Some Aspects of Pessimism
WHEN Mr. Matthew Arnold delivered his lecture on Emerson in this country, several years ago, it was delightful to see how the settled melancholy of his audience, who had come for a panegyric and did not get it, melted into genial applause when the lecturer touched at last upon the one responsive chord which bound his subject, his hearers, and himself in a sympathetic harmony, — I mean Emerson’s lifelong, persistent, and unconquerable optimism. This was perhaps the more apparent because Mr. Arnold’s addresses were not precisely the kind with which we Americans are best acquainted ; they were singularly deficient in the oratorical flights that are wont to arouse our enthusiasm, and in the sudden descents to colloquial anecdote by which we expect to be amused. For real enjoyment it was advisable to read them over carefully after they were printed, and the oftener they were so read the better they repaid perusal; but this not being the point of view from which ordinary humanity is apt to regard a lecture, it was with prompt and genuine relief that the audience hailed a personal appeal to that cheerful, healthy hopefulness of disposition which we like to be told we possess in common with greater men. It is always pleasant to hear that happiness is “ the due and eternal result of labor, righteousness, and veracity,” and to have it hinted to us that we have sane and wholesome minds because we think so ; it is pleasanter still to be assured that the disparaging tone which religion assumes in relation to this earthly happiness arises from a well-intentioned desire to wean us from it, and not at all from a clear-sighted conviction of its feeble worth. When Mr. Arnold recited for our benefit a cheerless little scrap of would-be pious verse which he had heard read in a London schoolroom, all about the advantages of dying, —
And my life is getting low,” —
we were glad to laugh over such dismal philosophy, and to feel within ourselves an exhilarating superiority of soul.
But self-satisfaction, if as buoyant as gas, has an ugly trick of collapsing when full-blown, and facts are stony things that refuse to melt away in the sunshine of a smile. Mr. Arnold, like Mr. Emerson, has preached the gospel of compensation with much picturesqueness and beauty ; but his arguments would be more convincing if our own observation and experience did not so mulishly stand in their way. A recent writer in Cornhill, who ought to be editing a magazine for Arcady, asserts with charming simplicity that man “ finds a positive satisfaction in putting himself on a level with others, and in recognizing that he has his just share of life’s enjoyments.” But suppose that he cannot reach the level of others, or be persuaded that his share is just ? The good things of life are not impartially divided, like the spaces on a draught-board, and man, who is a covetous animal, will never be content with a little, while his comrade enjoys a great deal. Neither does he find the solace that is expected in the contemplation of the unfortunate who has nothing ; for this view of the matter, besides being a singular plea for the compensation theory, appeals too coarsely to that root of selfishness which we are none of us anxious to exhibit. The average fustian-clad man is not too good to envy his neighbor’s broadcloth, but he is too good to take comfort in his brother’s nakedness. The sight of it may quicken his gratitude, but can hardly increase his happiness. Yet what does Mr. Arnold mean in his poem of Consolation —which is very charming, but not in the least consoling — save that the joys and sorrows of each hour balance themselves in a just proportion, and that the lovers’ raptures and the blind robber’s pain level the eternal scales. It is not a cheering bit of philosophy, whatever may have been the author’s intention, for the very existence of suffering darkens the horizon for thoughtful souls. It would be an insult on the part of the lovers — lovers are odious things at best — to offer their arrogant bliss as indemnification to the wretch for his brimming cup of bitterness ; but the vision of his seared eyeballs and sin-laden soul might justly moderate their own expansive felicity. Sorrow has a claim on all mankind, and when the utmost that Mr. Arnold can promise for our consolation is that time, the impartial,
Some undimm’d hours,”
we do not feel that he affords us any broad ground for self-complacency.
The same key is struck with more firmness in that strange poem, The Sick King in Bokhara, where the vizier can find no better remedy for his master’s troubled mind than by pointing out to him the vast burden of misery which rests upon the world, and which he is utterly powerless to avert. It is hardly worth while, so runs the vizier’s argument, for the king to vex his soul over the sufferings of one poor criminal, whom his pity could not save, when the same tragic drama is being played with variations in every quarter of the globe. Behold, thousands are toiling for hard masters, armies are laying waste the peaceful land, robbers are harassing the mountain shepherds, and little children are being carried into captivity.
Vex one another night and day;
There are the lepers, and all sick ;
There are the poor, who faint away.
Whilst other men make cheer and sing.
Wilt thou have pity on all these ?
No, nor on this dead dog, O king ! ”
Whereupon the sick monarch, who does not seem greatly cheered by this category, adds in a disconsolate sort of way that he too, albeit envied of all men, finds his secret burdens hard to bear, and that not even to him is granted the fulfillment of desire, —
“ And what I would, I cannot do.” Unless the high priests of optimism shall find us some stouter arguments than these with which to make merry our souls, it is to be feared that their opponents, who have at least the knack of stating their cases with pitiless lucidity, will hardly think our buoyancy worth pricking.
As for that small and compact band who steadfastly refuse to recognize in “ this sad, swift life ” any occasion for self-congratulation, they are not so badly off, in spite of their funereal trappings, as we are commonly given to suppose. It is only necessary to read a page of their writings — and few people care to read more — to appreciate how thoroughly they enjoy the situation, and how, sitting with Hecate in her cave, they weave delicate thoughts out of their chosen darkness. They are full of the hopefulness of despair, and confident in the strength of the world’s weakness. They assume that they not only represent great fundamental truths, but that these truths are for the first time being put forth in a concrete shape for the edification and adherence of mankind. Mr. Edgar Saltus informs us that, while optimism is as old as humanity, " systematic pessimism ” is but a growth of the last half century, before which transition period we can find only individual expressions of discontent. Mr. Mallock claims that he is the first who has ever inquired into the worth of life “ in the true scientific spirit.” But when we come to ask in what systematic or scientific pessimism differs from the older variety which has found a home in the hearts of men from the beginning, we do not receive any very coherent answer. From Mr. Mallock, indeed, we hardly expect any. It is his province in literature to propose problems which the reader, after the fashion of The Lady or the Tiger ? is permitted to solve for himself. But does Mr. Saltus really suppose that Schopenhauer and Hartmann have made much headway in reducing sadness to a science, that love is in any danger of being supplanted by the “ genius of the species,” or that the “ principle of the unconscious ” is at all likely to extinguish our controlling force ? What have these two subtle thinkers said to the world that the world has not practically known and felt for thousands of years already ? Hegesias, three centuries before Christ, was quite as systematic as Schopenhauer, and his system begot more definite results ; for several of his disciples hanged themselves out of deference for his teachings, whereas it may be seriously doubted whether all the persuasive arguments of the Welt als Wille und Vorstellung have ever made or are likely to make a single celibate. Marcus Aurelius was as logically convinced of the inherent worthlessness of life as Dr. Hartmann, and, without any scientific apparatus whatever, he stamped his views on the face of a whole nation.
We are now anxiously warned by Mr. Saltus not to confound scientific pessimism with that accidental melancholy which is the result of our own personal misfortunes ; but Leopardi, whose unutterable despair arose solely from his personal misfortunes, or rather from his moral inability to cope with them,—for Joubert, who suffered as much, has left a trail of heavenly light upon his path, — Leopardi alone lays bare for us the
In the barren places of mirth, ”
with an appalling accuracy from which we are glad to turn away our shocked and troubled eyes.
It is a humiliating fact that, notwithstanding our avaricious greed for novelties, we are forced, when sincere, to confess that “ les anciens ont tout dit,” and that it is probable the contending schools of thought have always held the same relative positions they do now : optimism glittering in the front ranks as a deservedly popular favorite ; pessimism speaking with a still, persistent voice to those who, unluckily for themselves, have the leisure and the intelligence to attend. Schopenhauer hated the Jews with all his heart for being such stubborn optimists, and it is true that their records bear ample witness to the strong hold they took on the pleasures and the profits of the world. But their noblest and clearest voices, Isaias, Jeremias, Ezekiel, speak a different language ; and Solomon, who, it must be granted, enjoyed a wider experience than most men, renders a cheerless verdict of vanity and vexation of spirit for “ all things that are done under the sun.” The Egyptians, owing chiefly to their tender solicitude about their tombs, have taken rank in history as a people enamored rather of death than of life ; and from the misty flower-gardens of Buddha have been gathered for centuries the hemlock and nightshade that adorn the funeral-wreaths of literature.
But the Greeks, the blithe and jocund Greeks, who, as Mr. Arnold justly observes, ought never to have been either sick or sorry, — to them, at least, we can turn for that wholesome joy, that rational delight in mere existence, which we have somehow let slip from our nerveless grasp. Whether it was because this world gave him so much, such rare perfection in all material things, or because his own conception of the world to come promised him so exceedingly little, — for one or both of these reasons, the average Greek preferred to cling tenaciously to the good he had, to the hills, and the sea, and the sunshine, rather than to
and his choice, under the circumstances, is perhaps hardly a matter for amazement. That a people so richly endowed should be in love with life seems to us right and natural ; that amid their keen realization of its fullness and beauty we find forever sounded — and not always in a minor key — the same old notes of weariness and pain is a discouraging item, when we would like to build up an exhaustive theory of happiness. Far, far back, in the Arcadian days of Grecian piety and simplicity, the devout agriculturist Hesiod looked sorrowfully over the golden fields, searching vainly for a joy that remained ever out of reach. Homer, in a passage which Mr. Peacock says is nearly always incorrectly translated, has given us a summary of life which would not put a modern German to the blush : —
Gives ill unmixed to some, and good and ill
Mingled to many, good unmixed to none.”
Sophocles says uncompromisingly that man’s happiest fate is not to be born at all ; and that, failing this good fortune, the next best thing is to die as quickly as possible. Menander expresses the same thought more sweetly : —
and Euripides, the most reverent soul ever saddened by the barrenness of paganism, forces into one bitter line all the bleak hopelessness of which the Greek tragedy alone is capable : —
Even as isolated sentiments, these ever-recurring reflections diminish perceptibly the sum of a nation’s gayety, and, if we receive the drama as the mouthpiece of the people, we are inclined to wonder now and then how they ever could have been cheerful at all. It is easy, on the other hand, to point to Admetos and Antigone as two standing examples of the great value the Greeks placed upon life ; for the sacrifice of Alkestis was not in their eyes the sordid bargain it appears in ours, and the daughter of Œdipus goes to her death with a shrinking reluctance seemingly out of keeping with her heroic mould. But Admetos, excuse him as we may, is but a refinement of a common type, old as mankind, and no great credit to its ranks. He may be found in every page of the world’s history, from the siege of Jerusalem to the siege of Paris. À Kempis has transfixed him with sharp scorn in his chapter On the Consideration of Human Misery, and a burning theatre or a sinking ship betray him, shorn of poetical disguise, in all his unadorned brutality. But to find fault with Antigone, the noblest figure in classical literature, because she manifests a natural dislike for being buried alive is to carry our ideal of heroism a little beyond reason. Flesh and blood shrink from the sickening horror that lays its cold hand upon her heart. She is young, beautiful, and beloved, standing on the threshold of matrimony, and clinging with womanly tenderness to the sacred joys that are never to be hers. She is a martyr in a just cause, but without one ray of that divine ecstasy that sent Christian maidens smiling to the lions. Beyond a chilly hope that she will not be unwelcome to her parents, or to the brother she has vainly striven to save from desecration, Antigone descends
uncheered by any throb of expectation. Finally, the manner of her death is too appalling to be met with stoicism. Juliet, the bravest of Shakespeare’s heroines, quails before the thought of a few unconscious hours spent in the darkness of the tomb ; and if our more exalted views demand indifference to such a fate, we must not look to the Greeks, nor to him who
for the fulfillment of our idle fancy.
Youth, health, beauty, and virtue were to the ancient mind the natural requisites for happiness ; yet even these favors were so far at best from securing it, that “ nature’s most pleasing invention, early death,” was too often esteemed the rarest gift of all. When Schopenhauer says of the fourth commandment, “ ‘ Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land,’ — ah ! what a misfortune to hold out as a reward for duty ! ” we feel both shocked and repulsed by this deliberate rejection of what is offered us as a blessing ; but it is at least curious to note that the happy Greeks held much the same opinion. When the sons of Cydippe — those models of filial devotion — shamed not to yoke themselves like oxen to the cart, and with strong young arms to drag their mother to the feast of Hera, the ancient priestess begged of the dread goddess that she would grant them her best gift ; and the prayer was answered, not with length of days, nor with the regal power and splendor promised of old to Paris, but with a boon more precious still than all.
Lightened, and thunder ran from cloud to cloud,
In heaven, and the vast company was hushed.
But when they sought for Cleobis, behold,
He lay there still, and by his brother’s side
Lay Biton, smiling through ambrosial curls,
And when the people touched them they were dead.”1
It is hard to assert in the face of a narrative like this that the Greeks valued nothing as much as the mere delight of existence.
As for the favorite theory that Christianity is responsible for the weakening of earthly happiness, and that her ministers have systematically disparaged the things of this world in order to quicken our desire for things eternal, it might suffice to hint that Christianity is a large word, and represents at present a great many different phases of thought. Mr. Arnold objects, rationally enough, to the lugubrious hymns from which the English middle classes are wont to draw their spiritual refreshment ; and Dr. Holmes, it will be remembered, has spoken quite as strongly in regard to their depressing influence upon New England households. But Christianity and the modern hymn-book are by no means synonymous terms, and to claim that the early church deliberately lowered the scale of human joy is a very different and a very grave charge, and one which Mr. Pater, in Marius the Epicurean, has striven valiantly to refute. With what clear and delicate touches he paints for us the innocent gayety of that new birth, — a gayety with no dark background, and no heart-breaking limits of time and space. Compared to it, the sombre and multitudinous rites of the Romans and the far-famed blitheness of the Greeks seem incurably narrow and insipid. The Christians of the catacombs were essentially a cheerful body, having for their favorite emblem the serene image of the Good Shepherd, and believing firmly that “ grief is the sister of doubt and ill-temper, and beyond all spirits destroyeth man.” If in the Middle Ages the Church apparently darkened earth to brighten heaven, it was simply because she took life as she found it, and strove, as she still strives, to teach the only doctrine of compensation that the tyranny of facts cannot cheaply overthrow. The mediæval peasant may have been less badly off, on the whole, than we are generally pleased to suppose. He was, from all accounts, a robust, unreasoning creature, who held his neck at the mercy of his feudal lord, and the rest of his scanty possessions at the discretion of the tax-gatherer ; but who had not yet bared his back to the intolerable sting of that modern gadfly, the professional agitator and socialistic champion of the poor. Yet even without this last and sorest infliction, it is probable that life was to him but little worth the living, and that religion could not well paint the world much blacker than he found it. There was scant need, in his case, for disparaging the pleasures of the flesh ; and hope, lingering alone in his Pandora box of troubles, saved him from utter annihilation by pointing steadily beyond the doors of death.
As a matter of fact, the abstract question of whether our present existence be enjoyable or otherwise is one which creeds do not materially modify. A pessimist may be deeply religious like Pascal and Châteaubriand, or utterly skeptical like Schopenhauer and Hartmann, or purely philosophical like fainthearted Amiel. He may agree with Lamennais, that “ man is the most suffering of all creatures ; ” or with Voltaire, that “ happiness is a dream, and pain alone is real.” He may listen to Saint Theresa, “ It is given to us either to die or to suffer ;” or to Leopardi, “ Life is fit only to be despised.” He may read in the diary of that devout recluse, Eugénie de Guérin that “ dejection is the groundwork of human life ;" or he may turn over the pages of Sir Walter Raleigh, and see how a typical man of the world, soldier, courtier, and navigator, can find no words ardent enough in which to praise " the workmanship of death, that finishes the sorrowful business of a wretched life.” I do not mean to imply that Leopardi and Eugénie de Guérin regarded existence from the same point of view, or found the same solace for their pain ; but that they both struck the keynote of pessimistic philosophy by recognizing that, in this world at least, sorrow outbalances joy, and that it is given to all men to eat their bread in tears. On the other hand, if we are disinclined to take this view, we shall find no lack of guides, both saints and sinners, ready to look the Sphinx smilingly in the face, and puzzle out a different answer to her riddle.
Another curious notion is that poets have a prescriptive right to pessimism, and should feel themselves more or less obliged, in virtue of their craft, to take upon their shoulders the weight of suffering humanity. Mr. James Sully, for instance, whose word, as a student of these matters, cannot be disregarded, thinks it natural and almost inevitable that a true poet should be of a melancholy cast, by reason of the sensitiveness of his moral nature and his exalted sympathy for pain. But it has yet to be proved that poets are a more compassionate race than their obscurer brethren who sit in counting-houses or brew beer. They are readier, indeed, to moralize over the knife-grinder, but quite as slow to tip him the coveted sixpence. Shelley, whose soul swelled at the wrongs of all mankind, did not hesitate to inflict pain on the one human being whom it was his obvious duty to protect. But then Shelley, like Carlyle, belonged to the category of reformers rather than to the pessimists ; believing that, though the world as he saw it was as bad as possible, things could be easily mended by simply turning them topsy-turvy under his direction. Now the pessimist proper is the most modest of men. He does not flatter himself for a moment that he can alter the existing state of evil, or that the human race, by its combined efforts, can do anything better than simply cease to live. He may entertain with Novalis a shadowy hope that when mankind, wearied of its own impotence, shall efface itself from the bosom of the earth, a better and happier species shall fill the vacant land. Or he may believe with Hartmann that there is even less felicity possible in the coming centuries than in the present day ; that humanity is already on the wane ; that the higher we stand in the physical and intellectual scale the more inevitable becomes our suffering; and that when men shall have thrown aside the last illusion of their youth, namely, the hope of any obtainable good either in this world or in another, they will then no longer consent to bear the burden of life, but, by the supreme force of their united volition, will overcome the resistance of nature, and achieve the destruction of the universe. But under no circumstances does he presume to imagine that he, a mere unit of pain, can in any degree change or soften the remorseless words of fate.
To return to the poets, however, it is edifying to hear Mr. Leslie Stephen assert that “ nothing is less poetical than optimism,” or to listen to Mr. John Addington Symonds, who, scanning the thoughtful soul for a solution of man’s place in the order of creation, can find for him no more cheerful task than, Prometheus-like,
Even when a poem appears to the uninitiated to be of a cheerful, not to say blithesome cast, the critics are busy reading unutterable sadness between the lines ; and while we smile at Puck, and the fairies, and the sweet Titania nursing her uncouth love, we must remember that the learned Dr. Ulrici has pronounced the Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a serious homily, preached with grave heart to an unthinking world. But is Robin Goodfellow really a missionary in disguise, and are the poets as pessimistic in their teaching as their interpreters would have us understand ? Heine undoubtedly was, Browning is, and Byron pretended to be. Keats, with all the pathos of his shadowed young life, was nothing of the sort, nor was Milton, nor Goethe, nor Wordsworth ; while Scott, lost, apparently, to the decent requirements of his art, confessed unblushingly that fortune could not long play a dirge upon his buoyant spirits. And Shakespeare ? Why, he was all and everything. Day and night, sunlight and starlight, were embraced in his affluent nature. He laid his hand on the quivering pulses of the world, and, recognizing that life was often in itself both pleasant and good, he yet knew, and knew it without pain, that death was better still. Look only at the character of Horatio, the very type of the blithe, sturdy, and somewhat commonplace young student, to whom enjoyment seems a birthright, —
Hast ta’en with equal thanks.”
Yet it is to this man, of all others, that the dying Hamlet utters the pathetic plea, —
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.”
Here at last is a ray of real light, guiding us miles away from the murky paths of modem French and English poetry, where we have stumbled along, growing despondent in the gloom. To brave life cheerfully, to welcome death gladly, are possible things, after all, and better worth man’s courage and convictions than to dree on Caucasus forever.
It is ludicrous to turn from the poets to the politicians, but nowadays every question, even the old unanswered one, “ Is life worth living ? ” must needs be viewed from its political standpoint. What can be more delightful than to hear Mr. Courthope assert that optimism is the note of the Liberal party, while the Conservatives are necessarily pessimistic?— especially when one remembers the genial utterance of Mr. Walter Bagehot, contending that the very essence of Toryism is enjoyment. “ The way to be satisfied with existing things is to enjoy them.” Yet Sir Francis Doyle bears witness in his memoirs that the stoutest of Tories can find plenty to grumble at, which is not altogether surprising in a sadly ill-regulated world ; and while the optimistic Liberal fondly believes that he is marching straight along the chosen road to the gilded towers of El Dorado, the less sanguine Conservative contents himself with trying, after his dull, practical fashion, to step clear of some of the ruts and quagmires by the way. As for the extreme Radicals, — and every nation has its full share of these gentry, — their optimism is too glittering for sober eyes to bear. A classical tradition says that each time Sisyphos rolls his mighty stone up the steep mountain side he believes that it will reach the summit ; and its everrepeated falls failing to teach him any surer lesson, his doom, like that of our reforming brothers, is softened into eternal hope. But it may at least be questioned whether the other inhabitants of Tartarus — none of whom, it will be remembered, are without their private grievances — do not occasionally weary of the dust and racket, and of the great ball forever thundering about their ears, as it rolls impotently down to the level whence it came.
The pessimist, however, — be it recorded to his credit, — is seldom an agitating individual. His creed breeds indifference to others, and he does not trouble himself to thrust his views upon the unconvinced. We have, indeed, an anecdote of Dr. Johnson, who broadly asserted upon one occasion that no one could well be happy in this world, whereupon an unreasonable old lady had the bad taste to contradict him, and to insist that she, for one, was happy, and knew it. “ Madam,” replied the irate philosopher, “it is impossible. You are old, you are ugly, you are sickly and poor. How, then, can you be happy ? ” But this, we think, was rather a natural burst of indignation on the good doctor’s part than a distinct attempt at proselytizing, though it is likely that he somewhat damped the boasted felicity of his antagonist. Schopenhauer, the great apostle of pessimism, while willing enough to make converts on a grand scale, was scornfully unconcerned about the everyday opinions of his every-day — I was going to say associates, but the fact is that Schopenhauer was never guilty of really associating with anybody. He had at all times the courage of his convictions, and delighted in illustrating his least attractive theories. Teaching asceticism, he avoided women ; despising human companionship, he isolated himself from men. A luminous selfishness guided him through life, and saved him from an incredible number of discomforts. It was his rule to expect nothing, to desire as little as possible, and to learn all he could. Want he held to be the scourge of the poor, as ennui is that of the rich ; accordingly, he avoided the one by looking sharply after his money, and the other by working with unremitting industry. Pleasure, he insisted, was but a purely negative quality, a mere absence from pain. He smiled at the sweet, hot delusions of youth, and shrugged his shoulders over the limitless follies of manhood, regarding both from the standpoint of a wholly disinterested observer. If the test of happiness in the Arabian paradise be to hear the measured beating of one’s own heart, Schopenhauer was certainly qualified for admission. Even in this world he was so far from being miserable, that an atmosphere of snug comfort surrounds the man whose very name has become a synonym for melancholy ; and to turn from his cold and witty epigrams to the smothered despair that burdens Leopardi’s pages is like stepping at once from a pallid, sunless afternoon into the heart of midnight. It is always a pleasant task for optimists to dwell as much as possible on the buoyancy with which every healthy man regards his unknown future, and on the natural pleasure he takes in recalling the brightness of the past ; but Leopardi, playing the trump card of pessimism, demonstrates with merciless precision the insufficiency of such relief. We cannot in reason expect, he argues, that, with youth behind us and old age in front, our future will be any improvement on our past, for with increasing years come increasing sorrows to all men ; and as for the boasted happiness of that past, which of us would live it over again for the sake of the joys it contained ? Memory cheats us no less than hope by hazing over those things that we would fain forget ; but who that has plodded on to middle age would take back upon his shoulders ten of the vanished years, with their mingled pleasures and pains ? Who would return to the youth he is forever pretending to regret ?
Such thoughts are not cheerful companions ; but if they stand the test of application, it is useless to call them morbid. The pessimist does not contend that there is no happiness in life, but that, for the generality of mankind, it is outbalanced by trouble ; and this flinty assurance is all he has to offer in place of the fascinating theory of compensation. It would seem as though no sane man could hesitate between them, if he had the choice, for one pleasant delusion is worth a hundred disagreeable facts ; but in this serious and truthhunting age people have forgotten the value of fiction, and, like sulky children, refuse to play at anything. Certainly it would be hard to find a more dispiriting literature than we enjoy at present. Scientists, indeed, are reported by those who have the strength of mind to follow them as being exceedingly merry and complacent ; but the less ponderous illuminati, to whom feebler souls turn instinctively for guidance, are shining just now with a severe and chastened light. When on pleasure bent they are as frugal as Mrs. Gilpin, but they sup sorrow with a long spoon, utterly regardless of their own or their readers’ digestions. Germany still rings with Heine’s discordant laughter, and France, rich in the poets of decadence, offers us Les Fleurs du Mal to wear upon our bosoms. England listens, sighing, while Carlyle’s denunciations linger like muttering thunder in the air ; or while Mr. Ruskin, “the most inspired of the modern prophets,” vindicates his oracular spirit by crying,
with the monotonous persistency of Cassandra. Mr. Mallock, proud to kneel at Mr. Ruskin’s feet as “ an intellectual debtor to a public teacher,” binds us in his turn within the fine meshes of his exhaustless subtleties, until we grow lightheaded rather than light-hearted under such depressing manipulation. Mr. Pater, who at one time gave us to understand that he would teach us how to enjoy life, has so far revealed nothing but its everlasting sadness. If the old Cyrenaics were no gayer than their modern representatives, Aristippus of Cyrene might just as well have been Diogenes sulking in his tub, or Heraclitus adding useless tears to the trickling moisture of his cave.
Even our fiction has grown disconcertingly sad within the last few years, and with a new order of sadness, invented apparently to keep pace with the melancholy march of mind. The novelist of the past had but two courses open to him : either to leave Edwin and Angelina clasped in each other’s arms, or to provide for one of them a picturesque and daisy-strewn grave. Ordinarily he chose the former alternative, as being less harassing to himself, and more gratifying to his readers. Books that end badly have seldom been really popular, though sometimes a tragic conclusion is essential to the artistic development of the story. When Tom and Maggie Tulliver go down, hand in hand, amid the rushing waters of the Floss, we feel, even through our tears, —and mine are fresh each time I read the page, — that the one possible solution of the problem has been reached ; that only thus could the widely contrasting natures of brother and sister meet in unison, and the hardfought battle be gained. Such an end is not sad, it is happy and beautiful ; and, moreover, it is in a measure inevitable, the climax being shadowed from the beginning, as in the tragedy of the Greeks, and the whole tale moving swiftly and surely to its appointed close. If we compare a finely chiseled piece of work like this with the flat, faintly colored sketches which are at present passing muster for novels, we feel that beauty of form is something not compounded of earthly materials only, and that neither the savage strength of French and Russian realism, nor the dreary monotony of German speculative fiction, can lift us any nearer the tranquil realms of art.
Nor can we even claim that we have gained in cheerfulness what we have lost in symmetry, for the latest device of the pessimistic story-writer is to marry his pair of lovers, and then coldly inform us that, owing to the inevitable evils of life, they were not particularly happy after all. Now Lady Martin (Helen Faucit), that loving student and impersonator of Shakespeare’s heroines, has expressed her melancholy conviction that the gentle Hero was but ill-mated with one so fretful and paltry-souled as Claudio ; and that Imogen the fair was doomed to an early death, the bitter fruit of her sad pilgrimage to Milford-Haven. But be this as it may, — and we more than fear that Lady Martin is rightly acquainted with the matter, — Shakespeare himself has whispered us no word of such illtidings, but has left us free, an’ it please us, to dream out happier things. So, too, Dorothea Brooke wedded to Will Ladislaw has before her many long and weary hours of regretful self-communings ; yet, while we sigh over her doubtful future, we are glad, nevertheless, to take our last look at her smiling in her husband’s arms. But when Basil Ransom, in The Bostonians, makes a brave fight for his young bride, and carries her off in triumph, we are not for a moment permitted to feel elated at his victory. We want to rejoice with Verena, and to congratulate her on her escape from Mr. Filer and the tawdry music-hall celebrity ; but we are forced to take leave of her in tears, and to hear with unwilling ears that “these were not the last she was destined to shed.” This hurts our best feelings, and hurts them all the more because we have allowed our sympathies to be excited. It reminds us of that ill-natured habit of the Romans, who were ungrateful enough to spoil a conqueror’s triumph by hiring somebody to stand in his chariot, and keep whispering in his ear that he was only human, after all ; and it speaks volumes for the stern self-restraint of the Roman nature that the officious truth-teller was not promptly kicked out into the dust. In the same grudging spirit, Mr. Thomas Hardy, after conducting one of his heroines safely through a great many trials, and marrying her at last to the husband of her choice, winds up, by way of wedding-bells, with the following consolatory reflections : “ Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honor of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by day-dreams rich as hers. . . . And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate, she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” “What should a man do but be merry ? ” says Hamlet drearily ; and, with this reckless mirth pervading even our novels, we bid fair in time to become as jocund as he.
- The Sons of Cydippe, by Edmund Gosse.↩