These verses might almost be the verses of a Greek. And this is true not merely of the art and grace of form; it is equally true of the mental condition of the writer. The sentiment is intellectually just, and the expression is artistically just. Exhortation there is, a certain ardour there is, but it is the sober and restrained ardour of the Greeks; it is not Hebraic. But I read again of how the Armada flies:—
Torn by the scourge of the storm-wind that smites as a harper smites on a lyre, And consumed of the storm as the sacrifice, loved of their God, is consumed with fire, And devoured of the darkness as men that are slain in the fires of his love are devoured, And deflowered of their lives by the storms as by priests is the spirit of life deflowered.
And here is neither Hellenic seasonableness and proportion, nor Hebraic fervour, nor truth as it is understood by either Hebrew or Hellene. It is the work of a man who endeavours to lash himself into an intensity which is not of him, and who trifles with a Hebraism which rejects him.
Tennyson is, in point of the adaptation of form to matter, in the absolute justice and delicacy of his diction, in the perfect proportion and symmetry of his images, the completest reproduction among moderns of the Hellenic literary artist. What could be more luminously seen or more luminously expressed than
The curled white of the coming wave, Glassed in the slippery sand before it breaks?
Hellenic Tennyson is also in his appreciation of all beauty. More important, he is Hellenic in his tranquil open-eyed outlook upon the world. It is in these things that he is his best self. He is least himself when he seeks to pass into the prophetic sphere. He is poeta more than vates, and he is least Tennysonian in a poem like "Maud." The Hebraic element in Tennyson is not innate, it is but what he has gathered from his training in Hebraic morality and the sentiment which comes of it. "His strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure" is not a sentiment natural to a pagan Greek, but it is natural enough to a christianised Hellene whose Hellenic temperament is otherwise quite unchanged.
But we must not let ourselves be lured on by specimen after specimen over the wide field of literature. Rather let us return to some practical bearing of this whole question. For a practical bearing it has. It is this. Life consists of knowing, acting, admiring, loving, and hoping. The ideal man would be at the same time sage, poet, artist, man of virtue, and man of deeds. The perfect man would have all his faculties of thinking, feeling, and doing wholesomely blended. Now neither Hebraism nor Hellenism could produce the ideal man or harmoniously develop all his best powers. Each had its defects. The Hebrew, along with his intense spirituality and his moral strenuousness, lacked intellectual justness, sense of proportion, social appreciativeness, artistic truth and sobriety. The Hellene, along with his lucidity of intellect, his justness of perception in art, and his social aptitudes, lacked that sustained zeal for some moral principle which leads either to the doing of great things or to the attainment of sublime character. The dangers of Hebraism lay in excess of absorption, in a proneness to fanaticism, in an obstinacy which might become rabidness, in a certain misplaced loudness and disregard of dignity. The dangers of Hellenism lay in proneness to sacrifice character to talent, and deeds to thought. Hebraism tended towards asceticism and bigotry; Hellenism towards indifference and self-indulgence. The narrow Puritans of the seventeenth century revealed some of the dangers of excessive Hebraism; some of the dangers of excessive Hellenism have appeared in France. The modern French are in many things, though by no means in all things, a copy of the ancient Greeks. They are so in their passion for clear ideas. France is the land of the philosophes and the critics. The French are Hellenic in their dislike of emphase and of originalite, a word which comes to mean not so much originality as eccentricity. And in such a connotation of originalite, there betrays itself an important fact—that France is hardly the best country for the production of great characters. "The great Frenchmen," it has been said, "are apt to be Italians." Greece, too, failed to produce great characters. Homer's heroes, like the eminent figures of Grecian history, are of little moral force. Where the correct state of mind is to have point de zele, as at Paris and Athens, mankind may avoid the ridiculous, but can scarcely reach the sublime. Where the guiding force is some clear idea, men may rise to some signal effort, like the battle of Salamis or the French Revolution; but intellectual impulse has none of the durability of moral impulse, and the fibre of resolve is soon relaxed into languid discontent. Thus much may be said of Hellenism in excess. Yet its services are immense. The social and material progress of the world requires free play of thought, a certain boldness and open-mindedness of inquiry; and for this we look rather to the spirit of the audax Iapeti genus—the Hellenic spirit—than to the firm-set minds of the sons of Shem. And, on the contrary, whatever may be urged against Hebraism in excess, it is all the better for human life that men should have the capacity for emotional depth and fervour, for tenacious adherence to some high moral purpose. In these days of clamour and dispute we need a diffusion of the Hellenic spirit to enable us to look out on things exactly as they are, and to deliver us from fads and fatuous agitations. But in these same days of weak convictions we need a measure of Hebraic ardour and Hebraic fortitude to make our conduct answer to what we see, and to prevent our seeing from ending in thoughts and words.
What is principally needed is a blending in just proportion of the two spirits. We want Hellenism for knowing and enjoying, Hebraism for acting, loving, and hoping. "Without haste, without rest," should be our maxim for progress. And that is equivalent to saying that neither the Hebraic zeal nor the Hellenic repose can of itself satisfy our needs.
This blending could be obtained, more than we now seek to obtain it. The leopard cannot change his spots, and the human being cannot wholly rid himself of his congenital qualities. Nevertheless culture and habit are second nature. There is scarcely a disposition of mind or manner of sentiment into which we cannot bring ourselves by steadily encouraging it. The faculties of the mind are like the muscles of the body. They shrink to nothing if not exercised; they can be exercised symmetrically; or some can be exercised at the expense of the rest. What we want is a school culture, and a self-culture, which shall bring out all our best powers, not one only of them or some few of them. At present our system is all for knowledge. We seek for understanding of facts, but we do not seek for a systematic view of life, for clear principles of art, or for social many-sidedness. Of the best elements of the Hebraic spirit, we are almost ceasing to seek anything at all. And this is wholly bad. We shall breed up a race not only without what Matthew Arnold calls distinction, but without any common animating soul, unless it be a general selfishness and a general Philistinism.
What we want is a broader, less mechanical culture. We want to be steeped not only in facts, but in stimulating thoughts, religious and poetical. Splendid culture means splendid ideals, and if a nation could acquire the clear thinking of Hellenism combined with the immense moral resolve of Hebraism, that nation, knowing its aims, and making steadily towards them, would afford a spectacle of grandeur and of power such as no nation now presents.
The Principles of Criticism Applied to Two Successors of Tennyson
It is perhaps hardly necessary to explain that in the words "successors of Tennyson" I make no reference to an actual or a prospective Poet Laureate. The position primarily held by Tennyson in his lifetime, and the only position in which posterity will regard him, is the position of the poet. That he was the laureate also is no doubt a matter of some biographical interest, but it is of little further significance. It will be doing no injustice to the large quantity of agreeable verse-writing which has been executed by Mr. Alfred Austin if we take it for granted that his appointment carries the laureateship back to what it was before Wordsworth and Tennyson lent it the lustre of their names. The laureate is now, as in the days of Southey, a literary officer in the Queen's service, chosen, as other officers are wont to be chosen, by the political powers that be. Our present interest is rather in those who come after Tennyson as pre-eminent among the free and single-hearted servants of the Muses.
Again, by his "successors" I mean simply those who come after—those masters of younger birth who seem most nearly to take his place now that he is gone—not any avowed disciples, still less servile imitators of his thought or style. Following upon Homer there was the school of the Homeridae, or "sons of Homer." A cluster of poets at the beginning of the seventeenth century were styled "the sons of Ben Jonson." There are no doubt "sons of Tennyson" at this present date. With these we have now no concern. They are but satellites, while that for which we are scanning the poetical horizon is a rising star of a magnitude in some degree comparable with the stars which have set with the deaths of Matthew Arnold, Browning and Tennyson. There is, I believe, more than one such star already well advanced into the firmament. I am one of those who believe that this is an age unusually rich in genuine poetry. There are to-day singing in the English tongue enough of so-called minor poets to have made the poetical fortune of any epoch between the Elizabethan period and our own. This century has seen re-enthroned the Miltonic doctrine that poetry should be "simple, sensuous, and passionate"; it has learned from Wordsworth of the divinity in Nature, from Shelley of the passion in it, from Tennyson how to express its moods; it has learned from Byron how to be frank about humanity, from Wordsworth how to sympathize with it, from Browning how to understand it; it has been taught by Shelley how to write with melody, by Keats how to write with richness, by Wordsworth with simplicity, by Tennyson with grace and luminousness, by Arnold with chasteness. It has availed itself of these great examples to such good purpose that the average of reputable verse written to-day is more instinct with feeling, more vitalised with thought, more satisfying in expression, than much which is studied and belauded and quoted because it was written a century or two ago.
With great boldness perhaps, but with no less deliberateness of judgment, I maintain that contemporary men and women might better spare for the living, breathing, and often very beautiful work of their contemporaries, some of the time and appreciation which they do not grudge to give over and over again, even if it be with some conscious effort, to the elaborate conceits of the seventeenth century, to the rather frigid frugalities of a Gray, the laborious melancholies of a Collins, or the cold transparencies of a Landor. No doubt justice will be done in the end, but why not do as much of it as possible at once?
It is for these reasons that I beg your attention to an attempt at an appreciation of two contemporary singers, both excellent, though differing in the nature of their excellence. Their names are John Davidson and William Watson.
But first it would be well to look a little closely at that word "appreciation," and to examine frankly the considerations which make up a literary judgment. I am induced to take this course after a somewhat amused survey of a series of criticisms which have been passed upon the two poets who are our immediate subject. One writer, for instance, speaks of Mr. Davidson's works as "marked from end to end by the careless fecundity of power," while the next tells us of the self-same verses that they have "the severe restraint and very deliberately willed simplicity of M. Guy de Maupassant." Careless fecundity and deliberate restraint are sufficiently irreconcilable terms to apply to the same creations. Another critic tells us of Mr. Watson that "it is of 'Collins' lonely vesper-chime' and 'the frugal note of Gray' that we think as we read the choicely worded, well-turned quatrains that succeed each other like the strong unbroken waves of a full tide," and I cannot but wonder how a full tide of strong waves can suggest anything either "frugal" or "well-chosen." It is turbid judgments such as these, and an intellectual slovenliness which is content to accept words and phrases without attaching definite notions to them, that discredit the average English criticism, when set beside the lucid Greek appreciation of Aristotle and Longinus, or of those Frenchmen like Taine or Ste. Beuve who know exactly what they look for and why they look for it. We still require a few Matthew Arnolds to drill us in the first steps in criticism. It seems almost as if we had accepted for literature the ultra-democratic maxim that every man has as much right as every other man to judge a poem—if not a good deal more right.
The appreciation of a poet means the estimation of his rank, the separation of his precious metal from his dross, to the end that we may get the utmost enjoyment out of his beauties, while we feel the intellectual satisfaction which comes of a reasoned opinion at first hand. We appreciate the poet at his true value when we set his particular contribution to the literary joys of life neither too high nor too low. We fully appreciate him when we derive from him the keenest delight which he is capable of affording. And I know of no other process for the attainment of this end than the one which I am about to propound. It is, I think, a method which is analytical without being mechanical, and judicial without being cold.
The excellence of the poems of Tennyson has been placed beyond doubt by a consensus of the best judgment, when there some day swim into our ken first one and then another small volume bearing the name of William Watson or John Davidson. We perhaps read these volumes receptively enough, and form some sort of impression concerning them. But we are not sure of ourselves; we wait to hear what other people have to say. If we hear praise, we feel encouraged to join in it; if we hear disparagement, we grow suspicious of our own more favourable judgment. Perhaps, on the other hand, with that half-resentment which we are always apt to feel at new claims to poetic eminence, and for which a large measure of excuse is to be found in the fact that ambitious but futile rhymesters are a veritable plague of flies to publisher and public—in this spirit of half-resentment we ask, "Who is this Watson?" "Who is this Davidson?" and incontinently proceed to examine them in a cold and carping spirit, with a keen eye to their faults of detail, and with a sort of illogical assumption that if they had been of much account we should somehow have heard of them before.
It is but rarely that an accomplished judge of literature will speak out boldly and unequivocally, without "hedging," so to speak, and not only declare that such-and-such a work reveals a rising genius, but give his reasons why he declares it, distinguishing the poetical elements in which the genius is shown. The critic should frankly analyse; but mostly he does not. He tells us, for instance, that Walt Whitman is the "Adam of a new poetical era," or else that he is "a dunce of inconceivable incoherence and incompetence"; but usually he does not show us the precise data upon which either conclusion is based. Cannot profundity of thought, ardour of emotion, power and charm of expression, be actually demonstrated as present or absent in a poet, when the critic is addressing himself to his natural readers, to wit, persons in whom are pre-supposed a certain amount of brains and heart, and cultivation of both? If they cannot, has criticism any real existence?
To begin with, each reader is bound to recognise how far he is himself at any time capable of appreciating particular kinds of poetry. Out of epic, lyric, dramatic, and descriptive poetry there is usually some one kind with which we have no natural sympathy. It follows not that, because a man is fond of peaches, pears, and grapes, he is also fond of passionfruit or tomatoes. Of these latter he may be no judge whatever. Non omnia possumus omnes in the criticism of poetry, any more than in other departments of activity.
There are, for instance, some who have no patience with poetry of the mystic, half-dreamy kind, but must have their conceptions one and all definitely realized for them. They cannot away with emotional arabesques; they must have recognizable and rememberable outlines. There are others who cannot bring themselves to care for the poetry which broods upon inanimate nature; their interest centres wholly on the problems of man; just as there are limited souls who find no delight in landscapes, and think figure-painting the only field of art. These are no critics, perhaps never could be critics, of more than the verbal expression in those uncongenial regions of poesy. To be a true appreciator of all poetry a man must possess a harmoniously-developed nature, as full and large and liberal as poetry itself. Let us, therefore, begin by admitting and allowing for our limitations where we feel them to exist.
In the first place, we must set about our reading only when we are in the proper mood of receptivity. Poetry is not science, any more than painting is photography, or architecture is building in squares and cubes and circles. To approach the great poetry of "high seriousness" when we are in a cynical or flippant mood; to snatch glances at a great drama or epic when we are in a hurry; to begin from the very first line by examining with a cold-blooded criticism a passionate elegy or fiery lyric, is to act as if one sat at a concert of unfamiliar music only to criticise the gestures of the performers or to watch for an occasional weakness of the second violin. It is almost always open to adult human beings not to be reading poetry if they are not feeling disposed for it. I say "almost always" because the "indolent reviewer" is apt to be an exception. Yet even the indolent reviewer might with advantage often remind himself that poetry is written for people who want to read it, and when they want to read it, and that no art pretends to force men into enjoying it at all times and seasons. Granting, then, that we know our own personal limitations, and what particular sense our organisation lacks; granting also that we are reading our poet spontaneously, simply because the pleasure of poetry is the pleasure we happen to be seeking; granting, further, that we are sufficiently cultivated and experienced in literature to possess ready apprehension of a thought, a fair taste in expression, and an ear for cadence and melody, there is, I believe, but one certain way of telling whether a verse-writer is a poet at all, and then whether as poet he is greater or less.
He must be read a first time without effort at criticism of any kind. The words and rhythms, the thoughts and feelings contained in a particular poem will thus leave a certain general effect, an unanalysed impression. It will be as it is with the true judge of art when he stands before a picture, a statue, or a building. In its presence he either feels the spontaneous delight which comes of a general satisfyingness, or he feels the annoyance of a general unsatisfyingness, or he feels neither one nor the other. So with a poem. We shall either feel that the sounds and melodies have bathed us in delight, or we shall think them harsh, or we shall think nothing about them at all. We shall feel a high intellectual stimulation or a strong emotional excitement, or we shall think the passage rather futile, or we shall be aware of no pronounced feeling one way or the other. If we are constrained to say to ourselves, "What a noble passage!" "What splendid verse!" "What a sweet song!" or to use any of those unstudied exclamations which spring to the lips before we have had time or inclination to realize our impressions more definitely—then, I maintain, we are justified in calling the writer at once and definitively a poet. Whether he is a greater poet or a minor poet remains still to be estimated, but poet he is, be he Burns or Swinburne, Tennyson or Watson or Davidson. Here, for instance, is a passage from Watson's elegy upon Tennyson, which he has called Lachrymae Musarum. I do not choose it because it is his best, but because it is typical:—
He hath returned to regions whence he came; Him doth the spirit divine Of universal loveliness reclaim, All nature is his shrine. Seek him henceforward in the wind and sea, In earth's and air's emotion or repose, In every star's august serenity, And in the rapture of the flaming rose. There seek him if ye would not seek in vain, There, in the rhythm and music of the whole, Yea, and for ever in the human soul Made stronger and more beauteous by his strain.
For lo! Creation's self is one great choir, And what is Nature's order but the rhyme Whereto the world keeps time, And all things move with all things from their prime? Who shall expound the mystery of the lyre? In far retreats of elemental mind Obscurely comes and goes The imperative breath of song, that as the wind Is trackless, and oblivious whence it blows.
Demand of lilies wherefore they are white, Extort her crimson secret from the rose, But ask not of the Muse that she disclose The meaning of the riddle of her might. Somewhat of all things sealed and recondite, Save the enigma of herself, she knows. The master could not tell, with all his lore, Wherefore he sang, or whence the mandate sped; E'en as the linnet sings, so I, he said— Ah! rather as the imperial nightingale That held in trance the ancient Attic shore, And charms the ages with the notes that o'er All woodland chants immortally prevail! And now from our vain plaudits, greatly fled, He with diviner silence dwells instead, And on no earthly sea, with transient roar, Unto no earthly airs, he trims his sail, But, far beyond our vision and our hail, Is heard for ever and is seen no more.
Now it matters not what flaws the austere critic might find with a microscope in those lines. I feel certain that there is no one who would not at this first reading experience that inevitable glow of satisfaction which, in the cultured mind, is the unfailing criterion that the art is good. Whether Mr. Watson is further an original poet, a signal poetic force; whether he is a poet for the mind as much as for the ear, is a further question to be decided by a detailed analysis; but that he is a poet is, I beg leave to think, wholly undeniable. At first sight, has there been anything better in this vein since Lycidas?
Here, again, is a brief part of a song from Davidson's Fleet Street Eclogue of May Day. I quote these lines in particular, because, unlike most very short passages of this poet, they admit of being disentangled from their setting. They are typical of only one side of a many-sided being, the side which exults in the simple sensuous delights of nature. They are two stanzas from the song of the nightingale as interpreted by Basil:—
The lark from the top of heaven raved Of the sunshine sweet and old; And the whispering branches dipped and laved In the light; and waste and wold Took heart and shone; and the buttercups paved The emerald meads with gold.
* * * * *
Now it is night, and—
The wind steals down the lawns With a whisper of ecstasy, Of moonlit nights and rosy dawns, And a nest in a hawthorn tree; Of the little mate for whom I wait, Flying across the sea, Through storm and night as sure as fate, Swift-winged with love for me.
And again I ask, has there, at first sight, been anything more like Shelley since Shelley's Cloud?
Assuming that the first step in our method has left us quite satisfied that a writer (and here I leave Mr. Watson and Mr. Davidson and revert to the general case) possesses enough share in the divine gift to be called "poet," we may, if we are bent upon truly "appreciating" him, proceed to taste his lines over and over, to dwell in detail upon his expression, upon its charms and splendours and felicities, its vigour and terseness and simplicity. It may be that we shall find our first admiration continually increased, especially when we learn to realise the full music of the verse, the subtle tones of its "flutes and soft recorders," or the swell of the "organ-voice." We may come to taste "all the charms of all the Muses often flowering in one lonely word." It might be, on the other hand, that we should detect a certain over-fulness—what Coleridge has called a too-muchness—of diction; or a certain want of correspondence between the melodious language and any clearly apprehended mental picture. We might find the vigour too often lapsing into sheer bad taste, or the simplicity taking the fatal step into simpledom, as when Tennyson ends the story of Enoch Arden with the banal remark that
the little port Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.
We might, unhappily, discover these things, or, on the contrary, we might find them so rare that our admiration at the expressive genius of the poet would increase, until we were sure that the thing of beauty was really and truly a superlative joy for ever.
And not only in diction and melody, but in that supreme Shakespearian poetic gift of imagination which can vividly portray, body forth in clear form, what others can only feel in a vague and misty way while lacking the power to express it—in this gift also the great poet is known, not at the first reading, nor at the second, nor at the third. An image, a metaphor, which seems most perfect when first met, may lose much of its apparent completeness and depth when the mind examines it; whereas upon many another, which appeared at first so easy and obvious, there is revealed the very stamp of that godlike genius which creates, as if without effort, the one unsurpassable, soul-satisfying "name." If, the more we return to a poet's work, the more it grows upon us and the more we see in it, then, as Longinus truly declares, it possesses the quality of the sublime. Without that result the poet may be great, but not of the greatest. To employ once more that definition which I still find the best yet constructed, true poetry is the "exquisite expression of an exquisite impression." For a reader to reach the apprehension of such an impression in all its exquisiteness, and to recognize the full exquisiteness of its expression, requires some effort. Under the pellucid diction may lurk amazing depths. We must therefore read a poet, and read him anew. This is the way to attain to a reasoned and discriminating judgment, and to escape those vain and vague impressions which we can neither trust ourselves nor impart to others.
So much for the heads of the sermon. The application is to Tennyson's successors. Of William Watson and John Davidson as men, I know practically nothing. I am fain to confess that I have no desire to know anything. There is too much personal gossip already interfering with our enjoyment of literature. These men's work is presumably their best selves, and except for such hints of their personality as occur in their poems, I know not "whether they be black or white." Incidentally, Mr. Watson lets us learn that he is from the North of England, and I gather that Mr. Davidson is a Scot from the fact that he scans "world" as two syllables, uses "I mind" in the sense of "I remember," and talks unpatriotically enough of his nurture in that easily identifiable region where are to be found—
A chill and watery clime; a thrifty race Using all means of grace To save their souls and purses.
Among their many points of difference, the two men have this prime quality in common, that they are ready to rely upon their own poetical resources. Their work contains, indeed, many an echo of their great predecessors, many a suggestion of familiarity with Milton or Pope, Wordsworth, Shelley, or Tennyson. It is evident that both have steeped themselves in the literature which is best calculated to make an English poet. But it is equally evident that they have mastered their material, and not allowed their material to master them. Watson, it is true, has attained to a much less firm and spontaneous style than Davidson, but it would be false to say of him that he is, in point of diction, the imitator of any poet in especial, or that he moulds his style upon Tennyson more than on Milton, or upon Milton more than on Wordsworth. And what is true of their form is true of their matter. They think with their own brains and feel with their own natures. They fall back upon no master and no fashion to direct them what to say or leave unsaid. Whatever opinion we may form of their force and range, we cannot but recognise that it is themselves whom they are expressing. And it may be taken as an axiom that nothing so commends the man who speaks to the interest of the man who listens as this—the fact that the speaker is telling his own thought. That, I believe, is the secret of the hold which Browning possesses upon his votaries, and which Goethe will for all time exercise.
We recognise with both our poets that this initial charm is theirs, and if we find in Davidson the richer nature and the more robust, the more infused with Browning's rough, virile strain, we are no less confident that Watson's verse is the natural cream gathered from his daintier and more purely intellectual moods. But in thus comparing the men I anticipate my evidence.
The poems of John Davidson upon which I have based my judgment are those contained in the Fleet Street Eclogues (the first and second series), and in the volume of Ballads and Songs. The name of the latter explains itself. In the former are contained some dozen pieces, written in dialogue, in various metres. The interlocutors are London journalists and poets, who meet in Fleet Street on such holidays as Lammas, May Day, Michaelmas, and the New Year, and there hold a kind of discursive symposium on such themes as then and there present themselves. I mildly call the discussion "discursive," though it would be fair in one or two instances to dub the piece frankly a medley. Usually the special holiday suggests a reference to the charms of nature as they are to be seen in the country at that date, and as they are, alas! not to be seen in Fleet Street. This device affords scope for not a few charming word-pictures, as simple in outline and as complete in suggestion as the drawings of flowers and tree sprays made by the Japanese, and as effective in the artistic directness and simplicity of the language as if they had been written by Burns or by a Greek lyrist. I do not think that it would be possible to find anywhere in the English language more pure and fresh delight in the sights and sounds of rural nature expressed with such apparent naivete. And all the time the mind's eye is kept so closely, so distinctly, on the object that the result is often the sublimity of art as defined by Longinus, the selection and combination of exactly those features which are the most essential and most telling. For instance, no man who did not feel and realize with vividness, no man who lacked a genius for expression, could so select and place just the touches which describe the sudden descent of the lark in the evening sky. The lines occur in the song of "Spring" in Ballads and Songs:—
High, O high, from the opal sky, Shouting against the dark, "Why, why, why, must the day go by?" Fell a passionate lark.
The words "opal," "shouting," "fell," and "passionate," are exactly the words, and all the words, which could be demanded in an ideal word-picture by those who have been familiar with the scene itself. And to make the ideal twice ideal, the very sound of the bird is brought before one's mind after a score of years, by the whole passage, and particularly in the reiterated "Why, why, why." If there is more consummate simplicity of art anywhere contained in as small a compass of words, I confess I do not know where it is to be found. Shelley does not surpass this.
Throughout Davidson's poems there is this same positive revelling in those delights of the eye and ear and smell which meet the wanderer in the country. They are fresh to him every time; and he realizes and fulfils that function of the poet, the bringing back of new freshness into things common, at which he hints when he makes one of his characters say:—
Dear Menzies, talk of sight and sound, And make us feel the blossom-time.
In these more sensuous moods he is so filled with the simple Chaucerian gladsomeness of spring that he can sing, or make one of his characters sing—for after all, his characters are but so many sides of himself—
I have been with the nightingale; I have learned his song so sweet; I sang it aloud by wood and dale, And under my breath in the street.
I can hear in that valley of mine, Loud-voiced on a leafless spray, How the robin sings, flushed with his holly-wine, Of the moonlit blossoms of May.
In all such passages there is the genuine note of the vernal joy which stirs naturally in the blood of all men who are men. The writer feels as the birds feel, nay, as the burgeoning hedges feel, when—
The blackbirds with their oboe voices make The sweetest broken music, all about The beauty of the day, for beauty's sake, And all about the mates whose love they won, And all about the sunlight and the sun.
A passionate nightingale adown the lane Shakes with the force and volume of his song A hawthorn's heaving foliage.
But this sensuous rapture, which reminds us of Keats, though of a Keats whose expression is more like that of Shelley, is by no means all that Davidson can feel in nature. Through the eyes and other senses the influence of nature penetrates to his soul and spirit. He touches Wordsworth in such lines as these:—
All my emotion and imagining Were of the finest tissue that is woven, From sense and thought.... I seemed to be created every morn. A golden trumpet pealed along the sky: The sun arose: the whole earth rushed upon me. Sometimes the tree that stroked my windowpane Was more than I could grasp; sometimes my thought Absorbed the universe.
It is true that these words are put in the mouth of that one of his dramatis personae who is of the most melancholy and brooding disposition; but he who can make another say—
I am haunted by the heavens and the earth; ... I am besieged by things that I have seen: Followed and watched by rivers; snared and held In labyrinthine woods and tangled meads; Hemmed in by mountains; waylaid by the sun; Environed and beset by moon and stars; Whispered by winds and summoned by the sea.
—he who can put this thought in another's mouth has necessarily first experienced some measure of it himself.
But it is not merely about external nature that our Fleet Street journalists talk. They speak of such questions of man and life and destiny as are wont to engage any gathering of thoughtful men, and particularly those who are poetically disposed. The contrasts between the beauty of rural nature and the squalor of life, especially the life of the town, these and other matters receive such suggestive treatment as can be given to them by a poet who has no desire to become a preacher, and no desire to pose as an exhaustive philosopher. Upon such questions the many-sided poet, whose sympathies are wide, and whose moods are varied, will touch with a certain suggestiveness; he will flash a ray of cheerfulness into the haunts of pessimism, or throw a new pathos into common situations. And Mr. Davidson possesses a large measure of this many-sidedness, this versatility of sympathy. He appears a very human man, a man unfettered by cant or creed, observing men and things from various sides, and entering into their circumstance. Is he without a creed? From his verses on the Making of a Poet it would appear so—
No creed for me! I am a man apart: A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world;
* * * * *
A martyr for all mundane moods to tear; The slave of every passion, and the slave Of heat and cold, of darkness and of light; A trembling lyre for every wind to sound. I am a man set to overhear The inner harmony, the very tune Of nature's heart; to be a thoroughfare For all the pageantry of Time: to catch The mutterings of the Spirit of the Hour And make them known.
* * * * *
Nevertheless he, or one of his avatars, can also say of the celebration of Christmas with its "sweet thoughts and deeds"—
A fearless, ruthless, wanton band, Deep in our hearts we guard from scathe Of last year's log a smouldering brand, To light at Yule the fire of faith.
He makes no vulgar boast about escaping from the fetters of religion. He spares us any flouts of intellectual superiority. He is apparently an evolutionist, but withal finds little saving grace in that doctrine, and is not uninclined to envy the old days
When Heaven and Hell were nigh.
It is true that behind his Basil and Herbert and Brian and Sandy and Menzies and Ninian, who converse there in Fleet Street, we find it hard to discover any definite synthetic philosophy of Davidson himself. On the other hand, we have no particular wish to discover one. He is a poet, not a Herbert Spencer. We may reasonably be content to catch the side-lights which a poet throws from a large and liberal nature; to be led by him to different points of view. If the result is that we find the man himself to evade us, we can only admit that the same result occurs with Shakespeare. Indeed, there is a hint that a synthetic philosophy is exactly what Davidson never seeks to attain. Says Ninian:—
Sometimes, when I forget myself, I talk As though I were persuaded of the truth Of some received or unreceived belief; But always afterwards I am ashamed At such lewd lapses into bigotry.
And though another immediately ejaculates
we have a feeling that the poet has betrayed an attitude of mind not wholly unlike his own.
His outlook is both bright and dark. The modern dragons, it has been said, are dooming "religion and poetry." The answer comes—
They may doom till the moon forsakes Her dark, star-daisied lawn; They may doom till Doomsday breaks With angels to trumpet the dawn; While love enchants the young And the old have sorrow and care, No song shall be unsung, Unprayed no prayer.
Nature is full of joy, man may find abounding delight of life in the midst of it; but what of his destiny?
For the fate of the elves is nearly the same As the terrible fate of men; To love, to rue, to be, and pursue A flickering wisp of the fen. We must play the game with a careless smile, Though there's nothing in the hand; We must toil as if it were worth our while Spinning our ropes of sand; And laugh, and cry, and live, and die At the waft of an unseen hand.
I am not thinking solely of myself, But of the groaning cataract of life, The ruddy stream that leaps importunate Out of the night, and in a moment vaults The immediate treacherous precipice of time, Splashing the stars, downward into the night.
And apart from destiny, which is beyond human control, society is much at fault. Not only is Davidson plainly democratic, he expresses the complaints and aspirations of the higher type of those who might be socialists, if socialism were allowed to be a development, and not tyrannously imposed as a system. He talks of—
... Slaves in Pagan Rome— In Christian England—who begin to test The purpose of their state, to strike for rest And time to feel alive in.
Hoarsely they beg of Fate to give A little lightening of their woe, A little time to love, to live, A little time to think and know.
There are other wrong elements in society besides poverty, and the poet finds occasion to express one in particular. But what Mrs. Grand requires three volumes to discuss is treated with infinitely more effect by him in a dozen lines. The purport may be gathered from these three:—
... My heart! Who wore it out with sensual drudgery Before it came to me? What warped its valves? It has been used; my heart is secondhand.
This is not the time to exhaust the Davidsonian philosophy, if there be such. We are treating the writer as a poet, and the examples which I have quoted of his joy in nature and his fellow-feeling with mankind, should, I think, demonstrate that he has the gifts of vivid seeing, of vivid feeling, and of vivid expression. If genuine poetry consists of two essentials, substance and form, we cannot deny the substance in Mr. Davidson. He has the gift of "high seriousness," which Arnold declares to be a requisite of all that is classic. He is not always deep; he is not faultless. The same writer who can condense a thought thus—
On Eden's daisies couched, they felt They carried Eden in their heart,
is also capable of writing, as poetry, these lines:—
For no man ever understood a woman, No woman ever understood a man, And no man ever understood a man: No woman ever understood a woman, And no man ever understood himself; No woman ever understood herself.
We can only surmise that Mr. Davidson had just been reading Whitman, and was under the temporary hallucination that this poor stuff was profound thinking. But all poets, nay, all prose-writers, even the greatest, have their lapses into bathos. Yes, even—and I say it with trembling—even Shakespeare.
Let us look, now, for a few moments, more closely, in order to appreciate the particular elements of his genius, as manifested in the form which is his style.
And first, his language. To be perfect, expression must be luminous yet terse, vigorous, yet in taste and keeping. It must be without mannerisms, without inadequacy, without flatness, without obscurity. "Clear, but with distinction," is the brief definition of Aristotle. Davidson has learned his lesson well from Shelley and Wordsworth and Arnold. He cultivates all the virtues, and not without success. He has not been tempted to leave the true path and court singularity, whether in the shape of Browning's verbal puzzles or of Swinburne's luscious and alliterative turgidness. His diction is of the simplest. Says one of his personae—
I love not brilliance; give me words Of meadow-growth and garden plot, Of larks and black-caps; gaudy birds, Gay flowers and jewels like me not.
It is astonishing how expressive the simple word can become in the hands of a master. Dante's verb and noun are now proverbial. As for Mr. Davidson, Gray's clear-cut lines in the Elegy can supply no more instances of perfect aptness than those which I quoted some time ago of the lark. Notice the exactness of choice in—
The patchwork sunshine nets the lea, The flitting shadows halt and pass Forlorn, the mossy humble-bee Lounges along the flowerless grass,
and in "I heard the husky whisper of the corn." Yet I am disposed to think that, like many another finished artist, he has passed through stages of various practice, and has exercised much self-restraint before attaining to that naturalness which, as Goethe reiterates, is the last crown of art-discipline. From sundry indications I conclude that passages of his Fleet-street Eclogues were written independently at different dates, and have been fitted later into the dialogue form. However that may be, it is possible to detect instances in which he falls below his own maturer ideal of natural language. The diction, that is to say the choice of mere vocables, is eminently natural, except for the odd words "muted," "writhen," "watchet-hued," "dup," "swound," which I have collected with a rather laborious captiousness. But diction is only part of expression, and, as I have just hinted, it would seem as if, before his lesson in pure style was fully learned, he had passed under the fascination of the mannerists, and particularly of Pope. Otherwise it is hard to account for such entirely eighteenth century lines as—
And brimming echoes spill the pleasant din,
The sloping shores that fringe the velvet tides;
and (speaking of steamers)—
Or, fiery-hearted, cleave with iron limbs And brows precipitous the pliant sea.
How different are these mechanical constructions from that expression of the birds
hid in the white warm cloud Mantling the thorn.
Whether I am right or wrong as to the process of his development, the fact remains that he can be, if he chooses, a master in language of poetic simplicity. Even a fire of garden rubbish can be expressed without becoming altogether unpoetical when one speaks of
the spicy smoke Of withered weeds that burn where gardens be.
Perhaps there do exist some things which cannot be made poetical in any diction whatsoever. Tennyson could only express "tea" by "and on the board the fluttering urn," and if Mr. Davidson has to speak of whisky and calls it
amber spirit that enshrines the heart Of an old Lothian summer,
we have to recognise that he has come very well out of a difficulty. If at another time he refers to it as
things which journalists require,
we must remember that the context implies a certain humour.
"Clear, but not flat," is an easy maxim to utter, but, as Wordsworth too often shows, the danger of falling from studied simplicity into bald prose is always present; and for that reason do smaller artists rather choose to trick their thoughts in verbal jewellery. We cannot say that Davidson, who undertakes to run the risk, never makes the fatal step. In the address to the daisy—
Oh, little brave adventurer! We human beings love you so,
the last word, and indeed the whole line, verges on the infantile. So it is a shock when, after a passage of some pretensions, we come upon the lines—
My way of life led me to London town, And difficulties, which I overcame;
But yet my waking intuition, That longed to execute its mission.
It is extremely difficult to realise that the same man wrote these sorry lines who, in another place, adopts this for his style—
... Here spring appears Caught in a leafless brake, her garland torn, Breathless with wonder, and the tears half dried Upon her rosy cheek.
For our comfort and his let us remember that it was the same Wordsworth who wrote both the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality and also the lines—
I've measured it from side to side: It's three feet long and two feet wide!
Nevertheless flaws of this kind are few, and it is almost unfair for me to be the means perhaps of conveying even thus much impression of faultiness about verses which sustain so high a general level of excellence of language.
In point of melody and harmony and flow of verse there can be no doubt that our poet is, for instance, an excellent writer of songs, in which a vigorous simplicity is the prime requisite. They lilt along with great vivacity and ease. But elsewhere I could wish that here and there he would amend his rhymes. "Reviewer" and "literature," "pierced" and "athirst," "noise" and "voice," "inquisition" and "division," "trees" and "palaces," "shade is" and "ladies," "giftless" and "swiftness," are far from pleasing; and though I am almost ashamed to play the detective in work which is mostly full of charm, I find myself distressed by such cacophonies as—
Hid in its hoard of haws,
Pierces a rushlight's ray's length into it.
John Davidson, then, is a genuine son of his age; free in his thought, wide in his sympathies, eager for the amelioration of man's estate, divided between the hopes of science and the regret for a lost religion, compelled to fall back on the everlasting consolations of love and nature, an ardent lover of the country and its sights and sounds, constrained to draw word-pictures of the things which thus delight him, and drawing them with the consummate skill of the man who keeps his eye on the essentials of the thing he draws. His charm lies in his frank sincerity, and in the clear healthy sweetness of his utterance. That he is a poet none can doubt; if he is comparatively young, as I surmise he is, and if he pursues his true development, he may, I believe, easily take his place in the first rank, not only as a successor, but as the successor, of Tennyson.
On William Watson I shall dwell less long. To begin with, he is already better known. Moreover, his special virtues as a poet are more easy to apprehend, for they lie somewhat prominently upon the surface. Better still, he apparently apprehends them himself, and is in that unusually happy position for an artist, of knowing exactly where his own strength lies. And undoubtedly in those departments his strength is great. We need not hold the mention of them in reserve. I have already quoted a passage of admirable rhetorical and musical skill and taste from the Lachrymae Musarum. That was sufficient to illustrate one of this poet's great gifts—the gift of writing splendid verse, as harmonious as Milton's and as choice in expression as Tennyson's. His other chief endowment is that of literary critic. On Burns, Shelley, and Wordsworth he has said almost the final saying, and assuredly in almost the final language. We may pick faults now and again in his expression, and we may suspect a mannerism here and there, especially when we read large quantities of his verse at one time; nevertheless, each individual piece which fairly represents him is very nearly perfect in its way.
The works of his with which I am acquainted are the volumes entitled Wordsworth's Grave and Other Poems, The Father of the Forest and Other Poems, Lachrymae Musarum, and the series of sonnets upon Armenia, called The Purple East. There is in Watson nothing of the dramatist or of the epic writer. He is a lyrist and a sonneteer. He is also a critic, and might very conceivably be a satirist. But, whatever he is in writing, he is mainly and before all things an intellectual rather than an emotional poet; he is an artist rather than a seer. His poems are constructions of taste and intellectual judgment. Let me take, as an example, his poem upon the Father of the Forest. A yew tree, which may be fifteen centuries old, is addressed by him; and, musing on the historical scenes it must have lived through, he gives us a series of verses which touch musically upon salient epochs and characteristic figures in the history of England. To this the yew practically replies that the so-called historical events amount to nothing, and that "wars and tears" will repeat themselves, until men are some day civilized into pursuing but one object, which shall be Beauty. The piece itself reveals nothing profound, awakes no particular emotion. Given the first idea of the plot, so to speak—an idea which is not far to seek for any reflective man—the rest of the material follows as a matter of course. But where is the man besides Mr. Watson who will give us such lines as—
The South shall bless, the East shall blight, The red rose of the Dawn shall blow; The million-lilied stream of night, Wide in ethereal meadows flow.
I do not say that the poet is without his measure of feeling; but it is rather the pensive feeling of a Jaques, the dainty interest of a Matthew Arnold, than any surge of emotion. The poet seems to me to encourage his brain to feel—to give it that passing luxury with a certain amount of deliberation.
The Hymn to the Sea is the only real poem written in the English language in hexameters and pentameters. There have been many attempts at these metres, but they have been failures, one and all. And nothing shows Mr. Watson's skill, nay genius, more than the fact that his attempt is a great and conspicuous success. The sea, confined within its shores, never resting, yet never able to pass its bounds, at war with the winds, and serving the moon with its tides, is compared to man, with his unrest, his limitations, his aspirations. As before, when the clue is once given, the thread is easily followed to the end. The result is simply an intellectual operation done into verbal music. Yet who but William Watson, having to speak of the moon as mistress of the sea, could express his fancy in words like these:—
When, as yonder, thy mistress, at height of her mutable glories, Wise from the magical East, comes like a sorceress pale. Ah, she comes, she arises—impassive, emotionless, bloodless, Wasted and ashen of cheek, zoning her ruins with pearl. Once she was warm, she was joyous, desire in her pulses abounding: Surely thou lovedst her well, then, in her conquering youth! Surely not all unimpassioned, at sound of thy rough serenading, She from the balconied night unto her melodist leaned,— Leaned unto thee, her bondsman, who keepest to-day her commandments, All for the sake of old love, dead at thy heart though it lie.
Surely such verse would have a claim to endurance, even if the thought were less of a thought than it is.
Autumn, again, is a short piece upon the suggestions of that season. What would those suggestions naturally be? Obviously, the passing and perishing of all things that are. True; but to express those suggestions, obvious as they are, as Watson expresses them, requires a rhetorical power and a taste in melodious words such as would make their possessor eminent in the judgment of men who care anything for beauty. There may be no particular depth in the work; it may be less passionate, less full of thought, than the Ode to the West Wind, but we could ill afford to spare such combinations of sound as—
Elusive notes in wandering wafture borne From undiscoverable lips, that blow An immaterial horn.
In Liberty Rejected we meet once more with the similitude of the moon and the tide. Mr. Watson's range of purely intellectual imagination is, like that of his emotion, limited. But we do not mind meeting the comparison again, when the lover who refuses to be free expresses himself thus—
The ocean would as soon Entreat the moon Unsay the magic verse That seals him hers From silver noon to noon.
When he touches upon nature, we feel again that Watson is not "letting himself go." When he escapes from town it is not to revel and to make us revel in the sheer delight of rural sights and sounds. He feels as before, with the eye and the understanding, not with the buoyant blood of the full heart. No matter, he feels enough to give us this quatrain—
In stainless daylight saw the pure seas roll; Saw mountains pillaring the perfect sky: Then journeyed home to carry in his soul The torment of the difference till he die.
Why should I go on to quote such lines as—
That thousand-memoried unimpulsive sea,
Curls the labyrinthine sea Duteous to the lunar will.
Enough that, thanks to a study of Spenser, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and therefore a delicate taste in word and phrase, and thanks also to an innate genius for verbal music, restrained from Swinburnian riot by a true artistic instinct, Mr. Watson is a poet most delightful to the physical and the mental ear. That he has taken pains with his study is avowed by himself. Beginning with Shelley and passing through Keats to Wordsworth, he says—
In my young days of fervid poesy He drew me to him with his strange far light,— He held me in a world all clouds and gleams, And vasty phantoms, where ev'n Man himself Moved like a phantom 'mid the clouds and gleams. Anon the Earth recalled me; and a voice Murmuring of dethroned divinities And dead times, deathless upon sculptured urn— And Philomela's long-descended pain Flooding the night—and maidens of romance To whom asleep St. Agnes' love-dreams come— Awhile constrained me to a sweet duresse And thraldom, lapping me in high content, Soft as the bondage of white amorous arms. And then a third voice, long unheeded—held Claustral and cold, and dissonant and tame—Found me at last with ears to hear. It sang Of lowly sorrows and familiar joys, Of simple manhood, artless womanhood, And childhood fragrant as the limpid morn; And from the homely matter nigh at hand, Ascending and dilating, it disclosed Spaces and avenues, calm heights and breadths Of vision, whence I saw each blade of grass With roots that groped about eternity, And in each drop of dew upon each blade The mirror of the inseparable All.
It is also clear from such reminiscences as—
The laurel glorious from that wintry hair,
which is practically Tennyson, or
The maker of this verse, which shall endure By splendour of its theme, that cannot die,
which, if I mistake not, is echoed Spenser, or—
And ghostly as remembered mirth,
which is largely Tennyson again.
I do not call these plagiarisms, I call them reflections of wide and retentive reading.
William Watson has thus formed a style which is almost perfect. I say "almost," not quite. There are some few mannerisms which we might wish away. He speaks of "greatly inert," "greatly lost in thee," "greatly slain," "doomed splendidly to die," "loudly weak," "immutably prevail," and "vainly great," till we are forced to recognize what looks very much like a trick. He has occasional moments of tautology, which may possibly be deliberate, but is none the better for that, as when he says:—
Not mine the rich and showering hand, that strews The facile largess of a stintless muse.
The retrospect in Time's reverted eyes.
And worst of all—
"Fair clouds of gulls that wheel and swerve In unanimity divine, With undulation serpentine, And wondrous consentaneous curve."
He sometimes falls into lines which ring of the mint of Pope—
No guile may capture and no force surprise.
Defames the sunlight and deflowers the morn.
Towers to a lily, reddens to a rose.
In one passage only do I find him falling, falling, falling into the flattest style of the Excursion:—
"I overheard a kind-eyed girl relate To her companions how a favouring chance By some few shillings weekly had increased The earnings of her household."
But as I read this, I murmur to myself those lines from Wordsworth—
"And I have travelled far as Hull to see What clothes he might have left, or other property,"
and wonder how it is that such aberrations can befal even the very man who seems most determined to avoid them.
Watson's second endowment is still one of taste and intellect. It is the gift of literary criticism. The special charm of the great poets is so subtly apprehended by him, and so exquisitely expressed, that it will be a source of much surprise if many of his concise verdicts do not become the household words of students of literature. Let me quote a passage from his poem on Wordsworth's Grave:—
You who have loved, like me, his simple themes, Loved his sincere large accent nobly plain, And loved the land whose mountains and whose streams Are lovelier for his strain.
It may be that his manly chant, beside More dainty numbers, seems a rustic tune; It may be, thought has broadened, since he died, Upon the century's noon; It may be that we can no longer share The faith which from his fathers he received; It may be that our doom is to despair Where he with joy believed;—
Enough that there is none since risen who sings A song so gotten of the immediate soul, So instant from the vital fount of things Which is our source and goal;
And though at touch of later hands there float More artful tones than from his lyre he drew, Ages may pass e'er trills another note So sweet, so great, so true.
Not Milton's keen, translunar music thine; Not Shakespeare's cloudless, boundless, human view; Not Shelley's flush of rose on peaks divine; Nor yet the wizard twilight Coleridge knew.
Shelley, the hectic flamelight rose of verse, All colour and all odour and all bloom.
And on Burns—
But as, when thunder crashes nigh, All darkness opes one flaming eye, And the world leaps against the sky, So fiery clear Did the old truths that we pass by To him appear.
These, then, are the prominent poetical virtues of William Watson, virtues which none can avoid observing—his magnificent power of expression and his literary acumen. He is an intellectual poet, and therefore not devoid of substance. Yet his substance alone would never make him a vates. I can imagine that in prose criticisms and in satire he would make a distinguished figure. Here is his answer to Mr. Alfred Austin when the laureate advised him to be patient with the Armenian question:—
"The poet laureate assured me—first, that whosoever in any circumstances arraigns this country for anything that she may do or leave undone thereby covers himself with shame; secondly, that although the continued torture, rape, and massacre of a Christian people, under the eyes of a Christian continent, may be a lamentable thing, it is best to be patient, seeing that the patience of God Himself can never be exhausted; and, thirdly, that if I were but with him in his pretty country house, were but comfortably seated 'by the yule log's blaze,' and joining with him in seasonable conviviality, the enigmas of Providence and the whole mystery of things would presently become transparent to me, and more especially after 'drinking to England' I should be enabled to understand that 'she bides her hour behind the bastioned brine.'"
It would be hard to better that.
But though I call him intellectual, and more artistic than inspired, I have no wish to underrate the intrinsic poetry in such lines as these, on the Great Misgiving:—
Ah, but the apparition—the dumb sign— The beckoning finger bidding me forego The fellowship, the converse, and the wine, The songs, the festal glow! And, ah, to know not, while with friends I sit, And while the purple joy is passed about, Whether 'tis ampler day divinelier lit Or homeless night without.
Nor the graceful fancy in these, from Beauty's Metempsychosis:—
From wave and star and flower, Some effluence rare Was lent thee; a divine but transient dower; Thou yield'st it back from eyes and lips and hair To wave and star and flower. Should'st thou to-morrow die, Thou still shalt be Found in the rose, and met in all the sky; And from the ocean's heart shalt sing to me, Should'st thou to-morrow die.
I have also said that Mr. Watson knows his own strength and his limitations. Let me conclude by quoting a passage from his Apologia, the very style of which will be in itself the justification of the man whom it argues to justify:—
... Because I have full oft In singers' selves found me a theme of song, Holding these also to be very part Of Nature's greatness....
* * * * *
And though I be to these but as a knoll About the feet of the high mountains, scarce Remarked at all, save when a valley cloud Holds the high mountains hidden, and the knoll Against the clouds shows briefly eminent; Yet, ev'n as they, I, too, with constant heart, And with no light or careless ministry, Have served what seemed the voice; and unprofane Have dedicated to melodious ends All of myself that least ignoble was. For though of faulty and of erring walk, I have not suffered aught in me of frail To blur my song; I have not paid the world The evil and the insolent courtesy Of offering it my baseness for a gift. And unto such as think all Art is cold, All music unimpassioned, if it breathe An ardour not of Eros' lips, and glow With fire not caught from Aphrodite's breast, Be it enough to say, that in Man's life Is room for great emotions unbegot Of dalliance and embracement, unbegot Even of the purer nuptials of the soul; And one not pale of blood, to human touch Not tardily responsive, yet may know A deeper transport and a mightier thrill Than comes of commerce with mortality, When, rapt from all relation with his kind, All temporal and immediate circumstance, In silence, in the visionary mood That, flashing light on the dark deep, perceives Order beyond this coil and errancy; Isled from the fretful hour he stands alone, And hears the eternal movement, and beholds Above him and around and at his feet, In million-billowed consentaneousness, The flowing, flowing, flowing of the world.
The Making of a Shakespeare
There is nothing both wholly new and wholly true to be said concerning Shakespeare. Eckermann, who played Boswell to Goethe's Johnson, was once disposed to discuss Shakespeare with that great master. Alone of modern poets Goethe has revealed a capacity in some degree comparable with that of the myriad-minded Englishman. Yet Goethe replied to Eckermann, "We cannot talk about Shakespeare; everything is inadequate." If the German intellectual colossus, whose conversation bestrode the narrow world from comparative anatomy and scientific optics to the principles of art, could not talk of Shakespeare; if a poet whose writings, next to those of our own unrivalled bard, are most thickly studded with great stars of thought, could not talk of Shakespeare, what is to be said by us punier men who are compelled to peep about for matter of discourse? "Everything is inadequate." That perhaps is the reason why talk about Shakespeare, even from the sanest of men, is apt to convert itself into perfervid rhapsody. Meanwhile, from those whose sanity is less assured, it runs to the delirium of some harebrained cipher of Shakespeare-Geheimnis, and an amused world is asked to listen while some female Dogberry asserts that the truth, too long concealed, has been proved, and it will soon go near to be thought, that Romeo and Juliet was written by none other than Anne Hathaway.
I do not come before you to-night with either a rhapsody or a mare's-nest. Nor do I come with criticism of that marvellous creator, who, to use the bold expression of the Frenchman, apres Dieu crea le plus. When, with the progress of the years, a supreme writer is read more and more over all the world; when his plays are translated from English into Hebrew and Japanese, and performed in Roumanian and Hindustani, criticism should become simply a humble endeavour to realize the various powers and beauties which constitute such triumphant greatness.
That is my attitude to-night. To me Shakespeare—though not flawless, because human—is the crown and consummation of literature. Ardently and reverently as I admire Homer, AEschylus, Dante and Goethe, my mind places even these on somewhat lower seats than the creator of Hamlet and Othello. My object is to review—however imperfectly—what went to his making, what elements of gift and character, circumstance, training and experience were so mixed in him that nature could stand up and say: "This is a man." This is not the same idle performance as to descant rapturously upon his purely inborn genius. It is no purpose of mine to attempt a definition or dissection of genius. It is only in our youth or ignorance that we possess the confidence to define such abstractions as beauty, goodness, genius, and art. Still less do I propound a recipe for its manufacture. If I knew the secret of its attainment I should first try it upon myself.
Shakespeare was made by the right native genius, by the right environment, and by the right training. We will take these factors in that order.
Genius, like every other good gift and every perfect gift, "is from above, and cometh down from the Father of Lights." We feel its presence when we are fortunate enough to meet with it. In our hearts we know that it is some strange and incommunicable faculty for performing with a divine ease those achievements which are the despair of other men, or to which they can only make some approach by "infinite pains."
Brains have been classified as brains of one, two and three storeys. As you cannot, by thinking, add a cubit to your stature, so can you not, by thinking, add a storey to your brain. You may furnish and brighten the one storey or the two storeys with which your mental house was built before your birth. You may open the windows and let in the sun and air. By the best education and habit you may fill that house with art and beauty and light and comfort, or, by the worst, you may render it ugly, foul, bleak and dark; but you can never add a new floor. Shakespeare's brain was not only built by mother Nature in three storeys, but those storeys were lofty and roomy in an astonishing degree. They were also full of windows.
His natural gifts were vast. No writer ever possessed such a manifoldness, or rather, totality of them. In a different branch of art, one cannot but think of Michael Angelo, who could carve the Moses, paint the Sistine ceiling, or build St. Peter's, with equal grasp and mastery over conceptions each too sublime for ordinary men.
If we analyse and enumerate the endowments lavished by Nature on her "darling" of the Avon, we shall find, as in the case of Angelo, that he not only displays each separate gift, but that he displays each in its highest form and fullest measure. His own modesty may be permitted to envy this man's art or that man's scope, but never was envy more misplaced.
This is no rhapsody. Longinus tells us that an unassailable verdict upon the sublime must be the consensus of different ages, pursuits, tastes and walks in life. Concerning Shakespeare's gifts there is no discord among the competent—the Hazlitts, Coleridges, Emersons, Carlyles. Some of those gifts can be cultivated in considerable measure, some in a less; some lie beyond all training and all art. But no art or cultivation whatever can bring any one of them to the Shakespearean height and fulness, if Nature herself has been less kind than she was to the child of John Shakespeare, that unsuspecting burgess of Stratford town.
If, before we attempt to realise the supremacy of Shakespeare in any particular attribute, we have recognised how miserably we ourselves have managed, at some time or other, to fail in every one of them; if, before we approach an appreciation of Shakespeare, we have applied to other great creators the same analysis which we are about to apply to him; if we have learned from the most instructive examples what is meant by creation, by imagination, by insight, by wisdom, by wit, by humour, by eloquence, and by verbal music; then we cannot fail to acknowledge that here is the all-round, the all-comprehensive genius, superlatively dowered with each and all of them; that here is the entire mind, where others are partial; that here, as I believe some one has put it, is the man who, when others have said, or depicted, or argued, or pleaded, seems to come along and say, "let me show you how this should be done," and so does it once and for ever.
It is but few, one may believe, who are fully conscious of the reasons why Shakespeare could fill the Elizabethan pit with the rough London apprentices and the Elizabethan boxes with superfine gallants and courtiers; why he has been a delight equally to the worldling, to whom always "the play's the thing," and to the sedate scholar, who has perchance never set foot in a theatre, and to whom a play is a dramatic poem printed in a book. Yet the reason is simple. It is because Shakespeare's gifts are numerous and varied enough to appeal to populace and gallant, to worldling and student; they meet to the full each and every demand that can be made upon a work of dramatic art.
To begin with, he possesses the true constructive power, the first secret of the playwright's craft. He can visualise an extensive or complicated passage of human life, with its cross streams of action, its moving world of persons, its intricate motives and passions—whether it surround Julius Caesar in ancient Rome or Othello in Cyprus or one of his kings of English history—whether he find it recorded in Holinshed, or in Plutarch, or in some novel of Italy—and, with the swift intuition of the master craftsman, he grasps the essentials, arranges and links them, and renders them organic and compact. With sure judgment of effect he adds to his original or subtracts from it, and he rounds off the whole into an absorbing and unflagging story to be told in action during but "two hours traffic of the stage." No one can fully realise this immense selective and constructive power until he has analysed the action of Macbeth, and observed the marvellous skill which has compressed into those five short acts a whole world of great and little things done and said and thought.
But greater and rarer still than this architectural gift is the creative power which lies in imagination. And by imagination I do not mean merely the play of fancy in Mercutio's famous speech, nor simply the conjuring up of pictures as in Clarence's dream, nor the invention of those perfect similitudes which meet us everywhere. In these, it is true, Shakespeare is consummate. But I mean that deeper and more pervasive power, which beholds beings of the imagination as if they were flesh and blood realities, and presents men and women of the past or of nowhere as if they were breathing in the living present before our eyes; the shaping power which—to make a quotation that never stales—
gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name—
so that to us Elsinore for ever means Hamlet, Verona means Juliet, and we think of Shylock and Jessica as historical beings who veritably once trod the Piazza and the Merceria of Venice. The great novelist who wrote Vanity Fair possessed a rare measure of this power; but in him it was limited by the limitations of his sympathies and by his less amiable view of men. So was it with Carlyle. In Shakespeare it is boundless. To him all ages, all sorts and conditions of men and women, are understandable and worthy of interest. Intuitively he knows them, walks with them, talks with them, feels with them. They may be heroes, sages, fools, villains: they may be witty or stupid, refined or gross. Their characters may be direct and plain as those of Lear and Kent, or they may be as subtly shaded as that of Hamlet or of the melancholy soliloquist of Arden. He can in imagination traverse the whole gamut of feeling. He can be what or whom he will. This is the imagination in which Shakespeare is unsurpassable. This more than all powers, unless it be that of humour, is the one which Nature must bestow, and which nothing but Nature can bestow. And this is the power which alone can make drama convincing and immortal. Compare with the living and breathing reality of the characters in even the poorest of the Shakespearean plays, the wordy automata of Swinburne's Faliero or the frigid figures who talk through Tennyson's Cup. There are those who compare Scott with Shakespeare in the gift of visualising and vitalising the past. We Englishmen may leave it to the Scotchman Carlyle to settle with that comparison. For my own part, as a student of antiquity, I would maintain that, despite all petty anachronism, Shakespeare in his Roman plays comes nearer to the essential truth than any merely professional student can ever come. What he gives us is not archaeology, not the exact Forum nor the precise etiquette of the toga, but the man, the Caesar, the Coriolanus, the greasy populace, their heart and mind—these he sees with the penetrating eye of an imagination which never fails.
Of imagination, in this sense, wit and humour are a vital part. Without them you may imagine an Othello or a Lear, but you cannot imagine a Falstaff, a Touchstone, a Mercutio, or a Bottom. In this domain Shakespeare is sometimes thought to be rivalled by Aristophanes and Moliere. Yet one who read all three will find that these are his rivals rather in broad strokes of humour and flashes of wit than in the subtler virtues of his humour. His humour is all-pervading, it is colour woven into the whole tissue of thinking, speaking, and action. Nay, true humour is like the colour of a flower or leaf. It belongs to the nature of the plant, and is carried in the sap of its life. To talk like Falstaff, you must in imagination become Falstaff, feel as he would do, think as he would think. You cannot lay on the Falstaffian humour by a reasoning process from the outside. The result may be clever, but it will lack just that subtle and evasive quality which the modern cant seeks to describe by the word "inevitable." A merely brilliant man—a Sheridan, for instance—might make the endeavour, and gain some considerable applause. But Shakespeare for the moment lived the part, the humour came to him with the part, whether the humour of clowns and gravediggers, of Jaques, or of the moody prince of Denmark.
Essential also to such humour is the broad and tolerant temper which can not only suffer fools gladly, as being a large and representative class of God's creatures, but can actually rejoice in their folly as a thing delectable to a healthy contemplation.
But when the piece has been thus constructed with a master hand, and when the characters have been informed by imagination with all the convincingness of infinitely varied life, with humour, with sound and healthy and impartial understanding, much is still left. There is still to be considered the language or expression in which all is clothed. And in this respect the writer who has written best in any tongue, falls, when compared with Shakespeare, a step into the rear. Not Milton, for all his organ flood of noble phrase; not Shelley, for all his burning and rapturous utterance, can vie with the actor-playwright of the Globe in his gift of eloquence. It is entirely marvellous and beyond all explanation. No mere study or scholarship could attain to that inexhaustible fund, not merely of words, but of the right words. Orators and writers there are a many who never fail to find a word, and a good word, for the rounding of their sentences. But Shakespeare's words are not merely good words; they are the best words. Even the bare vocabulary of Burke or Macaulay would seem second-rate beside the vocabulary of Shakespeare. It is a commonplace to dilate upon the fact that Shakespeare has used 15,000 words, while Milton, our poet of widest reading and erudition, has but 8,000. I do not attach so much importance to that enumeration. The subjects, the sides of life, the classes of persons of whom Shakespeare treats, are so comprehensive of high and low, serious and jocose, while Milton's are confined to a range of such seriousness and dignity, that the comparison is but fallacious. Nevertheless this vast repertoire of words is in itself an amazing phenomenon. Still more amazing is the consummate tact with which he makes use of them, in sentences so terse and clear that they increasingly pass into the proverbs of everyday. And most amazing is that, with all his characters, and all their speeches, he never repeats himself. No better proof could be given that the speaker is for the moment not Shakespeare, but the character in which he has sunk himself. We need not pretend that he does not sometimes run riot in his power; yet, how seldom, in the day of his maturity, is that "sometimes," when we rightly understand his meanings.
Let critics, observing always who speaks and in what spirit he speaks, try to improve a word in a typical passage of Shakespeare. They speedily realise the error of their ways.
Take at random the very simplest line, say: "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank"; substitute some other word for "sweet" or "sleeps," and examine the result. The very sound of the line possesses the tone of the moonlight and the hour, the mood of Lorenzo and Jessica. Try an easy-looking similitude:—
How like a younker or a prodigal The scarfed bark puts from her native bay, Hugg'd and embraced by the strumpet wind! How like a prodigal doth she return, With over-weather'd ribs and ragged sails, Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind!
And, if the man who writes this nervous Saxon, writes elsewhere—
No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
that also is a lesson to those who have any notion of what is meant by the right word in the right place.
To me Shakespeare is the most stupendously eloquent man who ever set pen to paper. Shakespeare, says Goethe, offers us golden apples in silver dishes. But Goethe was a foreigner, he perhaps hardly realised that the dishes of English expression are, to the English reader who responds to the niceties of his own tongue, not less golden than the apples.
To these perfections let us add another, his superb sense of rhythm. Properly speaking, this is but an integral part of perfect eloquence. It is the concern of the poet, not only to make the words express the meaning, but to make the cadence express the tone and mood; to make it, in fact, answer to those rhythmic vibrations of the brain which go with all states of mental exaltation. It is Emerson who observes that "Shakespeare's sonnets are like the tone of voice of some incomparable person." He was doubtless thinking of their general effect upon our mood and spirit, but his remark is true of the mere movement of Shakespeare's lyric lines:—
Full many a glorious morning have I seen Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye, Kissing with golden face the meadows green, Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy.
When in the chronicle of wasted time I see descriptions of the fairest wights, And beauty making beautiful old rhyme In praise of ladies dead, and lovely knights,
and so on.
Here, as in the dramas, are no mechanical tricks, no obvious compassing of sickly sweetnesses. The accent falls where it should, unstrained. The disguised alliteration comes, as almost always in Milton also, not from set and conscious purpose, but from the promptings of a mind vibrating with harmonious suggestion.
This catalogue of virtues has been long, but it has required some self-command to prevent it from being longer. It justifies the exclamation with which Mr. Sidney Lee closes his life of Shakespeare, an exclamation which he deftly borrows from Hamlet: "How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in apprehension how like a God!"
So much for Nature's making. With such lavish powers, or at least potentialities, was Shakespeare born. It is appalling to reflect that their fruit might all have been lost to the world if John Shakespeare, the father, had been but a little poorer than he actually was; if William, the son, had been sent to the plough-tail without the rudiments of education, and so had been banished for ever from contact with bright spirits and all the brilliant motley of London life. His fate would have been that of Gray's rural "mute inglorious Milton" and the headstone with "Here lies William Shakespeare" would have meant nothing outside the parish, and very little inside it. It is an alarming thought also that, had he been born half a century later, though with every educational advantage, his manhood would have fallen under the grim Puritan tyranny, and he would never have written a play. It is a peculiarly happy combination of circumstances which we must thank for the making of Shakespeare as he is.
Nature produced the wonderful plant, but, for its perfect development, a plant requires a congenial soil and atmosphere; it needs light and water; it needs protection from early destruction, or stunting, or starvation. It may seem heterodox, but I would maintain stubbornly, against all the phalanx of Baconians and Bedlamites, that, for the cultivation of Shakespeare's peculiar genius, circumstances were almost wholly propitious. His very poverty was his stimulus. Even that school education of his, which is made by misunderstanding to appear so scant and pitiful, was, I doubt not, better adapted to his career than if he had been filled with all the learning of Verulam or Ben Jonson. But of that anon.
The first happy circumstance was the epoch at which he saw the light. In modern times two forms of poetry contend for the supremacy. The third kind, the epic, is dead. No Homer or Virgil can ever more arise, unless as a novelist in prose. Of the two perennial kinds, one is the lyric—the consummate blending of language and music which utters the cry of individual passion from the individual heart. The other is the drama, the presentation of human life in visible form, realised in all its complexity of motives, characters and moods. Both of these flourished mightily in Shakespeare's generation. Lyric poets were innumerable. The whole country rang with songs. The Elizabethan Miscellanies and Rhapsodies and Dainty Devices are testimony stronger even than the great names of Spenser and the sonneteers. No less did drama appeal to high and low, the Puritan always excepted. But the day of the Puritan had not yet dawned. The taste of society of every grade was for the theatre, but a theatre without scenery, in which it was required of the drama that it should be rich in high poetry. Poetry was just then both a fashion and a passion of the nation, as it never was before and never has been since. To a man born, like Shakespeare, with both the lyric and the dramatic gift, the age was full of example and stimulus, and, better still, full of challenge and exacting poetic standards. There is an immense difference between writing an artistic sonnet for a wide public which desires to read artistic sonnets, or composing a poetic drama for a wide public which desires to see poetic dramas, and doing these things for a narrow public which, after all, rather tolerates your efforts than demands them.