, the great Shadows they review. It is an insolence! How should Professor This, or Doctor That, whose furthest experiences of "dangerous living" have been squalid philanderings with their neighbours' wives, bring an Ethical Synthesis to bear that shall put Shakespeare and Hardy, Milton and Rabelais, into appropriate niches?
Every critic has a right to his own Aesthetic Principles, to his own Ethical Convictions; but when it comes to applying these, in tiresome, pedantic agitation, to Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Lamb, we must beg leave to cry off! What we want is not the formulating of new Critical Standards, and the dragging in of the great masters before our last miserable Theory of Art. What we want is an honest, downright and quite personal articulation, as to how these great things in literature really hit us when they find us for the moment natural and off our guard—when they find us as men and women, and not as ethical gramaphones.
My own object in these sketches is not to convert the reader to whatever "opinions" I may have formulated in the course of my spiritual adventures; it is to divest myself of such "opinions," and in pure, passionate humility to give myself up, absolutely and completely, to the various visions and temperaments of these great dead artists.
There is an absurd notion going about, among those half-educated people who frequent Ethical Platforms, that Literary Criticism must be "constructive." O that word "constructive"! How, in the name of the mystery of genius, can criticism be anything else than an idolatry, a worship, a metamorphosis, a love affair! The pathetic mistake these people make is to fancy that the great artists only lived and wrote in order to buttress up such poor wretches as these are upon the particular little, thin, cardboard platform which is at present their moral security and refuge.
No one has a right to be a critic whose mind cannot, with Protean receptivity, take first one form and then another, as the great Spells, one by one, are thrown and withdrawn.
Who wants to know what Professor So-and-so's view of Life may be? We want to use Professor So-and-so as a Mirror, as a Medium, as a Go-Between, as a Sensitive Plate, so that we may once more get the thrill of contact with this or that dead Spirit. He must keep his temperament, our Critic; his peculiar angle of receptivity, his capacity for personal reaction. But it is the reaction of his own natural nerves that we require, not the pallid, second-hand reaction of his tedious, formulated opinions. Why cannot he see that, as a natural man, physiologically, nervously, temperamentally, pathologically different from other men, he is an interesting spectacle, as he comes under the influence first of one great artist and then another, while as a silly, little, preaching school-master, he is only a blot upon the world-mirror!
It is thus that I, moi qui vous parle, claim my humble and modest role. If, in my reaction from Rabelais, for instance, I find myself responding to his huge laughter at "love" and other things, and a moment later, in my reaction from Thomas Hardy, feeling as if "love" and the rest were the only important matters in the Universe; this psychological variability, itself of interest as a curious human phenomenon, has made it possible to get the "reflections," each absolute in its way, of the two great artists as they advance and recede.
If I had tried to dilute and prune and "correct" the one, so as to make it "fit in" with the other, in some stiff, ethical theory of my own, where would be the interest for the reader? Besides, who am I to "improve" upon Rabelais?
It is because so many of us are so limited in our capacity for "variable reaction" that there are so few good critics. But we are all, I think, more multiple-souled than we care to admit. It is our foolish pride of consistency, our absurd desire to be "constructive," that makes us so dull. A critic need not necessarily approach the world from the "pluralistic" angle; but there must be something of such "pluralism" in his natural temper, or the writers he can respond to will be very few!
Let it be quite plainly understood. It is impossible to respond to a great genius halfway. It is a case of all or nothing. If you lack the courage, or the variability, to go all the way with very different masters, and to let your constructive consistency take care of itself, you may become, perhaps, an admirable moralist; you will never be a clairvoyant critic. All this having been admitted, it still remains that one has a right to draw out from the great writers one loves certain universal aesthetic tests, with which to discriminate between modern productions.
But even such tests are personal and relative. They are not to be foisted on one's readers as anything "ex cathedra." One such test is the test of what has been called "the grand style"—that grand style against which, as Arnold says, the peculiar vulgarity of our race beats in vain! I do not suppose I shall be accused of perverting my devotion to the "grand style" into an academic "narrow way," through which I would force every writer I approach. Some most winning and irresistible artists never come near it.
And yet—what a thing it is! And with what relief do we return to it, after the "wallowings" and "rhapsodies," the agitations and prostitutions, of those who have it not!
It is—one must recognize that—the thing, and the only thing, that, in the long run, appeals. It is because of the absence of it that one can read so few modern writers twice! They have flexibility, originality, cleverness, insight—but they lack distinction—they fatally lack distinction.
And what are the elements, the qualities, that go to make up this "grand style"?
Let me first approach the matter negatively. There are certain things that cannot—because of something essentially ephemeral in them—be dealt with in the grand style.
Such are, for instance, our modern controversies about the problem of Sex. We may be Feminists or Anti-Feminists—what you will—and we may be able to throw interesting light on these complicated relations, but we cannot write of them, either in prose or poetry, in the grand style, because the whole discussion is ephemeral; because, with all its gravity, it is irrelevant to the things that ultimately matter!
Such, to take another example, are our elaborate arguments about the interpretation, ethical or otherwise, of Christian Doctrine. We can be very entertaining, very moral, very eloquent, very subtle, in this particular sphere; but we cannot deal with it in the "great style," because the permanent issues that really count lie out of reach of such discussion and remain unaffected by it.
Let me make myself quite clear. Hector and Andromache can talk to one another of their love, of their eternal parting, of their child, and they can do this in the great style; but if they fell into dispute over the particular sex conventions that existed in their age, they might be attractive still, but they would not be uttering words in the "great style."
Matthew Arnold may argue eloquently about the true modernistic interpretation of the word "Elohim," and very cleverly and wittily give his reasons for translating it "the Eternal" or "the Shining One"; but into what a different atmosphere we are immediately transported when, in the midst of such discussion, the actual words of the Psalmist return to our mind: "My soul is athirst for God—yea! even for the living God! When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?"
The test is always that of Permanence, and of immemorial human association. It is, at bottom, nothing but human association that makes the great style what it is. Things that have, for centuries upon centuries, been associated with human pleasures, human sorrows, and the great recurrent dramatic moments of our lives, can be expressed in this style; and only such things. The great style is a sort of organic, self-evolving work of art, to which the innumerable units of the great human family have all put their hands. That is why so large a portion of what is written in the great style is anonymous—like Homer and much of the Bible and certain old ballads and songs. It is for this reason that Walter Pater is right when he says that the important thing in Religion is the Ceremony, the Litany, the Ritual, the Liturgical Chants, and not the Creeds or the Commandments, or discussion upon Creed or Commandment. Creeds change, Morality changes, Mysticism changes, Philosophy changes—but the Word of our God—the Word of Humanity—in gesture, in ritual, in the heart's natural crying—abideth forever!
Why do the eloquent arguments of an ethical orator, explaining to us our social duties, go a certain way and never go further, whereas we have only to hear that long-drawn Vox Humana, old as the world—older certainly than any creed—"Santa Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae"—and we are struck, disarmed, pierced to the marrow, smitten to the bone, shot through, "Tutto tremente?" Because arguments and reasoning; because morality and logic, are not of the nature of the "great style," while the cry—"save us from eternal death!"—addressed by the passion and remorse and despair of our human heart to the unhearing Universe, takes that great form as naturally as a man breathes.
Why, of all the religious books in the world, have "the Psalms of David," whether in Hebrew or Latin or English, touched men's souls and melted and consoled them? They are not philosophical. They are not logical. They are not argumentative. They are not moral. And yet they break our hearts with their beauty and their appeal!
It is the same with certain well-known words. Is it understood, for instance, why the word "Sword" is always poetical and in "the grand style," while the word "Zeppelin" or "Submarine" or "Gatling gun" or "Howitzer" can only be introduced by Free Versifiers, who let the "grand style" go to the Devil? The word "Sword" like the word "Plough," has gathered about it the human associations of innumerable centuries, and it is impossible to utter it without feeling something of their pressure and their strain. The very existence of the "grand style" is a protest against any false views of "progress" and "evolution." Man may alleviate his lot in a thousand directions; he may build up one Utopia after another; but the grand style will still remain; will remain as the ultimate expression of those aspects of his life that cannot change—while he remains Man.
If there is any unity in these essays, it will be found in a blurred and stammered attempt to indicate how far it may be possible, in spite of the limitations of our ordinary nature, to live in the light of the "grand style." I do not mean that we—the far-off worshippers of these great ones—can live as they thought and felt. But I mean that we can live in the atmosphere, the temper, the mood, the attitude towards things, which "the grand style" they use evokes and sustains.
I want to make this clear. There are a certain number of solitary spirits moving among us who have a way of troubling us by their aloofness from our controversies, our disputes, our arguments, our "great problems." We call them Epicures, Pagans, Heathen, Egoists, Hedonists, and Virtuosos. And yet not one of these words exactly fits them. What they are really doing is living in the atmosphere and the temper of "the grand style"—and that is why they are so irritating and provocative! To them the most important thing in the world is to realize to the fullest limit of their consciousness what it means to be born a Man. The actual drama of our mortal existence, reduced to the simplest terms, is enough to occupy their consciousness and their passion. In this sphere—in the sphere of the "inevitable things" of human life—everything becomes to them a sacrament. Not a symbol—be it noted—but a Sacrament! The food they eat; the wine they drink; their waking and sleeping; the hesitancies and reluctances of their devotions; the swift anger of their recoils and retreats; their long loyalties; their savage reversions; their sudden "lashings out"; their hate and their love and their affection; the simplicities of these everlasting moods are in all of us—become, every one of them, matters of sacramental efficiency. To regard each day, as it dawns, as a "last day," and to make of its sunrise, of its noon, of its sun-setting, a rhythmic antiphony to the eternal gods—this is to live in the spirit of the "grand style." It has nothing to do with "right" or "wrong." Saints may practise it, and sometimes do. Sinners often practise it. The whole thing consists in growing vividly conscious of those moods and events which are permanent and human, as compared with those other moods and events which are transitory and unimportant.
When a man or woman experiences desire, lust, hate, jealousy, devotion, admiration, passion, they are victims of the eternal forces, that can speak, if they will, in "the great style." When a man or woman "argues" or "explains" or "moralizes" or "preaches," they are the victims of accidental dust-storms, which rise from futility and return to vanity. That is why Rhetoric, as Rhetoric, can never be in the great style. That is why certain great revolutionary Anarchists, those who have the genius to express in words their heroic defiance of "the something rotten in Denmark," move us more, and assume a grander outline, than the equally admirable, and possibly more practical, arguments of the Scientific Socialists. It is the eternal appeal we want, to what is basic and primitive and undying in our tempestuous human nature!
The grand style announces and commands. It weeps and it pleads. It utters oracles and it wrestles with angels. It never apologizes; it never rationalizes; and it never explains. That is why the great ineffable passages in the supreme masters take us by the throat and strike us dumb. Deep calls unto deep in them, and our heart listens and is silent. To do good scientific thinking in the cause of humanity has its well-earned reward; but the gods throw incense on a different temper. The "fine issues" that reach them, in their remoteness and their disdain, are the "fine issues" of an antagonist worthy of their own swift wrath, their own swift vengeance, and their own swift love.
The ultimate drama of the world, a drama never-ending, lies between the children of Zeus and the children of Prometheus; between the hosts of Jehovah and the Sons of the Morning. God and Lucifer still divide the stage, and in Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and Goethe the great style is never more the great style than when it brings these eternal Antagonists face to face, and compels them to cross swords. What matter if, in reality, they have their kingdoms in the heart of man rather than the Empyrean or Tartarus? The heart of man, in its unchangeable character, must ever remain the true Coliseum of the world, where the only interesting, the only dramatic, the only beautiful, the only classical things are born and turned into music.
Beauty! That is what we all, even the grossest of us, in our heart of hearts are seeking. Lust seeks it; Love creates it; the miracle of Faith finds it—but nothing less, neither truth nor wisdom nor morality nor knowledge, neither progress nor reaction, can quench the thirst we feel.
Yes, it is Beauty we crave, and yet, how often, in the strain and stress of life, it seems as though this strange impossible Presence, rising thus, like that figure in the Picture, "beside the waters" of the fate that carries us, were too remote, too high and translunar, to afford us the aid we need. Heine tells us somewhere, how, driven by the roar of street-fighting, into the calm cool galleries of the Louvre, sick and exhausted in mind and body, he fell down at the feet of the Goddess of Beauty there, standing, as she still stands, at the end of that corridor of mute witnesses, and as he looked to her for help, he knew that she could never bend down to him, or lift him up out of his weariness, for they had broken her long ago, and she had no arms!
Alas! It is true enough that there are moments, when, under the pressure of the engines of fate, we can only salute her—the immortal one—afar off. But if we have the courage, the obstinacy, the endurance, to wait—even a short while longer—she will be near us again; and the old magical spell, transforming the world, will thrill through us like the breath of spring!
Why should we attempt to deceive ourselves? We cannot always live with those liberating airs blowing upon our foreheads. We have to bear the burden of the unillumined hours, even as our fathers before us, and our children after us. Enough if we keep our souls so prepared that when the touch, the glimpse, the word, the gesture, that carries with it the thrilling revelation of the "grand manner", returns to us in its appointed hour, it shall find us not unworthy of our inheritance.
There are certain great writers who make their critics feel even as children, who picking up stray wreckage and broken shells from the edge of the sea waves, return home to show their companions "what the sea is like."
The huge suggestiveness of this tremendous spirit is not easy to communicate in the space of a little essay.
But something can be done, if it only take the form of modest "advice to the reader."
Is it a pity, one asks oneself, or is it a profound advantage, that enjoyment of Rabelais should be so limited? At least there are no false versions to demolish here—no idealizations to unmask.
The reading of Rabelais is not easy to everyone, and perhaps to those for whom it is least easy, he would be most medicinal. What in this mad world, do we lack, my dear friends? Is it possibly courage? Well, Rabelais is, of all writers, the one best able to give us that courage. If only we had courage, how the great tides of existence might sweep us along—and we not whine or wince at all!
To read Rabelais is to gather, as if from the earth-gods, spirit to endure anything. Naturally he uses wine, and every kind of wanton liquor, to serve as symbols of the intoxication he would produce. For we must be "rendered drunk" to swallow Life at this rate—to swallow it as the gods swallow it. We must be drunk but not mad. For in the spiritual drunkenness that Rabelais produces there is not the remotest touch of insanity. He is the sanest of all the great writers; perhaps the only sane one. What he has the power of communicating to us is a renewal of that physiological energy, which alone makes it possible to enjoy this monstrous world. Other writers interpret things, or warn us against things. Rabelais takes us by the hand, shows us the cup of life, deep as eternity, and bids us drink and be satisfied. What else could he use, if not wine, as a symbol for such quenching of such thirst. And after wine, sex. There is no other who treats sex as Rabelais does; who treats it so completely as it ought to be treated!
Walt Whitman is too obsessed by it; too grave over it—Rabelais enjoys it, fools with it, plunges into it, wallows in it; and then, with multitudinous laughter, shakes himself free, and bids it go to the Devil!
The world will have to come to this, sooner or later—to the confusion of the vicious—and the virtuous!
The virtuous and the vicious play indeed into each others hands; and neither of them love laughter. Sexual dalliance is either too serious a matter to be mocked by satyr-laughter; or it is too sad and deplorable to be laughed at at all. In a few hundred years, surely, the human race will recognize its absolute right to make mock at the grotesque elements in the sex comedy, and such laughter will clear the air of much "virtue" and much "vice."
Wine is his first symbol of the large, sane, generous mood he bequeaths to us—the focusing of the poetry of life, and the glow and daring of it, and its eternal youthfulness.
But it is more than a symbol—it is a sacrament and an initiation. It is the sap that rises in the world's recurrent spring. It is the ichor, the quintessence of the creative mystery. It is the blood of the sons of the morning. It is the dew upon the paradisic fields. It is the red-rose light, upon the feet of those who dance upon graves. Wine is a sign to us how there is required a certain generous and sane intoxication, a certain large and equable friendliness in dealing with people and things and ideas. It is a sign that the earth calls aloud for the passionate dreamer. It is a sign that the truth of truth is not in labor and sorrow, but in joy and happiness. It is a sign that gods and men have a right to satisfy their hearts desire, with joy and pleasure and splendid freedom. And just as he uses wine, so he uses meat. Bread that strengthened man's heart (and bologna-sausages, gammons of bacon, or what you will, else) this also is a symbol and a sacrament. And it is indeed more, for one must remember that Rabelais was a great doctor of medicine, as well as of Utopian Theology—and the stomach, with the wise indulgence thereof, is the final master of all arts! Let it be understood that in Rabelais sex is treated with the same reverence, and the same humor, as meat and wine. Why not? Is not the body of man the temple of the Holy Ghost? Is it not sacrosanct and holy within and without; and yet, at the same time, is it not a huge and palpable absurdity?
Those who suffer most from Rabelais' manner of treating sex are the incurably vicious. The really evil libidinous people, that is to say the spiteful, the mean, the base and inhuman, fly from his presence, and for the obvious reason that he makes sex-pleasure so generous, so gay, so natural, so legitimate, that their dark morbid perverted natures can get no more joy out of it. Their lust, their lechery, is a cold dead Saurian thing, a thing with the gravity of a slow-worm—and when this great laughing and generous sage comes forth into the sunshine with his noble companies of amorous and happy people, these Shadow-lovers, these Leut-lovers, these Fleshly Sentimentalists, writhe in shame, and seek refuge in a deeper darkness. How strained and inhuman, too; and one might add, how mad and irrelevant—that high, cold, disdainful translunar scorn with which the "moral-immoralism" of Nietzsche scourges our poor flesh and blood. One turns with relief to Zarathustra after associating with pious people. But, after Rabelais, even that terrific psychologist seems contorted and thin.
For after all it is generosity that we cry out for. Courage without generosity hugs its knees in Hell.
From the noble pleasures of meat and drink and sex, thus generously treated; we must turn to another aspect of Rabelais' work—his predilection for excrement. This also, though few would admit it, is a symbolic secret. This also is a path of initiation. In this peculiarity Rabelais is completely alone among the writers of the earth. Others have, for various reasons, dabbled in this sort of thing—but none have ever piled it up—manure-heap upon manure-heap, until the animal refuse of the whole earth seems to reek to the stars! There is not the slightest reason to regret this thing or to expurgate it. Rabelais is not Rabelais, just as life is not life, without it.
It is indeed the way of "salvation" for certain neurotic natures. Has that been properly understood? There are people who suffer frightfully—and they are often rare natures, too, though they are sometimes very vicious—from their loathing of the excremental side of life. Swift was one of these. The "disgusting" in his writing is a pathological form, not at all unusual, of such a loathing. But Rabelais is no Dean Swift—nor is there the remotest resemblance between them. Rabelais may really save us from our loathing by the huge all-embracing friendliness of his sense of humor.
There are certain people, no doubt, who would prefer the grave enthusiasm of Whitman in regard to this matter to the freer Rabelaisian touch. I cannot say that my personal experience agrees with this view.
I have found both great men invaluable; but I think as far as dealing with the Cloaca Maxima side of things is concerned, Rabelais has been the braver in inspiration. In these little matters one can only say, "some are born Rabelaisian, and some require to have Rabelais thrust upon them!"
Surely it is wisdom, in us terrestrial mortals, to make what imaginative use we can of every phase of our earthly condition?
Imagination has a right to play with everything that exists; and humor has a right to laugh at everything that exists. Everything in life is sacred and everything is a huge jest.
It is the association of this excremental aspect of life, with those high sacraments of meat and drink and sex, which some find so hard to endure. Be not afraid my little ones! The great and humorous gods have arranged for this also; and have seen to it that no brave, generous, amorous "sunburnt" emotion shall ever be hurt by such associations! If a person is hurt by them, that is only an indication that they are in grievous need of the wholesome purgative medicine of the great doctor! When one comes to speak of the actual contents of these books criticism itself must borrow Gargantua's mouth.
What characters! The three great royal giants, Graugousier, Gargantua and Pantagruel—have there ever been such kings? And the noble servants of such noble masters! The whole atmosphere is so large, so genial, so courteous, so sweet-tempered, so entirely what the life of man upon earth should be.
Even the military exploits of Friar John, even the knavish tricks of Panurge, cannot spoil our tenderness for these dear bully-boys, these mellow and magnanimous rogues! Certain paragraphs in Rabelais recur to one's mind daily. That laudation of Socrates at the beginning, and the description of the "little boxes called Silent" that outside have so grotesque an adornment, but within are full of ambergris and myrrh and all manner of precious odours.
And the picture of the banquet "when they fell to the chat of the afternoon's collation and began great goblets to ring, great bowls to ting, great gammons to trot; pour me out the fair Greek wine, the extravagant wine, the good wine, Lacrima Christi, supernaculum!" And, above all, the most holy Abbey of Thelema, over the gate of which was written the words that are never far from the hearts of wise Utopian Christians, the profound words, the philosophical words, the most shrewd Cabalistic words, and the words that "lovers" alone can understand—"Fay que ce Vouldray!" Do as Thou Wilt!
Little they know of Rabelais who call him a lewd buffoon—the profanest of mountebanks. He was one of those rare spirits that redeem humanity. To open his book—though the steam of the grossness of it rises to Heaven—is to touch the divine fingers—the fingers that heal the world.
How that "style" of his, that great oceanic avalanche of learning and piety and obscenity and gigantic merriment, smells of the honest earth!
How, with all his huge scholarship, he loves to depend for his richest, most human effects, upon his own peasant-people of Touraine! The proverbs of the country-side, the wisdom of tavern-wit, the shrewdness and fantasy of old wives tales, the sly earthly humors of farmers and vine-tenders and goat-herds and goose-girls—these are things out of which he distils his vision, his oracles, his courage.
There is also—who could help observing it?—a certain large and patriarchal homeliness—a kind of royal domesticity—about much that he writes. Those touches, as when Gargantua, his little dog in advance, enters the dining hall, when they are discussing Panurge's marriage, and they all rise to do him honor; as when Gargantua bids Pantagruel farewell and gives him a benediction so wise and tender; remain in the mind like certain passages in the Bible. These are the things that aesthetic fools "with varnished faces" easily overlook and misunderstand; but good simple fellows—"honest cods" as Rabelais would say—are struck to the heart by them. How proud the man might be, who in the turmoil of this troublesome world and beneath the mystery of "le grand Peut-etre" could answer to the ultimate question, "I am a Christian of the faith of Rabelais!"
Such a one, under the spell of such a master, might indeed be able to comfort the sick and sorry, and to whisper in their ears that cosmic secret—"Bon Espoir y gist au fond!" "Good Hope lies at the Bottom!" "Good Hope" for all; for the best and the worst—for the whole miserable welter of this chaotic farce!
Therefore, "with angels and archangels" let us bow our heads and hold our tongues. Those who fancy Rabelais to be lacking in the kind of religious feeling that great souls respect, let them read that passage in the voyage of Pantagruel that speaks of the Death of Pan. Various accounts are given; various explanations made; of the great cry, that the sailors, "coming from Paloda," heard over land and sea. At the last Pantagruel himself speaks; and he tells them that to him it refers to nothing less than the death of Him whom the Scribes and Pharisees and Priests of Jerusalem slew. "And well is He called Pan, which in the Greek means 'All'; for in Him is all we are or have or hope." And having said this he fell into silence, and "tears large as ostrich-eggs rolled down his cheeks."
To all who read Rabelais and love him, one can offer no better wish than that the mystic wine of his Holy Bottle may fulfil their heart's desire. Happy, indeed, those who are not "unwillingly drawn" by the "Fate" we all must follow! "Go now, my friends," says the strange Priestess, "and may that Circle whose Centre is everywhere and its Circumference nowhere, keep you in His Almighty protection!"
The history of Dante's personal and literary appeal would be an extremely interesting one. No great writer has managed to excite more opposite emotions.
One thing may be especially noted as significant: Women have always been more attracted to him than men. He is in a peculiar sense the Woman's great poet. There is a type of masculine genius which has always opposed him. Goethe cared little for him; Voltaire laughed at him; Nietzsche called him "an hyaena poetizing among the tombs."
The truth is, women love Dante for the precise reason that these men hate him. He makes sex the centre of everything. One need not be deceived by the fact that Dante worships "purity," while Voltaire, Goethe and Nietzsche are little concerned with it. This very laudation of continence is itself an emphasis upon sex. These others would play with amorous propensities; trifle with them in their life, in their art, in their philosophy; and then, that dangerous plaything laid aside would, as Machiavel puts it, "assume suitable attire, and return to the company of their equals—the great sages of antiquity."
Now it is quite clear that this pagan attitude towards sex, this tendency to enjoy it in its place and leave it there, is one that, more than anything else, is irritating to women. If, as a German thinker says, every woman is a courtezan or a mother, it is obvious that the artists and thinkers who refuse alike the beguilements of the one and the ironic tenderness of the other, are not people to be "loved." Dante refuses neither; and he has, further, that peculiar mixture of harsh strength and touching weakness, which is so especially appealing to women. They are reluctantly overcome—not without pleasure—by his fierce authority; and they can play the "little mother" to his weakness. The maternal instinct is as ironical as it is tender. It smiles at the high ideals or the eccentric child it pets, but it would not have him different. What a woman does not like, whether she is mother or courtezan, is that other kind of irony, the irony of the philosopher, which undermines both her maternal feeling and her passionate caresses.
Women, too, even quite good women, have the stress of the sexual difference constantly before them. Indeed it may be said that the class of women who are least sex-conscious are those who have habitually to sell themselves. It all matters so little then!
How fiercely is the interest of the most virtuous aroused, when any question of a love affair is rumored. In this sense every woman is a born "go-between." Sex is not with them a thing apart, an exciting volcanic thing, liable to mad outbursts, to weird perversions, but often completely forgotten. It is never completely forgotten. It is diffused. It is everywhere. It lurks in a thousand innocent gestures and intimations. The savage purity of an Artemis is no real exception. Sex is a thing too pressing to be dallied with. It is all or nothing.
One cannot play with fire. When we make observations of this kind we do not derogate from the charm or dignity of women. It is no aspersion upon them. They did not ask to have it so. It is so.
Domestic life as the European nations have evolved it is a queer compromise. Its restraints weigh heavily, in alternate discord, upon both sexes.
Masculine depravity rebels against it, and the whole modern feministic movement shakes it to the base. It remains to be seen whether Nature will admit of any satisfactory readjustment.
Certainly, as far as overt acts are concerned, women are far "purer" than men. It is only when we leave the sphere of outward acts and enter the sphere of cerebral undercurrents, that all this is changed. There the Biblical story finds its proof, and the daughters of Eve revert to their mother. This is the secret of that mania for the personal which characterizes women's conversation. She can say fine things and do fine work; but both in her wit and her art, one is conscious of a mind that has voluptuously welcomed, or vindictively repulsed, the approach of a particular invasion; never of a mind that, in its abstract love for the beautiful, cannot even remember how it came to give birth to such thoughts!
It is the close psychological association between the emotion of religion and the emotion of sex which has always made women more religious than men.
This is perhaps only to say that women are nearer the secret of the universe than men. It may well be so. Man's rationalizing tendency to divorce his intelligence from his intuition—may not be the precise key which opens those magic doors! Sanctity itself—that most exquisite flower of the art of character—is a profoundly feminine thing. The most saintly saints, that is to say those who wear the indescribable distinction of their Master, are always possessed of a certain feminine quality.
Sanctity is woman's ideal—morality is man's. The one is based upon passion, and by means of love lifts us above law. The other is based upon vice and the recoil from vice; and has no horizons of any sort.
That is why the countries where the imagination is profoundly feminine like Russia and France have sanctity as their ideal. Whereas England has its Puritan morality, and Germany its scientific efficiency. These latter races ought to sit at Dante's feet, to learn the secret of the "Beatific Vision" that is as far beyond morality as it is outside science. There are, it is true, certain moments when the Italian poet leads us up into the cold rarified air of that "Intellectual Love of God" which leaves sex, as it leaves other human feelings, infinitely behind. But this Spinozistic mood is not the natural climate of his soul. He is always ready to revert, always anxious to "drag Beatrice in." Wagner's "Parsifal" is perhaps the most flagrant example of this ambiguous association between religion and sex. The sentimental blasphemy of that feet-washing scene is an evidence of the depths of sexual morbidity into which this voluptuous religion of pity can lead us. O that figure in the white nightgown, blessing his reformed harlot!
It is a pity Wagner ever touched the Celtic Legend—German sentimentality and Celtic romance need a Heine to deal with them!
It is indeed a difficult task to write of the relations between romantic love and devotional religion and to do it in the grand style. That is where Dante is so supremely great. And that is why, for all his greatness, his influence upon modern art has been so morbid and evil. The odious sensuality of the so-called "Pre-Raphaelite School" —a sensuality drenched with holy water and perfumed with incense—has a smell of corruption about it that ought never to be associated with Dante's name.
The worst of modern poets, the most affected and the most meticulous, are all anxious to seal themselves of the tribe of Dante. But they are no more like that divine poet than the flies that feed on a dead Caesar are like the hero they cause to stink!
Our brave Oscar understood him. Some of the most exquisite passages in "Intentions" refer to his poetry. Was the "Divine Comedy" too clear-cut and trenchant for Walter Pater? It is strange how Dante has been left to second-rate interpreters! His illustrators, too! O these sentimentalists, with their Beatrices crossing the Ponte Vecchio, and their sad youths looking on! All this is an insult—a sacrilege—to the proudest, most aristocratic spirit who ever dwelt on earth! Why did not Aubrey Beardsley stop that beautiful boy on the threshold? He who was the model of his "Ave atque vale!" might have well served for Casella, singing among the cold reeds, in the white dawn.
For there are scenes in Dante which have the strange, remote, perverted, archaic loveliness of certain figures on the walls of Egyptian temples or on the earliest Greek vases. Here the real artist in him forgets God and Beatrice and the whole hierarchy of the saints. And it is because of things of this kind that many curious people are found to be his worshipers who will never themselves pass forth "to re-behold the stars." They are unwise who find Dante so bitter and theological, so Platonic and devoted, that they cannot open his books. They little know what ambiguous planets, what dark heathen meteors move on the fringe of his great star-lit road. His Earthly Lady, as well as his Heavenly Lady, may have the moon beneath her feet.
But neither of them know, as does their worshiper and lover, what lies on the other side of the moon.
What Dante leaves to us as his ultimate gift is his pride and his humility. The one answers the other. And both put us to shame. He, alone of great artists, holds in his hand the true sword of the Spirit for the dividing asunder of men and things. There is no necessity to lay all the stress upon the division between the Lower and the Higher Love, between Hell and Heaven. There are other distinctions in life than these. And between all distinctions, between all those differences which separate the "fine" from the "base," the noble from the ignoble, the beautiful from the hideous, the generous from the mean; Dante draws the pitiless sword-stroke of that "eternal separation" which is the most tragic thing in the world. In the truest sense tragic! For so many things, and so many people, that must be thus "cut off," are among those who harrow our hearts with the deadliest attraction and are so wistful in their weakness. Through the mists and mephitic smoke of our confused age—our age that cries out to be beyond the good, when it is beneath the beautiful—through the thick air of indolence masquerading as toleration and indifference posing as sympathy, flashes the scorching sword of the Florentine's Disdain, dividing the just from the unjust, the true from the false, and the heroic from the commonplace. What matter if his "division" is not our "division," his "formula" our "formula"? It is good for us to be confronted with such Disdain. It brings us back once more to "Values"; and whether our "Values" are values of taste or values of devotion what matter? Life becomes once more arresting. The everlasting Drama recovers its "Tone"; and the high Liturgy of the last Illusion rolls forward to its own Music!
That Angel of God, who when their hearts were shaken with fear before the flame-lit walls of Dis, came, so straight across the waters, and quelled the insolence of Hell; with what Disdain he turns away his face, even from those he has come to save!
These "messengers" of God, who have so superb a contempt for all created things, does one not meet them, sometimes, even in this life, as they pass us by upon their secret errands?
The beginning of the Inferno contains the cruellest judgment upon our generation ever uttered. It is so exactly adapted to the spirit of this age that, hearing it, one staggers as if from a stab. Are we not this very tribe of caitiffs who have committed the "Great Refusal?" Are we not these very wretches whose blind life is so base that they envy every other Fate? Are we not those who are neither for God or for his Enemies but are "for themselves"; those who may not even take refuge in Hell, lest the one damned get glory of them! The very terror of this clear-cutting sword-sweep, dividing us, bone from bone, may, nay! probably will, send us back to our gentle "lovers of humanity" who, "knowing everything pardon everything." But one sometimes wonders whether a life all "irony," all "pity," all urbane "interest," would not lose the savor of its taste! There is a danger, not only to our moral sense, but to our immoral sense, in that genial air of universal acceptance which has become the fashion.
What if, after all—even though this universe be so poor a farce—the mad lovers and haters, the terrible prophets and artists, were right?
Suppose the farce had a climax, a catastrophe! One loves to repeat "all is possible;" but that particular possibility has little attraction. It would be indeed an anti-climax if the queer Comedy we have so daintily been patronizing turned out to be a Divine Comedy—and ourselves the point of the jest! Not that this is very likely to occur. It is more in accordance with what we know of the terrestrial stage that in this wager of faith with un-faith neither will ever discover who really won!
But Dante's "Disdain" is not confined to the winners in the cosmic dicing match. There are heroic hearts in hell who, for all their despair, still yield not, nor abate a jot of their courage. Such a one was that great Ghibelline Chief who was lost for "denying immortality." "If my people fled from thy people—that more torments me than this flame." In one respect Dante is, beyond doubt, the greatest poet of the world. I mean in his power of heightening the glory and the terribleness of the human race. Across the three-fold kingdom of his "Terza Rima" passes, in tragic array, the whole procession of human history—and each figure there, each solitary person, whether of the Blessed or the Purged, or the Condemned, wears, like a garment of fire, the dreadful dignity of having been a man! The moving sword-point that flashes, first upon one and then upon another, amid our dim transactions, is nothing but the angry arm of human imagination, moulding life to grander issues; creating, if not discovering, sublimer laws.
In conveying that thrilling sense of the momentousness of human destiny which beyond anything else certain historic names evoke, none can surpass him. The brief, branding lines, with which the enemies of God are engraved upon their monuments "more lasting than brass," seem to add a glory to damnation. Who can forget how that "Simonist" and "Son of Sodom" lifts his hands up out of the deepest Pit, and makes "the fig" at God? "Take it, God, for at Thee I aim it!" There is a sting of furious blasphemy in this; personal outrage that goes beyond all limits.
Yet who is there, but does not feel glad that the "Pistoian" uttered what he uttered—out of his Hell—to his Maker?
Is not Newman right when he says that the heart of man does not naturally "love God?"
But perhaps in the whole poem nothing is more beautiful than that great roll of honor of the unchristened Dead, who make up the company of the noble Heathen. Sad, but not unhappy, they walk to and fro in their Pagan Hades, and occupy themselves, as of old, in discoursing upon philosophy and poetry and the Mystery of Life.
Those single lines, devoted to such names, are unlike anything else in literature. That "Caesar, in armour, with Ger-Falcon eyes," challenges one's obeisance as a great shout of his own legionaries, while that "Alone, by himself, the Soldan" bows to the dust our Christian pride, as the Turbaned Commander of the Faithful, with his ghostly crescent blade, strides past, dreaming of the Desert.
It is in touches like these, surely, rather than in the Beatrice scenes or the devil scenes, that the poet is most himself.
It needs, perhaps, a certain smouldering dramatic passion, in regard to the whole spectacle of human life, to do justice to such lines. It needs also that mixture of disdain and humility which is his own paramount attribute.
And the same smouldering furnace of "reverence" characterizes Dante's use of the older literatures. No writer who has ever lived has such a dramatic sense of the "great effects" in style, and the ritual of words.
That passage, "Thou art my master and my author. It is from thee I learnt the beautiful style that has done me so much honour," with its reiteration of the rhythmic syllables of "honour," opens up a salutary field of aesthetic contemplation. His quotations, too, from the Psalms, and from the Roman Liturgy, become, by their imaginative inclusion, part of his own creative genius. That "Vexilla regis prodeunt Inferni!" Who can hear it without the same thrill, as when Napoleonic trumpets heralded the Emperor! In the presence of such moments the whole elaboration of the Beatrice Cult falls away. That romantic perversion of the sex instinct is but the psychic motive force. Once started on his splendid and terrible road, the poet forgets everything except the "Principle of Beauty" and the "Memory of Great Men." Parallel with these things is Dante's passion of reverence for the old historic places—provinces, cities, rivers and valleys of his native Italy. Even when he lifts up his voice to curse them, as he curses his own Firenze, it is but an inversion of the same mood. The cities where men dwelt then took to themselves living personalities; and Dante, who in love and hate was Italian of the Italians, was left indifferent by none of these. How strange to modern ears this thrill of recognition, when one exile, even among the dead, meets another, of their common citizenship of "no mean city!" Of this classic "patriotism" the world requires a Renaissance, that we may be saved from the shallowness of artificial commercial Empires. The new "inter-nationalism" is the sinister product of a generation that has grown "deracinated," that has lost its roots in the soil. It is an Anglo-Germanic thing and opposed to it the proud tenacity of the Latin race turns, even today, to what Barres calls the "worship of one's Dead."
Anglo-Saxon Industrialism, Teutonic Organization, have their world place; but it is to the Latin, and, it may be, to the Slav also, that the human spirit must turn in those subtler hours when it cannot "live by bread alone."
The modern international empires may obliterate local boundaries and trample on local altars. In spite of them, and in defiance of them, the soul of an ancient race lives on, its saints and its artists forging the urn of its Phoenix-ashes!
Dante himself, dreaming over the high Virgilian Prophecy of a World-State, under a Spiritual Caesar, yearned to restore the Pax Romana to a chaotic world. Such a vision, such an Orbis Terrarum at the feet of Christ, has no element in common with the material dominance of modern commercial empires. It much more closely resembles certain Utopias of the modern Revolutionary. In its spirit it is not less Latin than the traditional customs of the City-States it would include. Its real implication may be found in the assimilative genius of the Catholic Church, consecrating but not effacing local altars; transforming, but not destroying, local pieties. Who can deny that this formidable vision answers the deepest need of the modern world?
The discovery of some Planetary Synthesis within the circle of which all the passionate race cults may flourish; growing not less intense but more intense, under the new World-City—this is nothing else than what the soul of the earth, "dreaming on things to come" may actually be evolving.
Who knows if the new prominence given by the war to Russian thought may not incredibly hasten such a Vita Nuova? We know that the Pan-Slavic dream, even from the days of Ivan the Terrible, has been of this spiritual unity, and it may be remembered that it was always from "beyond the Alps" that Dante looked for the Liberator. Who knows? The great surging antipodal tides of life lash one another into foam. Out of chaos stars are born. And it may be the madness of a dream even so much as to speak of "unity" while creation seethes and hisses in its terrible vortex. Mockingly laugh the imps of irony, while the Saints keep their vigil. Man is a surprising animal; by no means always bent on his own redemption; sometimes bent on his own destruction!
And meanwhile the demons of life dance on. Dante may build up his great triple universe in his great triple rhyme, and encase it in walls of brass. But still they dance on. We may tremble at the supreme poet's pride and wonder at the passion of his humility—but "the damned grotesques make arabesques, like the wind upon the sand!"
There is something pathetic about the blind devotion of humanity to its famous names. But how indiscriminate it is; how lacking in discernment!
This is, above all, true of Shakespeare, whose peculiar and quite personal genius has almost been buried under the weight of popular idolatry. No wonder such critics as Voltaire, Tolstoi, and Mr. Bernard Shaw have taken upon themselves to intervene. The Frenchman's protest was an aesthetic one. The more recent objectors have adopted moral and philosophic grounds. But it is the unreasoning adoration of the mob which led to both attacks.
It is not difficult to estimate the elements which have gone to make up this Shakespeare-God. The voices of the priests behind the Idol are only too clearly distinguishable. We hear the academic voice, the showman's voice, and the voice of the ethical preacher. They are all absurd, but their different absurdities have managed to flow together into one powerful and unified convention. Our popular orators gesticulate and clamour; our professors "talk Greek;" our ethical Brutuses "explain;" and the mob "throw up their sweaty night-caps;" while our poor Caesar of Poetry sinks down out of sight, helpless among them all.
Charles Lamb, who understood him better than anyone—and who loved Plays—does not hesitate to accuse our Stage-Actors of being the worst of all in their misrepresentation. He doubts whether even Garrick understood the subtlety of the roles he played, and the few exceptions he allows in his own age make us wonder what he would say of ours.
Finally there is the "Philosophical Shakespeare" of the German appreciation, and this we feel instinctively to be the least like the original of all!
The irony of it is that the author of Hamlet and the Tempest does not only live in a different world from that of these motley exponents. He lives in an antagonistic one. Shakespeare was as profoundly the enemy of scholastic pedantry as he was the enemy of puritan squeamishness. He was almost unkindly averse to the breath of the profane crowd. And his melancholy scepticism, with its half-humorous assent to the traditional pieties, is at the extremest opposite pole from the "truths" of metaphysical reason. The Shakespeare of the Popular Revivals is a fantastic caricature. The Shakespeare of the College Text-Books is a lean scarecrow. But the Shakespeare of the philosophical moralists is an Hob-goblin from whom one flees in dismay.
Enjoying the plays themselves—the interpreters forgotten—a normally intelligent reader cannot fail to respond to a recognisable Personality there, a Personality with apathies and antipathies, with prejudices and predilections. Very quickly he will discern the absurd unreality of that monstrous Idol, that ubiquitous Hegelian God. Very soon he will recognize that in trying to make their poet everything they have made him nothing.
No one can read Shakespeare with direct and simple enjoyment without discovering in his plays a quite definite and personal attitude towards life. Shakespeare is no Absolute Divinity, reconciling all oppositions and transcending all limitations. He is not that "cloud-capped mountain," too lofty to be scanned, of Matthew Arnold's Sonnet. He is a sad and passionate artist, using his bitter experiences to intensify his insight, and playing with his humours and his dreams to soften the sting of that brutish reality which he was doomed to unmask. The best way of indicating the personal mood which emerges as his final attitude is to describe it as that of the perfectly natural man confronting the universe. Of course, there is no such "perfectly natural man," but he is a legitimate lay-figure, and we all approximate to him at times. The natural man, in his unsophisticated hours, takes the Universe at its surface value, neither rejecting the delicate compensations, nor mitigating the cruelty of the grotesque farce. The natural man accepts what is given. He swallows the chaotic surprises, the extravagant accidents, the whole fantastic "pell-mell." He accepts, too, the traditional pieties of his race, their "hope against hope," their gracious ceremonial, their consecration of birth and death. He accepts these, not because he is confident of their "truth" but because they are there; because they have been there so long, and have interwoven themselves with the chances and changes of the whole dramatic spectacle.
He accepts them spontaneously, humorously, affectionately; not anxious to improve them—what would be the object of that?—and certainly not seeking to controvert them. He reverences this Religion of his Race not only because it has its own sad, pathetic beauty, but because it has got itself involved in the common burden; lightening such a burden here, making it, perhaps, a little heavier there, but lending it a richer tone, a subtler colour, a more significant shape. It does not trouble the natural man that Religion should deal with "the Impossible." Where, in such a world as this, does that begin? He has no agitating desire to reconcile it with reason.
At the bottom of his soul he has a shrewd suspicion that it rather grew out of the earth than fell from the sky, but that does not concern him. It may be based upon no eternal verity. It may lead to no certain issue. It may be neither very "useful" or very "moral." But it is, at any rate, a beautiful work of imaginative art, and it lends life a certain dignity that nothing can quite replace. As a matter of fact, the natural man's attitude to these things does not differ much from the attitude of the great artists. It is only that a certain lust for creation, and a certain demonic curiosity, scourge these latter on to something beyond passive resignation.
A Da Vinci or a Goethe accepts religion and uses it, but between it and the depths of his own mind remains forever an inviolable film of sceptical "white light." This "qualified assent" is precisely what excites the fury of such individualistic thinkers as Tolstoi and Bernard Shaw. It were amusing to note the difference between the "humour" of this latter and the "humour" of Shakespeare. Shaw's humour consists in emphasizing the absurdity of human Custom, compared with the good sense of the philosopher. Shakespeare's humour consists in emphasizing the absurdity of philosophers, compared with the good sense of Custom. The one is the humour of the Puritan, directed against the ordinary man, on behalf of the Universe. The other is the humour of the Artist, directed against the Universe, on behalf of the ordinary man.
Shakespeare is, at bottom, the most extreme of Pessimists. He has no faith in "progress," no belief in "eternal values," no transcendental "intuitions," no zeal for reform. The universe to him, for all its loveliness, remains an outrageous jest. The cosmic is the comic. Anything may be expected of this "pendant world," except what we expect; and when it is a question of "falling back," we can only fall back on human-made custom. We live by Illusions, and when the last Illusion fails us, we die. After reading Shakespeare, the final impression left upon the mind is that the world can only be justified as an aesthetic spectacle. To appreciate a Show at once so sublime and so ridiculous, one needs to be very brave, very tender, and very humorous. Nothing else is needed. "Man must abide his going hence, even as his coming hither. Ripeness is all." When Courage fails us, it is—"as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport." When tenderness fails us, it is—"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time." When humour fails us, it is—"How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world!"
So much for Life! And when we come to Death, how true it is, as Charles Lamb says, that none has spoken of Death like Shakespeare! And he has spoken of it so—with such an absolute grasp of our mortal feeling about it—because his mood in regard to it is the mood of the natural man; of the natural man, unsophisticated by false hopes, undated by vain assurance. His attitude towards death neither sweetens "the unpalatable draught of mortality" nor permits us to let go the balm of its "eternal peace." How frightful "to lie in cold obstruction and to rot; this sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod!" and yet, "after life's fitful fever," how blessed to "sleep well!"
What we note about this mood—the mood of Shakespeare and the natural man—is that it never for a moment dallies with philosophic fancies or mystic visions. It "thinks highly of the soul," but in the natural, not the metaphysical, sense. It is the attitude of Rabelais and Montaigne, not the attitude of Wordsworth or Browning. It is the tone we know so well in the Homeric poems. It is the tone of the Psalms of David. We hear its voice in "Ecclesiastes," and the wisdom of "Solomon the King" is full of it. In more recent times, it is the feeling of those who veer between our race's traditional hope and the dark gulf of eternal silence. It is the "Aut Christus aut Nihil" of those who "by means of metaphysic" have dug a pit, into which metaphysic has disappeared!
The gaiety and childlike animal spirits of Shakespeare's Comedies need not deceive us. Why should we not forget the whips and scorns for a while, and fleet the time carelessly, "as they did in the golden age?" Such simple fooling goes better with the irresponsibility of our fate than the more pungent wit of the moral comedians. The tragic laughter which the confused issues of life excite in subtler souls is not lacking, but the sweet obliquities of honest clowns carry us just as far. Shakespeare loves fools as few have loved them, and it is often his humour to put into their mouth the ultimate wisdom.
It is remarkable that these plays should commence with a "Midsummer Night's Dream" and end with a "Tempest." In the interval the great sombre passions of our race are sounded and dismissed; but as he began with Titania, so he ends with Ariel. From the fairy forest to the enchanted island; from a dream to a dream. With Shakespeare there is no Wagnerian, Euripidean "apologia." There is no "Parsifal" or "Bacchanals." From the meaningless tumult of mortal passions he returns, with a certain ironic weariness, to the magic of Nature and the wonder of youth. Prospero, dismissing his spirits "into thin air," has the last word; and the last word is as the first: "we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." The easy-going persons who reluct at the idea of a pessimistic Shakespeare should turn the pages of Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens. What we guessed as we read Hamlet and Lear grows a certainty as we read these plays.
Here the "gentle Shakespeare" does the three things that are most unpardonable. He unmasks virtue; he betrays Woman; and he curses the gods. The most intransigent of modern revolutionaries might learn a trick or two from this sacred poet. In Lear he puts the very voice of Anarchy into the mouth of the King—"Die for adultery? No!" "Handy-dandy, which is the Magistrate and which is the Thief?" "A dog's obeyed in office."
Have I succeeded in making clear what I feel about the Shakespearean attitude? At bottom, it is absolutely sceptical. Deep yawns below Deep; and if we cannot read "the writing upon the wall," the reason may be that there is no writing there. Having lifted a corner of the Veil of Isis, having glanced once into that Death-Kingdom where grope the roots of the Ash-Tree whose name is Fear, we return to the surface, from Nadir to Zenith, and become "superficial"—"out of profundity."
The infinite spaces, as Pascal said, are "frightful." That way madness lies. And those who would be sane upon earth must drug themselves with the experience, or with the spectacle of the experience, of human passion. Within this charmed circle, and here alone, they may be permitted to forget the Outer Terror.
The noble spirit is not the spirit that condescends to pamper in itself those inflated moods of false optimistic hope, which, springing from mere physiological well-being, send us leaping and bounding, with such boisterous assurance, along the sunny road. Such pragmatic self-deception is an impertinence in the presence of a world like this.
It is a sign of what one might call a philosophically ill-bred nature. It is the indecent "gratitude" of the pig over his trough. It is the little yellow eye of sanctified bliss turned up to the God who "must be in His Heaven" if we are so privileged. This "never doubting good will triumph" is really, when one examines it, nothing but the inverted prostration of the helot-slave, glad to have been allowed to get so totally drunk! It blusters and swaggers, but at heart it is base and ignoble. For it is not sensitive enough to feel that the Universe cannot be pardoned for the cry of one tortured creature, and that all "the worlds we shall traverse" cannot make up for the despair of one human child.
To be "cheerful" about the Universe in the manner of these people is to insult the Christ who died. It is to outrage the "little ones" over whose bodies the Wheel has passed. When Nietzsche, the martyr of his own murdered pity, calls upon us to "love Fate," he does not shout so lustily. His laughter is the laughter of one watching his darling stripped for the rods. He who would be "in harmony with Nature." with those "murderous ministers" who, in their blind abyss, throw dice with Chance, must be in harmony with the giants of Jotunheim, as well as with the lords of Valhalla. He must be able to look on grimly while Asgard totters; he must welcome "the Twilight of the Gods." To have a mind inured to such conceptions, a mind capable of remaining on such a verge, is, alone, to be, intellectually speaking, what we call "aristocratic." When, even with eyes like poor Gloucester's in the play, we can see "how this world wags," it is slavish and "plebeian" to swear that it all "means intensely, and means well." It is also to lie in one's throat!
No wonder Shakespeare treats reverently every "superstition," every anodyne and nepenthe offered to the inmates of this House of the Incurable. Such "sprinkling with holy water," such "rendering ourselves stupid," is the only alternative. Anything else is the insight of the hero, or the hypocrisy of the preacher!
Has it been realized how curiously the interpreters of Shakespeare omit the principal thing? They revel in his Grammar, his History, his Biology, his Botany, his Geography, his Psychology and his Ethics. They never speak of his Poetry. Now Shakespeare is, above everything, a poet. To poetry, over and over again, as our Puritans know well, he sacrifices Truth, Morality, Probability, nay! the very principles of Art itself.
As Dramas, many of his plays are scandalously bad; many of his characters fantastic. One can put one's finger in almost every case upon the persons and situations that interested him and upon those that did not. And how carelessly he "sketches in" the latter! So far from being "the Objective God of Art" they seek to make him, he is the most wayward and subjective of all wandering souls.
No natural person can read him without feeling the pulse of extreme personal passion behind everything he writes.
And this pulse of personal passion is always expressing itself in Poetry. He will let the probabilities of a character vanish into air, or dwindle into a wistful note of attenuated convention, when once such a one has served his purpose as a reed to pipe his strange tunes through. He will whistle the most important personage down the wind, lost to interest and identity, when once he has put into his mouth his own melancholy brooding upon life—his own imaginative reaction.
And so it happens that, in spite of all academic opinion, those who understand Shakespeare best tease themselves least over his dramatic lapses. For let it be whispered at once, without further scruple. As far as the art of the drama is concerned, Shakespeare is shameless. The poetic instinct—one might call it "epical" or "lyrical," for it is both these—is far more dominant in our "greatest dramatist" than any dramatic conscience. That is precisely why those among us who love "poetry," but find "drama," especially "drama since Ibsen," intolerably tiresome, revert again and again to Shakespeare. Only absurd groups of Culture-Philistines can read these "powerful modern productions" more than once! One knows not whether their impertinent preaching, or their exasperating technical cleverness is the more annoying.
They may well congratulate themselves on being different from Shakespeare. They are extremely different. They are, indeed, nothing but his old enemies, the Puritans, "translated," like poor Bottom, and wearing the donkey's head of "art for art's sake" in place of their own simple foreheads.
Art for art's sake! The thing has become a Decalogue of forbidding commandments, as devastating as those Ten. It is the new avatar of the "moral sense" carrying categorical insolence into the sphere of our one Alsatian sanctuary!
I am afraid Shakespeare was a very "immoral" artist. I am afraid he wrote as one of the profane.
But what of the Greeks? The Greeks never let themselves go! No! And for a sufficient reason. Greek Drama was Religion. It was Ritual. And we know how "responsible" ritual must be. The gods must have their incense from the right kind of censer.
But you cannot evoke Religion "in vacuo." You cannot, simply by assuming grave airs about your personal "taste," or even about the "taste" of your age, give it that consecration.
Beauty? God knows what beauty is. But I can tell you what it is not. It is not the sectarian anxiety of any pompous little clique to get "saved" in the artistic "narrow path." It is much rather what Stendhal called it. But he spoke so frivolously that I dare not quote him.
Has it occurred to you, gentle reader, to note how "Protestant" this New Artistic Movement is? Shakespeare, in his aesthetic method, as well as in his piety, had a Catholic soul. In truth, the hour has arrived when a "Renaissance" of the free spirit of Poetry in Drama is required. Why must this monstrous shadow of the Hyperborean Ibsen go on darkening the play-instinct in us, like some ugly, domineering John Knox? I suspect that there are many generous Rabelaisian souls who could lift our mortal burden with oceanic merriment, only the New Movement frightens them. They are afraid they would not be "Greek" enough—or "Scandinavian" enough. Meanwhile the miserable populace have to choose between Babylonian Pantomimes and Gaelic Mythology, if they are not driven, out of a kind of spite, into the region of wholesome "domestic sunshine."
What, in our hearts, we natural men desire is to be delivered at one blow from the fairies with weird names (so different from poor Titania!), and from the three-thousand "Unities!" What "poetry" we do get is so vague and dim and wistful and forlorn that it makes us want to go out and "buy clothes" for someone. We veer between the abomination of city-reform and the desolation of Ultima Thule.
But Shakespeare is Shakespeare still. O those broken and gasped-out human cries, full of the old poignancy, full of the old enchantment! Shakespeare's poetry is the extreme opposite of any "cult." It is the ineffable expression, in music that makes the heart stop, of the feelings which have stirred every Jack and Jill among us, from the beginning of the world! It has the effect of those old "songs" of the countryside that hit the heart in us so shrewdly that one feels as though the wind had made them or the rain or the wayside grass; for they know too much of what we tell to none! It is the "one touch of Nature." And how they break the rules, these surpassing lines, in which the emotions of his motley company gasp themselves away!
It is not so much in the great speeches, noble as these are, as in the brief, tragic cries and broken stammerings, that his unapproachable felicity is found. "Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense." Thick and fast they crowd upon our memory, these little sentences, these aching rhythms! It is with the flesh and blood of the daily Sacrifice of our common endurance that he celebrates his strange Mass. Hands that "smell of mortality," lips that "so sweetly were forsworn," eyes that "look their last" on all they love, these are the touches that make us bow down before the final terrible absolution. And it is the same with Nature. Not to Shakespeare do we go for those pseudo-scientific, pseudo-ethical interpretations, so crafty in their word-painting, so cunning in their rational analysis, which we find in the rest. A few fierce-flung words, from the hot heart of an amorist's lust, and all the smouldering magic of the noon-day woods takes your breath. A sobbing death-dirge from the bosom of a love-lorn child, and the perfume of all the "enclosed gardens" in the world shudders through your veins.
And what about the ancient antagonist of the Earth? What about the Great Deep? Has anyone, anywhere else, gathered into words the human tremor and the human recoil that are excited universally when we go down "upon the beached verge of the salt flood, who once a day with his embossed froth the turbulent surge doth cover?" John Keats was haunted day and night by the simple refrain in Lear, "Canst thou not hear the Sea?"
Charming Idyllists may count the petals of the cuckoo-buds in the river-pastures; and untouched, we admire. But let old Falstaff, as he lies a' dying, "babble o' green fields," and all the long, long thoughts of youth steal over us, like a summer wind.
The modern critic, with a philosophic bias, is inclined to quarrel with the obvious human congruity of Shakespeare's utterances. What is the use of this constant repetition of the obvious truism: "When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools?"
No use, my friend! No earthly use! And yet it is not a premeditated reflection, put in "for art's sake." It is the poetry of the pinch of Fate; it is the human revenge we take upon the insulting irony of our lot.
But Shakespeare does not always strike back at the gods with bitter blows. In this queer world, where we have "nor youth, nor age, but, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep, dreaming on both," there come moments when the spirit is too sore wounded even to rise in revolt. Then, in a sort of "cheerful despair," we can only wait the event. And Shakespeare has his word for this also.
Perhaps the worst of all "the slings and arrows" are the intolerable partings we have to submit to, from the darlings of our soul. And here, while he offers us no false hope, his tone loses its bitterness, and grows gentle and solemn.
It is—"Forever and forever, farewell, Cassius. If we do meet again, why then 'tis well; if not, this parting was well made." And for the Future:
"O that we knew The end of this day's business ere it comes! But it suffices that the day will end; And then the end is known."
The emerging of a great genius into long retarded pre-eminence is always attended by certain critical misunderstandings. To a cynical observer, on the lookout for characteristic temperamental lapses, two recent interpretations of El Greco may be especially commended. I mean the Secret of Toledo, by Maurice Barres, and an article in the "Contemporary" of April, 1914, by Mr. Aubrey Bell.
Barres—Frenchman of Frenchmen—sets off, with captivating and plausible logic, to generalize into reasonable harmlessness this formidable madman. He interprets Toledo, appreciates Spain, and patronizes Domenico Theotocopoulos.
The Secret of Toledo is a charming book, with illuminating passages, but it is too logical, too plausible, too full of the preciosity of dainty generalization, to reach the dark and arbitrary soul, either of Spain or of Spain's great painter.
Mr. Bell, on the contrary, far from turning El Greco into an epicurean cult, drags him with a somewhat heavy hand before the footlights of English Idealism.
He makes of him an excuse for disparaging Velasquez, and launches into a discourse upon the Higher Reality and the Inner Truth which leaves one with a very dreary feeling, and, by some ponderous application of spiritual ropes and pulleys, seems to jerk into empty space all that is most personal and arresting in the artist.
If it is insulting to the ghostly Toledoan to smooth him out into picturesque harmony with Castillian dances, Gothic cloisters and Moorish songs, it is still worse to transform him into a rampant Idealist of the conventional kind. He belongs neither to the Aesthetics nor to the Idealists. He belongs to every individual soul whose taste is sufficiently purged, sufficiently perverse and sufficiently passionate, to enter the enchanted circle of his tyrannical spell.
When, in that dark Toledo Church, one presses one's face against the iron bars that separate one from the Burial of Count Orguz, it is neither as a Dilettante nor an Idealist that one holds one's breath. Those youthful pontifical saints, so richly arrayed, offering with slender royal hands that beautiful body to the dust—is their mysterious gesture only the rhythm of the secret of Death?
Those chastened and winnowed spectators, with their withdrawn, remote detachment—not sadness—are they the initiated sentinels of the House of Corruption?
At what figured symbol points that epicene child?
Sumptuous is the raiment of the dead; and the droop of his limbs has a regal finality; but look up! Stark naked, and in abandoned weakness, the liberated soul shudders itself into the presence of God!
The El Greco House and Museum in Toledo contains amazing things. Every one of those Apostles that gaze out from the wall upon our casual devotion has his own furtive madness, his own impossible dream! The St. John is a thing one can never forget. El Greco has painted his hair as if it were literally live flame and the exotic tints of his flesh have an emphasis laid upon them that makes one think of the texture of certain wood orchids.
How irrelevant seem Monsieur Barres' water-colour sketches of prancing Moors and learned Jews and picturesque Visi-Goths, as soon as one gets a direct glimpse into these unique perversions! And why cannot one go a step with this dreamer of dreams without dragging in the Higher Reality? To regard work as mad and beautiful as this as anything but individual Imagination, is to insult the mystery of personality.
El Greco re-creates the world, in pure, lonely, fantastic arbitrariness.
His art does not represent the secret Truth of the Universe, or the Everlasting Movement; it represents the humour of El Greco.
Every artist mesmerizes us into his personal vision.
A traveller, drinking wine in one of those cafes in the crowded Zocodover, his head full of these amazing fantasies, might well let the greater fantasy of the world slip by—a dream within a dream!
With El Greco for a companion, the gaunt waiter at the table takes the form of some incarcerated Don Quixote and the beggars at the window appear like gods in disguise.
This great painter, like the Russian Dostoivsky, has a mania for abandoned weakness. The nearer to God his heroic Degenerates get, the more feverishly enfeebled becomes their human will.
Their very faces—with those retreating chins, retrousse noses, loose lips, quivering nostrils and sloping brows—seem to express the abandonment of all human resolution or restraint, in the presence of the Beatific Vision. Like the creatures of Dostoievsky, they seem to plunge into the ocean of the Foolishness of God, so much wiser than the wisdom of men!—as divers plunge into a bath.
There is not much attempt among these ecstatics to hold on to the dignity of their reason or the reticence of their self-respect. Naked, they fling themselves into the arms of Nothingness.
This passionate "Movement of Life," of which Mr. Bell, quoting Pater's famous quotation from Heraclitus, makes so much, is, after all, only the rush of the wind through the garments of the World—Denier, as he plunges into Eternity.
Like St. John of the Cross, El Greco's visionaries pass from the Night of the Reason to the Night of the Senses; from the Night of the Senses to the Night of Soul; and if this final Night is nothing less than God Himself, the divine submersion does not bring back any mortal daylight.
Domenico's portraits have a character somewhat different from his visions. Here, into these elongated, bearded hermits, into these grave, intellectual maniacs, whose look is like the look of Workers in some unlit Mine, he puts what he knows and feels of his own identity.
They are diverse masks and mirrors, these portraits, surfaces of deep water in various lonely valleys, but from the depths of them rises up the shadow of the same lost soul, and they are all ruffled by the breath of the same midnight.
The Crucifixion in the Prado, and that other, which, by some freak of Providence, has found its way to Philadelphia, have backgrounds which carry our imagination very far. Is this primordial ice, with its livid steel-blue shadows, the stuff out of which the gods make other planets than ours—dead planets, without either sun or star? Are these the sheer precipices of Chaos, against which the Redeemer hangs, or the frozen edges of the grave of all life?
El Greco's magnificent contempt for material truth is a lesson to all artists. We are reminded of William Blake and Aubrey Beardsley. He seems to regard the human-frame as so much soft clay, upon which he can trace his ecstatic hieroglyphs, in defiance both of anatomy and nature.
El Greco is the true precursor of our present-day Matissists and Futurists. He, as they, has the courage to strip his imagination of all mechanical restrictions and let it go free to mould the world at its fancy.
What stray visitor to Madrid would guess the vastness of the intellectual sensation awaiting him in that quiet, rose-coloured building?
As you enter the Museum and pass those magnificent Titians crowded so close together—large and mellow spaces, from a more opulent world than ours; greener branches, bluer skies and a more luminous air; a world through which, naturally and at ease, the divine Christ may move, grand, majestic, health-giving, a veritable god; a world from whose grapes the blood of satyrs may be quickened, from whose corn the hearts of heroes may be made strong—and come bolt upon El Greco's glacial northern lights, you feel that no fixed objective Truth and no traditional Ideal has a right to put boundaries to the imagination of man.
Not less striking than any of these is the extraordinary portrait of "Le Roi Ferdinand" in the great gallery at the Louvre.
The artist has painted the king as one grown weary of his difference from other men. His moon-white armour and silvery crown show like the ornaments of the dead. Misty and wavering, the long shadows upon the high, strange brow seem thrown there by the passing of all mortal Illusions.
Phantom-like in his gleaming ornaments, a king of Lost Atlantis, he waits the hour of his release.
And not only is he the king of Shadows; he is also the king of Players, the Player-King.
El Greco has painted him holding two sceptres, one of which, resembling a Fool's Bauble, is tipped with the image of a naked hand—a dead, false hand—symbol of the illusion of Power. The very crown he wears, shimmering and unnaturally heavy, is like the crown a child might have made in play, out of shells and sea-weed.
The disenchanted irony upon the face of this figure; that look as of one who—as Plato would have us do with kings—has been dragged back from Contemplation to the vulgarity of ruling men; has been deliberately blent by a most delicate art with a queer sort of fantastic whimsicality.
"Le Roi Ferdinand" might almost be an enlarged reproduction of some little girl's Doll-King, dressed up in silver tinsel and left out of doors, by mistake, some rainy evening.