The Contributors' Club

I HAVE in mind that old saying of Lysander, “ Where the lion’s skin falls short, it must be eked out with the fox’s,’ —a saying which, I confess, I never much admired, though it has pleased my elders and betters, and has often served them well when they have been recommending the adoption of some politic measure. I have nothing to do with Lysander’s application of his precept, but I find it hard to believe that a genuine hero could bring himself to put on this patchwork suit of leonine and vulpine characteristics. Even if he consented to do so, it seems doubtful whether the discomfiture he might experience would not exceed all the advantage derived from the mixed garb. If I had resolved to act the lion, I should not like to be harried by the foxhunters, as I should expect to be if I had eked out the garment of my valor according to Lysander’s instructions.

It may be a wasteful outlay of feeling, but I cannot help pitying, in some degree, those persons who, by reason of their superior shrewdness, or faculty of vigilance and suspicion, are supposed to be further removed from harm’s way than the generality of human beings. Of such a one it is often remarked, “ Ah, but he is long-headed!” and a sigh goes with the comment, sometimes, as though the speaker felt it to be matter of regret that his own head was not of the maximum length. I cannot fully explain why I compassionate the shrewd person : it may be for the reason that he seems never to have been young, having always been shrewd (and youth and shrewdness are seldom road companions) ; it may be because I see in his eye connoisseurship of the things which are least lovely and faith-inspiring in human nature, — traits which I, gifted with less acute discernment, have happily overlooked. The knowledge that he has never tasted the sweetness of generous trust in those around him touches the springs of pity ; besides, the impression is somehow gained that his position is one of peculiar insecurity and risk. Were he sure of meeting only those of his own order, the suspicious and sinuous minded, he might never come to grief. Subtilty matched in encounter with its own kind acquires greater strength and suppleness ; but it has its moments of being “ off guard,” its lapses from activity, and then it is very vulnerable: a random pebble flung by an unconscious David suffices for its undoing. Sir Giles Overreach, after a thousand sharp practices, is himself hoodwinked and trapped at last.

“ The cunning statesman, that believes he fathoms
The counsels of all kingdoms on the earth,
Is by simplicity oft overreached.”

Even in our homely experience it is seen that Nemesis lies in wait for all such as think to drive a sharp bargain with their fellow mortal. I know of a woman who prides herself on her ability to “ beat down ” the shopkeepers of the village, and whom nothing so much delights as to buy, if possible, a little cheaper than her neighbors. Deluded soul ! she does not know what pains are taken to gratify her propensity; but how should she guess that upon her appearance in a shop prices are always somewhat advanced, in order that a few cents may be thrown off in her favor, the shopkeeper at the same time incurring no loss!

It may be that I have a weak sense of the beauty of retributive justice ; but however that may be, the spectacle of a shrewd and crafty nature in defeat affords me no pleasure. I imagine that such a nature, when baffled and undone, is overtaken by an intolerable atheistic despair. Perhaps I imagine this because of a theory I have that the ways of the sleep-walker, the child, and the under-witted are directly supervised by Providence, but that the over-wary soul is left to shift for itself; which if it cannot do by means of preternatural gifts, its fortunes are no concern to Providence.

— One night last winter f gradually became aware that conversation was being carried on in my room. I listened, with no such uneasiness as is usually inspired by a nocturnal disturbance ; on the contrary, the fine, clear, musical tones proceeding from near the window were particularly pleasing to my ear and fancy. I could not see the speakers (two in number), but supposed them to be concealed by the curtain that hung before the window. As I afterwards fell asleep, my recollection of what I heard is not very complete, but the dialogue, as I remember it, was in the following vein : —

“ Come, come, old friend and fellow, you have been in Arcadia; I have not, you know. Now tell me, does my picture appeal to you ? Are these trees, sedges, and flowers like those you have seen in that blessed country ? But wait a moment. I will just poise a butterfly on the foremost blossom of my nymph’s wild-rose crown, and I will put a wreath of pomegranate flowers around the neck of the lamb which the shepherd is presenting her. There! all these light touches help to tell the story. But you are silent.”

“ My dear Jack, what shall I say ? The form of beauty is indeed here, the drawing is faultless, and many a sweet thought worthy of your elfin genius appears in the details ; but ” —

“ But what ? ”

“Color, warmth, life, — these are not here! ”

“ Alas, I know they are not: but remember my scant opportunities. I was never in Arcadia.”

“ But you are in Thule : is there nothing here to paint ? ”

“ There might be for another; for me there is not. I paint from my dreams, and my dreams are all of the summer and the South. I am forbidden those happy regions, kept here in rigorous exile ; so I set my imagination to work to compensate me for the deprivation I am doomed to suffer. You, who can range where you will, should not deny me the pleasures of imagination.”

“ A pine-tree loved a palm ” —

“ Ah, how well I know that pinetree and that palm ! I know all those who sing the songs of this human world, now sleeping. They and I are close kin, though they may not choose to recognize the tie. I feel for them, but they do not think of me.”

“ You speak of the poets. In what respect do you find they resemble you ? ” “ In this : they, too, have dreamed of Paradise, and all their care is to reproduce their lovely visions ; they, too, bring their themes from far, spurning the near-at-hand and the familiar. Whatever they lack and most desire, that they strive to supply by methods not unlike my own. I have not seen the summer streams, the flowers and the grass, the winged creatures that live and rejoice in the sunshine; but out of my longing to visit the world which they adorn, out of my fancy, and with the aid of the hearsay that is always abroad in the air, I have produced these pale and transient semblances. Do you think I am satisfied with what I have done ? Neither are those other artificers satisfied with their work.”

“ I wonder you do not address a sympathetic message to them.”

“ I have already done so ; and if you will bring your taper a little nearer you may read for yourself. The writing is interwoven with the grass blades at the feet of the nymph.

“Thou mortal, who mayst scan this picture sheen,
Scorn not the artist, though thou blame his art:
His touch is cold, but white fire warms his heart;
Thou, too, ” —

“ Hush ! I think we are overheard.”

The voices ceasing, I soon fell asleep. In the morning, drawing back the curtain with purpose to read the interrupted verse, to my great disappointment I found the window-panes were like plain ground glass ; not a trace of nymph and shepherd, not a hint of glyphic writing. Shrewd pair, — Frost and Moonshine !

— Mr. Franklin Johnson, of Cambridge, has printed for private circulation an English version, in double rhymes, of the Dies Iras. He very modestly says in his scholarly preface, “ Perhaps the Dies Iræ will not take a permanent place among English hymns till some one shall choose from the many translations the best stanza of each, and shall weave his selections together. I venture to hope, as the utmost height of my anticipation, that when such a final version shall appear a few of my lines may be found in it.”

It was at this passage that I chanced to open the little volume, and I instantly said to myself, “ This person has likely enough produced an exceptionally fine version of the Dies Iræ, for such modesty does not go hand in hand with poor performance.” I was wholly right, for Mr. Johnson’s translation of the famous mediæval canticle deserves, as a whole, to rank with the best three translations we have, and in special stanzas it is quite incomparable.

The mob of gentlemen who write with ease, and will turn you off a copy of verses in the twinkling of an eye, may take a lesson from Mr. Johnson, whose work is the result of fifteen years of thought and study. The difficulties to be overcome in anything like an adequate English reproduction of the Latin hymn are admirably set forth in Mr. Johnson’s preliminary essay and the notes which follow the text. These notes are particularly interesting and valuable, showing what a critical and conscientious mood the translator brought to his task. I wonder that so careful a critic should commit the same error for which he arraigns Mr. Dix. Mr. Johnson’s “splendor” and “ tender” (in the eighth stanza) are quite as inadmissible as Mr. Dix’s morning” and “dawning” in his version of the first triplet. Mr. Johnson points out that Mr. Dix introduced this cockney rhyme into the second edition of his translation : —

“ Day of vengeance, lo ! that morning
On the earth in ashes dawning,
David with the Sibyl warning ” —

a poor substitute for the stanza which he first wrote : —

“ Day of vengeance, without morrow !
Earth shall end in flame and sorrow,
As from Saint and Seer we borrow.”

This last line is a rather free paraphrase ; but the preservation of the “ David cum Sibylla” was scarcely worth while, at the expense of the feeblest rhyme in the English language.

— One day last February I received a little note, in beautifully formed and almost microscopic characters, signed “ Alphonse Daudet,” in which the famous novelist expressed a desire that an eminent American novelist, at that time staying in Paris, should be brought to see him. Alphonse Daudet offered a cup of tea, and around the tea-table “ a dozen persons, — Goncourt, Zola, Coppée, Loti the sailor ; . . . not many people, mais de la haute gomme littéraire.” The American writer needed but little introduction : when he entered the modest bandbox-like apartment that Daudet occupies on a fourth floor, overlooking the garden of the Luxembourg, Edmond de Goncourt, Zola, and Daudet all remembered to have seen him formerly at Gustave Flaubert’s Sunday receptions, where pur countryman — whom for the sake of convenience we will call Mr. X — was frequently to be met with, when he was living in Paris, some years ago.

“ Why, I have known you a hundred and fifty years!” exclaimed Daudet, with his southern expansiveness and exaggeration. And then began a long talk on literature, Mr. X having expressed to Daudet an immense admiration of his exquisite talent.

“ What happiness,” said Mr. X, “ what joy, you must feel in writing, in composing your works, in all those finds, those trouvailles, of phrases and epithets ! ”

Daudet listened eagerly, nervously twirling the two points of his silky beard, his eye sparkling behind the fixed eyeglass, and with an expression of extreme attention on his worn, fine, delicate features, much drawn and yellowed and ravaged by incessant intellectual work. “ My dear sir,” replied Daudet, with warmth, “ you are mistaken. I work with pain and misery, and I always feel that I have left the best in the inkstand. Beware of the literary fools who are always satisfied ; the men who come up to you, rubbing their hands, and saying, ‘ Ah, my dear fellow, I am happy : I have just written a chapter, — the best thing I have done ! ’ and then go and dine, happy. It is not the idea of a book, it is not the plan, the conception, that troubles me. I observe, I study, I brood over every detail of the proposed work. But when I come to put down my book on paper, then begin the tortures, the torments, of style. I don’t know whether it is so in your language or not.”

“ Yes,” replied Mr. X, “ I know what you mean. We take less pains with our style than the French writers. We are less observant; our observation is less fine, less rich in shades and refinements and delicacies.”

“ Really ? ” said Daudet. “ Ah, but if you only knew how unobservant most Frenchmen are ! A man will travel with you, or take a walk with you, and afterwards, when you begin to talk with him about what you have seen, you will suddenly find him looking at you with a smile that betrays him: he has seen nothing ! He thinks that you are a humbug. The other day an old acquaintance of mine returned from Australia, after five years’ sojourn there. I asked him to tell me all about what he had seen : how people lived there ; what the country was like, and the trees, and the towns, and the houses. All I could get out of him was this: ‘Guess how much a pound of potatoes costs ! ’ The poor devil had seen absolutely nothing, and the only thing that had struck him was the extreme dearness of potatoes.”

“ I understand ; quite so,” said Mr. X. “ I have frequently remarked that in the English, who are constantly traveling and running about, and who rarely see anything in the course of their travels, and can talk about nothing but comparative hotel accommodation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the average Frenchman is infinitely sharper in his observation than the average Englishman or American : he takes in more details ; he is more appreciative of nuances and shades; he is finer, more delicate ; and, for me, the proof lies in the wonderful richness of the French language in epithets expressive of the greatest variety and minuteness of variation.”

Daudet, then returning to the theme of the pain and torture that his writing cost him, dwelt particularly on the condition of his material, namely, language. " The material is so worn out,” he remarked : “ everything has been said again and again; every theme has been exploited. There are quantities of subjects and situations and psychological states that we can no longer touch upon : we can no longer touch upon love and sentiment enveloped in nature; we can no longer talk about the influence of flowers, of landscape, of sea and sky. The public finds that kind of thing worn out, threadbare, done for. ’ We dare not sing more of roses,’ SullyPrudhomme has said, in one of his poems ; and I assure you the poet’s cry is one that has profoundly touched us. Then when we have found something new, some fresh combination, we arrive at the expression of it with infinite torment and suffering, and always with that horrible consciousness of having left the best part unwritten. And that combination having been treated, we can never return to it again. The public may forget, but the artist cannot repeat himself, and hash up the same thing again. It is the same with epithets. In a previous page we may have found the right epithet, the word that calls up the precise image ; and then when we wish to reproduce a similar effect we cannot employ the same method, we cannot repeat ourselves, and in order to avoid rehashing we use, to our sorrow, some other phrase, less good and less appropriate. Every sentence in our books is wrought with pain and torment. There is no happiness, no joy, in it. The torture of style kills all that. Is it not so, Zola? " he asked, turning to the author of the Assommoir, who was sitting with his wife and Madame Daudet, and talking about the less absorbing topic of embroidery and silk.

“ Yes,” replied Zola. “ It is a sad trade, — C’est un triste métier. The only happiness is when you are beginning, when you are planning. But when you have attained your object, when success comes, there is an end of happiness. Torture and misery all the time ! ”

It was curious to hear these men, Goncourt, Zola, and Daudet, the most celebrated men in modern French literature, all agreeing on the painfulness and misery of the exercise of their talent. It was curious, too, to remark how they attributed their torments to the preoccupation of style, — a question to which few of our Anglo-Saxon literary men pay much heed, or even understand. The Anglo-Saxon writer is rarely an artist, and many of our greatest writers have not been artists in the way the modern Frenchmen are, and in the way the Frenchmen of the eighteenth century were. The public and most critics do not make any distinction between writers who are artists and those who are not. From the French point of view, when a man, however gifted he may be, concerns himself only with the matter he is treating or the thing he is relating; when he does not feel conscious that the veritable literary power is not in a fact, but in the manner of presenting and expressing that fact, he has not the sense of art. The profound and delicious enjoyment that invades you in presence of certain pages and certain phrases does not come simply from what those phrases say ; it comes from an absolute accordance of the expression with the idea,— from a sensation of harmony, of secret beauty, that generally escapes the judgment of the profane crowd. It is the pursuit of this high, mysterious beauty, the search for this soul of words, that appears on contact with other words, and bursts forth and illumines the page with an unanalyzable, subtle light, that forms the constant care and study of the modern French novelists. They are perpetually toiling and moiling and racking their brains to find the word, the one and only word, verb, epithet, or phrase, that is the perfect and absolute expression of the thing. Then there is the besetting conviction that they have come too late in a world too old ; they have present in their thoughts the immense stores of French literature, and the image of that poor and splendid French language, worn and torn by centuries of usage, — those verbs and epithets that have served and served over again, until they have become insupportably commonplace. “ Ah,” exclaimed Daudet, the other night, “ how I used to envy the calm serenity of Tourguéneff, working in a field and in a language the white snow of which had so few footprints! He had only to walk ahead ; every step left a footprint that you could see ! With us, it is like walking over a shingle strand : we have to move bowlders and rocks and cliffs in order to leave our mark.”

Another thing that strikes one in encountering French literary men of the highest grade — a point, too, which struck Mr. X in his talks with Daudet, Zola, and Goncourt — is the Chinese quality of their existence. They see very little beyond their art ; their observation, delicate and complete as it is in a sense, is not very wide, and by no means coextensive with modern French life. To put the matter in a few words, French provincial life is entirely neglected by the modern writers ; and of Parisian life the corrupt and often the ignoble aspects seem to captivate their attention, principally. This is of course putting the case too strongly ; but without entering into lengthy details it is difficult to add the necessary qualifications to the statement, and to enumerate the exceptions. The point I am coming to is this : the modern French literary men, especially the novelists, are mostly men of humble origin, who have come to Paris and made their way by sheer force of talent, after passing through an epoch of Bohemianism. The life of the students in the Latin Quarter has no elements of social refinement; there is no life in common, no communication with the professors, no humanizing and polishing influence, such as are found in the English universities, for instance. The young Frenchman leads a free-andeasy café life, into which it is best not curiously to inquire. This existence continues when the student or provincial débutant enters the journalistic career, the invariable preface of the French literary career. Except in rare cases, decent society is closed to him until he has made himself more or less of a reputation. Then, after his first success, he will find certain literary salons open to him, and these salons form steppingstones to other houses. But, in point of fact, he seldom avails himself of his opportunities, and the explanation is simple: The literary man, accustomed to his loose Bohemian life, has not acquired the polish and tact necessary to secure him an agreeable position in society; he feels himself ill at ease in talking with society ladies; he does not understand them, and he may perhaps despise them ; he has not the social culture that enables him to bring out his unquestionable intellectual superiority, and he feels irritated on that account; at any rate, coining late into society, and finding its ways new and strange, he is embarrassed and uncomfortable, and generally throws society overboard. The consequence is that he excludes from his field of observation a very large portion of contemporary life, and that not the least interesting, and limits his vision to the mixed society that occupies the front seats in the external life of Paris, in all its varieties, — political life, theatrical life, boulevard and club life, high and low vice, and the middle-class life, which he knows about more or less, owing to his original social position.

I make an exception of Edmond de Goncourt, who was an aristocrat before he became a novelist and historian ; but it is a mistake to think that either Daudet or Zola goes into society. Zola lives like a hermit, in his country house at Medan, nine months out of the twelve, — sulky, lumpy, and uncommunicative ; and when he comes to Paris he visits none but his literary friends. Daudet, likewise, is never encountered in any but purely literary gatherings. He receives few but literary men at his own house, and at the houses of Pailleron, Charcot, Madame Adam, and of his publisher, Charpentier, — almost the only houses where he goes, — he meets no one but authors and artists; and the talk is eternally and uniquely of literature and style, and the comparison of this man’s talent and that man’s talent. As Daudet said the other night, their whole existence is in the printed book ; they live by it, and on it, and in it.

The preoccupation of style is laudable in the highest degree. Style, as Théophile Gautier has said, is the enamel that renders eternal the work that it covers. Only, it is to be feared that with their close Chinese life, their tendency to study the warts rather than the beauties of man, their neglect of large classes of contemporary life, and above all their absorbing care for form, the modern French novelists are not getting hold of that large humanity which is alone eternally interesting. The minute and exquisite fineness of their work may end by belittling their brains, until they finally become in literature what the Japanese are in art: incomparable, if you will, but incomparable in a very narrow way.