Old and New Masters
Part 4 out of 4
us, are interesting and amusing, but they do not increase one's opinion
of Swinburne's mind. He reveals himself as a sensitive critic in his
remarks on the proofs of Rossetti's poems, in his comments on Morris,
and in his references to Tennyson's dramas. But, as a rule, his
intemperance of praise and blame makes his judgments appear mere
eccentricities of the blood. He could not praise Falstaff, for instance,
without speaking of "the ever dear and honoured presence of Falstaff,"
and applauding the "sweet, sound, ripe toothsome, wholesome kernel" of
Falstaff's character as well as humour. He even defied the opinion of
his idol, Victor Hugo, and contended that Falstaff was not really a
coward. All the world will agree that Swinburne was right in glorifying
Falstaff. He glorified him, however, on the wrong plane. He mixed his
planes in the same way in his paean over Captain Webb's feat in swimming
the English Channel. "I consider it," he said, "as the greatest glory
that has befallen England since the publication of Shelley's greatest
poem, whatever that may have been." This is shouting, not speech. But
then, as I have said, Swinburne never grew up. He never learned to
speak. He was ever a shouter. The question that has so far not been
settled is: Did Watts-Dunton put his hand over Swinburne's mouth and
forcibly stop him from shouting? As we know, he certainly stopped him
from swearing before ladies, except in French. But, as for shouting,
Swinburne had already exhausted himself when he went to the Pines.
Meanwhile, questions of this sort have begun to absorb us to such a
degree that we are apt to forget that Swinburne after all _was_ a man of
genius--a man with an entrancing gift of melody--spiritually an echo,
perhaps, but aesthetically a discoverer, a new creature, the most
amazing ecstatician of our time.
2. GENIUS WITHOUT EYES
Swinburne, says Mr. Gosse, "was not quite like a human being." That is
chiefly what is the matter with his poetry. He did not write quite like
a human being. He wrote like a musical instrument. There are few poets
whose work is less expressive of personal passions. He was much given to
ecstasies, but it is remarkable that most of these were echoes of other
people's ecstasies. He sought after rapture both in politics and poetry,
and he took as his masters Mazzini in the one and Victor Hugo in the
other. He has been described as one who, while conversing, even in his
later years, kept "bobbing all the while like a cork on the sea of his
enthusiasms." And, in a great deal of his rapture, there is much of the
levity as well as the "bobbing" quality of the cork. He who sang the
hymns of the Republic in his youth, ended his life as
rhetorician-in-chief of the Jingoes against the Irish and the Boers. Nor
does one feel that there was any philosophic basis for the change in his
attitude as there was for a similar change in the attitude of Burke and
Wordsworth in their later years. He was influenced more by persons than
by principles. One does not find any real vision of a Republic in his
work as one finds it in the work of Shelley. He had little of the
saintliness of spirit which marks the true Republican and which turns
politics into music in _The Masque of Anarchy_. His was not one of those
tortured souls, like Francis Adams's, which desire the pulling-down of
the pillars of the old, bad world more than love or fame. There is no
utterance of the spirit in such lines as:--
Let our flag run out straight in the wind!
The old red shall be floated again
When the ranks that are thin shall be thinned,
When the names that are twenty are ten;
When the devil's riddle is mastered
And the galley-bench creaks with a Pope,
We shall see Buonaparte the bastard
Kick heels with his throat in a rope.
It is possible for those who agree with the sentiments to derive a
certain satisfaction from verse of this sort as from a vehement leading
article. But there is nothing here beyond the rhetoric of the hot fit.
There is nothing to call back the hot fit in anybody older than a boy.
Even when Swinburne was writing out of his personal experience, he
contrived somehow to empty his verse of personality and to put
sentimentalism and rhetoric in its place. We have an instance of this in
the story of the love-affair recorded by Mr. Gosse. Swinburne, at the
age of twenty-five, fell in love with a kinswoman of Sir John Simon, the
pathologist. "She gave him roses, she played and sang to him, and he
conceived from her gracious ways an encouragement which she was far from
seriously intending." Swinburne proposed to her, and, possibly from
nervousness, she burst out laughing. He was only human in feeling
bitterly offended, and "they parted on the worst of terms." He went off
to Northumberland to escape from his wretchedness, and there he wrote
_The Triumph of Time_, which Mr. Gosse maintains is "the most profound
and the most touching of all his personal poems." He assured Mr. Gosse,
fourteen years afterwards, that "the stanzas of this wonderful lyric
represented with the exactest fidelity the emotions which passed through
his mind when his anger had died down, and when nothing remained but the
infinite pity and the pain." Beautiful though the poem intermittently
is, however, it seems to me to lack that radiance of personal emotion
which we find in the great love poems. There is much decoration of music
of a kind of which Swinburne and Poe alone possessed the secret, as in
the verse beginning:--
There lived in France a singer of old
By the tideless, dolorous, midland sea.
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
There shone one woman and none but she.
But is there more than the decoration of music in the verses which
express the poet's last farewell to his passion?
I shall go my ways, tread out my measure,
Fill the days of my daily breath
With fugitive things not good to treasure,
Do as the world doth, say as it saith;
But if we had loved each other--O sweet,
Had you felt, lying under the palms of your feet,
The heart of my heart, beating harder with pleasure,
To feel you tread it to dust and death--
Ah, had I not taken my life up and given
All that life gives and the years let go,
The wine and honey, the balm and leaven,
The dreams reared high and the hopes brought low?
Come life, come death, not a word be said;
Should I lose you living, and vex you dead?
I shall never tell you on earth, and in heaven,
If I cry to you then, will you care to know?
Browning, unquestionably, could have expressed Swinburne's passion
better than Swinburne did it himself. He would not have been content
with a sequence of vague phrases that made music. With him each phrase
would have been dramatic and charged with a personal image or a personal
Swinburne, however, was a great musician in verse and beyond
belittlement in this regard. It would be incongruous to attempt a close
comparison between him and Longfellow, but he was like Longfellow in
having a sense of music out of all proportion to the imaginative content
of his verse. There was never a distinguished poet whose work endures
logical analysis so badly. Mr. Arthur Symons, in a recent essay, refers
scornfully to those who say that "the dazzling brilliance of Swinburne's
form is apt to disguise a certain thinness or poverty of substance." But
he produces no evidence on the other side. He merely calls on us to
observe the way in which Swinburne scatters phrases and epithets of
"imaginative subtlety" by the way, while most poets "present us with
their best effects deliberately." It seems to me, on the contrary, that
Swinburne's phrasing is far from subtle. He induces moods of excitement
and sadness by his musical scheme rather than by individual phrases. Who
can resist, for example, the spell of the opening verses of _Before the
Mirror_, the poem of enchantment addressed to Whistler's _Little White
Girl?_ One hesitates to quote again lines so well known. But it is as
good an example as one can find of the pleasure-giving qualities of
Swinburne's music, apart from his phrases and images:--
White rose in red rose-garden
Is not so white;
Snowdrops that plead for pardon
And pine from fright,
Because the hard East blows
Over their maiden rows,
Grow not as thy face grows from pale to bright.
Behind the veil, forbidden,
Shut up from sight,
Love, is there sorrow hidden,
Is there delight?
Is joy thy dower or grief,
White rose of weary leaf,
Late rose whose life is brief, whose loves are light?
The snowdrop image in the first verse is, charming as is the sound of
the lines, nonsense. The picture of the snowdrops pleading for pardon
and pining from fright would have been impossible to a poet with the
realizing genius of the great writers. Swinburne's sense of rhythm,
however, was divorced in large measure from his sense of reality. He was
a poet without the poet's gift of sight. William Morris complained that
Swinburne's poems did not make pictures. Swinburne had not the necessary
sense of the lovely form of the things around him. His attitude to
Nature was lacking, as Mr. Gosse suggests, in that realism which gives
coherence to poetry. To quote Mr. Gosse's own words:--
Swinburne did not live, like Wordsworth, in a perpetual communion
with Nature, but exceptional, and even rare, moments of
concentrated observation wakened in him an ecstasy which he was
careful to brood upon, to revive, and perhaps, at last, to
exaggerate. As a rule, he saw little of the world around him, but
what he did see was presented to him in a blaze of limelight.
Nearly all his poems are a little too long, a little tedious, for the
simple reason that the muzziness of vision in them, limelight and all,
is bewildering to the intelligence. There are few of his poems which
close in splendour equal to the splendour of their opening verses. _The
Garden of Proserpine_ is one of the few that keep the good wine for the
last. Here, however, as in the rest of his poems, we find beautiful
passages rather than beauty informing the whole poem. Swinburne's poems
have no spinal cord. One feels this even in that most beautiful of his
lyrics, the first chorus in _Atalanta in Calydon._ But how many poets
are there who could have sustained for long the miracle of "When the
hounds of spring are on winter traces," and the verse that follows? Mrs.
Disney Leith tells us in a charming book of recollections and letters
that the first time Swinburne recited this poem to her was on horseback,
and one wonders whether he had the ecstasy of the gallop and the music
of racing horses in his blood when he wrote the poem. His poems are
essentially expressions of ecstasy. His capacity for ecstasy was the
most genuine thing about him. A thunderstorm gave him "a more vivid
pleasure than music or wine." His pleasure in thunder, in the gallop of
horses, in the sea, was, however, one fancies, largely an intoxication
of music. It is like one's own enjoyment of his poems. This, too, is
simply an intoxication of music.
The first series of _Poems and Ballads_, it must be admitted, owed its
success for many years to other things besides the music. It broke in
upon the bourgeois moralities of nineteenth-century England like a
defiance. It expressed in gorgeous wordiness the mood of every
green-sick youth of imagination who sees that beauty is being banished
from the world in the name of goodness. One has only to look at the grey
and yellow and purple brick houses built during the reign of Victoria to
see that the green-sick youth had a good right to protest. A world that
makes goodness the enemy of beauty and freedom is a blasphemous denial
of both goodness and beauty, and young men will turn from it in disgust
to the praise of Venus or any other god or goddess that welcomes beauty
at the altar. The first volume of _Poems and Ballads_ was a challenge to
the lie of tall-hatted religion. There is much truth in Mr. Gosse's
saying that "the poet is not a lotus-eater who has never known the
Gospel, but an evangelist turned inside out." He had been brought up
Puritanically by his mother, who kept all fiction from him in his
childhood, but grounded him with the happiest results in the Bible and
Shakespeare. "This acquaintance with the text of the Bible," says Mr.
Gosse, "he retained to the end of his life, and he was accustomed to be
emphatic about the advantage he had received from the beauty of its
language." His early poems, however, were not a protest against the
atmosphere of his home, but against the atmosphere of what can only be
described by the worn-out word "respectability." Mrs. Disney Leith
declares that she never met a character more "reverent-minded." And,
certainly, the irreverence of his most pagan poems is largely an
irreverence of gesture. He delighted in shocking his contemporaries, and
planned shocking them still further with a volume called _Lesbia
Brandon_, which he never published; but at heart he never freed himself
from the Hebrew awe in presence of good and evil. His _Aholibah_ is a
poem that is as moral in one sense as it is lascivious in another. As
Mr. Gosse says, "his imagination was always swinging, like a pendulum,
between the North and the South, between Paganism and Puritanism,
between resignation to the insticts and an ascetic repudiation of their
authority." It is the conflict between the two moods that is the most
interesting feature in Swinburne's verse, apart from its purely artistic
qualities. Some writers find Swinburne as great a magician as ever in
those poems in which he is free from the obsession of the flesh. But I
doubt if Swinburne ever rose to the same great heights in his later work
as in the two first series of _Poems and Ballads._ Those who praise him
as a thinker quote _Hertha_ as a masterpiece of philosophy in music, and
it was Swinburne's own favourite among his poems. But I confess I find
it a too long sermon. Swinburne's philosophy and religion were as vague
as his vision of the world about him. "I might call myself, if I
wished," he wrote in 1875, "a kind of Christian (of the Church of Blake
and Shelley), but assuredly in no sense a Theist."
Mr. Gosse has written Swinburne's life with distinction and
understanding; but it was so eventless a life that the biographer's is
not an easy task. The book contains plenty of entertainment, however. It
is amusing to read of the author of _Anactoria_ as a child going about
with Bowdler's Shakespeare under his arm and, in later years, assisting
Jowett in the preparation of a _Child's Bible._
THE WORK OF T.M. KETTLE
To have written books and to have died in battle has been a common
enough fate in the last few years. But not many of the young men who
have fallen in the war have left us with such a sense of perished genius
as Lieutenant T.M. Kettle, who was killed at Ginchy. He was one of those
men who have almost too many gifts to succeed. He had the gift of
letters and the gift of politics; he was a mathematician, an economist,
a barrister, and a philosopher; he was a Bohemian as well as a scholar;
as one listened to him, one suspected at times that he must be one of
the most brilliant conversationalists of the age. He lived in a blaze of
adoration as a student, and, though this adoration was tempered by the
abuse of opponents in his later years, he still had a way of going about
as a conqueror with his charm. Had he only had a little ordinariness in
his composition to harden him, he would almost certainly have ended as
the leading Irish statesman of his day. He was undoubtedly ambitious of
success in the grand style. But with his ambition went the mood of
Ecclesiastes, which reminded him of the vanity of ambition. In his youth
he adhered to Herbert Spencer's much-quoted saying: "What I need to
realize is how infinitesimal is the importance of anything I can do, and
how infinitely important it is that I should do it." But, while with
Spencer this was a call to action, with Kettle it was rather a call to
meditation, to discussion. He was the Hamlet of modern Ireland. And it
is interesting to remember that in one of his early essays he defended
Hamlet against the common charge of "inability to act," and protested
that he was the victim, not of a vacillating will, but of the fates. He
contended that, so great were the issues and so dubious the evidence,
Hamlet had every right to hesitate. "The commercial blandness," he
wrote, "with which people talk of Hamlet's 'plain duty' makes one wonder
if they recognize such a thing as plain morality. The 'removal' of an
uncle without due process of law and on the unsupported evidence of an
unsubpoenable ghost; the widowing of a mother and her casting-off as
unspeakably vile, are treated as enterprises about which a man has no
right to hesitate or even to feel unhappy." This is not
mere speciousness. There is the commonsense of pessimism in it too.
The normal Irish man of letters begins as something of a Utopian. Kettle
was always too much of a pessimist--he himself would have said a
realist--to yield easily to romance. As a very young man he edited in
Dublin a paper called _The Nationist_, for which he claimed, above all
things, that it stood for "realism" in politics. Some men are driven
into revolution by despair: it was as though Kettle had been driven into
reform by despair. He admired the Utopians, but he could not share their
faith. "If one never got tired," he wrote in a sketch of the
International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart in 1907, "one would always
be with the revolutionaries, the re-makers, with Fourier and Kropotkin.
But the soul's energy is strictly limited; and with weariness there
comes the need for compromise, for 'machines,' for reputation, for
routine. Fatigue is the beginning of political wisdom." One finds the
same strain of melancholy transmuting itself into gaiety with an epigram
in much of his work. His appreciation of Anatole France is the
appreciation of a kindred spirit. In an essay called _The Fatigue of
Anatole France_ in _The Day's Burden_ he defended his author's
pessimistic attitude as he might have defended his own:
A pessimism, stabbed and gashed with the radiance of epigrams, as a
thundercloud is stabbed by lightning, is a type of spiritual life
far from contemptible. A reasonable sadness, chastened by the music
of consummate prose, is an attitude and an achievement that will
help many men to bear with more resignation the burden of our
How wonderfully, again, he portrays the Hamlet doubts of Anatole France,
when, speaking of his bust, he says: "It is the face of a soldier ready
to die for a flag in which he does not entirely believe." And he goes
He looks out at you like a veteran of the lost cause of intellect,
to whose soul the trumpet of defeat strikes with as mournful and
vehement a music as to that of Pascal himself, but who thinks that
a wise man may be permitted to hearten himself up in evil days with
an anecdote after the manner of his master Rabelais.
Kettle himself practised just such a gloom shot with gaiety. He did not,
however, share Anatole France's gaiety of unbelief. In some ways he was
more nearly akin to Villiers de l'Isle Adam, with his religion and his
love of the fine gesture. Had he been a Frenchman of an earlier
generation, he would have been famous for his talk, like Villiers, in
the cafes. Most people who knew him contend that he talked even better
than he wrote; but one gets a good enough example of his ruling mood and
attitude in the fine essay called _On Saying Good-bye._ Meditating on
life as "a sustained good-bye," he writes:
Life is a cheap _table d'hote_ in a rather dirty restaurant, with
Time changing the plates before you have had enough of anything.
We were bewildered at school to be told that walking was a
perpetual falling. But life is, in a far more significant way, a
perpetual dying. Death is not an eccentricity, but a settled habit
of the universe. The drums of to-day call to us, as they call to
young Fortinbras in the fifth act of _Hamlet_, over corpses piled
up in such abundance as to be almost ridiculous. We praise the
pioneer, but we praise him on wrong grounds. His strength lies not
in his leaning out to new things--that may be mere curiosity--but
in his power to abandon old things. All his courage is a courage of
This meditativeness on the passing nature of things is one of the old
moods of mankind. Kettle, however, was one of the men of our time in
whom it has achieved imaginative expression. I remember his once saying,
in regard to some hostile criticisms that had been passed on his own
"power to abandon old things": "The whole world is nothing but the story
of a renegade. The bud is renegade to the tree, and the flower to the
bud, and the fruit to the flower." Though he rejoiced in change as a
politician, however, he bewaited the necessity of change as a
philosopher. His praise of death in the essay I have just quoted from is
the praise of something that will put an end to changes and goodbyes
There is only one journey, as it seems to me ... in which we attain
our ideal of going away and going home at the same time. Death,
normally encountered, has all the attractions of suicide without
any of its horrors. The old woman--
an old woman previously mentioned who complained that "the only
bothersome thing about walking was that the miles began at the wrong
the old woman when she comes to that road will find the miles
beginning at the right end. We shall all bid our first real adieu
to those brother-jesters of ours, Time; and Space; and though the
handkerchiefs flutter, no lack of courage will have power to cheat
or defeat us. "However amusing the comedy may have been," wrote
Pascal, "there is always blood in the fifth act. They scatter a
little dust in your face; and then all is over for ever." Blood
there may be, but blood does not necessarily mean tragedy. The
wisdom of humility bids us pray that in that fifth act we may have
good lines and a timely exit; but, fine or feeble, there is comfort
in breaking the parting word into its two significant halves, a
Dieu. Since life has been a constant slipping from one good-bye to
another, why should we fear that sole good-bye which promises to
cancel all its forerunners?
There you have a passage which, in the light of events, seems strangely
prophetic. Kettle certainly got his "good lines" at Ginchy. He gave his
life greatly for his ideal of a free Ireland in a free Europe.
This suggests that underlying his Hamlet there was a man of action as
surely as there was a jester. He was a man with a genius for rising to
the occasion--for saying the fine word and doing the fine thing. He
compromised often, in accordance with his "realistic" view of things;
but he never compromised in his belief in the necessity of large and
European ideals in Ireland. He stood by all good causes, not as an
extremist, but as a helper somewhat disillusioned. But his
disillusionment never made him feeble in the middle of the fight. He was
the sworn foe of the belittlers of Ireland. One will get an idea of the
passion with which he fought for the traditional Ireland, as well as for
the Ireland of coming days, if one turns to his rhymed reply to a living
English poet who had urged the Irish to forget their history and gently
cease to be a nation. The last lines of this poem--_Reason in Rhyme_, as
he called it--are his testament to England no less than his call to
Europeanism is his testament to Ireland:
Bond, from the toil of hate we may not cease:
Free, we are free to be your friend.
And when you make your banquet, and we come.
Soldier with equal soldier must we sit,
Closing a battle, not forgetting it.
With not a name to hide,
This mate and mother of valiant "rebels" dead
Must come with all her history on her head.
We keep the past for pride:
No deepest peace shall strike our poets dumb:
No rawest squad of all Death's volunteers,
No rudest men who died
To tear your flag down in the bitter years.
But shall have praise, and three times thrice again,
When at the table men shall drink with men.
That was Kettle's mood to the last. This was the mood that made him
regard with such horror the execution of Pearse and Connolly, and the
other leaders of the Dublin insurrection. He regarded these men as
having all but destroyed his dream of an Ireland enjoying the freedom
of Europe. But he did not believe that any English Government possessed
the right to be merciless in Ireland. The murder of Sheehy-Skeffington,
who was his brother-in-law, cast another shadow over his imagination
from which he never recovered. Only a week before he died he wrote to me
from France: "The Skeffington case oppresses me with horror." When I saw
him in the previous July, he talked like a man whose heart Easter Week
and its terrible retributions had broken. But there must have been
exaltation in those days just before his death, as one gathers from the
last, or all but the last, of his letters home:
We are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme. The
bombardment, destruction, and bloodshed are beyond all imagination,
nor did I ever think that the valour of simple men could be quite
as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers. I have had two chances
of leaving them--one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I
have chosen to stay with my comrades.
There at the end you have the grand gesture. There you have the "good
lines" that Kettle had always desired.
MR. J.C. SQUIRE
It would not have been easy a few years ago to foresee the achievement
of Mr. Squire as a poet. He laboured under the disadvantage of being
also a wit. It used to be said of Ibsen that a Pegasus had once been
shot under him, and one was alarmed lest the reverse of this was about
to happen to Mr. Squire, and lest a writer who began in the gaiety of
the comic spirit should end soberly astride Pegasus. When, in _Tricks of
the Trade_, he announced that he was going to write no more parodies,
one had a depressed feeling that he was about to give up to poetry what
was meant for mankind. Yet, on reading Mr. Squire's collected poems in
_Poems: First Series_, it is difficult not to admit that it was to write
serious verse even more than parody and political epigram that he was
He has arranged the poems in the book in the order of their composition,
so that we can follow the development of his powers and see him, as it
were, learning to fly. To read him is again and again to be reminded of
Donne. Like Donne, he is largely self-occupied, examining the horrors of
his own soul, overburdened at times with thought, an intellect at odds
with the spirit. Like Donne, he will have none of the merely poetic,
either in music or in imagery. He beats out a music of his own and he
beats out an imagery of his own. In his early work, this sometimes
resulted in his poems being unable to rise far from the ground. They
seemed to be labouring on unaccustomed wings towards the ether. What
other living poet has ever given a poem such a title as _Antinomies on
a Railway Station?_ What other has examined himself with the same X-rays
sort of realism as Mr. Squire has done in _The Mind of Man?_ The
latter, like many of Mr. Squire's poems, is an expression of fastidious
disgust with life. The early Mr. Squire was a master of disgust, and we
see the same mood dominant even in the _Ode: In a Restaurant_, where the
poet suddenly breaks out:--
Soul! This life is very strange,
And circumstances very foul
Attend the belly's stormy howl.
The ode, however, is not merely, or even primarily, an expression of
disgust. Here, too, we see Mr. Squire's passion for romance and energy.
Here, too, we see him as a fisherman of strange imagery, as when he
describes the sounds of the restaurant band as they float in upon him
from another room and die again:--
Like keen-drawn threads of ink dropped into a glass
Of water, which curl and relax and soften and pass.
The _Ode: In a Restaurant_ is perhaps the summit of Mr. Squire's writing
as a poet at odds with himself, a poet who floats above the obscene and
dull realities of every day, "like a draggled seagull over dreary flats
of mud." He has already escaped into bluer levels in the poem, _On a
friend Recently Dead_, written in the same or the following year. Here
he ceases to be a poet floating and bumping against a ceiling. He is now
ranging the heaven of the emancipated poets. Even when he writes of the
common and prosaic things he now charges them with significance for the
emotions. He is no longer a satirist and philosopher, but a lover. How
well he conjures up the picture of the room in which his friend used to
sit and talk:--
Here in this room, not long before the end,
Here in this very room six months ago
You poised your foot and joked and chuckled so.
Beyond the window shook the ash-tree bough,
You saw books, pictures, as I see them now.
The sofa then was blue, the telephone
Listened upon the desk and softly shone
Even as now the fire-irons in the grate,
And the little brass pendulum swung, a seal of fate
Stamping the minutes; and the curtains on window and door
Just moved in the air; and on the dark boards of the floor
These same discreetly-coloured rugs were lying ...
And then you never had a thought of dying.
How much richer, too, by this time Mr. Squire's imagery has become! His
observation is both exact and imaginative when he notes how--
the frail ash-tree hisses
With a soft sharpness like a fall of mounded grain.
Elsewhere in the same poem Mr. Squire has given us a fine new image of
the brevity of man's life:--
And I, I see myself as one of a heap of stones,
Wetted a moment to life as the flying wave goes over.
It was not, however, till _The Lily of Malud_ appeared that readers of
poetry in general realized that Mr. Squire was a poet of the imagination
even more than of the intellect. This is a flower that has blossomed out
of the vast swamps of the anthropologists. It is the song of the ritual
of initiation. Mr. Squire's power in the sphere both of the grotesque
and of lovely imagery is revealed in the triumphant close of this
And the surly thick-lipped men, as they sit about their huts
Making drums out of guts, grunting gruffly now and then,
Carving sticks of ivory, stretching shields of wrinkled skin,
Smoothing sinister and thin squatting gods of ebony,
Chip and grunt and do not see.
But each mother, silently,
Longer than her wont stays shut in the dimness of her hut,
For she feels a brooding cloud of memory in the air,
A lingering thing there that makes her sit bowed
With hollow shining eyes, as the night-fire dies.
And stare softly at the ember, and try to remember
Something sorrowful and far, something sweet and vaguely seen
Like an early evening star when the sky is pale green:
A quiet silver tower that climbed in an hour,
Or a ghost like a flower, or a flower like a queen:
Something holy in the past that came and did not last,
But she knows not what it was.
It is easy to see in the last lines that Mr. Squire has escaped finally
from the idealist's disgust to the idealist's exaltation. He has learned
to express the beautiful mystery of life and he is no longer haunted in
his nerves by the ugliness of circumstances. Not that he has shut
himself up in an enchanted world: he still remains a poet of this
agonizing earth. In _The Stronghold_ he summons up a vision of "easeful
death," only to turn aside from it as Christian turned aside from the
temptations on his way:--
But, O, if you find that castle,
Draw back your foot from the gateway,
Let not its peace invite you,
Let not its offerings tempt you,
For faded and decayed like a garment,
Love to a dust will have fallen,
And song and laughter will have gone with sorrow,
And hope will have gone with pain;
And of all the throbbing heart's high courage
Nothing will remain.
And these later poems are not only nobler in passion than the early
introspective work; they are also more moving. Few of the "in memoriam"
poems of the war touch the heart as does that poem, _To a Bulldog_, with
its moving close:--
And though you run expectant as you always do
To the uniforms we meet,
You will never find Willy among all the soldiers
Even in the longest street.
Nor in any crowd: yet, strange and bitter thought,
Even now were the old words said,
If I tried the old trick, and said "Where's Willy?"
You would quiver and lift your head.
And your brown eyes would look to ask if I was serious,
And wait for the word to spring.
Sleep undisturbed: I shan't say that again,
You innocent old thing.
I must sit, not speaking, on the sofa,
While you lie there asleep on the floor;
For he's suffered a thing that dogs couldn't dream of,
And he won't be coming here any more.
Of the new poems in the book, one of the most beautiful is _August
Moon_. The last verses provide an excellent example of Mr. Squire's gift
both as a painter of things and a creator of atmosphere:--
A golden half-moon in the sky, and broken gold in the water.
In the water, tranquilly severing, joining, gold:
Three or four little plates of gold on the river:
A little motion of gold between the dark images
Of two tall posts that stand in the grey water.
A woman's laugh and children going home.
A whispering couple, leaning over the railings,
And somewhere, a little splash as a dog goes in.
I have always known all this, it has always been,
There is no change anywhere, nothing will ever change.
I heard a story, a crazy and tiresome myth.
Listen! Behind the twilight a deep, low sound
Like the constant shutting of very distant doors.
Doors that are letting people over there
Out to some other place beyond the end of the sky.
The contrast between the beauty of the stillness of the moonlit world
and the insane intrusion of the war into it has not, I think, been
suggested so expressively in any other poem.
Now that these poems have been collected into a single volume it is
possible to measure the author's stature. His book will, I believe, come
as a revelation to the majority of readers. A poet of original music,
of an original mind, of an original imagination, Mr. Squire has now
taken a secure place among the men of genius of to-day. _Poems: First
Series_, is literary treasure so novel and so abundant that I can no
longer regret, as I once did, that Mr. Squire has said farewell to the
brilliant lighter-hearted moods of _Steps to Parnassus_ and _Tricks of
the Trade._ He has brought us gifts better even than those.
R. JOSEPH CONRAD
1. THE MAKING OF AN AUTHOR
Mr. Joseph Conrad is one of the strangest figures in literature. He has
called himself "the most unliterary of writers." He did not even begin
to write till he was half-way between thirty and forty. I do not like to
be more precise about the date, because there seems to be some doubt as
to the year in which Mr. Conrad was born. Mr. Hugh Walpole, in his brief
critical study of Mr. Conrad, gives the date as the 6th of December,
1857; the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_ says 1856; Mr. Conrad himself
declares in his reminiscences that he was "nine years old or
thereabouts" in 1868, which would bring the year of his birth nearer
1859. Of one thing, however, there is no question. He grew up without
any impulse to be a writer. He apparently never even wrote bad verse in
his teens. Before he began to write _Almayer's Folly_ he "had written
nothing but letters and not very many of these." "I never," he declares,
"made a note of a fact, of an impression, or of an anecdote in my life.
The ambition of being an author had never turned up among those precious
imaginary existences one creates fondly for oneself in the stillness and
immobility of a daydream."
At the same time, Mr. Conrad's is not a genius without parentage or
pedigree. His father was not only a revolutionary, but in some degree a
man of letters. Mr. Conrad tells us that his own acquaintance with
English literature began at the age of eight with _The Two Gentlemen of
Verona_, which his father had translated into Polish. He has given us a
picture of the child he then was (dressed in a black blouse with a white
border in mourning for his mother) as he knelt in his father's study
chair, "with my elbows on the table and my head held in both hands over
the pile of loose pages." While he was still a boy he read Hugo and _Don
Quixote_ and Dickens, and a great deal of history, poetry, and travel.
He had also been fascinated by the map. It may be said of him even in
his childhood, as Sir Thomas Browne has said in general of every human
being, that Africa and all her prodigies were within him. No passage in
his autobiography suggests the first prophecy of his career so markedly
as that in which he writes: "It was in 1868, when nine years old or
thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and
putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved
mystery of that continent, I said to myself with absolute assurance and
an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now: 'When I
grow up I shall go _there_.'" Mr. Conrad's genius, his consciousness of
his destiny, may be said to have come to birth in that hour. What but
the second sight of genius could have told this inland child that he
would one day escape from the torturing round of rebellion in which the
soul of his people was imprisoned to the sunless jungles and secret
rivers of Africa, where he would find an imperishable booty of wonder
and monstrous fear? Many people regard _Heart of Darkness_ as his
greatest story. _Heart of Darkness_ surely began to be written on the
day on which the boy of nine "or thereabouts" put his finger on the
blank space of the map of Africa and prophesied.
He was in no hurry, however, to accomplish his destiny. Mr. Conrad has
never been in a hurry, even in telling a story. He has waited on fate
rather than run to meet it. "I was never," he declares, "one of those
wonderful fellows that would go afloat in a washtub for the sake of the
fun." On the other hand, he seems always to have followed in his own
determined fashion certain sudden intuitions, much as great generals and
saints do. Alexander or Napoleon could not have seized the future with a
more splendid defiance of reason than did Mr. Conrad, when, though he
did not yet know six words of English, he came to the resolve: "If a
seaman, then an English seaman." He has always been obedient to a star.
He likes to picture himself as a lazy creature, but he is really one of
the most dogged day-labourers who have ever served literature. In
_Typhoon_ and _Youth_ he has written of the triumph of the spirit of man
over tempest and fire. We may see in these stories not only the record
of Mr. Conrad's twenty years' toil as a seaman, but the image of his
desperate doggedness as an author writing in a foreign tongue. "Line by
line," he writes, "rather than page by page, was the growth of
_Almayer's Folly_." He has earned his fame in the sweat of his brow. He
speaks of the terrible bodily fatigue that is the lot of the imaginative
writer even more than of the manual labourer. "I have," he adds,
"carried bags of wheat on my back, bent almost double under a ship's
deck-beams, from six in the morning till six in the evening (with an
hour and a half off for meals), so I ought to know." He declares,
indeed, that the strain of creative effort necessary in imaginative
writing is "something for which a material parallel can only be found in
the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape
Horn." This is to make the profession of literature a branch of the
heroic life. And that, for all his smiling disparagement of himself as a
Sybarite, is what Mr. Conrad has done.
It is all the more curious that he should ever have been regarded as one
who had added to the literature of despair. He is a tragic writer, it is
true; he is the only novelist now writing in English with the grand
tragic sense. He is nearer Webster than Shakespeare, perhaps, in the
mood of his tragedy; he lifts the curtain upon a world in which the
noble and the beautiful go down before an almost meaningless malice. In
_The End of the Tether_, in _Freya of the Seven Isles_, in _Victory_, it
is as though a very Nero of malice who took a special delight in the
ruin of great spirits governed events. On the other hand, as in _Samson
Agonistes_, so in the stories of Mr. Conrad we are confronted with the
curious paradox that some deathless quality in the dying hero forbids us
utterly to despair. Mr. Hardy has written the tragedy of man's weakness;
Mr. Conrad has written the tragedy of man's strength "with courage never
to submit or yield." Though Mr. Conrad possesses the tragic sense in a
degree that puts him among the great poets, and above any of his living
rivals, however, the mass of his work cannot be called tragic. _Youth,
Typhoon, Lord Jim, The Secret Sharer, The Shadow Line_--are not all
these fables of conquest and redemption? Man in Mr. Conrad's stories is
always a defier of the devils, and the devils are usually put to flight.
Though he is eager to disclaim being a moralist or even having any
liking for moralists, it is clear that he is an exceedingly passionate
moralist and is in more ardent imaginative sympathy with the duties of
man and Burke than with the rights of man and Shelley. Had it not been
so, he might have been a political visionary and stayed at home. As it
is, this son of a Polish rebel broke away from the wavering aspirations
and public dreams of his revolutionary countrymen, and found salvation
as an artist in the companionship of simple men at sea.
Some such tremendous breach with the past was necessary in order that
Mr. Conrad might be able to achieve his destiny as an artist. No one but
an inland child could, perhaps, have come to the sea with such a passion
of discovery. The sea to most of us is a glory, but it is a glory of our
everyday earth. Mr. Conrad, in his discovery of the sea, broke into a
new and wonder-studded world, like some great adventurer of the
Renaissance. He was like a man coming out of a pit into the light. That,
I admit, is too simple an image to express all that going to sea meant
to Mr. Conrad. But some such image seems to me to be necessary to
express that element in his writing which reminds one of the vision of a
man who has lived much underground. He is a dark man who carries the
shadows and the mysteries of the pit about with him. He initiates us in
his stories into the romance of Erebus. He leads us through a haunted
world in which something worse than a ghost may spring on us out of the
darkness. Ironical, sad, a spectator, he is nevertheless a writer who
exalts rather than dispirits. His genius moves enlargingly among us, a
very spendthrift of treasure--treasure of recollection, observation,
imagery, tenderness, and humour. It is a strange thing that it was not
until he published _Chance_ that the world in general began to recognize
how great a writer was enriching our time. Perhaps his own reserve was
partly to blame for this. He tells us that all the "characters" he ever
got on his discharge from a ship contained the words "strictly sober,"
and he claims that he has observed the same sobriety--"asceticism of
sentiment," he calls it--in his literary work as at sea. He has been
compared to Dostoevsky, but in his quietism he is the very opposite of
Dostoevsky--an author, indeed, of whom he has written impatiently. At
the same time, Mr. Conrad keeps open house in his pages as Dostoevsky
did for strange demons and goblins--that population of grotesque
characters that links the modern realistic novel to the fairy tale. His
tales are tales of wonder. He is not only a philosopher of the bold
heart under a sky of despair, but one of the magicians of literature.
That is why one reads the volume called _Youth_ for the third and fourth
time with even more enthusiasm than when one reads it for the first.
2. TALES OF MYSTERY
Mr. Joseph Conrad is a writer with a lure. Every novelist of genius is
that, of course, to some extent. But Mr. Conrad is more than most. He
has a lure like some lost shore in the tropics. He compels to adventure.
There is no other living writer who is sensitive in anything like the
same degree to the sheer mysteriousness of the earth. Every man who
breathes, every woman who crosses the street, every wind that blows,
every ship that sails, every tide that fills, every wave that breaks, is
for him alive with mystery as a lantern is alive with light--a little
light in an immense darkness. Or perhaps it is more subtle than that.
With Mr. Conrad it is as though mystery, instead of dwelling in people
and things like a light, hung about them like an aura. Mr. Kipling
communicates to us aggressively what our eyes can see. Mr. Conrad
communicates to us tentatively what only his eyes can see, and in so
doing gives a new significance to things. Occasionally he leaves us
puzzled as to where in the world the significance can lie. But of the
presence of this significance, this mystery, we are as uncannily certain
as of some noise that we have heard at night. It is like the "mana"
which savages at once reverence and fear in a thousand objects. It is
unlike "mana," however, in that it is a quality not of sacredness, but
of romance. It is as though for Mr. Conrad a ghost of romance inhabited
every tree and every stream, every ship and every human being. His
function in literature is the announcement of this ghost. In all his
work there is some haunting and indefinable element that draws us into a
kind of ghost-story atmosphere as we read. His ships and men are, in an
old sense of the word, possessed.
One might compare Mr. Conrad in this respect with his master--his
master, at least, in the art of the long novel--Henry James. I do not
mean that in the matter of his genius Mr. Conrad is not entirely
original. Henry James could no more have written Mr. Conrad's stories
than Mr. Conrad could have written Henry James's. His manner of
discovering significance in insignificant things, however, is of the
school of Henry James. Like Henry James, he is a psychologist in
everything down to descriptions of the weather. It can hardly be
questioned that he has learned more of the business of psychology from
Henry James than from any other writer. As one reads a story like
_Chance_, however, one feels that in psychology Mr. Conrad is something
of an amateur of genius, while Henry James is a professor. Mr. Conrad
never gives the impression of having used the dissecting-knife and the
microscope and the test-tubes as Henry James does. He seems rather to be
one of the splendid guessers. Not that Henry James is timid in
speculations. He can sally out into the borderland and come back with
his bag of ghosts like a very hero of credulity. Even when he tells a
ghost story, however--and _The Turn of the Screw_ is one of the great
ghost stories of literature--he remains supremely master of his
materials. He has an efficiency that is scientific as compared with the
vaguer broodings of Mr. Conrad. Where Mr. Conrad will drift into
discovery, Henry James will sail more cunningly to his end with chart
One is aware of a certain deliberate indolent hither-and-thitherness in
the psychological progress of Mr. Conrad's _Under Western Eyes_, for
instance, which is never to be found even in the most elusive of Henry
James's novels. Both of them are, of course, in love with the elusive.
To each of them a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. But while
Henry James's birds perch in the cultivated bushes of botanical gardens,
Mr. Conrad's call from the heart of natural thickets--often from the
depths of the jungle. The progress of the steamer up the jungle river in
_Heart of Darkness_ is symbolic of his method as a writer. He goes on
and on, with the ogres of romance always lying in wait round the next
bend. He can describe things seen as well as any man, but it is his
especial genius to use things seen in such a way as to suggest the
unseen things that are waiting round the corner. Even when he is
portraying human beings, like Flora de Barrel--the daughter of the
defalcating financier and wife of the ship's captain, who is the heroine
of _Chance_--he often permits us just such glimpses of them as we get of
persons hurrying round a corner. He gives us a picture of disappearing
heels as the portrait of a personality. He suggests the soul of wonder
in a man not by showing him realistically as he is so much as by
suggesting a mysterious something hidden, something on the horizon, a
shadowy island seen at twilight. One result of this is that his human
beings are seldom as rotund as life. They are emanations of personality
rather than collections of legs, arms, and bowels. They are, if you
like, ghostly. That is why they will never be quoted like Hamlet and my
Uncle Toby and Sam Weller. But how wonderful they are in their
environment of the unusual! How wonderful as seen in the light of the
strange eyes of their creator! "Having grown extremely sensitive (an
effect of irritation) to the tonalities, I may say, of the affair"--so
the narrator of _Chance_ begins one of his sentences; and it is not in
the invention of new persons or incidents, but in just such a
sensitiveness to the tonalities of this and that affair that Mr. Conrad
wins his laurels as a writer of novels. He would be sensitive, I do not
doubt, to the tonalities of the way in which a waitress in a Lyons
tea-shop would serve a lumpy-shouldered City man with tea and toasted
scone. His sensitiveness only becomes matter for enthusiasm, however,
when it is concerned with little man in conflict with destiny--when,
bare down to the immortal soul, he grapples with fate and throws it, or
is beaten back by it into a savage of the first days.
Some of his best work is contained in the two stories _Typhoon_ and
_The Secret Sharer_, the latter of which appeared in the volume called
_'Twixt Land and Sea_. And each of these is a fable of man's mysterious
quarrel with fate told with the Conrad sensitiveness, the dark Conrad
irony, and the Conrad zest for courage. These stories are so great that
while we read them we almost forget the word "psychology." We are swept
off our feet by a tide of heroic literature. Each of the stories,
complex though Mr. Conrad's interest in the central situation may be, is
radically as heroic and simple as the story of Jack's fight with the
giants or of the defence of the round-house in _Kidnapped_. In each of
them the soul of man challenges fate with its terrors: it dares all, it
risks all, it invades and defeats the darkness. _Typhoon_ was, I fancy,
not consciously intended as a dramatization of the struggle between the
soul and the Prince of the power of the air. But it is because it is
eternally true as such a dramatization that it is--let us not shrink
from praise--one of the most overwhelmingly fine short stories in
literature. It is the story of an unconquerable soul even more than of
an unconquerable ship. One feels that the ship's struggles have angels
and demons for spectators, as time and again the storm smashes her and
time and again she rises alive out of the pit of the waters. They are an
affair of cosmic relevance as the captain and the mate cling on,
watching the agonies of the steamer.
Opening their eyes, they saw the masses of piled-up foam dashing to
and fro amongst what looked like fragments of the ship. She had
given way as if driven straight in. Their panting hearts yielded
before the tremendous blow; and all at once she sprang up again to
her desperate plunging, as if trying to scramble out from under the
ruins. The seas in the dark seemed to rush from all sides to keep
her back where she might perish. There was hate in the way she was
handled, and a ferocity in the blows that fell. She was like a
living creature thrown to the rage of a mob: hustled terribly,
struck at, borne up, flung down, leaped upon.
It is in the midst of these blinding, deafening, whirling, drowning
terrors that we seem to see the captain and the mate as figures symbolic
of Mr. Conrad's heroic philosophy of life.
He [the mate] poked his head forward, groping for the ear of his
commander. His lips touched it, big, fleshy, very wet. He cried in
an agitated tone, "Our boats are going now, sir."
And again he heard that voice, forced and ringing feebly, but with
a penetrating effect of quietness in the enormous discord of
noises, as if sent out from some remote spot of peace beyond the
black wastes of the gale; again he heard a man's voice--the frail
and indomitable sound that can be made to carry an infinity of
thought, resolution, and purpose, that shall be pronouncing
confident words on the last day, when the heavens fall and justice
is done--again he heard it, and it was crying to him, as if from
very, very far: "All right."
Mr. Conrad's work, I have already suggested, belongs to the literature
of confidence. It is the literature of great hearts braving the perils
of the darkness. He is imaginatively never so much at home as in the
night, but he is aware not only of the night, but of the stars. Like a
cheer out of the dark comes that wonderful scene in _The Secret Sharer_
in which, at infinite risk, the ship is sailed in close under the
looming land in order that the captain may give the hidden manslayer a
chance of escaping unnoticed to the land. This is a story in which the
"tonalities of the affair" are much more subtle than in _Typhoon_. It is
a study in eccentric human relations--the relations between the captain
and the manslayer who comes naked out of the seas as if from nowhere one
tropical night, and is huddled away with his secrets in the captain's
cabin. It is for the most part a comedy of the abnormal--an ironic fable
of splendid purposeless fears and risks. Towards the end, however, we
lose our concern with nerves and relationships and such things, and our
hearts pause as the moment approaches when the captain ventures his ship
in order to save the interloper's life. That is a moment with all
romance in it. As the ship swerves round into safety just in the nick of
time, we have a story transfigured into the music of the triumphant
soul. Mr. Conrad, as we see in _Freya of the Seven Isles_ and elsewhere,
is not blind to the commonness of tragic ruin--tragic ruin against which
no high-heartedness seems to avail. He is, indeed, inclined rather than
otherwise to represent fate as a monstrous spider, unaccountable, often
maleficent, hard to run away from. But he loves the fantastic comedy of
the high heart which persists in the heroic game against the spider till
the bitter end. His _Youth_ is just such a comedy of the peacockry of
adventure amid the traps and disasters of fate.
All this being so, it may be thought that I have underestimated the
flesh-and-blood qualities in Mr. Conrad's work. I certainly do not want
to give the impression that his men are less than men. They are as manly
men as ever breathed. But Mr. Conrad seldom attempts to give us the
complete synthesis of a man. He deals rather in aspects of personality.
His longer books would hold us better if there were some overmastering
characters in them. In reading such a book as _Under Western Eyes_ we
feel as though we had here a precious alphabet of analysis, but that it
has not been used to spell a magnificent man.
Worse than this, Mr. Conrad's long stories at times come out as
awkwardly as an elephant being steered backwards through a gate. He
pauses frequently to impress upon us not only the romance of the fact he
is stating but the romance of the circumstances in which somebody
discovered it. In _Chance_ and _Lord Jim_ he is not content to tell us a
straightforward story: he must show us at length the processes by which
it was pieced together. This method has its advantages. It gives us the
feeling, as I have said, that we are voyaging into strange seas and
harbours in search of mysterious clues. But the fatigue of
reconstruction is apt to tell on us before the end. One gets tired of
the thing just as one does of interviewing a host of strangers. That is
why some people fail to get through Mr. Conrad's long novels. They are
books of a thousand fascinations, but the best imagination in them is by
the way. Besides this, they have little of the economy of dramatic
writing, but are profusely descriptive, and most people are timid of an
epic of description.
Mr. Conrad's best work, then, is to be found, I agree with most people
in believing, in three of his volumes of short stories--in _Typhoon,
Youth_, and _'Twixt Land and Sea_. His fame will, I imagine, rest
chiefly on these, just as the fame of Wordsworth and Keats rests on
their shorter poems. Here is the pure gold of his romance--written in
terms largely of the life of the old sailing-ship. Here he has written
little epics of man's destiny, tragic, ironic, and heroic, which are
unique in modern (and, it is safe to say, in all) literature.
MR. RUDYARD KIPLING
1. THE GOOD STORY-TELLER
Mr. Kipling is an author whom one has loved and hated a good deal. One
has loved him as the eternal schoolboy revelling in smells and bad
language and dangerous living. One has loved him less, but one has at
least listened to him, as the knowing youth who could tell one all about
the ladies of Simla. One has found him rather adorable as the favourite
uncle with the funny animal stories. One has been amazed by his
magnificent make-believe as he has told one about dim forgotten peoples
that have disappeared under the ground. One has detested him, on the
other hand, as the evangelist with the umbrella--the little Anglo-Indian
Prussian who sing hymns of hate and Hempire.
Luckily, this last Kipling is allowed an entirely free voice only in
verse. If one avoids _Barrack Room Ballads_ and _The Seven Seas_, one
misses the worst of him. He visits the prose stories, too, it is true,
but he does not dominate them in the same degree. Prose is his easy
chair, in which his genius as a humorist and anecdotalist can expand.
Verse is a platform that tempts him at one moment into the performance
of music-hall turns and the next into stump orations the spiritual home
of which is Hyde Park Corner rather than Parnassus. _Recessional_
surprises one like a noble recantation of nearly all the other verse Mr.
Kipling has written. But, apart from _Recessional_, most of his
political verse is a mere quickstep of bragging and sneering.
His prose, certainly, stands a third or a fourth reading, as his verse
does not. Even in a world which Henry James and Mr. Conrad have taught
to study motives and atmospheres with an almost scientific carefulness,
Mr. Kipling's "well-hammered anecdotes," as Mr. George Moore once
described the stories, still refuse to bore us.
At the same time, they make a different appeal to us from their appeal
of twenty or twenty-five years ago. In the early days, we
half-worshipped Mr. Kipling because he told us true stories. Now we
enjoy him because he tells us amusing stories. He conquered us at first
by making us think him a realist. He was the man who knew. We listened
to him like children drinking in travellers' tales. He bluffed us with
his cocksure way of talking about things, and by addressing us in a
mysterious jargon which we regarded as a proof of his intimacy with the
barrack-room, the engine-room, the racecourse, and the lives of
generals, Hindus, artists, and East-enders. That was Mr. Kipling's
trick. He assumed the realistic manner as Jacob assumed the hairy hands
of Esau. He compelled us to believe him by describing with elaborate
detail the setting of his story. And, having once got us in the mood of
belief, he proceeded to spin a yarn that as often as not was as unlike
life as _A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur_. His characters are
inventions, not portraits. Even the dialects they speak--dialects which
used to be enthusiastically spoken of as masterly achievements of
realism--are ludicrously false to life, as a page of Mulvaney's or
Ortheris's talk will quickly make clear to any one who knows the real
thing. But with what humour the stories are told! Mr. Kipling does
undoubtedly possess the genius of humour and energy. There are false
touches in the boys' conversation in _The Drums of the Fore and Aft_,
but the humour and energy with which the progress of the regiment to the
frontier, its disgrace and its rescue by the drunken children, are
described, make it one of the most admirable short stories of our time.
His humour, it must be admitted, is akin to the picaresque. It is
amusing to reflect as one looks round the disreputable company of Mr.
Kipling's characters, that his work has now been given a place in the
library of law and order. When _Stalky and Co._ was published, parents
and schoolmasters protested in alarm, and it seemed doubtful for a time
whether Mr. Kipling was to be reckoned among the enemies of society. If
I am not mistaken, _The Spectator_ came down on the side of Mr. Kipling,
and his reputation as a respectable author was saved.
But the parents and the schoolmasters were not nervous without cause.
Mr. Kipling is an anarchist in his preferences to a degree that no bench
of bishops could approve. He is, within limits, on the side of the
Ishmaelites--the bad boys of the school, the "rips" of the regiment. His
books are the praise of the Ishmaelitish life in a world of law and
order. They are seldom the praise of a law and order life in a world of
law and order. Mr. Kipling demands only one loyalty (beyond mutual
loyalty) from his characters. His schoolboys may break every rule in the
place, provided that somewhere deep down in their hearts they are loyal
to the "Head." His pet soldiers may steal dogs or get drunk, or behave
brutally to their heart's content, on condition that they cherish a
sentimental affection for the Colonel. Critics used to explain this
aspect of Mr. Kipling's work by saying that he likes to show the heart
of good in things evil. But that is not really a characteristic of his
work. What he is most interested in is neither good nor evil but simply
roguery. As an artist, he is a barn rebel and lover of mischief. As a
politician he is on the side of the judges and the lawyers. It was his
politics and not his art that ultimately made him the idol of the
2. THE POET OF LIFE WITH A CAPITAL HELL
Everybody who is older than a schoolboy remembers how Mr. Rudyard
Kipling was once a modern. He might, indeed, have been described at the
time as a Post-Imperialist. Raucous and young, he had left behind him
the ornate Imperialism of Disraeli, on the one hand, and the cultured
Imperialism of Tennyson, on the other. He sang of Imperialism as it was,
or was about to be--vulgar and canting and bloody--and a world that was
preparing itself for an Imperialism that would be vulgar and canting and
bloody bade him welcome. In one breath he would give you an invocation
to Jehovah. In the next, with a dig in the ribs, he would be getting
round the roguish side of you with the assurance that:--
If you've ever stole a pheasant-egg behind the keeper's back,
If you've ever snigged the washin' from the line,
If you've ever crammed a gander in your bloomin' 'aversack,
You will understand this little song o' mine.
This jumble--which seems so curious nowadays--of delight in piety and
delight in twopence-coloured mischiefs came as a glorious novelty and
respite to the oppressed race of Victorians. Hitherto they had been
building up an Empire decently and in order; no doubt, many
reprehensible things were being done, but they were being done quietly:
outwardly, so far as was possible, a respectable front was preserved. It
was Mr. Kipling's distinction to tear off the mask of Imperialism as a
needless and irritating encumbrance; he had too much sense of
reality--too much humour, indeed--to want to portray Empire-builders as
a company of plaster saints. Like an _enfant terrible_, he was ready to
proclaim aloud a host of things which had, until then, been kept as
decorously in the dark as the skeleton in the family cupboard. The
thousand and one incidents of lust and loot, of dishonesty and
brutality and drunkenness--all of those things to which builders of
Empire, like many other human beings, are at times prone--he never
dreamed of treating as matters to be hushed up, or, apparently, indeed,
to be regretted. He accepted them quite frankly as all in the day's
work; there was even a suspicion of enthusiasm in the heartiness with
which he referred to them. Simple old clergymen, with a sentimental
vision of an Imperialism that meant a chain of mission-stations (painted
red) encircling the earth, suddenly found themselves called upon to sing
a new psalm:--
Ow, the loot!
That's the thing to make the boys git up an' shoot!
It's the same with dogs an' men,
If you'd make 'em come again.
Clap 'em forward with a Loo! Loo! Lulu! Loot!
Whoopee! Tear 'im, puppy! Loo! Loo! Lulu! Loot! Loot! Loot!
Frankly, I wish Mr. Kipling had always written in this strain. It might
have frightened the clergymen away. Unfortunately, no sooner had the
old-fashioned among his readers begun to show signs of nervousness than
he would suddenly feel in the mood for a tune on his Old Testament harp,
and, taking it down, would twang from its strings a lay of duty. "Take
up," he would sing--
Take up the White Man's burden,
Send forth the best ye breed,
Go, bind your sons to exile,
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Little Willie, in the tracts, scarcely dreamed of a thornier path of
self-sacrifice. No wonder the sentimentalists were soon all dancing to
the new music--music which, perhaps, had more of the harmonium than the
harp in it, but was none the less suited on that account to its
At the same time, much as we may have been attracted to Mr. Kipling in
his Sabbath moods, it was with what we may call his Saturday night moods
that he first won the enthusiasm of the young men. They loved him for
his bad language long before he had ever preached a sermon or written a
leading article in verse. His literary adaptation of the unmeasured talk
of the barrack-room seemed to initiate them into a life at once more
real and more adventurous than the quiet three-meals-a-day ritual of
their homes. He sang of men who defied the laws of man; still more
exciting, he sang of men who defied the laws of God. Every oath he
loosed rang heroically in the ear like a challenge to the universe; for
his characters talked in a daring, swearing fashion that was new in
literature. One remembers the bright-eyed enthusiasm with which very
young men used to repeat to each other lines like the one in _The Ballad
of "The Bolivar_," which runs--
Boys, the wheel has gone to Hell--rig the winches aft!
Not that anybody knew, or cared, what "rigging the winches aft" meant.
It was the familiar and fearless commerce with hell that seemed to give
literature a new: horizon. Similarly, it was the eternal flames in the
background that made the tattered figure of Gunga Din, the
water-carrier, so favourite a theme with virgins and boys. With what
delight they would quote the verse:--
So I'll meet 'im later on,
At the place where 'e is gone--
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
'E'll be squattin' on the coals,
Givin' drink to poor damned souls.
An' I'll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Ever since the days of Aucassin, indeed, who praised hell as the place
whither were bound the men of fashion and the good scholars and the
courteous fair ladies, youth has taken a strange, heretical delight in
hell and damnation. Mr. Kipling offered new meats to the old taste.
Gentlemen-rankers, out on the spree,
Damned from here to eternity,
began to wear halos in the undergraduate imagination. Those "seven men
from out of Hell" who went
Rolling down the Ratcliff Road,
Drunk, and raising Cain,
were men with whom youth would have rejoiced to shake hands. One even
wrote bad verses oneself in those days, in which one loved to picture
Cursed with the curse of Reuben,
Seared with the brand of Cain,
though so far one's most desperate adventure into reality had been the
consumption of a small claret hot with a slice of lemon in it in a
back-street public-house. Thus Mr. Kipling brought a new violence and
wonder, a sort of debased Byronism, into the imagination of youth; at
least, he put a crown upon the violence and wonder which youth had long
previously discovered for itself in penny dreadfuls and in its rebellion
against conventions and orthodoxies.
It may be protested, however, that this is an incomplete account of Mr.
Kipling's genius as a poet. He does something more in his verse, it may
be urged, than drone on the harmonium of Imperialism, and transmute the
language of the Ratcliff Road into polite literature. That is quite
true. He owes his fame partly also to the brilliance with which he
talked adventure and talked "shop" to a generation that was
exceptionally greedy for both. He, more than any other writer of his
time, set to banjo-music the restlessness of the young man who would not
stay at home--the romance of the man who lived and laboured at least a
thousand miles away from the home of his fathers. He excited the
imagination of youth with deft questions such as--
Do you know the pile-built village, where the sago-dealers trade--
Do you know the reek of fish and wet bamboo?
If you did not know all about the sago-dealers and the fish and the wet
bamboo, Mr. Kipling had a way of making you feel unpardonably ignorant;
and the moral of your ignorance always was that you must "go--go--go
away from here." Hence an immense increase in the number of passages
booked to the colonies. Mr. Kipling, in his verse, simply acted as a
gorgeous poster-artist of Empire. And even those who resisted his call
to adventure were hypnotized by his easy and lavish manner of talking
"shop." He could talk the "shop" of the army, the sea, the engine-room,
the art-school, the charwoman; he was a perfect young Bacon of
omniscience. How we thrilled at the unintelligible jingle of the _Anchor
Song_, with its cunning blend of "shop" and adventure:--
Heh! Tally on. Aft and walk away with her!
Handsome to the cathead, now! O tally on the fall!
Stop, seize, and fish, and easy on the davit-guy.
Up, well up, the fluke of her, and inboard haul!
Well, ah, fare you well for the Channel wind's took hold of us,
Choking down our voices as we snatch the gaskets free,
And its blowing up for night.
And she's dropping light on light,
And she's snorting and she's snatching for a breath of open sea.
The worst of Mr. Kipling is that, in verse like this, he is not only
omniscient; he is knowing. He mistakes knowingness for knowledge. He
even mistakes it for wisdom at times, as when he writes, not of ships,
but of women. His knowing attitude to women makes some of his
verse--not very much, to be quite fair--absolutely detestable. _The
Ladies_ seems to me the vulgarest poem written by a man of genius in our
time. As one reads it, one feels how right Oscar Wilde was when he said
that Mr. Kipling had seen many strange things through keyholes. Mr.
Kipling's defenders may reply that, in poems like this, he is merely
dramatizing the point of view of the barrack-room. But it is unfair to
saddle the barrack-room with responsibility for the view of women which
appears here and elsewhere in the author's verse. One is conscious of a
kind of malign cynicism in Mr. Kipling's own attitude, as one reads _The
Young British Soldier_, with a verse like--
If your wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loth
To shoot when you catch 'em--you'll swing, on my oath!--
Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er; that's hell for them both,
And you're shut o' the curse of a soldier.
That seems to me fairly to represent the level of Mr. Kipling's poetic
wisdom in regard to the relations between the sexes. It is the logical
result of the keyhole view of life. And, similarly, his Imperialism is a
mean and miserable thing because it is the result of a keyhole view of
humanity. Spiritually, Mr. Kipling may be said to have seen thousands of
miles and thousands of places through keyholes. In him, wide wanderings
have produced the narrow mind, and an Empire has become as petty a thing
as the hoard in a miser's garret. Many of his poems are simply miser's
shrieks when the hoard seems to be threatened. He cannot even praise the
flag of his country without a shrill note of malice:--
Winds of the world, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro--
And what should they know of England who only England know?
The poor little street-bred people, that vapour, and fume, and brag,
They are lifting their heads in the stillness, to yelp at the English flag!
Mr. Kipling is a good judge of yelping.
The truth is, Mr. Kipling has put the worst of his genius into his
poetry. His verses have brazen "go" and lively colour and something of
the music of travel; but they are too illiberal, too snappish, too
knowing, to afford deep or permanent pleasure to the human spirit.
MR. THOMAS HARDY
1. HIS GENIUS AS A POET
Mr. Thomas Hardy, in the opinion of some, is greater as a poet than as a
novelist. That is one of the mild heresies in which the amateur of
letters loves to indulge. It has about as much truth in it as the
statement that Milton was greater as a controversialist than as a poet,
or that Lamb's plays are better than his essays. Mr. Hardy has
undoubtedly made an original contribution to the poetry of his time. But
he has given us no verse that more than hints at the height and depth of
the tragic vision which is expressed in _Jude the Obscure_. He is not by
temperament a singer. His music is a still small voice unevenly matched
against his consciousness of midnight and storm. It is a flutter of
wings in the rain over a tomb. His sense of beauty is frail and
midge-like compared with his sense of everlasting frustration. The
conceptions in his novels are infinitely more poetic than the
conceptions in his verse. In _Tess_ and _Jude_ destiny presides with
something of the grandeur of the ancient gods. Except in _The Dynasts_
and a few of the lyrics, there is none of this brooding majesty in his
verse. And even in _The Dynasts_, majestic as the scheme of it is, there
seems to me to be more creative imagination in the prose passages than
in the poetry.
Truth to tell, Mr. Hardy is neither sufficiently articulate nor
sufficiently fastidious to be a great poet. He does not express life
easily in beautiful words or in images. There is scarcely a magical
image in the hundred or so poems in the book of his selected verse.
Thus he writes in _I Found Her Out There_ of one who:--
would sigh at the tale
Of sunk Lyonesse
As a wind-tugged tress
Flapped her cheek like a flail.
There could not be an uglier and more prosaic exaggeration than is
contained in the image in the last line. And prose intrudes in the
choice of words as well as in images. Take, for example, the use of the
word "domiciled" in the passage in the same poem about--
that western sea,
As it swells and sobs,
Where she once domiciled.
There are infelicities of the same kind in the first verse of the poem
called _At an Inn_:--
When we, as strangers, sought
Their catering care,
Veiled smiles bespoke their thought
Of what we were.
They warmed as they opined
Us more than friends--
That we had all resigned
For love's dear ends.
"Catering care" is an appalling phrase.
I do not wish to over-emphasize the significance of flaws of this kind.
But, at a time when all the world is eager to do honour to Mr. Hardy's
poems, it is surely well to refrain from doing equal honour to his
faults. We shall not appreciate the splendid interpretation of earth in
_The Return of the Native_ more highly for persuading ourselves that:--
Intermissive aim at the thing sufficeth,
is a line of good poetry. Similarly the critic, if he is to enjoy the
best of Mr. Hardy, must also be resolute not to shut his eyes to the
worst in such a verse as that with which _A Broken Appointment_
You did not come,
And marching time drew on, and wore me numb,--
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure loving kindness' sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.
There are hints of the grand style of lyric poetry in these lines, but
phrases like "in your make" and "as the hope-hour stroked its sum" are
discords that bring it tumbling to the levels of Victorian commonplace.
What one does bless Mr. Hardy for, however, both in his verse and in his
prose, is his bleak sincerity. He writes out of the reality of his
experience. He has a temperament sensitive beyond that of all but a few
recent writers to the pain and passion of human beings. Especially is he
sensitive to the pain and passion of frustrated lovers. At least half
his poems, I fancy, are poems of frustration. And they, hold us under
the spell of reality like a tragedy in a neighbour's house, even when
they leave us most mournful over the emptiness of the world. One can see
how very mournful Mr. Hardy's genius is if one compares it with that of
Browning, his master in the art of the dramatic lyric. Browning is also
a poet of frustrated lovers. One can remember poem after poem of his
with a theme that might easily have served for Mr. Hardy--_Too Late,
Cristina, The Lost Mistress, The Last Ride Together, The Statue and the
Bust_, to name a few. But what a sense of triumph there is in Browning's
tragedies! Even when he writes of the feeble-hearted, as in _The Statue
and the Bust_, he leaves us with the feeling that we are in the presence
of weakness in a world in which courage prevails. His world is a place
of opulence, not of poverty. Compare _The Last Ride Together_ with Mr.
Hardy's _The Phantom Horsewoman_, and you will see a vast energy and
beauty issuing from loss in the one, while in the other there is little
but a sad shadow. To have loved even for an hour is with Browning to
live for ever after in the inheritance of a mighty achievement. To have
loved for an hour is, in Mr. Hardy's imagination, to have deepened the
sadness even more than the beauty of one's memories.
Not that Mr. Hardy's is quite so miserable a genius as is commonly
supposed. It is false to picture him as always on his knees before the
grave-worm. His faith in beauty and joy may be only a thin flame, but it
is never extinguished. His beautiful lyric, _I Look into my Glass_, is
the cry of a soul dark but not utterly darkened:--
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say: "Would God, it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!"
For then, I, undistrest,
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
That is certainly worlds apart from the unquenchable joy of Browning's
"All the breath and the bloom of the world in the bag of one bee"; but
it is also far removed from the "Lo! you may always end it where you
will" of _The City of Dreadful Night_. And despair is by no means
triumphant in what is perhaps the most attractive of all Mr. Hardy's
poems, _The Oxen_:--
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If some one said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
The mood of faith, however--or, rather, of delight in the memory of
faith--is not Mr. Hardy's prevailing mood. At the same time, his unfaith
relates to the duration of love rather than to human destiny. He
believes in "the world's amendment." He can enter upon a war without
ironical doubts, as we see in the song _Men who March Away_. More than
this, he can look forward beyond war to the coming of a new patriotism
of the world. "How long," he cries, in a poem written some years ago:--
How long, O ruling Teutons, Slavs, and Gaels,
Must your wroth reasonings trade on lives like these,
That are as puppets in a playing hand?
When shall the saner softer polities
Whereof we dream, have sway in each proud land,
And Patriotism, grown Godlike, scorn to stand
Bondslave to realms, but circle earth and seas?
But, perhaps, his characteristic attitude to war is to be found, not in
lines like these, but in that melancholy poem, _The Souls of the Slain_,
in which the souls of the dead soldiers return to their country and
question a "senior soul-flame" as to how their friends and relatives
have kept their doughty deeds in remembrance:--
"And, General, how hold out our sweethearts,
Sworn loyal as doves?"
"Many mourn; many think
It is not unattractive to prink
Them in sable for heroes. Some fickle and fleet hearts
Have found them new loves."
"And our wives?" quoth another, resignedly,
"Dwell they on our deeds?"
"Deeds of home; that live yet
Fresh as new--deeds of fondness or fret,
Ancient words that were kindly expressed or unkindly,
These, these have their heeds."
Mr. Hardy has too bitter a sense of reality to believe much in the glory
of war. His imagination has always been curiously interested in
soldiers, but that is more because they have added a touch of colour to
the tragic game of life than because he is on the side of the military
show. One has only to read _The Dynasts_ along with _Barrack-room
Ballads_ to see that the attitude of Mr. Hardy to war is the attitude of
the brooding artist in contrast with that of the music-hall politician.
Not that Mr. Kipling did not tell us some truths about the fate of our
fellows, but he related them to an atmosphere that savoured of beer and
tobacco rather than of eternity. The real world to Mr. Hardy is the
world of ancient human things, in which war has come to be a hideous
irrelevance. That is what he makes emphatically clear in _In the Time of
the Breaking of Nations_:--
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch grass:
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by;
War's annals will fade into night
Ere their story die
It may be thought, on the other hand, that Mr. Hardy's poems about war
are no more expressive of tragic futility than his poems about love.
Futility and frustration are ever-recurring themes in both. His lovers,
like his soldiers, rot in the grave defeated of their glory. Lovers are
always severed both in life and in death:--
Rain on the windows, creaking doors,
With blasts that besom the green,
And I am here, and you are there,
And a hundred miles between!
In _Beyond the Last Lamp_ we have the same mournful cry over severance.
There are few sadder poems than this with its tristful refrain, even in
the works of Mr. Hardy. It is too long to quote in full, but one may
give the last verses of this lyric of lovers in a lane:--
When I re-trod that watery way
Some hours beyond the droop of day,
Still I found pacing there the twain
Just as slowly, just as sadly,
Heedless of the night and rain.
One could but wonder who they were
And what wild woe detained them there.
Though thirty years of blur and blot
Have slid since I beheld that spot,
And saw in curious converse there
Moving slowly, moving sadly,
That mysterious tragic pair,
Its olden look may linger on--
All but the couple; they have gone.
Whither? Who knows, indeed.... And yet
To me, when nights are weird and wet,
Without those comrades there at tryst
Creeping slowly, creeping sadly,
That love-lane does not exist.
There they seem brooding on their pain,
And will, while such a lane remain.
And death is no kinder than life to lovers:--
I shall rot here, with those whom in their day
You never knew.
And alien ones who, ere they chilled to clay,
Met not my view,
Will in yon distant grave-place ever neighbour you.
No shade of pinnacle or tree or tower,
While earth endures,
Will fall on my mound and within the hour
Steal on to yours;
One robin never haunt our two green covertures.
Mr. Hardy, fortunately, has the genius to express the burden and the
mystery even of a world grey with rain and commonplace in achievement.
There is a beauty of sorrow in these poems in which "life with the sad,
seared face" mirrors itself without disguise. They bring us face to face
with an experience intenser than our own. There is nothing common in the
tragic image of dullness in _A Common-place Day_:--
The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
To one of like degree....
Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays--
Dullest of dull-hued days!
Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides, as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
Here, while Day's presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
He wakens my regret.
In the poem which contains these verses the emotion of the poet gives
words often undistinguished an almost Elizabethan rhythm. Mr. Hardy,
indeed, is a poet who often achieves music of verses, though he seldom
achieves music of phrase.
We must, then, be grateful without niggardliness for the gift of his
verse. On the larger canvas of his prose we find a vision more abundant,
more varied, more touched with humour. But his poems are the genuine
confessions of a soul, the meditations of a man of genius, brooding not
without bitterness but with pity on the paths that lead to the grave,
and the figures that flit along them so solitarily and so ineffectually.
2. A POET IN WINTER
In the last poem in his last book, _Moments of Vision_, Mr. Hardy
meditates on his own immortality, as all men of genius probably do at
one time or another. _Afterwards_, the poem in which he does so, is
interesting, not only for this reason, but because it contains
implicitly a definition and a defence of the author's achievement in
literature. The poem is too long to quote in full, but the first three
verses will be sufficient to illustrate what I have said:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the people say:
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, will a gazer think:
"To him this must have been a familiar sight"?
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
Will they say: "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone"?
Even without the two other verses, we have here a remarkable attempt on
the part of an artist to paint a portrait, as it were, of his own
Mr. Hardy's genius is essentially that of a man who "used to notice such
things" as the fluttering of the green leaves in May, and to whom the
swift passage of a night-jar in the twilight has "been a familiar
sight." He is one of the most sensitive observers of nature who have
written English prose. It may even be that he will be remembered longer
for his studies of nature than for his studies of human nature. His days
are among his greatest characters, as in the wonderful scene on the
heath in the opening of _The Return of the Native_. He would have
written well of the world, one can imagine, even if he had found it
uninhabited. But his sensitiveness is not merely sensitiveness of the
eye: it is also sensitiveness of the heart. He has, indeed, that
hypersensitive sort of temperament, as the verse about the hedgehog
suggests, which is the victim at once of pity and of a feeling of
hopeless helplessness. Never anywhere else has there been such a world
of pity put into a quotation as Mr. Hardy has put into that line and a
half from _The Two Gentlemen of Verona_, which he placed on the
title-page of _Tess of the D'Urbervilles_:--
Poor wounded name, my bosom as a bed
Shall lodge thee!
In the use to which he put these words Mr. Hardy may be said to have
added to the poetry of Shakespeare. He gave them a new imaginative
context, and poured his own heart into them. For the same helpless pity
which he feels for dumb creatures he feels for men and women:
... He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them.
It is the spirit of pity brooding over the landscape in Mr. Hardy's
books that makes them an original and beautiful contribution to
literature, in spite of his endless errors as an artist.
His last book is a reiteration both of his genius and of his errors. As
we read the hundred and sixty or so poems it contains we get the
impression of genius presiding over a multitude of errors. There are not
half a dozen poems in the book the discovery of which, should the
author's name be forgotten, would send the critics in quest of other
work from the same magician's hand. One feels safe in prophesying
immortality for only two, _The Oxen_ and _In Time of "the Breaking of
Nations"_; and these have already appeared in the selection of the
author's poems published in the Golden Treasury Series. The fact that
the entirely new poems contain nothing on the plane of immortality,
however, does not mean that _Moments of Vision_ is a book of verse about
which one has the right to be indifferent. No writer who is so concerned
as Mr. Hardy with setting down what his eyes and heart have told him can
be regarded with indifference. Mr. Hardy's art is lame, but it carries
the burden of genius. He may be a stammerer as a poet, but he stammers
in words of his own concerning a vision of his own. When he notes the
bird flying past in the dusk, "like an eyelid's soundless blink," he
does not achieve music, but he chronicles an experience, not merely
echoes one, with such exact truth as to make it immortally a part of all
experience. There is nothing borrowed or secondhand, again, in Mr.
Hardy's grim vision of the yew-trees in the churchyard by moonlight in
The yew-tree arms, glued hard to the stiff, stark air,
Hung still in the village sky as theatre-scenes.
Mr. Hardy may not enable us to hear the music which is more than the
music of the earth, but he enables us to see what he saw. He
communicates his spectacle of the world. He builds his house lopsided,
harsh, and with the windows in unusual places; but it is his own house,
the house of a seer, of a personality. That is what we are aware of in
such a poem as _On Sturminster Foot Bridge_, in which perfect and
precise observation of nature is allied to intolerably prosaic
utterance. The first verse of this poem runs:
Reticulations creep upon the slack stream's face
When the wind skims irritably past.
The current clucks smartly into each hollow place
That years of flood have scrabbled in the pier's sodden base;
The floating-lily leaves rot fast.
One could make as good music as that out of a milk-cart. One would
accept such musicless verse only from a man of genius. But even here Mr.
Hardy takes us home with him and makes us stand by his side and listen
to the clucking stream. He takes us home with him again in the poem
called _Overlooking the River Stour_, which begins:
The swallows flew in the curves of an eight
Above the river-gleam
In the wet June's last beam:
Like little crossbows animate,
The swallows flew in the curves of an eight
Above the river-gleam.
Planing up shavings made of spray,
A moor-hen darted out
From the bank thereabout.
And through the stream-shine ripped her way;
Planing up shavings made of spray,
A moor-hen darted out.
In this poem we find observation leaping into song in one line and
hobbling into a hard-wrought image in another. Both the line in which
the first appears, however--
Like little crossbows animate,
and the line in which the second happens--
Planing up shavings made of spray,
equally make us feel how watchful and earnest an observer is Mr. Hardy.
He is a man, we realize, to whom bird and river, heath and stone, road
and field and tree, mean immensely more than to his fellows. I do not
suggest that he observes nature without bias--that he mirrors the
procession of visible things with the delight of a child or a lyric
poet. He makes nature his mirror as well as himself a mirror of nature.
He colours it with all his sadness, his helplessness, his (if one may
invent the word and use it without offence) warpedness. If I am not
mistaken, he once compared a bleak morning in _The Woodlanders_ to the
face of a still-born baby. He loves to dwell on the uncomfortable moods
of nature--on such things as:--
... the watery light
Of the moon in its old age;
concerning which moon he goes on to describe how:
Green-rheumed clouds were hurrying past where mute and cold it globed
Like a dying dolphin's eye seen through a lapping wave.
This, I fear, is a failure, but it is a failure in a common mood of the
author's. It is a mood in which nature looks out at us, almost ludicrous
in its melancholy. In such a poem as that from which I have quoted, it
is as though we saw nature with a drip on the end of its nose. Mr.
Hardy's is something different from a tragic vision. It is a desolate,
disheartening, and, in a way, morbid vision. We wander with him too
Gaunt trees that interlace,
Through whose flayed fingers I see too clearly
The nakedness of the place.
And Mr. Hardy's vision of the life of men and women transgresses
similarly into a denial of gladness. His gloom, we feel, goes too far.
It goes so far that we are tempted at times to think of it as a
factitious gloom. He writes a poem called _Honeymoon Time at an Inn_,
and this is the characteristic atmosphere in which he introduces us to
the bridegroom and bride:
At the shiver of morning, a little before the false dawn,
The moon was at the window-square,
Deedily brooding in deformed decay--
The curve hewn off her cheek as by an adze;
At the shiver of morning, a little before the false dawn,
So the moon looked in there.
There are no happy lovers or happy marriages in Mr. Hardy's world. Such
people as are happy would not be happy if only they knew the truth. Many
of Mr. Hardy's poems are, as I have already said, dramatic lyrics on the
pattern invented by Robert Browning--short stories in verse. But there
is a certain air of triumph even in Browning's tragic figures. Mr.
Hardy's figures are the inmates of despair. Browning's love-poems belong
to heroic literature. Mr. Hardy's love-poems belong to the literature of
downheartedness. Browning's men and women are men and women who have had
the courage of their love, or who are shown at least against a
background of Browning's own courage. Mr. Hardy's men and women do not
know the wild faith of love. They have not the courage even of their
sins. They are helpless as fishes in a net--a scarcely rebellious
population of the ill-matched and the ill-starred.
Many of the poems in his last book fail through a lack of imaginative
energy. It is imaginative energy that makes the reading of a great
tragedy like _King Lear_ not a depressing, but an exalting experience.
But is there anything save depression to be got from reading such a poem
as _A Caged Goldfinch_:--
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence, save
Its hops from stage to stage.
There was inquiry in its wistful eye.
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.
True, a woman was found drowned the day ensuing,
And some at times averred
The grave to be her false one's, who when wooing
Gave her the bird.
Apart even from the ludicrous associations which modern slang has given
the last phrase, making it look like a queer pun, this poem seems to one
to drive sorrow over the edge of the ridiculous. That goldfinch has
surely escaped from a Max-Beerbohm parody. The ingenuity with which Mr.
Hardy plots tragic situations for his characters in some of his other
poems is, indeed, in repeated danger of misleading him into parody. One
of his poems tells, for instance, how a stranger finds an old man
scrubbing a Statue of Liberty in a city square, and, hearing he does it
for love, hails him as "Liberty's knight divine." The old man confesses
that he does not care twopence for Liberty, and declares that he keeps
the statue clean in memory of his beautiful daughter, who had sat as a
model for it--a girl fair in fame as in form. In the interests of his
plot and his dismal philosophy, Mr. Hardy identifies the stranger with
the sculptor of the statue, and dismisses us with his blighting aside on
the old man's credulous love of his dead daughter:
Answer I gave not. Of that form
The carver was I at his side;
His child my model, held so saintly,
Grand in feature.
Gross in nature,
In the dens of vice had died.
This is worse than optimism.
It is only fair to say that, though poem after poem--including the one
about the fat young man whom the doctors gave only six months to live
unless he walked a great deal, and who therefore was compelled to refuse
a drive in the poet's phaeton, though night was closing over the
heath--dramatizes the meaningless miseries of life, there is also to be
found in some of the poems a faint sunset-glow of hope, almost of faith.
There have been compensations, we realize in _I Travel as a Phantom
Now_, even in this world of skeletons. Mr. Hardy's fatalism concerning
God seems not very far from faith in God in that beautiful Christmas
poem, _The Oxen_. Still, the ultimate mood of the poems is not faith. It
is one of pity, so despairing as to be almost nihilism. There is mockery
in it without the merriment of mockery. The general atmosphere of the
poems, it seems to me, is to be found perfectly expressed in the last
three lines of one of the poems, which is about a churchyard, a dead
woman, a living rival, and the ghost of a soldier:
There was a cry by the white-flowered mound,
There was a laugh from underground,
There was a deeper gloom around.
How much of the art of Thomas Hardy is suggested in those lines! The
laugh from underground, the deeper gloom--are they not all but
omnipresent throughout his later and greatest work? The war could not
deepen such pessimism. As a matter of fact, Mr. Hardy's war poetry is
more cheerful, because more heroic, than his poetry about the normal
world. Destiny was already crueller than any war-lord. The Prussian, to
such an imagination, could be no more than a fly--a poisonous fly--on
the wheel of destiny's disastrous car.
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