And he was interested in everything. At one moment he is setting himself to study Oriental languages, a singularly difficult task in those days. Both in poetry and divinity he has more Spanish than English books in his library. Scientific and technical terms are constantly found in his verse, where we should least expect them, where indeed they are least welcome. In Ignatius—his Conclave he speaks with learned enthusiasm of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, and of his own immediate contemporaries, then but just become famous, Galileo ('who of late hath summoned the other worlds, the stars, to come nearer to him, and to give an account of themselves') and Kepler ('who hath received it into his care, that no new thing should be done in heaven without his knowledge'). He rebukes himself for his abandonment to 'the worst voluptuousness, which is an hydroptic, immoderate desire of human learning and languages.' At twenty-three he was a soldier against Spain under Raleigh, and went on the 'Islands Voyage'; later on, at different periods, he travelled over many parts of the Continent, with rich patrons or on diplomatic offices. Born a Catholic, he became a Protestant, deliberately enough; wrote books on controversial subjects, against his old party, before he had taken orders in the Church of England; besides a strange, morbid speculation on the innocence of suicide. He used his lawyer's training for dubious enough purposes, advising the Earl of Somerset in the dark business of his divorce and re-marriage. And, in a mournful pause in the midst of many harrowing concerns, he writes to a friend: 'When I must shipwreck, I would fain do it in a sea where mine own impotency might have some excuse; not in a sullen, weedy lake, where I could not have so much as exercise for my swimming. Therefore I would fain do something, but that I cannot tell what is no wonder.' 'Though I be in such a planetary and erratic fortune that I can do nothing constantly,' he confesses later in the same letter.
No doubt some of this feverish activity, this uncertainty of aim, was a matter of actual physical health. It is uncertain at what time the wasting disease, of which he died, first settled upon him; but he seems to have been always somewhat sickly of body, and with just that at times depressing, at times exciting, malady which tells most upon the whole organisation. That preoccupation with death, which in early life led him to write his Biathanatos, with its elaborate apology for suicide, and at the end of his life to prepare so spectacularly for the act of dying, was but one symptom of a morbid state of body and brain and nerves, to which so many of his poems and so many of his letters bear witness. 'Sometimes,' he writes, in a characteristic letter, 'when I find myself transported with jollity and love of company, I hang lead to my heels, and reduce to my thoughts my fortunes, my years, the duties of a man, of a friend, of a husband, of a father, and all the incumbencies of a family; when sadness dejects me, either I countermine it with another sadness, or I kindle squibs about me again, and fly into sportfulness and company.'
At the age of thirty-five he writes from his bed describing every detail of what he frantically calls 'a sickness which I cannot name or describe,' and ends his letter: 'I profess to you truly, that my loathness to give over now, seems to myself an ill sign that I shall write no more.' It was at this time that he wrote the Biathanatos, with its explicit declaration in the preface: 'Whensoever any affliction assails me, methinks I have the keys of my prison in mine own hand, and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword.' Fifteen years later, when one of his most serious illnesses was upon him, and his life in real danger, he notes down all his symptoms as he lies awake night after night, with an extraordinary and, in itself, morbid acuteness. 'I observe the physician with the same diligence as he the disease; I see he fears, and I fear with him; I overtake him, I over-run him in his fear, because he makes his pace slow; I fear the more because he disguises his fear, and I see it with the more sharpness because he would not have me see it.' As he lies in bed, he realises 'I am mine own ghost, and rather affright my beholders than instruct them. They conceive the worst of me now, and yet fear worse; they give me for dead now, and yet wonder how I do when they wake at midnight, and ask how I do to-morrow. Miserable and inhuman posture, where I must practise my lying in the grave by lying still.' This preying upon itself of the brain is but one significant indication of a temperament, neurotic enough indeed, but in which the neurosis is still that of the curious observer, the intellectual casuist, rather than of the artist. A wonderful piece of self-analysis, worthy of St. Augustine, which occurs in one of his funeral sermons, gives poignant expression to what must doubtless have been a common condition of so sensitive a brain. 'I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and His angels together; and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door; I talk on in the same posture of prayer, eyes lifted up, knees bowed down, as though I prayed to God; and if God should ask me when I last thought of God in that prayer, I cannot tell. Sometimes I find that I forgot what I was about; But when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday's pleasures, a fear of to-morrow's dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.' It is this brain, turned inward upon itself, and darting out on every side in purely random excursions, that was responsible, I cannot doubt, for all the contradictions of a career in which the inner logic is not at first apparent.
Donne's career divides itself sharply into three parts: his youth, when we see him a soldier, a traveller, a lover, a poet, unrestrained in all the passionate adventures of youth; then a middle period, in which he is a lawyer and a theologian, seeking knowledge and worldly advancement, without any too restraining scruple as to the means which come to his hand; and then a last stage of saintly living and dying. What then is the link between these successive periods, the principle of development, the real Donne in short? 'He was none of these, or all of these, or more,' says Mr. Gosse. But, surely, he was indeed all of these, and his individuality precisely the growth from one stage to another, the subtle intelligence being always there, working vividly, but in each period working in a different direction. 'I would fain do something, but that I cannot tell what is no wonder.' Everything in Donne seems to me to explain itself in that fundamental uncertainty of aim, and his uncertainty of aim partly by a morbid physical condition. He searches, nothing satisfies him, tries everything, in vain; finding satisfaction at last in the Church, as in a haven of rest. Always it is the curious, insatiable brain searching. And he is always wretchedly aware that he 'can do nothing constantly.'
His three periods, then, are three stages in the search after a way to walk in, something worthy of himself to do. Thus, of his one printed collection of verse he writes: 'Of my Anniversaries, the fault which I acknowledge in myself is to have descended to print anything in verse, which, though it have excuse, even in our times, by example of men, which one would think should as little have done it as I, yet I confess I wonder how I declined to it, and do not pardon myself.' Of his legal studies he writes in the same letter: 'For my purpose of proceeding in the profession of the law, so far as to a title, you may be pleased to correct that imagination where you find it. I ever thought the study of it my best entertainment and pastime, but I have no ambition nor design upon the style.' Until he accepts religion, with all its limitations and encouragements, he has not even sure landmarks on his way. So speculative a brain, able to prove, and proving for its own uneasy satisfaction, that even suicide is 'not so naturally sin, that it may never be otherwise,' could allow itself to be guided by no fixed rules; and to a brain so abstract, conduct must always have seemed of less importance than it does to most other people, and especially conduct which is argument, like the demonstrations on behalf of what seems, on the face of it, a somewhat iniquitous divorce and re-marriage, or like those unmeasured eulogies, both of this 'blest pair of swans,' and of the dead child of a rich father. He admits, in one of his letters, that in his elegies, 'I did best when I had least truth for my subjects'; and of the Anniversaries in honour of little Mistress Drury, 'But for the other part of the imputation of having said so much, my defence is, that my purpose was to say as well as I could; for since I never saw the gentlewoman, I cannot be understood to have bound myself to have spoken the just truth.' He is always the casuist, always mentally impartial in the face of a moral problem, reserving judgment on matters which, after all, seem to him remote from an unimpassioned contemplation of things; until that moment of crisis comes, long after he has become a clergyman, when the death of his wife changed the world for him, and he became, in the words of Walton, 'crucified to the world, and all those vanities, those imaginary pleasures, that are daily acted on that restless stage; and they were as perfectly crucified to him.' From that time to the end of his life he had found what he had all the while been seeking: rest for the restlessness of his mind, in a meditation upon the divine nature; occupation, in being 'ambassador of God,' through the pulpit; himself, as it seemed to him, at his fullest and noblest. It was himself, really, that he had been seeking all the time, conscious at least of that in all the deviations of the way; himself, the ultimate of his curiosities.
And yet, what remains to us out of this life of many purposes, which had found an end satisfying to itself in the Deanery of St. Paul's, is simply a bundle of manuscript verses, which the writer could bring himself neither to print nor to destroy. His first satire speaks contemptuously of 'giddy fantastic poets,' and, when he allowed himself to write poetry, he was resolved to do something different from what anybody had ever done before, not so much from the artist's instinctive desire of originality, as from a kind of haughty, yet really bourgeois, desire to be indebted to nobody. With what care he wrote is confessed in a passage of one of his letters, where, speaking of a sermon, he says: 'For, as Cardinal Cusanus wrote a book, Cribratio Alchorani, I have cribrated, and re-cribrated, and post-cribrated the sermon, and must necessarily say, the King, who hath let fall his eye upon some of my poems, never saw, of mine, a hand, or an eye, or an affection, set down with so much study and diligence, and labour of syllables, as in this sermon I expressed those two points.' But he thought there were other things more important than being a poet, and this very labour of his was partly a sign of it. 'He began,' says Mr. Gosse with truth, 'as if poetry had never been written before.' To the people of his time, to those who came immediately after him, he was the restorer of English poetry.
The Muses' garden, with pedantic weeds O'erspread, was purged by thee,
says Carew, in those memorial verses in which the famous lines occur:
Here lies a king that ruled as he thought fit The universal monarchy of wit.
Shakespeare was living, remember, and it was Elizabethan poetry that Donne set himself to correct. He began with metre, and invented a system of prosody which has many merits, and would have had more in less arbitrary hands. 'Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging,' said Ben Jonson, who was nevertheless his friend and admirer. And yet, if one will but read him always for the sense, for the natural emphasis of what he has to say, there are few lines which will not come out in at all events the way that he meant them to be delivered. The way he meant them to be delivered is not always as beautiful as it is expressive. Donne would be original at all costs, preferring himself to his art. He treated poetry as AEsop's master treated his slave, and broke what he could not bend.
But Donne's novelty of metre is only a part of his too deliberate novelty as a poet. As Mr. Gosse has pointed out, with a self-evident truth which has apparently waited for him to say it, Donne's real position in regard to the poetry of his time was that of a realistic writer, who makes a clean sweep of tradition, and puts everything down in the most modern words and with the help of the most trivial actual images.
To what a cumbersome unwieldiness, And burdensome corpulence my love hath grown,
he will begin a poem on Love's Diet. Of love, as the master of hearts, he declares seriously:
He swallows us and never chaws; By him, as by chain'd shot, whole ranks do die; He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.
And, in his unwise insistence that every metaphor shall be absolutely new, he drags medical and alchemical and legal properties into verse really full of personal passion, producing at times poetry which is a kind of disease of the intellect, a sick offshoot of science. Like most poets of powerful individuality, Donne lost precisely where he gained. That cumulative and crowding and sweeping intellect which builds up his greatest poems into miniature Escurials of poetry, mountainous and four-square to all the winds of the world, 'purges' too often the flowers as well as the weeds out of 'the Muses' garden.' To write poetry as if it had never been written before is to attempt what the greatest poets never attempted. There are only two poets in English literature who thus stand out of the tradition, who are without ancestors, Donne and Browning. Each seems to have certain qualities almost greater than the qualities of the greatest; and yet in each some precipitation of arrogant egoism remains in the crucible, in which the draught has all but run immortally clear.
Donne's quality of passion is unique in English poetry. It is a rapture in which the mind is supreme, a reasonable rapture, and yet carried to a pitch of actual violence. The words themselves rarely count for much, as they do in Crashaw, for instance, where words turn giddy at the height of their ascension. The words mean things, and it is the things that matter. They can be brutal: 'For God's sake, hold your tongue, and let me love!' as if a long, pre-supposed self-repression gave way suddenly, in an outburst. 'Love, any devil else but you,' he begins, in his abrupt leap to the heart of the matter. Or else his exaltation will be grave, tranquil, measureless in assurance.
All kings, and all their favourites, All glory of honours, beauties, wits, The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass, Is elder by a year now than it was When thou and I first one another saw. All other things to their destruction draw, Only our love hath no decay; This no to-morrow hath, no yesterday; Running, it never runs from us away, But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
This lover loves with his whole nature, and so collectedly because reason, in him, is not in conflict with passion, but passion's ally. His senses speak with unparalleled directness, as in those elegies which must remain the model in English of masculine sensual sobriety. He distinguishes the true end of such loving in a forcible, characteristically prosaic image:
Whoever loves, if he do not propose The right true end of love, he's one that goes To sea for nothing but to make him sick.
And he exemplifies every motion and the whole pilgrim's progress of physical love, with a deliberate, triumphant, unluxurious explicitness which 'leaves no doubt,' as we say 'of his intentions,' and can be no more than referred to passingly in modern pages. In a series of hate poems, of which I will quote the finest, he gives expression to a whole region of profound human sentiment which has never been expressed, out of Catullus, with such intolerable truth.
When by thy scorn, O murderess, I am dead, And that thou think'st thee free From all solicitation from me, Then shall my ghost come to thy bed, And thee, feign'd vestal, in worse arms shall see: Then thy sick taper will begin to wink, And he, whose thou art then, being tired before, Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think Thou call'st for more, And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink; And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie A verier ghost than I. What I will say, I will not tell thee now, Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent, I'd rather thou should'st painfully repent, Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.
Yet it is the same lover, and very evidently the same, who winnows all this earthly passion to a fine, fruitful dust, fit to make bread for angels. Ecstatic reason, passion justifying its intoxication by revealing the mysteries that it has come thus to apprehend, speak in the quintessence of Donne's verse with an exalted simplicity which seems to make a new language for love. It is the simplicity of a perfectly abstract geometrical problem, solved by one to whom the rapture of solution is the blossoming of pure reason. Read the poem called The Ecstasy, which seems to anticipate a metaphysical Blake; it is all close reasoning, step by step, and yet is what its title claims for it.
It may be, though I doubt it, that other poets who have written personal verse in English, have known as much of women's hearts and the senses of men, and the interchanges of passionate intercourse between man and woman; but, partly by reason of this very method of saying things, no one has ever rendered so exactly, and with such elaborate subtlety, every mood of the actual passion. It has been done in prose; may one not think of Stendhal, for a certain way he has of turning the whole forces of the mind upon those emotions and sensations which are mostly left to the heat of an unreflective excitement? Donne, as he suffers all the colds and fevers of love, is as much the sufferer and the physician of his disease as we have seen him to be in cases of actual physical sickness. Always detached from himself, even when he is most helplessly the slave of circumstances, he has that frightful faculty of seeing through his own illusions; of having no illusions to the mind, only to the senses. Other poets, with more wisdom towards poetry, give us the beautiful or pathetic results of no matter what creeping or soaring passions. Donne, making a new thing certainly, if not always a thing of beauty, tells us exactly what a man really feels as he makes love to a woman, as he sits beside her husband at table, as he dreams of her in absence, as he scorns himself for loving her, as he hates or despises her for loving him, as he realises all that is stupid in her devotion, and all that is animal in his. 'Nature's lay idiot, I taught thee to love,' he tells her, in a burst of angry contempt, priding himself on his superior craft in the art. And his devotions to her are exquisite, appealing to what is most responsive in woman, beyond those of tenderer poets. A woman cares most for the lover who understands her best, and is least taken in by what it is the method of her tradition to feign. So wearily conscious that she is not the abstract angel of her pretence and of her adorers, she will go far in sheer thankfulness to the man who can see so straight into her heart as to have
found something like a heart, But colours it and corners had; It was not good, it was not bad, It was entire to none, and few had part.
Donne shows women themselves, in delight, anger, or despair; they know that he finds nothing in the world more interesting, and they much more than forgive him for all the ill he says of them. If women most conscious of their sex were ever to read Donne, they would say, He was a great lover; he understood.
And, in the poems of divine love, there is the same quality of mental emotion as in the poems of human love. Donne adores God reasonably, knowing why he adores Him. He renders thanks point by point, celebrates the heavenly perfections with metaphysical precision, and is no vaguer with God than with woman. Donne knew what he believed and why he believed, and is carried into no heat or mist as he tells over the recording rosary of his devotions. His Holy Sonnets are a kind of argument with God; they tell over, and discuss, and resolve, such perplexities of faith and reason as would really occur to a speculative brain like his. Thought crowds in upon thought, in these tightly packed lines, which but rarely admit a splendour of this kind:
At the round earth's imagined corners blow Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise From death, you numberless infinities Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go.
More typical is this too knotted beginning of another sonnet:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Having something very minute and very exact to say, he hates to leave anything out; dreading diffuseness, as he dreads the tame sweetness of an easy melody, he will use only the smallest possible number of words to render his thought; and so, as here, he is too often ingenious rather than felicitous, forgetting that to the poet poetry comes first, and all the rest afterwards.
For the writing of great poetry something more is needed than to be a poet and to have great occasions. Donne was a poet, and he had the passions and the passionate adventures, in body and mind, which make the material for poetry; he was sincere to himself in expressing what he really felt under the burden of strong emotion and sharp sensation. Almost every poem that he wrote is written on a genuine inspiration, a genuine personal inspiration, but most of his poems seem to have been written before that personal inspiration has had time to fuse itself with the poetic inspiration. It is always useful to remember Wordsworth's phrase of 'emotion recollected in tranquillity,' for nothing so well defines that moment of crystallisation in which direct emotion or sensation deviates exquisitely into art. Donne is intent on the passion itself, the thought, the reality; so intent that he is not at the same time, in that half-unconscious way which is the way of the really great poet, equally intent on the form, that both may come to ripeness together. Again it is the heresy of the realist. Just as he drags into his verse words that have had no time to take colour from men's association of them with beauty, so he puts his 'naked thinking heart' into verse as if he were setting forth an argument. He gives us the real thing, as he would have been proud to assure us. But poetry will have nothing to do with real things, until it has translated them into a diviner world. That world may be as closely the pattern of ours as the worlds which Dante saw in hell and purgatory; the language of the poet may be as close to the language of daily speech as the supreme poetic language of Dante. But the personal or human reality and the imaginative or divine reality must be perfectly interfused, or the art will be at fault. Donne is too proud to abandon himself to his own inspiration, to his inspiration as a poet; he would be something more than a voice for deeper yet speechless powers; he would make poetry speak straight. Well, poetry will not speak straight, in the way Donne wished it to, and under the goading that his restless intellect gave it.
He forgot beauty, preferring to it every form of truth, and beauty has revenged itself upon him, glittering miraculously out of many lines in which he wrote humbly, and leaving the darkness of a retreating shadow upon great spaces in which a confident intellect was conscious of shining.
For, though mind be the heaven, where love may sit, Beauty a convenient type may be to figure it,
he writes, in the Valediction to his Book, thus giving formal expression to his heresy. 'The greatest wit, though not the best poet of our nation,' Dryden called him; the greatest intellect, that is, which had expressed itself in poetry. Dryden himself was not always careful to distinguish between what material was fit and what unfit for verse; so that we can now enjoy his masterly prose with more equable pleasure than his verse. But he saw clearly enough the distinction in Donne between intellect and the poetical spirit; that fatal division of two forces, which, had they pulled together instead of apart, might have achieved a result wholly splendid. Without a great intellect no man was ever a great poet; but to possess a great intellect is not even a first step in the direction of becoming a poet at all.
Compare Donne, for instance, with Herrick. Herrick has little enough of the intellect, the passion, the weight and the magnificence of Donne; but, setting out with so much less to carry, he certainly gets first to the goal, and partly by running always in the right direction. The most limited poet in the language, he is the surest. He knows the airs that weave themselves into songs, as he knows the flowers that twine best into garlands. Words come to him in an order which no one will ever alter, and no one will ever forget. Whether they come easily or not is no matter; he knows when they have come right, and they always come right before he lets them go. But Donne is only occasionally sure of his words as airs; he sets them doggedly to the work of saying something, whether or no they step to the beat of the music. Conscious writer though he was, I suppose he was more or less unconscious of his extraordinary felicities, more conscious probably of how they came than of what they were doing. And they come chiefly through a sudden heightening of mood, which brings with it a clearer and a more exalted mode of speech, in its merely accurate expression of itself. Even then I cannot imagine him quite reconciled to beauty, at least actually doing homage to it, but rather as one who receives a gift by the way.
This was a woman young and passionate, Loving the Earth, and loving most to be Where she might be alone with liberty; Loving the beasts, who are compassionate; The homeless moors, her home; the bright elate Winds of the cold dawn; rock and stone and tree; Night, bringing dreams out of eternity; And memory of Death's unforgetting date. She too was unforgetting: has she yet Forgotten that long agony when her breath Too fierce for living fanned the flame of death? Earth for her heather, does she now forget What pity knew not in her love from scorn, And that it was an unjust thing to be born?
The Stoic in woman has been seen once only, and that in the only woman in whom there has been seen the paradox of passion without sensuousness. Emily Bronte lived with an unparalleled energy a life of outward quiet, in a loneliness which she shared only with the moors and with the animals whom she loved. She required no passion-experience to endow her with more than a memory of passion. Passion was alive in her as flame is alive in the earth. And the vehemence of that inner fire fed on itself, and wore out her body before its time, because it had no respite and no outlet. We see her condemned to self-imprisonment, and dying of too much life.
Her poems are few and brief, and nothing more personal has ever been written. A few are as masterly in execution as in conception, and almost all have a direct truth of utterance, which rarely lacks at least the bare beauty of muscle and sinew, of a kind of naked strength and alertness. They are without heat or daylight, the sun is rarely in them, and then 'blood-red'; light comes as starshine, or comes as
hostile light That does not warm but burn.
At times the landscape in this bare, grey, craggy verse, always a landscape of Yorkshire moors, with its touches of stern and tender memory, 'The mute bird sitting on the stone,' 'A little and a lone green lane,' has a quality more thrilling than that of Wordsworth. There is none of his observation, and none of his sense of a benignant 'presence far more deeply interfused'; but there is the voice of the heart's roots, crying out to its home in the earth.
At first this unornamented verse may seem forbidding, may seem even to be ordinary, as an actual moorland may, to those for whom it has no special attraction. But in the verse, as on the moors, there is space, wind, and the smell of the earth; and there is room to be alone, that liberty which this woman cried for when she cried:
Leave the heart that now I bear, And give me liberty.
To be alone was for her to be alone with 'a chainless soul,' which asked of whatever powers might be only 'courage to endure,' constancy not to forget, and the right to leave the door wide open to those visions that came to her out of mere fixed contemplation: 'the God of Visions,' as she called her imagination, 'my slave, my comrade, and my king.' And we know that her courage was flawless, heroic, beyond praise; that she forgot nothing, not even that love for her unspeakable brother, for whom she has expressed in two of her poems a more than masculine magnanimity of pity and contempt; and that at all times she could turn inward to that world within, where her imagination waited for her,
Where thou, and I, and Liberty Have undisputed sovereignty.
Yet even imagination, though 'benignant,' is to her a form of 'phantom bliss' to which she will not trust herself wholly. 'So hopeless is the world without': but is the world within ever quite frankly accepted as a substitute, as a truer reality? She is always on her guard against imagination as against the outer world, whose 'lies' she is resolved shall not 'beguile' her. She has accepted reason as the final arbiter, and desires only to see clearly, to see things as they are. She really believed that
Earth reserves no blessing For the unblest of heaven;
and she had an almost Calvinistic sense of her own condemnation to unhappiness. That being so, she was suspicious of those opportunities of joy which did come to her, or at least resolute not to believe too implicitly in the good messages of the stars, which might be mere dreams, or of the earth, which was only certainly kind in preparing for her that often-thought-of grave. 'No coward soul is mine' is one of her true sayings; but it was with difficulty that she trusted even that message of life which she seemed to discover in death. She has to assure herself of it, again and again: 'Who once lives, never dies!' And that sense of personal identity which aches throughout all her poems is a sense, not of the delight, but of the pain and ineradicable sting of personal identity.
Her poems are all outcries, as her great novel, Wuthering Heights, is one long outcry. A soul on the rack seems to make itself heard at moments, when suffering has grown too acute for silence. Every poem is as if torn from her. Even when she does not write seemingly in her own person, the subjects are such disguises as 'The Prisoner,' 'Honour's Martyr,' 'The Outcast Mother,' echoes of all the miseries and useless rebellions of the earth. She spells over the fading characters in dying faces, unflinchingly, with an austere curiosity; and looks closely into the eyes of shame, not dreading what she may find there. She is always arguing with herself, and the answers are inflexible, the answers of a clear intellect which rebels but accepts defeat. Her doubt is itself an affirmation, her defiance would be an entreaty but for the 'quenchless will' of her pride. She faces every terror, and to her pained apprehension birth and death and life are alike terrible. Only Webster's dirge might have been said over her coffin.
What my soul bore my soul alone Within itself may tell,
she says truthfully; but some of that long endurance of her life, in which exile, the body's weakness, and a sense of some 'divinest anguish' which clung about the world and all things living, had their share, she was able to put into ascetic and passionate verse. It is sad-coloured and desolate, but when gleams of sunlight or of starlight pierce the clouds that hang generally above it, a rare and stormy beauty comes into the bare outlines, quickening them with living splendour.
EDGAR ALLAN POE
The poems of Edgar Allan Poe are the work of a poet who thought persistently about poetry as an art, and would have reduced inspiration to a method. At their best they are perfectly defined by Baudelaire, when he says of Poe's poetry that it is a thing 'deep and shimmering as dreams, mysterious and perfect as crystal.' Not all the poems, few as they are, are flawless. In a few unequal poems we have the only essential poetry which has yet come from America, Walt Whitman's vast poetical nature having remained a nature only, not come to be an art. Because Poe was fantastically inhuman, a conscious artist doing strange things with strange materials, not every one has realised how fine, how rare, was that beauty which this artist brought into the world. It is true that there was in the genius of Poe something meretricious; it is the flaw in his genius; but then he had genius, and Whittier and Bryant and Longfellow and Lowell had only varying degrees of talent. Let us admit, by all means, that a diamond is flawed; but need we compare it with this and that fine specimen of quartz?
Poetry Poe defined as 'the rhythmical creation of beauty'; and the first element of poetry he found in 'the thirst for supernal beauty.' 'It is not,' he repeats, 'the mere appreciation of the beauty before us. It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above.... Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, it struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of time, to anticipate some portions of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to eternity.' The poet, then, 'should limit his endeavours to the creation of novel moods of beauty, in form, in colour, in sound, in sentiment.' Note the emphasis upon novel: to Poe there was no beauty without strangeness. He makes his favourite quotation: '"But," says Lord Bacon (how justly!) "there is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportions." Take away this element of strangeness—of unexpectedness—of novelty—of originality—call it what we will—and all that is ethereal in loveliness is lost at once.... We lose, in short, all that assimilates the beauty of earth with what we dream of the beauty of heaven!' And, as another of the elements of this creation of beauty, there must be indefiniteness. 'I know,' he says, 'that indefiniteness is an element of the true music—I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision—imbue it with any very determinate tone—and you deprive it at once of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character.' Do we not seem to find here an anticipation of Verlaine's 'Art Poetique': 'Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance'? And is not the essential part of the poetical theory of Mallarme and of the French Symbolists enunciated in this definition and commendation of 'that class of composition in which there lies beneath the transparent upper current of meaning an under or suggestive one'? To this 'mystic or secondary impression' he attributes 'the vast force of an accompaniment in music.... With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always a distinct, but an august soul-exalting echo.' Has anything that has been said since on that conception of poetry without which no writer of verse would, I suppose, venture to write verse, been said more subtly or more precisely?
And Poe does not end here, with what may seem generalities. 'Beyond the limits of beauty,' he says of poetry, 'its province does not extend. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. It has no dependence, unless incidentally, upon either Duty or Truth.' And of the poet who said, not meaning anything very different from what Poe meant, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' he says: 'He is the sole British poet who has never erred in his themes.' And, as if still thinking of Keats, he says: 'It is chiefly amid forms of physical loveliness (we use the word forms in its widest sense as embracing modifications of sound and colour) that the soul seeks the realisation of its dreams of Beauty.' And, with more earnest insistence on those limits which he knew to be so much more necessary to guard in poetry than its so-called freedom ('the true artist will avail himself of no "license" whatever'), he states, with categorical precision: 'A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having, for its object, an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music, without the idea, is simply music; the idea, without the music, is prose, from its very definiteness.'
And he would set these careful limits, not only to the province of poetic pleasure, but to the form and length of actual poetry. 'A long poem,' he says, with more truth than most people are quite willing to see, 'is a paradox.' 'I hold,' he says elsewhere, 'that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long poem," is simply a flat contradiction in terms.' And, after defining his ideal, 'a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour,' he says, very justly, that 'within this limit alone can the highest order of true poetry exist.' In another essay he narrows the duration to 'half an hour, at the very utmost'; and wisely. In yet another essay he suggests 'a length of about one hundred lines' as the length most likely to convey that unity of impression, with that intensity of true poetical effect, in which he found the highest merit of poetry. Remember, that of true poetry we have already had his definition; and concede, that a loftier conception of poetry as poetry, poetry as lyric essence, cannot easily be imagined. We are too ready to accept, under the general name of poetry, whatever is written eloquently in metre; to call even Wordsworth's Excursion a poem, and to accept Paradise Lost as throughout a poem. But there are not thirty consecutive lines of essential poetry in the whole of The Excursion, and, while Paradise Lost is crammed with essential poetry, that poetry is not consecutive; but the splendid workmanship comes in to fill up the gaps, and to hold our attention until the poetry returns. Essential poetry is an essence too strong for the general sense; diluted, it can be endured; and, for the most part, the poets dilute it. Poe could conceive of it only in the absolute; and his is the counsel of perfection, if of a perfection almost beyond mortal powers. He sought for it in the verse of all poets; he sought, as few have ever sought, to concentrate it in his own verse; and he has left us at least a few poems, 'ciascun distinto e di fulgore e d'arte,' in which he has found, within his own limits, the absolute.
THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES
With the strange fortune that always accompanied him, in life and in death, Beddoes has not merely escaped the indiscriminate applause which he would never have valued, but he has remained a bibliographical rather than a literary rarity. Few except the people who collect first editions—not, as a rule, the public for a poet—have had the chance of possessing Death's Jest-Book (1850) and the Poems (1851). At last Beddoes has been made accessible, the real story of his death, that suicide so much in the casual and determined manner of one of his own characters.
'The power of the man is immense and irresistible.' Browning's emphatic phrase comes first to the memory, and remains always the most appropriate word of eulogy. Beddoes has been rashly called a great poet. I do not think he was a great poet, but he was, in every sense of the word, an astonishing one. Read these lines, and remember that they were written just at that stagnant period (1821-1826) which comes between the period of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, and the period of Browning and Tennyson. It is a murderer who speaks:
I am unsouled, dishumanised, uncreated; My passions swell and grow like brutes conceived; My feet are fixing roots, and every limb Is billowy and gigantic, till I seem A wild, old, wicked mountain in the air: And the abhorred conscience of this murder, It will grow up a lion, all alone, A mighty-maned, grave-mouthed prodigy, And lair him in my caves: and other thoughts, Some will be snakes, and bears, and savage wolves, And when I lie tremendous in the desert, Or abandoned sea, murderers and idiot men Will come to live upon my rugged sides, Die, and be buried in me. Now it comes; I break, and magnify, and lose my form, And yet I shall be taken for a man, And never be discovered till I die.
How much this has of the old, splendid audacity of the Elizabethans! How unlike timid modern verse! Beddoes is always large, impressive; the greatness of his aim gives him a certain claim on respectful consideration. That his talent achieved itself, or ever could have achieved itself, he himself would have been the last to affirm. But he is a monumental failure, more interesting than many facile triumphs.
The one important work which Beddoes actually completed, Death's Jest-Book, is nominally a drama in five acts. All the rest of his work, except a few lyrics and occasional poems, is also nominally dramatic. But there never was anything less dramatic in substance than this mass of admirable poetry in dialogue. Beddoes' genius was essentially lyrical: he had imagination, the gift of style, the mastery of rhythm, a strange choiceness and curiosity of phrase. But of really dramatic power he had nothing. He could neither conceive a coherent plot, nor develop a credible situation. He had no grasp on human nature, he had no conception of what character might be in men and women, he had no faculty of expressing emotion convincingly. Constantly you find the most beautiful poetry where it is absolutely inappropriate, but never do you find one of those brief and memorable phrases, words from the heart, for which one would give much beautiful poetry. To take one instance: an Arab slave wishes to say that he has caught sight of a sail nearing the coast. And this is how he says it:
I looked abroad upon the wide old world, And in the sky and sea, through the same clouds, The same stars saw I glistening, and nought else, And as my soul sighed unto the world's soul, Far in the north a wind blackened the waters, And, after that creating breath was still, A dark speck sat on the sky's edge: as watching Upon the heaven-girt border of my mind The first faint thought of a great deed arise, With force and fascination I drew on The wished sight, and my hope seemed to stamp Its shade upon it. Not yet is it clear What, or from whom, the vessel.
In scenes which aim at being passionate one sees the same inability to be natural. What we get is always literature; it is never less than that, nor more than that. It is never frank, uncompromising nature. The fact is, that Beddoes wrote from the head, collectively, and without emotion, or without inspiration, save in literature. All Beddoes' characters speak precisely the same language, express the same desires; all in the same way startle us by their ghostly remoteness from flesh and blood. 'Man is tired of being merely human,' Siegfried says, in Death's Jest-Book, and Beddoes may be said to have grown tired of humanity before he ever came to understand it.
Looked at from the normal standpoint, Beddoes' idea of the drama was something wildly amateurish. As a practical playwright he would be beneath contempt; but what he aimed at was something peculiar to himself, a sort of spectral dramatic fantasia. He would have admitted his obligations to Webster and Tourneur, to all the macabre Elizabethan work; he would have admitted that his foundations were based on literature, not on life; but he would have claimed, and claimed justly, that he had produced, out of many strange elements, something which has a place apart in English poetry. Death's Jest-Book is perhaps the most morbid poem in our literature. There is not a page without its sad, grotesque, gay, or abhorrent imagery of the tomb. A slave cannot say that a lady is asleep without turning it into a parable of death:
Sleeping, or feigning sleep, Well done of her: 'tis trying on a garb Which she must wear, sooner or later, long: 'Tis but a warmer, lighter death.
Not Baudelaire was more amorous of corruption; not Poe was more spellbound by the scent of graveyard earth. So Beddoes has written a new Dance of Death, in poetry; has become the chronicler of the praise and ridicule of Death. 'Tired of being merely human,' he has peopled a play with confessed phantoms. It is natural that these eloquent speakers should pass us by with their words, that they should fail to move us by their sorrows or their hates: they are not intended to be human, except, indeed, in the wizard humanity of Death.
I have said already that the genius of Beddoes is not dramatic, but lyrical. What was really most spontaneous in him (nothing was quite spontaneous) was the impulse of song-writing. And it seems to me that he is really most successful in sweet and graceful lyrics like this Dirge, so much more than 'half in love with easeful death.'
If thou wilt ease thine heart Of love and all its smart, Then sleep, dear, sleep; And not a sorrow Hang any tear on your eyelashes; Lie still and deep, Sad soul, until the sea-wave washes The rim o' the sun to-morrow, In eastern sky.
But wilt thou cure thine heart Of love and all its smart, Then die, dear, die; 'Tis deeper, sweeter, Than on a rose-bank to lie dreaming With folded eye; And then alone, amid the beaming Of love's stars, thou'lt meet her In eastern sky.
A beautiful lyrist, a writer of charming, morbid, and magnificent poetry in dramatic form, Beddoes will survive to students, not to readers, of English poetry, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Ebenezer Jones and Charles Wells. Charles Wells was certainly more of a dramatist, a writer of more sustained and Shakespearean blank verse; Ebenezer Jones had certainly a more personal passion to express in his rough and tumultuous way; but Beddoes, not less certainly, had more of actual poetical genius than either. And in the end only one thing counts: actual poetical genius.
Salammbo is an attempt, as Flaubert, himself his best critic, has told us, to 'perpetuate a mirage by applying to antiquity the methods of the modern novel.' By the modern novel he means the novel as he had reconstructed it; he means Madame Bovary. That perfect book is perfect because Flaubert had, for once, found exactly the subject suited to his method, had made his method and his subject one. On his scientific side Flaubert is a realist, but there is another, perhaps a more intimately personal side, on which he is lyrical, lyrical in a large, sweeping way. The lyric poet in him made La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, the analyst made L'Education Sentimentale; but in Madame Bovary we find the analyst and the lyric poet in equilibrium. It is the history of a woman, as carefully observed as any story that has ever been written, and observed in surroundings of the most ordinary kind. But Flaubert finds the romantic material which he loved, the materials of beauty, in precisely that temperament which he studies so patiently and so cruelly. Madame Bovary is a little woman, half vulgar and half hysterical, incapable of a fine passion; but her trivial desires, her futile aspirations after second-rate pleasures and second-hand ideals, give to Flaubert all that he wants: the opportunity to create beauty out of reality. What is common in the imagination of Madame Bovary becomes exquisite in Flaubert's rendering of it, and by that counterpoise of a commonness in the subject he is saved from any vague ascents of rhetoric in his rendering of it.
In writing Salammbo Flaubert set himself to renew the historical novel, as he had renewed the novel of manners. He would have admitted, doubtless, that perfect success in the historical novel is impossible, by the nature of the case. We are at best only half conscious of the reality of the things about us, only able to translate them approximately into any form of art. How much is left over, in the closest transcription of a mere line of houses in a street, of a passing steamer, of one's next-door neighbour, of the point of view of a foreigner looking along Piccadilly, of one's own state of mind, moment by moment, as one walks from Oxford Circus to the Marble Arch? Think, then, of the attempt to reconstruct no matter what period of the past, to distinguish the difference in the aspect of a world perhaps bossed with castles and ridged with ramparts, to two individualities encased within chain-armour! Flaubert chose his antiquity wisely: a period of which we know too little to confuse us, a city of which no stone is left on another, the minds of Barbarians who have left us no psychological documents. 'Be sure I have made no fantastic Carthage,' he says proudly, pointing to his documents; Ammianus Marcellinus, who has furnished him with 'the exact form of a door'; the Bible and Theophrastus, from which he obtains his perfumes and his precious stones; Gresenius, from whom he gets his Punic names; the Memoires de l'Academie des Inscriptions. 'As for the temple of Tanit, I am sure of having reconstructed it as it was, with the treatise of the Syrian Goddess, with the medals of the Duc de Luynes, with what is known of the temple at Jerusalem, with a passage of St. Jerome, quoted by Seldon (De Diis Syriis), with the plan of the temple of Gozzo, which is quite Carthaginian, and best of all, with the ruins of the temple of Thugga, which I have seen myself, with my own eyes, and of which no traveller or antiquarian, so far as I know, has ever spoken.' But that, after all, as he admits (when, that is, he has proved point by point his minute accuracy to all that is known of ancient Carthage, his faithfulness to every indication which can serve for his guidance, his patience in grouping rather than his daring in the invention of action and details), that is not the question. 'I care little enough for archaeology! If the colour is not uniform, if the details are out of keeping, if the manners do not spring from the religion and the actions from the passions, if the characters are not consistent, if the costumes are not appropriate to the habits and the architecture to the climate, if, in a word, there is not harmony, I am in error. If not, no.'
And there, precisely, is the definition of the one merit which can give a historical novel the right to exist, and at the same time a definition of the merit which sets Salammbo above all other historical novels. Everything in the book is strange, some of it might easily be bewildering, some revolting; but all is in harmony. The harmony is like that of Eastern music, not immediately conveying its charm, or even the secret of its measure, to Western ears; but a monotony coiling perpetually upon itself, after a severe law of its own. Or rather, it is like a fresco, painted gravely in hard, definite colours, firmly detached from a background of burning sky; a procession of Barbarians, each in the costume of his country, passes across the wall; there are battles, in which elephants fight with men; an army besieges a great city, or rots to death in a defile between mountains; the ground is paved with dead men; crosses, each bearing its living burden, stand against the sky; a few figures of men and women appear again and again, expressing by their gestures the soul of the story.
Flaubert himself has pointed, with his unerring self-criticism, to the main defect of his book: 'The pedestal is too large for the statue.' There should have been, as he says, a hundred pages more about Salammbo. He declares: 'There is not in my book an isolated or gratuitous description; all are useful to my characters, and have an influence, near or remote, on the action.' This is true, and yet, all the same, the pedestal is too large for the statue. Salammbo, 'always surrounded with grave and exquisite things,' has something of the somnambulism which enters into the heroism of Judith; she has a hieratic beauty, and a consciousness as pale and vague as the moon whom she worships. She passes before us, 'her body saturated with perfumes,' encrusted with jewels like an idol, her head turreted with violet hair, the gold chain tinkling between her ankles; and is hardly more than an attitude, a fixed gesture, like the Eastern women whom one sees passing, with oblique eyes and mouths painted into smiles, their faces curiously traced into a work of art, in the languid movements of a pantomimic dance. The soul behind those eyes? the temperament under that at times almost terrifying mask? Salammbo is as inarticulate for us as the serpent, to whose drowsy beauty, capable of such sudden awakenings, hers seems half akin; they move before us in a kind of hieratic pantomime, a coloured, expressive thing, signifying nothing. Matho, maddened with love, 'in an invincible stupor, like those who have drunk some draught of which they are to die,' has the same somnambulistic life; the prey of Venus, he has an almost literal insanity, which, as Flaubert reminds us, is true to the ancient view of that passion. He is the only quite vivid person in the book, and he lives with the intensity of a wild beast, a life 'blinded alike' from every inner and outer interruption to one or two fixed ideas. The others have their places in the picture, fall into their attitudes naturally, remain so many coloured outlines for us. The illusion is perfect; these people may not be the real people of history, but at least they have no self-consciousness, no Christian tinge in their minds.
'The metaphors are few, the epithets definite,' Flaubert tells us, of his style in this book, where, as he says, he has sacrificed less 'to the amplitude of the phrase and to the period,' than in Madame Bovary. The movement here is in briefer steps, with a more earnest gravity, without any of the engaging weakness of adjectives. The style is never archaic, it is absolutely simple, the precise word being put always for the precise thing; but it obtains a dignity, a historical remoteness, by the large seriousness of its manner, the absence of modern ways of thought, which, in Madame Bovary, bring with them an instinctively modern cadence.
Salammbo is written with the severity of history, but Flaubert notes every detail visually, as a painter notes the details of natural things. A slave is being flogged under a tree: Flaubert notes the movement of the thong as it flies, and tells us: 'The thongs, as they whistled through the air, sent the bark of the plane trees flying.' Before the battle of the Macar, the Barbarians are awaiting the approach of the Carthaginian army. First 'the Barbarians were surprised to see the ground undulate in the distance.' Clouds of dust rise and whirl over the desert, through which are seen glimpses of horns, and, as it seems, wings. Are they bulls or birds, or a mirage of the desert? The Barbarians watch intently. 'At last they made out several transverse bars, bristling with uniform points. The bars became denser, larger; dark mounds swayed from side to side; suddenly square bushes came into view; they were elephants and lances. A single shout, "The Carthaginians!" arose.' Observe how all that is seen, as if the eyes, unaided by the intelligence, had found out everything for themselves, taking in one indication after another, instinctively. Flaubert puts himself in the place of his characters, not so much to think for them as to see for them.
Compare the style of Flaubert in each of his books, and you will find that each book has its own rhythm, perfectly appropriate to its subject-matter. That style, which has almost every merit and hardly a fault, becomes what it is by a process very different from that of most writers careful of form. Read Chateaubriand, Gautier, even Baudelaire, and you will find that the aim of these writers has been to construct a style which shall be adaptable to every occasion, but without structural change; the cadence is always the same. The most exquisite word-painting of Gautier can be translated rhythm for rhythm into English, without difficulty; once you have mastered the tune, you have merely to go on; every verse will be the same. But Flaubert is so difficult to translate because he has no fixed rhythm; his prose keeps step with no regular march-music. He invents the rhythm of every sentence, he changes his cadence with every mood or for the convenience of every fact. He has no theory of beauty in form apart from what it expresses. For him form is a living thing, the physical body of thought, which it clothes and interprets. 'If I call stones blue, it is because blue is the precise word, believe me,' he replies to Sainte-Beuve's criticism. Beauty comes into his words from the precision with which they express definite things, definite ideas, definite sensations. And in his book, where the material is so hard, apparently so unmalleable, it is a beauty of sheer exactitude which fills it from end to end, a beauty of measure and order, seen equally in the departure of the doves of Carthage, at the time of their flight into Sicily, and in the lions feasting on the corpses of the Barbarians, in the defile between the mountains.
GEORGE MEREDITH AS A POET
Meredith has always suffered from the curse of too much ability. He has both genius and talent, but the talent, instead of acting as a counterpoise to the genius, blows it yet more windily about the air. He has almost all the qualities of a great writer, but some perverse spirit in his blood has mixed them to their mutual undoing. When he writes prose, the prose seems always about to burst into poetry; when he writes verse, the verse seems always about to sink into prose. He thinks in flashes, and writes in shorthand. He has an intellectual passion for words, but he has never been able to accustom his mind to the slowness of their service; he tosses them about the page in his anger, tearing them open and gutting them with a savage pleasure. He has so fastidious a fear of dirtying his hands with what other hands have touched that he makes the language over again, so as to avoid writing a sentence or a line as any one else could have written it. His hatred of the commonplace becomes a mania, and it is by his head-long hunt after the best that he has lost by the way its useful enemy, good. In prose he would have every sentence shine, in verse he would have every line sparkle; like a lady who puts on all her jewellery at once, immediately after breakfast. As his own brain never rests, he does not realise that there are other brains which feel fatigue; and as his own taste is for what is hard, ringing, showy, drenched with light, he does not leave any cool shadows to be a home for gentle sounds, in the whole of his work. His books are like picture galleries, in which every inch of wall is covered, and picture screams at picture across its narrow division of frame. Almost every picture is good, but each suffers from its context. As time goes on, Meredith's mannerisms have grown rigid, like old bones. Exceptions have become rules, experiments have been accepted for solutions.
In Meredith's earliest verse there is a certain harshness, which seems to come from a too urgent desire to be at once concise and explicit. Modern Love, published in 1862, remains Meredith's masterpiece in poetry, and it will always remain, beside certain things of Donne and of Browning, an astonishing feat in the vivisection of the heart in verse. It is packed with imagination, but with imagination of so nakedly human a kind that there is hardly an ornament, hardly an image, in the verse: it is like scraps of broken, of heart-broken, talk, overheard and jotted down at random, hardly suggesting a story, but burning into one like the touch of a corroding acid. These cruel and self-torturing lovers have no illusions, and their 'tragic hints' are like a fine, pained mockery of love itself, as they struggle open-eyed against the blindness of passion. The poem laughs while it cries, with a double-mindedness more constant than that of Heine; with, at times, an acuteness of sensation carried to the point of agony at which Othello sweats words like these:
O thou weed, Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!
Meredith has written nothing more like Modern Love, and for twenty years after the publication of the volume containing it he published no other volume of verse. In 1883 appeared Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth; in 1887 Poems and Ballads of Tragic Life; and, in 1888, A Reading of Earth, to which A Reading of Life is a sort of companion volume. The main part of this work is a kind of nature-poetry unlike any other nature-poetry; but there are several groups which must be distinguished from it. One group contains Cassandra, from the volume of 1862, The Nuptials of Attila, The Song of Theodolinda, from the volume of 1887. There is something fierce, savage, convulsive, in the passion which informs these poems; a note sounded in our days by no other poet. The words rush rattling on one another, like the clashing of spears or the ring of iron on iron in a day of old-world battle. The lines are javelins, consonanted lines full of force and fury, as if sung or played by a northern skald harping on a field of slain. There is another group of romantic ballads, containing the early Margaret's Bridal Eve, and the later Arch-duchess Anne and The Young Princess. There are also the humorous and pathetic studies in Roadside Philosophers and the like, in which, forty years ago, Meredith anticipated, with the dignity of a poet, the vernacular studies of others. And, finally, there is a section containing poems of impassioned meditation, beginning with the lofty and sustained ode to France, December 1870, and ending with the volcanic volume of Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History, published in 1900.
But it is in the poems of nature that Meredith is most consistent to an attitude, most himself as he would have himself. There is in them an almost pagan sense of the nearness and intimacy of the awful and benignant powers of nature; but this sense, once sufficient for the making of poetry, is interpenetrated, in this modern poet, by an almost scientific consciousness of the processes of evolution. Earth seen through a brain, not a temperament, it might be defined; and it would be possible to gather a complete philosophy of life from these poems, in which, though 'the joy of earth' is sung, it is sung with the wise, collected ecstasy of Melampus, not with the irresponsible ecstasy of the Maenads. It is not what Browning calls 'the wild joy of living,' but the strenuous joy of living in perfect accordance with nature, with the sanity of animals who have climbed to reason, and are content to be guided by it. It is a philosophy which may well be contrasted with the transcendental theories of one with whom Meredith may otherwise be compared, Emerson. Both, in different ways, have tried to make poetry out of the brain, forgetting that poetry draws nourishment from other soil, and dies in the brain as in a vacuum. Both have taken the abstract, not the concrete, for their province; both have tortured words in the cause of ideas, both have had so much to say that they have had little time left over for singing.
Meredith has never been a clear writer in verse; Modern Love requires reading and re-reading; but at one time he had a somewhat exasperating semblance of lucidity, which still lurks mockingly about his work. A freshman who heard Mallarme lecture at Oxford said when he came away: 'I understood every word, but not a single sentence.' Meredith is sometimes equally tantalising. The meaning seems to be there, just beyond one, clearly visible on the other side of some hard transparency through which there is no passage. Have you ever seen a cat pawing at the glass from the other side of a window? It paws and paws, turns its head to the right, turns its head to the left, walks to and fro, sniffing at the corner of every pane; its claws screech on the glass, in a helpless endeavour to get through to what it sees before it; it gives up at last, in an evident bewilderment. That is how one figures the reader of Meredith's later verse. It is not merely that Meredith's meaning is not obvious at a glance, it is, when obscure, ugly in its obscurity, not beautiful. There is not an uglier line in the English language than:
Or is't the widowed's dream of her new mate.
It is almost impossible to say it at all. Often Meredith wishes to be too concise, and squeezes his thoughts together like this:
and the totterer Earth detests, Love shuns, grim logic screws in grasp, is he.
In his desire to cram a separate sentence into every line, he writes such lines as:
Look I once back, a broken pinion I,
He thinks differently from other people, and not only more quickly; and his mind works in a kind of double process. Take, for instance, this phrase:
Ravenous all the line for speed.
An image occurs to him, the image of a runner, who, as we say, 'devours' the ground. Thereupon he translates this image into his own dialect, where it becomes intensely vivid if it can be caught in passing; only, to catch it in passing, you must go through two mental processes at once. That is why he cannot be read aloud. In a poem where every line is on the pattern of the line I have quoted, every line has to be unriddled; and no brain works fast enough to catch so many separate meanings, and to translate as it goes.
Meredith has half the making of a great artist in verse. He has harmony without melody; he invents and executes marvellous variations upon verse; he has footed the tight-rope of the galliambic measure and the swaying planks of various trochaic experiments; but his resolve to astonish is stronger than his desire to charm, and he lets technical skill carry him into such excesses of ugliness in verse as technical skill carried Liszt, and sometimes Berlioz, in music. Meredith has written lines which any poet who ever wrote in English would be proud of; he has also written lines as tuneless as a deal table and as rasping as a file. His ear for the sweep and texture of harmonies, for the building up of rhythmical structure, is not seconded by an ear for the delicacies of sound in words or in tunes. In one of the finest of his poems, the Hymn to Colour, he can begin one stanza with this ample magnificence:
Look now where Colour, the soul's bridegroom, makes The house of heaven splendid for the bride;
and can end another stanza thus lumpishly:
With thee, O fount of the Untimed! to lead, Drink they of thee, thee eyeing, they unaged Shall on through brave wars waged.
Meredith is not satisfied with English verse as it is; he persists in trying to make it into something wholly different, and these eccentricities come partly from certain theories. He speaks in one place of
A soft compulsion on terrene By heavenly,
which is not English, but a misapplication of the jargon of science. In another place he speaks of
The posts that named the swallowed mile,
which is a kind of pedantry. He chooses harsh words by preference, liking unusual or insoluble rhymes, like 'haps' and 'yaps,' 'thick' and 'sick,' 'skin' and 'kin,' 'banks' and 'thanks,' 'skims' and 'limbs.' Two lines from The Woods of Westermain, published in 1883 in the Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, sum up in themselves the whole theory:
Life, the small self-dragon ramped, Thrill for service to be stamped.
Here every word is harsh, prickly, hard of sense; the rhymes come like buffets in the face. It is possible that Meredith has more or less consciously imitated the French practice in the matter of rhymes, for in France rarity of rhyme is sought as eagerly as in England it is avoided. Rhyme in French poetry is an important part of the art of verse; in English poetry, except to some extent at the time of Pope, it has been accepted as a thing rather to be disguised than accentuated. There is something a little barbarous in rhyme itself, with its mnemonic click of emphasis, and the skill of the most skilful English poets has always been shown in the softening of that click, in reducing it to the inarticulate answer of an echo. Meredith hammers out his rhymes on the anvil on which he has forged his clanging and rigid-jointed words. His verse moves in plate-armour, 'terrible as an army with banners.'
To Meredith poetry has come to be a kind of imaginative logic, and almost the whole of his later work is a reasoning in verse. He reasons, not always clearly to the eye, and never satisfyingly to the ear, but with a fiery intelligence which has more passion than most other poets put into frankly emotional verse. He reasons in pictures, every line having its imagery, and he uses pictorial words to express abstract ideas. Disdaining the common subjects of poetry, as he disdains common rhythms, common rhymes, and common language, he does much by his enormous vitality to give human warmth to arguments concerning humanity. He does much, though he attempts the impossible. His poetry is always what Rossetti called 'amusing'; it has, in other words, what Baudelaire called 'the supreme literary grace, energy'; but with what relief does one not lay down this Reading of Life and take up the Modern Love of forty years ago, in which life speaks! Meredith has always been in wholesome revolt against convention, against every deadening limitation of art, but he sometimes carries revolt to the point of anarchy. In finding new subjects and new forms for verse he is often throwing away the gold and gathering up the ore. In taking for his foundation the stone which the builders rejected he is sometimes only giving a proof of their wisdom in rejecting it.
ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE
It is forty-four years since the publication of Swinburne's first volume, and it is scarcely to the credit of the English public that we should have had to wait so long for a collected edition of the poems of one of the greatest poets of this or any country. 'It is nothing to me,' Swinburne tells us, with a delicate precision in his pride, 'that what I write should find immediate or general acceptance.' And indeed 'immediate' it can scarcely be said to have been; 'general' it is hardly likely ever to be. Swinburne has always been a poet writing for poets, or for those rare lovers of poetry who ask for poetry, and nothing more or less, in a poet. Such writers can never be really popular, any more than gold without alloy can ever really be turned to practical uses. Think of how extremely little the poetical merit of his poetry had to do with the immense success of Byron; think how very much besides poetical merit contributed to the surprising reputation of Tennyson. There was a time when the first series of Poems and Ballads was read for what seemed startling in its subject-matter; but that time has long since passed, and it is not probable that any reviewer of the new edition now reprinted verbatim from the edition of 1866 will so much as allude to the timid shrieks which went up from the reviewers of that year, except perhaps as one of the curiosities of literature.
A poet is always interesting and instructive when he talks about himself, and Swinburne, in his dedicatory epistle to his 'best and dearest friend,' Mr. Watts-Dunton, who has been the finest, the surest, and the subtlest critic of poetry now living, talks about himself, or rather about his work, with a proud and simple frankness. It is not only interesting, but of considerable critical significance, to know that, among his plays, Swinburne prefers Mary Stuart, and, among his lyrical poems, the ode on Athens and the ode on the Armada. 'By the test of these two poems,' he tells us, 'I am content that my claims should be decided and my station determined as a lyric poet in the higher sense of the term; a craftsman in the most ambitious line of his art that ever aroused or can arouse the emulous aspiration of his kind.'
In one sense a poet is always the most valuable critic of his own work; in another sense his opinion is almost valueless. He knows, better than any one else, what he wanted to do, and he knows, better than any one else, how nearly he has done it. In judging his own technical skill in the accomplishment of his aim, it is easy for him to be absolutely unbiased, technique being a thing wholly apart from one's self, an acquirement. But, in a poem, the way it is done is by no means everything; something else, the vital element in it, the quality of inspiration, as we rightly call it, has to be determined. Of this the poet is rarely a judge. To him it is a part of himself, and he is scarcely more capable of questioning its validity than he is of questioning his own intentions. To him it is enough that it is his. Conscious, as he may rightly be, of genius, how can he discriminate, in his own work, between the presence or the absence of that genius, which, though it means everything, may be absent in a production technically faultless, or present in a production less strictly achieved according to rule? Swinburne, it is evident, grudges some of the fame which has set Atalanta in Calydon higher in general favour than Erechtheus, and, though he is perfectly right in every reason which he gives for setting Erechtheus above Atalanta in Calydon, the fact remains that there is something in the latter which is not, in anything like the same degree, in the former: a certain spontaneity, a prodigal wealth of inspiration. In exactly the same way, while the ode on Athens and the ode on the Armada are alike magnificent as achievements, there is no more likelihood of Swinburne going down to posterity as the writer of those two splendid poems than there is of Coleridge, to take Swinburne's own instance, being remembered as the writer of the ode to France rather than as the writer of the ode on Dejection. The ode to France is a product of the finest poetical rhetoric; the ode on Dejection is a growth of the profoundest poetical genius.
Another point on which Swinburne takes for granted what is perhaps his highest endowment as a poet, while dwelling with fine enthusiasm on the 'entire and absolute sincerity' of a whole section of poems in which the sincerity itself might well have been taken for granted, is that marvellous metrical inventiveness which is without parallel in English or perhaps in any other literature. 'A writer conscious of any natural command over the musical resources of his language,' says Swinburne, 'can hardly fail to take such pleasure in the enjoyment of this gift or instinct as the greatest writer and the greatest versifier of our age must have felt at its highest possible degree when composing a musical exercise of such incomparable scope and fulness as Les Djinns.' In metrical inventiveness Swinburne is as much Victor Hugo's superior as the English language is superior to the French in metrical capability. His music has never the sudden bird's flight, the thrill, pause, and unaccountable ecstasy of the very finest lyrics of Blake or of Coleridge; one never wholly forgets the artist in the utterance. But where he is incomparable is in an 'arduous fulness' of intricate harmony, around which the waves of melody flow, foam and scatter like the waves of the sea about a rock. No poet has ever loved or praised the sea as Swinburne has loved and praised it; and to no poet has it been given to create music with words in so literal an analogy with the inflexible and vital rhythmical science of the sea.
In his reference to the 'clatter aroused' by the first publication of the wonderful volume now reprinted, the first series of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne has said with tact, precision, and finality all that need ever be said on the subject. He records, with a touch of not unkindly humour, his own 'deep diversion of collating and comparing the variously inaccurate verdicts of the scornful or mournful censors who insisted on regarding all the studies of passion or sensation attempted or achieved in it as either confessions of positive fact or excursions of absolute fancy.' And, admitting that there was work in it of both kinds, he claims, with perfect justice, that 'if the two kinds cannot be distinguished, it is surely rather a credit than a discredit to an artist whose medium or material has more in common with a musician's than with a sculptor's.' Rarely has the prying ignorance of ordinary criticism been more absurdly evident than in the criticisms on Poems and Ballads, in which the question as to whether these poems were or were not the record of personal experience was debated with as much solemn fury as if it really mattered in the very least. When a poem has once been written, of what consequence is it to anybody whether it was inspired by a line of Sappho or by a lady living round the corner? There may be theoretical preferences, and these may be rationally enough argued, as to whether one should work from life or from memory or from imagination. But, the poem once written, only one question remains: is it a good or a bad poem? A poem of Coleridge or of Wordsworth is neither better nor worse because it came to the one in a dream and to the other in 'a storm, worse if possible, in which the pony could (or would) only make his way slantwise.' The knowledge of the circumstances or the antecedents of composition is, no doubt, as gratifying to human curiosity as the personal paragraphs in the newspapers; it can hardly be of much greater importance.
A passage in Swinburne's dedicatory epistle which was well worth saying, a passage which comes with doubled force from a poet who is also a scholar, is that on books which are living things: 'Marlowe and Shakespeare, AEschylus and Sappho, do not for us live only on the dusty shelves of libraries.' To Swinburne, as he says, the distinction between books and life is but a 'dullard's distinction,' and it may justly be said of him that it is with an equal instinct and an equal enthusiasm that he is drawn to whatever in nature, in men, in books, or in ideas is great, noble, and heroic. The old name of Laudi, which has lately been revived by d'Annunzio, might be given to the larger part of Swinburne's lyric verse: it is filled by a great praising of the universe. To the prose-minded reader who reads verse in the intervals of newspaper and business there must be an actual fatigue in merely listening to so unintermittent a hymn of thanksgiving. Here is a poet, he must say, who is without any moderation at all; birds at dawn, praising light, are not more troublesome to a sleeper.
Reading the earlier and the later Swinburne on a high rock around which the sea is washing, one is struck by the way in which these cadences, in their unending, ever-varying flow, seem to harmonise with the rhythm of the sea. Here one finds, at least, and it is a great thing to find, a rhythm inherent in nature. A mean, or merely bookish, rhythm is rebuked by the sea, as a trivial or insincere thought is rebuked by the stars. 'We are what suns and winds and waters make us,' as Landor knew: the whole essence of Swinburne seems to be made by the rush and soft flowing impetus of the sea. The sea has passed into his blood like a passion and into his verse like a transfiguring element. It is actually the last word of many of his poems, and it is the first and last word of his poetry.
He does not make pictures, for he does not see the visible world without an emotion which troubles his sight. He sees as through a cloud of rapture. Sight is to him a transfiguring thrill, and his record of things seen is clouded over with shining words and broken into little separate shafts and splinters of light. He has still, undimmed, the child's awakenings to wonder, love, reverence, the sense of beauty in every sensation. He has the essentially lyric quality, joy, in almost unparalleled abundance. There is for him no tedium in things, because, to his sense, books catch up and continue the delights of nature, and with books and nature he has all that he needs for a continual inner communing.
In this new book there are poems of nature, poems of the sea, the lake, the high oaks, the hawthorn, a rosary, Northumberland; and there are poems of books, poems about Burns, Christina Rossetti, Rabelais, Dumas, and about Shakespeare and his circle. In all the poems about books in this volume there is excellent characterisation, excellent criticism, and in the ode to Burns a very notable discrimination of the greater Burns, not the Burns of the love-poems but the fighter, the satirist, the poet of strenuous laughter.
But love and wine were moon and sun For many a fame long since undone, And sorrow and joy have lost and won By stormy turns As many a singer's soul, if none More bright than Burns.
And sweeter far in grief and mirth Have songs as glad and sad of birth Found voice to speak of wealth or dearth In joy of life: But never song took fire from earth More strong for strife.
* * * * *
Above the storms of praise and blame That blur with mist his lustrous name, His thunderous laughter went and came, And lives and flies; The war that follows on the flame When lightning dies.
Here the homage is given with splendid energy, but with fine justice. There are other poems of homage in this book, along with denunciations, as there are on so many pages of the Songs before Sunrise and the Songs of Two Nations, in which the effect is far less convincing, as it is far less clear. Whether Mazzini or Nelson be praised, Napoleon III. or Gladstone be buffeted, little distinction, save of degree, can be discerned between the one and the other. The hate poems, it must be admitted, are more interesting, partly because they are more distinguishable, than the poems of adoration; for hate seizes upon the lineaments which love glorifies willingly out of recognition. There was a finely ferocious energy in the Dirae ending with The Descent into Hell of 9th January 1873, and there is a good swinging and slashing vigour in The Commonweal of 1886. Why is it that this deeply felt political verse, like so much of the political verse of the Songs before Sunrise, does not satisfy the ear or the mind like the early love poetry or the later nature poetry? Is it not that one distinguishes only a voice, not a personality behind the voice? Speech needs weight, though song only needs wings.
I set the trumpet to my lips and blow,
said Swinburne in the Songs before Sunrise, when he was the trumpeter of Mazzini.
And yet, it must be remembered, Swinburne has always meant exactly what he has said, and this fact points an amusing contrast between the attitude of the critics thirty years ago towards work which was then new and their attitude now towards the same work when it is thirty years old. There is, in the Songs before Sunrise, an arraignment of Christianity as deliberate as Leconte de Lisle's, as wholesale as Nietzsche's; in the Poems and Ballads, a learned sensuality without parallel in English poetry; and the critics, or the descendants of the critics, who, when these poems first appeared, could see nothing but these accidental qualities of substance, are now, thanks merely to the triumph of time, to the ease with which time forgets and forgives, able to take all such things for granted, and to acknowledge the genuine and essential qualities of lyric exaltation and generous love of liberty by which the poems exist, and have a right to exist, as poems. But when we are told that Before a Crucifix is a poem fundamentally reverent towards Christianity, and that Anactoria is an ascetic experiment in scholarship, a learned attempt at the reconstruction of the order of Sappho, it is difficult not to wonder with what kind of smile the writer of these poems reflects anew over the curiosities of criticism. I have taken the new book and the old book together, because there is surprisingly little difference between the form and manner of the old poems and the new. The contents of A Channel Passage are unusually varied in subject, and the longest poem, The Altar of Righteousness, a marvellous piece of rhythmical architecture, is unusually varied in form. Technically the whole book shows Swinburne at his best; if, indeed, he may ever be said not to be at his best, technically. Is there any other instance in our literature of a perfection of technique so unerring, so uniform, that it becomes actually fatiguing? It has often foolishly been said that the dazzling brilliance of Swinburne's form is apt to disguise a certain thinness or poverty of substance. It seems to me, on the contrary, that we are often in danger of overlooking the imaginative subtlety of phrases and epithets which are presented to us and withdrawn from us in a flash, on the turn of a wave. Most poets present us with their best effects deliberately, giving them as weighty an accent as they can; Swinburne scatters them by the way. Take, for instance, the line: