What Pessimism Is
— That pleasant little story which has been told so often, and never better than in the sixth chapter of My Novel, about the inexpediency of attacking those high in favor, received an unlooked-for illustration at my expense, when, awhile ago, I ventured to say in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly that I thought Mr. Browning’s poetry was of the pessimistic order. I have learned since that if eternal vigilance be the price of freedom, eternal warfare is the portion of the heretic. Thrice have I been summoned to appear and make good my words before those mysterious tribunals called Browning Societies, whole roomfuls of hardened enthusiasts, more terrible to face, I should imagine, — for cowardice forbade the ordeal, — than the Vehmgerichte or the Holy Office. I have been guilelessly conversing with casual acquaintances upon the most trivial of topics, the weather or the insufficiency of the city railways, when suddenly my companion has turned upon me with an “ intense ” expression which Du Maurier might envy, and has asked in tones of chilling condemnation, “Will yon please tell me what you meant by calling Browning a pessimist ? ” And at last, when I trusted that my offense was well-nigh forgotten, a very able contributor to the Atlantic comes forward with a whip of scorpions, and tells me, not only that I am wrong, which is always possible, but also — and here, alas ! is the sting — that I have probably “ missed the poet’s plain meaning through too little attention to the verse itself, and too much to the superabundance of comment upon it.”
Now I am far from disparaging the good old conservative practice of reviewing an author before you read him. One wiser and wittier than we has recorded his conviction that it is the best and sunest way to avoid prejudice. Neither do I censure those who follow the critics’ judgment rather than their own, for it is just possible that they may arrive at more correct conclusions. But in this case, at least, I am innocent of the charge. I have read Browning, and I have not read his reviewers, with the one exception of Mr. Birrell, whose very charming and amusing essay can hardly be held responsible for any portion of my guilt. I have listened with Elvire to her husband’s lengthy and pitiless self-analysis, and have wondered if her heart felt really lightened when at last the monologue was over. I have followed comfortless lovers to whom love is seldom sweet, and unmasked rogues and hypocrites who contemplate their own inwardness with a zest which is all the more inexplicable when we consider what it is they see. I have watched Martin Relph unpeeling his soul layer by layer, as if it were an onion, and would honestly rather see Count Guido Franceschini stretched quivering on the rack, pulled
To unhusk truth a-hiding in its hulls,”
than witness the more terrible self-inflicted torture.
And all for what ? It is as easy to build up a theory out of selected quotations from a poet as to build up a religion out of selected quotations from the Scriptures. I should be loath to put forward such lines as these : —
And, dear, truth is not as good as it seems!
Commend me to conscience! Idle stuff!
Much help is mine, as I mope and pine,
And skulk through day, and scowl in my dreams; ”
or even these : —
Each in his average cabin of a life.
The best ’s not big, the worst yields elbow-room; ”
and then say, “ The whole stuff of Browning’s thought is indicated by such citations.” But I think that he strikes the key-note of his work when he confesses the
At the grand moments when she probes herself ; ”
and the eternal probing for what is meant to lie beyond our touch can never yield us anything save perplexity and pain. Ruskin’s débonnaire advice not to think enough about ourselves to be even sorry for our faults is more wholesome, after all, than this dispiriting and horrible self-scrutiny.
“ ’T is an awkward thing to play with souls,”
says the author of Sordello and The Ring and the Book, while all the time his fingers fairly itch to handle these shrinking, suffering toys.
Good, except truth! ”
he cries in self-defense, and then acknowledges that if you fancy this coveted truth
Much will you have misread the signs, I say.”
Nevertheless, to be perpetually searching for it by the analytic process has become a recognized pastime and a religious duty. We grow sodden with speculation, while the great world rolls carelessly on its way, very little the better for our trouble. Browning, indeed, has unswervingly taught the existence of another and a higher life, and if the contributor be right in asserting that “ religion and pessimism are incompatible,” then there is nothing further to be said. But to claim that our earthly happiness hinges necessarily on our immortal hopes is to cut off entirely that body of thinkers who believe that in this world alone they must find the fulfillment of their being. On the other hand, while scientific pessimists, as they choose to call themselves, may affirm that blind forces control the universe, the question for the mass of mankind is, not of the hereafter, which lies in the hands of God, but simply of the present, of life as life itself. If, in our journey to the tomb, we find more to suffer than to enjoy, then, whatever may be the compensations of the future, our earthly pilgrimage is a burden to be endured rather than a privilege to be relished, and he is happiest who escapes soonest from the struggle. When Bossuet said that man goes to his grave, “ trainant la chaine de ses espérances brisées,” he was as fully convinced of the immortality of his soul as ever Browning could be ; but none the less he felt the drag of the fetters, and knew that his brightest hour would be the dawn of his release. If there are those to whom the world and our enforced existence in it are rendered cheerful by Browning’s lancet point, I can only say that I am glad they have that consolation. For most of us the panacea lies in action rather than in thought, but we may not: always judge of one another’s remedies. The contributor points out triumphantly that even Cleon, the pagan poet, “ could imagine a state of being above the present, in which joy-hunger should be satisfied, if Zeus the All-Wise were the All-Loving too.” We hold our hopes on a somewhat surer ground than an imagined possibility, which does not sound particularly reassuring; but we listen rather sadly while this same Cleon confesses that he too agrees
O king, with thy profound discouragement,
Who seest the wider hut to sigh the more.
Most progress is most failure! thou sayest well.”