THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. VI. —AUGUST, I860.—NO. XXXIV.
WHITHER went the nine old Muses, daughters of Jupiter and the Goddess of Memory, after their seats on Helicon, Parnassus, and Olympus were barbarized ? Not far away. They hovered like witches around the seething caldron of early Christian Europe, in which, “ with bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” a new civilization was forming, mindful of the brilliant lineage of their worshippers, from Homer to Boethius, looking upon, the vexed and beclouded Nature, and expecting the time when Humanity should gird itself anew with the beauty of ideas and institutions. They were sorrowful, but not in despair; for they knew that the children of men were strong with recuperative power.
The ear of Fancy, not long since, heard the hoofs of winged Pegasus striking the clouds. The long-idle Muses, it seemed, had become again interested in human efforts, and were paying a flying visit to the haunts of modern genius from the Hellespont to the Mississippi. They lingered in sunny Provence, and in the dark forest-land of the Minnesingers. In the great capitals, as Rome, Berlin, Paris, London,— in smaller capitals, as Florence, Weimar, and Boston, — in many a village which had a charm for them, as Stratford-on-Avon, Ferney, and Concord in Massachusetts,— in the homes of wonderful suffering, as Ferrara and Haworth. — on many enchanted waters, as the Guadalquivir, the Rhine, the Tweed, the Hudson, Windermere, and Leman, — in many a monastic nook whence had issued a chronicle or history, in many a wild birthplace of a poem or romance, around many an old castle and stately ruin, in many a decayed seat of revelry and joyous repartee, — through the long list of the nurseries of genius and the laboratories of art, they wandered pensive and strangely affected. At length they rested from their journey to hold a council on modern literature. The long results of Christian time were unrolled before them as in a chart. They beheld the dawn of a new historic day, marked by songs of fantastic tenderness, and unwieldy, long, and jointless romances and poems, like the monsters which played in the unfinished universe before the creation of man. The Muses smiled with a look more of complaisance than approval, as they reviewed the army of Troubadours and Minnesingers and the crowd of romancers who followed in their train. They decided that the joyous array of early mediaeval literature was full of promise, though something of its tone and temper was past the comprehension of pagan goddesses. The legends of saints and pictures of martyrdoms were especially mysterious to them, and they regarded them raptly, not smilingly, and bowed their heads. Anon their eyes rested on an Italian city, where uprose, as if in interstellar space, an erect figure, with a piercing eye, pleasant as Plato’s voice. His countenance was fixed upon the empyrean, and a more than Minervalike form hovered above him, interpreting the Christian universe ; and as he wrote what she dictated, the verses of his poem were musical even to the Muses. Dante, Beatrice, and the “ Divine Comedy,” with a Gothic church as a makeweight, were balanced in Muses’ minds in comparison with the “Iliad” and the age of Pericles; and again they put on the rapt look of mystery, but a smile also, and their admiration and applause were more and more. To England they soon turned, and contemplated the round, many-colored globe of Shakspeare’s works. As playful swallows sometimes dart round and round a lithe and wondering wingless animal, so they, admiringly and timidly, attracted, yet hesitating, delighting in his alertness, but not quite understanding it, flitted like a troubled and beautiful flock around the great magician of modern civilization. Their glance became lighter and less intent, as if they were nearer to knowledge, the pain of perplexity disappeared like a shadow from their countenances, their plaudits were more unreserved, and it seemed likely that the high desert of Shakspeare would win for our new literature a favorable recognition from the aristocratic goddesses of antiquity. Knowing that Jove had made perfection unattainable by mortals, they yet found in the chart before them epics, dramas, lyrics, histories, and philosophies that were no unworthy companions to the creations of classical genius, and they were jubilant in the triumphs of a period in which they had been rather ignorantly and ironically worshipped. Their sitting was long, and their review thorough, yet they found but one department of modern literature which was regarded with a distrust that grew to an aversion. The romances, the tales, the stories, the novels were contemned more and more, from the first of them to the last. Nothing like them had been known among the glories of Hellenic literary art, and no Muse now stood forth to be their defender and patron. Calliope declared that they were not epical, Euterpe and Erato that they were not lyrical, Melpomene and Thalia that they were neither tragical nor comical, Clio that they were not historical, Urania that they were not sublime in conception, Polymnia that they had no stately or simple charm in execution, and Terpsichore, who had joined with Melpomene in admiring the opera, found nothing in the novel which she could own and bless. Fleeting passages, remote and slight fragments, were pleasing to them all, like the oases of a Sahara, or the sites of high civilization on the earth ; but the whole world of novels seemed to them a chaos undisciplined by art and unformed to beauty. The gates of the halls where the classics live in immortal youth were beginning to close against the voluminous prose romances that have sprung from modern thought, when the deliberations of the Muses were suddenly interrupted. They had disturbed the divine elements of modern society. Forth from all the recesses of the air came troops of Gothic elves, trolls, fairies, sprites, and all the other romantic beings which had inspired the modern mind to novel-writing,— marching or gambolling, pride in their port, defiance in their eye, mischief in their purpose, — and began so vigorous an attack upon their classic visitors and critics, that the latter were glad to betake themselves to the mighty-winged Pegasus, who rapidly bore them in retreat to the present home of the Dii Majores, that point of the empyrean directly above Olympus.
And well, indeed, might the Muses wonder at the rise of the novel and its vast developments, for the classic literature presents no similar works. One of Plato’s dialogues or Æsop’s fables is as near an approach to a prose romance as antiquity in its golden eras can offer. The few productions of the kind which appeared during the decline of literature in the early Christian centuries, as the “ Golden Ass” of Apuleius and the “Æthiopica” of Heliodorus, were freaks of Nature, an odd growth rather than a distinct species, and are also to be contrasted rather than compared with the later novel. Such as they are, moreover, they were produced under Christian as much as classic influences. The aesthetic Hellenes admitted into their literature nothing so composite, so likely to be crude, as the romance. Their styles of art were all pure, their taste delighted in simplicity and unity, and they strictly forbade a medley, alike in architecture, sculpture, and letters. The history of their development opens with an epic yet unsurpassed, and their literary creations have been adopted to be the humanities of Christian universities. A writer has recently proposed to account for their success in the arts from the circumstance that the features of Nature around them were small, — that their hornet-shaped peninsula was cut by mountains and inlets of the sea into minute portions, which the mind could easily compass, the foot measure, and the hand improve, — that therefore every hillock and fountain, every forest and by-way was peopled with mythological characters and made significant with traditions, and the cities were adorned with architectural and sculptured masterpieces. Greece thus, like England in our own time, presented the character of a highly wrought piece of ground, — England being the more completely developed for material uses, and Greece being the more heavily freighted with legends of ideal meaning. Small-featured and large-minded Greece is thus set in contrast with Asia, where the mind and body were equally palsied in the effort to overcome immense plains and interminable mountain-chains. But whatever the reason, whether geographical or ethnological, it. is certain that the people of Greece were endowed with a transcendent genius for art, which embraced all departments of life as by an instinct. Every divinity was made a plain figure to the mind, every mystery was symbolized in some positive beautiful myth, and every conception of whatever object became statuesque and clear. This artistic character was possible to them from the comparatively limited range of pagan imagination; their thought rarely dwelt in those regions where reason loves to ask the aid of mysticism, and all remote ideas, like all remote nations, were indiscriminately regarded by them as barbarous. But guarded by the bounds of their civilization, as by the circumfluent oceanstream of their olden tradition, they were prompted in all their movements by the spirit of beauty, and philosophers have accounted them the very people whose ideas were adequately and harmoniously represented in sensible forms, — unlike the nations of the Orient, where mind is overawed by preponderating matter, and unlike the nations of Christendom, where the current spiritual meanings reach far into the shadowy realm of mystery and transcend the power of material expression.
Tims art was the main category of the Greeks, the absolute form which embraced all their finite forms. It moulded their literature, as it did their sculpture, architecture, and the action of their gymnasts and orators. They therefore delighted only in the highest orders and purest specimens of literature, refused to retain in remembrance any of the unsuccessful attempts at poetry which may be supposed to have preceded Homer, and gave their homage only to masterpieces in the dignified styles of the epic, the drama, the lyric, the history, or the philosophical discussion. Equal to the highest creations, they refused to tolerate anything lower; and they knew not the novel, because their poetical notions were never left in a nebulous, prosaic state, but were always developed into poetry.
Another reason, doubtless, was the wonderful activity of the Greek mind, finding its amusement and relaxation in the forum, theatre, gymnasium, or even the barber’s shop, in constant mutual contact, in learning wisdom and news by word of mouth. The long stories which they may have told to each other, as an outlet for their natural vitality, as extemporaneous exercises of curiosity and wit and fancy, did not creep into their literature, which included only more mature and elaborate attempts.
The modern novel was born of Christianity and feudalism. It is the child of contemplation,— of that sort of luxurious intellectual mood which has always distinguished the Oriental character, and was first Europeanized in the twilight of the mediaeval period. The fallen Roman Empire was broken into countless fragments, which became feudal baronies. The heads of the newly organized society were lordly occupants of castles, who in time of peace had little to do. They were isolated from their neighbors by acres, forests, and a stately etiquette, if not actual hostility. There was no openair theatre in the vicinity, no forum alive with gossip and harangues, no public games, not even a loquacious barber’s shop. During the intervals between public or private wars,-—when the Turks were unmolested, the crescent and the dragon left in harmless composure, and no Christians were in mortal turmoil with each other,— it is little wonder that restless knights went forth from their loneliness errant in quest of adventures. What was there to occupy life in those barricaded stone-towers ?
It was then that the domestic passion, love, rose into dignity. Homage to woman assumed the potency of an idea, chivalry arose, and its truth, honor, and obeisance were the first social responses from mankind to Christianity. The castle was the emblem and central figure of the time : it was the seat of power, the arena of manners, the nursery of love, and the goal of gallantry; and around it hovered the shadows of religion, loyalty, heroism. Domestic events, the private castellar life, were thus exalted; but they could hardly suffice to engross and satisfy the spirit of a warrior and crusader. A new diversion and excitement were demanded, and soon, in response to the call, minstrels began to roam from castle to castle, from court to court, telling long stories of heroism and singing light songs of love. A spark from the Saracenic schools and poets of Spain may have flitted into Provence to kindle the elements of modern literature into its first development, the songs of the Troubadours. Almost contemporary were the lays of the Minnesingers in Germany and the romances of the Trouvères in Northern France. Beneath the brooding spirit of a new civilization signs of life had at length appeared, and Europe became vocal in every part with fantastic poems, lyrical in the South, epical in the North. They were wildly exuberant products, because severe art was unknown, but simple, naive, and gay, and suited to the taste of a time when the classics were regarded as superstitiously as the heavens. Love and heroism, which somehow are the leading themes of literature in all ages, now assumed the chivalrie type in the light hands of the earliest modern poets.
Yet these songs and metrical romances were most inadequate representatives of the undeveloped principles which lay at the root of Christian civilization. Even Hellenic genius might here have been at fault, for it was a far harder task to give harmonious and complete expression to the tendencies of a new religion and the germs of new systems, than to frame into beauty the pagan clear-cut conceptions. The Christian mind awoke under a fascination, and, for a time, could only ejaculate its meanings in fragments, or hint them in vast disproportions, could only sing snatches of new tunes. Its first signs were gasps, rather than clear-toned notes, after the long perturbations and preparations of history. The North and the South, the East and the West had been mingled together; the heated and heaving mass had been tempered by the leaven of Christianity : — and had all this been done only to produce an oeto-syllabic metre in praise of fantastic and semibarbaric sentiments and exploits? Had there been such commotions of the universe only for a song? Surely these first creations of art, these first attempts at literature, these first carvings of a rude spiritual intensity, were only such as the Greeks may have forgotten any quantity of before Homer came, their first glory and their oldest reminiscence.
One reason, perhaps, why mediaeval literature assumed so light and unartistic a form was, that by necessity it could not be full-orbed. Religion could not enter into it as a plastic element, but was fixed, a veiled, external figure, radiating indeed color and fragrance, but not making one of the struggling, independent vitals of the heart. Literature could play about this figure, but could not grasp it, and take it in among the materials to be fashioned. The Church, through its clergy, held jealous command of divine knowledge, beneath divine guidance, and left no developments of it possible to the lay mind, which culminated in minstrels and romancers. The Greeks, on the contrary, whose religion was an apotheosis of the earth, framed upwards and only by fiction of fancy handed downwards, derived all their theology from the poets. Prophecy and taste were combined in Homer,— Isaiah and the king’s jester in Pindar. The care of the highest, not less than the lowest departments of thought, fell upon the creative author, and a happy suggestion became a new article in the Hellenic creed. Has composition thus bore the burden and was hallowed by the sanctity of piety, the key to every human perfect, thing. But the Provencal celebrators of love and chivalry had no such dignity in their task. The solemnities of thought and life were cared for and hedged about by the Church as its own peculiar treasure, and to them there remained only the lighter office of amusing. The age was eminently religious, but the poet could not aid in erecting and adorning its temples. Every fair work of art must have a central idea; but the proper principle of unity for all grand artistic efforts not being within the reach of authors, it followed that their productions were not symmetrical, did not have an even outline nor cosmical meaning, did not consist of balanced parts, were poorly framed and articulated, and were charming only by their flavor, and not by their form. The cultured intellect will not seriously work short of a final principle ; and if a materialized religion, an ecclesiastical structure, be firmly planted on the earth by the same hand that established the universe and tapestried it with morning and evening, and if its gates and archways, its altar, columns, and courts be given in trust to chosen stewards as a divine priesthood, then the highest problem of being is not a human problem, and the mind of the laity has nothing more important to do than to play with the flowers of gallant love and heroism. Such was the feeling, perhaps the unconscious reasoning, of the founders of modern literature, as they began their labors in the alcoves of that church architecture which covered Christendom, embracing and symbolically expressing all its ideas and institutes. Therefore some vice of imperfection, a character of frivolity, or an artificially serious treatment of lightsome subjects marked all the literature of the time, which resembled that grotesque and unaccountable mathematical figure that has its centre outside of itself.
Modern literature thus had its origin in romantic metrical pieces, which, in the next stage, were transformed into prose novels. Two circumstances contributed to this change,— a change which could not have been anticipated ; for the Trouvère fabliaux and romans promised only epics, and the Troubadour chansons and tensons promised only lyrics and dramas. But the mind was now obliged to traverse the unbeaten paths of the Christian universe ; it was overwhelmed by the extent of its range, the richness and delicacy of its materials; it could with difficulty poise itself amid the indefinite heights and depths which encompassed it, and with greater difficulty could wield the magician’s rod which should sway the driving elements into artistic reconstruction. This mental inadequacy alone would not have created the novel, but would only have made lyrics and epics rare, the works of superior minds. The second and cooperating circumstance was the prevalence of the Christian and feudal habit of contemplation, which made constant literature a necessity. Nothing less than eternal new romances could save tghe lords, the ladies, and the dependents from ennui. But to supply these in a style of proper and antique dignity was beyond the power of the poets. In the wild forests of the mind they could rarely capture a mature idea, and they were as yet unpractised artists. Yet contemplative leisure called eagerly for constant titbits of romance to tickle the palate and furnish a diversion, while the genius of Christian poetry was yet in infantile weakness. The dilemma lasted but a moment, and was solved by an heroic effort of the poets to do, not what they would, but what they could. Yielding to practical necessities, they renounced the traditions of the classical past, which now seemed to belong to another hemisphere, abandoned the attempt to realize pure forms, postponed high art; melody gave way to prose, the romance degenerated into the novel, and prose fiction, which erst had flitted only between the tongue and ear, entered, a straggling and reeling constellation, into the firmament of literature. Hence the novel is the child of human impoteney and despair. The race thereby, with merriment and jubilee, confessed its inability to fulfil at once its Christian destiny as completely as the Greeks had fulfilled their pagan possibilities. Purity of art was left to the future, to Providence, or to great geniuses, but the novel became popular.
Thus the modern novel had its genesis not merely in a contemplative mood, but in contemplation which was forced by the impetuous temper of the times to fail of ever reaching the dignity of thoughtfulness. It was the immature product of an immature mental state; and richly as sometimes it was endowed by every human faculty, by imagination, wit, taste, or even profound thought, it yet never reached the goal of thought, never solved a problem, and, in its highest examples, professed only to reveal, but not to guide, the reigning manners and customs. Rarely did its materials pass through the fiery furnace whence art issues; it was a work of unfaithful intellect, prompted by ideas which never culminated and were never realized; and it did not rise much above the “ stuffs ” of life, as distinguished from the organic creations of tire mind. A many-limbed and shambling creature, which was not made a spirit by the power of an idea, it fluttered amid all the culture of a people,—amid the ideas and modes of the state, the church, the family, the world of society, — like a bungler among paint-pots; but the paints still remained paints on the canvas, instead of being blended and transfigured into a tiling of beauty. It was the organ of society, but not of the essential truths which vitalize society, and its incidents did not rise much above the significance of accidents.
What the novel was in knightly days, that it has continued to be. There is a mysterious practical potency in precedent. All ideas and institutes seem to grow in the direction of their first steps, as if from germs. Thus, the doctrines of the Church fathers are still peculiarly authoritative in theology, and the immemorial traditions of the common law are still binding in civil life. Man seems to be an experimental far more than a freely rational animal; for a fact in the past exerts a greater influence in determining future action than any new idea. A revolution must strike deep to eradicate the presumption in favor of ages. Learned men are now trying to read the hieroglyphics of the East, the records of an unknown history. Perhaps the result of their labors will temper the next period in the course of the world more than all our thinkers. Destiny seems to travel in the harness of precedents.
Thus, in obedience to the law of precedent, the mild gambols, the naive superficiality, the child-like irresponsibility for thinking, which were the characteristics of the first European novels, have generally distinguished the unnumbered and unclassified broods of them which have abounded in subsequent literature. Designed chiefly to amuse, to divert for a moment rather than to present an admirable work of art, to interest rather than to instruct and elevate, the modern romance has in general excused itself from thorough elaboration. Instead of being a chastened and symmetrical product of the whole organic mind, it has mainly been inspired by the imagination, which has been called the fool in the family of the faculties, and wrought out by the assistance of memory, which mechanically links the mad suggestions of its partner with temporal events. It is in literature something like what a feast presided over by the king’s jester and steward would have been in mediaeval social life. Let any novel be finished, let all the resources of the mind be conscientiously expended on it, let it become a thorough intellectual creation, and, instead of remaining a novel, it would assume the dignity of an epic, lyric, drama, philosophy, or history. Its nebulæ; would be resolved into stars.
Has, then, the mild and favorite blossom, the fabula romanensis, which was so abundant in the Middle Ages, which has grown so luxuriantly and given so general delight in modern times,—has it no place in the natural history of literature ? Shall it be mentioned only as an uncompleted something else,— as an abortive effort of thought,— as a crude mélange of elements that have not been purified and fused together in the focus of the mind ? And were the Muses right in refusing to admit it into their sacred realm of art ?
An affirmative answer can hardly be true; for an absurdity appears in the reduction that it would cause in the quantity of our veritable literature, and in the condemnation that it would pass on the tastes of many most intelligent writer’s and readers. Yet a comparison of the novel with the classical and pure forms of literature will show its unlikeness to them in design, dignity, and essential quality.
It was a favorite thesis of Fielding, often repeated by his successors, that the novel is a sort of comic epopee. Yet the romantic and the epic styles have nothing in common, except that both are narrative. The epic, the rare and lofty cypress of literature, is the story of a nation and a civilization ; the novel, of a neighborhood and a generation. A thousand years culminate in the former; it sums up the burden and purpose of a long historical period; and its characters are prominent types in universal history and in highest thought. But the novel is the child of a day; it is the organ of manners and phases, not of principles and passions; it does not see the phenomena of earth in heavenly or logical relations, does not transform life into art, and is a panorama, but not a picture. So long as man and heroism and strife endure, shall Achilles, Godfrey, Satan, and Mephistopheles be types; for they are artistic expressions of essential and historical realities. But though the beck of curiosity lead ws through the labyrinthine plot of a novel, long as Gibbon’s way through the Dark Ages, yet, when we have finished it, the bubble collapses, the little heavens which had been framed about us roll away, and most rarely does a character remain poetically significant in the mind.
A contrast of any page of an epic with one of a romance will show their essential unlikeness. Note, for instance, the beginning of the “ Gerusalemme Llberata.” The first stanza presents “ the illustrious captain who warred for Heaven and saved the sepulchre of Christ, — the many deeds which he wrought by arms and by wisdom, — his great toil, and his glorious achievement. Hell opposed him, the mingled populations of Asia and Africa leagued against him, — but all in vain, for Heaven smiled, and guided the wandering bands beneath his sacred ensigns.” Such are the splendid elements of the poem, outlining in a stanza the finest type, objects, and scenery of mediaeval heroism. The second stanza invokes the Muse, — “ Not thou whose brow was wreathed with the unenduring bays of Helicon, but thou who in angelic choirs hast a golden crown set with immortal stars, — do thou breathe celestial ardor into the poet’s heart!” Then follows an allusion to a profound matter of temper and experience. He prays that “the Muse will pardon, if sometimes he adorn his page with other charms than her own ; for thus, perhaps, he may win the world to his higher meanings, shrouding severe truths in soft verses. As the rim of the bitter cup is sweetened which is extended to the sick child, so may he, by beauties not quite Christian, attract mankind to read his whole poem to their health.” Such is the stately soaring of the epical Muse, the Muse of ideal history. Scholars find Greece completely prefigured in Homer, and the time may come when Dante and Tasso shall be the loading authorities for the history of the Middle Ages, and Milton for that of the ages of Protestantism.
In such comparison novels are insignificant and imbecile. Though, like “ Contarini Fleming,” they may begin with a magnificent paragraph, and fine passages be scattered through the volumes, they are yet rarely stories of ideas as well as persons, rarely succeed in involving events of more than temporary interest, and rarely, perhaps, should be called great mental products.
Not less strikingly does the difference between the epic and the novel appear in their different uses. The one is the inspiration of great historical action, the other of listless repose. The statesman, in the moment of debate, and in the dignity of conscious power, finds sympathy and encouragement in a passage of his favorite epic. Its grand types are ever in fellowship with high thoughts. The novel is for the lighter moment after the deed Is done, when he is no longer brunting Fate, but reclining idly, and reflecting humorously or malignly on this life. The epic is closely and strongly framed, like the gladiator about to strike a blow: the novel is relaxed and at careless ease, like the club-man after lighting his pipe. The latter does not bear the burden of severe responsibility, but is a thing of holidays and reactions. Still, as of old, it answers to the contemplative castellar cry, — “ Hail, romancer! come and divert me, — make me merry ! I wish to be occupied, but not employed, — to muse passively, not actively. Therefore, hail ! tell me a story,— sing me a song! If I were now in the van of an army and civilization, higher thoughts would engross me. But I am unstrung, and wish to be fanned, not helmeted,”
It has sometimes been claimed that the romantic style is essentially lyrical. But though the idea from which many novels start Avas perhaps the proper germ for one or more lyrics, it never attains in romance a pure and unincumbered development. We may illustrate the different intellectual creations founded on a common conception by imagining how one of Wordsworth’s lyrical fancies might have been developed in three volumes of romance instead of three stanzas of poetry.
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love.”
The first line, romantically treated, would include description, soliloquy, and narrative, to show that in solitude the maiden had habits, duties, something to think about and be interested in. The accidental approach of some cosmopolitan visitor would give occasion to illustrate dramatically the contrast between life in retirement and in society. Some novelists also would inflict, either by direct lecture or by conversation of the actors, very admirable reflections on the comparative advantages of the two conditions. The second line would perhaps suggest only geographical lore and descriptions of scenery, though historical episodes might be added. The third line would involve a minute description of dress, complexion, stature, and wild gracefulness. In a psychological investigation it would come out what strange and simple notions she entertained of the great world, and what charming qualities of unsophisticated character belonged to her as she merrily or pensively went through her accustomed tasks. The fourth line, in which love is the text, would swell into mammoth proportions. New characters would be especially necessary in this culminating part of the story; and though they should be “ very few,” they would long occupy the novelist with their diverse excellencies or villanies, their rivalries and strategies. It is probable that the complete development of the stanza àla romance would give a circumstantial history of the maiden from her birth, with glimpses more or less clear of all the remarkable people who dwelt near or occasionally visited the springs of Dove. Thus the same conception would become a stanza or a volume, according as its treatment were lyrical or romantic.
It need hardly be shown that the novel is not a drama, not a history, nor fable, nor any sort of philosophical treatise. It may have sentences, paragraphs, or perhaps chapters, in every style and of the highest excellence, as a shapeless architectural pile may rejoice in some exquisite features or ornaments; but combined passages, though they were the collected charms of literature, do not make a work of art. The styles are mixed,— a certain sign, according to Lessing, of corruption of taste. Novels present the anomaly of being fiction, but not poetry, — of being fruits of imagination, but of imagination improvising its creations from local and temporal things, instead of speaking from a sublime stand-point and linking series of facts with processions of ideas. Sources of history, guides of philosophical retrospection, they may come some time to be ; yet one cannot check a feeling of pity for the future historian who, in searching the “Pickwick Papers” for antiquities, finds himself bothered and confused by all the undisciplined witches of Mr. Dickens’s imagination.
If the novel be thus excluded from all the classical orders of literature, a trembling question is suggested, whether it may not be nevertheless a legitimate work of art. Though it be a mélange of styles, a story told, in literature what the story-teller is in society, yet why should it not have the honor among readers which the story-teller in all ages has had among listeners ? Though by its escutcheon it assume a place among the amusing rather than the instructive class of books, why should not its nobility be recognized ?
The answer is found in the essential nature of art, in the almost eternal distinction between life and thought, between actual and ideal realities. Unity amid diversity is the type of intellectual beauty and the law of the universe ; to comprehend it is the goal of science, and to reproduce it in human works is the aim of art. Yet how hard it is to find the central and essential idea in a world of apparent accidents and delusions ! to chase the real and divine thing as it plays among cheats and semblances ! Hence the difficulty of thorough thought, of faithful intellectual performance, of artistic creation. To the thoughtless man life is merely the rough and monotonous exterior of die cameo-stone; but the artist sees through its strata, discerns its layers of many colors, and from its surface to its vital centre works them all together into varied beauty. To live is common; but art belongs only to the finest minds and the best moments. Life is a burden of present multitudinous phenomena; but art has the simple unity of perfect science, and is a goal and aspiration. Life comes by birth, art by thought, and the travail that produces art is ofttimes the severer. The fashions of life are bubbles on the surface, and pass away with the season ; but the creations of art belong to the depths of the spiritual world, where they shine like stars and systems in the physical universe.
Story-telling is the most charming of occupations, and, whatever its relation to literary art, it is one of the graces of the art of life. Old as the race, it has always been in fashion on the earth, the delight of every clime from the Orient to the Occident, and of every age from childhood to second childhood. We live in such a concatenation of things,— our hopes, fears, loves, hates, struggles, sympathies, defeats, and triumphs make such a medley, with a sort of divine fascination about it, — that we are always interested to hear how anybody has borne himself through whatever varieties of fortune. At the basis of every other character which can be assumed by man lie the conceiver and the teller of stories; story-telling is the primâ facie quality of an intelligent and sociable being loading a life full of events in a universe full of phenomena. The child believes the wonders of romance by a right instinct; narratives of love and peril and achievement come home to the spirit of the youth; and the mystical, wonder-expecting eye of childhood returns to old age. The humor, wit, piety, and pathos of every age abound in the written stories of its people and children.
Yet between the vocal story and the story in literature there is an immense difference, like that between talking and writing, between life and art. The qualities which in the story-teller make even frivolity weighty and dulness significant — the play of the eye, the lips, the countenance, the voice, the whole sympathetic expression of the person — are wanting to the novel; it has passed from the realm of life to that of art: it loses the charm which personal relations give even to trifles ; it must have the charm which the mind can lend only to its cherished offspring.
Considered as a thing of literature, no other sort of book admits of such variety of topics, style, and treatment as the novel. As diverse in talent and quality as the story-teller himself,—now harlequin, now gossip, now threnodist,—with weird ghostliness, moping melancholy, uncouth laughter, or gentle serious smile, — now relating the story, with childlike interest in it, now with a good heart and now with a bad heart ridiculing mankind, now allegorical with rich meanings, now freighting the little story-cricket that creeps along from page to page with immense loads of science, history, politics, ethics, religion, criticism, and prophecy,-—always regarded with kindness, always welcomed in idleness, always presenting in a simple way some spectacle of merriment or grief, as changeful as the seasons or the fashions, — with all its odd characteristics, the novel is remarkably popular, and not lightly to be esteemed as an element in our social and mental culture.
There is probably no other class of books, with literary pretensions, that contain so little thinking, in proportion to their quantity of matter, as novels. They can scarcely be called organic productions, for they may be written and published in sections, like one of the lowest classes of animals, which have no organization, but live equally well in parts, and run oil'in opposite directions when cut in halves. Thoughts and books, like living creatures, have their grades, and it is only those which stand lowest in respect of intellectuality that admit of fractional existence. A finished work of the mind is so delicately adjusted and closely related, part to part, that a fracture would be fatal. Conceive of Phidias sending off from his studio at Athens his statue of Jupiter Olympius in monthly numbers,-—• despatching now the feet, now the legs, now the trunk, in successive pieces, now the shoulders, and at last crowning the whole with a head !
The composition of novels must be reckoned, in design at least, one of the fine arts, but in fact they belong rather to periodical than to immortal literature. They do not submit to severity of treatment, abide by no critical laws, but are the gypsies and Bohemians of literature, bringing all the savagery of wild genius into the salons of taste. Though tolerated, admired, and found to be interesting, they do not belong to the system of things, play no substantial part in the serious business of life, but, as the world moves on, give place to their successors, not having developed any principle, presented any picture, or stated any fact, in a way to suggest ideas more than social phenomena. They are not permanent, therefore, because finally only ideas, and not facts, are generally remembered; the past is known to us more, and exclusively as it becomes remote, by the conceptions of poets and philosophic historians, the myriads of events which occupied a generation being forgotten, and all the pith and meaning of them being transmitted in a stanza or a chapter. Poetry never grows old, and whatsoever masterpieces of thought always win the admiration of the enlightened; but many a novel that has been the lion of a season passes at once away, never more to be heard of here. With few exceptions, the splendid popularity that greets the best novels fades away in time slowly or rapidly. A halfcentury is a fatal trial for the majority ; few are revived, and almost none are read, after a century; will anybody but the most curious antiquary be interested in them after one or two thousand years ? Without delaying to give the full rationale of exceptions which vex this like every other general remark, it may be added briefly that fairy stories are in their nature fantastic mythological poems, most proper to the heroic age of childhood, that historical romances may be in essence and dignity fantastic histories or epics, and that, from whatever point of view, Cervantes remains hardly less admirable than Ariosto, or the "Bride of Lammermoor ” than the “ Lay of the Last Minstrel.”
In the mental as in the physical world, diamonds and gems come by long elaboration. A thoughtless man may write perennially, while the result of silent meditation and a long tortured soul may be expressed in a minute. The work of the former is akin to conversation, one of the fugitive pleasures of a day ; that of the latter will, perchance, be a star in the firmament of the mind. Eugène Sue and Béranger both wished to communicate their reflections on society. The former dissipated his energies in the salons, was wise and amusing over wine, exchanged learning and jests, studied the drawingroom as if it were the macrocosm, returned to his chamber, put on kid gloves, and from the odds and ends of his dishevelled wits wrote at a gallop, without ever looking back, his “ Mystères de Paris.” The latter lived in an attic year after year, contemplated with cheerful anxiety the volatile world of France and the perplexed life of man, and elaborated word by word, with innumerable revisions, his short songs, which are gems of poetry, charming at once the ear and the heart. Novels are perhaps too easily written to be of lasting value. An unpremeditated word, in which the thoughts of years are exploded, may be one of the most admirable of intellectual phenomena, but an unpremeditated volume can only be a demonstration of human weakness.
The argument thus far has been in favor of the Muses. Hellenic taste and the principles of high art ratify the condemnation passed on the novel by the aesthetic goddesses. A wider view, however, will annul the sentence, giving in its stead a warning and a lesson. If the prose romance be not Hellenic, it is nevertheless humane, and has been in honor almost universally throughout the Orient and the Occident. Its absence from the classical literature was a marvel and exception, a phenomenon of the clearestminded and most active of races, who thought, but did not contemplate,—whose ideal world consisted only of simple, but stately legends of bright-limbed gods and heroes. A felicitous production of high art, also, is among the rarest of exceptions, and will be till the Millennium. Myriads of comparative failures follow in the suite of a masterpiece. We have, therefore, judged the novel by an impracticable standard, by a comparison with the highest aims rather than the usual attainments of other branches of literary art. Human weakness makes poetry, philosophy, and history imperfect in execution, though they aspire to absolute beauty and truth ; human weakness suggested the novel, which is imperfect in design, written as an amusement and relief, in despair of sounding the universe. A novel is in its nature and as a matter of necessity an artistic failure; it pretends to nothing higher; but under the slack laws which govern its composition, multitudes of fine and suggestive characters, incidents, and sayings may be smuggled into it, contrary to all the usages and rules of civilized literature. Hence the secret of its popularity, that it is the organ of average as distinguished from highest thought. Science and art are the goals of destiny, but rarely is there a thinker or writer who has an eye single to them. It is an heroic, self-sacrificing, and small platoon which in every age brunts Fate, and, fighting on the shadowy frontier, makes conquests from the. realm of darkness. Their ideas are passed back from hand to hand, and become known in fragments and potent as tendencies among the mass of the race, who live in the circle of the attained and travel in the routine of ages. The novelist is one of the number who half comprehend them, and borrows them from all quarters to introduce into the rich mélange of his work. To solve a social problem, to reproduce an historical age or character, or to develop the truth and poetry latent in any event, is difficult, and not many will either lead or follow a severe attempt; but the novelist will merrily chronicle his story and link with it in a thousand ways some salient reminiscences of life and thought.
What, then, is the highest excellence that the novel can attain ? It is the carnival of literary art. It deals sympathetically and humorously, not philosophically and strictly, with the panorama and the principles of life. A transcript, but not a transfiguration of Nature, it assumes a thousand forms, surpassing all other books in the immense latitude left to the writer, in the wild variety of things which it may touch, but need not grasp. Its elements are the forests, the cities, and the seven ages of man, — characters and fortunes how diversified ! All species of thinkers and actors, of ideas and passions, all the labyrinthine complications and scenery of existence, may be illustrated in persons or introduced by-the-by; into whatever colors make up the phantasmagoria of collective humanity the novelist may dip his brush, in painting his moving picture. Yet problems need not be fully appreciated, nor characters or actions profoundly understood. It must be an engrossing story, but the theme and treatment are as lawless as the conversation of an evening party. The mind plays through all the realm of its knowledge and experience, and sheds sparks from all the torches of thought, as scenes and topics succeed each other. The pure forms of literature may be reminiscences present to the imagination, the germs of new truths and social arrangements may occupy the reason ; but the novelist is neither practical, nor philosophical, nor artistic ; he is simply in a dream ; and pictures of the world and fragments of old ideas pass before him, as the sacred meanings of religion flitted about the populace in a grotesque mediaeval festival of the Church. Conceive the stars dropped from their place in the apparent heavens, and playing at shuttlecock with each other and with boys, and having a heyday of careless joyousness here below, instead of remaining in sublime dignity to guide and inspire men who look up to them by night! Even such are the epic, the lyric, the drama, the history, and the philosophy, as collected together in the revelries of the novel. To state the degree of excellence possible to a style as perverse as it is entertaining, to measure the wisdom of essential folly, is difficult; and yet it may be said that the strength of the novel is in its lawlessness, which leaves the author of genius free to introduce his creations just as they occur to him, and the author of talent free to range through all books and all time and reproduce brilliant sayings and odd characters,— which, with no other connecting thread than a story, freaks like a spirit through every shade of feeling and region of thought, from the domestic hearth to the ultimate bounds of speculative inquiry, •—and which, by its daring and careless combinations of incongruous elements, exhibits a free embodiment in prose of the peculiar genius of the romantic.
And some philosophers have styled romance the special glory of Christianity. It is certainly the characteristic of critical as distinguished from organic periods,— of the mind acting mystically in a savage and unknown universe, rather than of the mind that has reduced the heavens and earth to its arts and sciences. The novel, therefore, as the wildest organ of romance, is most appropriate to a time of great intellectual agitation, when intellectual men are but half-conscious of the tendencies that are setting about them, and consequently cease to propose to themselves final goals, do not attempt scrupulous art, but play jubilantly with current facts. Hence, perhaps, its popularity since the first conflicts of the Protestant Reformation, and especially since the great French Revolution, when amid new inventions and new ideas mankind has contemplatively looked for the coming events, the new historical eras, which were easting their shadows before.
When, some time, Christian art shall become classical, and Christian ideas be developed by superior men as fairly as the Hellenic conceptions were, the novel may either assume to itself some peculiar excellency, or may cease to hold the comparative rank in literature which it enjoys at present. Then the numberless prose romances which occupy the present generation of readers will, perhaps, be collected in some immense corpus, like the Byzantine historians, will be reckoned among the curiosities of literature, and will at least have the merit of making the study of antiquities easy and interesting.
There is an old couplet, —
“Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”
At a time when extemporaneous composition and thoughtless reading are much in fashion, it will not be amiss to invoke profounder studies, and slower, but more useful and permanent results. Let it be remembered that even the Divine Mind first called into being the chaos of creation, and then in seven days reviewed and elaborated it into a beautiful order.