Old and New Masters
Part 3 out of 4
Ronsard anthology with a critical essay in 1828, showed them where to
look. After that, it was as though French literature had begun with
Ronsard. He was the "ideal ancestor." He was, as it were, a
re-discovered fatherland. But his praise since then has been no mere
task of patriotism. It has been a deep enthusiasm for literature. "You
cannot imagine," wrote Flaubert, in 1852, "what a poet Ronsard is. What
a poet! What a poet! What wings!... This morning, at half-past twelve, I
read a poem aloud which almost upset my nerves, it gave me so much
pleasure." That may be taken as the characteristic French view of
Ronsard. It may be an exaggerated view. It may be fading to some extent
before modern influences. But it is unlikely that Ronsard's reputation
in his own country will ever again be other than that of a great poet.
At the same time, it is not easy, on literary grounds, to acquiesce in
all the praises that have been heaped upon him. One would imagine from
Flaubert's exclamations that Ronsard had a range like Shelley's,
whereas, in fact, he was more comparable with the English cavalier
poets. He had the cavalier poet's gift of making love seem a profession
rather than a passion. He was always very much a gentleman, both in his
moods and his philosophy. A great deal of his best poetry is merely a
variation on _carpe diem._ On the other hand, though he never went very
deep or very high, he did express real sentiments and emotions in
poetry. Few poets have sung the regret for youth more sincerely and more
beautifully, and, with Ronsard, regret for the lost wonder of his own
youth was perhaps the acutest emotion he ever knew. He was himself, in
his early years, one of those glorious youths who have the genius of
charm and comeliness, of grace and strength and the arts. He excelled at
football as in lute-playing. He danced, fenced, and rode better than the
best; and, with his noble countenance, his strong limbs, his fair
beard, and his "eyes full of gentle gravity," he must have been the
picture of the perfect courtier and soldier. Above all, we are told, his
conversation was delightful. He had "the gift of pleasing." When he went
to Scotland in 1537 with Madeleine, the King's daughter, to attend as
page her tragic marriage with James V, James was so attracted by him
that he did not allow him to leave the country for two years. With every
gift of popularity and success, with the world apparently already at his
feet, Ronsard was suddenly struck down by an illness that crippled his
whole life. He became deaf, or half-deaf. His body was tortured with
arthritis and recurrent attacks of gout. His career as a courtier lay in
ruins before him.
Possibly, had it not been so, his genius as a poet would have spent
itself in mere politeness. The loss of his physical splendour and the
death of more than one of his companions, however, filled him with an
extreme sense of the transitoriness of the beauty of the world--of youth
and fame and flowers--and turned him both to serious epicureanism and to
serious writing. By the year 1550 he was leading the young men of France
in a great literary renaissance--a reaction against the lifeless jingle
of ballades and punning rhymes. Like du Bellay, he asked himself and his
contemporaries: "Are we, then, less than the Greeks and Romans?" And he
set out to lay the foundations in France of a literature as individual
in its genius as the ancient classics. M. Jusserand, in a most
interesting chapter, relates the story of the battles over form and
language which were fought by French men of letters in the days of La
Pleiade. In an age of awakenings, of conquests, of philosophies, of
discussions on everything under the sun, the literature of tricksters
was ultimately bound to give way before the bold originality and the
sincerities of the new school. But Ronsard had to endure a whole
parliament of mockery before the day of victory.
Of his life, apart from his work in literature, there is little to
tell. For a man who lived in France in days when Protestantism and
Catholicism were murderously at one another's throats, he had a
peculiarly uneventful career. This, too, though he threw himself
earnestly into the battle against the heretics. He had begun by
sympathizing with Protestantism, because it promised much-needed reforms
in the Church; but the sympathy was short-lived. In 1553, though a
layman, he was himself filling various ecclesiastical offices. He drew
the salaries of several priories during his life, more lowly paid
priests apparently doing the work. Though an earnest Catholic, however,
Ronsard was never faithless to friends who took the other side. He
published his kindly feelings towards Odet de Coligny, the Admiral's
cardinal brother, for instance, who had adopted Protestantism and
married, and, though he could write bloodily enough against his
sectarian enemies, the cry for tolerance, for pity, for peace, seems
continually to force itself to his lips amid the wars of the time. M.
Jusserand lays great stress on the plain-spokenness of Ronsard. He
praises especially the courage with which the poet often spoke out his
mind to kings and churchmen, though no man could write odes fuller of
exaggerated adulation when they were wanted. He sometimes counselled
kings, we are told, "in a tone that, after all our revolutions, no
writer would dare to employ to-day." Perhaps M. Jusserand over-estimates
the boldness with which his hero could remind kings that they, like
common mortals, were made of mud. He has done so, I imagine, largely in
order to clear him from the charge of being a flatterer. It is
interesting to be reminded, by the way, that one of his essays in
flattery was an edition of his works dedicated, by order of Catherine de
Medicis, to Elizabeth of England, whom he compared to all the
incomparables, adding a eulogy of "Mylord Robert Du-Dle comte de
l'Encestre" as the ornament of the English, the wonder of the world.
Elizabeth was delighted, and gave the poet a diamond for his pretty
But Ronsard does not live in literature mainly as a flatterer. Nor is
he remembered as a keeper of the conscience of princes, or as a
religious controversialist. If nothing but his love-poems had survived,
we should have almost all his work that is of literary importance. He
fell in love in the grand manner three times, and from these three
passions most of his good poetry flowed. First there was Cassandre, the
beautiful girl of Florentine extraction, whom he saw singing to her
lute, when he was only twenty-two, and loved to distraction. She married
another and became the star of Ronsard's song. She was the irruptive
heroine of that witty and delightful sonnet on the _Iliad:--_
Je veux lire en trois jours l'Iliade d'Homere,
Et pour ce, Corydon, ferme bien l'huis sur moi;
Si rien me vient troubler, je t'assure ma foi,
Tu sentiras combien pesante est ma colere.
Je ne veux seulement que notre chambriere
Vienne faire mon lit, ton compagnon ni toi;
Je veux trois jours entiers demeurer a recoi,
Pour folatrer apres une semaine entiere.
Mais, si quelqu'un venait de la part de Cassandre,
Ouvre-lui tot la porte, et ne le fais attendre,
Soudain entre en ma chambre et me viens accoutrer.
Je veux tant seulement a lui seul me montrer;
Au reste, si un dieu voulait pour moi descendre
Du ciel, ferme la porte et ne le laisse entrer.
Nine years after Cassandre came Marie, the fifteen-year-old daughter of
an Angevin villager, nut-brown, smiling, and with cheeks the colour of a
May rose. She died young, but not before she had made Ronsard suffer by
coquetting with another lover. What is more important still, not before
she had inspired him to write that sonnet which has about it so much of
the charm of the morning:--
Mignonne, levez-vous, vous etes paresseuse,
Ja la gaie alouette au ciel a fredonne,
Et ja le rossignol doucement jargonne,
Dessus l'epine assis, sa complainte amoureuse.
Sus! debout allons voir l'herbelette perleuse,
Et votre beau rosier de boutons couronne,
Et vos oeillets aimes auxquels aviez donne
Hier au soir de l'eau d'une main si soigneuse.
Harsoir en vous couchant vous jurates vos yeux
D'etre plus tot que moi ce matin eveillee:
Mais le dormir de l'aube, aux filles gracieux,
Vous tient d'un doux sommeil encor les yeux silleee.
Ca, ca, que je les baise, et votre beau tetin,
Cent fois, pour vous apprendre a vous lever matin.
Ronsard was old and grey--at least, he was old before his time and
grey--when he met Helene de Sorgeres, maid of honour to the Queen, and
began the third of his grand passions. He lived all the life of a young
lover over again. They went to dances together, Helene in a mask. Helene
gave her poet a crown of myrtle and laurel. They had childish quarrels
and swore eternal fidelity. It was for her that Ronsard made the most
exquisite of his sonnets: _Quand vous serez bien vieille_-a sonnet of
which Mr. Yeats has written a magical version in English.
It is in referring to the sonnets for Helene that M. Jusserand calls
attention to the realism of Ronsard's poetry. He points out that one
seems to see the women Ronsard loves far more clearly than the heroines
of many other poets. He notes the same genius of realism again when he
is relating how Ronsard, on the eve of his death, as he was transported
from priory to priory, in hope of relief in each new place, wrote a poem
of farewell to his friends, in which he described the skeleton horrors
of his state with a minute carefulness, Ronsard, indeed, showed himself
a very personal chronicler throughout his work. "He cannot hide the
fact that he likes to sleep on the left side, that he hates cats,
dislikes servants 'with slow hands,' believes in omens, adores physical
exercises and gardening, and prefers, especially in summer, vegetables
to meat." M. Jusserand, I may add, has written the just and scholarly
praise of a most winning poet. His book, which appears in the _Grands
Ecrivains Francais_ series, is not only a good biographical study, but
an admirable narrative of literary and national history.
ROSSETTI AND RITUAL
Rossetti's great gift to his time was the gift of beauty, of beauty to
be worshipped in the sacred hush of a temple. His work is not richer in
the essentials of beauty than Browning's--it is not, indeed, nearly so
rich; but, while Browning served beauty joyously, a god in a firmament
of gods, Rossetti burned a lonely candle to it as to the only true god.
To Browning, the temple of beauty was but a house in a living world; to
Rossetti, the world outside the temple was, for the most part, a dead
world. _Jenny_ may, seem to stand in vivid contradiction of this. But
_Jenny_ was an exceptional excursion into life, and hardly expresses the
Rossetti that was a power in art and literature. Him we find best,
perhaps, in _The Blessed Damozel_, written when he was little more than
a boy. And this is not surprising, for the arrogant love of beauty, out
of which the aesthetic sort of art and literature has been born, is
essentially a boy's love. Poets who are sick with this passion must
either die young, like Keats, or survive merely to echo their younger
selves, like Swinburne. They are splendid in youth, like Aucassin, whose
swooning passion for Nicolette is symbolical of their almost painful
desire of beauty. In _Hand and Soul_, Rossetti tells us of Chiaro dell
Erma that "he would feel faint in sunsets and at the sight of stately
persons." Keats's Odes express the same ecstasy of faintness, and
Rossetti himself was obviously a close nineteenth-century counterpart of
Chiaro. Even when he troubles about the soul--and he constantly troubles
about it--he never seems to be able altogether to escape out of what
may be called the higher sensationalism into genuine mysticism. His work
is earth-born: it is rich in earthly desire. His symbols were not wings
to enable the soul to escape into a divine world of beauty. They were
the playthings of a grown man, loved for their owft beauty more than for
any beauty they could help the spirit to reach. Rossetti belongs to the
ornamental school of poetry. He writes more like a man who has gone into
a library than like one who has gone out to Nature, and ornamentalism in
poetry is simply the result of seeing life, not directly, but through
the coloured glass of literature and the other arts. Rossetti was the
forerunner of all those artists and authors of recent times, who, in
greater or less degree, looked on art as a weaving of patterns, an
arrangement of wonderful words and sounds and colours. Pater in his
early writings, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, and all those others who
dreamed that it was the artist's province to enrich the world with
beautiful furniture--for conduct itself seemed, in the philosophy of
these writers, to aspire after the quality of tapestry--are implicit in
_The Blessed Damozel_ and _Troy Town._ It is not that Rossetti could
command words like Pater or Wilde. His phrasing, if personal, is
curiously empty of the graces. He often does achieve graces of phrase;
but some of his most haunting poems owe their power over us to their
general pattern, and not to any persistent fine workmanship. How
beautiful _Troy Town_ is, for instance, and yet how lacking in beautiful
verses! The poet was easily content in his choice of words who could
leave a verse like:--
Venus looked on Helen's gift;
_(O Troy Town!)_
Looked and smiled with subtle drift,
Saw the work of her heart's desire:--
"There thou kneel'st for Love to lift!"
_(O Troy's down,
Tall Troy's on fire!)_
Rossetti never wrote; a poem that was fine throughout. There is nothing
to correspond to _The Skylark_ or the _Ode to a Grecian Urn_ or _Childe
Roland to the Dark Tower Came_ in his work. The truth is, he was not a
great poet, because he was not a singer. He was capable of decorations
in verse, but he was not capable of song. His sonnets, it may be argued,
are more than decorations. But even they are laden with beauty; they are
never, as it were, light and alight with it, as are _Shall I compare
thee to a summer's day?_ and _Where lies the land to which yon ship must
go?_ They have flagging pulses like desire itself, and are often weary
before the fourteenth line. Only rarely do we get a last six lines
O love, my love! if I no more should see
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,--
How then should sound upon Life's darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death's imperishable wing?
And, beautiful as this is, is not the imagery of the closing lines a
little more deliberate than we are conscious of in the great work of the
great singers? One never feels that the leaves and the winds in
themselves were sufficiently full of meaning and delight for Rossetti.
He loved them as pictorial properties--as a designer rather than a poet
In his use of the very mysteries of Christianity, he is intoxicated
chiefly by the beauty of the designs by which the painters have
expressed their vision of religion. His _Ave_ is a praise of the beauty
of art more than a praise of the beauty of divinity. In it we are told
how, on the eve of the Annunciation,
Far off the trees were as pale wands,
Against the fervid sky: the sea
Sighed further off eternally
As human sorrow sighs in sleep.
The poem is not a hymn but a decorated theme. And yet there is a
sincere vain-longing running through Rossetti's work that keeps it from
being artificial or pretentious. This was no less real for being vague.
His work is an attempt to satisfy his vain-longing with rites of words
and colour. He always sought to bring peace to his soul by means of
ritual. When he was dying, he was anxious to see a confessor. "I can
make nothing of Christianity," he said, "but I only want a confessor to
give me absolution for my sins." That was typical of his attitude to
life. He loved its ceremonies more--at least, more vividly--than he
loved its soul. One is never done hearing about his demand for
"fundamental brainwork" in art. But his own poetry is poor enough in
brainwork. It is the poetry, of one who, like Keats, hungered for a
"life of sensations rather than of thoughts." It is the poetry of grief,
of regret--the grief and regret of one who was a master of sensuous
beauty, and who reveals sensuous beauty rather than any deeper secret
even in touching spiritual themes. Poetry with him is a dyed and
embroidered garment which weighs the spirit down rather than winged
sandals like Shelley's, which set the spirit free.
Yet his influence on art and literature has been immense. He, far more
than Keats or Swinburne, was the prophet of that ritualism which has
been a; dominant characteristic in modern poetry, whether it is the
Pagan ritualism of Mr. Yeats or the Catholic ritualism of Francis
Thompson. One need not believe that he was an important direct influence
on either of these poets. But his work as poet and painter prepared the
world for ritualism in literature. No doubt the medievalism of Scott and
the decorative imagination of Keats were also largely responsible for
the change in the literary atmosphere; but Rossetti was more
distinctively a symbolist and ritualist than any other English man of
letters who lived in the early or middle part of the nineteenth century.
People used to debate whether he was greater as a painter or as a poet,
and he was not always sure himself. When, however, he said to
Burne-Jones, in 1857: "If any man has any poetry in him, he should
paint; for it has all been said and written, and they have scarcely
begun to paint it," he gave convincing proof that painting, and not
poetry, was his essential gift. He may be denounced for his bad drawing
and twenty other faults as an artist; but it is his paintings that show
him as a discoverer and a man of high genius. At the same time, how well
he can also paint in verse, as in those ever-moving lines on Jenny's
wanderings in the Haymarket:--
Jenny, you know the city now.
A child can tell the tale there, how
Some things which are not yet enrol'd
In market-lists are bought and sold,
Even till the early Sunday light,
When Saturday night is market-night
Everywhere, be it dry or wet,
And market-night in the Haymarket.
Our learned London children know,
Poor Jenny, all your pride and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt
Advertise dainties through the dirt;
Have seen your coach wheels splash rebuke
On virtue; and have learned your look
When wealth and health slipped past, you stare
Along the streets alone, and there,
Round the long park, across the bridge,
The cold lamps at the pavement's edge
Wind on together and apart,
A fiery serpent for your heart.
In most of his poems, unfortunately, the design, as a whole, rambles.
His imagination worked best when limited by the four sides of a canvas.
MR. BERNARD SHAW
Mr. Shaw came for a short time recently to be regarded less as an author
than as an incident in the European War. In the opinion of many people,
it seemed as if the Allies were fighting against a combination composed
of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Mr. Shaw. Mr. Shaw's gift of
infuriating people is unfailing. He is one of those rare public men who
can hardly express an opinion on potato-culture--and he does express an
opinion on everything--without making a multitude of people shake their
fists in impotent anger. His life--at least, his public life--has been a
jibe opposed to a rage. He has gone about, like a pickpocket of
illusions, from the world of literature to the world of morals, and from
the world of morals to the world of politics, and, everywhere he has
gone, an innumerable growl has followed him.
Not that he has not had his disciples--men and women who believe that
what Mr. Shaw says on any conceivable subject is far more important than
what _The Times_ or the _Manchester Guardian_ says. He has never founded
a church, however, because he has always been able to laugh at his
disciples as unfeelingly as at anybody else. He has courted unpopularity
as other men have courted popularity. He has refused to assume the
vacuous countenance either of an idol or a worshipper, and in the result
those of us to whom life without reverence seems like life in ruins are
filled at times with a wild lust to denounce and belittle him. He has
been called more names than any other man of letters alive. When all the
other names have been exhausted and we are about to become
inarticulate, we even denounce him as a bore. But this is only the
Billingsgate of our exasperation. Mr. Shaw is not a bore, whatever else
he may be. He has succeeded in the mere business of interesting us
beyond any other writer of his time.
He has succeeded in interesting us largely by inventing himself as a
public figure, as Oscar Wilde and Stevenson did before him. Whether he
could have helped becoming a figure, even if he had never painted that
elongated comic portrait of himself, it is difficult to say. Probably he
was doomed to be a figure just as Dr. Johnson was. If he had not told us
legends about himself, other people would have told them, and they could
scarcely have told them so well: that would have been the chief
difference. Even if Mr. Shaw's plays should ever become as dead as the
essays in _The Rambler_, his lineaments and his laughter will survive in
a hundred stories which will bring the feet of pilgrims to Adelphi
Terrace in search of a ghost with its beard on fire.
His critics often accuse him, in regard to the invention of the Shaw
myth, of having designed a poster rather than painted a portrait. And
Mr. Shaw always hastens to agree with those who declare he is an
advertiser in an age of advertisement. M. Hamon quotes him as saying:--
Stop advertising myself! On the contrary, I must do it more than
ever. Look at Pears's Soap. There is a solid house if you like, but
every wall is still plastered with their advertisements. If I were
to give up advertising, my business would immediately begin to fall
off. You blame me for having declared myself to be the most
remarkable man of my time. But the claim is an arguable one. Why
should I not say it when I believe that it is true?
One suspects that there is as much fun as commerce in Mr. Shaw's
advertisement. Mr. Shaw would advertise himself in this sense even if he
were the inmate of a workhouse. He is something of a natural peacock.
He is in the line of all those tramps and stage Irishmen who have gone
through! life with so fine a swagger of words. This only means that in
his life he is an artist.
He is an artist in his life to an even greater extent than he is a
moralist in his art. The mistake his depreciators make, however, is in
thinking that his story ends here. The truth about Mr. Shaw is not quite
so simple as that. The truth about Mt. Shaw cannot be told until we
realize that he is an artist, not only in the invention of his own life,
but in the observation of the lives of other people. His Broadbent is as
wonderful a figure as his George Bernard Shaw. Not that his portraiture
is always faithful. He sees men and women too frequently in the
refracting shallows of theories. He is a doctrinaire, and his characters
are often comic statements of his doctrines rather than the reflections
of men and women. "When I present true human nature," he observes in one
of the many passages in which he justifies himself, "the audience thinks
it is being made fun of. In reality I am simply a very careful writer of
natural history." One is bound to contradict him. Mr. Shaw often thinks
he is presenting true human nature when he is merely presenting his
opinions about human nature--the human nature of soldiers, of artists,
of women. Or, rather, when he is presenting a queer fizzing mixture of
human nature and his opinions about it.
This may be sometimes actually a virtue in his comedy. Certainly, from
the time of Aristophanes onwards, comedy has again and again been a
vehicle of opinions as well as a branch of natural history. But it is
not always a virtue. Thus in _The Doctors Dilemma_, when Dubedat is
dying, his self-defence and his egoism are for the most part admirably
true both to human nature and to Mr. Shaw's view of the human nature of
artists. But when he goes on with his last breath to utter his artistic
creed: "I believe in Michael Angelo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt; in the
might of design, the mystery of colour, the redemption of all things by
Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands
blessed. Amen, Amen," these sentences are no more natural or
naturalistic than the death-bed utterances in one of Mr. G.R. Sims's
ballads. Dubedat would not have thought these things, he would not have
said these things; in saying them he becomes a mere mechanical figure,
without any admixture of humanity, repeating Mr. Shaw's opinion of the
nature of the creed of artists. There is a similar falsification in the
same play in the characterization of the newspaper man who is present at
Dubedat's death and immediately afterwards is anxious to interview the
widow. "Do you think," he asks, "she would give me a few words on 'How
it Feels to be a Widow?' Rather a good title for an article, isn't it?"
These sentences are bad because into an atmosphere of more or less
naturalistic comedy they simply introduce a farcical exaggeration of Mr.
Shaw's opinion of the incompetence and impudence of journalists. Mr.
Shaw's comedies are repeatedly injured by a hurried alteration of
atmosphere in this manner. Comedy, as well as tragedy, must create some
kind of illusion, and the destruction of the illusion, even for the sake
of a joke, may mean the destruction of laughter. But, compared with the
degree of reality in his characterization, the proportion of unreality
is not overwhelming. It has been enormously exaggerated.
After all, if the character of the newspaper man in _The Doctor's
Dilemma_ is machine-made, the much more important character of B.B., the
soothing and incompetent doctor, is a creation of the true comic genius.
Nine people out of ten harp on Mr. Shaw's errors. It is much more
necessary that we should recognize that, amid all his falsifications,
doctrinal and jocular, he has a genuine comic sense of character. "Most
French critics," M. Hamon tells us ... "declare that Bernard Shaw does
depict characters. M. Remy de Gourmont writes: 'Moliere has never drawn
a doctor more comically "the doctor" than Paramore, nor more
characteristic figures of women than those in the same play, _The
Philanderer._ The character-drawing is admirable.'" M. Hamon himself
goes on, however, to suggest an important contrast between the
characterization in Mr. Shaw and the characterization in Moliere:--
In Shaw's plays the characters are less representative of vices or
passions than those of Moliere, and more representative of class,
profession, or sect. Moliere depicts the miser, the jealous man,
the misanthrope, the hypocrite; whereas Shaw depicts the bourgeois,
the rebel, the capitalist, the workman, the Socialist, the doctor.
A few only of these latter types are given us by Moliere.
M. Hamon's comparison, made in the course of a long book, between the
genius of Mr. Shaw and the genius of Moliere is extraordinarily
detailed. Perhaps the detail is overdone in such a passage as that which
informs us regarding the work of both authors that "suicide is never one
of the central features of the comedy; if mentioned, it is only to be
made fun of." The comparison, however, between the sins that have been
alleged against both Moliere and Mr. Shaw--sins of style, of form, of
morals, of disrespect, of irreligion, of anti-romanticism, of farce, and
so forth--is a suggestive contribution to criticism. I am not sure that
the comparison would not have been more effectively put in a chapter
than a book, but it is only fair to remember that M. Hamon's book is
intended as a biography and general criticism of Mr. Shaw as well as a
comparison between his work and Moliere's. It contains, it must be
confessed, a great deal that is not new to English readers, but then so
do all books about Mr. Shaw. And it has also this fault that, though it
is about a master of laughter, it does not contain even the shadow of a
smile. Mr. Shaw is made an idol in spite of himself: M. Hamon's volume
is an offering at a shrine.
The true things it contains, however, make it worth reading. M. Hamon
sees, for instance, what many critics have failed to see, that in his
dramatic work Mr. Shaw is less a wit than a humorist:--
In Shaw's work we find few studied jests, few epigrams even, except
those which are the necessary outcome of the characters and the
situations. He does not labour to be witty, nor does he play upon
words.... Shaw's brilliancy does not consist in wit, but in humour.
Mr. Shaw was at one time commonly regarded as a wit of the school of
Oscar Wilde. That view, I imagine, is seldom found nowadays, but even
now many people do not realize that humour, and not wit, is the ruling
characteristic of Mr. Shaw's plays. He is not content with witty
conversation about life, as Wilde was: he has an actual comic vision of
His humour, it is true, is not the sympathetic humour of Elia or
Dickens; but then neither was Moliere's. As M. Hamon reminds us, Moliere
anticipated Mr. Shaw in outraging the sentiment, for instance, which has
gathered round the family. "Moliere and Shaw," as he puts it with quaint
seriousness, "appear to be unaware of what a father is, what a father is
The defence of Mr. Shaw, however, does not depend on any real or
imaginary resemblance of his plays to Moliere's. His joy and his misery
before the ludicrous spectacle of human life are his own, and his
expression of them is his own. He has studied with his own eyes the
swollen-bellied pretences of preachers and poets and rich men and lovers
and politicians, and he has derided them as they have never been derided
on the English stage before. He has derided them with both an artistic
and a moral energy. He has brought them all into a Palace of Truth,
where they have revealed themselves with an unaccustomed and startling
frankness. He has done this sometimes with all the exuberance of mirth,
sometimes with all the bitterness of a satirist. Even his bitterness is
never venomous, however. He is genial beyond the majority of inveterate
controversialists and propagandists. He does not hesitate to wound and
he does not hesitate to misunderstand, but he is free from malice. The
geniality of his comedy, on the other hand, is often more offensive than
malice, because it is from an orthodox point of view geniality in the
wrong place. It is like a grin in church, a laugh at a marriage service.
It is this that has caused all the trouble about Mr. Shaw's writings on
the war. He saw, not the war so much as the international diplomacy that
led up to the war, under the anti-romantic and satirical comic vision. I
do not mean that he was not intensely serious in all that he wrote about
the war. But his seriousness is essentially the seriousness of (in the
higher sense of the word) the comic artist, of the disillusionist. He
sees current history from the absolutely opposite point of view, say, to
the lyric poet. He was so occupied with his satiric vision of the
pretences of the diplomatic world that, though his attitude to the war
was as anti-Prussian as M. Vandervelde's, a great number of people
thought he must be a pro-German.
The fact is, in war time more than at any other time, people dread the
vision of the satirist and the sceptic. It is a vision of only one-half
of the truth, and of the half that the average man always feels to be
more or less irrelevant. And, even at this, it is not infallible. This
is not to disparage Mr. Shaw's contributions to the discussion of
politics. That contribution has been brilliant, challenging, and humane,
and not more wayward than the contribution of the partisan and the
sentimentalist. It may be said of Mr. Shaw that in his politics, as in
his plays, he has sought Utopia along the path of disillusion as other
men have sought it along the path of idealism and romance.
MR. MASEFIELD'S SECRET
Mr. Masefield, as a poet, has the secret of popularity. Has he also the
secret of poetry? I confess his poems often seem to me to invite the
admirably just verdict which Jeffrey delivered on Wordsworth's
_Excursion_: "This will never do." We miss in his lines the onward march
of poetry. His individual phrases carry no cargoes of wonder. His art is
not of the triumphant order that lifts us off our feet. As we read the
first half of his narrative sea-poem, _Dauber_, we are again and again
moved to impatience by the sheer literary left-handedness of the author.
There are so many unnecessary words, so many unnecessary sentences. Of
the latter we have an example in the poet's reflection as he describes
the "fiery fishes" that raced Dauber's ship by night in the southern
What unknown joy was in those fish unknown!
It is one of those superfluous thoughts which appear to be suggested
less by the thing described than by the need of filling up the last line
of the verse. Similarly, when Dauber, as the ship's lampman and painter
is nicknamed, regards the miracle of a ship at sea in moonlight, and
My Lord, my God, how beautiful it is!
we feel that he is only lengthening into a measured line the "My God,
how beautiful it is!" of prose. A line like this, indeed, is merely
prose that has learned the goose-step of poetry.
Perhaps one would not resent it--and many others like it--so much if it
were not that Mr. Masefield so manifestly aims at realism of effect. His
narrative is meant to be as faithful to commonplace facts as a
policeman's evidence in a court of law. We are not spared even the old
familiar expletives. When Dauber's paintings, for example--for he is an
artist as well as an artisan--have been destroyed by the malice of the
crew, and he questions the Bosun about it,
The Bosun turned: "I'll give you a thick ear!
Do it? I didn't. Get to hell from here!"
Similarly, when the Mate, taking up the brush, makes a sketch of a ship
for Dauber's better instruction,
"God, sir," the Bosun said, "You do her fine!"
"Aye!" said the Mate, "I do so, by the Lord!"
And when the whole crew gathers round to impress upon Dauber the fact of
"You hear?" the Bosun cried, "You cannot do it!"
"A gospel truth," the Cook said, "true as hell!"
Here, obviously, the very letter of realism is intended.
Here, too, it may be added, we have as well-meaning an array of oaths as
was ever set out in literature. When Mr. Kipling repeats a soldier's
oath, he seems to do so with a chuckle of appreciation. When Mr.
Masefield puts down the oaths of sailors, he does so rather as a
melancholy duty. He swears, not like a trooper, but like a virtuous man.
He does not, as so many realists do, love the innumerable coarsenesses
of life which he chronicles; that is what makes his oaths often seem as
innocent as the conversation of elderly sinners echoed on the lips of
children. He has a splendid innocence of purpose, indeed. He wishes to
give us the prosaic truth of actual things as a kind of correspondence
to the poetic truth of spiritual things of which they are the setting
and the frame. Or it may be that he repeats these oaths and all the
rest of it simply as a part of the technicalities of life at sea.
He certainly shows a passion for technicalities hardly less than Mr.
Kipling's own. He tells us, for instance, how, in the height of the fury
of frost and surge and gale round Cape Horn,
at last, at last
They frapped the cringled crojick's icy pelt;
In frozen bulge and bunt they made it fast.
And, again, when the storm was over and Dauber had won the respect of
his mates by his manhood, we have an almost unintelligible verse
describing how the Bosun, in a mood of friendship, set out to teach him
some of the cunning of the sea:--
Then, while the Dauber counted, Bosun took
Some marline from his pocket. "Here," he said,
"You want to know square sennit? So fash. Look!
Eight foxes take, and stop the ends with thread.
I've known an engineer would give his head
To know square sennit." As the Bose began,
The Dauber felt promoted to a man.
Mr. Masefield has generously provided six pages of glossary at the end
of his poem, where we are told the meaning of "futtock-shrouds,"
"poop-break," "scuttlebutt," "mud-hooks," and other items in the jargon
of the sea.
So much for Mr. Masefield's literary method. Let me be equally frank
about his genius, and confess at once that, in any serious estimate of
this, all I have said will scarcely be more relevant than the charge
against Burke that he had a clumsy delivery. Mr. Masefield has given us
in _Dauber_ a poem of genius, one of the great storm-pieces of modern
literature, a poem that for imaginative infectiousness challenges
comparison with the prose of Mr. Conrad's _Typhoon_. To criticize its
style takes us no nearer its ultimate secret than piling up examples of
bathos takes us to the secret of Wordsworth, or talking about maniacal
construction and characterization takes us to the secret of Dostoevsky.
There is no use pretending that the methods of these writers are good
because their achievements are good. On the other hand, compared with
the marvel of achievement, the faultiness of method in each case sinks
into a matter almost of indifference. Mr. Masefield gives us in _Dauber_
a book of revelation. If he does this in verse that is often merely
prose crooked into rhyme--if he does it with a hero who is at first
almost as bowelless a human being and as much an appeal for pity as
Smike in _Nicholas Nickleby_--that is his affair. In art, more than
anywhere else, the end justifies the means, and the end of _Dauber_ is
vision--intense, terrible, pitiful, heroic vision. Here we have in
literature what poor Dauber himself aimed at putting down on his
Of passionate men in battle with the sea,
High on an unseen stage, shaking and reeling;
And men through him would understand their feeling,
Their might, their misery, their tragic power,
And all by suffering pain a little hour.
That verse suggests both the kind and the degree of Mr. Masefield's
sensitiveness as a recorder of the life of the sea. His is the witness
less of a doer than of a sufferer. He is not a reveller in life: he is
one, rather, who has found himself tossed about in the foaming tides of
anguish, and who clings with a desperate faith to some last spar of
beauty or heroism. He is a martyr to the physical as well as to the
spiritual pain of the world. He communicates to us, not only the horror
of humiliation, but the horror of a numbed boy, "cut to the ghost" by
the polar gale, as high in the yards Dauber fights against the ship's
doom, having been
ordered up when sails and spars
Were flying and going mad among the stars,
How well, too, he imparts the dread and the danger of the coming storm,
as the ship gets nearer the Horn:
All through the windless night the clipper rolled
In a great swell with oily gradual heaves,
Which rolled her down until her time-bells tolled,
Clang, and the weltering water moaned like beeves.
And the next verse reiterates the prophecies of the moving waters:
Like the march of doom
Came those great powers of marching silences;
Then fog came down, dead-cold, and hid the seas.
The night was spent in dread of fog, in dread of ice, and the ship
seemed to respond to the dread of the men as her horn called out into
the impenetrable wilderness of mists and waters:
She bayed there like a solitary hound
Lost in a covert.
Morning came, bringing no release from fear:
So the night passed, but then no morning broke--
Only a something showed that night was dead.
A sea-bird, cackling like a devil, spoke,
And the fog drew away and hung like lead.
Like mighty cliffs it shaped, sullen and red;
Like glowering gods at watch it did appear,
And sometimes drew away, and then drew near.
Then suddenly swooped down the immense black fiend of the storm,
catching, as the Bosun put it, the ship "in her ball-dress."
The blackness crunched all memory of the sun.
Henceforth we have a tale of white fear changing into heroism as Dauber
clambers to his giddy place in the rigging, and goes out on the yard to
Sick at the mighty space of air displayed
Below his feet, where soaring birds were wheeling.
It was all a "withering rush of death," an orgy of snow, ice, and
The snow whirled, the ship bowed to it, the gear lashed,
The sea-tops were cut off and flung down smashed;
Tatters of shouts were flung, the rags of yells--
And clang, clang, clang, below beat the two bells.
How magnificent a flash of the fury of the storm we get when the Dauber
looks down from his scramblings among rigging and snapped spars, and
sees the deck
Filled with white water, as though heaped with snow.
In that line we seem to behold the beautiful face of danger--a beauty
that is in some way complementary to the beauty of the endurance of
ships and the endurance of men. For the ship is saved, and so is the
Dauber's soul, and the men who had been bullies in hours of peace reveal
themselves as heroes in stress and peril.
_Dauber_, it will be seen, is more than an exciting story of a storm. It
is a spiritual vision of life. It is a soul's confession. It is Mr.
Masefield's _De Profundis_. It is a parable of trial--a chant of the
soul that has "emerged out of the iron time." It is a praise of life,
not for its own sake, but for the spiritual mastery which its storms and
dangers bring. It is a paean of survival: the ship weathers the storm to
go boldly forward again:--
A great grey sea was running up the sky,
Desolate birds flew past; their mewings came
As that lone water's spiritual cry,
Its forlorn voice, its essence, its soul's name.
The ship limped in the water as if lame,
Then, in the forenoon watch, to a great shout,
More sail was made, the reefs were shaken out.
Not even the death of the Dauber in a wretched accident defeats our
sense of divine and ultimate victory. To some readers this fatality may
seem a mere luxury of pathos. But it is an essential part of the scheme
of the poem. The poet must state his acceptance of life, not only in its
splendid and tragic dangers, but in its cruelty and pathetic
wastefulness. He must know the worst of it in order to put the best of
it to the proof. The worst passes, the best continues--that is the
secret enthusiasm of Mr. Masefield's song. Our final vision is of the
ship in safety, holding her course to harbour in a fair wind:--
Shattering the sea-tops into golden rain.
The waves bowed down before her like blown grain.
And as she sits in Valparaiso harbour, a beautiful thing at peace under
the beautiful shadow of "the mountain tower, snow to the peak," our
imagination is lifted to the hills-to where
All night long
The pointed mountain pointed at the stars,
Frozen, alert, austere.
It is a fine symbol of the aspiration of this book of men's "might,
their misery, their tragic power." There is something essentially
Christian and simple in Mr. Masefield's presentation of life. Conscious
though he is of the pain of the world--and aloof from the world though
this consciousness sometimes makes him appear--he is full of an
extraordinary pity and brotherliness for men. He wanders among them, not
with the condescension of so many earnest writers, but with the humility
almost of one of the early Franciscans. One may amuse oneself by
fancying that there is something in the manner of St. Francis even in
Mr. Masefield's attitude to his little brothers the swear-words. He may
not love them by nature, but he is kind to them by grace. They strike
one as being the most innocent swear-words in literature.
MR. W.B. YEATS
1. HIS OWN ACCOUNT OF HIMSELF
Mr. W.B. Yeats has created, if not a new world, a new star. He is not a
reporter of life as it is, to the extent that Shakespeare or Browning
is. One is not quite certain that his kingdom is of the green earth. He
is like a man who has seen the earth not directly but in a crystal. He
has a vision of real things, but in unreal circumstances. His poetry
repels many people at first because it is unlike any other poetry. They
are suspicious of it as of a new sect in religion. They have been
accustomed to bow in other temples. They resent the ritual, the
incantations, the unearthly light and colour of the temple of this
innovating high priest.
They resent, most of all, the self-consciousness of the priest himself.
For Mr. Yeats's is not a genius with natural readiness of speech. His
sentences do not pour from him in stormy floods. It is as though he had
to pursue and capture them one by one, like butterflies. Or, perhaps, it
is that he has not been content with the simple utterance of his vision.
He has reshaped and embroidered it, and has sung of passion in a mask.
There are many who see in his poetry only the mask, and who are
apparently blind to the passion of sorrowful ecstasy that sets _The Wind
Among the Reeds_ apart from every other book that has ever been written
in English. They imagine that the book amounts to little more than the
attitude of a stylist, a trifler with Celtic nomenclature and fairy
One may agree that some of the less-inspired poems are works of
intellectual craftsmanship rather than of immediate genius, and that
here and there the originality of the poet's vision is clouded by
reminiscences of the aesthetic painters. But the greatest poems in the
book are a new thing in literature, a "rapturous music" not heard
before. One is not surprised to learn from Mr. Yeats's autobiographical
volume, _Reveries over Childhood and Youth_, that, when he began to
write poetry as a boy, "my lines but seldom scanned, for I could not
understand the prosody in the books, although there were many lines
that, taken by themselves, had music." His genius, as a matter of fact,
was unconsciously seeking after new forms. Those who have read the first
draft of _Innisfree_ will remember how it gives one the impression of a
new imagination stumbling into utterance. Mr. Yeats has laboured his
verse into perfect music with a deliberateness like that of Flaubert in
_Reveries_ is the beautiful and fascinating story of his childhood and
youth, and the development of his genius. "I remember," he tells us,
"little of childhood but its pain. I have grown happier with every year
of life, as though gradually conquering something in myself." But there
is not much of the shadow of pain on these pages. They are full of the
portraits of fantastically remembered relations and of stories of home
and school related with fantastic humour. It is difficult to believe
that Mr. Yeats as a schoolboy "followed the career of a certain
professional runner for months, buying papers that would tell me if he
had won or lost," but here we see him even in the thick of a fight like
a boy in a school story. His father, however, seems to have had
infinitely more influence over him than his school environment.
It was his father who grew so angry when the infant poet was taught at
school to sing "Little drops of water," and who indignantly forbade him
to write a school essay on the subject of the capacity of men to rise on
stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things. Mr. Yeats's
upbringing in the home of an artist anti-Victorian to the finger-tips
was obviously such as would lead a boy to live self-consciously, and Mr.
Yeats tells us that when he was a boy at school he used to feel "as
proud of myself as a March cock when it crows to its first sunrise." He
remembers how one day he looked at his schoolfellows on the
playing-field and said to himself, "If when I grow up I am as clever
among grown-up men as I am among these boys, I shall be a famous man."
Another sentence about these days suggests what a difficult inarticulate
genius was his. "My thoughts," he says, "were a great excitement, but
when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a
balloon into a shed in a high wind."
Though he was always near the bottom of his class, and was useless at
games--"I cannot," he writes, "remember that I ever kicked a goal or
made a run"--he showed some promise as a naturalist, and used to look
for butterflies, moths, and beetles in Richmond Park. Later, when living
on the Dublin coast, he "planned some day to write a book about the
changes through a twelvemonth among the creatures of some hole in the
These passages in his autobiography are specially interesting as
evidence to refute the absurd theory that Mr. Yeats is a mere vague
day-dreamer among poets. The truth is, Mr. Yeats's early poems show that
he was a boy of eager curiosity and observation--a boy with a remarkable
intellectual machine, as well as a visionary who was one day to build a
new altar to beauty. He has never been entirely aloof from the common
world. Though at times he has conceived it to be the calling of a man of
letters to live apart like a monk, he has mingled with human interests
to a far greater extent than most people realize. He has nearly always
been a politician and always a fighter.
At the same time, we need not read far in his autobiography to discover
why people who hate self-consciousness in artists are so hostile to him.
_Reveries Over Childhood and Youth_ is the autobiography of one who was
always more self-conscious than his fellows. Mr. Yeats describes himself
as a youth in Dublin:--
sometimes walking with an artificial stride in memory of Hamlet,
and stopping at shop windows to look at my tie, gathered into a
loose sailor-knot, and to regret that it could not be always blown
out by the wind like Byron's tie in the picture.
Even the fits of abstraction of the young poet must often have been
regarded as self-conscious attitudinizing by his neighbours--especially
by the "stupid stout woman" who lived in the villa next to his father's,
and who, as he amusingly relates, mocked him aloud:--
I had a study with a window opposite some window of hers, and one
night when I was writing, I heard voices full of derision, and saw
the stout woman and her family standing at the window. I have a way
of acting what I write, and speaking it aloud without knowing what
I am doing. Perhaps I was on my hands and knees, or looking down
over the back of a chair, talking into what I imagined an abyss.
It will be seen that Mr. Yeats is as interesting a figure to himself as
he is to Mr. George Moore. If he were not he would not have troubled to
write his autobiography. And that would have been a loss to literature.
_Reveries Over Childhood and Youth_ is a book of extraordinary
freshness. It does not, like Wordsworth's _Prelude_, set forth the full
account of the great influences that shaped a poet's career. But it is a
delightful study of early influences, and depicts a dedicated poet in
his boyhood as this has never been done before in English prose.
Of all the influences that have shaped his career, none was more
important than the Irish atmosphere to which he early returned from
London. He is distinctively an Irish poet, though we find him in his
youth writing plays and poems in imitation of Shelley and Spenser.
Irish places have done more to influence his imagination even than the
masterpieces of English literature.
It was apparently while he was living in Sligo, not far from the lakes,
that he conceived the longing which he afterwards expressed with such
originality of charm in _The Lake Isle of Innisfree_:--
My father had read to me some passage out of _Walden_, and I
planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called
I thought that, having conquered bodily desire and the inclination
of my mind towards women and love, I should live as Thoreau lived,
It is the little world of Sligo, indeed, that provides all the spacious
and twilit landscape in Mr. Yeats's verse. Here were those fishermen and
raths and mountains of the Sidhe and desolate lakes which repeat
themselves as images through his work. Here, too, he had relatives
eccentric and adventurous to excite his imagination, such as the
Merchant skipper that leaped overboard
After a ragged hat in Biscay Bay.
Mr. Yeats's relations seem in his autobiography as real as the
characters in fiction. Each of them is magnificently stamped with
romance or comedy--the hypochondriac uncle, for example, who--
passed from winter to summer through a series of woollens that had
always to be weighed; for in April or May, or whatever the date
was, he had to be sure that he carried the exact number of ounces
he had carried upon that date since boyhood.
For a time Mr. Yeats thought of following his father's example and
becoming a painter. It was while attending an art school in Dublin that
he first met A.E. He gives us a curious description of A.E. as he was
He did not paint the model as we tried to, for some other image
rose always before his eyes (a St. John in the Desert I remember),
and already he spoke to us of his visions. His conversation, so
lucid and vehement to-day, was all but incomprehensible, though now
and again some phrase could be understood and repeated. One day he
announced that he was leaving the Art Schools because his will was
weak, and the arts or any other emotional pursuit would but weaken
Mr. Yeats's memoirs, however, are not confined to prose. His volume of
verse called _Responsibilities_ is almost equally autobiographical. Much
of it is a record of quarrels with contemporaries--quarrels about Synge,
about Hugh Lane and his pictures, about all sorts of things. He aims
barbed epigrams at his adversaries. Very Yeatsian is an epigram "to a
poet, who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and
You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another's said or sung,
'Twere politic to do the like by these;
But have you known a dog to praise his fleas?
In an earlier version, the last line was still more arrogant:--
But where's the wild dog that has praised his fleas?
There is a noble arrogance again in the lines called _A Coat_:--
I made my song a coat,
Covered with embroideries,
Out of old mythologies,
From heel to throat.
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eye,
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.
Mr. Yeats still gives some of his songs the old embroidered vesture. But
his work is now more frankly personal than it used to be--at once
harsher and simpler. One would not give _Responsibilities_ to a reader
who knew nothing of Mr. Yeats's previous work. There is too much raging
at the world in it, too little of the perfected beauty of _The Wind
Among the Reeds_. One finds ugly words like "wive" and "thigh"
inopportunely used, and the retort to Mr. George Moore's _Hail and
Farewell_, though legitimately offensive, is obscure in statement.
Still, there is enough beauty in the book to make it precious to the
lover of literature. An Elizabethan might have made the music of the
first verse of _A Woman Homer Sung_.
And what splendour of praise and censure Mr. Yeats gives us in _The
Why should I blame her, that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways.
Or hurled the little streets against the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary, and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
It is curious to note in how much of his verse Mr. Yeats repeats his
protest against the political passion of Ireland which once meant so
much to him. _All Things can Tempt Me_ expresses this artistic mood of
revolt with its fierce beginning:--
All things can tempt me from this craft of verse;
One time it was a woman's face, or worse,
The seeming needs of my fool-driven land.
Some of the most excellent pages of _Reveries_, however, are those which
recall certain famous figures in Irish Nationalism like John O'Leary and
J.F. Taylor, the orator whose temper so stood in his way.
Mr. Yeats recalls a wonderful speech Taylor once made at a meeting in
Dublin at which a Lord Chancellor had apparently referred in a
belittling way to Irish nationality and the Irish language:
Taylor began hesitating and stopping for words, but after speaking
very badly for a little, straightened his figure and spoke as out
of a dream: "I am carried to another age, a nobler court, and
another Lord Chancellor is speaking. I am at the court of the first
Pharaoh." Thereupon he put into the mouth of that Egyptian all his
audience had listened to, but now it was spoken to the children of
Israel. "If you have any spirituality as you boast, why not use our
great empire to spread it through the world, why still cling to
that beggarly nationality of yours? what are its history and its
works weighed with those of Egypt?" Then his voice changed and
sank: "I see a man at the edge of the crowd; he is standing
listening there, but he will not obey"; and then, with his voice
rising to a cry, "had he obeyed he would never have come down the
mountain carrying in his arms the tables of the Law in the language
of the outlaw."
That Mr. Yeats, in spite of his secession from politics, loves the old
passionate Ireland, is clear from the poem called _September, 1913_,
with its refrain:--
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone
And with O'Leary in the grave.
And to this Mr. Yeats has since added a significant note:--
"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone" sounds old-fashioned
now. It seemed true in 1913, but I did not foresee 1916. The
late Dublin Rebellion, whatever one may say of its wisdom, will
long be remembered for its heroism. "They weighed so lightly
what they gave," and gave, too, in some cases without hope of
Mr. Yeats is by nature a poet of the heroic world--a hater of the
burgess and of the till. He boasts in _Responsibilities_ of ancestors
who left him
That has not passed through any huckster's loin.
There may be a good deal of vanity and gesticulation in all this, but
it is the vanity and gesticulation of a man of genius. As we cannot have
the genius of Mr. Yeats without the gestures, we may as well take the
gestures in good part.
2. HIS POETRY
It is distinctly surprising to find Mr. Yeats compared to Milton and
Jeremy Taylor, and Mr. Forrest Reid, who makes the comparison, does not
ask us to apply it at all points. There is a remoteness about Milton's
genius, however, an austere and rarefied beauty, to which Mr. Reid
discovers certain likenesses in the work of Mr. Yeats. Mr. Yeats is
certainly a little remote. He is so remote that some people regard his
work with mixed feelings, as a rather uncanny thing. The reason may
partly be that Mr. Yeats is not a singer in the ordinary tradition of
poets. His poems are incantations rather than songs. They seem to call
for an order of priests and priestesses to chant them. There are one or
two of his early poems, like _Down by the Sally Garden_, that might
conceivably be sung at a fair or even at a ballad-concert. But, as Mr.
Yeats has grown older, he has become more and more determinedly the
magician in his robes. Even in his prose he does not lay aside his
robes; it is written in the tones of the sanctuary: it is prose for
worshippers. To such an extent is this so that many who do not realize
that Mr. Yeats is a great artist cannot read much of his prose without
convincing themselves that he is a great humbug. It is easy to
understand how readers accustomed to the rationalism of the end of the
century refused to take seriously a poet who wrote "spooky" explanations
of his poems, such as Mr. Yeats wrote in his notes to _The Wind Among
the Reeds_, the most entirely good of his books. Consider, for example,
the note which he wrote on that charming if somewhat perplexing poem,
_The Jester_. "I dreamed," writes Mr. Yeats:--
I dreamed this story exactly as I have written it, and dreamed
another long dream after it, trying to make out its meaning, and
whether I was to write it in prose or verse. The first dream was
more a vision than a dream, for it was beautiful and coherent, and
gave me a sense of illumination and exaltation that one gets from
visions, while the second dream was confused and meaningless. The
poem has always meant a great deal to me, though, as is the way
with symbolic poems, it has not always meant quite the same thing.
Blake would have said, "The authors are in eternity"; and I am
quite sure they can only be questioned in dreams.
Why, even those of us who count Mr. Yeats one of the immortals while he
is still alive, are inclined to shy at a claim at once so solemn and so
irrational as this. It reads almost like a confession of witchcraft.
Luckily, Mr. Yeats's commerce with dreams and fairies and other spirits
has not all been of this evidential and disputable kind. His confessions
do not convince us of his magical experiences, but his poems do. Here we
have the true narrative of fairyland, the initiation into other-worldly
beauty. Here we have the magician crying out against
All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
and attempting to invoke a new--or an old--and more beautiful world into
The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told,
he cries, and over against the unshapely earth he sets up the "happy
townland" of which he sings in one of his later and most lovely poems.
It would not be easy to write a prose paraphrase of _The Happy
Townland_, but who is there who can permanently resist the spell of this
poem, especially of the first verse and its refrain?--
There's many a strong farmer
Whose heart would break in two,
If he could see the townland
That we are riding to;
Boughs have their fruit and blossom
At all times of the year;
Rivers are running over
With red beer and brown beer.
An old man plays the bagpipes
In a golden and silver wood;
Queens, their eyes blue like the ice,
Are dancing in a crowd.
The little fox he murmured,
"O what of the world's bane?"
The sun was laughing sweetly,
The moon plucked at my rein;
But the little red fox murmured,
"O, do not pluck at his rein,
He is riding to the townland
That is the world's bane."
You may interpret the little red fox and the sun and the moon as you
please, but is it not all as beautiful as the ringing of bells?
But Mr. Yeats, in his desire for this other world of colour and music,
is no scorner of the everyday earth. His early poems especially, as Mr.
Reid points out, give evidence of a wondering observation of Nature
almost Wordsworthian. In _The Stolen Child_, which tells of a human
child that is enticed away by the fairies, the magic of the earth the
child is leaving is the means by which Mr. Yeats suggests to us the
magic of the world into which it is going, as in the last verse of the
Away with us he's going,
The solemn eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside;
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
_For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand._
There is no painting here, no adjective-work. But no painting or
adjectives could better suggest all that the world and the loss of the
world mean to an imaginative child than this brief collection of simple
things. To read _The Stolen Child_ is to realize both that Mr. Yeats
brought a new and delicate music into literature and that his genius had
its birth in a sense of the beauty of common things. Even when in his
early poems the adjectives seem to be chosen with the too delicate care
of an artist, as when he notes how--
in autumnal solitudes
Arise the leopard-coloured trees,
his observation of the world about him is but proved the more
conclusively. The trees in autumn _are_ leopard-coloured, though a poet
cannot say so without becoming dangerously ornamental.
What I have written so far, however, might convey the impression that in
Mr. Yeats's poetry we have a child's rather than a man's vision at work.
One might even gather that he was a passionless singer with his head in
the moon. This is exactly the misunderstanding which has led many people
to think of him as a minor poet.
The truth is Mr. Yeats is too original and, as it were, secret a poet to
capture all at once the imagination that has already fixed the outlines
of its kingdom amid the masterpieces of literature. His is a genius
outside the landmarks. There is no prototype in Shelley or Keats, any
more than there is in Shakespeare, for such a poem as that which was at
first called _Breasal the Fisherman_, but is now called simply _The
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords.
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.
There, in music as simple as a fable of Aesop, Mr. Yeats has figured the
pride of genius and the passion of defeated love in words that are
beautiful in themselves, but trebly beautiful in their significances.
Beautifully new, again, is the poem beginning, "I wander by the edge,"
which expresses the desolation of love as it is expressed in few modern
I wander by the edge
Of this desolate lake
Where wind cries in the sedge:
_Until the axle break
That keeps the stars in their round
And hands hurl in the deep
The banners of East and West
And the girdle of light is unbound,
Your breast will not lie by the breast
Of your beloved in sleep._
Rhythms like these did not exist in the English language until Mr. Yeats
invented them, and their very novelty concealed for a time the passion
that is immortal in them. It is by now a threadbare saying of Wordsworth
that every great artist has himself to create the taste by which he is
enjoyed, but it is worth quoting once more because it is especially
relevant to a discussion of the genius of Mr. Yeats. What previous
artist, for example, had created the taste which would be prepared to
respond imaginatively to such a revelation of a lover's triumph in the
nonpareil beauty of his mistress as we have in the poem that ends:--
I cried in my dream, "_O women bid the young men lay
Their heads on your knees, and drown their eyes with your hair,
Or remembering hers they will find no other face fair
Till all the valleys of the world have been withered away_,"
One may doubt at times whether Mr. Yeats does not too consciously show
himself an artist of the aesthetic school in some of his epithets, such
as "cloud-pale" and "dream-dimmed." His too frequent repetition of
similar epithets makes woman stand out of his poems at times like a
decoration, as in the pictures of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, rather than
in the vehement beauty of life. It is as if the passion in his verse
were again and again entangled in the devices of art. If we take his
love-poems as a whole, however, the passion in them is at once vehement
The world has not yet sufficiently realized how deep is the passion that
has given shape to Mr. Yeats's verse. _The Wind Among the Reeds_ is a
book of love-poetry quite unlike all other books of love-poetry. It
utters the same moods of triumph in the beloved's beauty, of despair, of
desire, of boastfulness of the poet's immortality, that we find in the
love-poetry of other ages. But here are new images, almost a new
language. Sometimes we have an image which fills the mind like the image
in some little Chinese lyric, as in the poem _He Reproves the Curlew_:--
O, curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the waters of the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of the wind.
This passion of loss, this sense of the beloved as of something secret
and far and scarcely to be attained, like the Holy Grail, is the
dominant theme of the poems, even in _The Song of Wandering Aengus_,
that poem of almost playful beauty, which tells of the "little silver
trout" that became
--a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair,
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
What a sense of long pursuit, of a life's quest, we get in the
exquisite last verse--a verse which must be among the best-known of Mr.
Yeats's writings after _The Lake Isle of Innisfree_ and _Had I the
Heaven's Embroidered Cloths_:--
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
This is the magic of fairyland again. It seems a little distant from
human passions. It is a wonderful example, however, of Mr. Yeats's
genius for transforming passion into elfin dreams. The emotion is at
once deeper and nearer human experience in the later poem called _The
Folly of Being Comforted_. I have known readers who professed to find
this poem obscure. To me it seems a miracle of phrasing and portraiture.
I know no better example of the nobleness of Mr. Yeats's verse and his
TCHEHOV: THE PERFECT STORY-TELLER
It is the custom when praising a Russian writer to do so at the expense
of all other Russian writers. It is as though most of us were
monotheists in our devotion to authors, and could not endure to see any
respect paid to the rivals of the god of the moment. And so one year
Tolstoy is laid prone as Dagon, and, another year, Turgenev. And, no
doubt, the day will come when Dostoevsky will fall from his huge
Perhaps the luckiest of all the Russian authors in this respect is
Tchehov. He is so obviously not a god. He does not deliver messages to
us from the mountain-top like Tolstoy, or reveal himself beautifully in
sunset and star like Turgenev, or announce himself now in the hurricane
and now in the thunderstorm like Dostoevsky. He is a man and a medical
doctor. He pays professional visits. We may define his genius more
exactly by saying that his is a general practice. There has, I think,
never been so wonderful an examination of common people in literature as
in the short stories of Tchehov. His world is thronged with the average
man and the average woman. Other writers have also put ordinary people
into books. They have written plays longer than _Hamlet_, and novels
longer than _Don Quixote_, about ordinary people. They have piled such a
heap of details on the ordinary man's back as almost to squash him out
of existence. In the result the reader as well as the ordinary man has a
sense of oppression. He begins to long for the restoration of the big
subject to literature.
Henry James complained of the littleness of the subject in _Madame
Bovary._ He regarded it as one of the miracles of art that so great a
book should have been written about so small a woman. _Tom Jones_, on
the other hand, is a portrait of a common man of the size of which few
people complain. But then _Tom Jones_ is a comedy, and we enjoy the
continual relief of laughter. It is the tragic realists for whom the
common man is a theme so perilous in its temptations to dullness. At the
same time he is a theme that they were bound to treat. He is himself,
indeed, the sole source and subject of tragic realism in literature.
Were it not for the oppression of his futile and philoprogenitive
presence, imaginative writers would be poets and romancers.
The problem of the novelist of contemporary life for whom ordinary
people are more intensely real than the few magnificent personalities is
how to portray ordinary people in such a way that they will become
better company than they are in life. Tchehov, I think, solves the
problem better than any of the other novelists. He sees, for one thing,
that no man is uninteresting when he is seen as a person stumbling
towards some goal, just as no man is uninteresting when his hat is blown
off and he has to scuttle after it down the street. There is bound to be
a break in the meanest life.
Tchehov will seek out the key situation in the life of a cabman or a
charwoman, and make them glow for a brief moment in the tender light of
his sympathy. He does not run sympathy as a "stunt" like so many popular
novelists. He sympathizes merely in the sense that he understands in his
heart as well as in his brain. He has the most unbiassed attitude, I
think, of any author in the world. Mr. Edward Garnett, in his
introduction to Mrs. Garnett's translation of Tchehov's tales, speaks
admirably of his "profundity of acceptation." There is no writer who is
less inclined to use italics in his record of human life. Perhaps Mr.
Garnett goes too far when he says that Tchehov "stands close to all his
characters, watching them quietly and registering their circumstances
and feelings with such finality that to pass judgment on them appears
supererogatory." Tchehov's judgment is at times clear enough--as clear
as if it followed a summing-up from the bench. He portrays his
characters instead of labelling them; but the portrait itself is the
judgment. His humour makes him tolerant, but, though he describes moral
and material ugliness with tolerance, he never leaves us in any doubt as
to their being ugly. His attitude to a large part of life might be
described as one of good-natured disgust.
In one of the newly-translated stories, _Ariadne_, he shows us a woman
from the point of view of a disgusted lover. It is a sensitive man's
picture of a woman who was even more greedy than beautiful. "This thirst
for personal success ... makes people cold, and Ariadne was cold--to me,
to nature, and to music." Tchehov extends towards her so little charity
that he makes her run away to Italy with a bourgeois who had "a neck
like goose-skin and a big Adam's apple," and who, as he talked,
"breathed hard, breathing straight in my face and smelling of boiled
beef." As the more sensitive lover who supplanted the bourgeois looks
back, her incessant gluttony is more vivid in his thoughts than her
She would sleep every day till two or three o'clock; she had her
coffee and lunch in bed. At dinner she would eat soup, lobster,
fish, meat, asparagus, game, and after she had gone to bed I used
to bring up something, for instance, roast beef, and she would eat
it with a melancholy, careworn expression, and if she waked in the
night she would eat apples or oranges.
The story, it is only fair to say, is given in the words of a lover
dissatisfied with lust, and the judgment may therefore be regarded as
the lover's rather than as Tchehov's. Tchehov sets down the judgment,
however, in a mood of acute perceptiveness of everything that is jarring
and vulgar in sexual vanity. Ariadne's desire to please is never
permitted to please us as, say, Beatrix Esmond's is. Her will to
fascinate does not fascinate when it is refracted in Tchehov's critical
She waked up every morning with the one thought of "pleasing." It
was the aim and object of her life. If I told her that in such a
house, in such a street, there lived a man who was not attracted by
her, it would have caused her real suffering. She wanted every day
to enchant, to captivate, to drive men crazy. The fact that I was
in her power and reduced to a complete nonentity before her charms
gave her the same sort of satisfaction that victors used to get in
tournaments.... She had an extraordinary opinion of her own charms;
she imagined that if somewhere, in some great assembly, men could
have seen how beautifully she was made and the colour of her skin,
she would have vanquished all Italy, the whole world. Her talk of
her figure, of her skin, offended me, and observing this, she
would, when she was angry, say all sorts of vulgar things taunting
A few strokes of cruelty are added to the portrait:
Even at a good-humoured moment, she could always insult a servant
or kill an insect without a pang; she liked bull-fights, liked to
read about murders, and was angry when prisoners were acquitted.
As one reads _Ariadne_, one feels that those who say the artist is not a
judge are in error. What he must avoid becoming is a
prosecuting--perhaps even a defending--counsel.
Egoism seems to be the quality which offends Tchehov most. He is no more
in love with it when it masquerades as virtue than when it parades as
vice. _An Artist's Story_--a beautiful sad story, which might almost
have been written by Turgenev--contains a fine critical portrait of a
woman absorbed in the egoism of good works. She is always looking after
the poor, serving on committees, full of enthusiasm for nursing and
education. She lacks only that charity of the heart which loves human
beings, not because they are poor, but because they are human beings.
She is by nature a "boss." She "bosses" her mother and her younger
sister, and when the artist falls in love with the latter, the stronger
will of the woman of high principles immediately separates lovers so
frivolous that they had never sat on a committee in their lives. When,
the evening after the artist confesses his love, he waits for the girl
to come to him in the garden of her house, he waits in vain. He goes
into the house to look for her, but does not find her. Then through one
of the doors he overhears the voice of the lady of the good works:
"'God ... sent ... a crow,'" she said in a loud, emphatic voice,
probably dictating--"'God sent a crow a piece of cheese.... A crow
... A piece of cheese ... Who's there?" she called suddenly,
hearing my steps.
"Ah! Excuse me, I cannot come out to open this minute; I'm giving
Dasha her lesson."
"Is Ekaterina Pavlovna in the garden?"
"No, she went away with my sister this morning to our aunt in the
province of Penza. And in the winter they will probably go abroad,"
she added after a pause. "'God sent ... the crow ... a piece ... of
cheese....' Have you written it?"
I went into the hall and stared vacantly at the pond and the
village, and the sound reached me of "A piece of cheese ... God
sent the crow a piece of cheese."
And I went back by the way I had come here for the first
time--first from the yard into the garden past the house, then into
the avenue of lime-trees.... At this point I was overtaken by a
small boy who gave me a note.
"I told my sister everything and she insisted on my parting from
you," I read. "I could not wound her by disobeying. God will give
you happiness. Forgive me. If only you knew how bitterly my mother
and I are crying!"
The people who cannot wound others--those are the people whose sharp
pangs we feel in our breasts as we read the stories of Tchehov. The
people who wound--it is they whom he paints (or, rather, as Mr. Garnett
suggests, etches) with such felicitous and untiring irony. But, though
he often makes his people beautiful in their sorrow, he more often than
not sets their sad figures against a common and ugly background. In
_Anyuta_, the medical student and his mistress live in a room
disgusting in its squalor:
Crumpled bed-clothes, pillows thrown about, boots, clothes, a big
filthy slop--pail filled with soap-suds in which cigarette-ends
were swimming, and the litter on the floor--all seemed as though
purposely jumbled together in one confusion....
And, if the surroundings are no more beautiful than those in which a
great part of the human race lives, neither are the people more
beautiful than ordinary people. In _The Trousseau_, the poor thin girl
who spends her life making a trousseau for a marriage that will never
take place becomes ridiculous as she flushes at the entrance of a
stranger into her mother's house:
Her long nose, which was slightly pitted with small-pox, turned red
first, and then the flush passed up to her eyes and her forehead.
I do not know if a blush of this sort is possible, but the thought of it
The woman in _The Darling_, who marries more than once and simply cannot
live without some one to love and to be an echo to, is "not half bad" to
look at. But she is ludicrous even when most unselfish and
adoring--especially when she rubs with eau-de-Cologne her little, thin,
yellow-faced, coughing husband with "the curls combed forward on his
forehead," and wraps him in her warm shawls to an accompaniment of
endearments. "'You're such a sweet pet!' she used to say with perfect
sincerity, stroking his hair. 'You're such a pretty dear!'"
Thus sympathy and disgust live in a curious harmony in Tchehov's
stories. And, as he seldom allows disgust entirely to drive out sympathy
in himself, he seldom allows it to do so in his readers either. His
world may be full of unswept rooms and unwashed men and women, but the
presiding genius in it is the genius of gentleness and love and
laughter. It is a dark world, but Tchehov brings light into it. There is
no other author who gives so little offence as he shows us offensive
things and people. He is a writer who desires above all things to see
what men and women are really like--to extenuate nothing and to set down
naught in malice. As a result, he is a pessimist, but a pessimist who is
black without being bitter. I know no writer who leaves one with the
same vision of men and women as lost sheep.
We are now apparently to have a complete edition of the tales of Tchehov
in English from Mrs. Garnett. It will deserve a place, both for the
author's and the translator's sake, beside her Turgenev and Dostoevsky.
In lifelikeness and graciousness her work as a translator always reaches
a high level. Her latest volumes confirm one in the opinion that Tchehov
is, for his variety, abundance, tenderness and knowledge of the heart of
the "rapacious and unclean animal" called man, the greatest short-story
writer who has yet appeared on the planet.
It was Mr. Bernard Shaw who, in commenting on the rowdy reception of the
Irish players in some American theatres, spoke of Lady Gregory as "the
greatest living Irishwoman." She is certainly a remarkable enough writer
to put a generous critic a little off his balance. Equal mistress in
comedy and tragedy, essayist, gatherer of the humours of folk-lore,
imaginative translator of heroic literature, venturesome translator of
Moliere, she has contributed a greater variety of grotesque and
beautiful things to Anglo-Irish literature than any of her
She owes her chief fame, perhaps, to the way in which, along with Mr.
G.A. Birmingham and the authors of _Some Experiences of an Irish R.M._,
she has kept alive the tradition of Ireland as a country in which
Laughter has frequent occasion to hold both his sides. She surpasses the
others in the quality of her comedy, however. Not that she is more
comic, but that she is more comprehensively true to life. Mr. Birmingham
has given us farce with a salt of reality; Miss Somerville and Miss
Ross, practical jokers of literature, turned to reality as upper-class
patrons of the comic; but Lady Gregory has gone to reality as to a cave
of treasure. She is one of the discoverers of Ireland. Her genius, like
Synge's, opened its eyes one day and saw spread below it the immense sea
of Irish common speech, with its colour, its laughter, and its music. It
is a sort of second birth which many Irish men and women of the last
generation or so have experienced. The beggar on the road, the piper at
the door, the old people in the workhouse, are henceforth accepted as a
sort of aristocracy in exile.
Lady Gregory obviously sought out their company as the heirs to a great
inheritance--an inheritance of imaginative and humorous speech. Not that
she plundered them of their fantastic tropes so greedily as Synge did.
She studied rather their common turn of phrase, its heights and its
hollows, its exquisite illogic, its passionate underflow of poetry. Has
she not herself told us how she could not get on with the character of
Bartley Fallon in _Spreading the News_, till one day she met a
melancholy man by the sea at Duras, who, after describing the crosses he
endured at home, said: "But I'm thinking if I went to America, it's long
ago I'd be dead. And it's a great expense for a poor man to be buried in
America." Out of sentences like these--sentences seized upon with the
genius of the note-book--she has made much of what is most delightful in
her plays. Her sentences are steeped and dyed in life, even when her
situations are as mad as hatters.
Some one has said that every great writer invents a new language. Lady
Gregory, whom it would be unfair to praise as a great writer, has at
least qualified as one by inventing a new language out of her knowledge
of Irish peasant speech. This, perhaps, is her chief literary peril.
Having discovered the beautiful dialect of the Kiltartan peasantry, she
was not content to leave it a peasant dialect--as we find it in her best
dramatic work, _Seven Short Plays_; but she set about transforming it
into a tongue into which all literature and emotion might apparently be
translated. Thus, she gave us Moliere in Kiltartan--a ridiculously
successful piece of work--and she gave us Finn and Cuchullain in
modified Kiltartan, and this, too, was successful, sometimes very
beautifully so. Here, however, she had masterpieces to begin with. In
_Irish Folk-History Plays_, on the other hand, we find her embarking,
not upon translation, but upon original heroic drama, in the Kiltartan
language. The result is unreality as unreal as if Meredith had made a
farm-labourer talk like Diana of the Crossways. Take, for instance, the
first of the plays, _Grania_, which is founded on the story of the
pursuit of Diarmuid and Grania by Finn MacCool, to whom Grania had been
betrothed. When Finn, disguised as a blind beggar, visits the lovers in
their tent, Grania, who does not recognize him, bids him give Finn this
message from her:--
Give heed to what I say now. If you have one eye is blind, let it
be turned to the place where we are, and that he might ask news of.
And if you have one seeing eye, cast it upon me, and tell Finn you
saw a woman no way sad or afraid, but as airy and high-minded as a
mountain-filly would be challenging the winds of March!
I flatly refuse to take the high-minded mountain filly seriously as a
tragic heroine, and I confess I hold Finn equally suspect, disguised as
a beggar though he is, when he speaks of himself to Grania as a hard
man--"as hard as a barren step-mother's slap, or a highway gander's
gob." After all, in heroic literature, we must have the illusion of the
heroic. If we can get the peasant statement of the heroic, that is
excellent; its sincerity brings its illusion. But a mere imitation of
the peasant statement of the heroic, such as Lady Gregory seems to aim
at giving us in these sentences, is as pinchbeck and unreal as
Macpherson's _Ossian_. It reaches a grotesque absurdity when at the
close of Act II Finn comes back to the door of the tent and, in order to
stir up Diarmuid's jealousy, says:--
It is what they were saying a while ago, the King of Foreign is
grunting and sighing, grunting and sighing, around and about the
big red sally tree beside the stream!
To write like that is to use not a style but a jargon.
If you want a standard of reality with which to compare these passages
of Abbey-Theatre rhetoric, you have only to turn to Lady Gregory's own
notes at the end of _Irish Folk-History Plays_, where she records a
number of peasant utterances on Irish history. Here, and not in the
plays--in the tragic plays, at any rate--is the real "folk-history" of
her book to be found. One may take, as an example, the note on
_Kincora_, where some one tells of the Battle of Clontarf, in which
Brian Boru defeated the Danes:--
Clontarf was on the head of a game of chess. The generals of the
Danes were beaten at it, and they were vexed. It was Broder, that
the Brodericks are descended from, that put a dagger through
Brian's heart, and he attending to his prayers. What the Danes left
in Ireland were hens and weasels. And when the cock crows in the
morning the country people will always say: "It is for Denmark they
are crowing; crowing they are to be back in Denmark."
Lady Gregory reveals more of life--leaping, imaginative life--in that
little note than in all the three acts about Grania and the three about
Brian. It is because the characters in the comic plays in the book are
nearer the peasantry in stature and in outlook that she is so much more
successful with them than with the heroes and heroines of the tragedies.
She describes the former plays as "tragic comedies"; but in the first
and best of them, _The Canavans_, it is difficult to see where the
tragedy comes in. _The Canavans_ is really a farce of the days of
Elizabeth. The principal character is a cowardly miller, who ensues
nothing but his own safety in the war of loyalties and disloyalties
which is destroying Ireland. He is equally afraid of the wrath of the
neighbours on the one hand, and the wrath of the Government on the
other. Consequently, he is at his wits' end when his brother Antony
comes seeking shelter in his house, after deserting from the English
Army. When the soldiers come looking for Antony, so helpless with terror
is the miller, that he flies into hiding among his sacks, and his
brother has to impersonate him in the interview with the officer who
carries out the search. The situation obviously lends itself to comic
elaborations, and Lady Gregory misses none of her opportunities. She
flies off from every semblance of reality at a tangent, however, in a
later scene, where Antony disguises himself as Queen Elizabeth, supposed
to have come on a secret visit of inspection to Ireland, and takes in
both his brother and the officer (who is himself a Canavan, anglicized
under the name of Headley). This is a sheer invention of the theatre; it
turns the play from living speech into machinery. _The Canavans_,
however, has enough of present-day reality to make us forgive its
occasional stage-Elizabethanism. On the whole, its humours gain nothing
from their historical setting.
_The White Cockade_, the second of the tragic comedies, is a play about
the flight of King James II after the Battle of the Boyne, and it, too,
is lifeless and mechanical in so far as it is historical. King James
himself is a good comic figure of a conventional sort, as he is
discovered hiding in the barrel; but Sarsfield, who is meant to be
heroic, is all joints and sawdust; and the mad Jacobite lady is a puppet
who might have been invented by any writer of plays. "When my _White
Cockade_ was produced," Lady Gregory tells us, "I was pleased to hear
that Mr. Synge had said my method had made the writing of historical
drama again possible." But surely, granted the possession of the
dramatic gift, the historical imagination is the only thing that makes
the writing of historical drama possible. Lady Gregory does not seem to
me to possess the historical imagination. Not that I believe in
archaeology in the theatre; but, apart from her peasant characters, she
cannot give us the illusion of reality about the figures in these
historical plays. If we want the illusion of reality, we shall have to
turn from _The White Cockade_ to the impossible scene outside the
post-office and the butcher's shop in _Hyacinth Halvey_. As for the
third of the tragic comedies, _The Deliverer_, it is a most interesting
curiosity. In it we have an allegory of the fate of Parnell in a setting
of the Egypt of the time of Moses. Moses himself--or the King's
nursling, as he is called--is Parnell; and he and the other characters
talk Kiltartan as to the manner born. _The Deliverer_ is grotesque and,
in its way, impressive, though the conclusion, in which the King's
nursling is thrown to the King's cats by his rebellious followers,
invites parody. The second volume of the _Irish Folk-History Plays_,
even if it reveals only Lady Gregory's talent rather than her genius, is
full of odd and entertaining things, and the notes at the end of both
of these volumes, short though they are, do give us the franchise of a
wonderful world of folk-history.
MR. CUNNINGHAME GRAHAM
Mr. Cunninghame Graham is a grandee of contemporary literature. He is
also a grandee of revolutionary politics. Both in literature and in
politics he is a figure of challenge for the love of challenge more than
any other man now writing. Other men challenge us with Utopias, with
moral laws and so forth. But Mr. Graham has little of the prophet or the
moralist about him. He expresses himself better in terms of his
hostilities than in terms of visionary cities and moralities such as
Plato and Shelley and Mazzini have built for us out of light and fire.
It is a temperament, indeed, not a vision or a logic, that Mr. Graham
has brought to literature. He blows his fantastic trumpet outside the
walls of a score of Jerichos:--Jerichos of empire, of cruelty, of
self-righteousness, of standardized civilization--and he seems to do so
for the sheer soldierly joy of the thing. One feels that if all the
walls of all the Jerichos were suddenly to collapse before his
trumpet-call he would be the loneliest man alive. For he is one of those
for whom, above all, "the fight's the thing."
It would be difficult to find any single purpose running through the
sketches which fill most of his books. His characteristic book is a
medley of cosmopolitan "things seen" and comments grouped together under
a title in which irony lurks. Take the volume called _Charity_, for
example. Both the title of the book and the subject-matter of several
of the sketches may be regarded as a challenge to the unco' guid (if
there are any left) and to respectability (from which even the humblest
are no longer safe). On the other hand, his title may be the merest
lucky-bag accident. It seems likely enough, however, that in choosing it
the author had in mind the fact that the supreme word of charitableness
in the history of man was spoken concerning a woman who was taken in
adultery. It is scarcely an accident that in _Charity_ a number of the
chapters relate to women who make a profession of sin.
Mr. Graham is unique in his treatment of these members of the human
family. If he does not throw stones at them, as the Pharisees of virtue
did, neither does he glorify them as the Pharisees of vice have done in
a later generation. He simply accepts them as he would accept a
broken-down nation or a wounded animal, and presents them as characters
in the human drama. It would be more accurate to say "as figures in the
human picture," for he is far more of a painter than a dramatist. But
the point to be emphasized is that these stories are records, tragic,
grim or humorous, as the portraits in Chaucer are--acceptances of life
as it is--at least, of life as it is outside the vision of policemen and
other pillars of established interests. For Mr. Graham can forgave you
for anything but two things--being successful (in the vulgar sense of
the term) or being a policeman.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Mr. Graham achieves the very
finest things in charity. It is the charity of tolerance, or the minor
charity, that is most frequent in his pages. The larger charity which we
find in Tolstoi and the great teachers is not here. We could not imagine
Mr. Graham forgetting himself so far in his human sympathies as Ruskin
did when he stooped and kissed the filthy beggar outside the church door
in Rome. Nor do we find in any of these sketches of outcasts that sense
of humanity bruised and exiled that we get in such a story as
Maupassant's _Boule de Suif_. Mr. Graham gloriously insists upon our
recognizing our human relations, but many of them he introduces to us as
first cousins once removed rather than as brothers and sisters by the
grace of God.
He does more than this in his preface, indeed, a marvellous piece of
reality and irony which tells how a courtesan in Gibraltar fell madly in
love with a gentleman-sponger who lived on her money while he could, and
then took the first boat home with discreet heartlessness on coming into
a bequest from a far-off cousin. "Good God, a pretty sight I should have
looked...." he explained to a kindred spirit as they paced the deck of
the boat to get an appetite. "I like her well enough, but what I say is,
Charity begins at home, my boy. Ah, there's the dinner bell!" Mr. Graham
has a noble courtesy, an unerring chivalry that makes him range himself
on the side of the bottom dog, a detestation of anything like
bullying--every gift of charity, indeed, except the shy genius of pity.
For lack of this last, some of his sketches, such as _Un Autre
Monsieur_, are mere anecdotes and decorations.
Possibly, it is as a romantic decorator that Mr. Graham, in his art as
opposed to his politics, would prefer to be judged. He has dredged half
the world for his themes and colours, and Spain and Paraguay and Morocco
and Scotland and London's tangled streets all provide settings for his
romantic rearrangements of life in this book. He has a taste for uncivil
scenes, as Henley had a taste for uncivil words. Even a London street
becomes a scene of this kind as he pictures it in his imagination with
huge motorbuses, like demons of violence, smashing their way through the
traffic. Or he takes us to some South American forest, where the vampire
bats suck the blood of horses during the night. Or he introduces us to a
Spanish hidalgo, "tall, wry-necked, and awkwardly built, with a nose
like a lamprey and feet like coracles." (For there is the same note of
violence, of exaggeration, in his treatment of persons as of places.)
Even in Scotland, he takes us by preference to some lost mansion
standing in grotesque contrast to the "great drabness of prosperity
which overspreads the world." He is a great scene-painter of
wildernesses and lawless places, indeed. He is a Bohemian, a lover of
adventures in wild and sunny lands, and even the men and women are apt
to become features in the strange scenery of his pilgrimages rather than
dominating portraits. In his descriptions he uses a splendid rhetoric
such as no other living writer of English commands. He has revived
rhetoric as a literary instrument. Aubrey Beardsley called Turner a
rhetorician in paint. If we were to speak of Mr. Graham as a painter in
rhetoric, we should be doing more than making a phrase.
But Mr. Graham cannot be summed up in a phrase. To meet him in his books
is one of the desirable experiences of contemporary literature, as to
hear him speak is one of the desirable experiences of modern politics.
Protest, daring, chivalry, the passion for the colour of life and the
colour of words--he is the impersonation of these things in a world
that is muddling its way half-heartedly towards the Promised Land.
1. THE EXOTIC BIRD
Swinburne was an absurd character. He was a bird of showy strut and
plumage. One could not but admire his glorious feathers; but, as soon as
he began to moult--and he had already moulted excessively by the time
Watts-Dunton took him under his roof--one saw how very little body
there was underneath. Mr. Gosse in his biography compared Swinburne to a
coloured and exotic bird--a "scarlet and azure macaw," to, be
precise--and the comparison remains in one's imagination. Watts-Dunton,
finding the poor creature moulted and "off its feed," carried it down to
Putney, resolved to domesticate it. He watched over it as a farmer's
wife watches over a sick hen. He taught it to eat out of his hand. He
taught it to speak--to repeat things after him, even "God Save the
Queen." Some people say that he ruined the bird by these methods. Others
maintain that, on the contrary, but for him the bird would have died of
a disease akin to the staggers. They say, moreover, that the tameness
and docility of the bird, while he was looking after it, have been
greatly exaggerated, and they deny that it was entirely bald of its old
There you have a brief statement of the great Swinburne question, which,
it seems likely, will last as long as the name of Swinburne is
remembered. It is not a question of any importance; but that will not
prevent us from arguing it hotly. The world takes a malicious joy in
jibing at men of genius and their associates, and a generous joy in
defending them from jibes. Further, the discussion that interests the
greatest number of people is discussion that has come down to a
personal level. Ten people will be bored by an argument as to the nature
of Swinburne's genius for one who will be bored by an argument as to the
nature of Swinburne's submissiveness to Watts-Dunton. Was Watts-Dunton,
in a phrase deprecated by the editors of a recent book of letters, a
"kind of amiable Svengali"? Did he allow Swinburne to have a will of his
own? Did Swinburne, in going to Putney, go to the Devil? Or did not
Watts-Dunton rather play the part of the good Samaritan? Unfortunately,
all those who have hitherto attempted to describe the relations of the
two men have succeeded only in making them both appear ridiculous. Mr.
Gosse, a man of letters with a sting, has done it cleverly. The others,
like the editors to whom I have referred, have done it inadvertently.
They write too solemnly. If Swinburne had lost a trouser-button, they
would not have felt it inappropriate, one feels, for the Archbishop of
Canterbury to hurry to the scene and go down on his knees on the floor
to look for it.... Well, no doubt, Swinburne was an absurd character.
And so was Watts-Dunton. And so, perhaps, is the Archbishop of
Most of us have, at one time or another, fallen under the spell of
Swinburne owing to the genius with which he turned into music the
enthusiasm of the heretic. He fluttered through the sooty and Sabbatic
air of the Victorian era, uttering melodious cries of protest against
everything in morals, politics, and religion for which Queen Victoria
seemed to stand. He was like a rebellious boy who takes more pleasure in
breaking the Sabbath than in the voice of nightingales. He was one of
the few Englishmen of genius who have understood the French zest for
shocking the bourgeois. He had little of his own to express, but he
discovered the heretic's gospel in Gautier, and Baudelaire and set it
forth in English in music that he might have learned from the Sirens
who sang to Ulysses. He revelled in blasphemous and licentious fancies
that would have made Byron's hair stand on end. Nowadays, much of the
blasphemy and licentiousness seems flat and unprofitable as Government
beer. But in those days it seemed heady as wine and beautiful as a
mediaeval tale. There was always in Swinburne more of pose than of
passion. That is why we have to some extent grown tired of him. But in
the atmosphere of Victorianism his pose was original and astonishing. He
was anti-Christ in a world that had annexed Christ rather than served
him. Nowadays, there is such an abundance of anti-Christs that the part
seems hardly worth playing by a man of first-rate ability. Consequently,
we have to remember the circumstances in which they were written in
order to appreciate to the full many of Swinburne's poems and even some
of the amusing outbursts of heresy in his letters. Still, even to-day,
one cannot but enjoy the gusto with which he praised
Trelawney--Shelley's and Byron's Trelawney--"the most splendid old man I
have seen since Landor and my own grandfather":--
Of the excellence of his principles I will say but this: that I did
think, by the grace of Saban (unto whom, and not unto me, be the
glory and thanksgiving. Amen: Selah), I was a good atheist and a
good republican; but in the company of this magnificent old rebel,
a lifelong incarnation of the divine right of insurrection, I felt
myself, by comparison, a Theist and a Royalist.
In another letter he writes in the same gay, under-graduatish strain of
When I hear that a personal friend has fallen into matrimonial
courses, I feel the same sorrow as if I had heard of his lapsing
into theism--a holy sorrow, unmixed with anger; for who am I to
judge him? I think at such a sight, as the preacher--was it not
Baxter?--at the sight of a thief or murderer led to the gallows:
"There, but for the grace of----, goes A.C.S.," and drop a tear
over fallen man.
There was, it is only fair to say, a great deal in Swinburne's
insurrectionism that was noble, or, at least, in tune with nobleness.
But it is impossible to persuade oneself that he was ever among the
genuine poets of liberty. He loved insurrectionism for its own sake. He
revelled in it in the spirit of a rhetorician rather than of a martyr.
He was a glorious humbug, a sort of inverted Pecksniff. Even his
republicanism cannot have gone very deep if it is true, as certain of
his editors declare, that having been born within the precincts of
Belgravia "was an event not entirely displeasing to a man of his
aristocratic leanings." Swinburne, it seems, was easily pleased. One of
his proudest boasts was that he and Victor Hugo bore a close resemblance
to each other in one respect: both of them were almost dead when they
were born, "certainly not expected to live an hour." There was also one
great difference between them. Swinburne never grew up.
His letters, some of which Messrs. Hake and Compton Rickett have given
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