George Eliot; A Critical Study of Her Life, Writings & Philosophy
George Willis Cooke
Part 7 out of 8
when he has read a critique of me, he has handed it to me, saying, "_You_
must read this." And your estimate of _Daniel Deronda_ made one of these
Certainly, if I had been asked to choose _what_ should be written about my
book and _who_ should write it, I should have sketched--well, not anything
so good as what you have written, but an article which must be written by a
Jew who showed not merely sympathy with the best aspirations of his race,
but a remarkable insight into the nature of art and the processes of the
artistic mind. Believe me, I should not have cared to devour even ardent
praise if it had not come from one who showed the discriminating
sensibility, the perfect response to the artist's intention, which must
make the fullest, rarest joy to one who works from inward conviction and
not in compliance with current fashions. Such a response holds for an
author not only what is best in "the life that now is," but the promise of
"that which is to come." I mean that the usual approximative, narrow
perception of what one has been intending and professedly feeling in one's
work, impresses one with the sense that it must be poor perishable stuff
without roots to hike any lasting hold in the minds of men; while any
instance of complete comprehension encourages one to hope that the creative
prompting has foreshadowed, and will continue to satisfy, a need in other
Excuse me that I write but imperfectly, and perhaps dimly, what I have felt
in reading your article. It has affected me deeply, and though the
prejudice and ignorant obtuseness which has met my effort to contribute
something to the ennobling of Judaism in the conception of the Christian
community and in the consciousness of the Jewish community, has never for a
moment made me repent my choice, but rather has been added proof to me that
the effort has been needed,--yet I confess that I had an unsatisfied hanger
for certain signs of sympathetic discernment, which you only have given. I
may mention as one instance your clear perception of the relation between
the presentation of the Jewish element and those of English social life.
I work under the pressure of small hurries; for we are just moving into the
country for the summer, and all things are in a vagrant condition around
me. But I wished not to defer answering your letter to an uncertain
My husband has said more than once that he feels grateful to you. For he is
more sensitive on my behalf than on his own.
Hence he unites with me in the assurance of the high regard with which I
Always yours faithfully,
This first letter was followed a few months later by a second.
THE PRIORY, 21 NORTH BANK, REGENT'S PAKE,
Oct. 12, '77.
MY DEAR SIR,--I trust it will not be otherwise than gratifying to you to
know that your stirring article on _Daniel Deronda_ is now translated into
English by a son of Prof. Ferrier, who was a philosophical writer of
considerable mark. It will be issued in a handsomer form than that of the
pamphlet, and will appear within this autumnal publishing season, Messrs.
Blackwood having already advertised it. Whenever a copy is ready we shall
have the pleasure of sending it to you. There is often something to be
borne with in reading one's own writing in a translation, but I hope that
in this case you will not be made to wince severely.
In waiting to send you this news I seem to have deferred too long the
expression of my warm thanks for your kindness in sending me the Hebrew
translations of Leasing and the collection of Hebrew poems, a kindness
which I felt myself rather presumptuous in asking for, since your time must
be well filled with more important demands. Yet I must further beg you,
when you have an opportunity, to assure Herr Bacher that I was most
gratefully touched by the sympathetic verses with which he enriched the
gift of his work.
I see by your last letter to my husband that your Theological Seminary was
to open on the 4th of this month, so that this too retrospective letter of
mine will reach you in the midst of your new duties. I trust that this new
institution will be a great good to professor and students, and that your
position is of a kind that you contemplate as permanent. To teach the young
personally has always seemed to me the most satisfactory supplement to
teaching the world through books, and I have often wished that I had such a
means of having fresh, living, spiritual children within sight.
One can hardly turn one's thought toward Eastern Europe just now without a
mingling of pain and dread; but we mass together distant scenes and events
in an unreal way, and one would like to believe that the present troubles
will not at any time press on you in Hungary with more external misfortune
than on us in England.
Mr. Lewes is happily occupied in his psychological studies. We both look,
forward to the reception of the work you kindly promised us, and he begs me
to offer you his best regards.
Believe me, my dear sir,
Yours with much esteem,
It was a part of George Eliot's purpose in _Daniel Deronda_ to criticise
the social life of England in the spirit in which she had criticised it in
_Middlemarch_, as being deficient in spiritual power, moral purpose and
noble sentiment. If she made it clear in _Middlemarch_ that the individual
is crippled and betrayed by society, it was her purpose to make it quite as
clear in _Daniel Deronda_ how society may become the true inspirer of the
individual. We may quarrel with her theory of the origin and nature of the
spiritual life in man, but she has somewhat truly conceived its vast
importance and shown the character of that influence it everywhere has over
man's life. As types of spiritual lifts, and as individual conceptions of
human character, the personages of this novel are drawn with marvellous
skill. Mr. E.P. Whipple says that Daniel Deronda is "one of the noblest
and most original characters among the heroes imagined by poets, dramatists
and novelists." With equal or even greater justice can it be said that
Gwendolen Harleth is one of the most powerful and grandly conceived of
imaginary creations in all literature. In the characters, the situations,
and the whole working out of this novel, George Eliot shows herself one of
the great masters of literary creation.
When the prejudices aroused by the Jewish element in it are allayed, and
_Daniel Deronda_ is read as a work of literary genius, it will be found not
to be the least interesting and important of George Eliot's books. It has
the religious interest and inspiration of _Adam Bede_, the historic value
of _Romola_, and the critical elements of _Middlemarch_; and these are
wrought into a work of lofty insight and imagination, along with a high
spiritual ardor and a supreme ethical purpose. In this novel, for the first
time, as Professor Dowden says, her poetical genius found adequate
expression, and in complete association with the non-poetical elements of
THE SPANISH GYPSY AND OTHER POEMS.
It was _The Spanish Gypsy_, published in 1868, which brought the name of
George Eliot before the public as a poet. This work is a novel written in
blank verse, with enough of the heroic and tragic in it to make the story
worthy of its poetic form. The story is an excellent one, well conceived
and worked out, and had it been given the prose form would have made a
powerful and original novel. While it would doubtless have gained in
definiteness of detail and clearness of purpose by being presented in the
prose form, yet its condensation into a poem is a gain, and the whole
setting of the story has been made of greater interest by this method of
expression. The poetic form is as original as are the theories of life
which the poem is designed to inculcate. In structure it combines, with a
method quite its own, the descriptive and dramatic forms of poetry. In this
it nearly approaches the method followed in her novels of combining
description and dialogue in a unitary structure of great strength and
perfection. The descriptive passages in her prose works are strong and
impressive, lofty in tone, and yet lovingly faithful in detail. Her
conversations are often highly dramatic and add greatly to the whole
outcome of these novels. In _The Spanish Gypsy_ the surroundings of the
story are first described in verse which, if not always perfectly poetic,
is yet imaginatively thought out and executed in a manner befitting the
subject. Suddenly, however, the narrative and descriptive form ceases and
the dramatic begins. By means also of full "stage directions" to the
dramatic portions of the poem, the story is wrought out quite as much in
detail as it needs to be; and much is gained of advantage over the length
of her novels by this concentration of scene and narrative. While the
narrative portion of the poem is much less in extent than the dramatic, yet
it has in it some of the main elements of the plot, and those without which
the action could not be worked out. The dramatic element gives it a real
and living power. The characters are strongly conceived, and nearly all of
them are individualities of an original type and of an action thoroughly
distinct and human.
As a work of art, the most serious defect in _The Spanish Gypsy_ is its
doctrinal tone. It is speculative in its purpose quite as much as poetical,
and the speculation is so large an element as to intrude upon the poetry.
Thought overtops imagination, the fervor and enthusiasm of the poet are
more than matched by the ethical aims of the teacher. This ethical purpose
of unfolding in a dramatic form the author's theories of life has filled
the book, as it has her novels, with epigrams which are original, splendid
and instructive. Into a few lines she condenses some piece of wisdom, and
in words full of meaning and purpose. Into the mouth of Sephardo, a
character distinctive and noteworthy, she puts some of her choicest wisdom.
Has joys apart, even in blackest woe,
And seizing some fine thread of verity
Knows momentary godhead.
Again he utters the same idea, but in more expressive words.
Our growing thought
Makes growing revelation.
Don Silva is made to use this highly poetic imagery.
Speech is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken.
Zarca, that truest and most original character in the poem, says of the
great work he purposes to accomplish,
To my inward vision
Things are achieved when they are well begun.
Again, he says,--
New thoughts are urgent as the growth of wings.
Expressive and original as _The Spanish Gypsy_ is, yet it gives the
impression of lacking in some poetic quality which is necessary to the
highest results. Difficult as it may be to define precisely what it is that
is wanting, nearly every reader will feel that something which makes poetry
has been somehow left out. Is it imagination, or is it a flexible poetic
expression, which is absent? While George Eliot has imagination enough to
make a charming prose style, and to adorn her prose with great beauty and
an impressive manner, yet its finer quality of subtle expression is not to
be found in her poetry. Those original and striking shades of meaning which
the poet employs by using words in unique relations, she does not often
attain to. It is the thought, the ethical meaning, in her poetry as in her
prose, which is often of more importance than the manner of expression; and
she is too intent on what is said to give full heed always to how it is
said. She has, however, employed that form of verse which is best suited to
her style, and one which does not demand those lyrical or those imaginative
qualities in which she is deficient. The blank verse is well adapted to her
realism, though it does not always answer well to the more dramatic and
tragical and impassioned portions of the story.
As a study of an historic period, _The Spanish Gypsy_ is not so great a
success as _Romola_; yet it more perfectly unfolds a unitary moral purpose,
and the various types of character are more originally developed. The
conflict of motives, the contrasted and opposed national interests, are
distinctly brought out, but the aroma of the time and place are wanting. To
describe a poetic and heroic era she is never content to do. Her method is
totally different from that of Scott, who reflects the spirit and life of
the time he depicts with almost absolute faithfulness. No gypsy was ever
such a character as Zarca, no gypsy girl ever had the conscience of
Fedalma. As in the case of _Romola_, so here, an historic period is used,
not so much for artistic as for philosophic purposes, because it is well
designed to present her ideas about heredity and tradition. _The Spanish
Gypsy_ is essentially a romance, and contains much of those more poetic
and ideal elements which distinguish _Daniel Deronda_ from her other
novels. This romantic element, if it does not develop poetry of the highest
quality, does bring out in its most perfect form all the finest
characteristics of her style.
While _The Spanish Gypsy_ affords many points of attack for the critic, yet
it cannot be dismissed by saying it is not a great poem. Its strong
qualities are too many to permit of its being disposed of in haste. With
all its defects it is a noble piece of work, and genuinely adds to the
author's expression of genius. It is one of those poems which win, not
popularity, but the heartiest admiration of a choice and elect few who find
life and highest inspiration in it, because giving strength to their
thoughts and purpose to their moral convictions. As a study of some of the
deeper problems of the ethical and social life of man, it is unsurpassed,
and the teaching imparted by it is singularly well and impressively
conveyed by the whole make of the poem. It is also remarkable for its large
and impressive style, its rich command of words, and the lofty beauty of
its diction. One of its most striking qualities, as Mr. Henry James, Jr.,
suggests, "is its extraordinary rhetorical energy and eloquence," and "its
splendid generosity of diction." The same writer says of the character of
Don Silva, that "nowhere has her marvellous power of expression, the
mingled dignity and pliancy of her style, obtained a greater triumph." The
critics have almost without exception dealt severely with the poem, but
they have applied to it the canons of poetic art as interpreted by
themselves. Genius creates its own laws, makes its own methods, reverses
old decisions and triumphs against the whole brood of critics. The world
accepts what is true and excellent, however defective in technical
requirements. Imperfect meters, and poetic structures not orthodox, may
disturb those who deal in criticism, but such limitations as these are not
sufficient to fix the final acceptance of a poem. More than one of the
greatest poems could not endure such tests. That _The Spanish Gypsy_ has
vitality of purpose, enduring interest in treatment, and a lofty eloquence
of diction, is doubtless enough to insure it an accepted place among the
few greater poems in the language. Its profoundly thoughtful interpretation
of some of the greater social problems mankind has to deal with, will
necessarily give a permanent interest for the lovers of speculative poetry,
while its genuine poetic merits will largely add to that interest, and add
to it by its tragic power, its rich ethical wisdom, and its fine portrayal
No other book of George Eliot's is so filled and inspired by the spirit of
her teachings as _The Spanish Gypsy_. Its inspiration and its interest lie
mainly in the direction of its moral and spiritual inculcations. Verse did
not stimulate her, but was a fetter; it clogged her highest powers. The
rich eloquence of her prose, with its pathos and sentiment, its broad
perspective and vigorous thought, was to her a continual stimulus and
incentive. Her poems are more labored than her novels, and for this very
reason they show the philosophy which gives them meaning more clearly.
Their greater concentration and less varied elements also largely help to
make apparent the teachings they contain. Her sympathy with the evolution
philosophy of the day is conspicuous in _The Spanish Gypsy_. It is simply a
dramatic interpretation of the higher phases of Darwinism. The doctrinal
element does not intrude itself, however; it is not on the surface, it is
well subordinated to the artistic elements of the poem. Even intelligent
readers may not detect it, and the majority of those who read the poem
without any preconceptions may not discover its philosophic bearings. Yet
to the studious reader the philosophy must be the most conspicuous element
which enters into the poem, and it gives character and meaning to the work
far more fully than in the case of any of her novels.
The aim of the poem is to show how hereditary race influences act as a
tragic element in opposition to individual emotions and inclinations. The
teaching of _Romola_ is much of it reproduced, at least that portion of it
which inculcates renunciation and altruism. Its distinguishing features,
however, more nearly resemble those of _Daniel Deronda_. The race element
is introduced, and the effect of the past is shown as it forms character
and gives direction to duties. One phase of its meaning has been very
clearly described by Mr. R.H. Hutton, who says the poem teaches "how the
inheritance of the definite streams of impulse and tradition stored up in
what we call race, often puts a veto upon any attempt of spontaneous
individual emotion or volitions to ignore or defy their Control, and to
emancipate itself from the tyranny of their disputable and apparently cruel
rule." "How the threads," he says again, "of hereditary capacity and
hereditary sentiment control as with invisible chords the orbits of even
the most powerful characters,--how the fracture of those threads, so far as
can be accomplished by mere _will_, may have even a greater effect in
wrecking character than moral degeneracy would itself produce,--how the man
who trusts and uses the hereditary forces which natural descent has
bestowed upon him, becomes a might and a centre in the world, while the
man, intrinsically the nobler, who dissipates his strength by trying to
swim against the stream of his past, is neutralized and paralyzed by the
vain effort,--again, how a divided past, a past not really homogeneous, may
weaken this kind of power, instead of strengthening it by the command of a
larger experience--all this George Eliot's poem paints with tragical
The main thought of _The Spanish Gypsy_ is, that the moral and spiritual in
man is the result of social conditions which, if neglected, lead to the
destruction of all that is best in human nature. In the description of Mine
Host, in the opening pages of the poem, this evil result of a severing of
life from tradition is described. He was educated in the Jewish faith, but
was made a Christian at the age of ten.
So he had to be converted with his sire,
To doff the awe he learned as Ephriam,
And suit his manners to a Christian name.
The poet then delivers one of her doctrinal utterances, and one which is in
this case the keynote of the whole poem.
But infant awe, that unborn moving thing,
Dies with what nourished it, can never rise
From the dead womb and walk and seek new pasture.
That awe which grows up in childhood, if destroyed later, brings anarchy
into human life. All the characters of the poem exemplify this teaching,
and each is but a product of his past, individual or social. Don Silva,
Zarca, Fedalma, the Prior, Sephardo, illustrate this idea. The latter gives
utterance to the thought of the poem, when Don Silva says to him that he
has need of a friend who is not tied to sect or party, but who is capable
of following his "naked manhood" into what is just and right, without
regard to other considerations.
My lord, I will be frank; there's no such thing
As naked manhood. If the stars look down
On any mortal of our shape, whose strength
Is to judge all things without preference,
He is a monster, not a faithful man.
While my heart beats, it shall wear livery--
My people's livery, whose yellow badge
Marks them for Christian scorn. I will not say
Man is first man to me, then Jew or Gentile:
That suits the rich _marranos_; but to me
My father is first father and then man.
So much for frankness' sake. But let that pass.
'Tis true at least, I am no Catholic
But Salomo Sephardo, a born Jew,
Willing to serve Don Silva.
[Footnote: In a note George Eliot gives the following explanation of the
word _marranos_: "The name given by the Spanish Jews to the multitudes of
their race converted to Christianity at the end of the fourteenth century
and beginning of the fifteenth. The lofty derivation from _Maran-atha_, the
Lord cometh, seems hardly called for, seeing that _marrano_ is Spanish for
_pig_. The 'old Christians' learned to use the word as a term of contempt
for the 'new Christians,' or converted Jews and their descendants; but not
too monotonously, for they often interchanged it with the fine old crusted
opprobrium of the name _Jew_. Still, many Marranos held the highest
secular and ecclesiastical prizes in Spain, and were respected
In the conversation between Don Silva and this uncle, the Prior expresses
in the strongest language his conviction that Fedalma will in time reveal
her gypsy blood, and that any rejection on the part of Don Silva of the
life assigned him by his birth will end in sorrow and misery. When Don
Silva declares his intention of following his own inclinations the Prior
Your strength will turn to anguish, like the strength
Of fallen angels. Can you change your blood?
You are a Christian, with the Christian awe
In every vein. A Spanish noble, born
To serve your people and your people's faith.
Strong, are you? Turn your back upon the Cross--
Its shadow is before you. Leave your place:
Quit the great ranks of knighthood: you will walk
Forever with a tortured double self,
A self that will be hungry while you feast,
Will blush with shame while you are glorified,
Will feel the ache and chill of desolation
Even in the very bosom of your love.
This eloquent expostulation against rejection of any of those ties and
obligations imposed by birth and race is repeated again in the plea of
Zarca to his daughter, when he urges that there is no life and joy for
Fedalma apart from that race to which she belongs and those social
conditions which gave her mind its characteristics.
Will you adopt a soul without its thoughts,
Or grasp a life apart from flesh and blood?
Till then you cannot wed a Spanish Duke
And not wed shame at mention of your race,
And not wed hardness to their miseries--
Nay, wed not murder.
Zarca and the Prior are each faithful to race, religion and social
tradition. Each knows his duty, is content with the opportunities given him
by social inheritance, is thoroughly in harmony with his own past. Both are
consequently strong, resolute, successful. Zarca is a grand character, and
though a hero in a nation of vagabonds, he wholly identifies himself with
his people and accepts their destiny as his own. The Prior is a haughty
Spanish Churchman, who has inherited all the traits of a noble family, and
is proud of his priestly functions.
In the case of Don Silva and Fedalma there is a conflict between love and
race. The one is a Spanish nobleman, the other the daughter of a Zincala
chief. Yet they love, and feel that no outward circumstances are sufficient
to separate them. This verdict of their hearts is the verdict of mankind in
all ages; but it is not the one arrived at by George Eliot in obedience to
her philosophy. The reasons why these two should not wed grew entirely out
of the social circumstances of the time. An English nobleman of to-day
could marry such a woman as Fedalma without social or other loss. The
capacities of soul are superior to conditions of race. Virtue and genius do
not depend on social circumstances. Yet _The Spanish Gypsy_ has for its
motive the attempt to prove that the life of tradition and inheritance is
the one which provides all our moral and social and religious obligations.
In conformity with this theory the conflict of the poem arises, because Don
Silva is not in intellectual harmony with his own character. A thoughtful,
fastidious, sensitive soul was his, not resolute and concentrated in
purpose, He was no bigot, could not be content with any narrow aim, saw
good on many sides.
A man of high-wrought strain, fastidious
In his acceptance, dreading all delight
That speedy dies and turns to carrion:
His senses much exacting, deep instilled
With keen imagination's airy needs;--
Like strong-limbed monsters studded o'er with eyes,
Their hunger checked by overwhelming vision,
Or that fierce lion in symbolic dream
Snatched from the ground by wings and new-endowed
With a man's thought-propelled relenting heart.
Silva was both the lion and the man;
First hesitating shrank, then fiercely sprang,
Or having sprung, turned pallid at his deed
And loosed the prize, paying his blood for naught.
A nature half-transformed, with qualities
That oft betrayed each other, elements
Not blent but struggling, breeding strange effects,
Passing the reckoning of his friends or foes.
Haughty and generous, grave and passionate;
With tidal moments of devoutest awe,
Sinking anon to furthest ebb of doubt;
Deliberating ever, till the sting
Of a recurrent ardor made him rush
Right against reasons that himself had drilled
And marshalled painfully. A spirit framed
Too proudly special for obedience,
Too subtly pondering for mastery:
Born of a goddess with a mortal sire,
Heir of flesh-fettered, weak divinity,
Doom-gifted with long resonant consciousness
And perilous heightening of the sentient soul.
Too noble and generous to accept the narrow views of his uncle, Don Silva
insisted on marrying Fedalma, because he loved her and because she was a
pure and true woman. He had a poet's nature, was sensitive to all beauty,
and his heart vibrated to all ideal excellence. His love became to him a
thing apart, a sacred shrine; and Fedalma was made one with all joy and
He thought all loveliness was lovelier,
She crowning it; all goodness credible,
Because of that great trust her goodness bred.
His love gave a delicious content and melody to his day dreams.
O, all comforters,
All soothing things that bring mild ecstasy,
Came with her coming, in her presence lived.
Spring afternoons, when delicate shadows fall
Pencilled upon the grass; high summer morns
When white light rains upon the quiet sea
And cornfields flush with ripeness; odors soft--
Dumb vagrant bliss that seems to seek a home
And find it deep within 'mid stirrings vague
Of far-off moments when our life was fresh;
All sweetly tempered music, gentle change
Of sound, form, color, as on wide lagoons
At sunset when from black far-floating prows
Comes a clear wafted song; all exquisite joy
Of a subdued desire, like some strong stream
Made placid in the fulness of a lake--
All came with her sweet presence, for she brought
The love supreme which gathers to its realm
All powers of loving. Subtle nature's hand
Waked with a touch the far-linked harmonies
In her own manifold work. Fedalma there,
Fastidiousness became the prelude fine
For full contentment; and young melancholy,
Lost for its origin, seemed but the pain
Of waiting for that perfect happiness.
So strong was Don Silva's love, so ardent his passion for Fedalma, that he
forsook all duties and social obligations and became a Zincala for her
sake. Yet once awakened to the real consequences of his act, he killed
Zarca and sought to regain by hard penances his lost knighthood.
With Fedalma also love was an absorbing passion. The passionate devotion of
a woman is in her words.
No ills on earth, though you should count them up
With grains to make a mountain, can outweigh
For me his ill who is my supreme love.
All sorrows else are but imagined flames,
Making me shudder at an unfelt smart;
But his imagined sorrow is a fire
That scorches me.
With great earnestness she says she will--
Never forsake that chief half of her soul
Where lies her love.
With what depth of love does she utter these words:
I belong to him who loves me--whom I love--
Who chose me--whom I chose--to whom I pledged
A woman's truth. And that is nature too,
Issuing a fresher law than laws of birth.
Though her love is deep and passionate and full of a woman's devotedness,
the mark of race is set deep within her soul. The moment the claim of race
is brought clearly before her as the claim of duty, as the claim of father
and of kindred, she accepts it. Her love is not thrown hastily aside, for
she loves deeply and truly, and it tears her heart in sunder to renounce
it; but she is faithful to duty. Her love grows not less, loses none of its
hold upon her heart.
No other crown
Is aught but thorns on my poor woman's brow.
Hers is not a divided self, however; to see the way of duty with her, was
to follow in it. Her father's invincible will, courage and patient purpose
are her own by inheritance. Once realizing the claim of birth and race, she
does not falter, love is resolutely put aside, all delight in culture and
refinement becomes dross in her eyes.
I will not count
On aught but being faithful. I will take
This yearning self of mine and strangle it.
I will not be half-hearted: never yet
Fedalma did aught with a wavering soul.
Die, my young joy--die, all my hungry hopes!
The milk you cry for from the breast of life
Is thick with curses. O, all fatness here
Snatches its meat from leanness--feeds on graves.
I will seek nothing but to shun base joy.
The saints were cowards who stood by to see
Christ crucified: they should have flung themselves
Upon the Roman spears, and died in vain--
The grandest death, to die in vain--for love
Greater than sways the forces of the world!
That death shall be my bridegroom. I will wed
The curse that blights my people. Father, come!
The poem distinctly teaches that Fedalma was strong, because the ties of
blood were strongly marked upon her mind and willingly accepted by her
intellect and conscience; while Don Silva was weak, because he did not
acknowledge those ties and accept their law. In the end, however, both
declare that the inherited life is the only one which gives joy or duty,
and that all individual aims and wishes are to be renounced. The closing
scene of this great poem is full of sadness, and yet is strong with moral
purpose. Don Silva and Fedalma meet for the last time, she on her way to
Africa with her tribe to find a home for it there, he on his way to Rome,
to seek the privilege of again using his knightly sword. Both are sad, both
feel that life has lost all its joy, both believe it is a bitter destiny
which divides them from the fulfilment of their love, and yet both are
convinced that love must be forsworn for a higher duty. Their last
conversation, opened by Don Silva, is full of power, and concentrates into
its last words the total meaning of the poem.
I bring no puling prayer, Fedalma--ask
No balm of pardon that may soothe my soul
For others' bleeding wounds: I am not come
To say, "Forgive me:" you must not forgive,
For you must see me ever as I am--
Speak it not! Calamity
Comes like a deluge and o'erfloods our crimes,
Till sin is hidden in woe. You--I--we two,
Grasping we knew not what, that seemed delight,
Opened the sluices of that deep.
Fedalma, you were blameless, helpless.
It shall not be that you did aught alone.
For when we loved I willed to reign in you,
And I was jealous even of the day
If it could gladden you apart from me.
And so, it must be that I shared each deed
Our love was root of.
Dear! you share the woe--
Nay, the worst part of vengeance fell on you.
Vengeance! She does but sweep us with her skirts.
She takes large space, and lies a baleful light
Revolving with long years--sees children's children,
Blights them in their prime. Oh, if two lovers leane
To breathe one air and spread a pestilence,
They would but lie two livid victims dead
Amid the city of the dying. We
With our poor petty lives have strangled one
That ages watch for vainly.
Fills all your tones as with slow agony.
Speak words that narrow anguish to some shape:
Tell me what dread is close before you?
No dread, but clear assurance of the end.
My father held within his mighty frame
A people's life: great futures died with him
Never to rise, until the time shall ripe
Some other hero with the will to save
The outcast Zincali.
And yet their shout--
I heard it--sounded as the plenteous rush
Of full-fed sources, shaking their wild souls
With power that promised sway.
Ah yes, that shout
Came from full hearts: they meant obedience.
But they are orphaned: their poor childish feet
Are vagabond in spite of love, and stray
Forgetful after little lures. For me--
I am but as the funeral urn that bears
The ashes of a leader.
O great God!
What am I but a miserable brand
Lit by mysterious wrath? I lie cast down
A blackened branch upon the desolate ground.
Where once I kindled ruin. I shall drink
No cup of purest water but will taste
Bitter with thy lone hopelessness, Fedalma.
Nay, Silva, think of me as one who sees
A light serene and strong on one sole path
Which she will tread till death...
He trusted me, and I will keep his trust:
My life shall be its temple. I will plant
His sacred hope within the sanctuary
And die its priestess--though I die alone,
A hoary woman on the altar-step,
Cold 'mid cold ashes. That is my chief good.
The deepest hunger of a faithful heart
Is faithfulness. Wish me naught else. And you--
You too will live....
I go to Rome, to seek
The right to use my knightly sword again;
The right to fill my place and live or die
So that all Spaniards shall not curse my name.
I sate one hour upon the barren rock
And longed to kill myself; but then I said,
I will not leave my name in infamy,
I will not be perpetual rottenness
Upon the Spaniard's air. If I must sink
At last to hell, I will not take my stand
Among the coward crew who could not bear
The harm themselves had done, which others bore.
My young life yet may fill some fatal breach,
And I will take no pardon, not my own,
Not God's--no pardon idly on my knees;
But it shall come to me upon my feet
And in the thick of action, and each deed
That carried shame and wrong shall be the sting
That drives me higher up the steep of honor
In deeds of duteous service to that Spain
Who nourished me on her expectant breast,
The heir of highest gifts. I will not fling
My earthly being down for carrion
To fill the air with loathing: I will be
The living prey of some fierce noble death
That leaps upon me while I move. Aloud
I said, "I will redeem my name," and then--
I know not if aloud: I felt the words
Drinking up all my senses--"She still lives.
I would not quit the dear familiar earth
Where both of us behold the self-same sun,
Where there can be no strangeness 'twixt our thoughts
So deep as their communion." Resolute
I rose and walked.--Fedalma, think of me
As one who will regain the only life
Where he is other than apostate--one
Who seeks but to renew and keep the vows
Of Spanish knight and noble. But the breach--
Outside those vows--the fatal second breach--
Lies a dark gulf where I have naught to cast,
Not even expiation--poor pretence,
Which changes naught but what survives the past,
And raises not the dead. That deep dark gulf
Yes, forever. We must walk
Apart unto the end. Our marriage rite
Is our resolve that we will each be true
To high allegiance, higher than our love.
Our dear young love--its breath was happiness!
But it had grown upon a larger life
Which tore its roots asunder. We rebelled--
The larger life subdued us. Yet we are wed;
For we shall carry each the pressure deep
Of the other's soul. I soon shall leave the shore.
The winds to-night will bear me far away.
My lord, farewell!
What has been said of _The Spanish Gypsy_ applies very nearly as well to
all her other poems. They are thoughtful, philosophic, realistic; they are
sonorous in expression, stately in style, and of a diction eloquent and
beautiful. On the whole, the volume containing the shorter poems is a
poetical advance on _The Spanish Gypsy_, containing more genuine poetry,
more lyrical fire, and a greater proportion of humor, sympathy and passion.
They are carefully polished and refined; and yet that indefinable something
which marks the truest poetry is wanting. They are saturated with her
ideas, the flavor of her thought impregnates them all, with but two or
Her artistic conceptions are more fully developed in some of these poems
than in any of her novels, especially in "Armgart" and "The Legend of
Jubal." The special thought of "Armgart" is, that no artistic success is of
so much worth as a loving sympathy with others. The longing of Armgart was
a happy spiritual star
Such as old Dante saw, wrought in a rose
Of light in Paradise, whose only self
Was consciousness of glory wide-diffused,
Music, life, power--I moving in the midst
With a sublime necessity of good.
Her ambition runs very high.
May the day be near when men
Think much to let my horses draw me home,
And new lands welcome me upon their beach,
Loving me for my fame. That is the truth
Of what I wish, nay, yearn for. Shall I lie?
Pretend to seek obscurity--to sing
In hope of disregard? A vile pretence!
And blasphemy besides. For what is fame
But the benignant strength of One, transformed
To joy of Many? Tributes, plaudits come
As necessary breathing of such joy;
And may they come to me!
Armgart is beloved of the Graf, and he tries to persuade her to abandon her
artistic career and become his wife. He says to her,--
A woman's rank
Lies in the fulness of her womanhood:
Therein alone she is loyal.
Again he says to her,--
Pain had been saved,
Nay, purer glory reached, had you been throned
As woman only, holding all your art
As attribute to that dear sovereignty--
Concentering your power in home delights
Which penetrate and purify the world.
Armgart will not listen; her whole heart is enlisted in music. She says to
I will live alone and pour my pain
With passion into music, where it turns
To what is best within my better self.
A year later Armgart's throat has failed, and her career has ended in
nothing. Then her servant and friend, Walpurga, who has devoted her life to
Armgart, speaks that lesson George Eliot would convey in this little story,
that a true life is a life of service. Walpurga chides Armgart's false
ambition in these words:
I but stand
As a small symbol for the mighty sum
Of claims unpaid to needy myriads;
I think you never set your loss beside
That mighty deficit. Is your work gone--
The prouder queenly work that paid itself
And yet was overpaid with men's applause!
Are you no longer chartered, privileged,
But sunk to simple woman's penury,
To ruthless Nature's chary average--
Where is the rebel's right for you alone?
Noble rebellion lifts a common load;
But what is he who flings his own load off
And leaves his fellows toiling? Rebel's right?
Say, rather, the deserter's.
Armgart learns from her master, the old and noble Leo, that he had also
been ambitious, that he had won only small success, and that he now lived
for the sake of the good he could do to those about him. He says to her,--
We must bury our dead joys,
And live above them with a living world.
Then Armgart is brought to see that there is a noble privilege in living as
her friend has lived, in making music a joy to others, and in doing what
she can to make life better for humanity.
There are two very distinct ideas running through the poem, that a life
guided by altruism is better than--a merely artistic life, and that woman
is to find in home and wedded joys that opportunity for the development of
her soul, without which no artistic career can be complete. The words of
the Graf speak George Eliot's own thought, that Armgart's life and her art
would have been both more perfect and more noble had she held all her art
as attribute to the dear sovereignty of affection.
The same artistic conception pervades "The Legend of Jubal." That fame for
which Jubal also yearns comes to him, he is taught, in the good which he
leaves behind him for humanity to enjoy. He dies, and ceases to be as a
personal being. At least this may be inferred from the concluding lines.
Quitting mortality, a quenched sun-wave,
The All-creating Presence for his grave.
A _sun-wave_ while living, his being is now _quenched_. But he lives on in
the life of the race, lives on in man's joy of music, in the deeper life
which music awakens in all bosoms through all ages. He is told that he has
no need of--
aught else for share
Of mortal good, than in his soul to bear
The growth of song, and feel the sweet unrest
Of the world's springtide in his conscious breast.
His own loved Past says to him,--
This was thy lot, to feel, create, bestow,
And that immeasurable life to know
From which the fleshly self falls shrivelled, dead,
A seed primeval that has forests bred.
This poem views death as positivism conceives it, and gives a poetic
interpretation of that subjective immortality, or that immortality in the
race, in which George Eliot so heartily believed. No other artistic
presentation of this theory has ever been made which equals that given in
this poem, and in the one beginning, "O may I join the choir invisible."
This latter poem is not only beautiful in itself, but it has made altruism
attractive and lovely. Its tone of thought is elevated, its spirit lofty
and noble, and its ideal pure and gracious. All that can be said to make
altruism lovely and winning, to inspire men with its spirit and motive, is
here said. The thought presented in these two poems is repeated in "The
Death of Moses." Here we have Moses living forever in the human influence
He dwells not with you dead, but lives as Law.
For her ideas about resignation we must turn to the pages of _The Mill on
the Floss and Romola_, for those about heredity and the past to _The
Spanish Gypsy_ and _Daniel Deronda_; but in these shorter poems she has
completely unfolded the positivist conception, as she accepted it, of death
and immortality. The degree to which she was moved and inspired by this
belief in an immortality in humanity is seen in the greater ardor and
poetic merit of these poems than any others she wrote.
It is interesting to note that she introduces music into "The Legend of
Jubal" and "Armgart". It was the art she most loved. She even said that if
she could possess the power most satisfactory to her heart, it would be
that of making music the instrument of the homage which the great
performers secure. Yet she teaches in "Armgart" that there is a power
higher than this, the power of affectionate service. Her books are full of
the praise of music. She makes Maggie Tulliver express her own delight in
"I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have
plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs, and ideas
into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled
In _Adam Bede_ she becomes most poetic when extolling the power of
exquisite music to work on the soul.
To feel its wondrous harmonies searching the subtlest windings of your
soul, the delicate fibres of life wherein memory can penetrate, and
binding together your whole being, past and present, in one unspeakable
vibration, melting you in one moment with all the tenderness, all the
love, that has been scattered through the toilsome years, concentrating
in one emotion of heroic courage or resignation all the hard-learnt
lessons of self-renouncing sympathy, blending your present joy with
past sorrow, and your present sorrow with all your past joy.
In the "Minor Prophet" is to be found George Eliot's theory of progress.
That poem also repeats her faith in common humanity, and gives new emphasis
to her joy in the common toils and affections of men. In the "College
Breakfast Party" and "Self and Life," her thoughts take a more truly
philosophic form than in any of her other poems, but the first of these is
the poorest piece of poetic work she gave to the public. Nothing new in the
way of teaching appears in these or her other poems.
George Eliot is the poet of positivism. What is beautiful, touching and
inspiring in that conception of the world she has sung, and in as poetic a
manner as that philosophy is ever likely to inspire. Her poetry is full of
the thoughts and sentiments of the time. It reflects the mood of her
generation. Prof. Sidney Colvin has truly said that "there is nothing in
the literature of the day so rousing--to the mind of the day there is
scarcely anything so rousing in all literature--as her writing is. What she
writes is full of her time. It is full of observation, imagination, pathos,
wit and humor, all of a high class in themselves; but what is more, all
saturated with modern ideas poured into a language of which every word
bites home with peculiar sharpness to the contemporary consciousness." This
is true even more of her poetry than of her prose. That poetry lacks where
the age lacks, in true poetic quality. The ideal, the breath of eternal
spring, is not in it.
The later essays of George Eliot have the same characteristics as the
earlier ones, and are mainly of interest because they furnish additional
evidences of her philosophical, ethical and political opinions. While they
indicate the profound thoughtfulness of her mind, her deep concern about
the largest problems of human existence, and her rare ethical tone and
purpose, they add little or nothing to her literary reputation. It is very
plain that while George Eliot was not a poet in the largest, truest sense,
she was still less an essayist in that genial, widely sympathetic sense
which has adorned English literature with so many noble books of comment on
the foibles and the virtues of man. Her manner is heavy, her thoughts
philosophical, her purpose doctrinal: and the result is far from
satisfactory to the lover of fine essay-writing.
She needs the glow of her imagination, the depth of her emotions, to
relieve and lighten the burden of her thoughts. But in her essays she is
less wise, less racy and expressive, than in the didactic passages of her
novels. She could best make her comment on the ways of life while
describing a character or studying an action. These additions to her
narrative and conversation are, to the thoughtful reader, among the best
portions of her novels, for they give meaning to all the rest, and throw a
flood of light on the hidden facts of life. She is never so great, so wise,
so profoundly inspired by her theme, as in many of these passages.
There is need, however, in her case, of the large surrounding life of her
novels in order to draw out this wisdom and inspiration. Her essays lack in
the fine sentiment and the fervid eloquence of the chorus-utterances in her
novels. They give little evidence that she would have attained to great
things had she followed the early purpose of her life. In view of what she
has written in the shape of essays, no one can regret that she confined her
chief efforts to her imaginative prose creations. Yet her essays have a
special value on account of their subjects, and they will be read by many
with a hearty appreciation, simply because they were George Eliot's. No one
thoroughly interested in the work done by the great realistic novelist can
afford to overlook her essays, even if they do not nearly touch the highest
mark in their kind.
After she began her career as a novelist George Eliot wrote about twenty
essays, nearly all of which are included in her last book, _Impressions of
Theophrastus Such_. Previous to this, however, she had published in the
first number of the _Fortnightly Review_, issued May 15, 1865, and edited
by Lewes, an article on "The Influence of Rationalism," in review of Mr.
W.H. Lecky's book on that subject. A year after the appearance of _Felix
Holt_ she wrote out her views on the subject of political reform, in the
shape of an "Address to Workingmen by Felix Holt," which appeared in
_Blackwood's Magazine_ for January, 1868. These essays are significant,
because of the light they afford concerning the author's views on religious
and political subjects. The first is a piece of thorough reviewing, and
shows what George Eliot might have done in that direction. She is a
merciless critic, and yet one inclined to appreciate all that is best in an
author. Her sympathies with positivism and with the "scientific method" in
philosophy find expression in the pages of this essay. In it she gives a
most expressive utterance to her ideas about the universality of law and
the influence of tradition. Her point of view is so antagonistic to Mr,
Lecky's that she does not do full justice to his work. His idealism is
repugnant to her, and he does not give prominence enough to please her to
those positivist influences in which she so strongly believed. Her
dissatisfaction with his idealism appears in her very first words.
There is a valuable class of books on great subjects which have
something of the character and functions of good popular lecturing.
They are not original, not subtle, not of close logical texture, not
exquisite either in thought or style; but by virtue of these negatives
they are all the more fit to act on the average intelligence. They have
enough of organizing purpose in them to make their facts illustrative,
and to leave a distinct result in the mind even when most of the facts
are forgotten; and they have enough of vagueness and vacillation in
their theory to win them ready acceptance from a mixed audience. The
vagueness and vacillation are not devices of timidity; they are the
honest result of the writer's own mental character, which adapts him to
be the instructor and the favorite of "the general reader." For the
most part, the general reader of the present day does not exactly know
what distance he goes; he only knows that he does not go "too far." Of
any remarkable thinker, whose writings have excited controversy, he
likes to have it said "that his errors are to be deplored." leaving it
not too certain what those errors are; he is fond of what may be called
disembodied opinions, that float in vapory phrases above all systems of
thought or action; he likes an undefined Christianity which opposes
itself to nothing in particular, an undefined education of the people,
an undefined amelioration of all things: in fact, he likes sound
views--nothing extreme, but something between the excesses of the past
and the excesses of the present. This modern type of the general reader
may be known in conversation by the cordiality with which he assents to
indistinct, blurred statements. Say that black is black, he will shake
his head and hardly think it; say that black is not so very black, he
will reply, "Exactly." He has no hesitation, if you wish it, even to
get up at a public meeting and express his conviction that at times,
and within certain limits, the radii of a circle have a tendency to be
equal; but, on the other hand, he would urge that the spirit of
geometry may be carried a little too far. His only bigotry is a bigotry
against any clearly defined opinion; not in the least based on a
scientific scepticism, but belonging to a lack of coherent thought--a
spongy texture of mind, that gravitates strongly to nothing. The one
thing he is staunch for is the utmost liberty of private haziness.
But precisely these characteristics of the general reader, rendering
him incapable of assimilating ideas unless they are administered in a
highly diluted form, make it a matter of rejoicing that there are
clever, fair-minded men who will write books for him--men very much
above him in knowledge and ability, but not too remote from him in
their habits of thinking, and who can thus prepare for him infusions
of history and science that will leave some solidifying deposit, and
save him from a fatal softening of the intellectual skeleton. Among
such serviceable writers, Mr. Lecky's _History of the Rise and
Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe_ entitles him to a
high place. He has prepared himself for its production by an unusual
amount of well-directed reading; he has chosen his facts and quotations
with much judgment; and he gives proof of those important moral
qualifications, impartiality, seriousness and modesty. This praise is
chiefly applicable to the long chapter on the history of Magic and
Witchcraft, and to the two chapters on the antecedents and history of
A further evidence of her wide culture and reading, and of her large
critical ability, may also be found in the first number of the _Fortnightly
Review_, for which she wrote the first of the "notices of new books" which
it published. This was a review of Mr. Owen Jones's _Grammar of Ornament_.
The author was one of her friends, and the decorator of the rooms in which
her Sunday receptions were held. She praised the book very highly. The
first paragraph of this notice betrays her appreciation of the aesthetic
movement in England, and her sympathy with its objects and spirit. The
moral value of aesthetic influences is characteristically expressed. The
influence of the environment, as she understood it, is here seen. The
largeness of her faith in the moral efficiency of material causes is
nowhere so strongly expressed by her as in the words which follow.
The inventor of movable types, says the venerable Teufelsdroeckh, was
disbanding hired armies, cashiering most kings and senates, and
creating a whole new democratic world. Has any one yet said what great
things are being done by the men who are trying to banish ugliness
from our streets and our homes, and to make both the outside and the
inside of our dwellings worthy of a world where there are forests, and
flower-tressed meadows, and the plumage of birds; where the insects
carry lessons of color on their wings, and even the surface of a
stagnant pool will show us the wonders of iridescence and the most
delicate forms of leafage? They, too, are modifying opinions, for they
are modifying men's moods and habits, which are the mothers of
opinions, having quite as much to do with their formation as the
responsible father--Reason. Think of certain hideous manufacturing
towns where the piety is chiefly a belief in copious perdition, and
the pleasure is chiefly gin. The dingy surface of wall pierced by the
ugliest windows, the staring shop-fronts, paper-hangings, carpets,
brass and gilt mouldings, and advertising placards, have an effect
akin to that of malaria; it is easy to understand that with such
surroundings there is more belief in cruelty than in beneficence, and
that the best earthly bliss attainable is the dulling of the external
senses. For it is a fatal mistake to suppose that ugliness which is
taken for beauty will answer all the purposes of beauty; the subtle
relation between all kinds of truth and fitness in our life forbids
that bad taste should ever be harmless to our moral sensibility or our
intellectual discernment; and--more than that--as it is probable that
fine musical harmonies have a sanative influence over our bodily
organization, it is also probable that just coloring and lovely
combinations of lines may be necessary to the complete well-being of
our systems, apart from any conscious delight in them. A savage may
indulge in discordant chuckles and shrieks and gutturals, and think
that they please the gods, but it does not follow that his frame would
not be favorably wrought upon by the vibrations of a grand church
organ. One sees a person capable of choosing the worst style of
wall-paper become suddenly afflicted by its ugliness under an attack of
illness. And if an evil state of blood and lymph usually goes along
with an evil state of mind, who shall say that the ugliness of our
streets, the falsity of our ornamentation, the vulgarity of our
upholstery, have not something to do with those bad tempers which
breed false conclusions?
The address to workingmen which George Eliot put into the mouth of Felix
Holt is a suggestive and valuable piece of political writing. Tradition is
therein presented as a moral and political influence. The spiritual
treasures mankind possesses she says are the products of tradition, and
these must be preserved. This can be done only by keeping the old
institutions and forms until they can be organically supplanted by others.
All the various portions of society are mutually dependent, and the
destruction of any one of them will be to the injury of all. This she says
to workingmen as a reason why they should not antagonize the social orders
above them, whose work is as important as their own. The organs of society
are the various social classes of which it is composed, and society is to
be improved by turning class interests into the functions by which Humanity
is to be developed. The spiritual treasures of the past are only to be
preserved by order and good government; hence all revolutionary methods are
suicidal. Life is to be advanced by giving social influence into the hands
of the wisest. True principles must regulate society, and these George
Eliot would have rest on science and altruism.
Such are some of the ideas of this remarkable essay, one of the most
suggestive and instructive of all she wrote. The emphasis she laid on
retribution, tradition, heredity and duties appears here in all its force.
Perhaps nothing else she wrote so clearly brings out some of the
characteristics of her mind. Her intense distrust of individualism does not
permit her to say a single word of the _rights_ of the laboring classes.
The right of rebellion and revolution is totally disregarded, rather it is
not recognized that any rights whatever exist. The workingman is not to
think of himself or his class, but of society and humanity; he is to become
an altruistic worker for the common good. While this is fine in theory, yet
history indicates that the aristocratic classes have yielded to the broader
social spirit only when they have been compelled to do so. The concessions
must come from above, not from beneath. George Eliot's political
philosophy, if carried into actual life, would keep the proletariate where
they are, and strengthen the social power of the aristocratic classes.
These words may indicate the drift of the essay:
But I come back to this: that, in our old society there are old
institutions, and among them the various distinctions and inherited
advantages of classes, which have shaped themselves along with all the
wonderful slow-growing system of things made up of our laws, our
commerce and our stores of all sorts, whether in material objects, such
as buildings and machinery, or in knowledge, such as scientific thought
and professional skill. Just as in that case I spoke of before, the
irrigation of a country, which must absolutely have its water
distributed or it will bear no crop; these are the old channels, the
old banks and the old pumps, which must be used as they are until new
and better have been prepared, or the structure of the old has been
gradually altered. But it would be fool's work to batter down a pump
only because a better might be made, when you have no machinery ready
for a new one: it would be wicked work, if villages lost their crops by
it. Now the only safe way by which society can be steadily improved and
our worst evils reduced, is not by any attempt to do away directly with
the actually existing class distinctions and advantages, as if
everybody could have the same sort of work or lead the same sort of
life (which none of my hearers are stupid enough to suppose), but by
turning of Class Interests into Class Functions or duties. What I mean
is, that each class should be urged by the surrounding conditions to
perform its particular work under the strong pressure of responsibility
to the nation at large; that our public affairs should be got into a
state in which there should be no impunity for foolish or faithless
conduct. In this way, the public judgment would sift out incapability
and dishonesty from posts of high charge, and even personal ambition
would necessarily become of a worthier sort, since the desires of the
most selfish men must be a good deal shaped by the opinions of those
around them: and for one person to put on a cap and bells, or to go
about dishonest or paltry ways of getting rich that he may spend a vast
sum of money in having more finery than his neighbors, he must be
pretty sure of a crowd who will applaud him. Now changes can only be
good in proportion as they help to bring about this sort of result:
in proportion as they put knowledge in the place of ignorance, and
fellow-feeling in the place of selfishness. In the course of
substitution class distinctions must inevitably change their character,
and represent the varying Duties of men, not their varying Interests.
But this end will not come by impatience. "Day will not break the
sooner because we get up before the twilight." Still less will it come
by mere undoing, or change merely as change. And moreover, if we
believed that it would be unconditionally hastened by our getting the
franchise, we should be what I call superstitious men, believing in
magic, or the production of a result by hocus-pocus. Our getting the
franchise will greatly hasten that good end in proportion only as every
one of us has the knowledge, the foresight, the conscience, that will
make him well-judging and scrupulous in the use of it. The nature of
things in this world has been determined for us beforehand, and in such
a way that no ship can be expected to sail well on a difficult voyage,
and reach the right port, unless it is well-manned: the nature of the
winds and the waves, of the timbers, the sails and the cordage, will
not accommodate itself to drunken, mutinous sailors.
You will not suspect me of wanting to preach any cant to you, or of
joining in the pretence that everything is in a fine way and need not
be made better. What I am striving to keep in our minds is the care,
the precaution, with which we should go about making things better, so
that the public order may not be destroyed, so that no fatal shock may
be given to this society of ours, this living body in which our lives
are bound up. After the Reform Bill of 1832, I was in an election riot,
which showed me clearly, on a small scale, what public disorder must
always be; and I have never forgotten that the riot was brought about
chiefly by the agency of dishonest men who professed to be on the
people's side. Now the danger hanging over change is great, just in
proportion as it tends to produce such disorder by giving any large
number of ignorant men, whose notions of what is good are of a low and
brutal sort, the belief that they have got power into their hands and
may do pretty much as they like. If any one can look round us and say
that he sees no signs of any such danger now, and that our national
condition is running along like a clear broadening stream, safe not to
get choked with mud, I call him a cheerful man; perhaps he does his own
gardening, and seldom takes exercise far away from home. To us who have
no gardens, and often walk abroad, it is plain that we can never get
into a bit of a crowd but we must rub clothes with a set of roughs, who
have the worst vices of the worst rich--who are gamblers, sots,
libertines, knaves, or else mere sensual simpletons and victims. They
are the ugly crop that has sprung up while the stewards have been
sleeping; they are the multiplying brood begotten by parents who have
been left without all teaching save that of a too-craving body, without
all well-being save the fading delusions of drugged beer and gin. They
are the hideous margin of society, at one edge drawing towards it the
undesigning ignorant poor, at the other darkening imperceptibly into
the lowest criminal class. Here is one of the evils which cannot be got
rid of quickly, and against which any of us who have got sense, decency
and instruction have need to watch. That these degraded fellow-men
could really get the mastery in a persistent disobedience to the laws
and in a struggle to subvert order, I do not believe; but wretched
calamities would come from the very beginning of such a struggle, and
the continuance of it would be a civil war, in which the inspiration on
both sides might soon cease to be even a false notion of good, and
might become the direct savage impulse of ferocity. We have all to see
to it that we do not help to rouse what I may call the savage beast in
the breasts of our generation--that we do not help to poison the
nation's blood, and make richer provision for bestiality to come. We
know well enough that oppressors have sinned in this way--that
oppression has notoriously made men mad; and we are determined to
resist oppression. But let us, if possible, show that we can keep sane
in our resistance, and shape our means more and more reasonably towards
the least harmful, and therefore the speediest, attainment of our end.
Let us, I say, show that our spirits are too strong to be driven mad,
but can keep that sober determination which alone gives mastery over
the adaptation of means. And a first guarantee of this sanity will be
to act as if we understood that the fundamental duty of a government is
to preserve order, to enforce obedience of the laws. It has been held
hitherto that a man can be depended on as a guardian of order only when
he has much money and comfort to lose. But a better state of things
would be, that men who had little money and not much comfort should
still be guardians of order, because they had sense to see that
disorder would do no good, and had a heart of justice, pity and
fortitude to keep them from making more misery only because they felt
some misery themselves. There are thousands of artisans who have
already shown this fine spirit, and have endured much with patient
heroism. If such a spirit spread and penetrated us all, we should soon
become the masters of the country in the best sense and to the best
ends. For, the public order being preserved, there can be no government
in future that will not be determined by our insistence on our fair and
practicable demands. It is only by disorder that our demands will be
choked, that we shall find ourselves lost amongst a brutal rabble, with
all the intelligence of the country opposed to us, and see government
in the shape of guns that will sweep us down in the ignoble martyrdom
The eighteen essays published as the _Impressions of Theophrastus Such_
purport to have been the work of a bachelor of singular habits and tastes,
who had written a book which proved a failure, and who left this volume to
appear posthumously. He had been in the habit of giving an account to
himself of the characters he met with, and he begins his book by describing
his own weaknesses. He classes himself as one of the blunderers he would
portray, as having the faults and foibles he finds in others. Expressively
the author says, "If the human race has a bad reputation, I perceive that I
cannot escape being compromised." This may be taken as the sentiment of
George Eliot herself; and it is she who really speaks in these words
concerning the satirical criticisms of those she describes:
If I laugh at you, O fellow-men! if I trace with curious interest your
labyrinthine self-delusions, note the inconsistencies in your zealous
adhesions, and smile at your helpless endeavors in a rashly chosen
part, it is not that I feel myself aloof from you: the more intimately
I seem to discern your weaknesses, the stronger to me is the proof that
I share them. How otherwise could I get the discernment?--for even what
we are averse to, what we vow not to entertain, must have shaped or
shadowed itself within us as a possibility before we can think of
exorcising it. No man can know his brother simply as a spectator.
After the second essay Theophrastus disappears, and no further hint is
given that it is he who is the reputed author. This slight fictitious
machinery is too weak to carry the load put upon it. The reader soon feels
that it is George Eliot who is talking, and the opinions put forth, the
sentiments expressed, are recognized as her own. Indeed, it would have been
better, so the reader may probably come to say to himself, if this
attempted disguise had been entirely dispensed with. By the time he has
reached the sixth essay, "Only Temper," the discerning reader, familiar
with George Eliot's books, will be ready to affirm that this is no other
than the author herself speaking very frankly and finely her own
sentiments. In this essay the moral temper of her mind appears, and her
strong inclination to subordinate the individual to the social requirements
These papers are modelled on those of the great essay-making period in
English literature. Old-fashioned names are adopted, which have a greater
or less significance in connection with the purpose of the essay. The man
with the excitable temper is called Touchwood, while the man who slides
into a deferential acceptance of opinions made for him is Mixtus. This
method of the old essayists seems antiquated, cumbersome and unsuitable to
the subjects discussed. The persons described lose their individuality by
its use, and the reader forgets that they were meant to be creatures of
flesh and blood. For the most part, they are mere abstractions, mere
figures of straw, to be knocked over by the ingenious pen of the author.
Some special fault or sin is given the name of a personality, but it is too
much isolated from actual existence to produce the impression of a living
These essays much resemble occasional chapters in her novels, and might
have been studies for a new work. They are studies simply, done with a fine
skill and polish, but fragmentary. The large setting of her novels is
needed to give them relief and proportion. They disappoint as they are, for
the satire is too apparent, and we do not see these characters in action,
where their follies would obtain for them a more living interest. They are
studies of individual character, portraying types of social and literary
weakness, such as may have come under George Eliot's observation. They are
careful dissections of motives and conduct, and full of a minute analysis
of the moral and intellectual nature of her characters. There is abundance
of candid criticism, shrewd observation and compressed wisdom of statement.
Occasionally she is at her very best; but she uses many long, cumbersome
sentences, the satire is too harsh and the wisdom too unwieldy. Her
sympathy, love, pathos and pity are not so apparent as in her novels; she
takes less delight in these creations, and evidently created them for
purposes of dissection. She is never so weak in her other writings as in
these essays, so wanting in genius and large-heartedness. She scourges many
of the intellectual follies of the time, the conceit of culture, the pride
of literature, and the narrowness of politics; but in most of the essays
this is all.
The artistic conception of the book is too slight and fragmentary, and it
gives the impression of being unfinished in execution and desultory in
purpose. Yet there is in it much of fine feeling, pure sentiment, lively
satire and apt wisdom. Sometimes the thought is labored; but there is a
wealth of clear-cut conviction, strong thoughts and rich experience. There
is force in the arguments, richness of ideas throughout, and a wonderful
aptness of allusion and illustration. Her culture and learning are
everywhere apparent in the fine perception of the most exact analogies and
in the ease with which she brings science to the support of morals. Those
of her admirers who come closest to her spirit, thoroughly appreciate her
ideas, and delight in them, will read this book with satisfaction, and feel
thankful that she wrote it. No one who would know the mind of George Eliot
can afford to overlook it.
When George Eliot writes on subjects involving a moral purpose or ideal,
she is always wise and interesting. When, however, she attempts to satirize
some weakness or laugh at some folly, she is not always successful. Rich as
may be the satire and the wit of her novels, both are often heavy and dull
in her essays.
The greater number of essays in this volume are devoted to the analysis of
special types of character, but a few are given to moral problems. These
latter are of the more interest and value, and they present some new
discussions of those problems with which George Eliot was so much
fascinated. Her earnest faith in altruism, realism, tradition, natural
retribution and the social value of morality, is as distinct here as in her
novels or poems. In the essay on "False Testimonials" she gives a good
realistic definition of imagination, which she says is "always based on a
keen vision, a keen consciousness of what is, and carries the store of
definite knowledge as material for the construction of its inward visions."
She is no realist, however, in the sense of confining poetry merely to a
photographic picture of outward nature. She accepts Dante as a genuine
realist, for "he is at once the most precise and homely in his reproduction
of actual objects, and the most soaringly at large in his imaginative
combinations." She would have faithfulness to facts, but no limitation of
vision; she would have the imagings exact and legitimate, but she would
give our moral and intellectual insights no narrow bounds. Her realism is
well defined when she criticises one of those persons who take mere fancy
for imagination, to whom all facts are unworthy of recognition.
In at least two of these essays, those on "Debasing the Moral Currency" and
"The Modern Hep, Hep, Hep!" she has newly expressed herself concerning
tradition. In the first she protests against the too-common custom of
satirizing what is noble and venerable. Our need of faith in the higher
things of life is very great, and that faith is to be established only
through our regard for what has been given us by those who have gone before
us. Whatever lowers our trust in the results of human efforts is
corrupting, for it breaks down our faith in the true sources of human
authority. "This is what I call debasing the moral currency," she says;
"lowering the value of every inspiring fact and tradition so that it will
command less and less of the spiritual products, the generous motives which
sustain the charm and elevation of our social existence--the something
besides bread by which man saves his soul alive." With her conception of
tradition, as the legitimate source of the moral and spiritual life in man,
and as the influence which builds up all which is truest and purest in our
civilization, she can endure to see no contempt put upon its products. This
essay, more perhaps than anything else she wrote, gives an insight into her
conception of the higher life and her total lack of faith in any idealistic
sources of human motive or inspiration. Contempt for the traditional, with
her, implies contempt for the spiritual and moral. To destroy the
traditional is revolutionary, dangerous and immoral. She cannot reject
tradition in the name of higher wisdom, in the name of higher truth and
authority. It gone, and all is gone; hence her fear of all iconoclastic and
revolutionary methods. So she would keep whole and pure the national
memories of every people. In the last essay of the book she says, "The
preservation of national memories is an element and a means of national
greatness, and their revival a sign of reviving nationality." It is "the
divine gift of memory" as it expresses itself in the life and purposes of a
people, "which inspires the moments with a past, a present and a future,
and gives the sense of corporate existence that raises man above the
brutes." All which lowers the influence or the sacredness of this memory is
debasing. The corrupting of this memory "is the impoverishment that
threatens our posterity;" and this "new famine, a meagre fiend, with lewd
grin and clumsy hoof, is breathing a moral mildew over the harvest of our
human sentiments." That eager yearning of the nineteenth century for truth
and reality, for something more than traditions and national memories,
which displays itself in reforms and revolutions of every kind, had little
of George Eliot's sympathy. Yet this spirit is stronger even than
tradition, and creates for us a new world and a higher life.
Throughout these essays it is the social side of morality which is praised
and commended. What will increase the altruistic spirit, what will widen
sympathy and helpfulness, is regarded as truly ethical in its import. Ideal
aims are brought to the level of present needs and the possibilities of
human nature as it now exists.
Wide-reaching motives, blessed and glorious as they are, and of the
highest sacramental virtue, have their dangers, like all else that
touches the mixed life of the earth. They are archangels with awful
brow and flaming sword, summoning and encouraging us to do the right
and the divinely heroic, and we feel a beneficent tremor in their
presence; but to learn what it is they summon us to do, we have to
consider the mortals we are elbowing, who are of our own stature and
our own appetites.... On the whole, and in the vast majority of
instances, the action by which we can do the best for future ages is of
the sort which has a certain beneficence and grace for contemporaries.
A sour father may reform prisons, but considered in his sourness he
In another essay, that entitled "Only Temper," the social side of morality
is again presented. Especially does it appear in that on "Moral Swindlers."
"Let us refuse to accept as moral," says George Eliot, "any political
leader who should allow his conduct in relation to great issues to be
determined by egoistic passion, and boldly say that he would be less
immoral even though he were as lax in his personal habits as Sir Robert
Walpole, if at the same time his sense of the public welfare were supreme
in his mind, quelling all pettier impulses beneath a magnanimous
impartiality." George Eliot is almost without exception sound and just in
her moral judgments, but here her theories have made her overlook the true
conditions of a moral life.
Seeing that Morality and Morals under their _alias_ of Ethics are the
subject of voluminous discussion, and their true basis a pressing
matter of dispute--seeing that the most famous book ever written on
Ethics, and forming a chief study in our colleges, allies ethical with
political science, or that which treats of the constitution and
prosperity of States, one might expect that educated men would find
reason to avoid a perversion of language which lends itself' to no
wider view of life than that of village gossips. Yet I find even
respectable historians of our own and of foreign countries, after
showing that a king was treacherous, rapacious, and ready to sanction
gross breaches in the administration of justice, end by praising him
for his pure moral character, by which one must suppose them to mean
that he was not lewd nor debauched, not the European twin of the
typical Indian potentate whom Macaulay describes as passing his life in
chewing bang and fondling dancing-girls. And since we are sometimes
told of such maleficent kings that they were religious, we arrive at
the curious result that the most serious wide-reaching duties of man
lie quite outside both Morality and Religion--the one of these
consisting in not keeping mistresses (and perhaps not drinking too
much), and the other in certain ritual and spiritual transactions with
God which can be carried on equally well side by side with the basest
conduct toward men. With such a classification as this, it is no
wonder, considering the strong re-action of language on thought, that
many minds, dizzy with indigestion of recent science and philosophy,
are fain to seek for the grounds of social duty; and without
entertaining any private intention of committing a perjury which would
ruin an innocent man, or seeking gain by supplying bad preserved meats
to our navy, feel themselves speculatively obliged to inquire why they
should not do so, and are inclined to measure their intellectual
subtlety by their dissatisfaction with all answers to this "Why?"
It would be quite impossible for George Eliot to write an essay without
some fresh thought or some new suggestion. To those who admire her genius
and are in sympathy with her teachings this volume will have a special
interest. Its few essays which touch upon moral or speculative subjects are
of the utmost value as interpretations of her life and thought.
All her essays, the later as the earlier, are mainly of interest as aids to
an understanding of her philosophy. Nothing is worthless which helps us
clearly to comprehend an original mind.
THE ANALYTIC METHOD.
George Eliot's literary method was that of Fielding and Thackeray, both of
whom evidently influenced her manner. Their realism, and especially their
method of comment and moral observation, she made her own. She had little
sympathy with the romanticism of Scott or the idealism of Dickens. Her
moral aims, her intense faith in altruism, kept her from making her art a
mere process of photographing nature. Nature always had a moral meaning to
her, a meaning in reference to man's happiness and health of soul; and that
moral bearing of all human experiences gave dignity and purpose to her art.
It was the method of Scott to present the romantic, picturesque and poetic
side of life. He was not untrue to nature, but he cared more for beauty and
sentiment than for fact. He sometimes perverted the historic incidents he
made use of, but he caught the spirit of the time with which he was dealing
with absolute fidelity. In this capacity for historic interpretation he
surpassed George Eliot, who had not his instinctive insight into the past.
Scott had no theory about the past, no philosophy of history was known to
him; but above all novelists he had the power to see by the light of other
days, and to make the dead times live again. Not George Eliot and not
Thackeray was his rival in this historic insight and poetic power of
interpretation; and his superior success was due not only to his peculiar
genius but also to his romanticism. Scott failed where George Eliot
succeeded, in giving an intellectual interpretation of life. With certain
social and moral tendencies he was clearly at home. On its side of
adventure and social impulse and craving for a wider life, as a single
instance of his power, he was a true interpreter of the age of Elizabeth.
Its deeper spirit, its intellectual movements, he did not, and could not,
bring within the range of his story. It was here George Eliot was superior,
as is abundantly shown in _Romola_. The thoughtful aspects of Florentine
life she truthfully presented; but its more romantic elements it needed a
Scott to make living and real. In _The Spanish Gypsy_ there is very little
of genuine interpretation. Certain local features may be accurate, but the
spirit of the time is not there; the characters are not such as that age
and country developed. Scott, with all his romanticism, would have
introduced _reality_ into such an historic picture.
Within her own lines of power George Eliot is much greater than Scott, who
could not have written _Adam Bede_ or _Middlemarch_, or brought out what is
best in those works. Adventure was necessary to Scott; he could not have
transfigured the plain and homely with beauty as George Eliot has done.
Where she is at her best, as in the simple scenes of _Silas Marner_, there
is a charm, pathos and sympathy in her work which must endear it to all
hearts. That peculiar power Scott did not have; yet it would be most
difficult to decide which is the truer to nature. Genuine art, it is true,
has its foundation in the realities of human experience: but those
realities are not always best interpreted by the methods of realism. In his
own province Scott was truer to nature than George Eliot was in the same
field, as may be seen at once by comparing _The Spanish Gypsy_ with
_Ivanhoe_, or any of Scott's novels dealing with the mediaeval and feudal
ages, he took the past into himself, caught its spirit, reflected it in
its wholeness. In this he was a genuine realist, and all the more faithful
to reality because he did not accept realism as a theory.
In comparing George Eliot with Dickens, it must first of all be noted that
each is the superior of the other in his own special province. Dickens has
more imagination; he appeals to more universal sentiments, touches a wider
circle of experiences, captivates his readers with a resistless interest
and tenderness of spirit. His characters are unreal, mere caricatures
often, mere puppets. Yet he had an imagination of marvellous power, so that
his characters appeared to his own mind as if real, and he describes them
as if they actually stood before him, making them intensely real to his
readers. Many of his persons never lived, never could have lived; yet they
are types or certain traits of character made living and brought out into a
distinctive existence. What those traits of character are he makes all the
more apparent by this method.
Dickens had not a fine literary taste, he had no clear insight into some of
the purer human sentiments, he was grossly untrue and false in many of his
pictures. Yet all in all, with his many faults, it is to be said that his
idealism, which was not of a high type, made him a true interpreter of
life. If his characters are less faithfully drawn than George Eliot's, his
insight into some of the sentiments and emotions was truer. His pictures
may be false in some particulars, but he has given them the true spirit
with which they should be animated.
In thoughtful fidelity to the facts of life, George Eliot surpasses Scott
or Dickens. Scott by his insight, Dickens by his imagination, were able to
do what she could not; but they put little thought into their work. They
did not think about what life meant; she did. They worked instinctively,
she thoughtfully. Her characters are more often to be met with than theirs;
and there is a freshness, a wholesomeness, about them theirs do not have.
She is more simple and refined than Fielding, more elevated in tone of
thought, there is a deeper and a richer purpose in her work. None of the
cynicism and hardness of Thackeray appear in her pages. She is fresher,
more genuine, more poetic than he, with more of humanity.
In her essay on "The Natural History of German Life" she said of Dickens
that he was "gifted with the utmost power of rendering the external traits
of our town population." City life Dickens and Thackeray most truly
photographed in all its features of snobbishness and selfishness. Its
better side, its nobler sentiments, its humanity, they did not succeed
in so well; not so well as George Eliot did, and simply because they did
not so much sympathize with it. Country life they did not understand, and
could not have sketched. Where George Eliot best succeeded they would have
failed. Her real advance upon Dickens and Thackeray, however, lay in
another direction. She says in the essay just quoted, speaking of Diekens's
portraitures of town populations, that "if he could give us their
psychological character--their conception of life and their emotions--with
the same truth as their idiom and manners, his books would be the greatest
contribution art has ever made to the awakening of social sympathies."
In the two directions here indicated lay her superiority over other
novelists,--her humanitarian sympathies and her psychologic insight. In
reality, she did not contribute anything new to the realism of literary
art. All which can be said for faithfulness to nature in art and poetry has
been said by Ruskin, and George Eliot was early a reader of his books. Her
predecessors, especially Thackeray, opened the way in the application of
the realistic principles in its newer spirit. The enlargement of realism,
however, was carried on to a much greater extent by the pre-Raphaelites in
painting and poetry, and George Eliot was influenced by them as well. Their
principle of loyal fidelity to the time and circumstances depicted was her
own, at least in theory.
It was in another direction her chief characteristic lay, that of
describing "psychologic character." Here she was no imitator, but she made
a way of her own, and developed a new method. The method of science she
applied to literature. Science has adopted the method of analysis, of
inductive inquiry, of search in all the facts of nature for the laws which
underlie them. So magnificent have been the results obtained by this
process in the study of the material world, that it has been applied with
the hope of securing the same thorough investigation of the phenomena
presented by history, ethics and religion. Even here the method has
justified itself, and has in recent years opened up new and valuable
results, giving to the world an enriched conception of the life of man.
The speculative mind has been stimulated to fresh activity, and new
philosophies, of vast and imposing proportions, have been the result. The
studies of Charles Darwin, and the elaboration of the theory of evolution,
have given a marvellous incentive to the new method, resulting in its
wide-spread application to all the questions of nature and life.
A method so productive in all directions must have its effect on
literature. What claims the attention of all thinking men cannot long
be kept out of poetry and art. In painting and in music it has been
largely developed in the direction of a more intimate and sympathetic
interpretation of nature and man. In literature the new method has been
mainly brought into application hitherto in the form of photographic
studies of human life. To describe what is, to make a true word-picture,
has been the chief aim. With George Eliot began a wider use of the new
method and its application in a more sympathetic spirit to the deeper
problems of the mind and heart. She was not content to paint the surface of
nature, to give photographic sketches of the outside of human life, but she
wished to realize every subtle fact and every most secret impulse. An
admirer of the Dutch school in painting, and of Jane Austen as a novelist,
she was not content with their results and methods, wishing to interpret
the spirit as well as the letter of nature and life.
In literature, the new method as developed in recent years consists in an
application of psychology to all the problems of man's nature. George
Eliot's intimate association with the leaders of the scientific movement in
England, naturally turned her mind into sympathy with their work, and made
her desirous of doing in literature what they were doing in science. In the
special department of physiological psychology, no one did more than George
Henry Lewes, and her whole heart went out in genuine appreciation of his
work. He studied the mind as a function of the brain, as being developed
with the body, as the result of inherited conditions, as intimately
dependent on its environment. Here was a new conception of man, which
regarded him as the last product of nature, considered as an organic whole.
This conception George Eliot everywhere applied in her studies of life and
character. She studied man as the product of his environment, not as a
being who exists above circumstances and material conditions. "In the eyes
of the psychologist," says Mr. James Sully, "the works of George Eliot must
always possess a high value by reason of their large scientific insight
into character and life." This value consists, as he indicates, in the fact
that she interprets the inner personality as it is understood by the
scientific student of human nature. She describes those obscure moral
tendencies, nascent forces, and undertones of feeling and thought, which
enter so much into life. She lays much stress on the subconscious mental
life, the domain of vague emotion and rapidly fugitive thought.
The aim of the psychologic method is to interpret man from within, in his
motives and impulses. It endeavors to show why he acts, and it unfolds the
subtler elements of his character. This method George Eliot uses in
connection with her evolutionary philosophy, and uses it for the purpose of
showing that man is a product of hereditary conditions, that he has been
shaped into his life of the emotions and sentiments by the influence of
tradition. The psychologic method may be applied, however, without
connection with the positive or evolutionary philosophy. The mind may be
regarded as a distinct force and power, exercised within social and
material limits, and capable of being studied in all its inner motives and
impulses. Yet in her mental inquiries George Eliot did not regard man as an
eternal soul in the process of development by divine methods, but as the
inheritor of the past, moulded by every surrounding circumstance, and as
the creature of the present. Instead of regarding man as _sub specie
eternitatis_, she regarded him as an animal who has through feeling and
social development come to know that he cannot exist beyond the present.
This limitation of his nature affected her work throughout.
The psychologic method in literature has also been that of Robert Browning,
and he has been as faithful to it as any other. He, too, analyzes his
characters, penetrates all the hidden causes of motive and deed, lays bare
the soul. No other poet has surpassed him in power to unveil the inner
workings of the mind, to discover all the influences affecting it or in
revealing how motives are created and how motives lead up to deeds. In two
important particulars Robert Browning differs from George Eliot. His
characters speak for themselves, reveal the secrets of their own minds. He
does not talk about them, does not criticise their words and conduct, does
not stand off from them as a spectator. He differs from her also in his
conception of man as a being who is here developing an eternal existence
under the laws of an Infinite Spirit. He, too, believes in the natural, and
believes that the highest law of the soul is, to be true to every pure
impulse arising within us. To calculate, to philosophize, he holds to be
always to man's injury, that nature when perfectly obeyed is the only
guide. He studies man as affected by all the circumstances of his
existence, and as wrought upon by the great social forces which have made
him what he is. His analysis is as keen as George Eliot's; he makes the
soul appear before us in all its reality. His is a more creative, a more
dramatic method than hers; yet he is fully as subjective, as much an
interpreter of the soul. Neither is content to record the deeds of men;
both wish to know why men act.
Browning has fittingly been called the poet of psychology. He is a
dissecter, a prober, an analyzer in the full spirit of scientific research.
He spares no pains to get at and to completely unfold the truth about man's
nature, to show all the hidden causes of his action, all the secret motives
of his life, using this method as thoroughly as George Eliot. It is
interesting to note his attitude towards the great religious problems. His
faith in God is intensely passionate and sublime in its conception. In
words the most expressive in their meaning, and indicating a conviction the
deepest, he reveals his faith.
"He glows above
With scarce an intervention, presses close
And palpitatingly, His soul o'er ours."
The lifting and inspiring power of faith in an Infinite Being he has sung
with a poet's purity of vision. Along with this faith goes his belief that
man is being glowly perfected for a higher and nobler existence.
"To whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, Thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from Thee, who art ever the same?
Doubt that Thy power can fill the heart that Thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound;
What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven the perfect round.
"All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good, shall exist;
Not its likeness, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but, each survives for the melodist
When eternity confirms the conceptions of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that He heard it once: we shall hear it by and by."
He teaches that progress is the true mark and aim of man's being, a
progress sure and glorious.
"Progress, man's distinctive mark alone,
Not God's and not the beast's; God is, they are,
Man partly is, and wholly hopes to be."
Man yearns after more than he can gain here; that yearning is the mark of
his higher nature and the means of progress. If he follows the better
impulses of his nature, all experience will help to unfold his soul into
higher attainments, and impulse will at last become, in clearer moments,
"Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so much that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And appraise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way
To its triumph or undoing.
There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fireflames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honors perish.
Whereby swol'n ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse
Which for once had play unstifled
Seems the sole work of a lifetime,
That away the rest have trifled."
More impersonal and dramatic than George Eliot, Browning introduces his
doctrines less often. It is not easy to discover what are his theories as
distinguished from those of his characters, for he makes no comments, and
is faithful in developing the unity and integrity of his _dramatis
personae_, whether in his monologues or dramas. Great as his other faults
maybe, he surpasses George Eliot in his power to reveal character, but not
in his power to make his characters stand out distinctly and unprejudiced
from his own mind. His obscurity of expression and his involved style are
serious defects in much of his work; and to most readers his thoroughly
dramatic manner is puzzling. He gives but faint clue to the situation in
his monologues, little explanation of the person, time or place. All is to
be discovered from the obscurest allusions and hints. Defective as this
method is in Browning's treatment, it is the true psychologic method,
wherein motive and character are developed dramatically and without labored
discussion. It is a more vital and constructive process than that followed
by George Eliot, because nothing of the meaning and fulness of life is lost
in the process of analysis. That Browning can never be read by more than a
few, indicates how great are his faults; but in lyric passion, dramatic
power and psychologic analysis he is one of the greatest poets of the
century. The value and range of the new method are well illustrated in its
use by two such thinkers and poets.
The analytic method as applied by George Eliot regards man as a social
being, studies him as a member of society. All that he is, and all
the influences working upon him, are understood only as affected by
his connection with the life of the race. This fact gives the most
distinguishing characteristic to her literary methods. Her imitators may
not, and nearly all of them do not, follow her into positivism; but they
all study man as a social being. They deal with him as affected by
heredity, education, and social characteristics. Even here it is not her
theories, but her artistic methods, which are imitated. The novel is no
longer regarded as a story to be told dramatically and with moving effect,
but as a study of character, as an analysis of situations and motives. The
advocates of the new method say that "in one manner or another the stories
were all told long ago; and now we want merely to know what the novelist
thinks about persons and situations." [Footnote: W.D. Howells in the
Century for November, 1882.] This interpretation of the mission of the
novelist well describes George Eliot's work, for she never hesitated to
tell her reader what she thought about the situations and the persons of
whom she wrote.
The new method, as developed in sympathy with agnosticism, fails in
literature just as science fails to be a complete interpretation of the
universe. The process which answers in the material world does not answer
in the spiritual. The instruments which tell the secrets of matter, close
the avenues to the revelations of mind. The methods of experiment and
demonstration which have brought the universe to man's knowledge, have not
been sufficient to make the soul known to itself. Any literary methods
imitating physical science must share in its limitations without its power
over the materials with which it has to deal. Literature has hitherto been
made helpful and delightful and acceptable because of its ideal elements.
Belief in a spiritual world, belief in the imperative law of righteousness
as a divine command, runs through all effective literature. However
realistic the poets have been when they have reached their highest and
best, they have believed that the soul, and what belongs to it, is the only
_reality_. Divorced of this Element, literature is at once lowered in tone,
a dry-rot seizes upon it and eats away its finest portions. If Goethe and
Shakspere are realists in literary method, as some of their interpreters
would claim, yet to them the spiritual is supreme, the soul is monarch.
So it is with Homer, with Dante, with Scott, with Cervantes, with Victor
Hugo, with every supremely artistic and creative mind. Great minds
instinctively believe in the creative power of the mind, in its capacity
for self-direction. An unbiassed mind gifted with genius sees over
and through all obstacles, leaps to magnificent results, will not be
restrained by the momentary conditions of the present. Education or social
environment, however adverse, will not long hinder the poet from his work.
He writes for the future, if the present will not accept him, confident
that what his soul has to utter can be truly uttered only as his own
individuality impels, and that if he is faithful to his genius the world
will listen in due time. This power of personality lies at the basis of all
genuine literature, teaching faith in the soul, faith in a providential
ordering of the world, and overturning all agnostic theories about realism
This instinctive faith in mind is the basis of all genuine idealism. The
idealist is not the creator of an imaginary world, peopling it with shapes
that never existed; but he is one who believes in ideas, and in mind as
their creator and the vehicle of their expression. Contemporary with George
Eliot was a group of men who believed in the mind as something other than
the temporary product of an evolutionary process. With them she may be
contrasted, her work may be measured by theirs. Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning
and Buskin shared with her the radical ideas of the time. Not one of them
has been fettered by narrow theories or cramped by old social doctrines.
The broad, inquiring, scientific spirit of the time has been shared by them
all. Buskin is a realist, Carlyle believed in the enduring realm of facts,
and they have all accepted the spirit of naturalism which has ruled the
century. The scientific, philosophic and social theories of the time have
been their inspiration. Certain ideas about law, progress and social
regeneration have affected them through and through. Yet as regards the one
great characteristic of idealism, all have widely departed from George
Eliot, for all regard mind as supreme, all believe in a spiritual realm
environing man. This fact appears throughout their work. To them the
spiritual is objective; they are the true realists. To George Eliot the
spiritual is subjective, the result of our own feelings, to which it is
limited. When the feelings are gone, all is gone. In the pages of these men
there is consequently to be found a power and an inspiration not to be
found in hers. Wonderful as is her skill as an artist, and in the analysis
of character, yet we feel that we are walking over mocking graves whenever
we reach her spiritual conception of the world. She deceives us with a
shadow, offers us a name in place of what we crave for with every nobler
instinct of the soul. Our own feelings are given us, mirrored in the
feelings of others, in place of the reality we desire to possess.
These men have linked their work with those spiritual convictions which
have been the moral sustenance of the ages. They have gained in strength
and effectiveness thereby. Tennyson has his many doubts, his teachings have
been questioned; and yet he sings,--
"That each, who seems a separate whole,
Should move his rounds, and passing all
The skirts of self again, should fall,
Remerging in the general soul,--
"Is faith as vague as all unsweet:
Eternal form shall still divide
The eternal soul from all beside;
And I shall know him when we meet."
His flight of song is more sustained for this faith. He is a truer poet, of
stronger wing and loftier flight, because life has for him an infinite
meaning, because he opens his mind to the impressions which come of man's
spiritual existence. In the same way, Carlyle has a grander meaning running
through his books, more of sublimity, a finer eloquence, because the
spiritual is to him real. Doubter and scorner as he was, he could not but
see that man's being reaches beyond the material world and interprets some
higher realm. Vague as that faith was with him, it was a source of the most
effective literary power and stimulus. He bursts forth, under its impulse,
into impassioned passages of the noblest poetic beauty.
"Perhaps my father, all that essentially was my father, is even now near
me, with me. Both he and I are with God. Perhaps, if it so please God, we
shall in some higher state of being meet one another, recognize one
another. As it is written, we shall be forever with God. The possibility,
nay (in some way) the certainty, of perennial existence daily grows plainer
Ruskin has made it plain how necessary is that tone of mind which is
religious to the best work in art. His own faith has been earnest and
strong in the reality of the spiritual. Realist as he is in art, he
believes in the original and creative power of the mind, and his work has
all taken on a higher spirit and a finer expression because of his
religious convictions. Writing in _Modern Painters_ of man as made in the
image of God, he answers the objection which is raised to the idea that all
the revelation man has is contained in a being so imperfect.
"No other book, nor fragment of book, than that, will you ever
find,--nothing in the clouds above, nor in the earth beneath. The
flesh-bound volume is the only revelation that is, that was, or that can
be. In that is the image of God painted; in that is the law of God written;
in that is the promise of God revealed. Know thyself; for through thyself
only thou canst know God. Through the glass, darkly; but except through the
glass, in no wise. A tremulous crystal, waved as water, poured out upon the
ground;--you may defile it, despise it, pollute it at your pleasure and at
your peril; for on the peace of those weak waves must all the heaven you
shall ever gain be first seen; and through such purity as you can win for
those dark waves must all the light of the risen Sun of Righteousness be
bent down by faint refraction. Cleanse them, and calm them, as you love
your life. Therefore it is that all the power of nature depends on
subjection to the human soul. Man is the Sun of the world; more than the
real sun. The fire of his wonderful heart is the only light and heat worth
gauge or measure. Where he is, are the tropics; where he is not, the
Such words may not be scientific, but they convey real meaning. Their
assertion that the world is to be tested and understood by man, not man by
the world, is one worthy of attention. The conviction of this truth has a
literary power and incentive not to be found in "the scientific method" or
any of its corollaries.
To this group of writers may be added Mrs. Browning, who, as a poet, did
great and lasting work. Its value, in large measure, rests on its depth of
spiritual conviction, and on its idealism in purpose and spirit. Her
conception of love is finer and truer than George Eliot's, because she gave
it an ideal as well as an altruistic meaning; because she thought it has an
eternal as well as a social significance. As a poet she lost nothing of
charm or of power or of inspiration because she could herself believe, with
simple trust, what she has embodied in "A Child's Thought of God."
"God is so good, He wears a fold
Of heaven and earth across his face--
Like secrets kept, for love, untold.
But still I feel that his embrace
Slides down by thrills, through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place."
That art is to be nothing more than a copying and interpretation of nature
Mrs. Browning did not believe. In _Aurora Leigh_ she says,--
"Art's the witness of what is
Beyond this show. If this world's show were all,
Mere imitation would be all in art."
The glow of genius burns up out of all her pages, and there is an aroma and
a subtle power in them which comes alone of this conception of art. She
could not rest content with the little round of man's experience, but found
that all the universe is bound together and all its parts filled with a
"No lily-muffled hum of a summer bee
But finds some coupling with, the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch but implies the cherubim:
... Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God."
That is a larger faith and a truer faith than appears anywhere in the pages
of George Eliot, and it is one which impregnates most of the best
literature the world posseses with light and life. It is a faith which
gives hope and impulse where the other saddens and unnerves.
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