Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books
Charles W. Eliot

Part 8 out of 9

paroxysms of pain; black blood flows from his wound. Oedipus, covered
with the blood that still drops from the sockets of the eyes he has
torn out, complains bitterly of gods and men. We hear the shrieks
of Clytemnestra, murdered by her own son, and Electra, on the
stage, cries: 'Strike! spare her not! she did not spare our father,'
Prometheus is fastened to a rock by nails driven through his stomach
and his arms. The Furies reply to Clytemnestra's bleeding shade with
inarticulate roars. Art was in its infancy in the time of AEschylus as
it was in London in Shakespeare's time."

Whom shall we copy, then? The moderns? What! Copy copies! God forbid!

"But," someone else will object, "according to your conception of the
art, you seem to look for none but great poets, to count always upon
genius." Art certainly does not count upon mediocrity. It prescribes
no rules for it, it knows nothing of it; in fact, mediocrity has
no existence so far as art is concerned; art supplies wings, not
crutches. Alas! D'Aubignac followed rules, Campistron copied models.
What does it matter to art? It does not build its palaces for ants. It
lets them make their ant-hill, without taking the trouble to find out
whether they have built their burlesque imitation of its palace upon
its foundation.

The critics of the scholastic school place their poets in a strange
position. On the one hand they cry incessantly: "Copy the models!"
On the other hand they have a habit of declaring that "the models are
inimitable"! Now, if their craftsman, by dint of hard work, succeeds
in forcing through this dangerous defile some colourless tracing
of the masters, these ungrateful wretches, after examining the new
_refaccimiento_, exclaim sometimes: "This doesn't resemble anything!"
and sometimes: "This resembles everything!" And by virtue of a logic
made for the occasion each of these formulae is a criticism.

Let us then speak boldly. The time for it has come, and it would be
strange if, in this age, liberty, like the light, should penetrate
everywhere except to the one place where freedom is most natural--the
domain of thought. Let us take the hammer to theories and poetic
systems. Let us throw down the old plastering that conceals the facade
of art. There are neither rules nor models; or, rather, there are
no other rules than the general laws of nature, which soar above
the whole field of art, and the special rules which result from the
conditions appropriate to the subject of each composition. The
former are of the essence, eternal, and do not change; the latter
are variable, external, and are used but once. The former are the
framework that supports the house; the latter the scaffolding which
is used in building it, and which is made anew for each building. In a
word, the former are the flesh and bones, the latter the clothing, of
the drama. But these rules are not written in the treatises on poetry.
Richelet has no idea of their existence. Genius, which divines rather
than learns, devises for each work the general rules from the general
plan of things, the special rules from the separate _ensemble_ of the
subject treated; not after the manner of the chemist, who lights the
fire under his furnace, heats his crucible, analyzes and destroys; but
after the manner of the bee, which flies on its golden wings, lights
on each flower and extracts its honey, leaving it as brilliant and
fragrant as before.

The poet--let us insist on this point--should take counsel therefore
only of nature, truth, and inspiration which is itself both truth and
nature. "Quando he," says Lope de Vega,

"Quando he de escrivir una comedia,
Encierro los preceptos con seis llaves."

To secure these precepts "six keys" are none too many, in very
truth. Let the poet beware especially of copying anything
whatsoever--Shakespeare no more than Moliere, Schiller no more than
Corneille. If genuine talent could abdicate its own nature in this
matter, and thus lay aside its original personality, to transform
itself into another, it would lose everything by playing this role of
its own double. It is as if a god should turn valet. We must draw our
inspiration from the original sources. It is the same sap, distributed
through the soil, that produces all the trees of the forest, so
different in bearing power, in fruit, in foliage. It is the same
nature that fertilizes and nourishes the most diverse geniuses. The
poet is a tree that may be blown about by all winds and watered by
every fall of dew; and bears his works as his fruit, as the _fablier_
of old bore his fables. Why attach one's self to a master, or graft
one's self upon a model? It were better to be a bramble or a thistle,
fed by the same earth as the cedar and the palm, than the fungus
or the lichen of those noble trees. The bramble lives, the fungus
vegetates. Moreover, however great the cedar and the palm may be,
it is not with the sap one sucks from them that one can become great
one's self. A giant's parasite will be at best a dwarf. The oak,
colossus that it is, can produce and sustain nothing more than the

Let there be no misunderstanding: if some of our poets have succeeded
in being great, even when copying, it is because, while forming
themselves on the antique model, they have often listened to the
voice of nature and to their own genius--it is because they have been
themselves in some one respect. Their branches became entangled in
those of the near-by tree, but their roots were buried deep in the
soil of art. They were the ivy, not the mistletoe. Then came imitators
of the second rank, who, having neither roots in the earth, nor genius
in their souls, had to confine themselves to imitation. As Charles
Nodier says: "After the school of Athens, the school of Alexandria."
Then there was a deluge of mediocrity; then there came a swarm of
those treatises on poetry, so annoying to true talent, so convenient
for mediocrity. We were told that everything was done, and God was
forbidden to create more Molieres or Corneilles. Memory was put
in place of imagination. Imagination itself was subjected to
hard-and-fast rules, and aphorisms were made about it: "To imagine,"
says La Harpe, with his naive assurance, "is in substance to remember,
that is all."

But nature! Nature and truth!--And here, in order to prove that, far
from demolishing art, the new ideas aim only to reconstruct it
more firmly and on a better foundation, let us try to point out the
impassable limit which in our opinion, separates reality according to
art from reality according to nature. It is careless to confuse them
as some ill-informed partisans of _romanticism_ do. Truth in art
cannot possibly be, as several writers have claimed, _absolute_
reality. Art cannot produce the thing itself. Let us imagine, for
example, one of those unreflecting promoters of absolute nature, of
nature viewed apart from art, at the performance of a romantic play,
say _Le Cid_. "What's that?" he will ask at the first word. "The Cid
speaks in verse? It isn't _natural_ to speak in verse."--"How would
you have him speak, pray?"--"In prose." Very good. A moment later,
"How's this!" he will continue, if he is consistent; "the Cid is
speaking French!"--"Well?"--"Nature demands that he speak his own
language; he can't speak anything but Spanish."

We shall fail entirely to understand, but again--very good. You
imagine that this is all? By no means: before the tenth sentence in
Castilian, he is certain to rise and ask if the Cid who is speaking is
the real Cid, in flesh and blood. By what right does the actor, whose
name is Pierre or Jacques, take the name of the Cid? That is _false_.
There is no reason why he should not go on to demand that the sun
should be substituted for the footlights, _real_ trees and _real_
houses for those deceitful wings. For, once started on that road,
logic has you by the collar, and you cannot stop.

We must admit, therefore, or confess ourselves ridiculous, that the
domains of art and of nature are entirely distinct. Nature and art are
two things--were it not so, one or the other would not exist. Art, in
addition to its idealistic side, has a terrestrial, material side. Let
it do what it will, it is shut in between grammar and prosody, between
Vaugelas and Richelet. For its most capricious creations, it has
formulas, methods of execution, a complete apparatus to set in motion.
For genius there are delicate instruments, for mediocrity, tools.

It seems to us that someone has already said that the drama is a
mirror wherein nature is reflected. But if it be an ordinary mirror,
a smooth and polished surface, it will give only a dull image of
objects, with no relief-faithful, but colourless; everyone knows
that colour and light are lost in a simple reflection. The drama,
therefore, must be a concentrating mirror, which, instead of
weakening, concentrates and condenses the coloured rays, which makes
of a mere gleam a light, and of a light a flame. Then only is the
drama acknowledged by art.

The stage is an optical point. Everything that exists in the world--in
history, in life, in man--should be and can be reflected therein,
but under the magic wand of art. Art turns the leaves of the ages,
of nature, studies chronicles, strives to reproduce actual facts
(especially in respect to manners and peculiarities, which are much
less exposed to doubt and contradiction than are concrete facts),
restores what the chroniclers have lopped off, harmonises what they
have collected, divines and supplies their omissions, fills their gaps
with imaginary scenes which have the colour of the time, groups what
they have left scattered about, sets in motion anew the threads of
Providence which work the human marionettes, clothes the whole with a
form at once poetical and natural, and imparts to it that vitality of
truth and brilliancy which gives birth to illusion, that prestige of
reality which arouses the enthusiasm of the spectator, and of the poet
first of all, for the poet is sincere. Thus the aim of art is almost
divine: to bring to life again if it is writing history, to create if
it is writing poetry.

It is a grand and beautiful sight to see this broad development of a
drama wherein art powerfully seconds nature; of a drama wherein the
plot moves on to the conclusion with a firm and unembarrassed step,
without diffuseness and without undue compression; of a drama, in
short, wherein the poet abundantly fulfills the multifold object
of art, which is to open to the spectator a double prospect, to
illuminate at the same time the interior and the exterior of mankind:
the exterior by their speech and their acts, the interior, by asides
and monologues; to bring together, in a word, in the same picture, the
drama of life and the drama of conscience.

It will readily be imagined that, for a work of this kind, if the poet
must _choose_ (and he must), he should choose, not the _beautiful_,
but the _characteristic_. Not that it is advisable to "make local
colour," as they say to-day; that is, to add as an afterthought a few
discordant touches here and there to a work that is at best utterly
conventional and false. The local colour should not be on the surface
of the drama, but in its substance, in the very heart of the work,
whence it spreads of itself, naturally, evenly, and, so to speak, into
every corner of the drama, as the sap ascends from the root to the
tree's topmost leaf. The drama should be thoroughly impregnated with
this colour of the time, which should be, in some sort, in the air,
so that one detects it only on entering the theatre, and that on going
forth one finds one's self in a different period and atmosphere. It
requires some study, some labour, to attain this end; so much the
better. It is well that the avenues of art should be obstructed by
those brambles from which everybody recoils except those of
powerful will. Besides, it is this very study, fostered by an ardent
inspiration, which will ensure the drama against a vice that
kills it--the _commonplace_. To be commonplace is the failing of
short-sighted, short-breathed poets. In this tableau of the stage,
each figure must be held down to its most prominent, most individual,
most precisely defined characteristic. Even the vulgar and the trivial
should have an accent of their own. Like God, the true poet is present
in every part of his work at once. Genius resembles the die which
stamps the king's effigy on copper and golden coins alike.

We do not hesitate--and this will demonstrate once more to honest men
how far we are from seeking to discredit the art--we do not hesitate
to consider verse as one of the means best adapted to protect the
drama from the scourge we have just mentioned, as one of the most
powerful dams against the irruption of the commonplace, which, like
democracy, is always flowing between full banks in men's minds. And at
this point we beg the younger literary generation, already so rich
in men and in works, to allow us to point out an error into which it
seems to have fallen--an error too fully justified, indeed, by the
extraordinary aberrations of the old school. The new century is at
that growing age at which one can readily set one's self right.

There has appeared of late, like a penultimate branching-out of the
old classical trunk, or, better still, like one of those excrescences,
those polypi, which decrepitude develops, and which are a sign of
decomposition much more than a proof of life--there has appeared a
strange school of dramatic poetry. This school seems to us to have had
for its master and its fountain-head the poet who marks the transition
from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, the man of wearisome
description and periphrases--that Delille who, they say, toward
the close of his life, boasted, after the fashion of the Homeric
catalogues, of having _made_ twelve camels, four dogs, three
horses, including Job's, six tigers, two cats, a chess-board, a
backgammon-board, a checker-board, a billiard-table, several winters,
many summers, a multitude of springs, fifty sunsets, and so many
daybreaks that he had lost count of them.

Now, Delille went into tragedy. He is the father (he, and not Racine,
God save the mark!) of an alleged school of refinement and taste which
flourished until recently. Tragedy is not to this school what it was
to Will Shakespeare, say, a source of emotions of every sort, but a
convenient frame for the solution of a multitude of petty descriptive
problems which it propounds as it goes along. This muse, far from
spurning, as the true French classic school does, the trivial and
degrading things of life, eagerly seeks them out and brings them
together. The grotesque, shunned as undesirable company by the tragedy
of Louis the Fourteenth's day, cannot pass unnoticed before her.
_It must be described_, that is to say, ennobled. A scene in the
guard-house, a popular uprising, the fish-market, the galleys, the
wine-shop, the _poule au pot_ of Henri Quatre, are treasure-trove in
her eyes. She seizes upon this canaille, washes it clean, and sews her
tinsel and spangles over its villainies; _purpureus assuitur pannus_.
Her object seems to be to deliver patents of nobility to all these
_roturiers_ of the drama; and each of these patents under the great
seal is a speech.

This muse, as may be imagined, is of a rare prudery. Wonted as she
is to the caresses of periphrasis, plain-speaking, if she should
occasionally be exposed to it, would horrify her. It does not accord
with her dignity to speak naturally. She _underlines_ old Corneille
for his blunt way of speaking, as in,--

"_A heap of men_ ruined by debt and crimes."

"Chimene, _who'd have thought it_? Rodrigue, _who'd have said

"When their Flaminius _haggled with_ Hannibal."

"Oh! do not _embroil_ me with the Republic."

She still has her "Tout beau, monsieur!" on her heart. And it
needed many "seigneurs" and "madames" to procure forgiveness for our
admirable Racine for his monosyllabic "dogs!" and for so brutally
bestowing Claudius in Agrippina's bed.

This Melpomene, as she is called, would shudder at the thought of
touching a chronicle. She leaves to the costumer the duty of learning
the period of the dramas she writes. In her eyes history is bad form
and bad taste. How, for example, can one tolerate kings and queens
who swear? They must be elevated from mere regal dignity to tragic
dignity. It was in a promotion of this sort that she exalted Henri IV.
It was thus that the people's king, purified by M. Legouve, found
his "ventre-saint-gris" ignominiously banished from his mouth by
two sentences, and that he was reduced, like the girl in the old
_fabliau_, to the necessity of letting fall from those royal lips only
pearls and sapphires and rubies: the apotheosis of falsity, in very

The fact is that nothing is so commonplace as this conventional
refinement and nobility. Nothing original, no imagination,
no invention in this style; simply what one has seen
everywhere--rhetoric, bombast, commonplaces, flowers of college
eloquence, poetry after the style of Latin verses. The poets of this
school are eloquent after the manner of stage princes and princesses,
always sure of finding in the costumer's labelled cases, cloaks and
pinchbeck crowns, which have no other disadvantage than that of having
been used by everybody. If these poets never turn the leaves of the
Bible, it is not because they have not a bulky book of their own, the
_Dictionnaire de rimes_. That is the source of their poetry--_fontes

It will be seen that, in all this, nature and truth get along as best
they can. It would be great good luck if any remnants of either should
survive in this cataclysm of false art, false style, false poetry.
This is what has caused the errors of several of our distinguished
reformers. Disgusted by the stiffness, the ostentation, the _pomposo_,
of this alleged dramatic poetry, they have concluded that the elements
of our poetic language were incompatible with the natural and the
true. The Alexandrine had wearied them so often, that they condemned
it without giving it a hearing, so to speak, and decided, a little
hastily, perhaps, that the drama should be written in prose.

They were mistaken. If in fact the false is predominant in the style
as well as in the action of certain French tragedies, it is not the
verses that should be held responsible therefore, but the versifiers.
It was needful to condemn, not the form employed, but those who
employed it: the workmen, not the tool.

To convince one's self how few obstacles the nature of our poetry
places in the way of the free expression of all that is true, we
should study our verse, not in Racine, perhaps, but often in Corneille
and always in Moliere. Racine, a divine poet, is elegiac, lyric, epic;
Moliere is dramatic. It is time to deal sternly with the criticisms
heaped upon that admirable style by the wretched taste of the last
century, and to proclaim aloud that Moliere occupies the topmost
pinnacle of our drama, not only as a poet, but also as a writer.
_Palmas vere habet iste duas_.

In his work the verse surrounds the idea, becomes of its very essence,
compresses and develops it at once, imparts to it a more slender, more
definite, more complete form, and gives us, in some sort, an extract
thereof. Verse is the optical form of thought. That is why it is
especially adapted to the perspective of the stage. Constructed in a
certain way, it communicates its relief to things which, but for it,
would be considered insignificant and trivial. It makes the tissue of
style finer and firmer. It is the knot which stays the thread. It is
the girdle which holds up the garment and gives it all its folds. What
could nature and the true lose, then, by entering into verse? We ask
the question of our prose-writers themselves--what do they lose
in Moliere's poetry? Does wine--we beg pardon for another trivial
illustration--does wine cease to be wine when it is bottled?

If we were entitled to say what, in our opinion, the style of dramatic
poetry should be, we would declare for a free, outspoken, sincere
verse, which dares say everything without prudery, express its meaning
without seeking for words; which passes naturally from comedy to
tragedy, from the sublime to the grotesque; by turns practical and
poetical, both artistic and inspired, profound and impulsive, of
wide range and true; verse which is apt opportunely to displace the
caesura, in order to disguise the monotony of Alexandrines; more
inclined to the _enjambement_ that lengthens the line, than to the
inversion of phrases that confuses the sense; faithful to rhyme, that
enslaved queen, that supreme charm of our poetry, that creator of
our metre; verse that is inexhaustible in the verity of its turns
of thought, unfathomable in its secrets of composition and of grace;
assuming, like Proteus, a thousand forms without changing its type and
character; avoiding long speeches; taking delight in dialogue; always
hiding behind the characters of the drama; intent, before everything,
on being in its place, and when it falls to its lot to be _beautiful_,
being so only by chance, as it were, in spite of itself and
unconsciously; lyric, epic, dramatic, at need; capable of running
through the whole gamut of poetry, of skipping from high notes to
low, from the most exalted to the most trivial ideas, from the most
extravagant to the most solemn, from the most superficial to the most
abstract, without ever passing beyond the limits of a spoken scene; in
a word, such verse as a man would write whom a fairy had endowed with
Corneille's mind and Moliere's brain. It seems to us that such verse
would be _as fine as prose_.

There would be nothing in common between poetry of this sort and that
of which we made a _post mortem_ examination just now. The distinction
will be easy to point out if a certain man of talent, to whom the
author of this book is under personal obligation, will allow us to
borrow his clever phrase: the other poetry was descriptive, this would
be picturesque.

Let us repeat, verse on the stage should lay aside all self-love, all
exigence, all coquetry. It is simply a form, and a form which should
admit everything, which has no laws to impose on the drama, but on the
contrary should receive everything from it, to be transmitted to the
spectator--French, Latin, texts of laws, royal oaths, popular phrases,
comedy, tragedy, laughter, tears, prose and poetry. Woe to the poet
whose verse does not speak out! But this form is a form of bronze
which encases the thought in its metre beneath which the drama is
indestructible, which engraves it more deeply on the actor's mind,
warns him of what he omits and of what he adds, prevents him from
changing his role, from substituting himself for the author, makes
each word sacred, and causes what the poet has said to remain vivid
a long while in the hearer's memory. The idea, when steeped in verse,
suddenly assumes a more incisive, more brilliant quality.

One feels that prose, which is necessarily more timid, obliged to wean
the drama from anything like epic or lyric poetry, reduced to dialogue
and to matter-of-fact, is a long way from possessing these resources.
It has much narrower wings. And then, too, it is much more easy of
access; mediocrity is at its ease in prose; and for the sake of a few
works of distinction such as have appeared of late, the art would very
soon be overloaded with abortions and embryos. Another faction of
the reformers incline to drama written in both prose and verse, as
Shakespeare composed it. This method has its advantages. There might,
however, be some incongruity in the transitions from one form to the
other; and when a tissue is homogeneous it is much stouter. However,
whether the drama should be written in prose is only a secondary
question. The rank of a work is certain to be fixed, not according to
its form, but according to its intrinsic value. In questions of this
sort, there is only one solution. There is but one weight that can
turn the scale in the balance of art--that is genius.

Meanwhile, the first, the indispensable merit of a dramatic writer,
whether he write in prose or verse, is correctness. Not a mere
superficial correctness, the merit or defect of the descriptive
school, which makes Lhomond and Restaut the two wings of its Pegasus;
but that intimate, deep-rooted, deliberate correctness, which is
permeated with the genius of a language, which has sounded its roots
and searched its etymology; always unfettered, because it is sure
of its footing, and always more in harmony with the logic of the
language. Our Lady Grammar leads the one in leading-strings; the other
holds grammar in leash. It can venture anything, can create or invent
its style; it has a right to do so. For, whatever certain men may have
said who did not think what they were saying, and among whom we must
place, notably, him who writes these lines, the French tongue is not
_fixed_ and never will be. A language does not become fixed. The human
intellect is always on the march, or, if you prefer, in movement,
and languages with it. Things are made so. When the body changes, how
could the coat not change? The French of the nineteenth century can no
more be the French of the eighteenth, than that is the French of the
seventeenth, or than the French of the seventeenth is that of the
sixteenth. Montaigne's language is not Rabelais's, Pascal's is
not Montaigne's, Montesquieu's is not Pascal's. Each of the four
languages, taken by itself, is admirable because it is original. Every
age has its own ideas; it must have also words adapted to those ideas.
Languages are like the sea, they move to and fro incessantly. At
certain times they leave one shore of the world of thought and
overflow another. All that their waves thus abandon dries up and
vanishes. It is in this wise that ideas vanish, that words disappear.
It is the same with human tongues as with everything. Each age adds
and takes away something. What can be done? It is the decree of fate.
In vain, therefore, should we seek to petrify the mobile physiognomy
of our idiom in a fixed form. In vain do our literary Joshuas cry out
to the language to stand still; languages and the sun do not stand
still. The day when they become _fixed_, they are dead.--That is why
the French of a certain contemporary school is a dead language.

Such are, substantially, but without the more elaborate development
which would make the evidence in their favour more complete, the
_present_ ideas of the author of this book concerning the drama. He is
far, however, from presuming to put forth his first dramatic essay as
an emanation of these ideas, which, on the contrary, are themselves,
it may be, simply results of its execution. It would be very
convenient for him, no doubt, and very clever, to rest his book on his
preface, and to defend each by the other. He prefers less cleverness
and more frankness. He proposes, therefore, to be the first to point
out the extreme tenuity of the thread connecting this preface with his
drama His first plan, dictated by his laziness, was to give the work
to the public entirely unattended _el demonio sin las cuernas_, as
Yriarte said It was only after he had duly brought it to a close, that
at the solicitations of a few friends, blinded by their friendship, no
doubt, he determined to reckon with himself in a preface--to draw, so
to speak, a map of the poetic voyage he had made, to take account of
the acquisitions, good or bad, that he had brought home, and of the
new aspects in which the domain of art had presented itself to his
mind Someone will take advantage of this admission, doubtless to
repeat the reproach already uttered by a critic in Germany, that
he has written "a treatise in defence of his poetry." What does it
matter? In the first place he was much more inclined to demolish
treatises on poetry than to write them. And then, would it not he
better always to write treatises based on a poem, than to write poems
based on a treatise? But no, we repeat that he has neither the talent
to create nor the presumption to put forth systems "Systems," cleverly
said Voltaire, "are like rats which pass through twenty holes, only to
find at last two or three which will not let them through." It would
have been, therefore, to undertake a useless task and one much beyond
his strength What he has pleaded, on the contrary, is the freedom of
art against the despotism of systems, codes and rules It is his habit
to follow at all risks whatever he takes for his inspiration, and to
change moulds as often as he changes metals. Dogmatism in the arts is
what he shuns before everything God forbid that he should aspire to
be numbered among those men, be they romanticists or classicists, who
compose _works according to their own systems_, who condemn themselves
to have but one form in their minds, to be forever _proving_
something, to follow other laws than those of their temperaments and
then natures. The artificial work of these men, however talented they
may be, has no existence so far as art is concerned. It is a theory,
not poetry.

Having attempted, in all that has gone before, to point out what, in
our opinion, was the origin of the drama, what its character is, and
what its style should he, the time has come to descend from these
exalted general considerations upon the art to the particular case
which has led us to put them forth. It remains for us to discourse to
the reader of our work, of this _Cromwell_; and as it is not a subject
in which we take pleasure, we will say very little about it in very
few words.

Oliver Cromwell is one of those historical characters who are at once
very famous and very little known. Most of his biographers--and among
them there are some who are themselves historical--have left that
colossal figure incomplete. It would seem that they dared not assemble
all the characteristic features of that strange and gigantic prototype
of the religious reformation, of the political revolution of England.
Almost all of them have confined themselves to reproducing on a
larger scale the simple and ominous profile drawn by Bossuet from
his Catholic and monarchical standpoint, from his episcopal pulpit
supported by the throne of Louis XIV.

Like everybody else, the author of this book went no further than
that. The name of Oliver Cromwell suggested to him simply the bare
conception of a fanatical regicide and a great captain. Only on
prowling among the chronicles of the times, which he did with delight,
and on looking through the English memoirs of the seventeenth century,
was he surprised to find that a wholly new Cromwell was gradually
exposed to his gaze. It was no longer simply Bossuet's Cromwell the
soldier, Cromwell the politician; it was a complex, heterogenous,
multiple being, made up of all sorts of contraries--a mixture of much
that was evil and much that was good, of genius and pettiness; a sort
of Tiberius-Dandin, the tyrant of Europe and the plaything of his
family; an old regicide, who delighted to humiliate the ambassadors
of all the kings of Europe, and was tormented by his young royalist
daughter; austere and gloomy in his manners, yet keeping four court
jesters about him; given to the composition of wretched verses; sober,
simple, frugal, yet a stickler for etiquette; a rough soldier and a
crafty politician; skilled in theological disputation and very fond
of it; a dull, diffuse, obscure orator, but clever in speaking the
language of anybody whom he wished to influence; a hypocrite and a
fanatic; a visionary swayed by phantoms of his childhood, believing
in astrologers and banishing them; suspicious to excess, always
threatening, rarely sanguinary; a strict observer of Puritan rules,
and solemnly wasting several hours a day in buffoonery; abrupt and
contemptuous with his intimates, caressing with the secretaries whom
he feared, holding his remorse at bay with sophistry, paltering with
his conscience, inexhaustible in adroitness, in tricks, in resources;
mastering his imagination by his intelligence; grotesque and sublime;
in a word, one of those men who are "square at the base," as they
were described by Napoleon, himself their chief, in his mathematically
exact and poetically figurative language.

He who writes these lines, in presence of this rare and impressive
_ensemble_, felt that Bossuet's impassioned sketch was no longer
sufficient for him. He began to walk about that lofty figure, and he
was seized by a powerful temptation to depict the giant in all his
aspects. It was a rich soil. Beside the man of war and the statesman,
it remained to draw the theologian, the pedant, the wretched poet,
the seer of visions, the buffoon, the father, the husband, the human
Proteus--in a word, the twofold Cromwell, _homo et vir_.

There is one period of his life, especially, in which this strange
personality exhibits itself in all its forms. It is not as one might
think at first blush, the period of the trial of Charles I, instinct
as that is with depressing and terrible interest; but it is the moment
when the ambitious mortal boldly attempted to pluck the fruit of that
monarch's death; it is the moment when Cromwell, having attained what
would have been to any other man the zenith of fortune--master of
England, whose innumerable factions knelt silently at his feet; master
of Scotland, of which he had made a satrapy, and of Ireland, which he
had turned into a prison; master of Europe through his diplomacy and
his fleets--seeks to fulfil the dream of his earliest childhood, the
last ambition of his life; to make himself king. History never had a
more impressive lesson in a more impressive drama. First of all, the
Protector arranges to be urged to assume the crown: the august farce
begins by addresses from municipalities, from counties; then there
comes an act of Parliament. Cromwell, the anonymous author of the
play, pretends to be displeased; we see him put out a hand toward the
sceptre, then draw it back; by a devious path he draws near the throne
from which he has swept the legitimate dynasty. At last he makes up
his mind, suddenly; by his command Westminster is decked with flags,
the dais is built, the crown is ordered from the jewelers, the day is
appointed for the ceremony.--Strange denouement! On that very day,
in presence of the populace, the troops, the House of Commons, in
the great hall of Westminster, on that dais from which he expected
to descend as king, suddenly, as if aroused by a shock, he seems to
awaken at the sight of the crown, asks if he is dreaming, and what the
meaning is of all this regal pomp, and in a speech that lasts three
hours declines the kingly title.

Was it because his spies had warned him of two conspiracies formed
by Cavaliers and Puritans in concert, which were intended, taking
advantage of this misstep, to break out on the same day? Was it
an inward revolution caused by the silence or the murmurs of the
populace, discomposed to see their regicide ascend the throne? Or was
it simply the sagacity of genius, the instinct of a far-seeing, albeit
unbridled ambition, which realizes how one step forward changes a
man's position and attitude, and which dares not expose its plebeian
structure to the wind of unpopularity? Was it all these at once?
This is a question which no contemporaneous document answers
satisfactorily. So much the better: the poet's liberty is the more
complete, and the drama is the gainer by the latitude which history
affords it. It will be seen that here the latitude is ample and
unique; this is, in truth, the decisive hour, the turning-point in
Cromwell's life. It is the moment when his chimera escapes from
him, when the present kills the future, when, to use an expressive
colloquialism, his destiny _misses fire_. All of Cromwell is at stake
in the comedy being played between England and himself.

Such then is the man and such the period of which we have tried to
give an idea in this book.

The author has allowed himself to be seduced by the childlike
diversion of touching the keys of that great harpsichord.
Unquestionably, more skillful hands might have evoked a thrilling
and profound melody--not of those which simply caress the ear--but of
those intimate harmonies which stir the whole man to the depths of his
being, as if each key of the key-board were connected with a fibre
of the heart. He has surrendered to the desire to depict all those
fanaticisms, all those superstitions--maladies to which religion is
subject at certain epochs; to the longing to "make playthings of all
these men," as Hamlet says. To set in array about and below Cromwell,
himself the centre and pivot of that court, of that people, of that
little world, which attracts all to his cause and inspires all with
his vigour, that twofold conspiracy devised by two factions which
detest each other, but join hands to overthrow the man who blocks
their path, but which unite simply without blending; and that Puritan
faction, of divers minds, fanatical, gloomy, unselfish, choosing
for leader the most insignificant of men for such a great part, the
egotistical and cowardly Lambert; and the faction of the Cavaliers,
featherheaded, merry, unscrupulous, reckless, devoted, led by the
man who, aside from his devotion to the cause, was least fitted to
represent it, the stern and upright Ormond; and those ambassadors,
so humble and fawning before the soldier of fortune; and the court
itself, an extraordinary mixture of upstarts and great nobles
vying with one another in baseness; and the four jesters whom the
contemptuous neglect of history permitted me to invent; and Cromwell's
family, each member of which is as a thorn in his flesh; and Thurloe,
the Protector's Achates; and the Jewish rabbi, Israel Ben-Manasseh,
spy, usurer, and astrologer, vile on two sides, sublime on the third;
and Rochester, the unique Rochester, absurd and clever, refined and
crapulous, always cursing, always in love, and always tipsy, as he
himself boasted to Bishop Burnet--wretched poet and gallant gentleman,
vicious and ingenuous, staking his head and indifferent whether
he wins the game provided it amuses him--in a word, capable of
everything, of ruse and recklessness, calculation and folly, villainy
and generosity; and the morose Carr, of whom history describes but
one trait, albeit a most characteristic and suggestive one; and those
other fanatics, of all ranks and varieties: Harrison, the thieving
fanatic; Barebones the shopkeeping fanatic; Syndercomb, the bravo;
Garland the tearful and pious assassin; gallant Colonel Overton,
intelligent but a little declamatory; the austere and unbending
Ludlow, who left his ashes and his epitaph at Lausanne; and lastly,
"Milton and a few other men of mind," as we read in a pamphlet of 1675
(_Cromwell the Politician_), which reminds one of "a certain Dante" of
the Italian chronicle.

We omit many less important characters, of each of whom, however, the
actual life is known, and each of whom has his marked individuality,
and all of whom contributed to the fascination which this vast
historical scene exerted upon the author's imagination. From that
scene he constructed this drama. He moulded it in verse, because he
preferred to do so. One will discover on reading it how little
thought he gave to his work while writing this preface--with what
disinterestedness, for instance, he contended against the dogma of the
unities. His drama does not leave London; it begins on June 25, 1657,
at three in the morning, and ends on the 26th at noon. Observe that he
has almost followed the classic formula, as the professors of poetry
lay it down to-day. They need not, however, thank him for it. With the
permission of history, not of Aristotle, the author constructed his
drama thus; and because, when the interest is the same, he prefers a
compact subject to a widely diffused one.

It is evident that, in its present proportions, this drama could not
be given at one of our theatrical performances. It is too long. The
reader will perhaps comprehend, none the less, that every part of it
was written for the stage. It was on approaching his subject to study
it that the author recognized, or thought that he recognized, the
impossibility of procuring the performance of a faithful reproduction
of it on our stage, in the exceptional position it now occupies,
between the academic Charybdis and the administrative Scylla, between
the literary juries and the political censorship. He was required
to choose: either the wheedling, tricky, false tragedy, which may be
acted, or the audaciously true drama, which is prohibited. The first
was not worth the trouble of writing, so he preferred to attempt
the second. That is why, hopeless of ever being put on the stage,
he abandoned himself, freely and submissively, to the whims of
composition, to the pleasure of painting with a freer hand, to the
developments which his subject demanded, and which, even if they keep
his drama off the stage, have at all events the advantage of making it
almost complete from the historical standpoint. However, the reading
committees are an obstacle of the second class only. If it should
happen that the dramatic censorship, realizing how far this harmless,
conscientious and accurate picture of Cromwell and his time is removed
from our own age, should sanction its production on the stage, in that
case, but only in that case, the author might perhaps extract from
this drama a play which would venture to show itself on the boards,
and would be hissed.

Until then he will continue to hold aloof from the theatre. And even
then he will leave his cherished and tranquil retirement soon enough,
for the agitation and excitement of this new world. God grant that he
may never repent of having exposed the unspotted obscurity of his name
and his person to the shoals, the squalls and tempests of the pit,
and above all (for what does a mere failure matter?) to the wretched
bickerings of the wings; of having entered that shifting, foggy,
stormy atmosphere, where ignorance dogmatises, where envy hisses,
where cabals cringe and crawl, where the probity of talent has so
often been misrepresented, where the noble innocence of genius is
sometimes so out of place, where mediocrity triumphs in lowering to
its level the superiority which obscures it, where one finds so many
small men for a single great one, so many nobodies for one Talma, so
many myrmidons for one Achilles! This sketch will seem ill-tempered
perhaps, and far from flattering; but does it not fully mark out the
distance that separates our stage, the abode of intrigues and uproar,
from the solemn serenity of the ancient stage?

Whatever may happen, he feels bound to warn in advance that small
number of persons whom such a production might attract, that a play
made up of excerpts from _Cromwell_ would occupy no less time then is
ordinarily occupied by a theatrical performance. It is difficult for
a _romantic_ theatre to maintain itself otherwise. Surely, if people
desire something different from the tragedies in which one or two
characters, abstract types of a purely metaphysical idea, stalk
solemnly about on a narrow stage occupied only by a few confidents,
colourless reflections of the heroes, employed to fill the gaps in a
simple, unified, single-stringed plot; if that sort of thing has
grown tiresome, a whole evening is not too much time to devote to
delineating with some fullness a man among men, a whole critical
period: the one, with his peculiar temperament, his genius which
adapts itself thereto, his beliefs which dominate them both, his
passions which throw out of gear his temperament, his genius and his
beliefs, his tastes which give colour to his passions, his habits
which regulate his tastes and muzzle his passions, and with the
innumerable procession of men of every sort whom these various
elements keep in constant commotion about him; the other, with
its manners, its laws, its fashions, its wit, its attainments, its
superstitions, its events, and its people, whom all these first causes
in turn mould like soft wax. It is needless to say that such a picture
will be of huge proportions. Instead of one personality, like that
with which the abstract drama of the old school is content, there will
be twenty, forty, fifty,--who knows how many?--of every size and of
every degree of importance. There will be a crowd of characters in the
drama. Would it not be niggardly to assign it two hours only, and
give up the rest of the performance to opera-comique or farce? to cut
Shakespeare for Bobeche?--And do not imagine that, if the plot is well
adjusted, the multitude of characters set in motion will cause fatigue
to the spectator or confusion in the drama. Shakespeare, abounding in
petty details, is at the same time, and for that very reason, imposing
by the grandeur of the _ensemble._ It is the oak which casts a most
extensive shadow with its myriads of slender leaves.

Let us hope that people in France will ere long become accustomed to
devote a whole evening to a single play. In England and Germany there
are plays that last six hours. The Greeks, about whom we hear so much,
the Greeks--and after the fashion of Scuderi we will cite at
this point the classicist Dacier, in the seventh chapter of his
_Poetics_--the Greeks sometimes went so far as to have twelve or
sixteen plays acted in a single day. Among a people who are fond of
spectacles the attention is more lively than is commonly believed
The _Mariage de Figaro_, the connecting link of Beaumarchais's
great trilogy, occupies the whole evening, and who was ever bored or
fatigued by it Beaumarchais was worthy to venture on the first step
toward that goal of modern art at which it will be impossible to
arrive in two hours, that profound, insatiable interest which results
from a vast, lifelike and multiform plot. "But," someone will say,
"this performance, consisting of a single play, would be monotonous,
would seem terribly long"--Not so. On the contrary it would lose
its present monotony and tediousness. For what is done now? The
spectator's entertainment is divided into two or three sharply defined
parts. At first he is given two hours of serious enjoyment, then one
hour of hilarious enjoyment, these, with the hour of entr' actes,
which we do not include in the enjoyment make four hours What would
the romantic drama do? It would mingle and blend artistically these
two kinds of enjoyment. It would lead the audience constantly from
sobriety to laughter, from mirthful excitement to heart breaking
emotion, "from grave to gay, from pleasant to severe." For, as we have
already proved, the drama is the grotesque in conjunction with the
sublime, the soul within the body, it is tragedy beneath comedy. Do
you not see that, by affording you repose from one impression by means
of another, by sharpening the tragic upon the comic, the merry upon
the terrible, and at need calling in the charms of the opera,
these performances, while presenting but one play, would be worth a
multitude of others? The romantic stage would make a piquant, savoury,
diversified dish of that which, on the classic stage, is a drug
divided into two pills.

The author has soon come to the end of what he had to say to the
reader. He has no idea how the critics will greet this drama and
these thoughts, summarily set forth, stripped of their corollaries and
ramifications, put together _currente calamo_, and in haste to have
done with them. Doubtless they will appear to "the disciples of
La Harpe" most impudent and strange. But if perchance, naked and
undeveloped as they are, they should have the power to start upon
the road of truth this public whose education is so far advanced,
and whose minds so many notable writings, of criticism or of original
thought, books or newspapers, have already matured for art, let the
public follow that impulsion, caring naught whether it comes from a
man unknown, from a voice with no authority, from a work of little
merit. It is a copper bell which summons the people to the true temple
and the true God.

There is to-day the old literary regime as well as the old political
regime. The last century still weighs upon the present one at almost
every point. It is notably oppressive in the matter of criticism. For
instance, you find living men who repeat to you this definition of
taste let fall by Voltaire: "Taste in poetry is no different from what
it is in women's clothes." Taste, then, is coquetry. Remarkable words,
which depict marvellously the painted, _mouchete_, powdered poetry
of the eighteenth century--that literature in paniers, pompons and
falbalas. They give an admirable resume of an age with which the
loftiest geniuses could not come in contact without becoming petty, in
one respect or another; of an age when Montesquieu was able and apt
to produce _Le Temple de Gnide_, Voltaire _Le Temple du Gout_,
Jean-Jacques _Le Devin du Village_.

Taste is the common sense of genius. This is what will soon be
demonstrated by another school of criticism, powerful, outspoken,
well-informed,--a school of the century which is beginning to put
forth vigorous shoots under the dead and withered branches of the old
school. This youthful criticism, as serious as the other is frivolous,
as learned as the other is ignorant, has already established organs
that are listened to, and one is sometimes surprised to find, even
in the least important sheets, excellent articles emanating from it.
Joining hands with all that is fearless and superior in letters, it
will deliver us from two scourges: tottering _classicism_, and false
_romanticism_, which has the presumption to show itself at the feet
of the true. For modern genius already has its shadow, its copy, its
parasite, its _classic_, which forms itself upon it, smears itself
with its colours, assumes its livery, picks up its crumbs, and, like
_the sorcerer's pupil_, puts in play, with words retained by the
memory, elements of theatrical action of which it has not the secret.
Thus it does idiotic things which its master many a time has much
difficulty in making good. But the thing that must be destroyed first
of all is the old false taste. Present-day literature must be cleansed
of its rust. In vain does the rust eat into it and tarnish it. It
is addressing a young, stern, vigorous generation, which does not
understand it. The train of the eighteenth century is still dragging
in the nineteenth; but we, we young men who have seen Bonaparte, are
not the ones who will carry it.

We are approaching, then, the moment when we shall see the new
criticism prevail, firmly established upon a broad and deep
foundation. People generally will soon understand that writers should
be judged, not according to rules and species, which are contrary to
nature and art, but according to the immutable principles of the art
of composition, and the special laws of their individual temperaments.
The sound judgment of all men will be ashamed of the criticism which
broke Pierre Corneille on the wheel, gagged Jean Racine, and which
ridiculously rehabilitated John Milton only by virtue of the epic
code of Pere le Bossu. People will consent to place themselves at the
author's standpoint, to view the subject with his eyes, in order
to judge a work intelligently. They will lay aside--and it is M. de
Chateaubriand who speaks--"the paltry criticism of defects for the
noble and fruitful criticism of beauties." It is time that all acute
minds should grasp the thread that frequently connects what we,
following our special whim, call "defects" with what we call "beauty."
Defects--at all events those which we call by that name--are often the
inborn, necessary, inevitable conditions of good qualities.

Scit genius, natale comes qul temperat astrum.

Who ever saw a medal without its reverse? a talent that had not some
shadow with its brilliancy, some smoke with its flame? Such a blemish
can be only the inseparable consequence of such beauty. This rough
stroke of the brush, which offends my eye at close range, completes
the effect and gives relief to the whole picture. Efface one and you
efface the other. Originality is made up of such things. Genius is
necessarily uneven. There are no high mountains without deep ravines.
Fill up the valley with the mountain and you will have nothing but
a steppe, a plateau, the plain of Les Sablons instead of the Alps,
swallows and not eagles.

We must also take into account the weather, the climate, the local
influences. The Bible, Homer, hurt us sometimes by their very
sublimities. Who would want to part with a word of either of them? Our
infirmity often takes fright at the inspired bold flights of
genius, for lack of power to swoop down upon objects with such vast
intelligence. And then, once again, there are _defects_ which take
root only in masterpieces; it is given only to certain geniuses
to have certain defects. Shakespeare is blamed for his abuse of
metaphysics, of wit, of redundant scenes, of obscenities, for his
employment of the mythological nonsense in vogue in his time, for
exaggeration, obscurity, bad taste, bombast, asperities of style. The
oak, that giant tree which we were comparing to Shakespeare just now,
and which has more than one point of resemblance to him, the oak has
an unusual shape, gnarled branches, dark leaves, and hard, rough bark;
but it is the oak.

And it is because of these qualities that it is the oak. If you would
have a smooth trunk, straight branches, satiny leaves, apply to the
pale birch, the hollow elder, the weeping willow; but leave the mighty
oak in peace. Do not stone that which gives you shade.

The author of this book knows as well as any one the numerous and
gross faults of his works. If it happens too seldom that he corrects
them, it is because it is repugnant to him to return to a work that
has grown cold. Moreover, what has he ever done that is worth
that trouble? The labor that he would throw away in correcting the
imperfections of his books, he prefers to use in purging his intellect
of its defects. It is his method to correct one work only in another

However, no matter what treatment may be accorded his book, he
binds himself not to defend it, in whole or in part. If his drama is
worthless, what is the use of upholding it? If it is good, why defend
it? Time will do the book justice or will wreak justice upon it. Its
success for the moment is the affair of the publisher alone. If then
the wrath of the critics is aroused by the publication of this essay,
he will let them do their worst. What reply should he make to them?
He is not one of those who speak, as the Castilian poet says, "through
the mouths of their wounds."

Por la boca de su herida.

One last word. It may have been noticed that in this somewhat long
journey through so many different subjects, the author has generally
refrained from resting his personal views upon texts or citations of
authorities. It is not, however, because he did not have them at his

"If the poet establishes things that are impossible according to the
rules of his art, he makes a mistake unquestionably; but it ceases to
be a mistake when by this means he has reached the end that he
aimed at; for he has found what he sought,"--"They take for nonsense
whatever the weakness of their intellects does not allow them to
understand. They are especially prone to call absurd those wonderful
passages in which the poet, in order the better to enforce his
argument, departs, if we may so express it, from his argument. In
fact, the precept which makes it a rule sometimes to disregard rules,
is a mystery of the art which it is not easy to make men understand
who are absolutely without taste and whom a sort of abnormality of
mind renders insensible to those things which ordinarily impress men."

Who said the first? Aristotle. Who said the last? Boileau. By these
two specimens you will see that the author of this drama might, as
well as another, have shielded himself with proper names and taken
refuge behind others' reputations. But he preferred to leave that
style of argument to those who deem it unanswerable, universal and
all-powerful. As for himself, he prefers reasons to authorities; he
has always cared more for arms than for coats-of-arms.

_October_, 1827.

[Footnote A: Victor Hugo (1802-1883) the chief of the romantic school
in France, issued in the Preface to "Cromwell" the manifesto of the
movement. Poet, dramatist, and novelist, Hugo remained through a
long life the most conspicuous man of letters in France; and in the
document here printed he laid down the principles which revolutionized
the literary world of his time.]



America does not repel the past or what it has produced under
its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old
religions ... accepts the lesson with calmness ... is not so impatient
as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and
manners and literature while the life which served its requirements
has passed into the new life of the new forms ... perceives that the
corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house
... perceives that it waits a little while in the door ... that it was
fittest for its days ... that its action has descended to the stalwart
and well shaped heir who approaches ... and that he shall be fittest
for his days.

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth, have
probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are
essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto
the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler
largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man
that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here
is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action
untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details
magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which
forever indicates heroes.... Here are the roughs and beards and
space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the
performance disdaining the trivial unapproached in the tremendous
audacity of its crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective
spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its prolific
and splendid extravagance. One sees it must indeed own the riches of
the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows
from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish
or men beget children upon women.

Other states indicate themselves in their deputies ... but the genius of
the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures,
nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors,
nor even in its newspapers or inventors ... but always most in the
common people. Their manners speech dress friendship--the freshness and
candor of their physiognomy--the picturesque looseness of their carriage
... their deathless attachment to freedom--their aversion to anything
indecorous or soft or mean--the practical acknowledgment of the citizens
of one state by the citizens of all other states--the fierceness of
their roused resentment--- their curiosity and welcome of novelty--their
self-esteem and wonderful sympathy--their susceptibility to a
slight--the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand
in the presence of superiors--the fluency of their speech--their delight
in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of
soul ... their good temper and open handedness--the terrible
significance of their elections--the President's taking off his hat to
them, not they to him--these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the
gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.

The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a
corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.
Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor
prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice
for the ideal of man ... nor suffice the poet. No reminiscences may
suffice either. A live nation can always cut a deep mark and can have
the best authority the cheapest ... namely from its own soul. This is
the sum of the profitable uses of individuals or states and of present
action and grandeur and of the subjects of poets.--As if it were
necessary to trot back generation after generation to the eastern
records! As if the beauty and sacredness of the demonstrable must fall
behind that of the mythical! As if men do not make their mark out of
any times! As if the opening of the western continent by discovery and
what has transpired since in North and South America were less than
the small theatre of the antique or the aimless sleepwalking of the
middle ages! The pride of the United States leaves the wealth and
finesse of the cities and all returns of commerce and agriculture and
all the magnitude of geography or shows of exterior victory to enjoy
the breed of full sized men or one full sized man unconquerable and

The American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race
of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people. To
him the other continents arrive as contributions ... he gives them
reception for their sake and his own sake. His spirit responds to his
country's spirit ... he incarnates its geography and natural life
and rivers and lakes. Mississippi with annual freshets and changing
chutes, Missouri and Columbia and Ohio and St. Lawrence with the Falls
and beautiful masculine Hudson, do not embouchure where they spend
themselves more than they embouchure into him. The blue breadth over
the inland sea of Virginia and Maryland and the sea off Massachusetts
and Maine and over Manhattan bay and over Champlain and Erie and over
Ontario and Huron and Michigan and Superior, and over the Texan and
Mexican and Floridian and Cuban seas, and over the seas off California
and Oregon, is not tallied by the blue breadth of the waters below
more than the breadth of above and below is tallied by him. When the
long Atlantic coast stretches longer and the Pacific coast stretches
longer he easily stretches with them north or south. He spans between
them also from east to west and reflects what is between them. On
him rise solid growths that offset the growths of pine and cedar and
hemlock and live oak and locust and chestnut and cypress and hickory
and limetree and cottonwood and tuliptree and cactus and wildvine and
tamarind and persimmon ... and tangles as tangled as any canebrake or
swamp ... and forests coated with transparent ice, and icicles hanging
from boughs and crackling in the wind ... and sides and peaks of
mountains ... and pasturage sweet and free as savannah or upland or
prairie ... with flights and songs and screams that answer those
of the wild pigeon and high-hold and orchard-oriole and coot and
surf-duck and red-shouldered-hawk and fish-hawk and white ibis
and Indian-hen and cat-owl and water-pheasant and qua-bird and
pied-sheldrake and blackbird and mockingbird and buzzard and condor
and night-heron and eagle. To him the hereditary countenance descends
both mother's and father's. To him enter the essences of the real
things and past and present events--of the enormous diversity
of temperature and agriculture and mines--the tribes of red
aborigines--the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports or making
landings on rocky coasts--the first settlements north or south--the
rapid stature and muscle--the haughty defiance of '76, and the war
and peace and formation of the constitution ... the Union always
surrounded by blatherers and always calm and impregnable--the
perpetual coming of immigrants--the wharf-hem'd cities and superior
marine--the unsurveyed interior--the loghouses and clearings and wild
animals and hunters and trappers ... the free commerce--the fisheries
and whaling and gold-digging--the endless gestation of new states--the
convening of Congress every December, the members duly coming up from
all climates and the uttermost parts ... the noble character of the
young mechanics and of all free American workmen and workwomen ... the
general ardor and friendliness and enterprise--the perfect equality of
the female with the male ... the large amativeness--the fluid movement
of the population--the factories and mercantile life and laborsaving
machinery--the Yankee swap--the New York firemen and the target
excursion--the Southern plantation life--the character of the
northeast and of the northwest and southwest--slavery and the
tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposition
to it which shall never cease till it ceases or the speaking of
tongues and the moving of lips cease. For such the expression of the
American poet is to be transcendent and new. It is to be indirect and
not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality goes through these to
much more. Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted and their
eras and characters be illustrated and that finish the verse. Not so
the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has
vista. Here comes one among the well beloved stonecutters and plans
with decision and science and sees the solid and beautiful forms of
the future where there are now no solid forms.

Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff
most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the
greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much
as their poets shall. Of all mankind the great poet is the equable
man. Not in him but off from him things are grotesque or eccentric or
fail of their sanity. Nothing out of its place is good and nothing
in its place is bad. He bestows on every object or quality its fit
proportions neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse
and he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land ... he
supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking. If peace
is the routine out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich,
thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture
and the arts and commerce--lighting the study of man, the soul,
immortality--federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health,
freetrade, intertravel by land and sea ... nothing too close, nothing
too far off ... the stars not too far off. In war he is the most
deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot ...
he fetches parks of artillery the best that engineer ever knew. If the
time becomes slothful and heavy he knows how to arouse it ... he can
make every word he speaks draw blood. Whatever stagnates in the flat
of custom or obedience or legislation he never stagnates. Obedience
does not master him, he masters it. High up out of reach he stands
turning a concentrated light ... he turns the pivot with his finger
... he baffles the swiftest runners as he stands and easily overtakes
and envelopes them. The time straying towards infidelity and
confections and persiflage he withholds by his steady faith ... he
spreads out his dishes ... he offers the sweet firmfibred meat that
grows men and women. His brain is the ultimate brain. He is no arguer
... he is judgment. He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun
falling around a helpless thing. As he sees the farthest he has the
most faith. His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things. In
the talk on the soul and eternity and God off of his equal plane he
is silent. He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and
denouement ... he sees eternity in men and women ... he does not see
men or women as dreams or dots. Faith is the antiseptic of the soul
... it pervades the common people and preserves them ... they
never give up believing and expecting and trusting. There is that
indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person
that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius. The
poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as
sacred and perfect as the greatest artist.... The power to destroy or
remould is freely used by him, but never the power of attack. What is
past is past. If he does not expose superior models and prove himself
by every step he takes he is not what is wanted. The presence of the
greatest poet conquers ... not parleying or struggling or any prepared
attempts. Now he has passed that way see after him! There is not left
any vestige of despair or misanthropy or cunning or exclusiveness
or the ignominy of a nativity or color or delusion of hell or the
necessity of hell ... and no man thenceforward shall be degraded for
ignorance or weakness or sin.

The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes
into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the
grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer ... he is individual
... he is complete in himself ... the others are as good as he, only
he sees it and they do not. He is not one of the chorus ... he does
not stop for any regulation ... he is the president of regulation.
What the eyesight does to the rest he does to the rest. Who knows
the curious mystery of the eyesight? The other senses corroborate
themselves, but this is removed from any proof but its own and
foreruns the identities of the spiritual world. A single glance of it
mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments and books
of the earth and all reasoning. What is marvellous? what is unlikely?
what is impossible or baseless or vague? after you have once just
opened the space of a peachpit and given audience to far and near and
to the sunset and had all things enter with electric swiftness softly
and duly without contusion or jostling or jam.

The land and sea, the animals fishes and birds, the sky of heavens and
the orbs, the forests mountains and rivers, are not small themes ...
but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and
dignity which always attach to dumb real objects,... they expect him
to indicate the path between reality and their souls. Men and women
perceive the beauty well enough ... probably as well as he. The
passionate tenacity of hunters, woodmen, early risers, cultivators
of gardens and orchards and fields, the love of healthy women for
the manly form, seafaring persons, drivers of horses, the passion for
light and the open air, all is an old varied sign of the unfailing
perception of beauty and of a residence of the poetic in outdoor
people. They can never be assisted by poets to perceive ... some may
but they never can. The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme
or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy
complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else
and is in the soul. The profit of rhyme is that it drops seeds of a
sweeter and more luxuriant rhyme, and of uniformity that it conveys
itself into its own roots in the ground out of sight. The rhyme and
uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and
bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush,
and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and
melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. The fluency
and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations
are not independent but dependent. All beauty comes from beautiful
blood and a beautiful brain. If the greatnesses are in conjunction
in a man or woman it is enough ... the fact will prevail through the
universe ... but the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not
prevail. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost.
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for
the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate
tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward
the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any
man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and
with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in
the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine
all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss
whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great
poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the
silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes
and in every motion and joint of your body.... The poet shall not
spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is
always ready ploughed and manured ... others may not know it but he
shall. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall
master the trust of everything he touches ... and shall master all

The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest
poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance
happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and
persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What baulks or breaks
others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.
Other proportions of the reception of pleasure dwindle to nothing to
his proportions. All expected from heaven or from the highest he is
rapport with in the sight of the daybreak or a scene of the winter
woods or the presence of children playing or with his arm round
the neck of a man or woman. His love above all love has leisure and
expanse ... he leaves room ahead of himself. He is no irresolute
or suspicious lover ... he is sure ... he scorns intervals. His
experience and the showers and thrills are not for nothing. Nothing
can jar him ... suffering and darkness cannot--death and fear cannot.
To him complaint and jealousy and envy are corpses buried and rotten
in the earth ... he saw them buried. The sea is not surer of the shore
or the shore of the sea than he is of the fruition of his love and of
all perfection and beauty.

The fruition of beauty is no chance of hit or miss ... it is
inevitable as life ... it is as exact and plumb as gravitation. From
the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds
another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally
curious of the harmony of things with man. To these respond
perfections not only in the committees that were supposed to stand for
the rest but in the rest themselves just the same. These understand
the law of perfection in masses and floods ... that its finish is
to each for itself and onward from itself ... that it is profuse and
impartial ... that there is not a minute of the light or dark nor an
acre of the earth and sea without it--nor any direction of the sky
nor any trade or employment nor any turn of events. This is the reason
that about the proper expression of beauty there is precision and
balance ... one part does not need to be thrust above another. The
best singer is not the one who has the most lithe and powerful organ
... the pleasure of poems is not in them that take the handsomest
measure and similes and sound.

Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the
greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and
scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual
character as you hear or read. To do this well is to compete with the
laws that pursue and follow time. What is the purpose must surely be
there and the clue of it must be there ... and the faintest
indication is the indication of the best and then becomes the clearest
indication. Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined.
The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has
been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them
again on their feet ... he says to the past, Rise and walk before me
that I may realize you. He learns the lesson ... he places himself
where the future becomes present. The greatest poet does not only
dazzle his rays over character and scenes and passions ... he finally
ascends and finishes all ... he exhibits the pinnacles that no man can
tell what they are for or what is beyond ... he glows a moment on the
extremest verge. He is most wonderful in his last half-hidden smile or
frown ... by that flash of the moment of parting the one that sees
it shall be encouraged or terrified afterward for many years. The
greatest poet does not moralize or make applications of morals ... he
knows the soul. The soul has that measureless pride which consists in
never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as
measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither
can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The
inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain. The greatest poet has lain
close betwixt both and they are vital in his style and thoughts.

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the
light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity ...
nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness. To
carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give
all subjects their articulations are powers neither common nor very
uncommon. But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and
insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of
the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the
flawless triumph of art. If you have looked on him who has achieved
it you have looked on one of the masters of the artists of all nations
and times. You shall not contemplate the flight of the gray gull
over the bay or the mettlesome action of the blood horse or the tall
leaning of sunflowers on their stalk or the appearance of the sun
journeying through heaven or the appearance of the moon afterward with
any more satisfaction than you shall contemplate him. The greatest
poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts
and things without increase or diminution and is the free channel of
himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not
have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in
the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing
hang in the way not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for
precisely what it is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or
soothe I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has and be as
regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from
my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by
my side and look in the mirror with me.

The old red blood and stainless gentility of great poets will be
proved by their unconstraint. A heroic person walks at his ease
through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits
him not. Of the traits of the brotherhood of writers savans musicians
inventors and artists, nothing is finer than silent defiance advancing
from new free forms. In the need of poems philosophy politics
mechanism science behavior, the craft of art, an appropriate native
grand-opera, shipcraft; or any craft, he is greatest for ever and
for ever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The
cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and
makes one. The messages of great poets to each man and woman are,
Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no
better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may
enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm
there can be unnumbered Supremes, and that one does not countervail
another any more than one eyesight countervails another ... and that
men can be good or grand only of the consciousness of their supremacy
within them. What do you think is the grandeur of storms and
dismemberments and the deadliest battles and wrecks and the wildest
fury of the elements and the power of the sea and the motion of nature
and the throes of human desires and dignity and hate and love? It
is that something in the soul which says, Rage on, Whirl on, I tread
master here and everywhere, Master of the spasms of the sky and of the
shatter of the sea, Master of nature and passion and death, And of all
terror and all pain.

The American bards shall be marked for generosity and affection and
for encouraging competitors.... They shall be kosmos ... without
monopoly or secrecy ... glad to pass anything to any one ... hungry
for equals night and day. They shall not be careful of riches and
privilege ... they shall be riches and privilege ... they shall
perceive who the most affluent man is. The most affluent man is
he that confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the
stronger wealth of himself. The American bard shall delineate no class
of persons nor one or two out of the strata of interests nor love most
nor truth most nor the soul most nor the body most ... and not be for
the eastern states more than the western or the northern states more
than the southern.

Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the
greatest poet but always his encouragement and support. The outset
and remembrance are there ... there the arms that lifted him first and
brace him best ... there he returns after all his goings and comings.
The sailor and traveller ... the anatomist chemist astronomer
geologist phrenologist spiritualist mathematician historian and
lexicographer are not poets, but they are the lawgivers of poets and
their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem. No
matter what rises or is uttered they sent the seed of the conception
of it ... of them and by them stand the visible proofs of souls ...
always of their fatherstuff must be begotten the sinewy races of
bards. If there shall be love and content between the father and the
son and if the greatness of the son is the exuding of the greatness
of the father there shall be love between the poet and the man of
demonstrable science. In the beauty of poems are the tuft and final
applause of science.

Great is the faith of the flush of knowledge and of the investigation
of the depths of qualities and things. Cleaving and circling here
swells the soul of the poet yet is president of itself always. The
depths are fathomless and therefore calm. The innocence and nakedness
are resumed ... they are neither modest nor immodest. The whole theory
of the special and supernatural and all that was twined with it or
educed out of it departs as a dream. What has ever happened ... what
happens and whatever may or shall happen, the vital laws enclose all
... they are sufficient for any case and for all cases ... none to be
hurried or retarded ... any miracle of affairs or persons inadmissible
in the vast clear scheme where every motion and every spear of grass
and the frames and spirits of men and women and all that concerns
them are unspeakably perfect miracles all referring to all and each
distinct and in its place. It is also not consistent with the reality
of the soul to admit that there is anything in the known universe more
divine than men and women.

Men and women and the earth and all upon it are simply to be taken as
they are, and the investigation of their past and present and future
shall be unintermitted and shall be done with perfect candor. Upon
this basis philosophy speculates ever looking towards the poet,
ever regarding the eternal tendencies of all toward happiness never
inconsistent with what is clear to the senses and to the soul. For the
eternal tendencies of all toward happiness make the only point of sane
philosophy. Whatever comprehends less than that ... whatever is less
than the laws of light and of astronomical motion ... or less than
the laws that follow the thief the liar the glutton and the drunkard
through this life and doubtless afterward ... or less than vast
stretches of time or the slow formation of density or the patient
upheaving of strata--is of no account. Whatever would put God in
a poem or system of philosophy as contending against some being or
influence is also of no account. Sanity and ensemble characterize
the great master ... spoilt in one principle all is spoilt. The great
master has nothing to do with miracles. He sees health for himself in
being one of the mass ... he sees the hiatus in singular eminence. To
the perfect shape comes common ground. To be under the general law is
great, for that is to correspond with it. The master knows that he is
unspeakably great and that all are unspeakably great ... that nothing
for instance is greater than to conceive children and bring them up
well ... that to be is just as great as to perceive or tell.

In the make of the great masters the idea of political liberty is
indispensable. Liberty takes the adherence of heroes wherever men and
women exist ... but never takes any adherence or welcome from the rest
more than from poets. They are the voice and exposition of liberty.
They out of ages are worthy the grand idea ... to them it is confided
and they must sustain it. Nothing has precedence of it and nothing can
warp or degrade it. The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves
and horrify despots. The turn of their necks, the sound of their feet,
the motions of their wrists, are full of hazard to the one and hope
to the other. Come nigh them awhile and though they neither speak nor
advise you shall learn the faithful American lesson. Liberty is poorly
served by men whose good intent is quelled from one failure or two
failures or any number of failures, or from the casual indifference
or ingratitude of the people, or from the sharp show of the tushes
of power, or the bringing to bear soldiers and cannon or any penal
statutes. Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises
nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and
knows no discouragement. The battle rages with many a loud alarm and
frequent advance and retreat ... the enemy triumphs ... the prison,
the handcuffs, the iron necklace and anklet, the scaffold, garrote and
leadballs do their work ... the cause is asleep ... the strong throats
are choked with their own blood ... the young men drop their eyelashes
toward the ground when they pass each other ... and is liberty gone
out of that place? No never. When liberty goes it is not the first to
go nor the second or third to go ... it awaits for all the rest to go
... it is the last.... When the memories of the old martyrs are faded
utterly away ... when the large names of patriots are laughed at in
the public halls from the lips of the orators ... when the boys are
no more christened after the same but christened after tyrants
and traitors instead ... when the laws of the free are grudgingly
permitted and the laws for informers and bloodmoney are sweet to the
taste of the people ... when I and you walk abroad upon the earth
stung with compassion at the sight of numberless brothers answering
our equal friendship and calling no man master--and when we are elated
with noble joy at the sight of slaves ... when the soul retires in the
cool communion of the night and surveys its experience and has much
extasy over the word and deed that put back a helpless innocent person
into the gripe of the gripers or into any cruel inferiority ... when
those in all parts of these states who could easier realize the true
American character but do not yet--when the swarms of cringers,
suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions
for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the
judiciary or congress or the presidency, obtain a response of love and
natural deference from the people whether they get the offices or no
... when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a
high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer with his hat
unmoved from his head and firm eyes and a candid and generous heart
... and when servility by town or state or the federal government or
any oppression on a large scale or small scale can be tried on without
its own punishment following duly after in exact proportion against
the smallest chance of escape ... or rather when all life and all the
souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth--then
only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the

As the attributes of the poets of the kosmos concentre in the
real body and soul and in the pleasure of things they possess the
superiority of genuineness over all fiction and romance. As they emit
themselves facts are showered over with light ... the daylight is lit
with more volatile light ... also the deep between the setting and
rising sun goes deeper many fold. Each precise object or condition or
combination or process exhibits a beauty ... the multiplication table
its--old age its--the carpenter's trade its--the grand opera its--the
hugehulled cleanshaped New-York clipper at sea under steam or full
sail gleams with unmatched beauty.... the American circles and large
harmonies of government gleam with theirs ... and the commonest
definite intentions and actions with theirs. The poets of the kosmos
advance through all interpositions and coverings and turmoils and
stratagems to first principles. They are of use ... they dissolve
poverty from its need and riches from its conceit. You large
proprietor, they say, shall not realize or perceive more than any one
else. The owner of the library is not he who holds a legal title to it
having bought and paid for it. Any one and every one is owner of the
library who can read the same through all the varieties of tongues
and subjects and styles, and in whom they enter with ease and take
residence and force toward paternity and maternity, and make supple
and powerful and rich and large.... These American states strong and
healthy and accomplished shall receive no pleasure from violations of
natural models and must not permit them. In paintings or mouldings
or carvings in mineral or wood, or in the illustrations of books and
newspapers, or in any comic or tragic prints, or in the patterns of
woven stuffs or anything to beautify rooms or furniture or costumes,
or to put upon cornices or monuments or on the prows or sterns of
ships, or to put anywhere before the human eye indoors or out, that
which distorts honest shapes or which creates unearthly beings or
places or contingencies, is a nuisance and revolt. Of the human
form especially, it is so great it must never be made ridiculous.
Of ornaments to a work nothing outre can be allowed ... but those
ornaments can be allowed that conform to the perfect facts of the
open air, and that flow out of the nature of the work and come
irrepressibly from it and are necessary to the completion of the work.
Most works are most beautiful without ornament ... Exaggerations
will be revenged in human physiology. Clean and vigorous children are
jetted and conceived only in those communities where the models of
natural forms are public every day ... Great genius and the people of
these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories
are properly told there is no more need of romances.

The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks
and by the justification of perfect personal candor. Then folks echo
a new cheap joy and a divine voice leaping from their brains: How
beautiful is candor! All faults may be forgiven of him who has
perfect candor. Henceforth let no man of us lie, for we have seen that
openness wins the inner and outer world and that there is no single
exception, and that never since our earth gathered itself in a mass
have deceit or subterfuge or prevarication attracted its smallest
particle or the faintest tinge of a shade--and that through the
enveloping wealth and rank of a state or the whole republic of states
a sneak or sly person shall be discovered and despised ... and that
the soul has never once been fooled and never can be fooled ... and
thrift without the loving nod of the soul is only a foetid puff ...
and there never grew up in any of the continents of the globe nor upon
any planet or satellite or star, nor upon the asteroids, nor in any
part of ethereal space, nor in the midst of density, nor under the
fluid wet of the sea, nor in that condition which precedes the birth
of babes, nor at any time during the changes of life, nor in that
condition that follows what we term death, nor in any stretch of
abeyance or action afterward of vitality, nor in any process of
formation or reformation anywhere, a being whose instinct hated the

Extreme caution or prudence, the soundest organic health, large
hope and comparison and fondness for women and children, large
alimentiveness and destructiveness and causality, with a perfect sense
of the oneness of nature and the propriety of the same spirit applied
to human affairs ... these are called up of the float of the brain of
the world to be parts of the greatest poet from his birth out of his
mother's womb and from her birth out of her mother's. Caution seldom
goes far enough. It has been thought that the prudent citizen was the
citizen who applied himself to solid gains and did well for himself
and for his family and completed a lawful life without debt or crime.
The greatest poet sees and admits these economies as he sees the
economies of food and sleep, but has higher notions of prudence than
to think he gives much when he gives a few slight attentions at the
latch of the gate. The premises of the prudence of life are not
the hospitality of it or the ripeness and harvest of it. Beyond the
independence of a little sum laid aside for burial-money, and of a
few clapboards around and shingles overhead on a lot of American soil
owned, and the easy dollars that supply the year's plain clothing
and meals, the melancholy prudence of the abandonment of such a great
being as a man is to the toss and pallor of years of money-making with
all their scorching days and icy nights and all their stifling deceits
and underhanded dodgings, or infinitesimals of parlors, or shameless
stuffing while others starve ... and all the loss of the bloom and
odor of the earth and of the flowers and atmosphere and of the sea,
and of the true taste of the women and men you pass or have to do with
in youth or middle age, and the issuing sickness and desperate revolt
at the close of a life without elevation or naivete, and the ghastly
chatter of a death without serenity or majesty, is the great fraud
upon modern civilization and forethought, blotching the surface and
system which civilization undeniably drafts, and moistening with tears
the immense features it spreads and spreads with such velocity before
the reached kisses of the soul.... Still the right explanation
remains to be made about prudence. The prudence of the mere wealth and
respectability of the most esteemed life appears too faint for the eye
to observe at all when little and large alike drop quietly aside at
the thought of the prudence suitable for immortality. What is wisdom
that fills the thinness of a year or seventy or eighty years to wisdom
spaced out by ages and coming back at a certain time with strong
reinforcements and rich presents and the clear faces of wedding-guests
as far as you can look in every direction, running gaily toward you?
Only the soul is of itself ... all else has reference to what ensues.
All that a person does or thinks is of consequence. Not a move can a
man or woman make that effects him or her in a day or a month or any
part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death but the same affects
him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime. The
indirect is always as great and real as the direct. The spirit
receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body. Not one
name of word or deed ... not of venereal sores or discolorations ...
not the privacy of the onanist ... not of the putrid veins of gluttons
or rumdrinkers ... not peculation or cunning or betrayal or murder ...
no serpentine poison of those that seduce women ... not the foolish
yielding of women ... not prostitution ... not of any depravity of
young men ... not of the attainment of gain by discreditable means ...
not any nastiness of appetite ... not any harshness of officers to
men or judges to prisoners or fathers to sons or sons to fathers or
of husbands to wives or bosses to their boys ... not of greedy looks
or malignant wishes ... nor any of the wiles practised by people upon
themselves ... ever is or ever can be stamped on the programme but
it is duly realized and returned, and that returned in further
performances ... and they returned again. Nor can the push of charity
or personal force ever be anything else than the profoundest reason,
whether it bring argument to hand or no. No specification is necessary
... to add or subtract or divide is in vain. Little or big, learned
or unlearned, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the
first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it,
all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and
clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of
the universe and through the whole scope of it for ever. If the savage
or felon is wise it is well ... if the greatest poet or savan is wise
it is simply the same ... if the President or chief justice is wise it
is the same ... if the young mechanic or farmer is wise it is no more
or less ... if the prostitute is wise it is no more nor less. The
interest will come round ... all will come round. All the best actions
of war and peace ... all help given to relatives and strangers and the
poor and old and sorrowful and young children and widows and the sick,
and to all shunned persons ... all furtherance of fugitives and of the
escape of slaves ... all the self-denial that stood steady and aloof
on wrecks and saw others take the seats of the boats ... all offering
of substance or life for the good old cause, or for a friend's sake
or opinion's sake ... all pains of enthusiasts scoffed at by their
neighbors ... all the vast sweet love and precious sufferings of
mothers ... all honest men baffled in strifes recorded or unrecorded
... all the grandeur and good of the few ancient nations whose
fragments of annals we inherit ... and all the good of the hundreds of
far mightier and more ancient nations unknown to us by name or date or
location ... all that was ever manfully begun, whether it succeeded or
no ... all that has at any time been well suggested out of the divine
heart of man or by the divinity of his mouth or by the shaping of his
great hands ... and all that is well thought or done this day on any
part of the surface of the globe ... or on any of the wandering stars
or fixed stars by those there as we are here ... or that is henceforth
to be well thought or done by you whoever you are, or by any
one--these singly and wholly inured at their time and inure now and
will inure always to the identities from which they sprung or shall
spring ... Did you guess any of them lived only its moment? The world
does not so exist ... no parts palpable or impalpable so exist ... no
result exists now without being from its long antecedent result,
and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest
mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other
spot.... Whatever satisfies the soul is truth. The prudence of the
greatest poet answers at last the craving and glut of the soul, is
not contemptuous of less ways of prudence if they conform to its ways,
puts off nothing, permits no let-up for its own case or any case, has
no particular sabbath or judgment-day, divides not the living from
the dead or the righteous from the unrighteous, is satisfied with the
present, matches every thought or act by its correlative, knows no
possible forgiveness or deputed atonement ... knows that the young man
who composedly perilled his life and lost it has done exceeding well
for himself, while the man who has not perilled his life and retains
to old age in riches and ease has perhaps achieved nothing for himself
worth mentioning ... and that only that person has no great prudence
to learn who has learnt to prefer real longlived things, and favors
body and soul the same, and perceives the indirect assuredly following
the direct, and what evil or good he does leaping onward and waiting
to meet him again--and who in his spirit in any emergency whatever
neither hurries or avoids death.

The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is to-day. If
he does not flood himself with the immediate age as with vast oceanic
tides ... and if he does not attract his own land body and soul to
himself, and hang on its neck with incomparable love and plunge his
Semitic muscle into its merits and demerits ... and if he be not
himself the age transfigured ... and if to him is not opened the
eternity which gives similitude to all periods and locations and
processes and animate and inanimate forms, and which is the bond of
time, and rises up from its inconceivable vagueness and infiniteness
in the swimming shape of to-day, and is held by the ductile anchors
of life, and makes the present spot the passage from what was to what
shall be, and commits itself to the representation of this wave of an
hour and this one of the sixty beautiful children of the wave--let him
merge in the general run and wait his development.... Still the final
test of poems or any character or work remains. The prescient poet
projects himself centuries ahead and judges performer or performance
after the changes of time. Does it live through them? Does it still
hold on untired? Will the same style and the direction of genius to
similar points be satisfactory now? Has no new discovery in science or
arrival at superior planes of thought and judgment and behavior fixed
him or his so that either can be looked down upon? Have the marches of
tens and hundreds and thousands of years made willing detours to the
right hand and the left hand for his sake? Is he beloved long and long
after he is buried? Does the young man think often of him? and the
young woman think often of him? and do the middle aged and the old
think of him?

A great poem is for ages and ages in common, and for all degrees and
complexions, and all departments and sects, and for a woman as much as
a man and a man as much as a woman. A great poem is no finish to a man
or woman but rather a beginning. Has any one fancied he could sit at
last under some due authority and rest satisfied with explanations and
realize and be content and full? To no such terminus does the greatest
poet bring ... he brings neither cessation or sheltered fatness and
ease. The touch of him tells in action. Whom he takes he takes
with firm sure grasp into live regions previously unattained ...
thenceforward is no rest ... they see the space and ineffable sheen
that turn the old spots and lights into dead vacuums. The companion
of him beholds the birth and progress of stars and learns one of the
meanings. Now there shall be a man cohered out of tumult and chaos ...
the elder encourages the younger and shows him how ... they too shall
launch off fearlessly together till the new world fits an orbit for
itself and looks unabashed on the lesser orbits of the stars and
sweeps through the ceaseless rings and shall never be quiet again.

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait
awhile ... perhaps a generation or two ... dropping off by degrees.
A superior breed shall take their place ... the gangs of kosmos and
prophets _en masse_ shall take their place. A new order shall arise
and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own
priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches
of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos
and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all
events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects
to-day, symptoms of the past and future.... They shall not deign to
defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or
the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in
America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.

The English language befriends the grand American expression ... it is
brawny enough and limber and full enough ... on the tough stock of a
race who through all change of circumstance was never without the
idea of political liberty, which is the animus of all liberty, it has
attracted the terms of daintier and gayer and subtler and more elegant
tongues. It is the powerful language of resistance ... it is the
dialect of common sense. It is the speech of the proud and melancholy
races and of all who aspire. It is the chosen tongue to express growth
faith self-esteem freedom justice equality friendliness amplitude
prudence decision and courage. It is the medium that shall well nigh
express the inexpressible.

No great literature nor any like style of behavior or oratory or
social intercourse or household arrangements or public institutions
or the treatment of bosses of employed people, nor executive detail
or detail of the army and navy, nor spirit of legislation or courts
or police or tuition or architecture or songs or amusements or the
costumes of young men, can long elude the jealous and passionate
instinct of American standards. Whether or no the sign appears from
the mouths of the people, it throbs a live interrogation in every
freeman's and freewoman's heart after that which passes by or this
built to remain. Is it uniform with my country? Are its disposals
without ignominious distinctions? Is it for the ever growing communes
of brothers and lovers, large, well-united, proud beyond the old
models, generous beyond all models? Is it something grown fresh out of
the fields or drawn from the sea for use to me today here? I know
that what answers for me an American must answer for any individual or
nation that serves for a part of my materials. Does this answer? or is
it without reference to universal needs? or sprung of the needs of
the less developed society of special ranks? or old needs of pleasure
overlaid by modern science or forms? Does this acknowledge liberty
with audible and absolute acknowledgment, and set slavery at nought
for life and death? Will it help breed one goodshaped and wellhung
man, and a woman to be his perfect and independent mate? Does it
improve manners? Is it for the nursing of the young of the republic?
Does it solve readily with the sweet milk of the nipples of the
breasts of the mother of many children? Has it too the old ever-fresh
forbearance and impartiality? Does it look for the same love on the
last born and on those hardening toward stature, and on the errant,
and on those who disdain all strength of assault outside their own?

The poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away. The
coward will surely pass away. The expectation of the vital and great
can only be satisfied by the demeanor of the vital and great. The
swarms of the polished deprecating and reflectors and the polite float
off and leave no remembrance. America prepares with composure and
goodwill for the visitors that have sent word. It is not intellect
that is to be their warrant and welcome. The talented, the artist,
the ingenious, the editor, the statesman, the erudite ... they are not
unappreciated ... they fall in their place and do their work. The soul
of the nation also does its work. No disguise can pass on it ... no
disguise can conceal from it. It rejects none, it permits all. Only
towards as good as itself and toward the like of itself will it
advance half-way. An individual is as superb as a nation when he has
the qualities which make a superb nation. The soul of the largest and
wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of
its poets. The signs are effectual. There is no fear of mistake. If
the one is true the other is true. The proof of a poet is that his
country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.

[Footnote A: Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the most original of American
poets, was born in West Hills, Long Island, educated in the Brooklyn
Public Schools, and apprenticed to a printer. As a youth he taught
in a country school, and later went into journalism in New York,
Brooklyn, and New Orleans. The first edition of "Leaves of Grass"
appeared in 1855, with the remarkable preface here printed. During the
war he acted as a volunteer nurse in the army hospitals, and, when it
closed, he became a clerk in the government service at Washington. He
continued to write almost till his death.]




History, within a hundred years in Germany, and within sixty years
in France, has undergone a transformation owing to a study of

The discovery has been made that a literary work is not a mere play
of the imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain, but
a transcript of contemporary manners and customs and the sign of a
particular state of intellect. The conclusion derived from this is
that, through literary monuments, we can retrace the way in which men
felt and thought many centuries ago. This method has been tried and
found successful.

We have meditated over these ways of feeling and thinking and have
accepted them as facts of prime significance. We have found that they
were dependent on most important events, that they explain these, and
that these explain them, and that henceforth it was necessary to give
them their place in history, and one of the highest. This place has
been assigned to them, and hence all is changed in history--the aim,
the method, the instrumentalities, and the conceptions of laws and of
causes. It is this change as now going on, and which must continue to
go on, that is here attempted to be set forth.

On turning over the large stiff pages of a folio volume, or the yellow
leaves of a manuscript, in short, a poem, a code of laws, a confession
of faith, what is your first comment? You say to yourself that the
work before you is not of its own creation. It is simply a mold like
a fossil shell, an imprint similar to one of those forms embedded in
a stone by an animal which once lived and perished. Beneath the shell
was an animal and behind the document there was a man. Why do you
study the shell unless to form some idea of the animal? In the same
way do you study the document in order to comprehend the man; both
shell and document are dead fragments and of value only as indications
of the complete living being. The aim is to reach this being; this is
what you strive to reconstruct. It is a mistake to study the document
as if it existed alone by itself. That is treating things merely as a
pedant, and you subject yourself to the illusions of a book-worm.
At bottom mythologies and languages are not existences; the only
realities are human beings who have employed words and imagery adapted
to their organs and to suit the original cast of their intellects. A
creed is nothing in itself. Who made it? Look at this or that
portrait of the sixteenth century, the stern, energetic features of an
archbishop or of an English martyr. Nothing exists except through the
individual; it is necessary to know the individual himself. Let the
parentage of creeds be established, or the classification of poems, or
the growth of constitutions, or the transformations of idioms, and we
have only cleared the ground. True history begins when the historian
has discerned beyond the mists of ages the living, active man, endowed
with passions, furnished with habits, special in voice, feature,
gesture and costume, distinctive and complete, like anybody that you
have just encountered in the street. Let us strive then, as far as
possible, to get rid of this great interval of time which prevents us
from observing the man with our eyes, _the eyes of our own head_. What
revelations do we find in the calendared leaves of a modern poem? A
modern poet, a man like De Musset, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, or Heine,
graduated from a college and traveled, wearing a dress-coat and
gloves, favored by ladies, bowing fifty times and uttering a dozen
witticisms in an evening, reading daily newspapers, generally
occupying an apartment on the second story, not over-cheerful on
account of his nerves, and especially because, in this dense democracy
in which we stifle each other, the discredit of official rank
exaggerates his pretensions by raising his importance, and, owing to
the delicacy of his personal sensations, leading him to regard himself
as a Deity. Such is what we detect behind modern _meditations_ and

Again, behind a tragedy of the seventeenth century there is a poet,
one, for example, like Racine, refined, discreet, a courtier, a fine
talker, with majestic perruque and ribboned shoes, a monarchist and
zealous Christian, "God having given him the grace not to blush in any
society on account of zeal for his king or for the Gospel," clever in
interesting the monarch, translating into proper French "the _gaulois_
of Amyot," deferential to the great, always knowing how to keep
his place in their company, assiduous and respectful at Marly as at
Versailles, amid the formal creations of a decorative landscape and
the reverential bows, graces, intrigues, and fineness of the braided
seigniors Who get up early every morning to obtain the reversion of an
office, together with the charming ladies who count on their fingers
the pedigrees which entitle them to a seat on a footstool. On this
point consult Saint-Simon and the engravings of Perelle, the same as
you have just consulted Balzac and the water-color drawings of Eugene

In like manner, on reading a Greek tragedy, our first care is
to figure to ourselves the Greeks, that is to say, men who lived
half-naked in the gymnasiums or on a public square under a brilliant
sky, in full view of the noblest and most delicate landscape, busy in
rendering their bodies strong and agile, in conversing together, in
arguing, in voting, in carrying out patriotic piracies, and yet idle
and temperate, the furniture of their houses consisting of three
earthen jars and their food of two pots of anchovies preserved in oil,
served by slaves who afford them the time to cultivate their minds and
to exercise their limbs, with no other concern that that of having
the most beautiful city, the most beautiful processions, the most
beautiful ideas, and the most beautiful men. In this respect, a statue
like the "Meleager" or the "Theseus" of the Parthenon, or again a
sight of the blue and lustrous Mediterranean, resembling a silken
tunic out of which islands arise like marble bodies, together with
a dozen choice phrases selected from the works of Plato and
Aristophanes, teach us more than any number of dissertations and

And so again, in order to understand an Indian Purana, one must begin
by imagining the father of a family who, "having seen a son on his
son's knees," follows the law and, with ax and pitcher, seeks solitude
under a banyan tree, talks no more, multiplies his fastings, lives
naked with four fires around him under the fifth fire, that terrible
sun which endlessly devours and resuscitates all living things; who
fixes his imagination in turn for weeks at a time on the foot of
Brahma, then on his knee, on his thigh, on his navel, and so on,
until, beneath the strain of this intense meditation, hallucinations
appear, when all the forms of being, mingling together and transformed
into each other, oscillate to and fro in this vertiginous brain until
the motionless man, with suspended breath and fixed eyeballs, beholds
the universe melting away like vapor over the vacant immensity of
the Being in which he hopes for absorption. In this case the best of
teachings would be a journey in India; but, for lack of a better
one, take the narratives of travelers along with works in geography,
botany, and ethnology. In any event, there must be the same research.
A language, a law, a creed, is never other than an abstraction; the
perfect thing is found in the active man, the visible corporeal figure
which eats, walks, fights, and labors. Set aside the theories of
constitutions and their results, of religions and their systems, and
try to observe men in their workshops or offices, in their fields
along with their own sky and soil, with their own homes, clothes,
occupations and repasts, just as you see them when, on landing in
England or in Italy, you remark their features and gestures, their
roads and their inns, the citizen on his promenades and the workman
taking a drink. Let us strive as much as possible to supply the
place of the actual, personal, sensible observation that is no longer
practicable, this being the only way in which we can really know the
man; let us make the past present; to judge of an object it must be
present; no experience can be had of what is absent. Undoubtedly, this
sort of reconstruction is always imperfect; only an imperfect
judgment can be based on it; but let us do the best we can; incomplete
knowledge is better than none at all, or than knowledge which
is erroneous, and there is no other way of obtaining knowledge
approximatively of bygone times than by _seeing_ approximatively the
men of former times.

Such is the first step in history. This step was taken in Europe at
the end of the last century when the imagination took fresh flight
under the auspices of Lessing and Walter Scott, and a little later in
France under Chateaubriand, Augustin Thierry, Michelet, and others. We
now come to the second step.


On observing the visible man with your own eyes what do you try to
find in him? The invisible man. These words which your ears catch,
those gestures, those airs of the head, his attire and sensible
operations of all kinds, are, for you, merely so many expressions;
these express something, a soul. An inward man is hidden beneath the
outward man, and the latter simply manifests the former. You have
observed the house in which he lives, his furniture, his costume, in
order to discover his habits and tastes, the degree of his refinement
or rusticity, his extravagance or economy, his follies or his
cleverness. You have listened to his conversation and noted the
inflexions of his voice, the attitudes he has assumed, so as to judge
of his spirit, self-abandonment or gayety, his energy or his rigidity.
You consider his writings, works of art, financial and political
schemes, with a view to measure the reach and limits of his
intelligence, his creative power and self-command, to ascertain the
usual order, kind, and force of his conceptions, in what way he
thinks and how he resolves. All these externals are so many avenues
converging to one center, and you follow these only to reach that
center; here is the real man, namely, that group of faculties and of
sentiments which produces the rest. Behold a new world, an infinite
world; for each visible action involves an infinite train of
reasonings and emotions, new or old sensations which have combined to
bring this into light and which, like long ledges of rock sunk deep
in the earth, have cropped out above the surface and attained their
level. It is this subterranean world which forms the second aim, the
special object of the historian. If his critical education suffices,
he is able to discriminate under every ornament in architecture, under
every stroke of the brush in a picture, under each phrase of literary
composition, the particular sentiment out of which the ornament, the
stroke, and the phrase have sprung; he is a spectator of the inward
drama which has developed itself in the breast of the artist or
writer; the choice of words, the length or shortness of the period,
the species of metaphor, the accent of a verse, the chain of
reasoning--all are to him an indication; while his eyes are reading
the text his mind and soul are following the steady flow and
ever-changing series of emotions and conceptions from which this text
has issued; he is working out its _psychology_. Should you desire to
study this operation, regard the promoter and model of all the high
culture of the epoch, Goethe, who, before composing his "Iphigenia"
spent days in making drawings of the most perfect statues and who, at
last, his eyes filled with the noble forms of antique scenery and his
mind penetrated by the harmonious beauty of antique life, succeeded in
reproducing internally, with such exactness, the habits and yearnings
of Greek imagination as to provide us with an almost twin sister of
the "Antigone" of Sophocles and of the goddesses of Phidias. This
exact and demonstrated divination of bygone sentiments has, in our
days, given a new life to history. There was almost complete ignorance
of this in the last century; men of every race and of every epoch were
represented as about alike, the Greek, the barbarian, the Hindoo, the
man of the Renaissance and the man of the eighteenth century, cast in
the same mold and after the same pattern, and after a certain abstract
conception which served for the whole human species. There was a
knowledge of man but not of men. There was no penetration into
the soul itself; nothing of the infinite diversity and wonderful
complexity of souls had been detected; it was not known that the moral
organization of a people or of an age is as special and distinct
as the physical structure of a family of plants or of an order of
animals. History to-day, like zooelogy, has found its anatomy, and
whatever branch of it is studied, whether philology, languages or
mythologies, it is in this way that labor must be given to make it
produce new fruit. Among so many writers who, since Herder, Ottfried
Mueller, and Goethe have steadily followed and rectified this great
effort, let the reader take two historians and two works, one "The
Life and Letters of Cromwell" by Carlyle, and the other the "Port
Royal" of Sainte-Beuve. He will see how precisely, how clearly, and
how profoundly we detect the soul of a man beneath his actions and
works; how, under an old general and in place of an ambitious man
vulgarly hypocritical, we find one tormented by the disordered
reveries of a gloomy imagination, but practical in instinct and
faculties, thoroughly English and strange and incomprehensible to
whoever has not studied the climate and the race; how, with about a
hundred scattered letters and a dozen or more mutilated speeches, we
follow him from his farm and his team to his general's tent and to his
Protector's throne, in his transformation and in his development, in
his struggles of conscience and in his statesman's resolutions,
in such a way that the mechanism of his thought and action becomes
visible and the ever renewed and fitful tragedy, within which wracked
this great gloomy soul, passes like the tragedies of Shakespeare
into the souls of those who behold them. We see how, behind convent
disputes and the obstinacy of nuns, we recover one of the great
provinces of human psychology; how fifty or more characters, rendered
invisible through the uniformity of a narration careful of the
proprieties, came forth in full daylight, each standing out clear in
its countless diversities; how, underneath theological dissertations
and monotonous sermons, we discern the throbbings of ever-breathing
hearts, the excitements and depressions of the religious life,
the unforeseen reaction and pell-mell stir of natural feeling, the
infiltrations of surrounding society, the intermittent triumphs
of grace, presenting so many shades of difference that the fullest
description and most flexible style can scarcely garner in the vast
harvest which the critic has caused to germinate in this abandoned


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