ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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Essays by ‘Walter Hutcheson’

 

1. Criticism as One of the Fine Arts

2. Pity the Poor Drama

3. Prose and Verse

 

From The Saint Pauls Magazine - April, 1872 - Vol. X, pp. 386-395.

(Reprinted in Master-Spirits (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873).)

 

CRITICISM AS ONE OF THE FINE ARTS.
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AMONG the many things which modern ingenuity has tried to manipulate into a science must be classed what is usually called Criticism; but, for my own part, I am inclined to think that Criticism means to belong to the Fine Arts, and to elude the scientific arrangement altogether.
     There was a time, of course, when books, pictures, and music were judged by a certain set of fixed rules, each incontestable as the law of gravitation; when contemporary persons could appraise the value of an æsthetic article as easily as a grocer finds out the weight of a pound of sugar; when, in fact, critics knew their business thoroughly, being in the secret of the manufacture. Sometimes the critical scales were entrusted to one man, say to Voltaire, or John Dryden, or Addison. Again, public opinion was guided by a kind of joint stock company, like Pope, Swift, & Co., or Gifford & Co., or Jeffrey, Brougham, & Co. In all cases alike judgment was infallible; there was no appeal. And the laws on which sentence was founded were, curiously enough, considered so unimpeachable, that one no more thought of questioning them than believers think of questioning the divine laws of Confucius, or the miracles of Mahomet, or the revelations of the Apocalypse. Moreover, these laws had all the weight of mystery. No one had ever read the golden book where they were enshrined. They were written in an unknown tongue; the high-priest of criticism sat on the tripod, and interpreted. In this way, things amazing and awful came to pass. At one time it was decreed here in England that Abraham Cowley was a mighty genius; and at another it was settled, there in France, that Shakspere was a rude unsavoury monster. The Oracle spake, and Klopstock was crowned. The public listened and approved. No unordained person dared to interfere in so profound a matter. The little murmur of protest that rose when impostors like Keats were punished, soon died away in the loud roar greeting the coronation of divinities like Mr. Sotheby. Criticism, in fact, was a semi-religious rite performed by a priesthood, guided partly by a set of divine rules, partly by a kind of corybantic inspiration.
     Recent scepticism has tried to demolish much—the Pentateuch and some of the miracles, for example; but it has never yet demolished the brazen idols of Criticism. The public press has advanced a great deal, freeing men’s minds and widening their knowledge; but, strange to say, it has not yet advanced to the point of refusing to shelter 387 that worst class of priestcraft, which pronounces anonymous judgments. It is quite true, however, that now-a-days it does not much matter, since critics are thoroughly disorganised, and each fellow, on a tripod of his own, delivers judgment to a special circle; so that publishing a book or showing a picture is simply another sort of “running the gauntlet.” But it is surely high time, in this questioning age, to ask on what grounds this critical priesthood still exists at all; why it presumes to give judgment, often with such reckless disregard of consequences; what use it is to any soul under the sun; and how, having once proved it as thorough a humbug as the Delphic oracle itself, we are to get rid of it in the speediest possible manner?
     To begin with, what is Criticism?
     Strictly speaking, of course, it is the application of certain tests, by which we may ascertain the value of specific articles, just as we find out the quality of gold. These tests, applied to literature and art, have produced most astounding results, without really enlightening mankind at all. It was all very well when the work was cut and dried. At one time, for example, Criticism did almost all her work by a cabalistic yard-measure called the “Unities.” Nothing could be easier. Whenever an epic poem or a tragedy was brought up for judgment, out came the yard-measure, and the matter was decided in a moment. The thing either did or did not conform to the Unities, and was praised or damned accordingly; and in those days, we may remark en passant, Shakspere was nowhere. Latterly, however, such tests as this have been abandoned in despair. It is recognised as a privilege of genius to break all set rules, and so ride triumphant over them. There is no absolute axiom of criticism which some great man may not falsify in practice to-morrow. Here again, therefore, we ask with some asperity, what is Criticism?
     No science certainly. No list of set rules to be applied by a priesthood. No sum as easy to manage as the multiplication table. What then?
     Criticism, now-a-days, simply means (it is doubtful whether at any time it has meant much more) the impression produced on certain minds by certain products. If Jones paints a picture, and it is noticed unfavourably in the Peckham Review, the criticism does not come right up out from Delphi, but consists simply of so much “copy” in the handwriting of Robinson. If Brown composes a poem, and it is wildly eulogised in the Stokeinpogis Chronicle, let him first bethink himself, before he become too bumptious, that the eulogy in question is simply the result of an individual impression, say on the mind of Smith. In any of these cases it is quite clear that the value of the criticism depends on the amount of honesty and intelligence possessed by Robinson and Smith respectively. To get anything like a fair insight into the truth, we must take care to ascertain at least a few preliminaries:
388 1. How old the critic is, and what is the bent of his intellect?
     2. What are his favourite authors? What is his chief study?
     3. Has he ever written or painted himself, and, if so, is he at all soured?
    
4. Is he personally acquainted with the author or painter criticised? and if so, are his relations with him friendly, or the reverse?
    
5. Is he usually honest in the expression of his opinions? &c. &c.
     These seem unlimited questions, but, in point of fact, they are virtually answered in all criticism that has any weight. They are least answered, of course, in anonymous criticism; but, even then, they are partially settled to the public satisfaction. One may calculate to a nicety, for example, what effect such and such a new work will produce on the editor of the Times, or of the Spectator, or of the Saturday Review. A work of high and daring originality, unpopular in form, will be utterly ignored by the leading journal, patronized (if it contain no offence to the Broad Church) in the Spectator, and gibed and grinned at in the Saturday Review. Behind and beyond the natural style and temper of these professional critics, there lie of course the mysterious workings of private liking and prejudice. Now and then, when we see the unpopular tone taken in the Times, we know what enormous secret influence must have been used to get that tone taken. There is no one of these journals, there is no one of the men who write these journals, quite free of undue influence in some direction or other; conscious or unconscious—it is there. There is, in fact, no end to the questions we must definitely answer before we ascertain the value of any published opinion. It is in all cases the record of an impression only; but how has that impression been taken? How rare it is to find a man in whose capability of receiving an honest influence we can place full reliance! It is not dishonesty we have to fear, but certain unconscious weaknesses. Even in the cases of such men as Mr. Mill, or Mr. Herbert Spencer, or Sainte-Beuve, or M. Taine, we must have our doubts. We almost trust them, but now and then we pause. And then, when the critical moment comes, what is their “impression” worth? Personally, much; scientifically, not a rap!
     It is great fun—fun given to poor mortality, alas! too seldom—to see the advent of some outrageous Genius, some

Monstr’-inform’-ingens-horrendus
Demoniaco-seraphic

prodigy of the Euphocion order, starting up to the horror of criticism, and carrying all the masses before him by simple charm. Wonderful is that gift of producing on thousands of people precisely the same set of favourable impressions; wonderful is that gift, whether possessed by a Dickens, a Tennyson, or a Tupper. Fortunately the great 389 mass of people are their own “tasters,” judging for themselves at first hand, and they won’t be guided by the literary priests, however so wise; and it is simply delicious to observe how reputations grow, in spite of all the priesthood do to tramp them down. Let no man despair merely because the few who write abuse him. The abuse simply means that he is not wanted by Smith, Brown, and Jones; while all the time he is being eagerly waited for by all the legions of the Robinsons, to whom every word he drops is a revelation. Longfellow has ceased to be a favourite with reviewers, but he has his compensations. George Eliot is praised by every reviewer in the country, but the public knows, for all that, that she has never fulfilled her original promise. Dickens was abused by genteel journals, but what cared he?
     Every author or artist, in fact, is a gauge to tell how many people there are in the world of about his own ratio of intelligence—minus the creative faculty. There are one hundred thousand Tuppers. There are (it is seriously calculated) one hundred Stuart Mills and half-a-dozen Herbert Spencers. In art, the Faeds and Friths are innumerable; the Millais numerous; and the Poynters infinitesimal. For many years, Browning paid the public large sums, as it were, for the privilege of publishing poems; only there was no article in the agreement that the poems in question were to be read; and now, the public has turned the tables, and is paying all the money back for the privilege of reading those very poems. The Mutual Admiration School of Poetry is scarcely read out of London, and produces no impression whatever on the public; the fact being that sensualists and spooneys are not so common as some critics persist in telling us. Luckily, we say, criticism can only do mischief up to a certain point, and cannot do that mischief long. It may delay a reputation, but it cannot kill it. The public, in the long run, will have its own way, and choose its own favourite, and will choose according to the direct impression made by the favourite in question.
     But what a boon it would be to the public if the gentlemen who “do” criticism, instead of assuming the priestly robe and sitting veiled on a tripod, were simply and fearlessly to tell us how certain works have affected them, what they like and dislike in them, how they seem to stand in relation to other literature. What time this would save! What lying it would avoid! To speak with authority is “parlous” indeed. Who gains anything when Anonymous writes that Browning’s last poem is sheer balderdash, or that Simeon Solomon’s last picture is divinely original! Who says so? That is what we want to get at. If it be Smith, let Smith come forward and sign his name. Of course, much in criticism is self-convincing, quite apart from the writer’s identity; and the best and most convincing criticism of all, in the case of a book, is free and ungarbled extract from the work under notice: extract can seldom be unfair. But in 390 how many cases should we be on our guard if we knew what critic was administering judgment. Take an instance. Mr. Grote devotes a lifetime to the study of Plato, and at last produces a great work on the subject. This work, being sent to the Megatherium for review, is handed over to Tomkins, who is fresh from the university, where, so far from making any mark, he was considered a dull fellow, and has drifted into the most irresponsible of all businesses, that of anonymous reviewing.

TOMKINS’S QUALIFICATIONS.

     1. He is 25 years of age, and with little experience either of men or books.
     2. He was crammed for his degree, and knows little of Greek beyond the alphabet.
     3. He has quick intelligence, great power of hiding his ignorance, and little honesty.
     4. He is mentally incapable of conceiving a Platonic proposition, &c.
     Here, it will be admitted, we should know what to think of Tomkins’s criticism on Grote, if he candidly prefixed to it the above list of qualifications; yet ten to one Tomkins, under his anonymous guise, manages so cleverly to conceal his ignorance that we feel perfectly satisfied when he concludes: “Passing over certain errors and repetitions pardonable in a work of such magnitude, as well as the pedantic mode of spelling some words more familiar to us in their Latinized shape, we may record our opinion that this work has given us real pleasure,—an opinion in which, we are sure, every scholar will join. We have already expressed our disapproval of certain passages, and have indicated where they need revision; these revisions made, the work will stand as a monument of English scholarship and a complete manual of the subject.”
     Take another instance. A man of genius, to whom this generation does scant justice, Mr. William Gilbert, publishes a story, in which the real life of the lower classes in our country is pictured for us with a fidelity which would be terrible, if it were not illuminated by the most subtle and delicate humour. This story goes to the Dilletante Gazette, and in course of time is handed over to Chesterfield Junior, Esq., of the Inner Temple.

CHESTERFIELD JUNIOR’S QUALIFICATIONS FOR “CRITICISING” “DE PROFUNDIS.”*

     1. He is 30 years of age, a literary man about town, and his tastes are elegant.

* De Profundis: a Tale of the Social Deposits. By William Gilbert. (Strahan and Co.)

391 2. His notion of the working man is that he is a “rough;” and his notion of life generally is that it is a series of dinings- out, unpleasantly varied by sullen requisitions on the part of the lower classes for “goods received.”
     3. He is utterly destitute of beneficence; he has not even a dramatic perception of what beneficence is.
     4. His favourite author is Thackeray; but he enjoys the “fun” of Dickens, &c.
     5. He is utterly and hopelessly unconscious of the limited nature of his own literary vision.
     Chesterfield Junior’s criticism on the marvellous tale of common life would probably amount to this;—“We have here a study, in the manner of Defoe, of one of the least interesting forms of life generated by our over-crowded cities. No one can doubt the cleverness of the hard literal drawing; but to us it is simply unpleasant. It is a photograph, not a picture. It altogether lacks beauty, and has not one flash of the illuminating humour which distinguishes Dickens’s work in the same direction.” In this case, be it noted, every word is the record of a genuine impression on a mind to whose sympathies the object does not appeal. Just suppose that, in addition to the natural antipathy, Chesterfield Junior had the least bit of personal animosity to his author, and he would hardly plead guilty to conscious injustice if he wrote in terms of entire condemnation: “Mr. Gilbert is a realist of the penny-a-liner type, without one gleam of genius, and his book is the most vulgar and unpleasant production we have read for a long time. Led by the natural gravitation of his mind to the study of what is low and common, and incapable of anything but a vulgarising treatment, he solicits our interests in the futures of a virtuous washerwoman, a drummer, and an irreclaimable thief. Trash like this is simply intolerable to any person of refined tastes.” Poor Chesterfield Junior! He means no harm. He is only a sheep with a silk ribbon on his neck, bleating his mutton-like defiance. A few people are deceived, and say to themselves, “This Mr. Gilbert must be a very unpleasant writer!” We, who know better, only smile, saying, “Chesterfield Junior has put his poor little foot into it again, as is again and again the custom of creatures without eyes.”
     On the other hand, let the same work fall into the hands of Addison Redivivus, whose qualifications are great beneficence, vast experience of the lower classes, a natural repugnance to all false sentiment and fine writing, and that sort of intelligence which gives as well as takes illumination; and we shall speedily hear, perhaps, that “De Profundis” is, for sheer perfection in the rarest of all styles, a work with scarcely a peer, possessing both truth and beauty, bearing on every page the sign of a masterly understanding and of the finest intellectual humour, and leaving on the competent reader’s mind an impression 392 in the highest sense imaginative and poetical. Who would be right—Chesterfield Junior or Addison Redivivus?
     Criticism, we repeat, is no science. Neither Chesterfield nor Addison can settle the matter by any fixed rule. They merely chronicle their impression pro or contra, and the value of the impression depends on our knowledge of the person impressed. Well, if criticism is no science, what is it? It seems to me that criticism, as the representation of the effect particular works have on particular individuals, is rapidly securing its place as one of the Fine Arts, and that its value is in exact proportion to the amount of artistic self-portraiture attained by the critic.
     We have half-a-dozen tolerable critics in England, but we have none nearly equal as an artist to the person whom I shall use to illustrate my proposition. Now that Sainte-Beuve is gone, the finest living specimen is M. Taine, whose works are winning appreciation here as well as in France. M. Taine has great intelligence, culture, literary experience. His faculty of composition may be described as almost creative. Wherein, then, does this faculty consist? It consists, I am sure, in the man’s unequalled power of representing his own qualifications; of illustrating to us, by a thousand delicate lights and shades, the quality of his own mind and its limitations; and of revealing to us, as frequently as possible, the nature of his education and its effect on his tastes. Sooner or later, he enables us to become on intimate terms with him. He conceals little or nothing. He lays bare the most secret sources of his sympathies and his antipathies. He invariably discards the “editorial” tone. And when once we know him thoroughly, nothing can be more delightful than his way of playing with his theme. We know almost by instinct where he will be right and where he may be wrong. His work belongs to the Fine Arts, and at times approaches masterly portrayal.
     “The following,” M. Taine says in effect, “are my qualifications:—
     “1. I am not too young for self-restraint, nor too old for sympathy, and I have had an excellent education.
     “2. I am a Frenchman, educated under the Empire, and (more or less unconsciously) ‘æstheticised.’
     “3. I have the French hatred of ‘institutions,’ and the French deficiency in the religious faculty.
     “4. My passion for symmetry may lead you to believe me a formal person; but I am in reality a loose thinker, dexterously manœuvring impressions under the guise of a finished style.
     “5. Form, as form, almost always fascinates me, but I try most to sympathise where the subject is most shapeless.
     “6. I am thoroughly conscious of my limitations, and seldom try to conceal them.
     “7. In spite of my seeming power of surveying large surfaces (the result of my instinct of symmetrical arrangement), my faculty is 393 microscopic, and examines every work of art inch by inch, phrase by phrase, afterwards piecing the criticism together into the form of a verdict on the whole work.”
     Much more might be added; but the point is, that M. Taine, being a thorough artist, tells us all the above, directly or indirectly, and makes us alive to it at every step. He never allows us for a moment to lose sight of himself; and he is at his best when he is least impersonal, and most candid in portraying his emotions.
     How delicious it is, for example, to find a critic showing his own intellectual physiognomy in this way, when beginning to criticise a great English philosopher:—

     “When at Oxford some years ago, during the meeting of the British Association, I met, amongst the few students still in residence, a young Englishman, a man of intelligence, with whom I became intimate. He took me in the evening to the New Museum, well filled with specimens. Here short lectures were delivered, new models of machinery were set to work; ladies were present and took an interest in the experiments; on the last day, full of enthusiasm, God save the Queen was sung. I admired this zeal, this solidity of mind, this organisation of science, these voluntary subscriptions, this aptitude for association and for labour, this great machine pushed on by so many arms, and so well fitted to accumulate, criticise, and classify facts. But yet, in this abundance, there was a void; when I read the Transactions, I thought I was present at a congress of heads of manufactories. All these learned men verified details and exchanged recipes. It was as though I listened to foremen, busy in communicating their processes for tanning leather or dyeing cotton: general ideas were wanting. I used to regret this to my friend; and in the evening, by his lamp, amidst that great silence in which the university town lay wrapped, we both tried to discover its reasons.”

     “One day I said to him: You lack philosophy—I mean, what the Germans call metaphysics. You have learned men, but you have no thinkers. Your God impedes you. He is the Supreme Cause, and you dare not reason on causes, out of respect for Him. He is the most important personage in England, and I see clearly that he merits his position; for he forms part of your constitution, he is the guardian of your morality, he judges in final appeal on all questions whatsoever, he replaces with advantage the prefects and gendarmes with whom the nations on the Continent are still encumbered. Yet this high rank has the inconvenience of all official positions; it produces a cant, prejudices, intolerance, and courtiers. Here, close by us, is poor Mr. Max Müller, who, in order to acclimatise the study of Sanscrit, was compelled to discover in the Vedas the worship of a moral God, that is to say, the religion of Paley and Addison. Some time ago, in London, I read a proclamation of the Queen, forbidding people to play cards, even in their own houses, on Sundays. It seems that, if I were robbed, I could not bring my thief to justice without taking a preliminary religious oath; for the judge has been known to send a complainant away who refused to take the oath, deny him justice, and insult him into the bargain. Every year, when we read the Queen’s speech in your papers, we find there the compulsory mention of Divine Providence, which comes in mechanically, like the apostrophe to the immortal gods on the fourth page of a rhetorical declamation; and you remember that once, the pious phrase having been omitted, a second communication was made to Parliament for the express purpose of supplying it. All these cavillings and 394 pedantry indicate to my mind a celestial monarchy; naturally, it resembles all others; I mean that it relies more willingly on tradition and custom than on examination and reason. A monarchy never invited men to verify its credentials.”—Taine’s History of English Literature, trans. by Henry Van Laun, vol. ii., pp. 478—479 (Essay on John Stuart Mill).

     Even if the above did not occur at the end of two large volumes, full of self-portraiture more or less indirect, it would reveal to us, as by a sun-picture, the man with whom we have to deal. Herein lies the delightful Art of it. We certainly do get some formal ideas in the end about Mr. Mill, but our real interest for the time being is in M. Taine. How subtle he is! how thoroughly French! How just and kind he is in other places to Tennyson and Thackeray: but how much more he loves De Musset and Balsac! He becomes our personal friend, and every word he utters has weight. His egotism is charming; we could hear him talk for hours.
     In England here, critics for the most part assume the editorial tone, and are proportionally uninteresting. To the long list of critics who write without edification, either because they decline self-revelation or are unpleasant when revealed, may be added, in modern times, the names of Mr. Lewes, late editor of the Fortnightly Review, and the Duke of  Argyll. These gentlemen sign their articles, but utterly fail to attract us, they are so thoroughly, so transparently, editorial. Critics of the higher class, on the other hand, may be found in Mr. Arthur Helps, Mr. Matthew Arnold, and (with a strong editorial leaven) in Mr. R. H. Hutton, who has recently published two volumes of essays. Mr. Arnold may or may not be an interesting being, but he never for a moment represents himself as what he is not. We know him as thoroughly as if we had been to school with him. We do not get angry with what he says, so much as with his insufferable manner of saying it. Mr. Helps is, once and for ever, the optimist man of the world. Mr. R H. Hutton shows us, as in a mirror, his deep-seated prejudice, his quick sympathy with ideas as distinguished from literary clothing, and his genial love of microscopic délicatesse. We know at once that this last critic will pass Hugo by, and adore Tennyson; that he will find great pleasure in the poetry of Mr. Keble; and that his sympathy with revolt will take no more violent form than a predilection for the critical poems of Mr. Arnold!
     And just in so far as they tell us so much, just in so far as they suffer us to see their prejudices and their limitations, are these gentlemen good critics—critics rapidly advancing their profession to a place among the Fine Arts. Let them come! —the more the merrier! We would sooner take the opinion of Mr. Hutton, or Mr. Helps, or Mr. Arnold, or even Mr. Sala,—any of these gentlemen individually —than that of any unknown oracle, from the Times downwards. 395 Besides, unknown oracles can be bought; but to buy clever men is not so easy. It is on these very grounds that the public should only smile good-humouredly when Brown, Robinson, and Co. take to puffing each other. We have lately had the spectacle of a group of drawing-room poets undertaking to blow the trumpet for each other till the world should ring again. And why not? There was no “editorial” deception. The thing was not criticism, but it was Fine Art, and everybody enjoyed the self-revelation of Mr. Swinburne as a man totally without perception of the meaning of words and the right measure of flattery, and the self-revelation of Mr. Swinburne’s friends as gentlemen gone mad with secret emotion- hatching. The knowledge so acquired is invaluable. We can hardly, in fact, grumble at any nonsense if it be signed, and if the signer shows us the sort of man he is.
     In many cases, the anonymous is a mere cloak, and everybody knows whom it conceals. The public bowed before the judgment of Jeffrey and Brougham, not that of the Edinburgh Review; before the judgment of Gifford and Southey, not that of the Quarterly Review. Nowadays, nevertheless, the anonymous pen has multiplied itself so prodigiously, that the air rings with fiats and acclaims, and Heaven knows who is uttering them! It is wonderful how Genius gets along, and escapes being put down; wonderful how fairly the oracles speak, in spite of their irresponsibility. Still, the only criticism worth a rap belongs to the Fine Artist, and the only critic who really carries us away is he whose personality we entirely respect.
     There seems no end to the extension of so-called criticism as a creative form of composition {as valuable in its way as lyrical poetry or autobiography), wherein we have the representation of certain known products on certain competent or incompetent natures. The man who criticises may attract us by the tints of his own individuality, and the play of his own soul, as successfully as the man who sings or the man who paints. His work is merely the final record of an impression which, before reaching him, has passed through the colouring matter of the poet’s or painter’s mind. To conclude, then, scientific criticism is fudge, as sheer fudge as scientific poetry, as scientific painting; but criticism does belong to the Fine Arts, and for that reason its future prospects are positively unlimited.

                                                                                                                                   WALTER HUTCHESON.

 

[Note:
Buchanan chose to open his 1873 collection of essays, Master-Spirits, with ‘Criticism As One Of The Fine Arts’. However, he revised the final section, removing the third paragraph from the end, with its reference to Swinburne, entirely. The edited version is available at the Internet Archive.]

Reviews: Robert Buchanan and the Magazines

Back to Essays

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From The Saint Pauls Magazine - May, 1872 - Vol. X, pp. 505-513.

 

PITY THE POOR DRAMA!
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     DEEPER and deeper! darker and darker! A little time ago there seemed a dim prospect that the poor old Drama of England might improve in health, and, shaking off some of its fatal bad habits and traditions, give us one final exhibition of a noble sort before it disappeared finally from the mortal scene; but things have taken another turn, unfavourable symptoms have manifested themselves, and the Drama seems doomed. A more piteous spectacle than its unrepentant deathbed can scarcely be conceived! The child of Shakspere and Jonson, the glorious creature who illuminated generations, and seemed predestined to immortal life, is passing away in a chamber full of the fumes of wine and the smell of tobacco, nursed by a lady in pink tights and a blonde wig (known to the modem playgoer as the Comic Muse), soothed to sleep by the plaintive melody of the bones, and bewailed decorously by poor, solitary Mr. Phelps, whom you may observe standing (in a chimney-pot hat) in the background. There the immortal creature lies, poisoned by a long course of dissipation, and finished off by a generation of dramatic quacks.
     The present state of matters, not without any metaphor at all, is very simple. There is not at present in London more than a single dramatist worthy of the name, not one thoroughly great actor, not two decent actresses, and scarcely one theatre where a man of taste may go for a rational evening’s entertainment. A glance at the advertising columns of the daily newspapers is most distressing. The leading theatre, having distinguished itself by a set of performances worthy of Richardson’s Show, is given over to Italian Opera. The Haymarket has a pretty comedy by Mr. Gilbert, of which more anon. The Adelphi and the Princess’s are representing respectively two pieces of about the literary merit of stories published for shop-boys in penny numbers. The Lyceum has “The Bells,” a disagreeable play full of good effects, with an actor who, in the present dearth of any talent, has been advancing to a position far beyond his actual merits. The Gaiety has a farce— “Shilly-Shally”—called in the playbills a comedy, in which Mr. Toole contrives, by wriggling and talking through his nose, to secure his share of laughing approval. At the Court, Messrs. Westland Marston and W. G. Wills have produced “Broken Spells,” an ambitious attempt, possessing the sort of inspiration usually confined to the Surrey side of the Thames. The Holborn is given over to sheer idiocy and a libretto, furnished in a rash moment by Mr. Burnand. The Prince of Wales goes on representing 506 “Caste,” Mr. Robertson’s successful, pretty, but very commonplace comedy. At none of these houses, and in none of these places, have we any really first-rate acting. “Caste” is the best specimen of careful study and elaborate painstaking, with a certain cleverness in the direction of character-playing; “Pygmalion and Galatea” comes next, with a higher poetical touch, from our one really worthy dramatist; but all the other pieces are worthless dramatically, and all the other acting—with the exception of Mr. Irving’s, which is striking if not really powerful—is worthy of a profession without education, and a public seemingly without taste. We have omitted to mention “Cymbeline” at the Queen’s. Its production is highly interesting, as affording us once more the spectacle of a sixth-rate actress thrust into one of Shakspere’s finest parts, and earning by some miraculous fascination the applause of the public press. The other day Miss Hodson was a burlesque actress. Now, much in the same way that poets awake and find themselves famous, she discovers herself managing a theatre and playing Imogen before an intelligent British audience.
     This, however, is nothing wonderful; though how the thing is arranged, and by what means ladies of small talent, or no talent at all, rise rapidly to the top of their profession, passes our comprehension. Take Miss Neilson, who certainly possesses strong dramatic instinct, which might have been converted into dramatic faculty, if its owner had not suddenly found herself admitted to leading parts. Miss Ada Cavendish, at the Court Theatre, is described by some critics as a lady of extraordinary genius, but if she had not been thrust forward the public would have taken a long time to discover the genius in question. We should have fancied, indeed, that the ladies we have mentioned could have played small parts very prettily, if they had been properly trained; never, until the critics told us so, should we have supposed them possessed of great natural faculty or average artistic culture. What a blessing it is, therefore, that we have so many managers whose rapture at genius is so great that they would allow an actress to wear a green satin dress with a long train, when supposed to be living in the Scottish Highlands and alighting from a leaky Highland punt,* and so many critics whose faith is unbounded enough to comprehend the “intensity” of an Ada Cavendish, and the “passion” of a Henrietta Hodson!
     Those who are in the habit of visiting London theatres on the occasion of the production of a new play are familiar with the faces of certain gentlemen who sit in the stalls and boxes— melancholy men for the most part, as if their theatrical fare disagreed with them; not specially striking in appearance, save for a certain tendency to wear false fronts and to smell of mysterious liquors; in no way to be

* The allusion is to Miss Neilson’s costume in “Life for Life.”

507 confounded with those smaller creatures who wash their hands and faces before they go to the play. These (whisper it low) are the Critics! Apart from their profession, they are by no means eminent, though some of them have written books; but in their places, as masters of the drama, they are terrific beings. How tremendously they frown! how graciously they smile! Yet, awful as they look, there is scarcely any limit to their toleration. Myriads of idiotic representations have made them groan at nothing. They come to the theatre, as to the sacrifice, patiently enduring. Watch them, and observe how they yawn. Listen to them, and hear how they ridicule the dramatist and sneer at the actress. Why, they actually see the humbug of the whole performance as thoroughly as you do! Can these be the men who write the glowing eulogiums you read next day over the breakfast-table, with your head still aching from the sufferings of the previous night?
     Even so. Accustomed for long years to a demoralised stage, these critics have become in their turn demoralised, and puff the very entertainments they secretly despise. Generally speaking, we believe they do not really desire high art; it would tire and weary them. Their profession, a poor one pecuniarily, tempts no really powerful thinker into their ranks. They number in their little band no man of even average eminence. One or two of them are cultivated men; many of them quite uncultivated. At their head, as the representative of the Times, stands, or lately stood, Mr. John Oxenford, an educated person, and the author of many literary trifles, but a writer quite indisposed to criticise dramatic art from a noble standpoint. Among them, until very lately, was numbered Mr. John Hollingshead, now a London manager, who, boldly avowing that there are so many thousand “fools” in London for whom he has to cater, turns the Gaiety Theatre into a cross between a playhouse, a restaurant, and a smoking divan. These gentlemen, these so-called critics, have got to the point of seldom or never condemning a piece unless it is something outrageously bad or outrageously unpopular; they praise without blushing the trash produced at Drury Lane, the Adelphi, and other homes of melodrama, and they seldom or never attempt to lead the public in a nobler and healthier direction. Under their fostering care, good acting has become almost extinct.
     Nemesis, however, has descended on the heads of the critics of late, and the public, like all basely flattered animals, does not thank them for pampering its degraded tastes, but turns upon and despises them. Things indeed have come to such a pass, that any trash can be forced to run, despite every sort of public protest. A piece damned for its sheer worthlessness on the first night is now-a-days by no means doomed to death, but may possibly go on flourishing for two or three hundred nights. Most utter failures are let down very gently. Sometimes, on the other hand, the dramatic critics rise up en masse, 508 either because there is some strong grievance against the author (a very common case), or because our gentlemen are seized with a sudden attack of virtue. A remarkable instance of sudden and simultaneous honesty occurred recently, on the production of a comedy at the Globe Theatre, from the pen of a young dramatist, Mr. Albery. This piece, “Forgiven” by name, was neither better nor worse than most pieces of its class; it possessed some very good points of the Robertsonian sort, such as the cutting up of a “real” wedding-cake on the stage; and it enabled Miss Carlotta Addison to act prettily and look very interesting. For secret causes, best known, perhaps, to the manager of the theatre, almost all the critics in London treated “Forgiven” with indiscriminate abuse,—abuse almost pitiless and shameless, seeing what productions the same critics were every day noticing, if not with favour, at least with tolerance. A number of years ago, perhaps, the manager would have tremblingly withdrawn the offending play. Not so Mr. Montague, manager of the Globe. Instead of admitting the attacks to be fair and right, he kept the piece before the public, and shortly afterwards filled all the newspapers with the following advertisement:—

     “FORGIVEN.—To the Public—Ladies and Gentlemen,— I have been reticent with regard to the success or failure, whichever it might prove to be, of Mr. Albery’s piece; but now, after three weeks’ trial, during which, in the face of the adverse criticism of most of the press, the play has been enthusiastically received by crowded audiences, I feel bound, in justice to the author, my company, and to my own judgment, to announce that the comedy has proved an unmistakable success. So long as it draws forth such unqualified marks of approval as it has done, I beg unassumingly to inform you it shall remain the prominent feature in the bills of my theatre, but whenever it fails to meet with your support another comedy shall be presented to you.—Your faithful servant, H. J. MONTAGUE.—GLOBE THEATRE.”

Far be it from us to extenuate the conduct of Mr. Montague. It should be treated as it deserves, and the theatrical manager who insults his critics should in future be ignored by the critics altogether. But that such conduct would have been impossible if criticism were really what it should be, must be patent to the most careless observer. The public, accustomed to venal and dishonest puffs, and to insincere “slurring over” of wretched failures, now distrusts the newspapers altogether, and judges entirely for itself; and, being a poor helpless public at the best, its judgment is often wrong and almost always perverse.
     Mr. Montague clearly indicates the point of view of the manager, which amounts simply to this: that the public shall have what it asks for, however wretched and however base. If it demands legs, it shall be feasted with legs; if it craves for real pumps, real hansom cabs, real water, its craving shall be appeased. On the other hand, if it 509 wanted Shakspeare, it would get Shakspeare; and if it demanded original genius, genius would be immediately forthcoming.
     It needs no sophist to refute this rubbish. The public is in the hands of the managers and authors, and it will go to see what managers and authors can do best. It has never, so far as we know, disdained any entertainment simply because it was first-rate; though it utterly refuses, and wisely refuses, to be bored with the Shakspearian acting of the day, or to welcome every aspirant whose verse limps in ten metrical syllables. It is quite familiar enough with the drama to know that our actors and actresses can’t act Shakspeare, and that they can act Robertson, Albery, and Byron; and it prefers a poor piece well performed to a great piece miserably murdered. Let Mr. Montague produce a really first-class comedy, and place it on the stage in a really first-class manner, and he will soon discover that the public has no objection to merit as merit. It is worse than useless, however, to cast a comedy beyond the brains of his company; such an experiment can end only in triple and quadruple shame.
     How many educated gentlemen are there at present following the theatrical profession? How many of them could “parse” an ordinary speech in Shakspeare? How many possess any culture, beyond, perhaps, a smattering of French and German? How many actresses speak the English of good society, and are able for an hour at a stretch to look like women of gentle breeding? How many actresses are women of good character? Then, as to theatrical managers, who among them would be unhesitatingly pointed to as a refined gentleman—of culture, say, even equal to the best of the professional critics? Alas, to answer these questions in detail would be “parlous speaking.” A few things, however, are broadly certain. Acting is not a pursuit resorted to, as a rule, by educated men, virtuous women, or high-minded speculators. The stage is covered with men with the manners of strolling players and cockney clerks, and with women who seem to revel in their effrontery and shame. Here and there an intelligent man stands alone, respected and wondered at; here and there, a virtuous lady shines, like a star that dwells apart. But intelligence and virtue are not the most prominent characteristics of the stage in England. The theatrical profession flourishes despised, apart from cultivated society. Yet if the drama were what it should be in a civilised country, to act upon the stage would be an honour, and to succeed in writing for the stage would be an author’s most particular glory.
     Turning for a moment from managers, critics and actors, glance at our dramatists. The greatest, if success be the test of greatness, is Mr. Dion Boucicault, one of whose early efforts appears to have been the following extraordinary effusion in blank verse, published, we believe, in “Bentley’s Miscellany:”—
5I0

LIGHT.

“And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.”—Gen. i. ver. 2.

Space labour’d—quicken’d by Almighty word,
And from its shapeless womb unsightly voided
Chaos. For on that great command, Matter,
Obedient to its great progenitor,
Rush’d amain from all the corners
Of eternity. Each atom jostling
Its fellow—in haste to follow Him—so form’d
A turgid lump, which, surging to and fro
On a black sea of thickening vapour,
An unwholesome sweat oozed from the slimy depths
Of this miscarried mass. Helpless—still with all
The germ of life, as in a new-born babe,—
It lay upon the bosom of great Space,
Its mother, who could not help it into fair
Existence. . . . . .
God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.”
The murky vault was split. Darkness was rent—
A golden orb, sprung from the smile of God,
Stood created. Width oped her mighty jaws
To gape at this new wonder (!); for space now
Had eyes to see her own immensity.
The universe awoke, and dressed in regal
Purple, stood in all the silent majesty
Of the interminable arch, empire
Of creation! Night, so late a tyrant,
Shrank to some pit or grave within the bosom
Of its subject mass. The infant globe, smiling
Stretched forth its cheeks towards its novel nurse,
That sung and soothed it with a gentle breeze.
Land sprung up to meet its benefactor,
And straight shot forth its trees and shrubs, which sent up
An odour—the only language they could speak,—
To kiss and greet the light that warmed them
Into life. Syren myrtles woo the fickle
May-breeze with a rustling kiss filch’d of
The lagging wind; while every trembling leaf
Whispers a lay of love-sick melody.
The airy multitudes, distilling
Sweetest music in their shrill tale of first
Affection, swell out the gentle tumult
Of this mellow choir, till beaming Nature
Seems one song of universal adoration!!!

Fortunately, Mr. Boucicault has never since attempted the stately speech of high art. He has distinguished himself by some capital dramas, and at least one tolerable comedy; but the extent of his culture may be guessed from the above poetic specimen.* Mr. Westland

     * Still more extraordinary than the fact of such writing ever having got into print at all, is the fact that the poem from which we extract it is deemed worthy of incorporation in the collected edition of the “Bentley Ballads.” So Mr. Boucicault is not alone in his ignorance of what constitutes rhythmic blank verse. But after all, is Mr. B. guilty of this tremendous poem? Almost as brilliant is the following bit of “gush” from “London Assurance:”— “I love,” says Grace Harkaway, “to watch the first tear that glistens in the opening eye of morning, the silent song the flowers breathe, the thrilly choir of the woodland minstrels, to which the modest brook trickles applause!” O chaste Dion!

511 Marston, although far inferior to Mr. Boucicault in constructive power, has real cultivation and a genuine ear; he is, indeed, one of the few dramatists who comprehend a noble suggestion and understand the music of verse; but he seems altogether deficient in creative power. Mr. Tom Taylor is an extremely clever play-wright, and a most cunning adapter; with more poetic faculty than he gets credit for, as he showed in his translation of Breton ballads. Mr. Robertson had great cleverness, and so has Mr. Albery. Mr. Charles Reade, though a great genius in other directions, has little or no dramatic faculty—at all events, his plays are always disappointing and almost “bad” in tone. Besides the gentlemen named, there are several others, who write with more or less success; not to speak of the persons—we can hardly call them dramatic authors—who furnish the wretched balderdash spoken by the half-naked women in tights and the gibbering male monkeys who act in ordinary burlesque. No living dramatist, however, seems to show any strikingly original faculty, save only Mr. W. S. Gilbert. This gentleman, young as he is, has already elevated himself to the top of his profession.
     Now, Mr. Gilbert’s success is the best possible sign that public taste is not utterly debased; for, although we believe that success to have been out of all proportion to the author’s desserts, it has been a distinct recognition of a very quaint and individual thinker. Mr. Gilbert inherits from his gifted father a strange oddity of conception, mingled with great irony. His faculty is not imagination, but common-place observation, as it were, inverted. He delights in seeing people and things upside down. He never writes a poetical line; his images are as common-place as the mantel-piece or the cruet- stand. His point of view is the incongruous, but, unlike Dickens, he never blends the incongruous and the tender. He is a hard realist with a twist in his brain; and that twist is genius. He commenced by writing trash for the women in tights. He has tried dramas, and they seem to have failed. His first real success, indeed, was the “Palace of Truth,” a comedy in blank verse, produced at the Haymarket Theatre on November 19, 1870. The subject was a familiar one—based on the fairy fancy of a palace where everybody found himself compelled to speak the truth, consciously or unconsciously. The theme gave unlimited scope for Mr. Gilbert’s odd, dry turns of thought. Take the following specimen, part of a love- scene where, in spite of himself, an enthusiastic lover speaks under the enchanted influence, to his sweetheart’s amaze:—
512

     Zeo. (coldly).         If such a love as mine
Serves but to feed your sense of vanity,
I think it is misplaced.
     Phil.                              My vanity
Must needs be fed, and with such love as yours;
I have worked hard to gain it, Zeolide!
You are not nearly as attractive as
Five hundred other ladies I could name,
Who, when I said I loved them, stopped my lips——
     Zeo. (astonished). I’m glad they did.
     Phil.          With kisses, ere I could
Repeat the sentence! and it hurt me much
That you, who are comparatively plain,
Should give me so much trouble Zeolide!
     Zeo. (aside). What can he mean? (Aloud) Oh, you are mocking me!
     Phil. Mocking you, Zeolide? You do me wrong!
(With enthusiasm.) Oh, place the fullest value on my words,
And you’ll not over-value them! I swear
As I’m a Christian knight, I speak the truth.
     Zeo. Why, Philamir, you’ve often told me that
You never loved a woman till we met!
     Phil. (with all the appearance of rapture). I always say that.
                                       I have said the same
To all the women that I ever woo’d!
     Zeo. And they believed you?
     Phil. Certainly they did—
They always do! Whatever else they doubt
They don’t doubt that. (He tries to embrace her.)
     Zeo. (horror-struck). Away, and touch me not!
     Phil. What! has my earnestness offended you?
Or do you fear that my impassioned speech
Is over-coloured? Trust me, Zeolide,
If it is over-charged with clumsy love,
Or teems with ill-selected metaphor,
It is because my soul is not content
To waste its time in seeking precious stones
When paste will answer every end as well.
     Zeo. Why, Philamir! dare you say this to me?

                                                                                                       “The Palace of Truth.” (Lacy, London.)

We quote this as a fair sample of Mr. Gilbert’s unmelodious blank verse—a form of writing adopted by him, not for its poetic effect or rhythm, but because it suits his close crisp sort of dialogue. “The Palace of Truth” succeeded, although supported only by such performers as Mr. Kendal, Mr. Buckstone, and Miss Madge Robertson. Still more remarkable, since then, has been the success of the same author’s “Pygmalion and Galatea,” a piece more poetical in feeling, but hardly as neat as its predecessor. Here, again, the subject is treated in a dry, droll, grim way, often subtle, never imaginative; and the writing is in the same ten-syllable verse. Here again, also, we see only Messrs. Kendal and Buckstone, and Miss 513 Robertson. But the thing is so carefully done, and is so really first-class of its kind, that all London goes to see it. It relies for its attraction on legitimate sources of interest. It is, in fact, as nearly poetical as anything we have had upon the stage for some years; yet we do not find it rejected on that account; on the contrary, its reception is almost beyond its merits. We cannot deny, therefore, that the public is ready to welcome a real dramatist, when it receives with such favour and understands so well a writer so odd, and in a certain sense so unsympathetic, as Mr. Gilbert.
     And the public goes to see “The Bells,” which it certainly would not do if it were a wholly deluded public, deaf to the appeal of good taste. The critics have averred that Mr. Irving’s acting is wonderfully fine, although strikingly horrible; and the public sacrifices its nerves to its duty, and accepts the awful nightmare. There is, indeed, merit in Mr. Irving, but not such merit as leads us to expect great things from him as an actor. His suppressed agony, his stagey starts, his conscience-stricken looks, are overdone; and the last part of his performance—where he is carried on the stage in a fit, with the clammy perspiration on his brow, and the ghastliness of death on his face—is inartistic in the direction of pure horror. Still, our point is that the performance has merit, and that the public does not flinch from patronising merit, even when slightly disagreeable.
     If we except the two performances just alluded to, and the performance of “Caste” at the Prince of Wales’s, there is perhaps no passable evening’s entertainment to be found at present in London; and Mr. Gilbert’s piece, Mr. Irving’s acting, and the general acting in “Caste,” are drawing by far the best houses. It is absurd, on the face of it, for managers to say that the public taste is rotten. The truth is, that managers are for the most part unintelligent men, with a very low gauge of art altogether. They encourage trashy pieces, and amateur acting, and they allow their stages to be covered with the sweepings of the Argyll Rooms and St. John’s Wood. They do all they can to debase the public taste; and the critics do much to assist them. Our only hope, therefore, lies with the actors and the dramatists. Let the actors imitate Mr. Irving, and at least attempt powerful representation. Let the dramatists imitate Mr. Gilbert, and instead of following in the stale rut of tradition, run the risk of a little individuality. Of course, in its despised state of decadence, the drama can never again take its old place among the Arts that honour mankind. It is, moreover, too far gone ever to recover. It may, nevertheless, pass away decently, and be followed to its last home by a few respectable mourners, rejoicing to feel that it died penitent, and that, if it could have been spared a little longer, it might have tried to turn over a new leaf.

                                                                                                                                   WALTER HUTCHESON.

Reviews: Robert Buchanan and the Magazines

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From The Saint Pauls Magazine - September, 1872 - Vol. XI, pp. 337-347.

(Reprinted in Master-Spirits (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873).)

 

PROSE AND VERSE.
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THE “music of the future” is at last slowly approaching its apotheosis; since “Lohengrin” has signally triumphed in Italy, and the South is opening its ears to the subtle secrets of the Teutonic Muse. The outcome of Wagner’s consummate art is a war against mere melody and tintinabulation, such as have for many long years delighted the ears of both gods and groundlings. Is it too bold, then, to anticipate for future “Poetry” some such similar triumph? Freed from the fetters of pedantry on the one hand, and escaping the contagion of mere jingle on the other, may not Poetry yet arise to an intellectual dignity parallel to the dignity of the highest music and philosophy? It may seem at a first glance over-sanguine to hope so much, at the very period when countless Peter Pipers of Verse have overrun literature so thoroughly, robbing poetry of all its cunning, and “picking their pecks of pepper” to the delight of a literary Music Hall; but, in good truth, when disease has come to a crisis so enormous, we have good reason to hope for amendment. A surfeit of breakdowns and nigger-melodies, or of Offenbach and Hervé, or of “Lays” and “Rondels,” and “Songs without Sense,” is certain to lead to a reaction all in good time. A vulgar taste, of course, will always cling to vulgarity, preferring in all honesty the melody of Gounod to the symphony of Beethoven, and the tricksy, shallow verse of a piece like Poe’s “Bells” to the subtly interwoven harmony of a poem like Matthew Arnold’s “Strayed Reveller.” True Art, however, must triumph in the end. Sooner or later, when the Wagner of poetry arises, he will find the world ready to understand him; and we shall witness some such effect as Coleridge predicted—a crowd, previously familiar with Verse only, vibrating in wonder and delight to the charm of oratio soluta, or loosened speech.
     Already, in a few words, we have sketched out a subject for some future æsthetic philosopher or philosophic historian. A sketch of the past history of poetry, in England alone, would be sufficiently startling; and surely a most tremendous indictment might be drawn thence against Rhyme. Glance back over the works of British bards, from Chaucer downwards; study the delitiæ Poetarum Anglicorum. What delightful scraps of melody! what glorious bursts of song! Here is Chaucer, wearing indeed with perfect grace his metrical dress; for it sits well upon him, and becomes his hoar antiquity, and we would not for the world see him clad in the freedom of prose. Here is 338 Spenser; and Verse becomes him well, fitly modulating the faëry tale he has to tell. Here are Gower, Lydgate, Dunbar, Surrey, Gascoigne, Daniel, Drayton, and many others: each full of dainty devices; none strong enough to stand without a rhyme-prop on each side of him. Of all sorts of poetry, except the very best, these gentlemen give us samples; and their works are delightful reading. As mere metrists, cunning masters of the trick of verse, Gascoigne and Dunbar are acknowledged masters. Take the following verses from the “Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins”:

“Then Ire came in with sturt and strife,
His hand was aye upon his knife,
         He brandeist like a beir;
Boasters, braggarts, and bargainers,
After him passit in pairs,
         All boden in feir of weir . . .
Next in the dance followed Envy,
Fill’d full of feid and felony,
         Hid malice and despite.
For privy hatred that traitor trembled,
Him follow’d many freik dissembled,
         With fenyit wordis white;
And flatterers unto men’s faces,
And back-biters in secret places,
         To lie that had delight,
With rowmaris of false leasings;
Alas that courts of noble kings
         Of them can ne’er be quite!”

This, allowing for the lapse of years, still reads like “Peter Piper” at his best; easy, alliterative, pleasant, if neither deep nor cunning. For this sort of thing, and for many higher sorts of things, Rhyme was admirably adapted, and is still admirably adapted. When, however, a larger music and a more loosened speech was wanted, Rhyme went overboard directly.
     On the stage even, Rhyme did very well, as long as the matter was in the Ralph Royster Doyster vein; but a larger soul begot a larger form, and the blank verse of Gorboduc was an experiment in the direction of loosened speech. How free this speech became, how by turns loose and noble, how subtle and flexible it grew, in the hands of Shakspeare and the Elizabethans, all men know; and rare must have been the delight of listeners whose ears had been satiated so long with mere alliteration and jingle. The language of Shakspeare, indeed, must be accepted as the nearest existing approach to the highest and freest poetical language. Here and there rhymed dialogue was used, when the theme was rhythmic and not too profound; as in the pretty love-scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the bantering, punning chat of Love’s Labour’s Lost. True song sparkled up in its place like a fountain. But the level dialogue for 339 the most part was loosened speech. Observe the following speech of Prospero, usually printed in lines, each beginning with a capital:—

     “This King of Naples, being an enemy to me inveterate, hearkens my brother’s suit; which was,—that he, in lieu of the premises, of homage and I know not how much tribute, should presently extirpate me and mine out of the dukedom, and confer fair Milan, with all the honours, on my brother. Whereon, a treacherous army levied, one midnight fated to the purpose did Antonio open the gates of Milan; and, in the dead of darkness, the ministers for the purpose hurried thence me and thy crying self !”
                                 Tempest, Act I., Scene 2.

Any poet since Shakspeare would doubtless have modulated this speech more exquisitely, laying special stress on the five accented syllables of each line. Shakspeare, however, was too true a musicians He knew when to use careless dialogue like the above, and when to break in with subtle modulation; and he knew, moreover, how the loose prose of the one threw out the music of the other. He knew well how to inflate his lines with the measured oratory of an offended king:

“The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruin’d; and the soul of every man
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall.
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney’d in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company;
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession;
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark, nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir,
But, like a comet, I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children, This is he!
Others would say, Where? which is Bolingbroke?” &c.
                                         Henry IV., Part I., Act III., Scene 2.

In the hands of our great Master, indeed, blank verse becomes almost exhaustless in its powers of expression; but nevertheless, prose is held in reserve, not merely as the fitting colloquial form of the “humorous” scenes, but as the appropriate loosened utterance of strong emotion. The very highest matter of all, indeed, is sometimes delivered in prose, as its most appropriate medium. Take the wonderful set of prose dialogues in the second act of “Hamlet,” and notably that exquisitely musical speech of the Prince, beginning, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” Turn, also, to Act V. of the same play, where the “mad matter” between Hamlet and the Gravediggers, so full of solemn significance and sound, is prose once more. The noble tragedy of “Lear,” again, owes much of its weird power to the frequent use of broken speech. 340 And is the following any the less powerful or passionate because it goes to its own music, instead of following any prescribed form?—

     “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes! hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
                                                                                                       Merchant of Venice, Act III., Scene 1.

     It would be tedious to prolong illustrations from an author with whom everybody is supposed to be familiar. Enough to say that the careful student of Shakspeare will find his most common magic to lie in the frequent use, secret or open, of the oratio soluta. And what holds of him, holds in more or less measure of his contemporaries—of Jonson, Marston, Webster, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, Greene, Peele, and the rest; just as it holds of the immediate predecessor of Shakspeare, whose “mighty line” led the way for the full Elizabethan choir of voices. Then, as now, society had been surfeited with tedious jingle; and only waited for genius to set it free. It is difficult to say in what respect the following scene differs from first-class prose; although we have occasionally an orthodox blank verse line, the bulk of the passage is free and unencumbered; yet its weird imaginative melody could scarcely be surpassed.

     Duch. Is he mad, too ?
     Servant. Pray question him; I’ll leave you.
     Bos. I am come to make thy tomb.
     Duch. Ha! my tomb?
Thou speak’st as if I lay upon my death-bed
Gasping for breath. Dost thou perceive me such?
     Bos. Yes.
     Duch. Who am I? am not I thy duchess?
     Bos. That makes thy sleep so broken:
Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But look’d to near have neither heat nor light.
     Duch. Thou art very plain.
     Bos. My trade is to flatter the dead, not the living;
I am a tomb-maker.
     Duch. And thou hast come to make my tomb?
     Bos. Yes!
     Duch. Let me be a little merry:
Of what stuff wilt thou make it?
     Bos. Nay, resolve me first: of what fashion?
     Duch. Why do we grow phantastical on our death-bed?
Do we affect fashion in the grave?
     Bos. Most ambitiously. Princes’ images on the tombs
Do not lie as they were wont, seeming to pray
Up to heaven; but with their hands under their cheeks,
As if they died of the toothache! They are not carved
With their eyes fixed upon the stars; but as
Their minds were wholly bent upon the world,
The self-same way they seem to turn their faces.
     Duch. Let me know fully, therefore, the effect                               341
Of this thy dismal preparation!—
This talk fit for a charnel.
     Bos. Now I shall (a coffin, cords, and a bell).
Here is a present from your princely brothers;
And may it arrive welcome, for it brings
Last benefit, last sorrow. *

He who will carefully examine the works of our great dramatists, will find everywhere an equal freedom; rhythm depending on the emotion of the situation, and the quality of the speakers, rather than on any fixed laws of verse.
     If we turn, on the other hand, to dramatists and poets of less genius, if we open the works of Waller, Cowley, Marvell, Dryden, and even of Milton, we shall find much exquisite music, but little perhaps of that wondrous cunning familiar to us in Shakspeare and the greatest of his contemporaries. Shallow matter, as in Waller; ingenious learned matter, as in Cowley; dainty matter, as in Andrew Marvell; artificial matter, as in Dryden; and puritan matter, as in  Milton, were all admirably fitted for rhymed or some other formal sort of Verse. Rhyme, indeed, may be said, while hampering the strong, to strengthen and fortify the weak. But, of the men we have just named, the only genius approaching the first-class was Milton; and so no language can be too great to celebrate the praises of his singing. Passage after passage, however, might be cited from his great work, where, like Molière’s “Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” he talks prose without knowing it; and, to our thinking, his sublimest feats of pure music are to be found in that drama † where he permits himself, in the ancient manner, the free use of loosened cadence. Milton, however, great as he is, is a great formalist, sitting “stately at the harpsichord.” A genius of equal earnestness, and of almost equal strength—we mean Jeremy Taylor—wrote entirely in prose; and it has been well observed by a good critic that “in any one of his prose folios there is more fine fancy and original imagery—more brilliant conceptions and glowing expressions—more new figures and new applications of old figures—more, in short, of the body and soul of poetry, than in all the odes and epics that have since been produced in Europe.” Nor should we have omitted to mention, in glancing at the Elizabethan drama, that the prose of Bacon is as poetical, as lofty, and in a certain sense as musical, as the more formal “poetry” of the best of his contemporaries.
     Very true, exclaims the reader, but what are we driving at? Would we condemn verse altogether as a form of speech, and

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     * The Duchess of Malfy, Act IV. Scene 2. The above extract is much condensed. The reader who would fully feel the force of our allusion, cannot do better than study Webster’s great tragedy as a whole. It utterly discards all metrical rules, and abounds in wonderful music.
     † Samson Agonistes.

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342 abolish rhyme from literature for ever? Certainly not! We would merely suggest the dangers of Verse, and the limitations of Rhyme, and briefly show how the highest Poetry of all answers to no fixed scholastic rules, but embraces, or ought to embrace, all the resources both of Verse generally and of what is usually, for want of a better name, entitled Prose. On this, as on many points, tradition confuses us. The word “Poet” means something more than a singer of songs or weaver of rhymes. What are we to say to a literary classification which calls “Absalom and Achitophel” a poem, and denies the title to “The Pilgrim’s Progress;” which includes “Cato” and the “Rape of the Lock” under the poetical head, and excludes Sidney’s “Arcadia” and the “Vicar of Wakefield;” which extends to Cowper, Chatterton, Gray, Keats, and Campbell the laurel it indignantly denies to Swedenborg, Addison (who created Sir Roger de Coverley!), Burke, Dickens, and Carlyle; and which has for so long delayed the placing of Walter Scott’s novels in their due niche just below the plays of Shakspeare?
     Instead of being the spontaneous speech of inspired men in musical moods, Verse has become a “form of literature,” binding so-called “poets” as strictly as bonds of brass and iron; and the effort of most of our strong men has been to free their limbs as much as possible, by working in the most flexible chain of all, that of blank verse. If the reader will take the trouble to compare the early verse of Tennyson with his later works, wherein he has found it necessary to shake his soul free of its over-modulated formalism, he will understand what we mean. If, just after a perusal of even “Guinevere” and “Lucretius,” he will read Whitman’s “Centenarian’s Story” or Coleridge’s “Wanderings of Cain,” his feeling of the “wonderfulness of prose” will be much strengthened. That feeling may thereupon be deepened to conviction by taking up and reading any modern poet immediately before a perusal of the authorized English version of the “Book of Job,” “Ecclesiastes,” or the wonderful “Psalms of David.”
     It is really strange that Wordsworth just hit the truth, in the masterly preface to his “Lyrical Ballads.” “It may be safely affirmed,” he says, “that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. . . Much confusion has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science. The only strict antithesis to Prose is Metre; nor is this in truth a strict antithesis, because lines and passages of metre so naturally occur in writing prose that it would be scarcely possible to avoid them even were it desirable.” Theoretically in the right, this great poet was often practically in the wrong; using rhythmic speech habitually for non-rhythmic moods, and leaving us no example of glorious loosened 343 speech, combining all the effects of pure diction and of metre. After generations of “Pope”-ridden poets, the Wordsworthian language was “loosened” indeed; but it sounds now sufficiently formal and pedantic. His only contemporaries of equal greatness—we mean of course Scott and Byron—were sufficiently encumbered by verse. Scott soon threw off his fetters, and rose to the feet of Shakspeare. Byron never had the courage to abandon them altogether; but he played fine pranks with them in “Don Juan,” and, had he lived, would have pitched them over entirely. On the other hand, the fine genius of Shelley and the wan genius of Keats worked with perfect freedom in the form of verse: first, because they neither of them possessed much humour or human unction; second, because their subjects were  vague, unsubstantial, and often (as in the “Cenci”) grossly morbid; and third, because they were both of them over- shadowed by false models, involving a very retrograde criterion of poetic beauty. Writers of the third or perhaps of the fourth rank, they occupy their places, masters of metric beauty, often deep and subtle, never very light or strong. Once more, what shall we say to a literary classification which grants Shelley the name of “poet” and denies it to Jean Paul? and which (since poetry is admittedly the highest literary form of all, and worthy of the highest honour) sets a spare falsetto singer like John Keats high over the head of a consummate artist like George Sand?
     We have had it retorted, by those who disagreed with Wordsworth’s theory, that its reductio ad absurdum was to be found in Wordsworth’s own “Excursion;” that “poem” being full of the most veritable prose that was ever penned by man. Very good. Take a passage:—

     “Ah, gentle sir! slight, if you will, the means, but spare to slight the end, of those who did, by system, rank as the prime object of a wise man’s aim—security from shock of accident, release from fear; and cherished peaceful days for their own sakes, as mutual life’s chief good and only reasonable felicity. What motive drew, what impulse, I would ask, through a long course of later ages, drove the hermit to his cell in forest wide; or what detained him, till his closing eyes took their last farewell of the sun and stars, fast anchored in the desert?”—Excursion, Book III.

This is not only prose, but indifferent prose; poor, colloquial, ununctional; and no amount of modulation could make it poetry. Contrast with it another passage, of great and familiar beauty:—

     “I have seen a curious child, who dwelt upon a tract of inland ground, applying to his ear the convolutions of a  smooth-lipped shell, to which, in silence hushed, his very soul listened intently. His countenance soon brightened with joy; for from within were heard murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed mysterious union with its native sea. Even such a shell the universe itself is to the ear of Faith. And there are times, I doubt not, when to you it doth impart authentic tidings of invisible things, of ebb and flow, and ever-during power, and central peace subsisting at the heart of endless agitation.”
                                                                                                               Excursion, Book IV.

344 Prose again, but how magnificent! poetical imagery worthy of Jeremy Taylor; but losing nothing by being printed naturally. The conclusion of the whole matter, so far as it affects the “Excursion,” is that the work, while essentially fine in substance, suffers from an unnatural form. Read as it stands, it is rather prosy poetry. Written properly, it would have been admitted universally as a surpassing poem in prose; although it contains a great deal which, whether printed as prose or verse, would be unanimously accepted as commonplace and unpoetic.
     Our store of acknowledged poetry is very precious; but it might be easily doubled, were we suffered to select from our prose writers—from Plato, from Boccaccio, from Pascal, from Rousseau, from Jean Paul, from Novalis, from George Sand, from Charles Dickens, from Nathaniel Hawthorne,—the magnificent nuggets of pure poetic ore in which these writers abound. Read Boccaccio’s story of Isabella and the Pot of Basil, or Dickens’s description of a sea-storm in “David Copperfield,” or Hawthorne’s picture of Phœbe Pyncheon’s bedchamber (quoted recently by an admirable writer, himself a fine prose poet,* in this magazine), and confess that, if these things be not poetry, poetry was never written. If you still doubt that the rhythmic form is essential to the highest poetic matter, read that wondrous dream of the World without a Father at the end of Jean Paul’s “Siebenkäs,” and then peruse Heine’s description of the fading away of the Hellenic gods before the thorn-crowned coming of Christ. What these prose fragments lose in neatness of form, they gain in mystery and glamour. After reading them, and many another similar effort, one almost feels that rhymed poetry is a poor, petty, and inferior form of language after all.
     Just at this present moment we want a great Poet, if we want anything; and we particularly want a great Poet with the courage to “loosen” the conventional poetic speech. “Off, off, ye lendings!” Away with lutes and fiddles; shut up Pope, Dryden, Gray, Keats, Shelley, and the other professors of music, and try something free and original—say, even a course of Whitman. Among living men, one poet at least is to be applauded for having, inspired by Goethe, “kicked” at the traces of rhyme, and written such poems as “The Strayed Reveller,” “Rugby Chapel,” and “Heine’s Grave.” We select a passage from the first-named of these fine poems:—

THE YOUTH (loquitur).

The gods are happy;
They turn on all sides
Their shining eyes,
And see, below them,
The earth and men.

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* Matthew Browne.
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They see Teresias                                                            345
Sitting, staff in hand,
On the warm grassy
Asopus’ bank,
His robe, drawn over
His old sightless head,
Revolving only
The doom of Thebes.

They see the centaurs
In the upper glens
Of Pelion, in the streams
Where red-berried ashes fringe
The clear brown shallow pools
With streaming flanks and heads
Rear’d proudly, snuffing
The mountain wind.

They see the Indian
Drifting, knife in hand,
His frail boat moor’d to
A floating isle, thick matted
With large-leaved, low-creeping melon plants
And the dark cucumber.
He reaps and stows them,
Drifting—drifting—round him,
Round his green harvest-plot,
Flow the cool lake-waves:
The mountains ring them.

They see the Scythian
On the wide steppe, unharnessing
His wheel’d house at noon,
He tethers his beast down, and makes his meal,
Mares’ milk and bread
Baked on the embers; all around
The boundless waving grass-plains stretch, thick starred
With saffron and the yellow hollyhock
And flag-leaved iris flowers.
Sitting in his cart
He makes his meal; before him, for long miles,
Alive with bright green lizards
And springing bustard-fowl,
The track, a straight black line,
Furrows the rich soil; here and there
Clusters of lonely mounds,
Topp’d with rough-hewn,
Grey, rain-bleared statues, overspread
The sunny waste.

They see the ferry
On the broad clay-laden
Lone Charasmian stream; thereupon
With snort and steam,
Two horses, strongly swimming, tow
The ferry-boat, with woven ropes                                         346
To either bow
Firm-harness’d by the wain; a chief,
With shout and shaken spear,
Stands at the prow, and guides them; but astern
The cowering merchants, in long robes,
Sit pale beside their wealth
Of silk bales and of balsam-drops,
Of gold and ivory,
Of turquoise, earth, and amethyst,
Jasper and chalcedony,
And milk-barr’d onyx stones.
The loaded boat swings groaning
In the yellow eddies.
The gods behold them.
                               Matthew Arnold’s Poetical Works, vol. ii.

Equally fine are some of the choric passages in the “Philoctetes” of the Hon. J. Leicester Warren, one of the first of our young poets. Passages such as we have quoted differ little from prose, and would seem equally beautiful if printed as prose. They move to their own music, and need no adventitious aid of the printer. The same may be said of Goethe’s “Prometheus”:—

Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus,
Mit Wolkendunst,
Und übe, dem Knaben gleich
Der Disteln köpft,
An Eichen dich an Bergeshöhn;
Musst mir meine Erde
Doch lassen stehn,
Und meine Hütte, die du nicht gebaut,
Und meinen Herd,
Um dessen Gluth
Du mich beneidest, &c.

The strain rolls on in simple grandeur, too massive for rhyme or formal verse. It bears to the “Poe” species of poetry about the same relation that the Venus of Milo does to Gibson’s tinted Venus.
     Illustrations so crowd upon us as we write, that they threaten to swell this little paper out of all moderate limits. We must conclude; and what shall be our conclusion? This. A truly great Poet is not he who wearies us with eternally sweet numbers; is not Pope, is not Poe, is not even Keats. It is he who is master of all speech, and uses all speech fitly; able, like Shakspeare, to chop the prosiest of prose with Polonius and the Clowns, as well as to sing the sweetest of songs with Ariel and the outlaws “under the greenwood tree.” It is not Hawthorne, because his exquisite speech never once rose to pure song; it is Dickens, because (as could be easily shown, had we space) he was a great master of melody as well as a great workaday humorist. It is not Thackeray, because he never reached that 347 subtle modulation which comes of imaginative creation; and it is not Shelley, because he was essentially a singer, and many of the profoundest and delightfullest things absolutely refuse to be sung. It is Shakspeare par excellence, and it is Goethe par hasard. Historically speaking, however, it may be observed that the greatest Poets have not been those men who have used Verse habitually and necessarily; and if we glance over the names of living men of genius, we shall perhaps not count those most poetic who call their productions openly “poems.” Meanwhile, we wait on for the Miracle-worker who never comes,—the Poet. We fail as yet to catch the tones of his voice; but we have no hesitation in deciding that his first proof of ministry will be dissatisfaction with the limitations of Verse as at present written.

                                                                                                                                   WALTER HUTCHESON.

Reviews: Robert Buchanan and the Magazines

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