The reason why a landscape is 'picturesque' is often said to be that such landscape represents an 'idea'. But this explanation, though in the minds of some who use it it is near akin to the truth, fails to explain that truth to those who did not know it before; the Word 'idea,' is so often used in these subjects when people do not know anything else to say; it represents so often a kind of intellectual insolvency, when philosophers are at their wits' end, that shrewd people will never readily on any occasion give it credit for meaning anything. A wise explainer must, therefore, look out for other words to convey what he has to say. Landscapes, like everything else in nature, divide themselves as we look at them into a sort of rude classification. We go down a river, for example, and we see a hundred landscapes on both sides of it, resembling one another in much, yet differing in something; with trees here, and a farmhouse there, and shadows on one side, and a deep pool far on; a collection of circumstances most familiar in themselves, but making a perpetual novelty by the magic of their various combinations. We travel so for miles and hours, and then we come to a scene which also has these various circumstances and adjuncts, but which combines them best, which makes the best whole of them, which shows them in their best proportion at a single glance before the eye. Then we say, 'This is the place to paint the river; this is the picturesque point!' Or, if not artists or critics of art, we feel without analysis or examination that somehow this bend or sweep of the river, shall, in future, be the river to us: that it is the image of it which we will retain in our mind's eye, by which we will remember it, which we will call up when we want to describe or think of it. Some fine countries, some beautiful rivers, have not this picturesque quality: they give us elements of beauty, but they do not combine them together; we go on for a time delighted, but after a time somehow we get wearied; we feel that we are taking in nothing and learning nothing; we get no collected image before our mind; we see the accidents and circumstances of that sort of scenery, but the summary scene we do not see; we find disjecta membra, but no form; various and many and faulty approximations are displayed in succession; but the absolute perfection in that country or river's scenery—its type—is withheld: We go away from such places in part delighted, but in part baffled; we have been puzzled by pretty things; we have beheld a hundred different inconsistent specimens of the same sort of beauty; but the rememberable idea, the full development, the characteristic individuality of it, we have not seen.
We find the same sort of quality in all parts of painting. We see a portrait of a person we know, and we say, 'It is like—yes, like, of course, but it is not the man;' we feel it could not be any one else, but still, somehow it fails to bring home to us the individual as we know him to be. He is not there. An accumulation of features like his are painted, but his essence is not painted; an approximation more or less excellent is given, but the characteristic expression, the typical form, of the man is withheld.
Literature—the painting of words—has the same quality but wants the analogous word. The word 'literatesque,' would mean, if we possessed it, that perfect combination in the subject-matter of literature, which suits the art of literature. We often meet people, and say of them, sometimes meaning well and sometimes ill, 'How well so-and-so would do in a book!' Such people are by no means the best people; but they are the most effective people—the most rememberable people. Frequently when we first know them, we like them because they explain to us so much of our experience; we have known many people 'like that,' in one way or another, but we did not seem to understand them; they were nothing to us, for their traits were indistinct; we forgot them, for they hitched on to nothing, and we could not classify them; but when we see the type of the genus, at once we seem to comprehend its character; the inferior specimens are explained by the perfect embodiment; the approximations are definable when we know the ideal to which they draw near. There are an infinite number of classes of human beings, but in each of these classes there is a distinctive type which, if we could expand it out in words, would define the class. We cannot expand it in formal terms any more than a landscape or a species of landscapes; but we have an art, an art of words, which can draw it. Travellers and others often bring home, in addition to their long journals—which though so living to them, are so dead, so inanimate, so undescriptive to all else—a pen-and-ink sketch, rudely done very likely, but which, perhaps, even the more for the blots and strokes, gives a distinct notion, an emphatic image, to all who see it. They say at once, 'Now we know the sort of thing'. The sketch has hit the mind. True literature does the same. It describes sorts, varieties, and permutations, by delineating the type of each sort, the ideal of each variety, the central, the marking trait of each permutation.
On this account, the greatest artists of the world have ever shown an enthusiasm for reality. To care for notions and abstractions; to philosophize; to reason out conclusions; to care for schemes of thought, are signs in the artistic mind of secondary excellence. A Schiller, a Euripides, a Ben Jonson, cares for ideas—for the parings of the intellect, and the distillation of the mind; a Shakespeare, a Homer, a Goethe, finds his mental occupation, the true home of his natural thoughts, in the real world—'which is the world of all of us'—where the face of nature, the moving masses of men and women, are ever changing, ever multiplying, ever mixing one with the other. The reason is plain—the business of the poet, of the artist, is with types; and those types are mirrored in reality. As a painter must not only have a hand to execute, but an eye to distinguish—as he must go here and then there through the real world to catch the picturesque man, the picturesque scene, which is to live on his canvas—so the poet must find in that reality, the literatesque man, the literatesque scene which nature intends for him, and which will live in his page. Even in reality he will not find this type complete, or the characteristics perfect; but there, at least, he will find something, some hint, some intimation, some suggestion; whereas, in the stagnant home of his own thoughts he will find nothing pure, nothing as it is, nothing which does not bear his own mark, which is not somehow altered by a mixture with himself.
The first conversation of Goethe and Schiller illustrates this conception of the poet's art. Goethe was at that time prejudiced against Schiller, we must remember, partly from what he considered the outrages of the Robbers, partly because of the philosophy of Kant. Schiller's 'Essay on Grace and Dignity', he tells us, 'was yet less of a kind to reconcile me. The philosophy of Kant, which exalts the dignity of mind so highly, while appearing to restrict it, Schiller had joyfully embraced: it unfolded the extraordinary qualities which Nature had implanted in him; and in the lively feeling of freedom and self-direction, he showed himself unthankful to the Great Mother, who surely had not acted like a step-dame towards him. Instead of viewing her as self-subsisting, as producing with a living force, and according to appointed laws, alike the highest and the lowest of her works, he took her up under the aspect of some empirical native qualities of the human mind. Certain harsh passages I could even directly apply to myself: they exhibited my confession of faith in a false light; and I felt that if written without particular attention to me they were still worse; for in that case, the vast chasm which lay between us, gaped but so much the more distinctly.' After a casual meeting at a Society for Natural History, they walked home and Goethe proceeds:
'We reached his house; the talk induced me to go in. I then expounded to him, with as much vivacity as possible, the Metamorphosis of Plants, drawing out on paper, with many characteristic strokes, a symbolic Plant for him, as I proceeded. He heard and saw all this, with much interest and distinct comprehension; but when I had done, he shook his head and said: 'This is no experiment, this is an idea.' I stopped with some degree of irritation; for the point which separated us was most luminously marked by this expression. The opinions in Dignity and Grace, again occurred to me; the old grudge was just awakening; but I smothered it, and merely said: "I was happy to find that I had got ideas without knowing it, nay that I saw them before my eyes."
'Schiller had much more prudence and dexterity of management than I; he was also thinking of his periodical the Horen, about this time, and of course rather wished to attract than repel me. Accordingly he answered me like an accomplished Kantite; and as my stiff-necked Realism gave occasion to many contradictions, much battling took place between us, and at last a truce, in which neither party would consent to yield the victory, but each held himself invincible. Positions like the following grieved me to the very soul: How can there ever be an experiment, that shall correspond with an idea? The specific quality of an idea is, that no experiment can reach it or agree with it. Yet if he held as an idea, the same thing which I looked upon as an experiment; there must certainly, I thought, be some community between us, some ground whereon both of us might meet!'
With Goethe's natural history, or with Kant's philosophy, we have here no concern, but we can combine the expressions of the two great poets into a nearly complete description of poetry. The 'symbolic plant' is the type of which we speak, the ideal at which inferior specimens aim, the class-characteristic in which they all share, but which none shows forth fully: Goethe was right in searching for this in reality and nature; Schiller was right in saying that it was an 'idea', a transcending notion to which approximations could be found in experience, but only approximations—which could not be found there itself. Goethe, as a poet, rightly felt the primary necessity of outward suggestion and experience; Schiller as a philosopher, rightly felt its imperfection.
But in these delicate matters, it is easy to misapprehend. There is, undoubtedly, a sort of poetry which is produced as it were out of the author's mind. The description of the poet's own moods and feelings is a common sort of poetry—perhaps the commonest sort. But the peculiarity of such cases is, that the poet does not describe himself as himself: autobiography is not his object; he takes himself as a specimen of human nature; he describes, not himself, but a distillation of himself: he takes such of his moods as are most characteristic, as most typify certain moods of certain men, or certain moods of all men; he chooses preponderant feelings of special sorts of men, or occasional feelings of men of all sorts; but with whatever other difference and diversity, the essence is that such self-describing poets describe what is in them, but not peculiar to them,—what is generic, not what is special and individual. Gray's Elegy describes a mood which Gray felt more than other men, but which most others, perhaps all others, feel too. It is more popular, perhaps, than any English poem, because that sort of feeling is the most diffused of high feelings, and because Gray added to a singular nicety of fancy an habitual proneness to a contemplative—a discerning but unbiassed—meditation on death and on life. Other poets cannot hope for such success: a subject, so popular, so grave, so wise, and yet so suitable to the writer's nature is hardly to be found. But the same ideal, the same unautobiographical character is to be found in the writings of meaner men. Take sonnets of Hartley Coleridge, for example:
TO A FRIEND
When we were idlers with the loitering rills, The need of human love we little noted: Our love was nature; and the peace that floated On the white mist, and dwelt upon the hills, To sweet accord subdued our wayward wills: One soul was ours, one mind, one heart devoted, That, wisely doating, ask'd not why it doated, And ours the unknown joy, which knowing kills. But now I find, how dear thou wert to me; That man is more than half of nature's treasure, Of that fair Beauty which no eye can see, Of that sweet music which no ear can measure; And now the streams may sing for others' pleasure, The hills sleep on in their eternity.
TO THE SAME
In the great city we are met again, Where many souls there are, that breathe and die, Scarce knowing more of nature's potency, Than what they learn from heat, or cold, or rain; The sad vicissitude of weary pain;— For busy man is lord of ear and eye, And what hath nature, but the vast, void sky, And the thronged river toiling to the main? Oh! say not so, for she shall have her part In every smile, in every tear that falls, And she shall hide her in the secret heart, Where love persuades, and sterner duty calls: But worse it were than death, or sorrow's smart, To live without a friend within these walls.
TO THE SAME
We parted on the mountains, as two streams From one clear spring pursue their several ways; And thy fleet course hath been through many a maze, In foreign lands, where silvery Padus gleams To that delicious sky, whose glowing beams Brightened the tresses that old Poets praise; Where Petrarch's patient love, and artful lays, And Ariosto's song of many themes, Moved the soft air. But I, a lazy brook, As close pent up within my native dell, Have crept along from nook to shady nook, Where flowrets blow, and whispering Naiads dwell. Yet now we meet, that parted were so wide, O'er rough and smooth to travel side by side.
The contrast of instructive and enviable locomotion with refining but instructive meditation is not special and peculiar to these two, but general and universal. It was set down by Hartley Coleridge because he was the most meditative and refining of men.
What sort of literatesque types are fit to be described in the sort of literature called poetry, is a matter on which much might be written. Mr. Arnold, some years since, put forth a theory that the art of poetry could only delineate great actions. But though, rightly interpreted and understood—using the word action so as to include high and sound activity in contemplation—this definition may suit the highest poetry, it certainly cannot be stretched to include many inferior sorts and even many good sorts. Nobody in their senses would describe Gray's Elegy as the delineation of a 'great action'; some kinds of mental contemplation may be energetic enough to deserve this name, but Gray would have been frightened at the very word. He loved scholar-like calm and quiet inaction; his very greatness depended on his not acting, on his 'wise passiveness,' on his indulging the grave idleness which so well appreciates so much of human life. But the best answer—the reductio ad absurdum—of Mr. Arnold's doctrine, is the mutilation which it has caused him to make of his own writings. It has forbidden him, he tells us, to reprint Empedocles—a poem undoubtedly containing defects and even excesses, but containing also these lines:
And yet what days were those, Parmenides! When we were young, when we could number friends In all the Italian cities like ourselves, When with elated hearts we join'd your train, Ye Sun-born virgins! on the road of Truth. Then we could still enjoy, then neither thought Nor outward things were clos'd and dead to us, But we receiv'd the shock of mighty thoughts On simple minds with a pure natural joy; And if the sacred load oppress'd our brain, We had the power to feel the pressure eas'd. The brow unbound, the thoughts flow free again, In the delightful commerce of the world. We had not lost our balance then, nor grown Thought's slaves and dead to every natural joy. The smallest thing could give us pleasure then— The sports of the country people; A flute note from the woods; Sunset over the sea: Seed-time and harvest; The reapers in the corn; The vinedresser in his vineyard; The village-girl at her wheel. Fullness of life and power of feeling, ye Are for the happy, for the souls at ease, Who dwell on a firm basis of content. But he who has outliv'd his prosperous days, But he, whose youth fell on a different world From that on which his exil'd age is thrown; Whose mind was fed on other food, was train'd By other rules than are in vogue to-day; Whose habit of thought is fix'd, who will not change, But in a world he loves not must subsist In ceaseless opposition, be the guard Of his own breast, fetter'd to what he guards, That the world win no mastery over him; Who has no friend, no fellow left, not one; Who has no minute's breathing space allow'd To nurse his dwindling faculty of joy:— Joy and the outward world must die to him As they are dead to me.
What freak of criticism can induce a man who has written such poetry as this, to discard it, and say it is not poetry? Mr. Arnold is privileged to speak of his own poems, but no other critic could speak so and not be laughed at.
We are disposed to believe that no very sharp definition can be given—at least in the present state of the critical art—of the boundary line between poetry and other sorts of imaginative delineation. Between the undoubted dominions of the two kinds there is a debateable land; everybody is agreed that the Oedipus at Colonus is poetry: every one is agreed that the wonderful appearance of Mrs. Veal is not poetry. But the exact line which separates grave novels in verse like Aylmer's Field or Enoch Arden, from grave novels not in verse like Silas Marner or Adam Bede, we own we cannot draw with any confidence. Nor, perhaps, is it very important; whether a narrative is thrown into verse or not certainly depends in part on the taste of the age, and in part on its mechanical helps. Verse is the only mechanical help to the memory in rude times, and there is little writing till a cheap something is found to write upon, and a cheap something to write with. Poetry—verse at least—is the literature of all work in early ages; it is only later ages which write in what they think a natural and simple prose. There are other casual influences in the matter too; but they are not material now. We need only say here that poetry, because it has a more marked rhythm than prose, must be more intense in meaning and more concise in style than prose. People expect a 'marked rhythm' to imply something worth marking; if it fails to do so they are disappointed. They are displeased at the visible waste of a powerful instrument; they call it 'doggerel,' and rightly call it, for the metrical expression of full thought and eager feeling—the burst of metre—incident to high imagination, should not be wasted on petty matters which prose does as well,—which it does better—which it suits by its very limpness and weakness, whose small changes it follows more easily, and to whose lowest details it can fully and without effort degrade itself. Verse, too, should be more concise, for long-continued rhythm tends to jade the mind, just as brief rhythm tends to attract the attention. Poetry should be memorable and emphatic, intense, and soon over.
The great divisions of poetry, and of all other literary art, arise from the different modes in which these types—these characteristic men, these characteristic feelings—may be variously described. There are three principal modes which we shall attempt to describe—the pure, which is sometimes, but not very wisely, called the classical; the ornate, which is also unwisely called romantic; and the grotesque, which might be called the mediaeval. We will describe the nature of these a little. Criticism we know must be brief—not, like poetry, because its charm is too intense to be sustained—but on the contrary, because its interest is too weak to be prolonged; but elementary criticism, if an evil, is a necessary evil; a little while spent among the simple principles of art is the first condition, the absolute pre-requisite, for surely apprehending and wisely judging the complete embodiments and miscellaneous forms of actual literature.
The definition of pure literature is that it describes the type in its simplicity, we mean, with the exact amount of accessory circumstance which is necessary to bring it before the mind in finished perfection, and no more than that amount. The type needs some accessories from its nature—a picturesque landscape does not consist wholly of picturesque features. There is a setting of surroundings—as the Americans would say, of fixings—without which the reality is not itself. By a traditional mode of speech, as soon as we see a picture in which a complete effect is produced by detail so rare and so harmonized as to escape us, we say 'how classical'. The whole which is to be seen appears at once and through the detail, but the detail itself is not seen: we do not think of that which gives us the idea; we are absorbed in the idea itself. Just so in literature the pure art is that which works with the fewest strokes; the fewest, that is, for its purpose, for its aim is to call up and bring home to men an idea, a form, a character, and if that idea be twisted, that form be involved, that character perplexed, many strokes of literary art will be needful. Pure art does not mutilate its object: it represents it as fully as is possible with the slightest effort which is possible: it shrinks from no needful circumstances, as little as it inserts any which are needless. The precise peculiarity is not merely that no incidental circumstance is inserted which does not tell on the main design: no art is fit to be called art which permits a stroke to be put in without an object; but that only the minimum of such circumstance is inserted at all. The form is sometimes said to be bare, the accessories are sometimes said to be invisible, because the appendages are so choice that the shape only is perceived.
The English literature undoubtedly contains much impure literature; impure in its style if not in its meaning: but it also contains one great, one nearly perfect, model of the pure style in the literary expression of typical sentiment; and one not perfect, but gigantic and close approximation to perfection in the pure delineation of objective character. Wordsworth, perhaps, comes as near to choice purity of style in sentiment as is possible; Milton, with exceptions and conditions to be explained, approaches perfection by the strenuous purity with which he depicts character.
A wit once said, that 'pretty women had more features than beautiful women', and though the expression may be criticized, the meaning is correct. Pretty women seem to have a great number of attractive points, each of which attracts your attention, and each one of which you remember afterwards; yet these points have not grown together, their features have not linked themselves into a single inseparable whole. But a beautiful woman is a whole as she is; you no more take her to pieces than a Greek statue; she is not an aggregate of divisible charms, she is a charm in herself. Such ever is the dividing test of pure art; if you catch yourself admiring its details, it is defective; you ought to think of it as a single whole which you must remember, which you must admire, which somehow subdues you while you admire it, which is a 'possession' to you 'for ever'.
Of course no individual poem embodies this ideal perfectly; of course every human word and phrase has its imperfections, and if we choose an instance to illustrate that ideal, the instance has scarcely a fair chance. By contrasting it with the ideal we suggest its imperfections; by protruding it as an example, we turn on its defectiveness the microscope of criticism. Yet these two sonnets of Wordsworth may be fitly read in this place, not because they are quite without faults, or because they are the very best examples of their kind of style; but because they are luminous examples; the compactness of the sonnet and the gravity of the sentiment, hedging in the thoughts, restraining the fancy, and helping to maintain a singleness of expression:
There's not a nook within this solemn Pass, But were an apt Confessional for one Taught by his summer spent; his autumn gone, That Life is but a tale of morning grass Withered at eve. From scenes of art which chase That thought away, turn, and with watchful eyes Feed it 'mid Nature's old felicities, Rocks, rivers, and smooth lakes more clear than glass Untouched, unbreathed upon. Thrice happy guest, If from a golden perch of aspen spray (October's workmanship to rival May) The pensive warbler of the ruddy breast That moral teaches by a heaven-taught lay, Lulling the year, with all its cares, to rest!
COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPT. 3, 1802
Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This city now doth, like a garment, wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare. Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields and to the sky; All bright and open in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Instances of barer style than this may easily be found, instances of colder style—few better instances of purer style. Not a single expression (the invocation in the concluding couplet of the second sonnet perhaps excepted) can be spared, yet not a single expression rivets the attention. If, indeed, we take out the phrase—
The city now doth like a garment wear The beauty of the morning,
and the description of the brilliant yellow of autumn—
October's workmanship to rival May,
they have independent value, but they are not noticed in the sonnet when we read it through; they fall into place there, and being in their place are not seen. The great subjects of the two sonnets, the religious aspect of beautiful but grave nature—the religious aspect of a city about to awaken and be alive, are the only ideas left in our mind. To Wordsworth has been vouchsafed the last grace of the self-denying artist; you think neither of him nor his style, but you cannot help thinking of—you must recall—the exact phrase, the very sentiment he wished.
Milton's purity is more eager. In the most exciting parts of Wordsworth—and these sonnets are not very exciting—you always feel, you never forget, that what you have before you is the excitement of a recluse. There is nothing of the stir of life; nothing of the brawl of the world. But Milton though always a scholar by trade, though solitary in old age, was through life intent on great affairs, lived close to great scenes, watched a revolution, and if not an actor in it, was at least secretary to the actors. He was familiar—by daily experience and habitual sympathy—with the earnest debate of arduous questions, on which the life and death of the speakers certainly depended, on which the weal or woe of the country perhaps depended. He knew how profoundly the individual character of the speakers—their inner and real nature—modifies their opinion on such questions; he knew how surely that nature will appear in the expression of them. This great experience, fashioned by a fine imagination, gives to the debate of Satanic Council in Pandaemonium its reality and its life. It is a debate in the Long Parliament, and though the theme of Paradise Lost obliged Milton to side with the monarchical element in the universe, his old habits are often too much for him; and his real sympathy—the impetus and energy of his nature—side with the rebellious element. For the purposes of art this is much better—of a court, a poet can make but little; of a heaven he can make very little, but of a courtly heaven, such as Milton conceived, he can make nothing at all. The idea of a court and the idea of a heaven are so radically different, that a distinct combination of them is always grotesque and often ludicrous. Paradise Lost, as a whole, is radically tainted by a vicious principle. It professes to justify the ways of God to man, to account for sin and death, and it tells you that the whole originated in a political event; in a court squabble as to a particular act of patronage and the due or undue promotion of an eldest son. Satan may have been wrong, but on Milton's theory he had an arguable case at least. There was something arbitrary in the promotion; there were little symptoms of a job; in Paradise Lost it is always clear that the devils are the weaker, but it is never clear that the angels are the better. Milton's sympathy and his imagination slip back to the Puritan rebels whom he loved, and desert the courtly angels whom he could not love although he praised. There is no wonder that Milton's hell is better than his heaven, for he hated officials and he loved rebels, for he employs his genius below, and accumulates his pedantry above. On the great debate in Pandaemonium all his genius is concentrated. The question is very practical; it is, 'What are we devils to do, now we have lost heaven?' Satan who presides over and manipulates the assembly; Moloch
the fiercest spirit That fought in Heaven, now fiercer by despair,
who wants to fight again; Belial, 'the man of the world', who does not want to fight any more; Mammon, who is for commencing an industrial career; Beelzebub, the official statesman,
deep on his front engraven Deliberation sat and Public care,
who, at Satan's instance, proposes the invasion of earth—are as distinct as so many statues. Even Belial, 'the man of the world', the sort of man with whom Milton had least sympathy, is perfectly painted. An inferior artist would have made the actor who 'counselled ignoble ease and peaceful sloth', a degraded and ugly creature; but Milton knew better. He knew that low notions require a better garb than high notions. Human nature is not a high thing, but at least it has a high idea of itself; it will not accept mean maxims, unless they are gilded and made beautiful. A prophet in goatskin may cry, 'Repent, repent', but it takes 'purple and fine linen' to be able to say, 'Continue in your sins'. The world vanquishes with its speciousness and its show, and the orator who is to persuade men to worldliness must have a share in them. Milton well knew this; after the warlike speech of the fierce Moloch he introduces a brighter and a more graceful spirit:
He ended frowning, and his look denounced Desp'rate revenge, and battle dangerous To less than Gods. On th' other side up rose Belial, in act more graceful and humane: A fairer person lost not Heaven; he seem'd For dignity composed and high exploit: But all was false and hollow, though his tongue Dropt manna, and could make the worse appear The better reason, to perplex and dash Maturest counsels: for his thoughts were low; To vice industrious, but to nobler deeds Tim'rous and slothful: yet he pleased the ear, And with persuasive accent thus began:
He does not begin like a man with a strong case, but like a man with a weak case; he knows that the pride of human nature is irritated by mean advice, and though he may probably persuade men to take it, he must carefully apologise for giving it. Here, as elsewhere, though the formal address is to devils, the real address is to men: to the human nature which we know, not to the fictitious demonic nature we do not know:
I should be much for open war, O Peers! As not behind in hate, if what was urged Main reason to persuade immediate war, Did not dissuade me most, and seem to cast Ominous conjecture on the whole success: When he who most excels in fact of arms, In what he counsels and in what excels Mistrustful, grounds his courage on despair, And utter dissolution, as the scope Of all his aim, after some dire revenge. First, what revenge? The tow'rs of Heav'n are fill'd With armed watch, that render all access Impregnable; oft on the bord'ring deep Encamp their legions, or with obscure wing Scout far and wide into the realm of night, Scorning surprise. Or could we break our way By force, and at our heels all hell should rise With blackest insurrection, to confound Heav'n's purest light, yet our great Enemy, All incorruptible, would on his throne Sit unpolluted, and th' ethereal mould Incapable of stain would soon expel Her mischief, and purge oft the baser fire Victorious. Thus repulsed, our final hope Is flat despair. We must exasperate Th' Almighty Victor to spend all his rage, And that must end us: that must be our cure, To be no more? Sad cure; for who would lose, Though full of pain, this intellectual being, Those thoughts that wander through eternity, To perish rather, swallow'd up and lost In the wide womb of uncreated night, Devoid of sense and motion? And who knows, Let this be good, whether our angry Foe Can give it, or will ever? How he can Is doubtful; that he never will is sure. Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire Belike through impotence, or unaware, To give his enemies their wish, and end Them in his anger, whom his anger saves To punish endless? Wherefore cease we then? Say they who counsel war, we are decreed, Reserved, and destined, to eternal woe; Whatever doing, what can we suffer more, What can we suffer worse? Is this then worst, Thus sitting, thus consulting, thus in arms?
* * * * *
And so on.
Mr. Pitt knew this speech by heart, and Lord Macaulay has called it incomparable; and these judges of the oratorical art have well decided. A mean foreign policy cannot be better defended. Its sensibleness is effectually explained, and its tameness as much as possible disguised.
But we have not here to do with the excellence of Belial's policy, but with the excellence of his speech; and with that speech in a peculiar manner. This speech, taken with the few lines of description with which Milton introduces them, embody, in as short a space as possible, with as much perfection as possible, the delineation of the type of character common at all times, dangerous in many times, sure to come to the surface in moments of difficulty, and never more dangerous than then. As Milton describes, it is one among several typical characters which will ever have their place in great councils, which will ever be heard at important decisions, which are part of the characteristic and inalienable whole of this statesmanlike world. The debate in Pandaemonium is a debate among these typical characters at the greatest conceivable crisis, and with adjuncts of solemnity which no other situation could rival. It is the greatest classical triumph, the highest achievement of the pure style in English literature; it is the greatest description of the highest and most typical characters with the most choice circumstances and in the fewest words.
It is not unremarkable that we should find in Milton and in Paradise Lost the best specimen of pure style. He was schoolmaster in a pedantic age, and there is nothing so unclassical—nothing so impure in style—as pedantry. The out-of-door conversational life of Athens was as opposed to bookish scholasticism as a life can be. The most perfect books have been written not by those who thought much of books, but by those who thought little, by those who were under the restraint of a sensitive talking world, to which books had contributed something, and a various eager life the rest. Milton is generally unclassical in spirit where he is learned, and naturally, because the purest poets do not overlay their conceptions with book knowledge, and the classical poets, having in comparison no books, were under little temptation to impair the purity of their style by the accumulation of their research. Over and above this, there is in Milton, and a little in Wordsworth also, one defect which is in the highest degree faulty and unclassical, which mars the effect and impairs the perfection of the pure style. There is a want of spontaneity, and a sense of effort. It has been happily said that Plato's words must have grown into their places. No one would say so of Milton or even of Wordsworth. About both of them there is a taint of duty; a vicious sense of the good man's task. Things seem right where they are, but they seem to be put where they are. Flexibility is essential to the consummate perfection of the pure style because the sensation of the poet's efforts carries away our thoughts from his achievements. We are admiring his labours when we should be enjoying his words. But this is a defect in those two writers, not a defect in pure art. Of course it is more difficult to write in few words than to write in many; to take the best adjuncts, and those only, for what you have to say, instead of using all which comes to hand; it is an additional labour if you write verses in a morning, to spend the rest of the day in choosing, or making those verses fewer. But a perfect artist in the pure style is as effortless and as natural as in any style, perhaps is more so. Take the well-known lines:
There was a little lawny islet By anemone and violet, Like mosaic, paven: And its roof was flowers and leaves Which the summer's breath enweaves, Where nor sun, nor showers, nor breeze, Pierce the pines and tallest trees, Each a gem engraven;— Girt by many an azure wave With which the clouds and mountains pave A lake's blue chasm.
Shelley had many merits and many defects. This is not the place for a complete or indeed for any estimate of him. But one excellence is most evident. His words are as flexible as any words; the rhythm of some modulating air seems to move them into their place without a struggle by the poet and almost without his knowledge. This is the perfection of pure art, to embody typical conceptions in the choicest, the fewest accidents, to embody them so that each of these accidents may produce its full effect, and so to embody them without effort.
The extreme opposite to this pure art is what may be called ornate art. This species of art aims also at giving a delineation of the typical idea in its perfection and its fullness, but it aims at so doing in a manner most different. It wishes to surround the type with the greatest number of circumstances which it will bear. It works not by choice and selection, but by accumulation and aggregation. The idea is not, as in the pure style, presented with the least clothing which it will endure, but with the richest and most involved clothing that it will admit.
We are fortunate in not having to hunt out of past literature an illustrative specimen of the ornate style. Mr. Tennyson has just given one admirable in itself, and most characteristic of the defects and the merits of this style. The story of Enoch Arden, as he has enhanced and presented it, is a rich and splendid composite of imagery and illustration. Yet how simple that story is in itself. A sailor who sells fish, breaks his leg, gets dismal, gives up selling fish, goes to sea, is wrecked on a desert island, stays there some years, on his return finds his wife married to a miller, speaks to a landlady on the subject, and dies. Told in the pure and simple, the unadorned and classical style, this story would not have taken three pages, but Mr. Tennyson has been able to make it the principal—the largest tale in his new volume. He has done so only by giving to every event and incident in the volume an accompanying commentary. He tells a great deal about the torrid zone which a rough sailor like Enoch Arden certainly would not have perceived; and he gives to the fishing village, to which all the characters belong, a softness and a fascination which such villages scarcely possess in reality.
The description of the tropical island on which the sailor is thrown, is an absolute model of adorned art:
The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns And winding glades high up like ways to Heaven, The slender coco's drooping crown of plumes, The lightning flash of insect and of bird, The lustre of the long convolvuluses That coil'd around the stately stems, and ran Ev'n to the limit of the land, the glows And glories of the broad belt of the world, All these he saw; but what he fain had seen He could not see, the kindly human face, Nor ever hear a kindly voice, but heard The myriad shriek of wheeling ocean-fowl, The league-long roller thundering on the reef, The moving whisper of huge trees that branch'd And blossom'd in the zenith, or the sweep Of some precipitous rivulet to the wave, As down the shore he ranged, or all day long Sat often in the seaward-gazing gorge, A shipwreck'd sailor, waiting for a sail: No sail from day to day, but every day The sunrise broken into scarlet shafts Among the palms and ferns and precipices; The blaze upon the waters to the east; The blaze upon his island overhead; The blaze upon the waters to the west; Then the great stars that globed themselves in Heaven, The hollower-bellowing ocean, and again The scarlet shafts of sunrise—but no sail.
No expressive circumstance can be added to this description, no enhancing detail suggested. A much less happy instance is the description of Enoch's life before he sailed:
While Enoch was abroad on wrathful seas, Or often journeying landward; for in truth Enoch's white horse, and Enoch's ocean spoil In ocean-smelling osier, and his face, Rough-redden'd with a thousand winter gales, Not only to the market-cross were known, But in the leafy lanes behind the down, Far as the portal-warding lion-whelp, And peacock yew-tree of the lonely Hall, Whose Friday fare was Enoch's ministering.
So much has not often been made of selling fish.
The essence of ornate art is in this manner to accumulate round the typical object, everything which can be said about it, every associated thought that can be connected with it without impairing the essence of the delineation.
The first defect which strikes a student of ornate art—the first which arrests the mere reader of it—is what is called a want of simplicity. Nothing is described as it is, everything has about it an atmosphere of something else. The combined and associated thoughts, though they set off and heighten particular ideas and aspects of the central conception, yet complicate it: a simple thing—'a daisy by the river's brim'—is never left by itself, something else is put with it; something not more connected with it than 'lion-whelp' and the 'peacock yew-tree' are with the 'fresh fish for sale' that Enoch carries past them. Even in the highest cases ornate art leaves upon a cultured and delicate taste, the conviction that it is not the highest art, that it is somehow excessive and over-rich, that it is not chaste in itself or chastening to the mind that sees it—that it is in an unexplained manner unsatisfactory, 'a thing in which we feel there is some hidden want!'
That want is a want of 'definition'. We must all know landscapes, river landscapes especially, which are in the highest sense beautiful, which when we first see them give us a delicate pleasure; which in some—and these the best cases—give even a gentle sense of surprise that such things should be so beautiful, and yet when we come to live in them, to spend even a few hours in them, we seem stifled and oppressed. On the other hand there are people to whom the sea-shore is a companion, an exhilaration; and not so much for the brawl of the shore as for the limited vastness, the finite infinite of the ocean as they see it. Such people often come home braced and nerved, and if they spoke out the truth, would have only to say, 'We have seen the horizon line'; if they were let alone indeed, they would gaze on it hour after hour, so great to them is the fascination, so full the sustaining calm, which they gain from that union of form and greatness. To a very inferior extent, but still, perhaps, to an extent which most people understand better, a common arch will have the same effect. A bridge completes a river landscape; if of the old and many-arched sort it regulates by a long series of defined forms the vague outline of wood and river which before had nothing to measure it; if of the new scientific sort it introduces still more strictly a geometrical element; it stiffens the scenery which was before too soft, too delicate, too vegetable. Just such is the effect of pure style in literary art. It calms by conciseness; while the ornate style leaves on the mind a mist of beauty, an excess of fascination, a complication of charm, the pure style leaves behind it the simple, defined, measured idea, as it is, and by itself. That which is chaste chastens; there is a poised energy—a state half thrill, and half tranquillity—which pure art gives, which no other can give; a pleasure justified as well as felt; an ennobled satisfaction at what ought to satisfy us, and must ennoble us.
Ornate art is to pure art what a painted statue is to an unpainted. It is impossible to deny that a touch of colour does bring out certain parts, does convey certain expressions, does heighten certain features, but it leaves on the work as a whole, a want, as we say, 'of something'; a want of that inseparable chasteness which clings to simple sculpture, an impairing predominance of alluring details which impairs our satisfaction with our own satisfaction; which makes us doubt whether a higher being than ourselves will be satisfied even though we are so. In the very same manner, though the rouge of ornate literature excites our eye, it also impairs our confidence.
Mr. Arnold has justly observed that this self-justifying, self-proving purity of style, is commoner in ancient literature than in modern literature, and also that Shakespeare is not a great or an unmixed example of it. No one can say that he is. His works are full of undergrowth, are full of complexity, are not models of style; except by a miracle nothing in the Elizabethan age could be a model of style; the restraining taste of that age was feebler and more mistaken than that of any other equally great age. Shakespeare's mind so teemed with creation that he required the most just, most forcible, most constant restraint from without. He most needed to be guided of poets, and he was the least and worst guided. As a whole no one can call his works finished models of the pure style, or of any style. But he has many passages of the most pure style, passages which could be easily cited if space served. And we must remember that the task which Shakespeare undertook was the most difficult which any poet has ever attempted, and that it is a task in which after a million efforts every other poet has failed. The Elizabethan drama—as Shakespeare has immortalized it—undertakes to delineate in five acts, under stage restrictions, and in mere dialogue, a whole list of dramatis personae, a set of characters enough for a modern novel, and with the distinctness of a modern novel. Shakespeare is not content to give two or three great characters in solitude and in dignity, like the classical dramatists; he wishes to give a whole party of characters in the play of life, and according to the nature of each. He would 'hold the mirror up to nature', not to catch a monarch in a tragic posture, but a whole group of characters engaged in many actions, intent on many purposes, thinking many thoughts. There is life enough, there is action enough, in single plays of Shakespeare to set up an ancient dramatist for a long career. And Shakespeare succeeded. His characters, taken en masse, and as a whole, are as well-known as any novelist's characters; cultivated men know all about them, as young ladies know all about Mr. Trollope's novels. But no other dramatist has succeeded in such an aim. No one else's characters are staple people in English literature, hereditary people whom every one knows all about in every generation. The contemporary dramatists, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Marlowe, &c., had many merits, some of them were great men. But a critic must say of them the worst thing he has to say; 'they were men who failed in their characteristic aim;' they attempted to describe numerous sets of complicated characters, and they failed. No one of such characters, or hardly one, lives in common memory; the Faustus of Marlowe, a really great idea, is not remembered. They undertook to write what they could not write, five acts full of real characters, and in consequence, the fine individual things they conceived are forgotten by the mixed multitude, and known only to a few of the few. Of the Spanish theatre we cannot speak; but there are no such characters in any French tragedy: the whole aim of that tragedy forbade it. Goethe has added to literature a few great characters; he may be said almost to have added to literature the idea of 'intellectual creation',—the idea of describing great characters through the intellect; but he has not added to the common stock what Shakespeare added, a new multitude of men and women; and these not in simple attitudes, but amid the most complex parts of life, with all their various natures roused, mixed, and strained. The severest art must have allowed many details, much overflowing circumstance to a poet who undertook to describe what almost defies description. Pure art would have commanded him to use details lavishly, for only by a multiplicity of such could the required effect have been at all produced. Shakespeare could accomplish it, for his mind was a spring, an inexhaustible fountain of human nature, and it is no wonder that being compelled by the task of his time to let the fullness of his nature overflow, he sometimes let it overflow too much, and covered with erroneous conceits and superfluous images characters and conceptions which would have been far more justly, far more effectually, delineated with conciseness and simplicity. But there is an infinity of pure art in Shakespeare, although there is a great deal else also.
It will be said, if ornate art be as you say, an inferior species or art, why should it ever be used? If pure art be the best sort of art, why should it not always be used?
The reason is this: literary art, as we just now explained, is concerned with literatesque characters in literatesque situations; and the best art is concerned with the most literatesque characters in the most literatesque situations. Such are the subjects of pure art; it embodies with the fewest touches, and under the most select and choice circumstances, the highest conceptions; but it does not follow that only the best subjects are to be treated by art, and then only in the very best way. Human nature could not endure such a critical commandment as that, and it would be an erroneous criticism which gave it. Any literatesque character may be described in literature under any circumstances which exhibit its literatesqueness.
The essence of pure art consists in its describing what is as it is, and this is very well for what can bear it, but there are many inferior things which will not bear it, and which nevertheless ought to be described in books. A certain kind of literature deals with illusions, and this kind of literature has given a colouring to the name romantic. A man of rare genius, and even of poetical genius, has gone so far as to make these illusions the true subject of poetry—almost the sole subject. 'Without,' says Father Newman, of one of his characters, 'being himself a poet, he was in the season of poetry, in the sweet spring-time, when the year is most beautiful because it is new. Novelty was beauty to a heart so open and cheerful as his; not only because it was novelty, and had its proper charm as such, but because when we first see things, we see them in a gay confusion, which is a principal element of the poetical. As time goes on, and we number and sort and measure things,—as we gain views,—we advance towards philosophy and truth, but we recede from poetry.
'When we ourselves were young, we once on a time walked on a hot summer-day from Oxford to Newington—a dull road, as any one who has gone it knows; yet it was new to us; and we protest to you, reader, believe it or not, laugh or not, as you will, to us it seemed on that occasion quite touchingly beautiful; and a soft melancholy came over us, of which the shadows fall even now, when we look back upon that dusty, weary journey. And why? because every object which met us was unknown and full of mystery. A tree or two in the distance seemed the beginning of a great wood, or park, stretching endlessly; a hill implied a vale beyond, with that vale's history; the bye-lanes, with their green hedges, wound on and vanished, yet were not lost to the imagination. Such was our first journey; but when we had gone it several times, the mind refused to act, the scene ceased to enchant, stern reality alone remained; and we thought it one of the most tiresome, odious roads we ever had occasion to traverse.'
That is to say, that the function of the poet is to introduce a 'gay confusion', a rich medley which does not exist in the actual world—which perhaps could not exist in any world—but which would seem pretty if it did exist. Everyone who reads Enoch Arden will perceive that this notion of all poetry is exactly applicable to this one poem. Whatever be made of Enoch's 'Ocean spoil in ocean-smelling osier,' of the 'portal-warding lion-whelp, and peacock yew-tree', every one knows that in himself Enoch could not have been charming. People who sell fish about the country (and that is what he did, though Mr. Tennyson won't speak out, and wraps it up) never are beautiful. As Enoch was and must be coarse, in itself the poem must depend for its charm on a 'gay confusion'—on a splendid accumulation of impossible accessories.
Mr. Tennyson knows this better than many of us—he knows the country world; he has proved it that no one living knows it better; he has painted with pure art—with art which describes what is a race perhaps more refined, more delicate, more conscientious, than the sailor—the 'Northern Farmer', and we all know what a splendid, what a living thing, he has made of it. He could, if he only would, have given us the ideal sailor in like manner—the ideal of the natural sailor we mean—the characteristic present man as he lives and is. But this he has not chosen. He has endeavoured to describe an exceptional sailor, at an exceptionally refined port, performing a graceful act, an act of relinquishment. And with this task before him, his profound taste taught him that ornate art was a necessary medium—was the sole effectual instrument—for his purpose. It was necessary for him if possible to abstract the mind from reality, to induce us not to conceive or think of sailors as they are while we are reading of his sailors, but to think of what a person who did not know might fancy sailors to be. A casual traveller on the sea-shore, with the sensitive mood and the romantic imagination Mr. Newman has described, might fancy, would fancy, a seafaring village to be like that. Accordingly, Mr. Tennyson has made it his aim to call off the stress of fancy from real life, to occupy it otherwise, to bury it with pretty accessories; to engage it on the 'peacock yew-tree', and the 'portal-warding lion-whelp'. Nothing, too, can be more splendid than the description of the tropics as Mr. Tennyson delineates them, but a sailor would not have felt the tropics in that manner. The beauties of nature would not have so much occupied him. He would have known little of the scarlet shafts of sunrise and nothing of the long convolvuluses. As in Robinson Crusoe, his own petty contrivances and his small ailments would have been the principal subject to him. 'For three years', he might have said, 'my back was bad, and then I put two pegs into a piece of drift wood and so made a chair, and after that it pleased God to send me a chill.' In real life his piety would scarcely have gone beyond that.
It will indeed be said, that though the sailor had no words for, and even no explicit consciousness of the splendid details of the torrid zone, yet that he had, notwithstanding, a dim latent inexpressible conception of them: though he could not speak of them or describe them, yet they were much to him. And doubtless such is the case. Rude people are impressed by what is beautiful—deeply impressed—though they could not describe what they see, or what they feel. But what is absurd in Mr. Tennyson's description—absurd when we abstract it from the gorgeous additions and ornaments with which Mr. Tennyson distracts us—is, that his hero feels nothing else but these great splendours. We hear nothing of the physical ailments, the rough devices, the low superstitions, which really would have been the first things, the favourite and principal occupations of his mind. Just so when he gets home he may have had such fine sentiments, though it is odd, and he may have spoken of them to his landlady, though that is odder still—but it is incredible that his whole mind should be made up of fine sentiments. Beside those sweet feelings, if he had them, there must have been many more obvious, more prosaic, and some perhaps more healthy. Mr. Tennyson has shown a profound judgement in distracting us as he does. He has given us a classic delineation of the 'Northern Farmer' with no ornament at all—as bare a thing as can be—because he then wanted to describe a true type of real men: he has given us a sailor crowded all over with ornament and illustration, because he then wanted to describe an unreal type of fancied men, not sailors as they are, but sailors as they might be wished.
Another prominent element in Enoch Arden is yet more suitable to, yet more requires the aid of, ornate art. Mr. Tennyson undertook to deal with half belief. The presentiments which Annie feels are exactly of that sort which everybody has felt, and which every one has half believed—which hardly any one has more than half believed. Almost every one, it has been said, would be angry if any one else reported that he believed in ghosts; yet hardly any one, when thinking by himself, wholly disbelieves them. Just so such presentiments as Mr. Tennyson depicts, impress the inner mind so much that the outer mind—the rational understanding—hardly likes to consider them nicely or to discuss them sceptically. For these dubious themes an ornate or complex style is needful. Classical art speaks out what it has to say plainly and simply. Pure style cannot hesitate; it describes in concisest outline what is, as it is. If a poet really believes in presentiments he can speak out in pure style. One who could have been a poet—one of the few in any age of whom one can say certainly that they could have been, and have not been—has spoken thus:
When Heaven sends sorrow, Warnings go first, Lest it should burst With stunning might On souls too bright To fear the morrow.
Can science bear us To the hid springs Of human things? Why may not dream, Or thought's day-gleam, Startle, yet cheer us?
Are such thoughts fetters, While faith disowns Dread of earth's tones, Recks but Heaven's call, And on the wall, Reads but Heaven's letters?
But if a poet is not sure whether presentiments are true or not true; if he wishes to leave his readers in doubt; if he wishes an atmosphere of indistinct illusion and of moving shadow, he must use the romantic style, the style of miscellaneous adjunct, the style 'which shirks, not meets' your intellect, the style which as you are scrutinizing disappears.
Nor is this all, or even the principal lesson, which Enoch Arden may suggest to us, of the use of ornate art. That art is the appropriate art for an unpleasing type. Many of the characters of real life, if brought distinctly, prominently, and plainly before the mind, as they really are, if shown in their inner nature, their actual essence, are doubtless very unpleasant. They would be horrid to meet and horrid to think of. We fear it must be owned that Enoch Arden is this kind of person. A dirty sailor who did not go home to his wife is not an agreeable being: a varnish must be put on him to make him shine. It is true that he acts rightly; that he is very good. But such is human nature that it finds a little tameness in mere morality. Mere virtue belongs to a charity school-girl, and has a taint of the catechism. All of us feel this, though most of us are too timid, too scrupulous, too anxious about the virtue of others, to speak out. We are ashamed of our nature in this respect, but it is not the less our nature. And if we look deeper into the matter there are many reasons why we should not be ashamed of it. The soul of man, and as we necessarily believe of beings greater than man, has many parts beside its moral part. It has an intellectual part, an artistic part, even a religious part, in which mere morals have no share. In Shakespeare or Goethe, even in Newton or Archimedes, there is much which will not be cut down to the shape of the commandments. They have thoughts, feelings, hopes—immortal thoughts and hopes—which have influenced the life of men, and the souls of men, ever since their age, but which the 'whole duty of man', the ethical compendium, does not recognize. Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind. A highly developed moral nature joined to an undeveloped intellectual nature, an undeveloped artistic nature, and a very limited religious nature, is of necessity repulsive. It represents a bit of human nature—a good bit, of course, but a bit only—in disproportionate, unnatural, and revolting prominence; and, therefore, unless an artist use delicate care, we are offended. The dismal act of a squalid man needed many condiments to make it pleasant, and therefore Mr. Tennyson was right to mix them subtly and to use them freely.
A mere act of self-denial can indeed scarcely be pleasant upon paper. An heroic struggle with an external adversary, even though it end in a defeat, may easily be made attractive. Human nature likes to see itself look grand, and it looks grand when it is making a brave struggle with foreign foes. But it does not look grand when it is divided against itself. An excellent person striving with temptation is a very admirable being in reality, but he is not a pleasant being in description. We hope he will win and overcome his temptation, but we feel that he would be a more interesting being, a higher being, if he had not felt that temptation so much. The poet must make the struggle great in order to make the self-denial virtuous, and if the struggle be too great, we are apt to feel some mixture of contempt. The internal metaphysics of a divided nature are but an inferior subject for art, and if they are to be made attractive, much else must be combined with them. If the excellence of Hamlet had depended on the ethical qualities of Hamlet, it would not have been the masterpiece of our literature. He acts virtuously of course, and kills the people he ought to kill, but Shakespeare knew that such goodness would not much interest the pit. He made him a handsome prince, and a puzzling meditative character; these secular qualities relieve his moral excellence, and so he becomes 'nice'. In proportion as an artist has to deal with types essentially imperfect, he must disguise their imperfections; he must accumulate around them as many first-rate accessories as may make his readers forget that they are themselves second-rate. The sudden millionaires of the present day hope to disguise their social defects by buying old places, and hiding among aristocratic furniture; just so a great artist who has to deal with characters artistically imperfect will use an ornate style, will fit them into a scene where there is much else to look at.
For these reasons ornate art is within the limits as legitimate as pure art. It does what pure art could not do. The very excellence of pure art confines its employment. Precisely because it gives the best things by themselves and exactly as they are, it fails when it is necessary to describe inferior things among other things, with a list of enhancements and a crowd of accompaniments that in reality do not belong to it. Illusion, half belief, unpleasant types, imperfect types, are as much the proper sphere of ornate art, as an inferior landscape is the proper sphere for the true efficacy of moonlight. A really great landscape needs sunlight and bears sunlight; but moonlight is an equalizer of beauties; it gives a romantic unreality to what will not stand the bare truth. And just so does romantic art.
There is, however, a third kind of art which differs from these on the point in which they most resemble one another. Ornate art and pure art have this in common, that they paint the types of literature in as good perfection as they can. Ornate art, indeed, uses undue disguises and unreal enhancements; it does not confine itself to the best types; on the contrary it is its office to make the best of imperfect types and lame approximations; but ornate art, as much as pure art, catches its subject in the best light it can, takes the most developed aspect of it which it can find, and throws upon it the most congruous colours it can use. But grotesque art does just the contrary. It takes the type, so to say, in difficulties. It gives a representation of it in its minimum development, amid the circumstances least favourable to it, just while it is struggling with obstacles, just where it is encumbered with incongruities. It deals, to use the language of science, not with normal types but with abnormal specimens; to use the language of old philosophy, not with what nature is striving to be, but with what by some lapse she has happened to become.
This art works by contrast. It enables you to see, it makes you see, the perfect type by painting the opposite deviation. It shows you what ought to be by what ought not to be, when complete it reminds you of the perfect image, by showing you the distorted and imperfect image. Of this art we possess in the present generation one prolific master. Mr. Browning is an artist working by incongruity. Possibly hardly one of his most considerable efforts can be found which is not great because of its odd mixture. He puts together things which no one else would have put together, and produces on our minds a result which no one else would have produced, or tried to produce. His admirers may not like all we may have to say of him. But in our way we too are among his admirers. No one ever read him without seeing not only his great ability but his great mind. He not only possesses superficial useable talents, but the strong something, the inner secret something which uses them and controls them; he is great, not in mere accomplishments, but in himself. He has applied a hard strong intellect to real life; he has applied the same intellect to the problems of his age. He has striven to know what is: he has endeavoured not to be cheated by counterfeits, not to be infatuated with illusions. His heart is in what he says. He has battered his brain against his creed till he believes it. He has accomplishments too, the more effective because they are mixed. He is at once a student of mysticism, and a citizen of the world. He brings to the club sofa distinct visions of old creeds, intense images of strange thoughts: he takes to the bookish student tidings of wild Bohemia, and little traces of the demi-monde. He puts down what is good for the naughty and what is naughty for the good. Over women his easier writings exercise that imperious power which belongs to the writings of a great man of the world upon such matters. He knows women, and therefore they wish to know him. If we blame many of Browning's efforts, it is in the interest of art, and not from a wish to hurt or degrade him.
If we wanted to illustrate the nature of grotesque art by an exaggerated instance we should have selected a poem which the chance of late publication brings us in this new volume. Mr. Browning has undertaken to describe what may be called mind in difficulties—mind set to make out the universe under the worst and hardest circumstances. He takes 'Caliban', not perhaps exactly Shakespeare's Caliban, but an analogous and worse creature; a strong thinking power, but a nasty creature—a gross animal, uncontrolled and unelevated by any feeling of religion or duty. The delineation of him will show that Mr. Browning does not wish to take undue advantage of his readers by a choice of nice subjects.
'Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best, Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire, With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin; And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush, And feels about his spine small eft-things course, Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh; And while above his head a pompion-plant, Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye, Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard, And now a flower drops with a bee inside, And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch:
This pleasant creature proceeds to give his idea of the origin of the Universe, and it is as follows. Caliban speaks in the third person, and is of opinion that the maker of the Universe took to making it on account of his personal discomfort:
Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos! 'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.
'Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match, But not the stars: the stars came otherwise; Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that: Also this isle, what lives, and grows thereon, And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.
'Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease: He hated that He cannot change His cold, Nor cure its ache. 'Hath spied an icy fish That longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived, And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid, A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave; Only she ever sickened, found repulse At the other kind of water, not her life, (Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o' the sun) Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe, And in her old bounds buried her despair, Hating and loving warmth alike: so He.
'Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle, Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing. Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech; Yon auk, one fire-eye, in a ball of foam, That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye By moonlight; and the pie with the long tongue That pricks deep into oakwarts for a worm, And says a plain word when she finds her prize, But will not eat the ants; the ants themselves That build a wall of seeds and settled stalks About their hole—He made all these and more, Made all we see, and us, in spite: how else?
It may seem perhaps to most readers that these lines are very difficult, and that they are unpleasant. And so they are. We quote them to illustrate, not the success of grotesque art, but the nature of grotesque art. It shows the end at which this species of art aims, and if it fails, it is from over-boldness in the choice of a subject by the artist, or from the defects of its execution. A thinking faculty more in difficulties—a great type,—an inquisitive, searching intellect under more disagreeable conditions, with worse helps, more likely to find falsehood, less likely to find truth, can scarcely be imagined. Nor is the mere description of the thought at all bad: on the contrary, if we closely examine it, it is very clever. Hardly any one could have amassed so many ideas at once nasty and suitable. But scarcely any readers—any casual readers—who are not of the sect of Mr. Browning's admirers will be able to examine it enough to appreciate it. From a defect, partly of subject, and partly of style, many of Mr. Browning's works make a demand upon the reader's zeal and sense of duty to which the nature of most readers is unequal. They have on the turf the convenient expression 'staying power': some horses can hold on and others cannot. But hardly any reader not of especial and peculiar nature can hold on through such composition. There is not enough of 'staying power' in human nature. One of his greatest admirers once owned to us that he seldom or never began a new poem without looking on in advance, and foreseeing with caution what length of intellectual adventure he was about to commence. Whoever will work hard at such poems will find much mind in them: they are a sort of quarry of ideas, but whoever goes there will find these ideas in such a jagged, ugly, useless shape that he can hardly bear them.
We are not judging Mr. Browning simply from a hasty recent production. All poets are liable to misconceptions, and if such a piece as Caliban upon Setebos were an isolated error, a venial and particular exception, we should have given it no prominence. We have put it forward because it just elucidates both our subject and the characteristics of Mr. Browning. But many other of his best known pieces do so almost equally; what several of his devotees think his best piece is quite enough illustrative for anything we want. It appears that on Holy Cross day at Rome the Jews were obliged to listen to a Christian sermon in the hope of their conversion, though this is, according to Mr. Browning, what they really said when they came away:
Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak! Blessedest Thursday's the fat of the week, Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough, Stinking and savoury, smug and gruff, Take the church-road, for the bell's due chime Gives us the summons—'t is sermon-time.
Boh, here's Barnabas! Job, that's you? Up stumps Solomon—bustling too? Shame, man! greedy beyond your years To handsel the bishop's shaving-shears? Fair play's a jewel! leave friends in the lurch? Stand on a line ere you start for the church.
Higgledy, piggledy, packed we lie, Rats in a hamper, swine in a stye, Wasps in a bottle, frogs in a sieve, Worms in a carcase, fleas in a sleeve. Hist! square shoulders, settle your thumbs And buzz for the bishop—here he comes.
And after similar nice remarks for a church, the edified congregation concludes:
But now, while the scapegoats leave our flock, And the rest sit silent and count the clock, Since forced to muse the appointed time On these precious facts and truths sublime,— Let us fitly employ it, under our breath, In saying Ben Ezra's Song of Death.
For Rabbi Ben Ezra, the night he died, Called sons and sons' sons to his side, And spoke, 'This world has been harsh and strange; Something is wrong: there needeth a change. But what, or where? at the last, or first? In one point only we sinned, at worst.
'The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet, And again in his border see Israel set. When Judah beholds Jerusalem, The stranger-seed shall be joined to them: To Jacob's House shall the Gentiles cleave, So the Prophet saith and his sons believe.
'Ay, the children of the chosen race Shall carry and bring them to their place: In the land of the Lord shall lead the same, Bondsmen and handmaids. Who shall blame When the slaves enslave, the oppressed ones o'er The oppressor triumph for evermore?
'God spoke, and gave us the word to keep, Bade never fold the hands nor sleep 'Mid a faithless world,—at watch and ward, Till Christ at the end relieve our guard. By His servant Moses the watch was set: Though near upon cock-crow, we keep it yet.
'Thou! if Thou wast He, who at mid-watch came, By the starlight, naming a dubious Name! And if, too heavy with sleep—too rash With fear—O Thou, if that martyr-gash Fell on Thee coming to take Thine own, And we gave the Cross, when we owed the Throne—
'Thou art the Judge. We are bruised thus. But, the judgement over, join sides with us! Thine too is the cause! and not more Thine Than ours, is the work of these dogs and swine, Whose life laughs through and spits at their creed, Who maintain Thee in word, and defy Thee in deed!
'We withstood Christ then? be mindful how At least we withstand Barabbas now! Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared, To have called these—Christians, had we dared! Let defiance to them pay mistrust of Thee, And Rome make amends for Calvary!
'By the torture, prolonged from age to age, By the infamy, Israel's heritage, By the Ghetto's plague, by the garb's disgrace, By the badge of shame, by the felon's place, By the branding-tool, the bloody whip, And the summons to Christian fellowship,—
'We boast our proof that at least the Jew Would wrest Christ's name from the Devil's crew. Thy face took never so deep a shade But we fought them in it, God our aid! A trophy to bear, as we march, Thy band, South, East, and on to the Pleasant Land!'
It is very natural that a poet whose wishes incline, or whose genius conducts him to a grotesque art, should be attracted towards mediaeval subjects. There is no age whose legends are so full of grotesque subjects, and no age where real life was so fit to suggest them. Then, more than at any other time, good principles have been under great hardships. The vestiges of ancient civilization, the germs of modern civilization, the little remains of what had been, the small beginnings of what is, were buried under a cumbrous mass of barbarism and cruelty. Good elements hidden in horrid accompaniments are the special theme of grotesque art, and these mediaeval life and legends afford more copiously than could have been furnished before Christianity gave its new elements of good, or since modern civilization has removed some few at least of the old elements of destruction. A buried life like the spiritual mediaeval was Mr. Browning's natural element, and he was right to be attracted by it. His mistake has been, that he has not made it pleasant; that he has forced his art to topics on which no one could charm, or on which he, at any rate, could not; that on these occasions and in these poems he has failed in fascinating men and women of sane taste.
We say 'sane' because there is a most formidable and estimable insane taste. The will has great though indirect power over the taste, just as it has over the belief. There are some horrid beliefs from which human nature revolts, from which at first it shrinks, to which, at first, no effort can force it. But if we fix the mind upon them they have a power over us just because of their natural offensiveness. They are like the sight of human blood: experienced soldiers tell us that at first men are sickened by the smell and newness of blood almost to death and fainting, but that as soon as they harden their hearts and stiffen their minds, as soon as they will bear it, then comes an appetite for slaughter, a tendency to gloat on carnage, to love blood, at least for the moment, with a deep eager love. It is a principle that if we put down a healthy instinctive aversion, nature avenges herself by creating an unhealthy insane attraction. For this reason the most earnest truth-seeking men fall into the worst delusions; they will not let their mind alone; they force it towards some ugly thing, which a crotchet of argument, a conceit of intellect recommends, and nature punishes their disregard of her warning by subjection to the ugly one, by belief in it. Just so the most industrious critics get the most admiration. They think it unjust to rest in their instinctive natural horror: they overcome it, and angry nature gives them over to ugly poems and marries them to detestable stanzas.
Mr. Browning possibly, and some of the worst of Mr. Browning's admirers certainly, will say that these grotesque objects exist in real life, and therefore they ought to be, at least may be, described in art. But though pleasure is not the end of poetry, pleasing is a condition of poetry. An exceptional monstrosity of horrid ugliness cannot be made pleasing, except it be made to suggest—to recall—the perfection, the beauty, from which it is a deviation. Perhaps in extreme cases no art is equal to this; but then such self-imposed problems should not be worked by the artist; these out-of-the-way and detestable subjects should be let alone by him. It is rather characteristic of Mr. Browning to neglect this rule. He is the most of a realist, and the least of an idealist of any poet we know. He evidently sympathizes with some part at least of Bishop Blougram's apology. Anyhow this world exists. 'There is good wine—there are pretty women—there are comfortable benefices—there is money, and it is pleasant to spend it. Accept the creed of your age and you get these, reject that creed and you lose them. And for what do you lose them? For a fancy creed of your own, which no one else will accept, which hardly any one will call a "creed", which most people will consider a sort of unbelief.' Again, Mr. Browning evidently loves what we may call the realism, the grotesque realism, of orthodox christianity. Many parts of it in which great divines have felt keen difficulties are quite pleasant to him. He must see his religion, he must nave an 'object-lesson' in believing. He must have a creed that will take, which wins and holds the miscellaneous world, which stout men will heed, which nice women will adore. The spare moments of solitary religion—the 'obdurate questionings', the high 'instincts', the 'first affections', the 'shadowy recollections',
Which, do they what they may, Are yet the fountain-light of all our day— Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
the great but vague faith—the unutterable tenets seem to him worthless, visionary; they are not enough immersed in matter; they move about 'in worlds not realized'. We wish he could be tried like the prophet once; he would have found God in the earthquake and the storm; he could have deciphered from them a bracing and a rough religion: he would have known that crude men and ignorant women felt them too, and he would accordingly have trusted them; but he would have distrusted and disregarded the 'still small voice'; he would have said it was 'fancy'—a thing you thought you heard to-day, but were not sure you had heard to-morrow: he would call it a nice illusion, an immaterial prettiness; he would ask triumphantly 'How are you to get the mass of men to heed this little thing?' he would have persevered and insisted 'My wife does not hear it'.
But although a suspicion of beauty, and a taste for ugly reality, have led Mr. Browning to exaggerate the functions, and to caricature the nature of grotesque art, we own or rather we maintain that he has given many excellent specimens of that art within its proper boundaries and limits. Take an example, his picture of what we may call the bourgeois nature in difficulties; in the utmost difficulty, in contact with magic and the supernatural. He has made of it something homely, comic, true; reminding us of what bourgeois nature really is. By showing us the type under abnormal conditions, he reminds us of the type under its best and most satisfactory conditions—