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{David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry 1868}








Flowery rhymes that blossom free
In a tuft of greenery,
Smiled on by the sun, and bright
With the dews of lyric light.





WOULD we quit Babylon, to while away an hour in Fairyland, among Titania and her maids of honour? We have only to take up the “Hesperides” of Robert Herrick. It is merely a piece of sweet and careless dissipation—the poetical epitome of a fanciful brain, and a tender, happy heart. Its author squandered all his genius in flower-painting, music-making, and sporting in the shade with Amaryllis; but his book exists, full of the author and his peccadilloes; a book to be cherished by lovers of lyrics; a pretty souvenir of a jovial verse-writer who lived and made innocent love in a cassock, who tippled “Simon the King’s” canary with Ben the 224 laureate and Selden the antiquary, and who lived a hot-headed poet’s life, not the life of a philosopher, in the quiet woodland ways. It teems with that luscious physical life which abounded in the man who wrote it; it is full of his idle fancies, his naughty sayings, and his wooings of women in the abstract. A more exceptionable book than “The Complete Angler,” its shortcomings spring, like the other’s racy morality, from a nature which means happiness and candour.
     The “Hesperides” is, perhaps, the most musical collection of occasional verses in the language. Pretty thoughts and sounds, controlled and regulated by principles of most magical harmony, wreathe magically from the quaint old book, singing and dancing, smiling and shining, perpetuating the memory of Herrick, the kindly clerical Prospero who created them. Glad verses, sad verses, mad verses, and (in a strait-laced sense) bad verses, fill these pages, melting and sighing and dying in a thousand flats and sharps of melody. A book of all moods and measures, a rainbow blended of a thousand 225 different colours; a thing both of sable and of tinsel, of beautiful shreds and patches. It is redolent of ambrosia, nectar, and all the tipple of the gods. In short, it is a green arbour book, just as old Isaac’s “Complete Angler,” and Cotton’s “Montaigne” are green arbour books; it is to be opened at random, in fine weather, and dreamed over. The cool flow of the syllables, the jingle and glitter of the fancies, the little hidden love-sentiments bubbling cheerily up at the ends of the stanzas, make Herrick’s Hippocrene very refreshing to the parched literary Arab, the over-worn philosopher, and the lover, if not to the ambitious and metaphysical modern Alastor.
     Many familiar faces—smiling up, as it were, through green leaves, daffodils, and daisies,—peep out on me as I dip into the book. One of these is the well-known “Night Piece,” addressed to Mistresse Julia, his inspiration—a poem which every modern cavalier ought to have by heart. Another, also pretty generally known, is the sweet little song about “Daffodils.” The following lines are also unique:—


A sweet disorder in the dresse
Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls a crimson stomacher;
A cuffe neglectfull, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning waves, deserving note,
In the tempestuous pettecoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whoes tye
I see a wilde civility;
Doe more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

     The above is a fair specimen of Herrick’s usual manner. It is short, pithy, and unique, characterized, like most of his verses, by quaintness of subject as well as of treatment. Few of the poems in the “Hesperides” are of much length, and the shortest are much the best. Some of the prettiest do not occupy half-a-dozen lines; but they prove the force of the hackneyed aphorism about brevity.


So small, so soft, so silvery is her voice,
As, could they hear, ’twould make the damn’d rejoice,
And listen to her, walking in her chamber,
Melting melodious words to lutes of amber!

     These lines are addressed to Mistresse Julia. Who could have inspired them but a Julia or a Sacharissa? Who could have composed them but a poet and a lover, unpretending though they are? Whenever he sings Julia’s praises, all who listen recognize a genuine singer. No matter how slender the theme, let it be but connected with his lady, and the poet’s fine frenzy is sure to issue forth in thoughts that breathe and words that burn,—that burn even too brightly now and then. Julia, in his eyes, is something to be worshipped and adored; she is akin to cherubim; her form makes music of the poet’s breath, like an Æolian harp set in the summer wind. She is the much-belauded heroine of the “Hesperides.” She is to Herrick what the Church was to Solomon—the maker of a sweet minstrel.

Goddess, I do love a girl
Ruby-lipped and tooth’d with pearl;

228 he cries, with eyes that twinkle merrily underneath his grey hairs. Her breath is likened to “all the spices of the east,” to the balm, the myrrh, and the nard; her skin is like a “lawnie firmament;” her cheek like “cream and claret commingled,” or “roses blowing.” But Julia, although his favourite, was not his only lady-love. If we are to believe his own assertion, he was favourably disposed towards the whole sex—at any rate, by no means prejudiced in favour of one individual. He has scores of unpitying yet flawless “mistresses,” real and ideal, whom he has transmitted to posterity under such euphonious names as Silvia, Corinna, Electra, Perinna, Perilla, and Dianeme. As a rule, he sings their praises sweetly and modestly. His sentimental morality was by no means of the dull heavy kind; on the contrary, it was brisk and easy, like the religious morality of Herbert and Wither. It was when making merry at the feet of Venus that he felt most at home—when he had nothing to do but fashion fanciful nosegays, and throw them, with a laugh, into the lap of his lady. His songs suggest the picture of a 229 respectable British Bacchus, stout and middle-aged, lipping soft lyrics to the blushing Ariadne at his side; while, in the background of flowers and green leaves, we catch a glimpse of Oberon and Titania, walking through a stately minuet on a close-shaven lawn, to the frolicking admiration of assembled fairy-land.
     Herrick’s best things are his poems in praise of the country life, and his worst things are his epigrams. Whenever he sings good-humouredly, as in the former, he sings well and sweetly; whenever he sings ill-humouredly, as in the latter, he sings falsely and harshly. His gladsome, mercurial temper, had a great deal to do with the composition of his best lyrics; for the parson of Dean Prior was no philosopher, and his lightest, airiest verses are his best. What Marmontel calls “amiable ingenuity, undisguised openness,” was a part of his mental as well as of his moral life; shackled by conventionalism of any sort, he lost all that happy naïvété which is the principal, perhaps the only, charm of his written works. His was a happy, careless nature, throwing off verses out of the fulness of a joyous heart, 230 rioting in a pleasant, sunny element. Out of his own merry and magical circle he is stiff, stupid, and sophisticated. There was no ill-nature in him; his epigrams had no sting. The same impulse which made him err a little induced him to confess his errors honestly. Without these errors, and the few poems in which he alludes to them, neither his works nor himself can be properly understood. The epigrams I allude to are interspersed with the other poems, and are after the manner of Ben Jonson. The book would have been better without them.
     One or two of his fairy poems appear to me the very perfection of musical excellence. He is coarse enough here and there, without a doubt, and now and then his elfin court entertains indiscreet notions of social propriety. But his fairies can be very engaging, very natural little people, when their creator chooses to be strict with them on the point of moral decorum; in other words, when they avoid all imitation of the fairies at St. James’s, and remain the genuine little pixies of music, mischief, and moonlight. Oberon has his temple, whither he retires for 231 devotional purposes, cleansing himself with the holy water contained in a nutshell, and bowing to the altar “in a cloud of frankincense.” He has also his feasts, when mushroom tables groan with steaming dainties, when dew-wine is sweetened in goblets of “violets blew,” and when the gnat, the cricket, and the grasshopper are court musicians.
     The “pretty flowery and pastoral gale of fancy,” which Phillips, in his “Theatrum Poetarum,” gives Herrick credit for, was never better employed than when bruiting abroad the pleasures of a country life. The honest fellows at Dean Prior (the Devonshire parish of which he was vicar) loved their old ceremonies and customs, and kept them up right heartily; and no doubt the poet entered fully into the spirit of the local enthusiasm. He would range the woods on May morning with the maidens; sit at wakes with the old women; drink the Whitsun ale, and drain the wassail bowl on Twelfth Nights, with the men. Of all these pleasures he sang often and enthusiastically. His book is full of pictures taken from that little Devonshire 232 vicarage. He found beauty in their old customs, however riotously conducted, however plain and homely. He tells us of the maypole, the morris-dance, the shearing feast, and the chase; singing cheerily of the “nut-browne mirth and russit wit” of such and sundry pastoral mummeries. He pictures to us, with sweet music, the merry-makings at the wake, with its creams and custards, its pageantries of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, its cudgel-plays, its rustic quarrels, “drown’d in ale or drenched in beere.” He sings of St. Distaff’s Day, when the flax and tow of girls who “go a-spinning” is set on fire, when plackets are scorched, and when the maidens souse the men with pails of new-drawn water. He celebrates the coming-in of the hock-cart, crowned with ears of corn, surrounded by men and women with garlands on their heads, and drawn by horses “clad in linen white as lilies.” He describes both pastoral May-day, when boys and girls pluck the white-thorn boughs, when “green gowns are given,” when troths are plighted; and the Christmas festivities, when the log blazes on the hearth, when “psalteries” are 233 played, when strong beer is quaffed and mince-pies eaten. When he discourses of such homely ceremonies, in his own soft inimitable way, I know no writer of lyrics who equals him in loveliness of music, sweetness of fancy, and luscious warmth of colouring.
     The greater part of the “Hesperides” was written in Devonshire, when the poet was vicar of the little parish of Dean Prior. He was preferred to the living by Charles I. in the year 1629, having been recommended by the Bishop of Exeter, to whom he more than once makes affectionate allusion. Herrick, then in his thirty-eighth year, had already tasted the sweets of literary society, and he did not fall in love with this same dull little Dean Prior as readily as might be anticipated. Like Crabbe in Suffolk, and Sydney Smith on Salisbury Plain, many years afterwards, he grumbled and fretted in his solitude, describing his parishioners as a “rocky generation,” “rude almost as rudest savages,” and “churlish as the seas.” Probably these words were written when the pulpit was new to him, when the cassock on his shoulders felt 234 uncomfortable, when the boisterous young squires in the pews below him were taking his mental and moral measure. He might have found some of the country louts suspicious and surly; for a country congregation is not always bonnet-in-hand to the new pastor; he might have been received coldly enough at first by the “wealthy nobodies.” By-and-bye, no doubt, when the awkward feeling wore off on both sides, priest and congregation fraternised. The verses addressed to Larr prove that he felt the parting, when a Puritan was sent to take his place, and he was turned out of house and home to live on his fifths in London. At any rate, his best verses were written in that west-country vicarage:—

More discontents I never had,
     Since I was born, than here;
Where I have been, and still am sad,
     In this dull Devonshire.
Yet, justly too, I must confesse,
     I ne’r invented such
Ennobled numbers for the presse,
     Than where I loath’d so much.

     It seems reasonable to suppose that this bilious 235 feeling wore off, and was absent when he wrote his sweet lyrics about rural felicity.
     In reading his poems one obtains many a stray peep at the domestic life of the poet; plain allusions are thrown out, which, when patched together, may form a decently consistent picture. Although a universal lover, he never married. His little household consisted of Mistress Prudence Baldwin his housekeeper, himself, Trasy his pet spaniel, Phill his tame sparrow, a few chickens, a goose, a cat, and a pet lamb. Poor old Mistress Prew, once pretty Miss Prudence, was Robert Herrick’s good angel; and many are the affectionate allusions he makes to her. Through want and sickness, through sorrow and heartache, she stood by the helpless old bachelor, taking good care of his morals, and rendering his rural home cheery and comfortable:—

These summer birds did with their master stay
The times of warmth, but then they fled away,
Leaving their poet, being now grown old,
Exposed to all the comming winter’s cold.
But thou, kind Prew, didst with my fates abide
As well the winter’s as the summer’s tide.
For which thy love, live with thy master here,                                 236
Not one, but all the seasons of the yeare.

     Herrick is fully as sincere in other matters. He is very poor, he admits the fact; but he has his cates and beer, he thanks Heaven, and his life is easy. He is not good-looking; he is mope-eyed and ungainly. He has lost a finger. He hates Oliver Cromwell. Sooner than take the Covenant against his convictions he will be thrust out of his living. He is of opinion that a king can do no wrong; that Charles I. was a martyr, and Charles II. is the very incarnation of virtue. “Robert Herrick, Vickar,” says the register, “was buried on the 15th day of October, 1674.” How many true singers of lyrics has England boasted since that date?



[Note: This is an edited version of the essay, ‘Robert Herrick, Poet and Divine, published in the January, 1861 edition of Temple Bar. Buchanan had previously written about Robert Herrick for The Glasgow Sentinel and The West of Scotland Magazine and Review - details available here.]










IF by morality in literature, I imply merely the moral atmosphere to be inhaled from certain written thoughts of men and women, I would not be understood as publicly pinning my faith on any particular code of society, although such and such a code may form part of the standard of my private conduct; as confounding the cardinal virtues with the maxims of a cardiphonia—“omnia dicta factaque,” as Petronius says, “quasi papavere et sesamo sparsa.” The conduct of life is to a great extent a private affair, about which people will never quite agree. But books are public property, and their effect is a public question. It seems, at first sight, very difficult to decide what books may be justly styled 240 “immoral;” in other words, what books have a pernicious effect on readers fairly qualified to read them. Starting, however, agreed upon certain finalities—as is essential in every and any discussion—readers may come to a common understanding as to certain works. Two points of agreement with the reader are necessary to my present purpose; and these are, briefly stated:—(1) That no book is to be judged immoral by any other rule than its effects upon the moral mind, and (2) that the moral mind, temporarily defined, is one consistent with a certain standard accepted or established by itself, and situated at a decent height above prejudice. Bigotry is not morality.
     Morality in literature is, I think, far more intimately connected with the principle of sincerity of sight than any writer has yet had the courage to point out. Courage, indeed, is necessary, since there is no subject on which a writer is so liable to be misconceived. The subject, however, is not a difficult one, if we take sincerity of sight into consideration. Wherever there is insincerity in a book there can be no morality; 241 and wherever there is morality, but without art, there is no literature.
     Nothing, we all know, is more common than clever writing; very clever writing, in fact, is the vice of contemporary literature. Everywhere is brilliance not generally known to be Brummagem,—pasteboard marvels that glimmer like jewels down Mr. Mudie’s list. It is so easy to get up a kaleidoscope; a few bits of stained glass, bright enough to catch the eye, and well contrasted, are the chief ingredients. It is so difficult to find a truth to utter; and then, when the truth is found, how hard it is to utter it beautifully! That is only a portion of the labour besetting an earnest writer. Directly he has caught his truth, and feels competent to undertake the noble task of beautifying it, he has to ask his conscience if there be not in society some deeper truth against which the new utterance may offend; and hence arise the personal demands,—“Have I a right to say these things? Do I believe in them with all my faculties of belief? Is my heart in them, and am I sure that I understand them clearly?” The moral 242 mind must answer. If that replies in the affirmative, the minor question, of whether the truth will be palatable to society, is of no consequence. Let the words be uttered at all hazards, at all losses, and the gods will take care of the rest. It may be remarked, that what the writer believes to be a truth is in all possibility a falsehood, immoral and dangerous. The reply is, that Nature, in her wondrous wisdom for little things, regulates the immorality and the danger by a plan of her own, so delicate, so beautiful, as to have become part of the spirit of Art itself. A writer, for example, may believe with all his might that the legalisation of prostitution would be productive of good. He will do no harm by uttering his belief, founded as it is in his finest faculties, if he has weighed the matter thoroughly; and his book, though it may offend scores of respectable people, will be a moral book. If, on the other hand, the writer be hasty, insincere, writing under inadequate motives, he will be certain to betray himself, and every page of his book will offend against morality. For the conditions of expression are so 243 occult, that no man can write immorally without being detected and exposed by the wise. His insincerity of sight in matters of conduct will betray itself in a hundred ways; for whatever be his mental calibre, we are in no danger of misconceiving the temper of his understanding. This fact, which connects the author’s morality with the sincerity of his sight, is at once the cultivated reader’s salvation against immoral effects from immoral books. What does not affect us as literature cannot affect our moral sensitiveness, and can therefore do no harm. So distinctly does nature work, indeed, that what is one writer’s immorality, is the morality of another writer; so delicately does she work, that what shocks us in one book, plays lightly through the meaning of another, and gives us pleasure. An immoral subject, treated insincerely, leaves an immoral effect on those natures weak enough to be influenced by it at all. The same subject, treated with the power of genius and the delicacy of art, delights and exalts us; in the pure white light of the author’s sincerity, and the delicate tints of literary loveliness, the immoral point 244 just shows distinctly enough to impress purely, without paining. All deep lovers of art must have felt this in the “Cenci.” A moral idea, on the other hand,—that is to say, an idea generally recognized as connected with morality,—disgusts us, if it be treated insincerely. Every nerve of the reader is jarred; there is no pleasure, no exaltation of the spirit or intellect; and the moral sense feels numbed and blunted proportionally.
     The mere physical passion of man for woman is a case in point. The description of this passion in coarse hands is abominable; yet how many poems are alive with it, and with it alone! The early poems of Alfred de Musset are immoral and unreal, and consequently displeasing; some of the songs of Beranger are flooded with sensuality; yet, just because they are sincere, they do not impress us sensually.* In Burns

—    * “I find a highly remarkable contrast to this Chinese novel in the ‘Chansons de Beranger,’ which have almost every one some immoral, licentious subject for their foundation, which would be extremely odious to me if managed by a genius inferior to Beranger; he, however, has succeeded in making them not only tolerable, but pleasing.”—GOETHE’S Conversations, i. p. 350. —

245 and Beranger, even in some of their coarsest moments, the physical passion is so real, that it brings before us at once the presence of the Man; and, looking on him, we feel a thrill of finer human sympathy, in which the passion he is expressing cannot offend us. In the insincere writer, the passion is a gross thing; in the sincere writer, it becomes part of the life and colour of a human being. Thus finely does Nature prevent mere immorality from affecting the moral mind at all; while, in dealing with men of real genius, she makes the immoral sentiment, saturated with poetry, breathe a fine aroma, which stirs the heart not unpleasantly, and rapidly purifies itself as it mounts up to the brain.
     Certain books of great worth are of course highly injurious to minds unqualified to read them. Out of Boccaccio, whom our Chaucer loved, and from whose writings our Keats drew a comb of purest honey, many young men get nothing but evil. He who has gained no standard of his own, or whose ideas of life are base and brutal, had better content himself with Messrs. Chambers’s expurgated Shakespeare, 246 and the good books lent out of the local library. But a true lover of books, though he be not a mere student, may pass with clean feet through any path of literature, as safe in the gloomy region of Roman satire as in the bright land of Una and the Milk-white Lamb: he knows well that what is really shocking will not attract him, because it is sure to be shockingly—i.e., inartistically—uttered. He feels that what is not abominable, but somewhat removed from his own ideas of decency, will affect him merely in proportion to the sincerity and delicacy of the revelation, and cannot hurt him, because it is subdued or kept at a distance by the mental emotion which the sincerity and delicacy have imparted. It will not disconcert him, but make him love his own standard all the better. It is, in fact, only on account of sensualists and fools that one now and then wishes to throw some of his best books in the fire. If poor Boccaccio could only hear what Smith and Brown say about him! If La Fontaine only knew the moral indignation of Gigadibs!
     The list of so-called immoral books is very 247 numerous. No writer, perhaps, is less spoken about, and yet has more attraction for students, than Petronius Arbiter. What is the effect of Petronius on the moral mind? Not, I fervently believe, an immoral effect—if we set aside certain passages which a reader “scunners” at, passes over, and obliterates from his memory. Yet the subject is impure in the highest degree: from Gito to Trimalchio, every character in the satire is wicked. The satire is saved from worthlessness by the sincerity of its object. It does not carry us away as Juvenal does; but it impresses us with a picture of the times—painful, no doubt, but no more likely to shock us than the history of the reign of Charles II: then come the purer passages, irradiating and cheering us; and under all flows the deep delicious stream of the Latinity. Were the book not a satire, but a purposeless work of imagination, it might influence us otherwise, if we studied it at all. As it is, History steps up, and makes Petronius moral. We end it with a strange image of the times when it was written; but the passages which we do not forget, or try to forget, are the pure ones, such 248 as the delicious introductory speech on eloquence, and the description of the wonderful feast of Trimalchio.
     Juvenal is as gross, but he influences us far more splendidly. He carries us away, as I said above. When, as in the second satire, he launches his fierce blows at the Roman philosophers, who thinks of the coarser details? who is not full of the fiery energy which calls Vice by her name, and drags her naked through the Roman mire? When, in the sixth   satire,* he vents his thunderous spleen on women, who is not hurried along to the end? and who does not feel that the cry, coming when it did, was a sincere and salutary one?
     When I pass from the region of satire and come to Catullus, my feeling changes. It may sound very shocking to some of the hero-worshippers, but the “lepidum novum libellum,” seems to me really an immoral work, and I wish that the dry pumice-stone had rubbed out at

—    * Which Dryden, a grand specimen of literary immorality, only translated under protest. —

249 least half of the poems. For there is sufficient evidence in the purer portions to show that Catullus was wholly insincere when he wrote the fouler portions—that he was a man with splendid instincts, and a moral sense which even repeated indulgence in base things failed to obliterate. Read the poems to Lesbia:

                       Lesbia illa,
Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
Plus quam se, atque suos amavit omnes!

Lesbia, whom (if we identify her with Clodia) Cicero himself called “quadrantaria,” and who is yet immortal as Laura and Beatrice. This one passion, expressed in marvellous numbers, is enough to show what a heart was beating in the poet’s bosom. He who could make infamy look so beautiful in the bright intensity of his love was false and unreal when he stooped to hurl filth at his contemporaries, from Cæsar down to the Vibenii. His grossness is all purposeless, weak, insincere, adopted in imitation of a society to which he was made immeasurably superior by the strength of that one passion. His love-poems to Lesbia, coarse as they are in 250 parts, leave on the reader an impression very different,—too pathetic, too beautiful, to be impure. Whether he bewails in half-plaintive irony the death of the sparrow, or sings in rapturous ecstasy, as in the fifth poem, or cries in agony to the gods, as in the lines beginning,—

Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas,
Est homini, quum se cogitat esse pium,

he is in earnest, exhibiting all the depths of a misguided but noble nature. Only intense emotion, only grand sincerity, could have made a prostitute immortal: for immortality must mean beauty. Thus with Catullus, as with others, Nature herself delicately beautifies for the reader subjects which would otherwise offend; and dignifies classical passion by the intensity of the emotion which she causes it to produce.
     It is an easy step from Catullus to La Fontaine. Catullus was an immoral man—lived an immoral life:—

Quisquis versibus exprimit Catullum
Raro moribus exprimit Catonem!

But what shall we say of the charming Frenchman, 251 the child of Nature, if ever child of Nature existed? If we want to understand him at all, we must set English notions and modern prejudice to some extent aside. Look at the man—a man, as M. Taine calls him, “peu moral, médiocrement digne, exempt de grands passions et enclin au plaisir:” “a trifler,” as he is contemptuously styled by Macaulay. He sought to amuse himself, and nothing more; loved good-living, gambled,  flirted, made verses, delighted in “bons vins et gentilles Gauloises.” He did not even hide his infidelities from his wife. If she was indignant, he treated her remarks jocosely. He wrote to Madame de la Fontaine, that immediately on entering a place, when travelling, he inquired for the beautiful women; told of an amorous adventure in an alley; and said, speaking of the ladies of a certain town, “Si je trouve quelqu’un de ces chaperons qui couvre une jolie tête, je pourrai bien m’y assurer en passant et par curiosité seulement!” Like all gay men, he had his moments of despondency, but he was without depth. In spite of all this, he was capable of taking an independent attitude; 252 and his devotion to his friends was as great as his infidelity to his wife. So he left behind him his “Fables” and “Tales,”—pride and glory of the French nation. They are sincere—they are charming; they are full of flashes of true poetry; they are, in fact, the agreeable written patter of La Fontaine himself. Is their effect immoral? I think not. We are so occupied with the manner of the teller—we are so amused with his piquancy and outspokenness, that we do not brood too long over the impure. The flashes of poetry and wit play around the “gaudriole,” and purify it unconscientiously. La Fontaine sits before us in his easy chair. We see the twinkling of his merry eye, and we hear his wit tinkling against his subject—like ice tapping on the side of a beaker of champagne. We are brought up with much purer notions, but we cannot help enjoying the poet’s society—he is so straightforward, so genuine. We would not like to waste precious time in his company very often; but he is harmless. We must have a very poor opinion of ourselves if we think our moral tone can be hurt by such a shallow fellow.
     253 It would prove no more to prolong examples of this sort. As for modern French writers of the “immoral” school, they are an imitative and inferior set—only competent to hurt schoolboys. George Sand, because she is not always sincere, has written immorally—in such trash as “Leone Levi,” for example; but where she has conferred literary splendour on illicit passion, where her words burn with the reality of a fiery nature—she has not shocked us—we have been so absorbed with the intensity of the more splendid emotion growing out of and playing over a subject deeply felt. The pleasure we have derived from her finer efforts in that direction has not been immoral in any true sense of the word; for the sincerity of the writer has caused the revelation of the agony, and made us feel glad that our own standards are happier. Inferior writers may grovel as much as they please, but we don’t heed them. We know their books are immoral, but we know also that they are not literature.
     A well-meaning and conscientious man will not unfrequently disseminate immoral ideas through deficiency of insight. The late Count de Vigny 254 did so. In his translations of Shakespeare he softened all the coarse passages, and in many cases only rendered the indelicacy more insidious. But he sinned most outrageously in his boldest original effort, the play of “Chatterton”—“An austere work,” he says, “written in the silence of a labour of seventeen nights.” The hero, of course, is the young English poet. The play is a plea for genius against society. The plea sounds more affective in the highflown preface than in the text which follows:—“When a man dies in this way,” says De Vigny, “is he then a suicide? No; it is society that flings him into the fire! . . . There are some things which kill the ideas first and the man afterwards: hunger, for example. . . . I ask society to do no more than she is capable of doing. I do not ask her to cure the pains of the heart, and drive away unhappy ideals—to prevent Werther and Saint Preux from loving Charlotte and Julie d’Etanges. There are, I know, a thousand miserable ideas over which society has no control. The more reason, it seems to me, to think of those which she can cure. . . . One should not suffer those 255 whose infirmity is inspiration to perish. They are never numerous, and I cannot help thinking they possess some value, since humanity is unanimous on the subject of their grandeur, and declares their verse immortal—when they are dead. . . . Let us cease to say to them, Despair and die. It is for legislation to answer this plea, one of the most vital and profound that can agitate society.” Unfortunately, poets starve still, and apologists like De Vigny have not made society one whit the kinder. As might have been expected, the play is full of puerilities. The “Chatterton” of De Vigny is a mere abstraction, cleverly conceived, no doubt, but no more like the real person than the real person was like a monk of the fifteenth century, or the French “Child of the Age.” He has been educated with the young nobility at Oxford, has taken to literature, and has fallen in love with “Kitty Bell,” who has several children by a brute of a husband. The only way he can devise to show his attachment is to give Kitty a Bible, and the first act ends with her soliloquy after receiving the same. “Why,” exclaims Mrs. Bell, “why, when I 256 touched my husband’s hand, did I reproach myself for keeping this book? Conscience cannot be in the wrong. (She stands dreaming.) I will return it.” In the opinion of the French dramatists, it is exceedingly pathetic to find a married woman and London landlady falling in love with her lodger, and vastly probable to make certain lords go hunting, in Chatterton’s time, on Primrose Hill. Aggravated to frenzy by mingled hunger and love, the poet determines to kill himself; but is interrupted by the entrance of “Le Quaker,” a highly moral and sagacious person, who makes a great figure in the play. The two discourse on suicide. “What!” cries the Quaker at last, “Kitty Bell loves you! Now, will you kill yourself?” Whereas, in real life, any sensible fellow, even a Frenchman, would have said, “Far better kill yourself, my boy, than continue in this infatuation for an elderly married woman.” Chatterton relents for the time being. He is afterwards made desperate, however, by Lord Mayor Beckford, a personage of whose authority De Vigny had the most exaggerated notions, and who offers the poor poet 257 a situation as footman. “O my soul, I have sold thee!” cried Chatterton, when left to himself; “I purchase thee back with this.” And he thereupon drinks the opium. He then throws his manuscripts on the fire. “Go, noble thoughts, written for the ungrateful!” he exclaims; “be purified in the flame, and mount to heaven with me!” At this point Kitty Bell enters the chamber, and much sweet sentiment is spoken. “Listen to me,” says the marvellous boy. “You have a charming family: do you love your children?” “Assuredly—more than life.” “Love your life, then, for the sake of those to whom you have given it.” “Alas! ’tis not for their sakes that I love it.” “What is there more beautiful in the world, Kitty Bell?” asks Chatterton; “with those angels on your knees, you resemble divine Charity.” He at last tells her that he is a doomed man; whereupon she falls upon her knees, exclaiming, “Powers of heaven, spare him!” He falls dead. Then again the Quaker makes his appearance, like the moral incarnated; and at his back is John Bell, the brute of a husband. Kitty dies by the side of Chatterton; 258 and the curtain falls as the Quaker cries, “In thine own kingdom, in thine own, O Lord, receive these two MARTYRS!”
     It would be tedious to point out the sickliness of the story, or to show further how utterly the simplicity of truth is destroyed by the false elements introduced to add to its pathos. So utterly unreal are the circumstances, that they impress Frenchmen as ludicrously as Englishmen; they are immoral, but harmless through very silliness. The play from beginning to end, in its feebleness and falsehood, is a fair specimen of what an incompetent man may do when dealing with a subject which he does not understand. He does not feel the truth, and therefore introduces elements to make it more attractive to his sympathies. He thinks he is saying a fine thing when he is uttering what merely awakens ridicule. He pronounces Pan superior to Apollo, and gets the asses’ ears for his pains; and the crown is so palpable to the eyes of all men, that nobody listens to his solemn judgments afterwards.
     Wherever great sin has found truly literary expression, that expression has contained the 259 thrill of pain which touches and teaches. Wherever a gay sincere heart has chosen immoral subjects, and succeeded in making them (as Goethe expressed it) not only tolerable but pleasant, Nature has stepped in with the magic of genius to spiritualise the impure. Where there is sin in literature and no suffering, the description is false, because in life the moral implication of sin is suffering; and whether a writer expresses the truth through actual experience, or mere insight, the effect is the same. Where immoral subjects have been treated gaily, in levity, without the purifying literary spirituality, the result has been worthless,—it has ministered neither to knowledge nor to pleasure. And to what does all this, if admitted, lead? To the further admission that immoral writing proceeds primarily from insincerity of sight, and that nothing is worthy the name of literature which is decided on fair grounds to be immoral.
     It is easy to apply the broad test to some of our older authors, who have certainly used language pretty freely. We shall not go very far 260 wrong if we pronounce many of the Elizabethan dramatists, and all the dramatists of the Restoration, to be immoral. Yet Shakespeare is occasionally as gross as any of his contemporaries; while Jonson, an inferior writer, through a straightforward and splendid nature, is singularly pure. I do not fancy, for my own part, that we should lose much if Congreve and Wycherly were thrown on the fire. It is fortunate that few females read Mrs. Behn. When we come to Swift we find a heap of coarse stuff, both in prose and verse; but is it immoral? As the bitter outpouring of a strangely little spirit, it is disagreeable, but it is real—if we except some of the worthless pieces and the worst portions of Gulliver. The descriptions in the latter part of Gulliver are immoral, because they are obviously  insincere, and are therefore loathsome and injurious.
     For critics should insist upon the fact that literature is meant to minister to our finer mental needs through the medium of spiritualized sensation. I do not think it possible to over-rate the moral benefit to be gained by the frequent contemplation of beautiful and ennobling literature. 261 But La Fontaine, as has been suggested, can awaken the sentiment of beauty—in his own little way, in his own degree. On the other hand, the moral injury we receive, from the contemplation of writings degrading and not beautiful, is also inestimable. In reading books it is easy to notice broad unrealities and indecencies, but very difficult indeed to recognise the poison coated with clean white diction. Mr. Tennyson might write a poem to-morrow which would be essentially immoral, and yet very hard to detect. In point of fact, being a man of genius, he would not do so; but if the thing were done, not many would be awake to it. It requires an occult judgment now-a-days to find out immoral books.
     If an Englishman of to-day were to write like Catullus or Herrick, or to tell such tales as “La Berceau” of La Fontaine, or the “Carpenter’s Wife” of Chaucer, we should hound him from our libraries; and justly, because no Englishman, in the presence of our civilization, with the advantage of our decisive finalities as to the decencies of language, could say to his conscience, “I have a right to say these things; I believe in them 262 with all my faculties of belief; my heart is in them, and I am sure that I understand them clearly.” Our danger just now does not lie in that direction. There is no danger of our writers indulging in indecencies. Whatever our private life may be, our literature is singularly alive to the proprieties. As our culture has grown, as our ideas of decorum have narrowed, the immorality of books has been more and more disguised, indeed, so well is it disguised at this time, that the writers themselves often fancy they are mixing up aperients, not doses of wormwood. A shower of immoral books pours out yearly; many of them are read by religious societies and praised by bishops, and by far the larger number of them find favour with Mr. Mudie. A new public has arisen, created by new schools of writers; and now-a-days one must be careful how he throws out a hard truth, lest he hit the fretful head of the British matron. The immorality is of a different kind, but it works quite as perniciously in its own sphere as the immorality of modern French writers of the avowedly immoral school.
     The immorality I complain of in modern books 263 is their untruth in matters affecting private conduct, their false estimates of character, the false impressions they convey concerning modern life in general, and especially with regard to the relations between the sexes. This immorality, of course, shows itself mainly in our fiction; though from our fiction it has spread into our religious writing and our philosophy. The main purpose of fiction is to please; and so widely is this felt, that a novel with an avowedly didactic purpose is very wisely avoided by the subscribers to the circulating libraries. Scott, the greatest novelist that ever lived, never stooped to so-called didactic writing at all, directly or indirectly; for he knew that to do so would have been to deny the value of fiction altogether, because true pictures need no dry tag to make them impress and teach. Thackeray was not quite so wise, being a so much smaller writer and inferior artist; he worked in his own sickening and peculiar fashion; yet he never pretended to be a didactic teacher. Didactic writing in novels, at the best, is like a moral printed underneath a picture, describing the things which, it is supposed, the reader ought to infer from the 264 picture; or, like the commentaries bound in with some of the French translations of Goethe’s “Faust” and Dante’s “Inferno.” When, therefore, we see the announcement as “A Novel with a Purpose,” we may pretty safely infer that it will serve no wise man’s purpose to read that novel.
     Life is very hard and difficult, our personal relations with each other are complicated enough without the intrusion of puzzles and untruths from the circulating library. If novelists would only paint what they are convinced they thoroughly understand, and critics would only convict offenders more severely, we should soon be more comfortable. Erroneous notions of men, drawn from books, ruin many women yearly, paralyse the understanding, numb the faculty of insight just as it is going to accumulate its own wisdom, confuse the whole prospect of life at the very outset. Vulgar Virtue (hero  No. 1) turns out a brute daily, and chills the ethereal temper of Sentimental Suffering (heroine No. 1), who, in an hour of adoration, has allied herself to him. Silent Endurance (hero No. 2) bears 265 so much that we are suspicious; so we run a pin into his heart, and the heart bleeds—vinegar. As men and women advance in life they ascertain that happiness and beauty are not to be produced by a single faculty, but by the happy harmonious blending of all the faculties; that the hero in battle may make an atrocious husband, that vulgar virtue becomes tiresome when separated from spirituality, and that there are some things which fine natures cannot endure silently. This is not saying that a single faculty may not be remarkable and pleasing, that a hero is not a hero, that virtue is contemptible, that control over the emotions is not desirable, and even enviable. It means merely that the writers in question describe faculties and not characters; abstractions, not realities; not men and women, but peculiarities of men and women. The whole is lost in the part, and the effect is immoral in a high degree.
     A well-known instance in point may be given, and then illustrations may cease. Some years ago it was the custom for every novelist to make his hero and heroine personally handsome. The 266 appearance of “Jane Eyre” was welcomed as a salutary protest, and a revolution was the consequence. For a considerable time afterwards ugly heroes and heroines were the rage; and the bookshop poured forth immoral books—immoral because they lived against a natural truth, that mere beauty is finer than mere ugliness, did not prove that nobility of nature is finer than mere beauty, did not tell that nobility of nature without such beauty. At present the plan of many novelists is very funny. They adopt a medium. Ugly heroes and heroines, as well as handsome ones, have gone out of fashion. A hero now is “not what would strictly be termed beautiful; his features were faulty; but there was—” any novel-reader will complete the sentence. In the same manner, a heroine, “although at ordinary times she attracted little attention, because, under the influence of emotion, so lovely that all the faults of feature were forgotten.” I fear I hardly do the novel-writers justice in these matters of description, but their own lively paintings are so well known that my inability can cause them no injury.
     267 Against immoral books of all kinds there is but one remedy—severe and competent criticism. If, as I have endeavoured to point out, morality in literature is dependent on sincerity of sight, and if all immoral writing betrays itself by its insincerity, feebleness, and want of verisimilitude, the work of criticism is pretty simple. To prove a work immoral in any way but one, it would be necessary to have endless discussion as to what is, and what is not morality. The one way is to apply the purely literary test, and convince the public that the question of immorality need not be discussed at all, since it is settled by the decision that the work under review is not literature.



     The bulk of the preceding paper appeared some time since in the Fortnightly Review, and attracted considerable criticism. There are only a few words to be said in further defence of a “theory” which never pretended to be exhaustive. Of the kindly critic (Spectator) who, citing Goethe and others, alleged that sincere work is often more insidious in its immorality than inferior and insincere work, it may be asked—is he not setting up the 268 final and arbitrary system of ethics which I disclaim at the outset,—by which Goethe’s “self-love” and the like is to be adjudged “immoral?” How is a man’s work to be proven immoral because it honestly clothes his natural instincts in artistic language? To another ingenious writer (Contemporary Review) who, in rebuking what he called my “love for the gaudriole” defined morality as faithfulness to the tendencies of one’s time, I have nothing to reply save that a further examination of the preceding may show him that we do not disagree so thoroughly as his habit of dissecting cobwebs leads him to imagine. Other and hastier critics have merely gone over objections which had previously occurred to myself, and which are far too numerous to be mentioned here.



[Note: The original version of this essay, ‘Immorality in Authorship’ was published in The Fortnightly Review (15 September, 1866).]








“I am a pilgrim, on the quest
For the City of the Blest;
Free from sin and free from pain,
When shall I that city gain?”

“When suns no longer set and rise,
When bishops’ mitres star the skies,
When alms are dropt in all earth’s streets,
And angels nod upon their seats,

“O pilgrim, thou shalt take thy stand
Within the City yet unplann’d,
And see beneath, with sleepy shrug,
The draff within the Pit undug.”

                           NEW SONG TO AN OLD TUNE.





IN the “Geständiase” of Heinrich Heine occurs a pregnant passage concerning Hegel. “Generally,” writes the bitter humourist, “Hegel’s conversation was a sort of monologue, breathed forth noiselessly by fits and starts; the daily quaintness of his words often impressed me, insomuch that many of them still cling to my memory. One fine starlight evening, as we stood looking out from the window, I, a young man of twenty-five, having just dined well and drunk my coffee, spoke enthusiastically concerning the stars, and called them the homes of departed spirits. ‘The stars, hum! hum!’ muttered Hegel. ‘The stars are only a brilliant leprosy in heaven’s face,’ ‘In God’s name, then, I exclaimed, ‘is there no 272 place of bliss above, where virtue meets with its reward after death?’ But he, the master, glaring at me with his pale eyes, said sharply, ‘So! you want a bonus for having taken care of your sick mother, and refrained from poisoning your worthy brother!’” It is in no profane spirit that I select this grim and terrible passage for a brief comment. The words in italics touch on the profound mystery, but only make it more hopeless.
     Feeble religion, clinging with slight hands of flesh to every straw of counsel, may gain help and comfort from the prospect of rewards, may cross herself and groan at the brimstone jaws of the pit of punishments; but out of the clear white air of theology, this doctrine of the bonus drops like a falling tear. There, at least, in that serene atmosphere, we cease to regard the Master merely as an Almighty Pedagogue, dealing out prizes to the good and whippings to the naughty, or as a splendid Sentimentalist, making of widows’ tears and bairns’ blood the rainbow of a heaven of melancholy beauty. Humbly, as in a glass, dimly, mystically, we behold something infinitely more—a Spirit abiding by the wondrous fitness of life 273 itself, and stooping to no prevarications with the wicked or the unhappy. Life once given, the rest is easy. We are to play our little comedy or tragedy in our own fashion, and so effloresce into beauty at once, or retreat again into the phases of decay. But as for that new Jerusalem, perhaps it is not yet built, and if it indeed be fashioned, be sure that the foundation-stone of the city is not to be laid in hell. Now and henceforth, perfect bliss is a blank business, the point where man and monkey shade off into the elements. If I assassinate my father, it needs no hades to adjust the matter; and, here and elsewhere, heaven will never go by mere finite merit.
     It is natural for very pious people to be afraid of theology—white light blinds quickest. But a little more theology would do our religion no harm. We find that even the tender-hearted, who will by no means believe in the Pit, are quite ready to pin their hopes on the Paradise. It is very sad. Men who, like myself, believe in the Redeemer, find it hard to follow Him beyond a beautiful halting-place. We long so wearily for sleep; yet is it not barely possible that the sleep 274 wherewith our life is rounded may refresh us amply, so that we shall awake ready to go on and on? Waking and sleep, sleep and waking. The tired dews of one life wiped away, the pilgrim shall push forward till he is tired again. Another sleep, another waking. At every stage, the wonder deepening; at every life, the faculty for living intensifying. But eternal halt, no! God is exhaustless, and the soul thirsts everlastingly, and the path ever winds onward. Who would exchange this activity for howsoever sweet a symposium?
     To the purpose, though with a far different drift, wrote Moses Mendelssohn, in his new Phoedo. “We may then,” said Socrates, “with good grounds assume that this struggle towards completeness, this progress, this increase in inward excellence, is the destination of rational beings, and consequently, is the highest purpose of creation. We may say that this immense structure of the world was brought into being that there may be rational beings which advance from stage to stage, gradually increase in perfection, and find their happiness in their progress; that 275 all these should be stopped in the middle of their course, not only stopped, but at once pushed back into the abyss of nothingness, and all the fruits of their efforts lost, is what the Highest Being cannot have accepted and adopted into the plan of the universe.”
     This world, with its infinite gulfs of sorrow and horror, its piteous lights, its ghostly sounds, merely a prelude to a Paradise beyond the sunset? How stale, flat, and unprofitable a business. If that be all, a still small voice asks how easy for Him to have abolished the preliminary agony and given us the bliss at once. What is He? The giver of a bonus. What are we? Strugglers after a bonus. Something more? Then surely that something more implies disinterestedness—contentedness to suffer a little for God’s sake, when diligently assured that suffering is in the scheme. It may need these tears to give a zest to living; for I, at least, can conceive no life all tears, or quite without them. By all tokens around us, by the eyes of heaven over us, by the wail of the earth under us, by life, by love, by sorrow, all signs seem to imply that God by no means believes 276 in perfect bliss. He has wept ere now, and bitterly; throned on the wondrous system of things. He is not ever-smiling; why, that irradiate light would wither up our eyesight, and we should stand piteously like blind men in the sun, for the sake of its warmth; whereas light was meant to see by, as well as to quicken the vital principle of pleasure. “All but philosophers,” said Socrates to his friends on that sad parting-day at Phlius, “All but philosophers are courageous through fear and brave through cowardice. So of men who attend merely to decency; they are temperate through intemperance. They abstain from some pleasures for the love of other pleasures; they call it intemperance to be the slaves of pleasure; but it is by serving some pleasures that they conquer other pleasures; and so, as I have said, they are temperate from intemperance. But this kind of barter, my excellent Simmias, is not the true trade of virtue; this exchange of pleasures for pleasures, and of pains for pains, and of fears for fears, great against small, as when you take small change for a large coin. The only genuine wealth for which we ought to give away all other, 277 is true knowledge.” By knowledge Plato means Sight.
     But our knowledge is not to make us vainglorious. What are we that we are to scream up to God how virtuous we are, how wicked our neighbours! If there were heaven, and it were to go by absolute merit, perhaps the man who was hung for murder yesterday would have as good a chance as Shelley or Jeremy Bentham. Virtue is a hard matter to mete, when we imply by virtue something more than mere respect for public opinion, than mere good fortune, than mere good philosophy, than mere “ideas;” and vice is often enough just natural shadow, which prevents you from seeing the stilly quivering depths of a brother’s soul. There would be a terrible difficulty as to passports.
     Does it need heaven and hades to make death bearable? Alas, too often. Yet death is but the glass, as it were, wherein souls may see themselves. What says the Delphic woman on the tripod? Hark to the oracle!—

Hark, I shadow forth to ye
What the pure of sight will see!
Evermore, all human breath                                                 278
Blows against the mirror, Death,
Evermore ye seek to know
Whence ye come, whither ye go;
Evermore the hollow sky,
Full of voices, makes reply
With the echo of your cry.

As an ever-changing mist,
Moonshine-lit or sunshine-kiss’d,
Floats before and seeks to pass,
Some huge mirror made of glass,—
Rendering, do all it will,
Its reflection dimmer still,
And the mirror’s inner light
Weirder, fainter, to the sight.
Even thus all human life,
Darkening in dusky strife,
Blows with unavailing breath
On the phantom mirror, Death,
In that phantom-mirror rolls
Mist on mist of human souls,
Mist on mist whose image seems
Beautifully weird as dreams;
And among the phantasies
Few themselves can recognize,
And ye shudder, for your hearts
Know not their own counterparts.
Yet the more the mists that pass
Duskily before the glass,
Thicken into cloud and lose
Individual lights and hues,                                                    279
More and more each special form
Loses shape and gathers storm,
More and more the mirror, Death,
Frights the gaze, and darkeneth.

Thus I shadow forth to ye
What the pure of sight will see!
O’er the mass rich colours roll,
When some nobler-sighted soul,
Scorning lust of pomp and pelf,
In the mirror sees himself,
Sees his face, and knows it not,
Sees sweet joy, nor questions what;
Pale with love and awe, he cries,
“Lo, the loveliness that lies
Far within the realm that we
Ever seek, yet dread to see!”
All his fellows, more or less,
Recognize that loveliness,
All around him growing bright
With a reverent delight,
All the happiness partake,
While, for that one spirit’s sake,
Death itself grows unaware
Glorious and divinely fair!

Last, assure your heart that nought
Beautiful in deed or thought,
Beautiful and pure and wise,
Ever wholly fades or dies;                                                   280
When one passionate soul in pride
Sees Death’s mirror glorified,
Summoning his kind to see
What is clear to such as he,
Back to that one soul is given
Glory he confers on heaven!

     If I turn my own soul to the glass, for example, what happens? I do not behold the heaven of the preacher,—I do not, cannot, see the blaze of a bonfire: but my eyes are troubled with deep vistas, glimpses of beautiful lands, where spirits wander to unearthly music, ever and anon turning hitherward faces sweetly troubled and strangely human. My father is there, and another whom I loved;—the old familiar forms, the dear familiar eyes, only just a little sweetened by the light of the new knowledge. And turning to my neighbour, I point out these things in the mirror; but his face is terribly distorted, and the reflection of his poor soul yonder looks lurid, and he sees the flame at the jaws of the Pit. “The pity of it, the pity of it, Iago!” It is little good to compare notes with him. Why should he listen, indeed? An ordinary boyhood—a sweet friendship—a 281 struggle for bread—more than one death-bed sorrow—what are such things that they should reverberate poetical echoes? and what interest has this man and the world at large in another memoranda of himself? Other men must answer these questions. Meanwhile let no man write indefinitely. He will have done at least something who shows how heavily the burthen of life presses, whenever our life, our love, our speculation and our faith, become too personal; that it is only out in the world mortals find any peace; that it is often in the still depths of the soul the devil sees himself best; and that, once and for all, God’s business is greater than our smiles or tears.
     Out of a young man’s life, what a philosophy! what humour for the political economist! what mockery for the law-giver and the ready writer! Yet some of us can get no further, and see many old men who have got no further. Human suffering is inscrutable to me—my own suffering is intolerable; yet I thank God for life. I do not quite see why I should pray, or to whom I should pray; and yet pray I must. I can hope 282 only for the best. Men, as I see them, differ so little after all, and sin so little, and thrive so little, that an entire democritical paradise often is in my prospect. I feel myself so paltry, and find others so paltry—I feel myself so grand, and find others so grand—that I picture only one sort of salvation, wherein kings, courtiers, pickpockets, assassins, and critics, would all get spiritualized together.
     There are compensations. Directly such things are felt with all one’s might, it is astonishing how easy all life becomes. In the pure white light of God’s charity, we see our loved ones go away, and grow quite calm in time beside their grave. In that light I tolerate myself, love myself—the being with whose unfitness for a pure heaven I have most reason to be acquainted, and with all my sins on me, I can look straight up at my Master, saying, “I am safe in Thy care for all—all will be well. Thou didst make me, and wilt obliterate whatever is unfit in me.” But it is only in my meaner moments that I solicit the bonus! All men are sleepy occasionally, and cowardly, and mean. But with the wondrous world around 283 me, with light playing sweetly on the green cheek of the earth, with men coming and going, with souls growing, rights broadening, truths purifying, I feel that life, mere life, is ample—the gift of all gifts—the finish beyond which I cannot go. If I shall live on, all is well. For this life, as I know it, the twelfth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is my Gospel;—that is exhaustless; charity to men and women, and most of all to myself, is what sweetens me to myself. Charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, suffereth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Charity is all that men lack; sin, knowledge, prayer, are nothing. All is explained in those supreme moments when a human soul irradiates a human body, and has no scorn for its abode, and can look forth and see the celestial inmates everywhere in fairer or viler bodies, and feel the breath of God lying over all, palpable, though unseen, like the air we breathe and live by.
     284 Too much self-cogitation, I repeat, will not do; the fountain of love must be kept stirred, or it will freeze. Who can conceive any modern being, far less any modern poet, without abundant sympathetic exercise and great charity; and the finer the charity, let us hope, the clearer will be the music,—which music at least God will hear and understand. The only hope is to go forth into life and watch men and women—high or low—exactly at that point, the highest point of their spiritual life, where they contact with that ideal of perfect disinterestedness, which we call God. All contact with God somewhere. Sin is spiritualized by personal ties—human ties are invariably pathetic—and where the pathetic essence is perceptible, God is not far away. Once and for all, the danger of dangers is that of attaching too sentimental or too sleepy a construction to history or actual experience. Actual physical life is as mysterious, as progressive, as wonderful, as any of our fantastic theories or personal emotions, and the condition of perfect health is the due exercise of all the functions. Let us grow, and grow, and grow. Better annihilation 285 than the perfect bliss of the preacher. God is eternal, and can never pause:—pause is death:—and how should God die?



LORD, Thou hast given me life and breath,
Sleep and foreknowledge, too, of death;
My eyes shall close, my span pass by,
Yet, Lord, I know I shall not die.

Lord, I shall live beyond the grave,
Made happier by Thy power to save;
Yet, though I see a clime more fair,
I shall not quite cease weeping there.

Lord God, be with me day and night!
Strengthen me! give me clearer sight!
And here and there, in life and death,
Strength to despise too easy breath.

For, Lord, I am so weak and low,
So pain’d to stay, so loath to go,
And most of all I need to gain
The flower and quintessence of pain.

Lord, make me great and brave and free!
It is enough to breathe and be!
Out of the blessed need to grow
Blossoms the thirst to love and know.

And in Thy season, Master blest,                                                   286
Grant me a little sleep and rest;
Then, wakening,—in a sweeter place,
Thy sunlight pouring on my face.

Lord, let me breathe! Lord, let me be!
Give me Thy light, and let me see!
And now and then, to make me strong,
A little sleep, but not too long.

Thus, Lord, for ever let me range
Through pain, through tears, through strife, through change,
Make me full blessed in Thy light,
But never at the price of Sight!









Hard hand, hold mine! deep eyes, look into these!
     Strong soul, befriend a troubled modern’s song!
Thou poor man, beaten on by rain and breeze,
     Thou who shalt rule the nations, make me strong.”

                                       AN INVOCATION TO LAZARUS.





I SHALL offer no apology for now entering upon the discussion of so personal a matter as the purport of my own poetical writings. If I am self-conscious and interested here (and I by no means hope wholly to escape misconstruction) I have been so all along; for while discussing the poetic character, describing the Student’s vocation, inquiring what is and what is not Literary Morality, and finally bringing the whole matter to the test of spiritual and theological light, I have been steadily proceeding in this direction. Whom should these thoughts guide, if they are not to be as lamps to my own feet ? Whom should I dare 290 to rebuke, if I were fearful of setting an example? I most utter my message at any cost—believing, as I do, that, although I may utterly fail to clothe my aspirations or opinions in artistic or permanent forms, yet that those aspirations and opinions are fraught with the deepest importance,—are destined sooner or later to bear fruit that will make art nobler, and deeply gladden the spirits of men.
     In three volumes of ambitious verse,* consisting chiefly of tentative attempts to picture contemporary scenes, I have been doing my best to show that actual life, independent of accessories, is the true material for poetic art; that, further, actual national life is the perfectly approven material for every British poet; and that, in a word, the further the poet finds it necessary to recede from his own time, the less trustworthy is his imagination, the more constrained his sympathy, and the smaller his chance of creating true and durable types for human contemplation. The

—    * I do not here include “Undertones,” which belongs to a totally different category. —

291 success of my writings with simple people may be no sign of their possessing durable poetic worth, but it at least implies that I have been labouring in the right direction. On reviewing the history of my three books I find that I have every reason to congratulate myself on the sympathy of the great body of public writers. My greatest opponents have been found among men of what is called “literary culture”—an epithet implying excellent education, vast reading, real intelligence, and much respect for tradition. “You have evidently gone to the life for your subjects,” writes a distinguished living critic, “but still I would have you remember that if one, while going to the life, chooses a subject which is naturally poetical, one’s chances of the best poetical success will be increased tenfold.” A gifted young contemporary, who seems fond of throwing stones in my direction, fiercely upbraids me for writing “Idyls of the gallows and the gutter,” and singing songs of “costermongers and their trulls.” Gentlemen from the universities shake their heads over me sadly, and complain, somewhat irrelevantly, I think, that I am not Greek. Now, I am quite ready 292 to credit all these gentlemen with perfect sincerity, and, so far as taste is founded on tradition, with perfect good taste. Whether from too elaborate a collegiate education, or from class pride, or from actual deficiency of imagination, they do really associate vulgarity with a certain class of subjects, they do really feel that contemporary life is not naturally poetic, they do really breathe more freely under the masks of the old drama, than when face to face with the terrific commonplaces and sublime vulgarities of great cities. Views of contemporary life, to please them, must be greatly idealized or subdued to the repose of Greek sculpture; but, for the most part, they would consign contemporary material to the comic writer, and reserve our ordinary daily surroundings for the use of the manufacturers of Adelphi farces. In “Pindar and Poets unrivalled,” they confine their sympathy to tradition, and care most for statuesque woes and nude intellectualities moving on a background of antique landscape. If they are to find a poetic theme on the soil, they must go very far back in the chronicle—say, as far as Boadicea. The more misty the figures, the less their 293 vulgarity, in the eyes of those who wish to build colleges on Parnassus, and who learn Greek in order to address the Muses, forgetting that the nine ladies now favour the moderns, and have almost entirely forgotten their beautiful native tongue.
     However, the mania for false refinement, which distinguishes educated vulgarity, must not blind us to the truth that a large portion of the public, and these highly intellectual people, are quite incapable of perceiving the poetry existing close to their own thresholds. The little world in which they move is so vulgar and sordid, or so artificial, that the further they escape from its suggestions they feel the freer. What they cannot feel in the office or the drawing-room they try to feel in the garden of Academus, Their daily life, their daily knowledge and duty, is not earnest enough to supply their spiritual needs, and they very naturally conclude that the experience of their neighbours is as mean as theirs. In the ranks of such men we not seldom find the lost Student; but the majority call themselves cultured, as their neighbours call themselves virtuous,—just for 294 want of some other spicier peculiarity to distinguish them from their fellows.
     Let it be at once conceded that our modern life is complex and irritating, and, at a superficial glance, sadly deficient in picturesqueness. Streets are not beautiful, and this is the age of streets; trade seems selfish and common, and this is the age of trade; railways, educational establishments, poor houses, debating societies, are not romantic, and this is the age of all these. But if we strip off the hard outer crust of these things, if we pass from the unpicturesqueness of externals to the currents which flow beneath, who then shall say that this life is barren of poetry? Never, I think, did such strange lights and shades glimmer on the soul’s depths, never was suffering more heroic, or courage more sublime, never was the reticence of deep emotion woven in so closely with the mystery and the wonder of the world. Yet a very brief glance at recent poetry will show how blind our poets have been to this most legitimate material. Of the poets of the last generation, Wordsworth and Crabbe depicted actual life as they beheld it; Wordsworth dissecting silent 295 endurance with iron pathos, and Crabbe protruding unpoetic details with the art of the parish clerk. While Crabbe’s pictures are nearly worthless, poetically speaking, and have done much to deepen the prejudice against the poetic treatment of contemporary life, Wordsworth’s are really poetic, but are often too cold and academic in the outline, too little disinterested, except where they deal in mere emotions, to be quite satisfactory. Hood, alone, once or twice caught the throb of the great heart of modern time; had his sympathies been closelier concentrated, had his necessities been less urgent, I believe this wonderful and totally misunderstood genius might have done much to revolutionize English poetry; for he more than once evinced glimmers of sympathy, sanity, insight, and single-hearted beneficence, which it is difficult to discover even in Wordsworth. Among contemporaries there has been shown a more earnest craving to do justice to the present. Tennyson has given us a garden philosopher’s group of modern idyls, often significant, sometimes deep, and always finely representative of English elegance. “The Gardener’s 296 Daughter,” “The Miller’s Daughter,” and “The Brook,”* are exquisite attempts to paint English landscape, with the addition of a few delicate figures; but if we wish to perceive the full amount of Tennyson’s apprehensiveness towards modern life, we must turn to “Maud,” which is full of interest, in spite of its inferiority as a poem. On the whole Tennyson does not, and cannot, sympathise much with life not ornate, though he has nobly striven to educate his eye and heart. Clough endeavoured, with some success, to express in verse much of the unsatisfied longing of middle-class culture, but his instincts were scholastic, not humanitarian. Mr. Arnold no sooner touches the solid ground of contemporary thought, than all his grace forsakes him, and his utterance becomes the merest prose. Mr. Browning, of whose

—    * Of these three poems, the last is infinitely the highest, because it draws its most touching force from a universal spiritual chord—the contrast of the changefulness of human life with the durability of natural objects. The “Grandmother” is fine for a similar reason. I confess, however, that I am blind to the poetic merit of the “Northern Farmer,” however conscious of its force as a photograph. —

297 moral and mental greatness there can be no question, has only once or twice attempted essentially English themes; and, although this writer’s human sympathy is wondrously deep and beautiful, it is often overcast by intellectualities that deaden the sense of life. Mrs. Browning, alone, of all the recent poets, reached the deep significance of her century. “Aurora Leigh” is too wild and diffuse, too morbidly female, to be called a great work of art, but it contains passages newer, truer, and profounder than any other modern poem. England has lost her greatest modern light in Mrs. Browning. She has left little behind her to represent her mighty sympathy and capacity for apprehending, but she stands unique in these days—specifically a poet—one troubled by the great mystery of life, and finding no speech adequate but song. Had she survived, and been open to English influences, she would have written her name on the forehead of her time, and forced the stream of English poetry into a newer and a deeper channel.
     But it is at least clear, from these examples, that the poetry of humanity is newly dawning. 298 To the preacher, to the poet, to the philosopher, the people must look more constantly than heretofore for guidance. Religion and science have their spheres defined for them: our singers are but learning to define theirs. Genius, as much as liberty, is the nation’s birthright, and it misses its aim when it confines its ministrations to any section of the state. Poetic art has been tacitly regarded, like music and painting, as an accomplishment for the refined, and it has suffered immeasurably as an art, from its ridiculous fetters. It has dealt with life in a fragmentary form, and with the least earnest and least picturesque phases of life. Yet the intensity of being (for example) among those who daily face peril, who are never beyond want, who have constant presentiments of danger, who wallow in sin and trouble, ought to bring to the poet, as to the painter, as lofty an inspiration as may be gained from those living in comfort, who make lamentation a luxury and invent futilities to mourn over. The world is full of these voices, and the poet has to set them into perfect speech. But this truth has been little understood, and but 299 partially acted upon. Our earliest English poets had some leanings towards the heroism of fate-stricken men; and Chaucer could dwell on the love of a hind with the same affection as upon the devotion of a knight. The old poet had a wholesome regard for merit unbiassed by accessories; but the broad light he wrote in has suffered a long eclipse.
     The risk of appearing self-credulous shall not prevent me from explicitly expressing, in the interests of art and artists, the principles which have regulated my own tentative attempts at this poetry of humanity. They may be briefly enumerated. That the whole significance and harmony of life is never to be lost sight of in depicting any fragmentary form of life, and that, therefore, the poet should free himself entirely from all arbitrary systems of ethics and codes of opinion, aiming, in a word, at that thorough disinterestedness which is our only means to the true perception of God’s creatures. That every fragmentary form of life is not fit for song, but that every form is so fit which can be spiritualized without the introduction of false elements to the 300 final literary form of harmonious numbers. That, failing the heroic statue and the noble features, almost every human figure becomes idealized whenever we take into consideration the background of life, or picture, or sentiment on which it moves; and that it is to this background a poet must often look for the means of casting over his picture the refluent colours of poetic harmony. That the true clue to poetic success in this kind is the intensity of the poet’s own insight, whereby a dramatic situation, however undignified, however vulgar to the unimaginative, is made to intersect through the medium of lyrical emotion with the entire mystery of human life, and thus to appeal with more or less force to every heart that has felt the world.
     Truth, then, to hit the sense of hearers, was to be strangely spiritualized—spiritual truth being truth seen through the peculiar medium of a man’s own individual soul. The poet’s first task was to purify the medium as much as possible, to drain it of all prejudices in favour of special virtue, or knowledge, or culture. It was the poet’s business, not to preach morality, not to inculcate 301 intellectuality, not to describe this or that form of life as finally and significantly holy, but to be just without judgment to the pathos and power of all he saw or apprehended. The accessories must be laid aside, the conventionalities disregarded, and the deep human heart laid bare. The only bond incumbent on the poet was the artistic one. It was not enough merely to represent life,—it was necessary that the representatives should be beautiful. It was not enough to mirror truth,—the truth must be spiritualized. It was not enough to catch the speech of man or woman,—that speech must be subtly set to music.
     With these views, still faint, but strengthening upon me, I wrote the poems of “Inverburn,”—a series of dramatic soliloquies put into the mouths of certain poor folk, figures seen on the background of a familiar Scottish village,—

The clachan, with its humming sound of looms,
The quaint old gables, roofs of turf and thatch.
The glimmering spire that peeps above the firs,
The waggons in the lanes, the waterfall
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild,
The stream whose soft blue arms encircle all,—
And in the background heathery norland hills,
Hued like the azure of the dew-berrie,                                           302
And mingling with the regions of the Rain!

     I cannot, of course, say where I have perfectly succeeded in realizing my own ideal in these poems; but I am at least conscious to some extent where I have failed. In “Willie Baird” and “Poet Andrew,” the speech, respectively, of an old schoolmaster and a village weaver, I attempt a perfect ideal background, the power and dreamy influence of nature in the one case, and the intense glow of great human emotion in the other. The “English Housewife’s Gossip” lacks the background, touches nowhere on the great universal chords of sympathy, and is insomuch unsuccessful as a poem. The “Two Babes” is, even from my own favourable stand-point, a mixed business, of whose poetic merit I am by no means confident. It is on poems like “Willie Baird” and “Poet Andrew,” and a few of the shorter pieces, that I should take my stand if I were forced to point to any of these poems as poetic successes, from the lofty modern point of view that I am at present taking.
     In “London Poems,” I was at least a great 303 deal juster to the rude forces of life, my sympathy was bolder and more confident, my soul clearer and more trustworthy as a medium, however poor might be my power of perfect artistic spiritualization. As common life was approached more closely, as the danger of vulgarity threatened more and more to interfere with the reader’s sense of beauty, the stronger and tenderer was the lyrical note needed.

     —— Even in the unsung city’s streets,
Seem’d quiet wonders meet for serious song,
Truth hard to phrase and render musical.
For ah! the weariness and weight of tears,
The crying out to God, the wish for slumber,
They lay so deep, so deep! God heard them all;
He set them unto music of His own;
But easier far the task to sing of kings,
Or weave weird ballads where the moon-dew glistens,
Than body forth this life in beauteous sound.

     In writing such poems as “Liz” and “Nell,” the intensest dramatic care was necessary to escape vulgarity on the one hand, and false refinement on the other. “Liz,” although the offspring of the very lowest social deposits, possesses great natural intelligence, and speaks more than once 304 with a refinement consequent on strange purity of thought. Moreover, she has been under spiritual influences. She is a beautiful living soul, just conscious of the unfitness of the atmosphere she is breathing; but, above all, she is a large-hearted woman, with wonderful capacity for loving. She is on the whole quite an exceptional study, although in many of her moods typical of a class. “Nell” is not so exceptional, and since it is harder to create types than eccentricities, her utterance was far more difficult to spiritualize into music. She is a woman quite without refined instincts, coarse, uncultured, impulsive. Her love, though profound, is insufficient to escape mere commonplace; and it was necessary to breathe around her the fascination of a tragic subject, the lurid light of an ever-deepening terror.
     In the language of both these poems I followed nature as closely as possible; so far as poetic speech can follow ordinary speech. I had to add nothing, but merely (as a sympathetic critic happily expressed it) to “deduct whatever hid, instead of expressing, the natural meaning of 305 the speakers;” for to obtrude slips of grammar, mis-spellings, and other meaningless blotches, in short, to lay undue emphasis on the mere language employed, would have been wilfully to destroy the artistic verisimilitude of such poems. Every stronger stress, every more noticeable trick of style, added after the speech was sufficient to hint the quality of the speakers, was so much over-truth, offending against the truth’s harmony. The object was, while clearly conveying the caste of the speakers, to afford an artistic insight into their souls, and to blend them with the great universal mysteries of life and death. Vulgarity obtruded is not truth spiritualized and made clear, but truth still hooded and masked, and little likely to reveal anything to the vision of its contemplators.
     By at least one critic I have been charged with idealizing the speech a little too much. Both “Liz” and “Nell,” it is averred, occasionally speak in a strain very uncommon in their class. In reply to this I may observe how much mis-pronunciations, vulgarisms, and the like, have blinded educated people to the 306 wonderful force and picturesqueness of the language of the lower classes. They know nothing of the educated luxury of using language in order to conceal thought, but speak because they have something to say, and try to explain themselves as forcibly as possible. Take the talk of sailors, for example, even of the common smacks-men who live precarious lives upon our coasts. How full of picture, emphasis, fervour—everything but circumlocution. “There was a star i’ the old moon’s weather horn this morning; nor I didn’t much like the coppery clouds this dog-watch.” The speech of the lower classes in cities is not much less powerful and uncommon. Metaphor abounds to an extraordinary degree, and words are often chosen with a singular sense of sound. “And then,” said an old Irish apple-woman to me, speaking of the death of her half-starved baby, “God’s hand gript me round the heart, and sure I couldn’t breathe or see.” This, however, is a subject too elaborate for discussion here, and must be reserved for a separate paper.
     It is difficult to satisfy all critics. By some my language has been thought over-refined; by 307 others, it has been condemned as vulgar and inharmonious. The style of the ornate school of writers, where the melody of sweet syllables is essayed without constant reference to emotion or thought, has, I confess, but little fascination for me. I have usually, and perhaps too implicitly, trusted to the character of the emotion in order to produce poetic harmony. I have preferred the simplicity of truth, the vigor of simple speech, to all habitual finesse or fantastic elaboration. Words have been valuable to me purely as a means of expressing meaning, nor have I often introduced epithets or tricks of style, merely to satisfy the vulgarity of schoolmen.
     A far more serious charge than that concerning any mere question of style has been brought by genteel critics against poems such as those I have been discussing. It has been said that, under the form of dramatic soliloquy, the writer’s own subjective spectacles have been sometimes put on the eyes of common-place people, thus crediting the speakers with sentimentalisms which have no existence out of the sphere of blind poetic sympathy. The sensations of Liz during her 308 one memorable visit to the country, the intense loving tenderness of the coarse woman Nell towards her brutal paramour, the exquisite delicacy and fine spiritual vision of the old village schoolmaster, the yearning for pastoral light and music in the heart of the old ballad-maker, all these, it is suggested, are over-elaborate sentimentalisms, too tender emotions accorded to people who, in reality, have very little sentiment or emotion to boast of. Thus, in a strain of critical gentility, writes the editor of the “Pall Mall Grazette,” criticising the “Ballad-maker:” “Our present author would have us imagine that an exterior of squalor and rudeness is inevitably and incessantly accompanied by an abject and querulous frame of mind. He is unwilling even to believe that a Londoner can for a moment forget or cease to be sick of the smoke and the strange faces that surround him. His imaginary sufferers moreover have a childish and literally lack-a-daisy longing to meet with the simplest country objects.” Now, of all the city poems I have written, there are four only which, from this profound point of view, can be considered querulous and lack-a-daisy. Two of 309 these, “The Starling” and “The Linnet,” are what I may call “bird poems,” companion pieces, where, by natural laws of association, and in very different ways, a caged starling and a caged linnet are made to flash upon their owners wild or bright glimpses of the outlying districts from which they come. The third poem, “The Ballad Maker,” is clearly and avowedly the story of a man translated from the country to the town; and naturally, being of a poetic and dreamy turn of mind, strangely impressed with the contrast. He is querulous: and why not? But where is the querulousness, where the childish longing for country objects in Liz. Liz breathes happily only in the deep miasma of the city: a being possible only there; knowing nothing of light or sunshine, and caring to know nothing of these. She tries the country once, because she thinks that life is easier there; but far from moving her to joy, the light and colour trouble her to intensest pain.

I would not stay out yonder if I could,
For one feels dead, and all looks pure and good:
I could not bear a light so bright and still.

310 With these four poems the catalogue of such “sentimentalities” may be brought to a close. In what, for instance, consists the sorrow of the Little Milliner who, far from drooping in the city, found there a constant round of joy from day to day:—

And London streets, with all their noise and stir,
Had many a pleasant sight to pleasure her.
There were the shops, where wonders ever new,
As in a garden, changed the whole year through.
Oft would she stand, and watch, with laughter sweet,
The punch and judy in the quiet street;
Or look and listen while soft minuets
Play’d the street organ with the marionettes.
Or join the motley group of merry folks
Round the street huckster, with his wares and jokes.
Fearless and glad, she joined the crowd that flows
Along the streets at festivals and shows.
In summer time she loved the parks and squares.
Where fine folk drive their carriages and pairs.
In winter time her blood was in a glow,
At the white coming of the pleasant snow.
And in the stormy nights, when dark rain pours,
She found it pleasant, too, to sit in-doors,
And sing, and sew, and listen to the gales,
Or read the penny journal with the tales.

     It was clearly my endeavour, in this poem, to 311 evolve the fine Arcadian feeling out of the dullest obscurity, to show how even brick walls and stone houses may be made to blossom, as it were, into blooms and flowers;—to produce by delicate passion and sweet emotion an effect similar to that which pastoral poets have produced by means of greenery and bright sunshine. In close connection with all that is dark and solitary in London life, the little milliner was to walk in a light such as lies on country fields, exhibiting, as a critic happily phrases it, “all the passion of youth, modulated by all the innocence of a naked baby.”
     But my wish to vindicate certain artistic principles must not betray me further into detailed expositions of separate poems. I wish to offer a general explanation, not special panegyrics. One more word here, however, on the kind of dramatic soliloquy I have adopted in these pieces. In such individual utterance there is clearly a danger of one-sidedness, of crediting the world with the poet’s own emotion, the more so as that emotion must interpenetrate more or less consciously with the actual emotion of the speaker, so 312 as to result in a conscientious and moving picture, with a faint though audible tone of lyric harmony. The reader must not only see the truth, but see it through the novel medium of a poetic individuality. It may be a truth old as the hills, hoary with the snows of century after century, but it is only a poetic truth so far as the new mental light irradiates and transfigures it. If the world sees such figures as Liz, Nell, Poet Andrew, Meg Blane, through the troubled atmosphere of the writer’s soul, let not the world complain that it sees them no longer under the dark loveless shadow in which they were previously perceived, if perceived at all. One cannot so clear that atmosphere as to bring it to the ambient purity and perfect veracity of God’s own air. The poet, be he great dramatist, like Sophocles, or morbid dreamer, like Blake, cannot free himself wholly from the disturbing forces of his own heart. He has but one clue to the mystery, and that is his own individuality. “It is astonishing,” says a loose but occasionally felicitous writer, “how large a harvest of new truths would be reaped simply through the 313 accident of a man’s feeling, or being made to feel more deeply than other men. He sees the same objects, neither more nor fewer, but he sees them engraved in lines far stronger, and more determinate, and the difference in the strength makes the whole difference between consciousness and sub-consciousness. And in questions of the mere understanding, we see the same fact illustrated. The author who wins notice the most, is not he that perplexes men by truths drawn from fountains of absolute novelty—truths as yet unsunned—and from that cause obscure; but he that awakens into illuminated consciousness, ancient lineaments of truth long slumbering in the mind, although too faint to have extorted attention.”* And here is an explanation why, through all truly good and sane poetic art, runs that strange personal light which fascinates as music or style, and is the invariable characteristic of the true singer.
     I must not be understood as insisting that humble cotemporary life is the only legitimate

—    * De Quincey on Wordsworth’s Poetry, page 260. —

314 material of the modern poet. Strongly as I am convinced that the mighty reserve force, the ardent strength and sanity of this people, lies little acknowledged in the ranks of that class which is only just emerging into political power, firmly as I would indicate how exotic teachers have emasculated the youth and the flower of our schools and universities, I would yet be just to all cotemporary life, social, political, moral. “Religion,” says Goethe, “stands in the same relation to art as any other of the higher interests of life. It is a subject, and its rights are those of all other subjects.” Yet how scantily are morality and religion represented in modern art. Why, for instance, is our Christianity forgotten as a subject? Where is the great poem, where the noble music built on that wondrous theme? Milton, with all his power, is academic, not modern; and, with the exception of a few faint utterances of Wordsworth, all our other religious poetry is conventional and inartistic.
     We hear, indeed, the metallic periods of the didactic teacher, and the feeble wail of the 315 religious enthusiast, but seldom indeed are our nobler intellectual and spiritual strivings phrased into perfect song. The reticence of false culture steals over the lips of many who might instruct us deeply by their experience, who, if they do speak, are moved by the retrograde spirit of another civilization, and use the formal periods of an alien tongue. Why, in the name of our new gods, are we still to be bound by the fetters of Prometheus. We are, if not quite Celts, more Celts than Greeks, and, thank heaven, not altogether an intellectual nation. We have nothing in common with the Athenian civilization. In the same spirit that we demolished their monuments, to transport them piecemeal to our museums, we mutilate their language to carry it into our schools. In our clumsy attempts to imitate ancient art and literature, we seek in vain to hide the gait of the barbarian. Even our strongest natures fail at this task. They might be very admirable Englishmen if they did not aspire to be very intellectual Greeks.
     There is reason to apprehend that this traditional intellectuality is melting away, and that 316 clearer and nobler forces are beginning to operate upon our young minds. “Off, off, ye lendings!” We are a modern people, slightly barbaric in matters of art; but our natures have a glow of emotion quite unknown to the frigid spirit of Athenian inquiry. There is a great emotional and spiritual life yet unrepresented, there are rude forces not yet brought into play, but all of which must sooner or later have their place in art; and the indigenous product of our experience, however inferior to other civilizations, is yet vastly superior to all exotics grafted on the weathered trunk of what was once a noble tree.
     In answer to thoughts like this, I have heard it urged that Art is not local but cosmopolitan, and that the artist should aim, as all great artists have aimed, at universality. It is true that the highest art owes its permanence to its universality, but it is also true that the intensity of the local insight, the keenness of the artist’s apprehension of his own time, is the very cause that his work compasses universal truth; since each man’s spiritual experience, if rightly depicted, must correspond in numberless soul-touching 317 particulars, with the combined experience of the world. There is no catholicity, no universality, no true art, to be got by chill aiming at these things; they are the product of individual natures, acted upon by the great forces of the world and the period. It is nonsense to point to Greek art, especially Greek sculpture, as “universal” in the sense of non-nationality. Nothing can be more Greek, and that is why nothing can be more great.
     But I must draw these remarks to the close. The conclusion of the whole matter, as affecting poets and poetry, is this, that although there may be high and good poetry moving in a limited range of sympathy, the very highest and best poetry is the poetry which appeals to most classes of the state, through those universal chords which communicate with all hearts alike. (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Burns). A true poem of this sort has a side for the uncultivated, another for the refined; a body and soul that reach down to the heart’s beatings, and up to the very heaven of mysteries. It is virtually inexhaustible—large, typical, human. I can congratulate myself on 318 having attempted, however humbly, to touch this poetry of humanity; but the appreciation of my own mere tentatives in this direction is of far less importance to me than the welfare of English art generally, and the vindication of its place in European progress.

     Cætera, quæ vacuas tenuissent carmina mentis,
Omnia jam vulgata. Quis aut Eurysthea durum,
Aut illaudati nescit Busiridis aras?
Cui non dictus Hylas puer, Latonia Delos?
Hippodaméque, humeróque Pelops insignis eburno,
Acer equis? Tentanda via est, qua me quoque possim
Tollere humo, victórque virûm volitare per ora!

                                                         VIR. GEORG. III. 3.





[Note: The final quotation is from Virgil: Georgics, Book III. Introduction, lines 3-9.

Translation (from Poetry in Translation):

“Now all the other themes are too well known,
that might have charmed an idle mind with song.
Who hasn’t heard of cruel Eurystheus,
or the altars of wicked Busiris?
Who has not told of the boy, Hylas, and Latona’s Delos,
and Hippodame, and Pelops, known for his ivory shoulder,
fearless with horses? I must try a path, by which I too
can rise from the earth and fly, victorious, from men’s lips.” ]



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