Mr. Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca
MR. STEPHEN PHILLIPS was unfortunate in making his poetical début with Christ in Hades. That poem was not in his true vein. Powerfully imagined though it was, it was incurably fantastic, and in spite of frequent lovely lines, written with
“ The beautiful ease of the untroubled gods,” it left the impression of labored and unsuccessful striving to embody the weird and the supernatural. But the critics took it as giving Mr. Phillips his convenient cachet. So when his second volume came out, they at once seized upon the somewhat repulsive The Woman with the Dead Soul as conveying the poet’s characteristic note, and for the most part failed to see that it was Marpessa which bore witness to a new birth of beauty in English poetry. Yet at least Mr. William Watson had eyes to perceive the dawning hope in the fact that “ the youngest of our poets takes this ancient story and makes it newly beautiful, kindles it with tremulous life, clothes it with the mystery of interwoven delight and pain.” Nor did the matter stop there. Beyond the large conception and atmosphere of the poem, there was its deep and sure reading of the human heart, and a recurring felicity of magically beautiful phrase which left you nothing for it but to think of Keats. You beheld again the gift of “ fine things said unintentionally,” which Keats himself divined in Shakespeare. Entire passages press forward to be cited, but who could read even such scattered lines as, “ That face that might indeed provoke Invasion of old cities,”
“ All Asia at my feet spread out In indolent magnificence of bloom,” or,
“ All that tint and melody and breath Which in their lovely unison are thou,” without feeling that, to quote Keats once more, here is again a poet presided over by “ a good Genius ” to make beautiful even his writing done “ half at Random ” ?
In Mr. Phillips’s latest book, Paolo and Francesca, he confirms the happy presages of his earlier poems, at the same time that he reveals one talent more, — that for dramatic composition. The work challenges the too hasty dictum of Poe, that a dramatic poem is a contradiction in terms. “ Let a poem be a poem only ; let a play be a play, and nothing more.” Well, it must be confessed the yoking is often unequal, but Mr. Phillips’s tragedy is a play and something more. That it is right theatric, eminently actable, might be inferred from the fact that it was commissioned and its acting rights purchased by a leading actor of the contemporary stage, Mr. George Alexander. Mr. Phillips himself, it is well known, has served his own histrionic apprenticeship, and an eye trained to dramatic situation and movement shows itself in his every page. Yet it may well be doubted if his play ever prove a great popular success, as theatrical managers count successes. Its theme of wrongful love is against it. Its main presuppositions are mediæval, even Greek. A sense of doom hurries the action, which from beginning to end marches with the tread of fate. Francesca flutters her wings as ineffectually as pathetically; Paolo stiffens his muscles in vain. “Have I not,” he says,
“ Parried the nimble thrust and thought of thee, And from thy mortal sweetness fled away, Yet evermore returned ? ”
Both feel that the decree has gone forth against them since before the world stood. Also thoroughly steeped in Greek dramatic tradition is the play in its frank unfolding of the plot from the very first. The blind old nurse, Angela, does the work of the Æschylean chorus in early giving the spectator the thrill of coming and fated horror. No need to trick with unexpected dénouement when the whole tragedy lies in the soul. And Mr. Phillips follows the Greeks, finally, rather than the Elizabethans, in making the bloody catastrophe take place off the stage ; trusting to the reflected shock to the participants as more powerful, artistically, than the brute strangling or stabbing in full view.
Yet vivid as is the piece of portraiture which he has made of this pitiful tale of Rimini, one hesitates to think of it exhibited in the glare of the footlights. Effective as one sees the tragedy to be in its swift movement and constant appeal to the subtlest insight of actor and audience, it seems rather destined to be a work of art enjoyed and admired in hushed privacy more than in the swarming and noisy theatre. This is an inference partly from the ancient and austere setting of the play, and partly from the rare and delicate poetry which Mr. Phillips has thrown as a light and beautiful mantle over his stark tragedy. It is not that the poet gets the better of the dramatist. There is no surplusage of sheer adornment. The play’s the thing all through, but that does not prevent the poet from making the fit and necessary speech of his characters glow, at times, with ideal beauty. This is his fine ministry of delight. With a noble restraint almost worthy to be named beside Dante’s, in his brief handling of the same episode, with all lavish ornament pruned away, Mr. Phillips yet scatters through these pages such apt epithet and fresh figure, and now and then surprises you with such gleams of natural magic in language, that you can but rejoice in this inheritor and sustainer of the great English poetical tradition. Take, for example, a few of the descriptions of Francesca’s wondering innocence (and thereby infinite temptability), thrust all girlish into a world of fierce passion : —
“ Hither all dewy from her convent fetched.”
“ This child scarce yet awake upon the world !
Dread her first ecstasy.”
“ She hath but wondered up at the white clouds ;
Hath just spread out her hands to the warm sun ;
Hath heard but gentle words and cloister sounds.”
These are all in due subordination as touches in the whole of character, and so of destiny, but what haunting grace of expression clothes them!
Mr. Phillips’s inventive faculty is perhaps seen at its best where he is closely following and developing Dante’s meagre hints: —
“ Noi leggevano un giorno per diletto Di Lancilotto, come amor lo strinse.”
This is worked out in a scene of high beauty and power, with a wealth of suggested secondary meaning and byplay which would be the despair as well as the spur of great actors, and is carried on to the disiato riso and the kiss all trembling which ends the third act. It is doubtful, however, if the most striking single feature of Paolo and Francesca is not the very original and moving tragedy within the tragedy. This passes wholly within the bosom of Lucrezia, cousin, and unconfessed, even unsuspected lover of Giovanni. A childless widow, who has never forgiven Heaven for having denied to her birth pangs, she sets on Giovanni to discover and take vengeance on his young wife’s infidelity. But presently, Francesca, in an access of lonely dread, turns to Lucrezia and begs her to be as a mother to her. The heartstifled older woman gathers Francesca to her breast with cries of pent-up longing ; but, alas, the hovering fate is too near to be averted, and she finds a child at last only to lose her forever. This is cold prose. Now read what a poet can do. Giovanni has reproached Lucrezia with her “ old bitterness.” Then she; —
“ Bitterness—am I bitter? Strange, 0 strange ! How else ? My husband dead and childless left,
My thwarted woman-thoughts have inward turned,
And that vain milk like acid in me eats. Have I not in my thought trained little feet To venture, and taught little lips to move Until they shaped the wonder of a word ?
I am long practised. 0 those children, mine ! Mine, doubly mine : and yet I cannot touch them,
I cannot see them, hear them— Does great God
Expect I shall clasp air and kiss the wind For ever ? And the budding cometh on,
The burgeoning, the cruel flowering :
At night the quickening splash of rain, at dawn
That muffled call of birds how like to babes ; And I amid these sights and sounds must starve —
I, with so much to give, perish of thrift! Omitted by His casual dew ! ”
There is more in this strain, — more of Lucrezia’s wailing that
“ It is such souls as mine that go to swell The childless cavern-cry of the barren sea, Or make that human ending to night-wind.”
But at last comes Francesca’s frightened cry: —
“ O woman, woman, take me to you and hold me! ” .
and then Lucrezia : —
I hold you close : it was not all in vain,
The holy babble and pillow kissed all o’er! O my embodied dream with eyes and hair ! Visible aspiration with soft hands ;
Tangible vision! . . .
And now I have conceived and have brought forth ;
And I exult in front of the great sun:
And I laugh out with riches in my lap ! ”
Such achievement makes criticism abashed; yet it may feel justified in having searched out the spiritual emptiness and loud coarseness of much that passes for the best poetry of the day, in order to win title to be silent, and to ask for silence, in presence of heaven-born imagination and its consonant utterance.
- Paolo and Francesca. By STEPHEN PHILLIPS. London and New York: John Lane. 1899.↩