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Selections from the Prose Works of Matthew Arnold
by Matthew Arnold
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I had been reading Jeanne.[298] I made up my mind to go and see Toulx Ste. Croix, Boussac, and the Druidical stones on Mont Barlot, the Pierres Jaunatres.[299]

I remember looking out Toulx in Cassini's great map[300] at the Bodleian Library. The railway through the centre of France went in those days no farther than Vierzon. From Vierzon to Chateauroux one travelled by an ordinary diligence, from Chateauroux to La Chatre by a humbler diligence, from La Chatre to Boussac by the humblest diligence of all. At Boussac diligence ended, and patache[301] began. Between Chateauroux and La Chatre, a mile or two before reaching the latter place, the road passes by the village of Nohant. The Chateau of Nohant, in which Madame Sand lived, is a plain house by the road-side, with a walled garden. Down in the meadows, not far off, flows the Indre, bordered by trees. I passed Nohant without stopping, at La Chatre I dined and changed diligence, and went on by night up the valley of the Indre, the Vallee Noire, past Ste. Severe to Boussac. At Ste. Severe the Indre is quite a small stream. In the darkness we quitted its valley, and when day broke we were in the wilder and barer country of La Marche, with Boussac before us, and its high castle on a precipitous rock over the Little Creuse.

That day and the next I wandered through a silent country of heathy and ferny landes,[302] a region of granite boulders, holly, and broom, of copsewood and great chestnut trees; a region of broad light, and fresh breezes and wide horizons. I visited the Pierres Jaunatres. I stood at sunset on the platform of Toulx Ste. Croix, by the scrawled and almost effaced stone lions,—a relic, it is said, of the English rule,—and gazed on the blue mountains of Auvergne filling the distance, and southeastward of them, in a still further and fainter distance, on what seemed to be the mountains over Le Puy and the high valley of the Loire.

From Boussac I addressed to Madame Sand the sort of letter of which she must in her lifetime have had scores, a letter conveying to her, in bad French, the homage of a youthful and enthusiastic foreigner who had read her works with delight. She received the infliction good-naturedly, for on my return to La Chatre I found a message left at the inn by a servant from Nohant that Madame Sand would be glad to see me if I called. The mid-day breakfast at Nohant was not yet over when I reached the house, and I found a large party assembled. I entered with some trepidation, as well I might, considering how I had got there; but the simplicity of Madame Sand's manner put me at ease in a moment. She named some of those present; amongst them were her son and daughter, the Maurice and Solange [303] so familiar to us from her books, and Chopin[304] with his wonderful eyes. There was at that time nothing astonishing in Madame Sand's appearance. She was not in man's clothes, she wore a sort of costume not impossible, I should think (although on these matters I speak with hesitation), to members of the fair sex at this hour amongst ourselves, as an outdoor dress for the country or for Scotland. She made me sit by her and poured out for me the insipid and depressing beverage, boisson fade et melancolique, as Balzac called it, for which English people are thought abroad to be always thirsting,—tea. She conversed of the country through which I had been wandering, of the Berry peasants and their mode of life, of Switzerland, whither I was going; she touched politely, by a few questions and remarks, upon England and things and persons English,—upon Oxford and Cambridge, Byron, Bulwer. As she spoke, her eyes, head, bearing, were all of them striking; but the main impression she made was an impression of what I have already mentioned, —of simplicity, frank, cordial simplicity. After breakfast she led the way into the garden, asked me a few kind questions about myself and my plans, gathered a flower or two and gave them to me, shook hands heartily at the gate, and I saw her no more. In 1859 M. Michelet[305] gave me a letter to her, which would have enabled me to present myself in more regular fashion. Madame Sand was then in Paris. But a day or two passed before I could call, and when I called, Madame Sand had left Paris and had gone back to Nohant. The impression of 1846 has remained my single impression of her.

Of her gaze, form, and speech, that one impression is enough; better perhaps than a mixed impression from seeing her at sundry times and after successive changes. But as the first anniversary of her death [306] draws near, there arises again a desire which I felt when she died, the desire, not indeed to take a critical survey of her,—very far from it. I feel no inclination at all to go regularly through her productions, to classify and value them one by one, to pick out from them what the English public may most like, or to present to that public, for the most part ignorant of George Sand and for the most part indifferent to her, a full history and a judicial estimate of the woman and of her writings. But I desire to recall to my own mind, before the occasion offered by her death passes quite away,—to recall and collect the elements of that powerful total-impression which, as a writer, she made upon me; to recall and collect them, to bring them distinctly into view, to feel them in all their depth and power once more. What I here attempt is not for the benefit of the indifferent; it is for my own satisfaction, it is for myself. But perhaps those for whom George Sand has been a friend and a power will find an interest in following me.

Le sentiment de la vie ideale, qui n'est autre que la vie normale telle que nous sommes appeles a la connaitre;[307]—"the sentiment of the ideal life, which is none other than man's normal life as we shall some day know it,"—those words from one of her last publications give the ruling thought of George Sand, the ground-motive, as they say in music, of all her strain. It is as a personage inspired by this motive that she interests us.

The English public conceives of her as of a novel-writer who wrote stories more or less interesting; the earlier ones objectionable and dangerous, the later ones, some of them, unexceptionable and fit to be put into the hands of the youth of both sexes. With such a conception of George Sand, a story of hers like Consuelo[308] comes to be elevated in England into quite an undue relative importance, and to pass with very many people for her typical work, displaying all that is really valuable and significant in the author. Consuelo is a charming story. But George Sand is something more than a maker of charming stories, and only a portion of her is shown in Consuelo. She is more, likewise, than a creator of characters. She has created, with admirable truth to nature, characters most attractive and attaching, such as Edmee, Genevieve, Germain.[309] But she is not adequately expressed by them. We do not know her unless we feel the spirit which goes through her work as a whole.

In order to feel this spirit it is not, indeed, necessary to read all that she ever produced. Even three or four only out of her many books might suffice to show her to us, if they were well chosen; let us say, the Lettres d'un Voyageur, Mauprat, Francois le Champi,[310] and a story which I was glad to see Mr. Myers,[311] in his appreciative notice of Madame Sand, single out for praise,—Valvedre.[312] In these may be found all the principal elements of their author's strain: the cry of agony and revolt, the trust in nature and beauty, the aspiration towards a purged and renewed human society.

Of George Sand's strain, during forty years, these are the grand elements. Now it is one of them which appears most prominently, now it is another. The cry of agony and revolt is in her earlier work only, and passes away in her later. But in the evolution of these three elements, —the passion of agony and revolt, the consolation from nature and from beauty, the ideas of social renewal,—in the evolution of these is George Sand and George Sand's life and power. Through their evolution her constant motive declares and unfolds itself, that motive which we have set forth above: "the sentiment of the ideal life, which is none other than man's normal life as we shall one day know it." This is the motive, and through these elements is its evolution: an evolution pursued, moreover, with the most unfailing resolve, the most absolute sincerity.

The hour of agony and revolt passed away for George Sand, as it passed away for Goethe, as it passes away for their readers likewise. It passes away and does not return; yet those who, amid the agitations, more or less stormy, of their youth, betook themselves to the early works of George Sand, may in later life cease to read them, indeed, but they can no more forget them than they can forget Werther[313]. George Sand speaks somewhere of her "days of Corinne."[314] Days of Valentine, many of us may in like manner say,—days of Valentine, days of Lelia[315], days never to return! They are gone, we shall read the books no more, and yet how ineffaceable is their impression! How the sentences from George Sand's works of that period still linger in our memory and haunt the ear with their cadences! Grandiose and moving, they come, those cadences, like the sighing of the wind through the forest, like the breaking of the waves on the seashore. Lelia in her cell on the mountain of the Camaldoli—

"Sibyl, Sibyl forsaken; spirit of the days of old, joined to a brain which rebels against the divine inspiration; broken lyre, mute instrument, whose tones the world of to-day, if it heard them, could not understand, but yet in whose depth the eternal harmony murmurs imprisoned; priestess of death, I, I who feel and know that before now I have been Pythia, have wept before now, before now have spoken, but who cannot recollect, alas, cannot utter the word of healing! Yes, yes! I remember the cavern of truth and the access of revelation; but the word of human destiny, I have forgotten it; but the talisman of deliverance, it is lost from my hand. And yet, indeed, much, much have I seen! and when suffering presses me sore, when indignation takes hold of me, when I feel Prometheus wake up in my heart and beat his puissant wings against the stone which confines him,—oh! then, in prey to a frenzy without a name, to a despair without bounds, I invoke the unknown master and friend who might illumine my spirit and set free my tongue; but I grope in darkness, and my tired arms grasp nothing save delusive shadows. And for ten thousand years, as the sole answer to my cries, as the sole comfort in my agony, I hear astir, over this earth accurst, the despairing sob of impotent agony. For ten thousand years I have cried in infinite space: Truth! Truth! For ten thousand years infinite space keeps answering me: Desire, Desire. O Sibyl forsaken! O mute Pythia! dash then thy head against the rocks of thy cavern, and mingle thy raging blood with the foam of the sea; for thou deemest thyself to have possessed the almighty Word, and these ten thousand years thou art seeking him in vain."[316]

Or Sylvia's cry over Jacques[317] by his glacier in the Tyrol—

"When such a man as thou art is born into a world where he can do no true service; when, with the soul of an apostle and the courage of a martyr, he has simply to push his way among the heartless and aimless crowds which vegetate without living; the atmosphere suffocates him and he dies. Hated by sinners, the mock of fools, disliked by the envious, abandoned by the weak, what can he do but return to God, weary with having labored in vain, in sorrow at having accomplished nothing? The world remains in all its vileness and in all its hatefulness; this is what men call, 'the triumph of good sense over enthusiasm.'"[318]

Or Jacques himself, and his doctrine—

"Life is arid and terrible, repose is a dream, prudence is useless; mere reason alone serves simply to dry up the heart; there is but one virtue, the eternal sacrifice of oneself."

Or George Sand speaking in her own person, in the Lettres d'un Voyageur

"Ah, no, I was not born to be a poet, I was born to love. It is the misfortune of my destiny, it is the enmity of others, which have made me a wanderer and an artist. What I wanted was to live a human life; I had a heart, it has been torn violently from my breast. All that has been left me is a head, a head full of noise and pain, of horrible memories, of images of woe, of scenes of outrage. And because in writing stories to earn my bread I could not help remembering my sorrows, because I had the audacity to say that in married life there were to be found miserable beings, by reason of the weakness which is enjoined upon the woman, by reason of the brutality which is permitted to the man, by reason of the turpitudes which society covers and protects with a veil, I am pronounced immoral, I am treated as if I were the enemy of the human race."[319]

If only, alas, together with her honesty and her courage, she could feel within herself that she had also light and hope and power; that she was able to lead those whom she loved, and who looked to her for guidance! But no; her very own children, witnesses of her suffering, her uncertainty, her struggles, her evil report, may come to doubt her:—

"My poor children, my own flesh and blood, will perhaps turn upon me and say: 'You are leading us wrong, you mean to ruin us as well as yourself. Are you not unhappy, reprobated, evil spoken of? What have you gained by these unequal struggles, by these much trumpeted duels of yours with custom and belief? Let us do as others do; let us get what is to be got out of this easy and tolerant world.'

"This is what they will say to me. Or at best, if, out of tenderness for me, or from their own natural disposition, they give ear to my words and believe me, whither shall I guide them? Into what abysses shall we go and plunge ourselves, we three?—for we shall be our own three upon earth, and not one soul with us. What shall I reply to them if they come and say to me; 'Yes, life is unbearable in a world like this. Let us die together. Show us the path of Bernica, or the lake of Stenio, or the glaciers of Jacques.'"[320]

Nevertheless the failure of the impassioned seekers of a new and better world proves nothing, George Sand maintains, for the world as it is. Ineffectual they may be, but the world is still more ineffectual, and it is the world's course which is doomed to ruin, not theirs. "What has it done," exclaims George Sand in her preface to Guerin's Centaure, "what has it done for our moral education, and what is it doing for our children, this society shielded with such care?" Nothing. Those whom it calls vain complainers and rebels and madmen, may reply:—

"Suffer us to bewail our martyrs, poets without a country that we are, forlorn singers, well versed in the causes of their misery and of our own. You do not comprehend the malady which killed them; they themselves did not comprehend it. If one or two of us at the present day open our eyes to a new light, is it not by a strange and unaccountable good Providence; and have we not to seek our grain of faith in storm and darkness, combated by doubt, irony, the absence of all sympathy, all example, all brotherly aid, all protection and countenance in high places? Try yourselves to speak to your brethren heart to heart, conscience to conscience! Try it!—but you cannot, busied as you are with watching and patching up in all directions your dykes which the flood is invading. The material existence of this society of yours absorbs all your care, and requires more than all your efforts. Meanwhile the powers of human thought are growing into strength, and rise on all sides around you. Amongst these threatening apparitions, there are some which fade away and reenter the darkness, because the hour of life has not yet struck, and the fiery spirit which quickened them could strive no longer with the horrors of this present chaos; but there are others that can wait, and you will find them confronting you, up and alive, to say: 'You have allowed the death of our brethren, and we, we do not mean to die.'"

She did not, indeed. How should she faint and fail before her time, because of a world out of joint, because of the reign of stupidity, because of the passions of youth, because of the difficulties and disgusts of married life in the native seats of the homme sensuel moyen, the average sensual man, she who could feel so well the power of those eternal consolers, nature and beauty? From the very first they introduce a note of suavity in her strain of grief and passion. Who can forget the lanes and meadows of Valentine?

George Sand is one of the few French writers who keep us closely and truly intimate with rural nature. She gives us the wild-flowers by their actual names,—snowdrop, primrose, columbine, iris, scabious. Nowhere has she touched her native Berry and its little-known landscape, its campagnes ignorees, with a lovelier charm than in Valentine. The winding and deep lanes running out of the high road on either side, the fresh and calm spots they take us to, "meadows of a tender green, plaintive brooks, clumps of alder and mountain ash, a whole world of suave and pastoral nature,"—how delicious it all is! The grave and silent peasant whose very dog will hardly deign to bark at you, the great white ox, "the unfailing dean of these pastures," staring solemnly at you from the thicket; the farmhouse "with its avenue of maples, and the Indre, here hardly more than a bright rivulet, stealing along through rushes and yellow iris, in the field below,"—who, I say, can forget them? And that one lane in especial, the lane where Athenais puts her arm out of the side window of the rustic carriage and gathers May from the overarching hedge,—that lane with its startled blackbirds, and humming insects, and limpid water, and swaying water-plants, and shelving gravel, and yellow wagtails hopping, half-pert, half-frightened, on the sand,—that lane with its rushes, cresses, and mint below, its honeysuckle and traveller's-joy above,—how gladly might one give all that strangely English picture in English, if the charm of Madame Sand's language did not here defy translation! Let us try something less difficult, and yet something where we may still have her in this her beloved world of "simplicity, and sky, and fields and trees, and peasant life,—peasant life looked at, by preference, on its good and sound side." Voyez donc la simplicite, vous autres, voyez le ciel et les champs, et les arbres, et les paysans, surtout dans ce qu'ils ont de bon et de vrai.

The introduction to La Mare au Diable will give us what we want. George Sand has been looking at an engraving of Holbein's Laborer. [321] An old thick-set peasant, in rags, is driving his plough in the midst of a field. All around spreads a wild landscape, dotted with a few poor huts. The sun is setting behind a hill; the day of toil is nearly over. It has been a hard one; the ground is rugged and stony, the laborer's horses are but skin and bone, weak and exhausted. There is but one alert figure, the skeleton Death, who with a whip skips nimbly along at the horses' side and urges the team. Under the picture is a quotation in old French, to the effect that after the laborer's life of travail and service, in which he has to gain his bread by the sweat of his brow, here comes Death to fetch him away. And from so rude a life does Death take him, says George Sand, that Death is hardly unwelcome; and in another composition by Holbein, where men of almost every condition,— popes, sovereigns, lovers, gamblers, monks, soldiers,—are taunted with their fear of Death and do indeed see his approach with terror, Lazarus alone is easy and composed, and sitting on his dunghill at the rich man's door, tells Death that he does not dread him.

With her thoughts full of Holbein's mournful picture, George Sand goes out into the fields of her own Berry:—

"My walk was by the border of a field which some peasants were getting ready for being sown presently. The space to be ploughed was wide, as in Holbein's picture. The landscape was vast also; the great lines of green which it contained were just touched with russet by the approach of autumn; on the rich brown soil recent rain had left, in a good many furrows, lines of water, which shone in the sun like silver threads. The day was clear and soft, and the earth gave out a light smoke where it had been freshly laid open by the ploughshare. At the top of the field an old man, whose broad back and severe face were like those of the old peasant of Holbein, but whose clothes told no tale of poverty, was gravely driving his plough of an antique shape, drawn by two tranquil oxen, with coats of a pale buff, real patriarchs of the fallow, tall of make, somewhat thin, with long and backward-sloping horns, the kind of old workmen who by habit have got to be brothers to one another, as throughout our country-side they are called, and who, if one loses the other, refuse to work with a new comrade, and fret themselves to death. People unacquainted with the country will not believe in this affection of the ox for his yoke-fellow. They should come and see one of the poor beasts in a corner of his stable, thin, wasted, lashing with his restless tail his lean flanks, blowing uneasily and fastidiously on the provender offered to him, his eyes forever turned towards the stable door, scratching with his foot the empty place left at his side, sniffing the yokes and bands which his companion has worn, and incessantly calling for him with piteous lowings. The ox-herd will tell you: There is a pair of oxen done for! his brother is dead, and this one will work no more. He ought to be fattened for killing; but we cannot get him to eat, and in a short time he will have starved himself to death."[322]

How faithful and close it is, this contact of George Sand with country things, with the life of nature in its vast plenitude and pathos! And always in the end the human interest, as is right, emerges and predominates. What is the central figure in the fresh and calm rural world of George Sand? It is the peasant. And what is the peasant? He is France, life, the future. And this is the strength of George Sand, and of her second movement, after the first movement of energy and revolt was over, towards nature and beauty, towards the country, towards primitive life, the peasant. She regarded nature and beauty, not with the selfish and solitary joy of the artist who but seeks to appropriate them for his own purposes, she regarded them as a treasure of immense and hitherto unknown application, as a vast power of healing and delight for all, and for the peasant first and foremost. Yes she cries, the simple life is the true one! but the peasant, the great organ of that life, "the minister in that vast temple which only the sky is vast enough to embrace," the peasant is not doomed to toil and moil in it forever, overdone and unawakened, like Holbein's laborer, and to have for his best comfort the thought that death will set him free. Non, nous n'avons plus affaire a la mort, mais a la vie.[323] "Our business henceforth is not with death, but with life."

Joy is the great lifter of men, the great unfolder. Il faut que la vie soit bonne afin qu'elle soit feconde. "For life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a blessing":—

"Nature is eternally young, beautiful, bountiful. She pours out beauty and poetry for all that live, she pours it out on all plants, and the plants are permitted to expand in it freely. She possesses the secret of happiness, and no man has been able to take it away from her. The happiest of men would be he who possessing the science of his labor and working with his hands, earning his comfort and his freedom by the exercise of his intelligent force, found time to live by the heart and by the brain, to understand his own work and to love the work of God. The artist has satisfactions of this kind in the contemplation and reproduction of nature's beauty; but when he sees the affliction of those who people this paradise of earth, the upright and human-hearted artist feels a trouble in the midst of his enjoyment. The happy day will be when mind, heart, and hands shall be alive together, shall work in concert; when there shall be a harmony between God's munificence and man's delight in it. Then, instead of the piteous and frightful figure of Death, skipping along whip in hand by the peasant's side in the field, the allegorical painter will place there a radiant angel, sowing with full hands the blessed grain in the smoking furrow.

"And the dream of a kindly, free, poetic, laborious, simple existence for the tiller of the field is not so hard to realize that it must be banished into the world of chimaeras. Virgil's sweet and sad cry: 'O happy peasants, if they but knew their own blessings!' is a regret; but like all regrets, it is at the same time a prediction. The day will come when the laborer may be also an artist;—not in the sense of rendering nature's beauty, a matter which will be then of much less importance, but in the sense of feeling it. Does not this mysterious intuition of poetic beauty exist in him already in the form of instinct and of vague reverie?"[324]

It exists in him, too, adds Madame Sand, in the form of that nostalgia, that homesickness, which forever pursues the genuine French peasant if you transplant him. The peasant has here, then, the elements of the poetic sense, and of its high and pure satisfactions.

"But one part of the enjoyment which we possess is wanting to him, a pure and lofty pleasure which is surely his due, minister that he is in that vast temple which only the sky is vast enough to embrace. He has not the conscious knowledge of his sentiment. Those who have sentenced him to servitude from his mother's womb, not being able to debar him from reverie, have debarred him from reflection.

"Well, for all that, taking the peasant as he is, incomplete and seemingly condemned to an eternal childhood, I yet find him a more beautiful object than the man in whom his acquisition of knowledge has stifled sentiment. Do not rate yourselves so high above him, many of you who imagine that you have an imprescriptible right to his obedience; for you yourselves are the most incomplete and the least seeing of men. That simplicity of his soul is more to be loved than the false lights of yours."[325]

In all this we are passing from the second element in George Sand to the third,—her aspiration for a social new-birth, a renaissance sociale. It is eminently the ideal of France; it was hers. Her religion connected itself with this ideal. In the convent where she was brought up, she had in youth had an awakening of fervent mystical piety in the Catholic form. That form she could not keep. Popular religion of all kinds, with its deep internal impossibilities, its "heaven and hell serving to cover the illogical manifestations of the Divinity's apparent designs respecting us," its "God made in our image, silly and malicious, vain and puerile, irritable or tender, after our fashion," lost all sort of hold upon her:—

"Communion with such a God is impossible to me, I confess it. He is wiped out from my memory: there is no corner where I can find him any more. Nor do I find such a God out of doors either; he is not in the fields and waters, he is not in the starry sky. No, nor yet in the churches where men bow themselves; it is an extinct message, a dead letter, a thought that has done its day. Nothing of this belief, nothing of this God, subsists in me any longer."[326]

She refused to lament over the loss, to esteem it other than a benefit:—

"It is an addition to our stock of light, this detachment from the idolatrous conception of religion. It is no loss of the religious sense, as the persisters in idolatry maintain. It is quite the contrary, it is a restitution of allegiance to the true Divinity. It is a step made in the direction of this Divinity, it is an abjuration of the dogmas which did him dishonor."[327]

She does not attempt to give of this Divinity an account much more precise than that which we have in Wordsworth,—"a presence that disturbs me with the joy of animating thoughts."[328]

"Everything is divine (she says), even matter; everything is superhuman, even man. God is everywhere; he is in me in a measure proportioned to the little that I am. My present life separates me from him just in the degree determined by the actual state of childhood of our race. Let me content myself, in all my seeking, to feel after him, and to possess of him as much as this imperfect soul can take in with the intellectual sense I have."[329]

And she concludes:—

"The day will come when we shall no longer talk about God idly, nay, when we shall talk about him as little as possible. We shall cease to set him forth dogmatically, to dispute about his nature. We shall put compulsion on no one to pray to him, we shall leave the whole business of worship within the sanctuary of each man's conscience. And this will happen when we are really religious."[330]

Meanwhile the sense of this spirit or presence which animates us, the sense of the divine, is our stronghold and our consolation. A man may say of it: "It comes not by my desert, but the atom of divine sense given to me nothing can rob me of." Divine sense,—the phrase is a vague one; but it stands to Madame Sand for that to which are to be referred "all the best thoughts and the best actions of life, suffering endured, duty achieved, whatever purifies our existence, whatever vivifies our love."

Madame Sand is a Frenchwoman, and her religion is therefore, as we might expect, with peculiar fervency social. Always she has before her mind "the natural law which will have it (the italics are her own) that the species man cannot subsist and prosper but by association." Whatever else we may be in creation, we are, first and foremost, "at the head of the species which are called by instinct, and led by necessity, to the life of association." The word love—the great word, as she justly says, of the New Testament—acquires from her social enthusiasm a peculiar significance to her:—

"The word is a great one, because it involves infinite consequences. To love means to help one another, to have joint aspirations, to act in concert, to labor for the same end, to develop to its ideal consummation the fraternal instinct, thanks to which mankind have brought the earth under their dominion. Every time that he has been false to this instinct which is his law of life, his natural destiny, man has seen his temples crumble, his societies dissolve, his intellectual sense go wrong, his moral sense die out. The future is founded on love."[331]

So long as love is thus spoken of in the general, the ordinary serious Englishman will have no difficulty in inclining himself with respect while Madame Sand speaks of it. But when he finds that love implies, with her, social equality, he will begin to be staggered. And in truth for almost every Englishman Madame Sand's strong language about equality, and about France as the chosen vessel for exhibiting it, will sound exaggerated. "The human ideal," she says, "as well as the social ideal, is to achieve equality."[332] France, which has made equality its rallying cry, is therefore "the nation which loves and is loved," la nation qui aime et qu'on aime. The republic of equality is in her eyes "an ideal, a philosophy, a religion." She invokes the "holy doctrine of social liberty and fraternal equality, ever reappearing as a ray of love and truth amidst the storm." She calls it "the goal of man and the law of the future." She thinks it the secret of the civilization of France, the most civilized of nations. Amid the disasters of the late war she cannot forbear a cry of astonishment at the neutral nations, insensibles a l'egorgement d'une civilisation comme la notre, "looking on with insensibility while a civilization such as ours has its throat cut." Germany, with its stupid ideal of corporalism and Kruppism, is contrasted with France, full of social dreams, too civilized for war, incapable of planning and preparing war for twenty years, she is so incapable of hatred;—nous sommes si incapables de hair! We seem to be listening, not to George Sand, but to M. Victor Hugo, half genius, half charlatan; to M. Victor Hugo, or even to one of those French declaimers in whom we come down to no genius and all charlatan.

The form of such outbursts as we have quoted will always be distasteful to an Englishman. It is to be remembered that they came from Madame Sand under the pressure and anguish of the terrible calamities of 1870. But what we are most concerned with, and what Englishmen in general regard too little, is the degree of truth contained in these allegations that France is the most civilized of nations, and that she is so, above all, by her "holy doctrine of equality." How comes the idea to be so current; and to be passionately believed in, as we have seen, by such a woman as George Sand? It was so passionately believed in by her, that when one seeks, as I am now seeking, to recall her image, the image is incomplete if the passionate belief is kept from appearing.

I will not, with my scanty space, now discuss the belief; but I will seek to indicate how it must have commended itself, I think, to George Sand. I have somewhere called France "the country of Europe where the people is most alive."[333] The people is what interested George Sand. And in France the people is, above all, the peasant. The workman in Paris or in other great towns of France may afford material for such pictures as those which M. Zola[334] has lately given us in L'Assommoir—pictures of a kind long ago labelled by Madame Sand as "the literature of mysteries of iniquity, which men of talent and imagination try to bring into fashion." But the real people in France, the foundation of things there, both in George Sand's eyes and in reality, is the peasant. The peasant was the object of Madame Sand's fondest predilections in the present, and happiest hopes in the future. The Revolution and its doctrine of equality had made the French peasant. What wonder, then, if she saluted the doctrine as a holy and paramount one?

And the French peasant is really, so far as I can see, the largest and strongest element of soundness which the body social of any European nation possesses. To him is due that astonishing recovery which France has made since her defeat, and which George Sand predicted in the very hour of ruin. Yes, in 1870 she predicted ce reveil general qui va suivre, a la grande surprise des autres nations, l'espece d'agonie ou elles nous voient tombes,[335] "the general re-arising which, to the astonishment of other nations, is about to follow the sort of agony in which they now see us lying." To the condition, character, and qualities of the French peasant this recovery is in the main due. His material well-being is known to all of us. M. de Laveleye,[336] the well-known economist, a Belgian and a Protestant, says that France, being the country of Europe where the soil is more divided than anywhere except in Switzerland and Norway, is at the same time the country where well-being is most widely spread, where wealth has of late years increased most, and where population is least outrunning the limits which, for the comfort and progress of the working classes themselves, seem necessary. George Sand could see, of course, the well-being of the French peasant, for we can all see it.

But there is more. George Sand was a woman, with a woman's ideal of gentleness, of "the charm of good manners," as essential to civilization. She has somewhere spoken admirably of the variety and balance of forces which go to make up true civilization; "certain forces of weakness, docility, attractiveness, suavity, are here just as real forces as forces of vigor, encroachment, violence, or brutality." Yes, as real forces, although Prince Bismarck cannot see it; because human nature requires them, and, often as they may be baffled, and slow as may be the process of their asserting themselves, mankind is not satisfied with its own civilization, and keeps fidgeting at it and altering it again and again, until room is made for them. George Sand thought the French people,—meaning principally, again, by the French people the people properly so called, the peasant,—she thought it "the most kindly, the most amiable, of all peoples." Nothing is more touching than to read in her Journal, written in 1870, while she was witnessing what seemed to be "the agony of the Latin races," and undergoing what seemed to be the process of "dying in a general death of one's family, one's country, and one's nation," how constant is her defence of the people, the peasant, against her Republican friends. Her Republican friends were furious with the peasant; accused him of stolidity, cowardice, want of patriotism; accused him of having given them the Empire, with all its vileness; wanted to take away from him the suffrage. Again and again does George Sand take up his defence, and warn her friends of the folly and danger of their false estimate of him. "The contempt of the masses, there," she cries, "is the misfortune and crime of the present moment!"[337] "To execrate the people," she exclaims again, "is real blasphemy; the people is worth more than we are."

If the peasant gave us the Empire, says Madame Sand, it was because he saw the parties of liberals disputing, gesticulating, and threatening to tear one another asunder and France too; he was told the Empire is peace, and he accepted the Empire. The peasant was deceived, he is uninstructed, he moves slowly; but he moves, he has admirable virtues, and in him, says George Sand, is our life:—

"Poor Jacques Bonhomme! accuse thee and despise thee who will; for my part I pity thee, and in spite of thy faults I shall always love thee. Never will I forget how, a child, I was carried asleep on thy shoulders, how I was given over to thy care and followed thee everywhere, to the field, the stall, the cottage. They are all dead, those good old people who have borne me in their arms; but I remember them well, and I appreciate at this hour, to the minutest detail, the pureness, the kindness, the patience, the good humor, the poetry, which presided over that rustic education amidst disasters of like kind with those which we are undergoing now. Why should I quarrel with the peasant because on certain points he feels and thinks differently from what I do? There are other essential points on which we may feel eternally at one with him,— probity and charity."[338]

Another generation of peasants had grown up since that first revolutionary generation of her youth, and equality, as its reign proceeded, had not deteriorated but improved them.

"They have advanced greatly in self-respect and well-being, these peasants from twenty years old to forty: they never ask for anything. When one meets them they no longer take off their hat. If they know you they come up to you and hold out their hand. All foreigners who stay with us are struck with their good bearing, with their amenity, and the simple, friendly, and polite ease of their behavior. In presence of people whom they esteem they are, like their fathers, models of tact and politeness; but they have more than that mere sentiment of equality which was all that their fathers had,—they have the idea of equality, and the determination to maintain it. This step upwards they owe to their having the franchise. Those who would fain treat them as creatures of a lower order dare not now show this disposition to their face; it would not be pleasant."[339]

Mr. Hamerton's[340] interesting book about French life has much, I think, to confirm this account of the French peasant. What I have seen of France myself (and I have seen something) is fully in agreement with it. Of a civilization and an equality which makes the peasant thus human, gives to the bulk of the people well-being, probity, charity, self-respect, tact, and good manners, let us pardon Madame Sand if she feels and speaks enthusiastically. Some little variation on our own eternal trio of Barbarians, Philistines, Populace,[341] or on the eternal solo of Philistinism among our brethren of the United States and the Colonies, is surely permissible.

Where one is more inclined to differ from Madame Sand is in her estimate of her Republican friends of the educated classes. They may stand, she says, for the genius and the soul of France; they represent its "exalted imagination and profound sensibility," while the peasant represents its humble, sound, indispensable body. Her protege, the peasant, is much ruder with those eloquent gentlemen, and has his own name for one and all of them, l'avocat, by which he means to convey his belief that words are more to be looked for from that quarter than seriousness and profit. It seems to me by no means certain but that the peasant is in the right.

George Sand herself has said admirable things of these friends of hers; of their want of patience, temper, wisdom; of their "vague and violent way of talking"; of their interminable flow of "stimulating phrases, cold as death." Her own place is of course with the party and propaganda of organic change. But George Sand felt the poetry of the past; she had no hatreds; the furies, the follies, the self-deceptions of secularist and revolutionist fanatics filled her with dismay. They are, indeed, the great danger of France, and it is amongst the educated and articulate classes of France that they prevail. If the educated and articulate classes in France were as sound in their way as the inarticulate peasant is in his, France would present a different spectacle. Not "imagination and sensibility" are so much required from the educated classes of France, as simpler, more serious views of life; a knowledge how great a part conduct (if M. Challemel-Lacour[342] will allow me to say so) fills in it; a better example. The few who see this, such as Madame Sand among the dead, and M. Renan[343] among the living, perhaps awaken on that account, amongst quiet observers at a distance, all the more sympathy; but in France they are isolated.

All the later work of George Sand, however, all her hope of genuine social renovation, take the simple and serious ground so necessary. "The cure for us is far more simple than we will believe. All the better natures amongst us see it and feel it. It is a good direction given by ourselves to our hearts and consciences;—une bonne direction donnee par nous-memes a nos coeurs et a nos consciences."[344] These are among the last words of her Journal of 1870.

* * * * *

Whether or not the number of George Sand's works—always fresh, always attractive, but poured out too lavishly and rapidly—is likely to prove a hindrance to her fame, I do not care to consider. Posterity, alarmed at the way in which its literary baggage grows upon it, always seeks to leave behind it as much as it can, as much as it dares,—everything but masterpieces. But the immense vibration of George Sand's voice upon the ear of Europe will not soon die away. Her passions and her errors have been abundantly talked of. She left them behind her, and men's memory of her will leave them behind also. There will remain of her to mankind the sense of benefit and stimulus from the passage upon earth of that large and frank nature, of that large and pure utterance,—the the large utterance of the early gods. There will remain an admiring and ever widening report of that great and ingenuous soul, simple, affectionate, without vanity, without pedantry, human, equitable, patient, kind. She believed herself, she said, "to be in sympathy, across time and space, with a multitude of honest wills which interrogate their conscience and try to put themselves in accord with it." This chain of sympathy will extend more and more.

It is silent, that eloquent voice! it is sunk, that noble, that speaking head! we sum up, as we best can, what she said to us, and we bid her adieu. From many hearts in many lands a troop of tender and grateful regrets converge towards her humble churchyard in Berry. Let them be joined by these words of sad homage from one of a nation which she esteemed, and which knew her very little and very ill. Her guiding thought, the guiding thought which she did her best to make ours too, "the sentiment of the ideal life, which is none other than man's normal life as we shall one day know it," is in harmony with words and promises familiar to that sacred place where she lies. Exspectat resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venturi saeculi.[345]



WORDSWORTH[346]

I remember hearing Lord Macaulay say, after Wordsworth's death, when subscriptions were being collected to found a memorial of him, that ten years earlier more money could have been raised in Cambridge alone, to do honor to Wordsworth, than was now raised all through the country. Lord Macaulay had, as we know, his own heightened and telling way of putting things, and we must always make allowance for it. But probably it is true that Wordsworth has never, either before or since, been so accepted and popular, so established in possession of the minds of all who profess to care for poetry, as he was between the years 1830 and 1840, and at Cambridge. From the very first, no doubt, he had his believers and witnesses. But I have myself heard him declare that, for he knew not how many years, his poetry had never brought him in enough to buy his shoe-strings. The poetry-reading public was very slow to recognize him, and was very easily drawn away from him. Scott effaced him with this public. Byron effaced him.

The death of Byron seemed, however, to make an opening for Wordsworth. Scott, who had for some time ceased to produce poetry himself, and stood before the public as a great novelist; Scott, too genuine himself not to feel the profound genuineness of Wordsworth, and with an instinctive recognition of his firm hold on nature and of his local truth, always admired him sincerely, and praised him generously. The influence of Coleridge upon young men of ability was then powerful, and was still gathering strength; this influence told entirely in favor of Wordsworth's poetry. Cambridge was a place where Coleridge's influence had great action, and where Wordsworth's poetry, therefore, flourished especially. But even amongst the general public its sale grew large, the eminence of its author was widely recognized, and Rydal Mount[347] became an object of pilgrimage. I remember Wordsworth relating how one of the pilgrims, a clergyman, asked him if he had ever written anything besides the Guide to the Lakes. Yes, he answered modestly, he had written verses. Not every pilgrim was a reader, but the vogue was established, and the stream of pilgrims came.

Mr. Tennyson's decisive appearance dates from 1842.[348] One cannot say that he effaced Wordsworth as Scott and Byron had effaced him. The poetry of Wordsworth had been so long before the public, the suffrage of good judges was so steady and so strong in its favor, that by 1842 the verdict of posterity, one may almost say, had been already pronounced, and Wordsworth's English fame was secure. But the vogue, the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers, never quite thoroughly perhaps his, he gradually lost more and more, and Mr. Tennyson gained them. Mr. Tennyson drew to himself, and away from Wordsworth, the poetry-reading public, and the new generations. Even in 1850, when Wordsworth died, this diminution of popularity was visible, and occasioned the remark of Lord Macaulay which I quoted at starting.

The diminution has continued. The influence of Coleridge has waned, and Wordsworth's poetry can no longer draw succor from this ally. The poetry has not, however, wanted eulogists; and it may be said to have brought its eulogists luck, for almost every one who has praised Wordsworth's poetry has praised it well. But the public has remained cold, or, at least, undetermined. Even the abundance of Mr. Palgrave's fine and skilfully chosen specimens of Wordsworth, in the Golden Treasury, surprised many readers, and gave offense to not a few. To tenth-rate critics and compilers, for whom any violent shock to the public taste would be a temerity not to be risked, it is still quite permissible to speak of Wordsworth's poetry, not only with ignorance, but with impertinence. On the Continent he is almost unknown.

I cannot think, then, that Wordsworth has, up to this time, at all obtained his deserts. "Glory," said M. Renan the other day, "glory after all is the thing which has the best chance of not being altogether vanity." Wordsworth was a homely man, and himself would certainly never have thought of talking of glory as that which, after all, has the best chance of not being altogether vanity. Yet we may well allow that few things are less vain than real glory. Let us conceive of the whole group of civilized nations as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working towards a common result; a confederation whose members have a due knowledge both of the past, out of which they all proceed, and of one another. This was the ideal of Goethe, and it is an ideal which will impose itself upon the thoughts of our modern societies more and more. Then to be recognized by the verdict of such a confederation as a master, or even as a seriously and eminently worthy workman, in one's own line of intellectual or spiritual activity, is indeed glory; a glory which it would be difficult to rate too highly. For what could be more beneficent, more salutary? The world is forwarded by having its attention fixed on the best things; and here is a tribunal, free from all suspicion of national and provincial partiality, putting a stamp on the best things, and recommending them for general honor and acceptance. A nation, again, is furthered by recognition of its real gifts and successes; it is encouraged to develop them further. And here is an honest verdict, telling us which of our supposed successes are really, in the judgment of the great impartial world, and not in our private judgment only, successes, and which are not.

It is so easy to feel pride and satisfaction in one's own things, so hard to make sure that one is right in feeling it! We have a great empire. But so had Nebuchadnezzar. We extol the "unrivalled happiness" of our national civilization. But then comes a candid friend,[349] and remarks that our upper class is materialized, our middle class vulgarized, and our lower class brutalized. We are proud of our painting, our music. But we find that in the judgment of other people our painting is questionable, and our music non-existent. We are proud of our men of science. And here it turns out that the world is with us; we find that in the judgment of other people, too, Newton among the dead, and Mr. Darwin among the living, hold as high a place as they hold in our national opinion.

Finally, we are proud of our poets and poetry. Now poetry is nothing less than the most perfect speech of man, that in which he comes nearest to being able to utter the truth. It is no small thing, therefore, to succeed eminently in poetry. And so much is required for duly estimating success here, that about poetry it is perhaps hardest to arrive at a sure general verdict, and takes longest. Meanwhile, our own conviction of the superiority of our national poets is not decisive, is almost certain to be mingled, as we see constantly in English eulogy of Shakespeare, with much of provincial infatuation. And we know what was the opinion current amongst our neighbors the French—people of taste, acuteness, and quick literary tact—not a hundred years ago, about our great poets. The old Biographie Universelle[350] notices the pretension of the English to a place for their poets among the chief poets of the world, and says that this is a pretension which to no one but an Englishman can ever seem admissible. And the scornful, disparaging things said by foreigners about Shakespeare and Milton, and about our national over-estimate of them, have been often quoted, and will be in every one's remembrance.

A great change has taken place, and Shakespeare is now generally recognized, even in France, as one of the greatest of poets. Yes, some anti-Gallican cynic will say, the French rank him with Corneille and with Victor Hugo! But let me have the pleasure of quoting a sentence about Shakespeare, which I met with by accident not long ago in the Correspondant, a French review which not a dozen English people, I suppose, look at. The writer is praising Shakespeare's prose. With Shakespeare, he says, "prose comes in whenever the subject, being more familiar, is unsuited to the majestic English iambic." And he goes on: "Shakespeare is the king of poetic rhythm and style, as well as the king of the realm of thought: along with his dazzling prose, Shakespeare has succeeded in giving us the most varied, the most harmonious verse which has ever sounded upon the human ear since the verse of the Greeks." M. Henry Cochin,[351] the writer of this sentence, deserves our gratitude for it; it would not be easy to praise Shakespeare, in a single sentence, more justly. And when a foreigner and a Frenchman writes thus of Shakespeare, and when Goethe says of Milton, in whom there was so much to repel Goethe rather than to attract him, that "nothing has been ever done so entirely in the sense of the Greeks as Samson Agonistes," and that "Milton is in very truth a poet whom we must treat with all reverence," then we understand what constitutes a European recognition of poets and poetry as contradistinguished from a merely national recognition, and that in favor both of Milton and of Shakespeare the judgment of the high court of appeal has finally gone.

I come back to M. Renan's praise of glory, from which I started. Yes, real glory is a most serious thing, glory authenticated by the Amphictyonic Court[352] of final appeal, definite glory. And even for poets and poetry, long and difficult as may be the process of arriving at the right award, the right award comes at last, the definitive glory rests where it is deserved. Every establishment of such a real glory is good and wholesome for mankind at large, good and wholesome for the nation which produced the poet crowned with it. To the poet himself it can seldom do harm; for he, poor man, is in his grave, probably, long before his glory crowns him.

Wordsworth has been in his grave for some thirty years, and certainly his lovers and admirers cannot flatter themselves that this great and steady light of glory as yet shines over him. He is not fully recognized at home; he is not recognized at all abroad. Yet I firmly believe that the poetical performance of Wordsworth is, after that of Shakespeare and Milton, of which all the world now recognizes the worth, undoubtedly the most considerable in our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time. Chaucer is anterior; and on other grounds, too, he cannot well be brought into the comparison. But taking the roll of our chief poetical names, besides Shakespeare and Milton, from the age of Elizabeth downwards, and going through it,—Spenser, Dryden, Pope, Gray, Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns, Coleridge, Scott, Campbell, Moore, Byron, Shelley, Keats (I mention those only who are dead),—I think it certain that Wordsworth's name deserves to stand, and will finally stand, above them all. Several of the poets named have gifts and excellences which Wordsworth has not. But taking the performance of each as a whole, I say that Wordsworth seems to me to have left a body of poetical work superior in power, in interest, in the qualities which give enduring freshness, to that which any one of the others has left.

But this is not enough to say. I think it certain, further, that if we take the chief poetical names of the Continent since the death of Moliere, and, omitting Goethe, confront the remaining names with that of Wordsworth, the result is the same. Let us take Klopstock,[353] Lessing,[354] Schiller, Uhland,[355] Rueckert,[356] and Heine[357] for Germany; Filicaja,[358] Alfieri,[359] Manzoni,[360] and Leopardi[361] for Italy; Racine,[362] Boileau,[363] Voltaire, Andre Chenier,[364] Beranger,[365] Lamartine,[366] Musset,[367] M. Victor Hugo (he has been so long celebrated that although he still lives I may be permitted to name him) for France. Several of these, again, have evidently gifts and excellences to which Wordsworth can make no pretension. But in real poetical achievement it seems to me indubitable that to Wordsworth, here again, belongs the palm. It seems to me that Wordsworth has left behind him a body of poetical work which wears, and will wear, better on the whole than the performance of any one of these personages, so far more brilliant and celebrated, most of them, than the homely poet of Rydal. Wordsworth's performance in poetry is on the whole, in power, in interest, in the qualities which give enduring freshness, superior to theirs.

This is a high claim to make for Wordsworth. But if it is a just claim, if Wordsworth's place among the poets who have appeared in the last two or three centuries is after Shakespeare, Moliere, Milton, Goethe, indeed, but before all the rest, then in time Wordsworth will have his due. We shall recognize him in his place, as we recognize Shakespeare and Milton; and not only we ourselves shall recognize him, but he will be recognized by Europe also. Meanwhile, those who recognize him already may do well, perhaps, to ask themselves whether there are not in the case of Wordsworth certain special obstacles which hinder or delay his due recognition by others, and whether these obstacles are not in some measure removable.

The Excursion and the Prelude, his poems of greatest bulk, are by no means Wordsworth's best work. His best work is in his shorter pieces, and many indeed are there of these which are of first-rate excellence. But in his seven volumes the pieces of high merit are mingled with a mass of pieces very inferior to them; so inferior to them that it seems wonderful how the same poet should have produced both. Shakespeare frequently has lines and passages in a strain quite false, and which are entirely unworthy of him. But one can imagine him smiling if one could meet him in the Elysian Fields and tell him so; smiling and replying that he knew it perfectly well himself, and what did it matter? But with Wordsworth the case is different. Work altogether inferior, work quite uninspired, flat and dull, is produced by him with evident unconsciousness of its defects, and he presents it to us with the same faith and seriousness as his best work. Now a drama or an epic fill the mind, and one does not look beyond them; but in a collection of short pieces the impression made by one piece requires to be continued and sustained by the piece following. In reading Wordsworth the impression made by one of his fine pieces is too often dulled and spoiled by a very inferior piece coming after it.

Wordsworth composed verses during a space of some sixty years; and it is no exaggeration to say that within one single decade of those years, between 1798 and 1808, almost all his really first-rate work was produced. A mass of inferior work remains, work done before and after this golden prime, imbedding the first-rate work and clogging it, obstructing our approach to it, chilling, not unfrequently, the high-wrought mood with which we leave it. To be recognized far and wide as a great poet, to be possible and receivable as a classic, Wordsworth needs to be relieved of a great deal of the poetical baggage which now encumbers him. To administer this relief is indispensable, unless he is to continue to be a poet for the few only,—a poet valued far below his real worth by the world.

There is another thing. Wordsworth classified his poems not according to any commonly received plan of arrangement, but according to a scheme of mental physiology. He has poems of the fancy, poems of the imagination, poems of sentiment and reflection, and so on. His categories are ingenious but far-fetched, and the result of his employment of them is unsatisfactory. Poems are separated one from another which possess a kinship of subject or of treatment far more vital and deep than the supposed unity of mental origin, which was Wordsworth's reason for joining them with others.

The tact of the Greeks in matters of this kind was infallible. We may rely upon it that we shall not improve upon the classification adopted by the Greeks for kinds of poetry; that their categories of epic, dramatic, lyric, and so forth, have a natural propriety, and should be adhered to. It may sometimes seem doubtful to which of two categories a poem belongs; whether this or that poem is to be called, for instance, narrative or lyric, lyric or elegiac. But there is to be found in every good poem a strain, a predominant note, which determines the poem as belonging to one of these kinds rather than the other; and here is the best proof of the value of the classification, and of the advantage of adhering to it. Wordsworth's poems will never produce their due effect until they are freed from their present artificial arrangement, and grouped more naturally.

Disengaged from the quantity of inferior work which now obscures them, the best poems of Wordsworth, I hear many people say, would indeed stand out in great beauty, but they would prove to be very few in number, scarcely more than a half a dozen. I maintain, on the other hand, that what strikes me with admiration, what establishes in my opinion Wordsworth's superiority, is the great and ample body of powerful work which remains to him, even after all his inferior work has been cleared away. He gives us so much to rest upon, so much which communicates his spirit and engages ours!

This is of very great importance. If it were a comparison of single pieces, or of three or four pieces, by each poet, I do not say that Wordsworth would stand decisively above Gray, or Burns, or Coleridge, or Keats, or Manzoni, or Heine. It is in his ampler body of powerful work that I find his superiority. His good work itself, his work which counts, is not all of it, of course, of equal value. Some kinds of poetry are in themselves lower kinds than others. The ballad kind is a lower kind; the didactic kind, still more, is a lower kind. Poetry of this latter sort counts, too, sometimes, by its biographical interest partly, not by its poetical interest pure and simple; but then this can only be when the poet producing it has the power and importance of Wordsworth, a power and importance which he assuredly did not establish by such didactic poetry alone. Altogether, it is, I say, by the great body of powerful and significant work which remains to him, after every reduction and deduction has been made, that Wordsworth's superiority is proved.

To exhibit this body of Wordsworth's best work, to clear away obstructions from around it, and to let it speak for itself, is what every lover of Wordsworth should desire. Until this has been done, Wordsworth, whom we, to whom he is dear, all of us know and feel to be so great a poet, has not had a fair chance before the world. When once it has been done, he will make his way best, not by our advocacy of him, but by his own worth and power. We may safely leave him to make his way thus, we who believe that a superior worth and power in poetry finds in mankind a sense responsive to it and disposed at last to recognize it. Yet at the outset, before he has been duly known and recognized, we may do Wordsworth a service, perhaps, by indicating in what his superior power and worth will be found to consist, and in what it will not.

Long ago, in speaking of Homer, I said that the noble and profound application of ideas to life is the most essential part of poetic greatness[Transcriber's note: no punctuation here] I said that a great poet receives his distinctive character of superiority from his application, under the conditions immutably fixed by the laws of poetic beauty and poetic truth, from his application, I say, to his subject, whatever it may be, of the ideas

"On man, on nature, and on human life,"[368]

which he has acquired for himself. The line quoted is Wordsworth's own; and his superiority arises from his powerful use, in his best pieces, his powerful application to his subject, of ideas "on man, on nature, and on human life."

Voltaire, with his signal acuteness, most truly remarked that "no nation has treated in poetry moral ideas with more energy and depth than the English nation." And he adds; "There, it seems to me, is the great merit of the English poets." Voltaire does not mean by treating in poetry moral ideas, the composing moral and didactic poems;—that brings us but a very little way in poetry. He means just the same thing as was meant when I spoke above "of the noble and profound application of ideas to life"; and he means the application of these ideas under the conditions fixed for us by the laws of poetic beauty and poetic truth. If it is said that to call these ideas moral ideas is to introduce a strong and injurious limitation, I answer that it is to do nothing of the kind, because moral ideas are really so main a part of human life. The question, how to live, is itself a moral idea; and it is the question which most interests every man, and with which, in some way or other, he is perpetually occupied. A large sense is of course to be given to the term moral. Whatever bears upon the question, "how to live," comes under it.

"Nor love thy life, nor hate; but, what thou liv'st, Live well; how long or short, permit to heaven."[369]

In those fine lines Milton utters, as every one at once perceives, a moral idea. Yes, but so too, when Keats consoles the forward-bending lover on the Grecian Urn, the lover arrested and presented in immortal relief by the sculptor's hand before he can kiss, with the line,

"Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair—"

he utters a moral idea. When Shakespeare says, that

"We are such stuff As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep,"[370]

he utters a moral idea.

Voltaire was right in thinking that the energetic and profound treatment of moral ideas, in this large sense, is what distinguishes the English poetry. He sincerely meant praise, no dispraise or hint of limitation; and they err who suppose that poetic limitation is a necessary consequence of the fact, the fact being granted as Voltaire states it. If what distinguishes the greatest poets is their powerful and profound application of ideas to life, which surely no good critic will deny, then to prefix to the term ideas here the term moral makes hardly any difference, because human life itself is in so preponderating a degree moral.

It is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life;[371] that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life,—to the question: How to live. Morals are often treated in a narrow and false fashion; they are bound up with systems of thought and belief which have had their day; they are fallen into the hands of pedants and professional dealers; they grow tiresome to some of us. We find attraction, at times, even in a poetry of revolt against them; in a poetry which might take for its motto Omar Khayyam's words: "Let us make up in the tavern for the time which we have wasted in the mosque." Or we find attractions in a poetry indifferent to them; in a poetry where the contents may be what they will, but where the form is studied and exquisite. We delude ourselves in either case; and the best cure for our delusion is to let our minds rest upon that great and inexhaustible word life, until we learn to enter into its meaning. A poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life; a poetry of indifference towards moral ideas is a poetry of indifference towards life.

Epictetus had a happy figure for things like the play of the senses, or literary form and finish, or argumentative ingenuity, in comparison with "the best and master thing" for us, as he called it, the concern, how to live. Some people were afraid of them, he said, or they disliked and undervalued them. Such people were wrong; they were unthankful or cowardly. But the things might also be over-prized, and treated as final when they are not. They bear to life the relation which inns bear to home. "As if a man, journeying home, and finding a nice inn on the road, and liking it, were to stay forever at the inn! Man, thou hast forgotten thine object; thy journey was not to this, but through this. 'But this inn is taking.' And how many other inns, too, are taking, and how many fields and meadows! but as places of passage merely, you have an object, which is this: to get home, to do your duty to your family, friends, and fellow-countrymen, to attain inward freedom, serenity, happiness, contentment. Style takes your fancy, arguing takes your fancy, and you forget your home and want to make your abode with them and to stay with them, on the plea that they are taking. Who denies that they are taking? but as places of passage, as inns. And when I say this, you suppose me to be attacking the care for style, the care for argument. I am not; I attack the resting in them, the not looking to the end which is beyond them."[372]

Now, when we come across a poet like Theophile Gautier,[373] we have a poet who has taken up his abode at an inn, and never got farther. There may be inducements to this or that one of us, at this or that moment, to find delight in him, to cleave to him; but after all, we do not change the truth about him,—we only stay ourselves in his inn along with him. And when we come across a poet like Wordsworth, who sings

"Of truth, of grandeur, beauty, love and hope, And melancholy fear subdued by faith, Of blessed consolations in distress, Of moral strength and intellectual power, Of joy in widest commonalty spread—"[374]

then we have a poet intent on "the best and master thing," and who prosecutes his journey home. We say, for brevity's sake, that he deals with life, because he deals with that in which life really consists. This is what Voltaire means to praise in the English poets,—this dealing with what is really life. But always it is the mark of the greatest poets that they deal with it; and to say that the English poets are remarkable for dealing with it, is only another way of saying, what is true, that in poetry the English genius has especially shown its power.

Wordsworth deals with it, and his greatness lies in his dealing with it so powerfully. I have named a number of celebrated poets above all of whom he, in my opinion, deserves to be placed. He is to be placed above poets like Voltaire, Dryden, Pope, Lessing, Schiller, because these famous personages, with a thousand gifts and merits, never, or scarcely ever, attain the distinctive accent and utterance of the high and genuine poets—

"Quique pii vates et Phoebo digna locuti,"[375]

at all. Burns, Keats, Heine, not to speak of others in our list, have this accent;—who can doubt it? And at the same time they have treasures of humor, felicity, passion, for which in Wordsworth we shall look in vain. Where, then, is Wordsworth's superiority? It is here; he deals with more of life than they do; he deals with life as a whole, more powerfully.

No Wordsworthian will doubt this. Nay, the fervent Wordsworthian will add, as Mr. Leslie Stephen[376] does, that Wordsworth's poetry is precious because his philosophy is sound; that his "ethical system is as distinctive and capable of exposition as Bishop Butler's"; that his poetry is informed by ideas which "fall spontaneously into a scientific system of thought." But we must be on our guard against the Wordsworthians, if we want to secure for Wordsworth his due rank as a poet. The Wordsworthians are apt to praise him for the wrong things, and to lay far too much stress upon what they call his philosophy. His poetry is the reality, his philosophy—so far, at least, as it may put on the form and habit of "a scientific system of thought," and the more that it puts them on—is the illusion. Perhaps we shall one day learn to make this proposition general, and to say: Poetry is the reality, philosophy the illusion. But in Wordsworth's case, at any rate, we cannot do him justice until we dismiss his formal philosophy.

The Excursion abounds with philosophy and therefore the Excursion is to the Wordsworthian what it never can be to the disinterested lover of poetry,—a satisfactory work. "Duty exists," says Wordsworth, in the Excursion; and then he proceeds thus—

" ... Immutably survive, For our support, the measures and the forms, Which an abstract Intelligence supplies, Whose kingdom is, where time and space are not."[377]

And the Wordsworthian is delighted, and thinks that here is a sweet union of philosophy and poetry. But the disinterested lover of poetry will feel that the lines carry us really not a step farther than the proposition which they would interpret; that they are a tissue of elevated but abstract verbiage, alien to the very nature of poetry.

Or let us come direct to the centre of Wordsworth's philosophy, as "an ethical system, as distinctive and capable of systematical exposition as Bishop Butler's"—

"... One adequate support For the calamities of mortal life Exists, one only;—an assured belief That the procession of our fate, howe'er Sad or disturbed, is ordered by a Being Of infinite benevolence and power; Whose everlasting purposes embrace All accidents, converting them to good."[378]



That is doctrine such as we hear in church too, religious and philosophic doctrine; and the attached Wordsworthian loves passages of such doctrine, and brings them forward in proof of his poet's excellence. But however true the doctrine may be, it has, as here presented, none of the characters of poetic truth, the kind of truth which we require from a poet, and in which Wordsworth is really strong.

Even the "intimations" of the famous Ode,[379] those corner-stones of the supposed philosophic system of Wordsworth,—the idea of the high instincts and affections coming out in childhood, testifying of a divine home recently left, and fading away as our life proceeds,—this idea, of undeniable beauty as a play of fancy, has itself not the character of poetic truth of the best kind; it has no real solidity. The instinct of delight in Nature and her beauty had no doubt extraordinary strength in Wordsworth himself as a child.

But to say that universally this instinct is mighty in childhood, and tends to die away afterwards, is to say what is extremely doubtful. In many people, perhaps with the majority of educated persons, the love of nature is nearly imperceptible at ten years old, but strong and operative at thirty. In general we may say of these high instincts of early childhood, the base of the alleged systematic philosophy of Wordsworth, what Thucydides says of the early achievements of the Greek race: "It is impossible to speak with certainty of what is so remote; but from all that we can really investigate, I should say that they were no very great things."

Finally, the "scientific system of thought" in Wordsworth gives us at least such poetry as this, which the devout Wordsworthian accepts—



"O for the coming of that glorious time When, prizing knowledge as her noblest wealth And best protection, this Imperial Realm, While she exacts allegiance, shall admit An obligation, on her part, to teach Them who are born to serve her and obey; Binding herself by statute to secure, For all the children whom her soil maintains, The rudiments of letters, and inform The mind with moral and religious truth."[380]

Wordsworth calls Voltaire dull, and surely the production of these un-Voltairian lines must have been imposed on him as a judgment! One can hear them being quoted at a Social Science Congress; one can call up the whole scene. A great room in one of our dismal provincial towns; dusty air and jaded afternoon daylight; benches full of men with bald heads and women in spectacles; an orator lifting up his face from a manuscript written within and without to declaim these lines of Wordsworth; and in the soul of any poor child of nature who may have wandered in thither, an unutterable sense of lamentation, and mourning, and woe!

"But turn we," as Wordsworth says, "from these bold, bad men," the haunters of Social Science Congresses. And let us be on our guard, too, against the exhibitors and extollers of a "scientific system of thought" in Wordsworth's poetry. The poetry will never be seen aright while they thus exhibit it. The cause of its greatness is simple, and may be told quite simply. Wordsworth's poetry is great because of the extraordinary power with which Wordsworth feels the joy offered to us in nature, the joy offered to us in the simple primary affections and duties; and because of the extraordinary power with which, in case after case, he shows us this joy, and renders it so as to make us share it.

The source of joy from which he thus draws is the truest and most unfailing source of joy accessible to man. It is also accessible universally. Wordsworth brings us word, therefore, according to his own strong and characteristic line, he brings us word

"Of joy in widest commonalty spread."[381]

Here is an immense advantage for a poet. Wordsworth tells of what all seek, and tells of it at its truest and best source, and yet a source where all may go and draw for it.

Nevertheless, we are not to suppose that everything is precious which Wordsworth, standing even at this perennial and beautiful source, may give us. Wordsworthians are apt to talk as if it must be. They will speak with the same reverence of The Sailor's Mother, for example, as of Lucy Gray. They do their master harm by such lack of discrimination. Lucy Gray is a beautiful success; The Sailor's Mother is a failure. To give aright what he wishes to give, to interpret and render successfully, is not always within Wordsworth's own command. It is within no poet's command; here is the part of the Muse, the inspiration, the God, the "not ourselves."[382] In Wordsworth's case, the accident, for so it may almost be called, of inspiration, is of peculiar importance. No poet, perhaps, is so evidently filled with a new and sacred energy when the inspiration is upon him; no poet, when it fails him, is so left "weak as is a breaking wave." I remember hearing him say that "Goethe's poetry was not inevitable enough." The remark is striking and true; no line in Goethe, as Goethe said himself, but its maker knew well how it came there. Wordsworth is right, Goethe's poetry is not inevitable; not inevitable enough. But Wordsworth's poetry, when he is at his best, is inevitable, as inevitable as Nature herself. It might seem that Nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him. He has no style. He was too conversant with Milton not to catch at times his master's manner, and he has fine Miltonic lines; but he has no assured poetic style of his own, like Milton. When he seeks to have a style he falls into ponderosity and pomposity. In the Excursion we have his style, as an artistic product of his own creation; and although Jeffrey completely failed to recognize Wordsworth's real greatness, he was yet not wrong in saying of the Excursion, as a work of poetic style: "This will never do."[383]. And yet magical as is that power, which Wordsworth has not, of assured and possessed poetic style, he has something which is an equivalent for it.

Every one who has any sense for these things feels the subtle turn, the heightening, which is given to a poet's verse by his genius for style. We can feel it in the

"After life's fitful fever, he sleeps well"—[384]

of Shakespeare; in the

"... though fall'n on evil days, On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues"—[385]

of Milton. It is the incomparable charm of Milton's power of poetic style which gives such worth to Paradise Regained, and makes a great poem of a work in which Milton's imagination does not soar high. Wordsworth has in constant possession, and at command, no style of this kind; but he had too poetic a nature, and had read the great poets too well, not to catch, as I have already remarked, something of it occasionally. We find it not only in his Miltonic lines; we find it in such a phrase as this, where the manner is his own, not Milton's—

"the fierce confederate storm Of sorrow barricadoed evermore Within the walls of cities;"[386]



although even here, perhaps, the power of style which is undeniable, is more properly that of eloquent prose than the subtle heightening and change wrought by genuine poetic style. It is style, again, and the elevation given by style, which chiefly makes the effectiveness of Laodameia. Still, the right sort of verse to choose from Wordsworth, if we are to seize his true and most characteristic form of expression, is a line like this from Michael

"And never lifted up a single stone."

There is nothing subtle in it, no heightening, no study of poetic style, strictly so called, at all; yet it is expression of the highest and most truly expressive kind.

Wordsworth owed much to Burns, and a style of perfect plainness, relying for effect solely on the weight and force of that which with entire fidelity it utters, Burns could show him.

"The poor inhabitant below Was quick to learn and wise to know, And keenly felt the friendly glow And softer flame; But thoughtless follies laid him low And stain'd his name."[387]

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