Books New and Old: Books and the Hour

I

HOWEVER plaintive one may grow at times over the neglect of greatness by its own age, one must note that a great man often owes his first hold upon posterity to the enthusiasm of his surviving contemporaries; or, if not his first, his best hold. The younger critic is at a disadvantage in dealing with writers of the generation just past; for here is a fame not quite old enough to be established, not quite new enough to give a fresh intelligence free swing. The older critic is himself a part of his theme. He has had his chance of original impression. He recalls the first appearance of Sartor Resartus, or of Bells and Pomegranates. He has had, it may be, some direct or indirect acquaintance with the man himself. Virgilium vidi tantum: the mellow effectiveness of criticism so inspired can hardly be overset by any brilliant contrary-mindedness on the part of the younger generation.

The complementary value of these two methods of approach has been well illustrated by two recent studies of Browning. Mr. Chesterton’s book was a brilliant performance in the not altogether grateful rôle of the contrary-minded. Professor Dowden has produced 1 a study based upon a more intimate, long-standing, and cordial knowledge of the man and his work. The result is a critical biography of Browning, altogether the most valuable that has as yet been produced. Mrs. Orr is, of course, drawn upon largely for facts, but Mr. Dowden’s interpretation of them is quite his own. It is, however, by delicate shadings, rather than by bold strokes, that the Browning whom he paints for us is distinguished from the portraits which we already have from other hands. Especially happy is the present treatment of that relation in Browning’s life to which public attention has been so recently and so unduly redirected.

Mr. Dowden’s criticisms, considerable both in quantity and in quality, are interwoven with the narrative, and so presented, effectively illustrate the development of the poet’s art. From this point of view much work commonly rated as immature, minor, or decadent, assumes significance. Now and then it seems that the critic is a trifle over-influenced by the prepossession of the biographer. “Pauline” he says, “ is a poem from which Browning ought not to have desired to detach himself. Rarely does a poem by a writer so young deserve better to be read for its own sake. It is an interesting document in the history of its author’s mind. It gives promises and pledges which were redeemed in full. It shows what dropped away from the poet and what, being an essential part of his equipment, was retained. It exhibits his artistic method in the process of formation . It sets forth certain leading thoughts which are dominant in his later work.

. . . The poem is dramatic, yet, like so much of Browning’s later work, it is not pure drama coming from profound sympathy with a spirit other than the writer’s own; it is only hybrid drama, in which the dramatis persona thinks and moves and acts under the necessity of expounding certain ideas of the poet.”

But Professor Dowden is by no means rigidly bound to the historical method. At times he detaches himself to such effect as this, apropos of Pacchiarotto: “But vigour alone does not produce poetry, and it may easily run into a kind of good-humoured effrontery. . . . There is a little too much in all this of the robustious Herakles sending his great voice before him. An author ought to be aware that no pledge to admire him and his writings has been administered to every one who enters the world, and that as sure as he attracts, so surely must he repel. . . . Browning’s good-humoured effrontery in his rhymes expects too much good-humour from his reader, who may be amiable enough to accept rough and ready successes, but cannot often be delighted by brilliant gymnastics of sound and sense. In like manner it asks for a particularly well-disposed reader to appreciate the wit of Browning’s retort upon his critics: ‘You are chimney-sweeps,’ he sings out in his great voice, ‘ listen! I have invented several insulting nicknames for you. Decamp! or my housemaid will fling the slops in your faces.’ This may appear to some people to be genial and clever. It certainly has none of the exquisite malignity of Pope’s poisoned rapier. Perhaps it is a little dull: perhaps it is a little outrageous.”

Mr. Benson’s Rossetti2 is one of the most satisfying of the later issues in the English Men of Letters Series. It is less brilliant than some of its predecessors, but it is apparently based upon more thorough original investigation, and composed with greater deliberation. In spite of its brevity, therefore, it deserves more attention than the ordinary biographical sketch. The author’s manner of approaching his theme is reassuring. He promptly disclaims the common view of Rossetti as “an affected, decadent, fantastic figure, posturing in a gloomy danse macabre, or wandering in an airless labyrinth of poisonous loveliness.” Rossetti is here to be pictured rather as “a brave, genial, robust personality, which, sadly as its early brightness was dimmed by the years, still kept its gaze resolutely on the ultimate hope, the further issue, the central vision.” Nor are we to be allowed to retain illusions as to the outward man. He was, it seems, a short, stout, shabby figure of a man, rather fond of slang, broad humor, and loud laughter; whose talk was at all times “plain, brisk, sensible, pungent, and vigorous.” There was nothing of the prophet about him, nothing of the poseur. There was, to be sure, a touch of mystery in the authority which he seemed to possess over even the strongest spirits with whom he came in contact. “This magnetism,” says Mr. Benson, “ dominated Morris absolutely for a time, it determined the art of BurneJones, it upset Ruskin, it profoundly affected Mr. Swinburne’s poetry. . . . He laid no snares for other natures; but in his presence his conceptions and aims naturally presented themselves to others as the conceptions and aims most worth striving for.” Mr. Benson’s treatment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its work is discreetly sympathetic. He has no liking for the extravagances and morbidezza to which the movement led, but he discerns its origin in a true instinct of youth. The Germ faithfully expresses that instinct: “It is all fragrant of sincere and enthusiastic youth and artistic purpose. It suggests a whole background of ardent impulsive figures, inspired by a generous emotion, and determined to see things with their own eyes, and to say them in their own way.” The outward beauty which Rossetti saw brought him no abiding sense of peace. For the sake of Rossetti as a man we must, with Mr. Benson, deplore the limitation of his ideal; nevertheless, it is an ideal worth embodying in art, and Rossetti gave it a true embodiment.

One may naturally, though not very reasonably, connect the name of Mr. Yeats with that of Rossetti. Both are poets of cult, if not of coterie; and there the resemblance ends, if we are to believe Mr. Yeats. Rossetti was not a pure mystic, and his lack of instinct for symbolic expression was, says Mr. Yeats, so marked as to disqualify him for the editorship of Blake. To the younger poet mysticisim, poetry, and symbolism appear to be almost synonymous terms, A recent brief study of his personality and work3 will be of value to many persons who have but a vague notion of what he has done and what he stands for. A cult is likely to have its devotees and its scoffers; Mr. Krans fortunately belongs to neither class. He displays a sympathetic understanding of Mr. Yeats’s mysticism, his belief in magic, his love of symbols. He is, meanwhile, calmly observant of the paradoxes, the lapses from taste and from common sense, the special addictions, which belong to the chosen method. “After all allowances have been made, there remains a not inconsiderable part of his work that is darkened by a recondite imagery which for him, no doubt, has a meaning, — for no one would dare to appear so meaningless unless he felt he meant a great deal, — but to the rest of mankind conveys no idea, induces no mood, and is at most a perspicuous gloom.” The specific service which, independently of his methods, Mr. Yeats may be seen to be doing is to promote a movement “ against that externality in life of which the theatre of the day is the great monument. ... In the Ireland of to-day Mr. Yeats is important as the leader in a literary awakening that may go far toward bringing into being what Ireland most needs. — a cultivated national public.”

II

It is a favorite theory of Mr. Yeats that the poetry of the coterie and the poetry of the people are really the same poetry; while what is commonly known as popular poetry is only the poetry of the middle classes. Longfellow he numbers among producers of this kind of poetry; and, what is more surprising, Burns. Whittier, in many respects more like Burns than like Longfellow, he would doubtless refer to the same category. One can see truth in this contention about middleclass poetry. It is not of the highest order; the average reading person, represented by the middle class, is baffled by the highest. He must have his poetry made in simple and obvious forms to fit his simple and direct habit of thought and feeling. But though Whittier’s poetry was not of the subtlest or of the richest, it was genuine; and it is not a merely middle-class sentiment which cherishes the poet’s memory. His biographer has just produced a volume 4 containing a good deal of interesting information about the places which Whittier poetized. The purpose of the book, as the sub-title shows, is sufficiently modest. It aims to be a handbook. But it contains, also, some literary relics, the value of which is mainly autobiographical; the most interesting of them are written in a playful vein, the quality of which indicates, to say truth, good humor in the man rather than creative humor in the poet.

Among other recent books of the gleaning sort is a volume of material connected directly or indirectly with that famous resort of French émigrés, Juniper Hall.5 The book is handsomely made, and has some interesting pictures, notably a portrait of Fanny Burney here first published. It will be of special interest to the student of eighteenth-century history, but contains not a little which concerns the general reader.

Both of these classes will be appealed to by the recently published Ford lectures of Sir Leslie Stephen.6 Their composition was completed when the critic’s health had begun to fail, and they were delivered and sent through the press by his nephew, Mr. Herbert Fisher. Sir Leslie’s work might have had a more showy conclusion, but it could hardly have had a more fitting one. His distinction lay in the quiet precision with which he arrived at and expressed perfectly independent judgments. Under the consulship of Dobson the literary eighteenth century has been subjected to sufficiently minute examination. To the research of others Sir Leslie doubtless owes much of the careful knowledge upon which his generalizations are built; but the firmness and breadth of his judgments belong to no one else. The union of common sense and imagination has issue in a sense altogether uncommon. Stephen was as incapable of the merely robust as of the merely fanciful. His thought is both fine and direct, and his style, even to that favorite weapon of irony, expresses the essential fineness and directness of his impulse.

The present, lectures are based upon a belief that the historical method of criticism is, on the whole, the most fruitful; and that one of the facts most clearly proved by such a method is the close relation between the social life of any given period and its literature. Sir Leslie has no little admiration for the temper of the eighteenth century: “the century, as its enemies used to say, of coarse utilitarian aims, of religious indifference and political corruption; or, as I prefer to say, the century of sound common sense and growing toleration, and of steady social and industrial development.” The literary product of the century was what conditions made it; and of course the spirit of conservatism ruled. “It did not generate that stimulus to literary activity due to the dawning of new ideas and the opening of wide vistas of speculation.” It produced, however, a literature of practical efficiency, uttering, with singular distinctness, “the beliefs prevalent in the social stratum to which the chief writers belonged.”

III

Sir Leslie’s development of this theory, as it is borne out by specific instances, is well worth following, and his conclusion is striking: “The watchword of every literary school may be brought under the formula, ‘Return to Nature;’ though Nature receives different interpretations.” To Pope and Addison it meant the Nature of the Wit; to Richardson and Fielding the Nature of the middle-class John Bull; to Scott, “his ‘honest gray hills’ speaking in every fold of old traditional lore;” to Wordsworth the Nature of the peasant and uneducated man; and so forth. In short, the “Return to Nature” means the discovery of a literary type best expressing “the really vital and powerful currents of thought which are moulding society. The great author must have a people behind him; utter both what he really thinks and feels and what is thought and felt most profoundly by his contemporaries. As the literature ceases to be truly representative, and adheres to the conventionalism of the former period, it becomes ‘ unnatural,’ and the literary forms become a survival instead of a genuine creation.”

Such a generalization ought, it seems, to help us in arriving at a sound opinion of contemporary literature. What does the Return to Nature mean to us ? What sort of writing now expresses “the really vital and powerful currents of thought which are moulding society”? Is it journalism, or scientific writing, or literary dogmatism, or poetry ? Evidently it is not elegance; the wit, or man of cultivated taste, had his day in the nineteenth century as well as in the eighteenth . He still has an audience, but he does not, even in his own fancy, stand for what is vital and powerful in modern life. His qualms and niceties are quite beside the mark to a generation of plain blunt men hot on the trail of the dollar, the microbe, and the Filipino. Such a writer as Vernon Lee can hardly, even with the help of Browning, be made to seem a quite live and modern person. A cultivated woman of letters and of the world, she produces a superior kind of boudoir literature. Her latest essays7 display the technical skill, the evidences of a well-stored and ingenious mind, the carefully attenuated humor, the simplicity à la mode, with which her former books have made us familiar. It is all very clever, versatile, and finished; but one is not sure whether it is the product of a true, though faint, creative impulse, or of mere literary habit. Certainly there has never been an age to which mere refinement and the literary habit have seemed more impertinent. Nature means to us something very different: now the Nature of the mystic, now that of the épicier, now that of the scientist; never that of the dilettante.

A more than local impulse is suggested by the Irish literary movement, which is, indeed, in most essentials European rather than Irish. There is much to irritate the hardy mind in current expressions of mysticism via symbolism; there is something of wholesomeness, however, in the goad which, as a reaction against immediate conventions, it succeeds in applying. Moreover, a clearer definition, a more indubitable creative impulse, is evident in the prose essays of a Maeterlinck than in those of a Vernon Lee. The devotee is, after all, more in our line than the connoisseur; for his purpose, if not his method, is sure to be more to the point, though the concrete value of the point remain in doubt. I am not sure what the title of M. Maeterlinck’s new book means,8 unless it may signify the contact of a mystical intelligence with the Garden of Life and the Garden of Letters. I miss the meaning of several of the essays here collected, and disagree with a large part of what I seem to understand. But I am sincerely glad to have read the book, much of which, after all, is perfectly simple, direct, and spiritually, if not intellectually, sound. M. Maeterlinck has an interest in the active world which most of his brother symbolists lack; and special enthusiasms for the things of the active world: for dueling with the sword, democracy, the automobile, to suggest the substance of a few of the present papers. One turns with special interest to the essay on the Modern Drama, and the interest increases as one perceives that it is in no obvious sense a defense of his own work. Modern life, he holds, no longer affords material for tragedy; it lacks the atmosphere, the glamour, which make so much for the effect of such a play as Romeo and Juliet. As for modern drama, inevitably “its scene is a modern house, it passes between men and women of to-day. The names of the invisible protagonists — the passions and ideas — are the same, more or less, as of old. . . . But how great is the difference we find in the aspect and quality, the extent and influence, of these ideal actors. Of all their ancient weapons not one is left them, not one of the marvelous moments of olden days. It is seldom that cries are heard now; bloodshed is rare, and tears not often seen. It is in a small room, round a table, close to the fire, that the joys and sorrows of mankind are decided. We suffer, or make others suffer, we love, we die, there in our corner.” Modern drama has, therefore, been forced to look to the treatment of psychological or moral problems. But action, not psychology or morals, is the end to be sought by the dramatist; and the moral problems treated upon the stage have been connected with conventional ideas of duty. M. Maeterlinck sees in the prospect of a more resolute struggle of charity and justice against egoism and ignorance, the only hope for “a new theatre, a theatre of peace, and of beauty without tears.”

Even more clearly in the final essay does M. Maeterlinck’s sturdy optimism make itself heard. It is striking that this dreamer should base his hopes for the future upon the efficacy of reason. “We no longer believe,” he triumphantly concludes, “that this world is as the apple of the eye of one God who is alive to our slightest thoughts; but we know that it is subjected to forces quite as powerful, quite as alive to laws and duties which it behooves us to penetrate. That is why our attitude in the face of the mystery of these forces has changed. It is no longer one of fear, but one of boldness. It no longer demands that the slave shall kneel before the master or the creator, but permits a gage as between equals, for we bear within ourselves the equal of the deepest and greatest mysteries.”

Such writing as this cannot possibly appeal to middle-class sympathies. If a numerical constituency counts, M. Wagner is far more representative than M. Maeterlinck. By the Fireside9 will doubtless be as popular as its forerunners. It is deliberately didactic and undisguisedly sentimental, and its opinions are based upon precisely those notions of conventional duty the need of which, by M. Maeterlinck’s showing, the world has outgrown. These intimate homilies on the conduct of life seem, indeed, to be always sure of an audience. Another excellent book of the day treats of work,10 as M. Wagner’s treats of home life. It is admirable in its kind, restrained in sentiment, simple and vigorous in style. Perhaps there is nothing new in it, but, since it is the expression of a distinct personality, there is nothing trite either. Unfortunately its title is of a sort to warn off indolent persons, so that, as is commonly the case, one supposes, with such books, it will be read most by those who need it least.

IV

Of afar sterner sort is the book by Mrs. Gilman 11 on the same theme. This, we see at the outset, is to be no mere literary effusion, no mere product of individual reflection. It represents, indeed, still another current notion as to what the Return to Nature means. A glance at the table of contents intimates plainly that such things as psychology, sociology, and political economy are in the wind. Our noses are at once applied to the scientific grindstone. We learn what a concept is, and wonder that we have so long been indifferent to it. We have interesting illustrations of what the concept can do by way of interpreting incidents of which poets have loosely prated: “An excellent proof of the power of concepts compared with conditions is given in the heroism of William Phelps, the Indianapolis negro. Two colored men were at work in a great boiler, riveting. Some person by accident turned on the steam. Hot steam as a material condition is quite forcible, and the two men started for the ladder. But Phelps, who was foremost, was arrested by a concept. He stepped back, saying to the other, ‘You go first — you’re married!’ Even in that comparatively undeveloped brain, a group of concepts as to Duty and Honour were stronger modifiers of conduct than boiling steam.” The description appears to be not without humor, whether conscious or otherwise. Elsewhere, an impatient habit of generalization compromises the effectiveness of the book both from the literary point of view and as a scientific study. It is all very well for the lady writer to say, “A flourishing society can maintain more fools than any savage period could afford.” But when she proceeds, with such dicta for authority, to nudge us toward the conclusion that nothing that is is right, we begin to surmise that at least there is much to be said on both sides. There is not a little cleverness in the book, much raw output of intellect; but so little literary quality that the substance of the work may be had pretty satisfactorily from the summaries which are methodically prefixed to the several chapters.

The latest venture of that talented and irrepressible, irresponsible Mr. H. G. Wells12 displays less irascibility, though hardly less common sense. Seldom has there been given a more brilliant display of intellectual pyrotechnics. The book is remarkable, as his other speculative books have been, for the extreme mental agility employed, and for the perfect confidence with which the author erects rapid inference into philosophical truth. As he Jamesily admits, he is “remarkably not qualified to assume an authoritative tone in these matters;” but there is hardly a department of philosophy or science into which, during the course of these inquiries, he fails to insert his wandering mental proboscis. He succeeds in doing whatever clever assurance, not always attended by common sense, can hope to do. Those who have read the volume of papers called Anticipations, published a year or two ago, will know what to expect from this book, which is intended for a sort of sequel or complement thereof. In connection with a pamphlet called the Discovery of the Future, Mr. Wells intends these two books to present “a general theory of social development and of social and political conduct.” One is not sure that something of the kind is not actually presented, but the pages so bristle with theory and sparkle with epigram as to leave the outline of the alleged theory somewhat thin. Where a tangency does not offer, a contiguity often suffices to create a diversion. Diverting the book is, and suggestive as a parcel of fragmentary surmises may be. It is hardly possible for the reader to be side-tracked, as there is no clearly marked main line of thought to follow. All sorts of trouble is found with modern society, and all sorts of novel specifics are recommended; but I do not see what in the way of coherent analysis or construction is to be had from the book.

It is a relief to turn from it to such a study as Professor Shaler’s,13 in which scientific observation is made the basis of reasoning rather than of speculation, and the attempt is to convince rather than to startle. The specific aim is “to array certain tolerably evident facts concerning the conditions of development and of contact of the diverse tribes and races of men with a view to providing foundation for some considerations as to the way in which various grievous evils of human intercourse may be remedied.” The writer has further “endeavored to apply certain observations on those contact phenomena to two various race problems, those presented by the intercourse of the Jews and the Negroes with the people of our own race.” Professor Shaler’s treatment of these questions is broad and unhurried. Now and then it seems that he is making a somewhat ponderous statement of minor or obvious truths; but he does well, on the whole, to leave the light glancing style to brilliant amateurs like Mr. Wells. His suggestions toward a method of handling American race problems are, when the fit moment arrives, concretely stated. The tribal sense must be suppressed; and intelligent study of the causes of racial difference must supplant prejudice. At the same time, certain precautions are to be taken against unnatural admixtures, physical or social. Black and white blood are not to be mingled; and immigration is to be so far restricted as to exclude those (except the Jews) whose racial strain is altogether different from ours; and such of our own race as have shown themselves worthless. As for the black race, Mr. Shaler believes that “ a considerable part of them will be found very well fitted for the more serious duties of citizenship, and that with fit help in education and incentive somewhere near half of them can be uplifted to a plane where they will contribute to the quality of the state. Of the remainder, the most that can be hoped is that they will make useful laborers. In this lower group there is a remnant, probably not five per cent of the whole black population, which retains so much of the primitive brute that it cannot be turned to account.”

There is much to be had from such a book as this. Literature in the narrower sense it is not; nevertheless, it is within the bounds of possibility that it may appear more true to Nature as this age sees it, more suggestive of “ the really vital and powerful currents” of modern life than most of the pretty things we succeed in producing in the name of pure literature.

  1. Robert Browning. By EDWARD DOWDEN. London : J. M. Dent & Co. ; New York : E. P. Dutton & Co. 1904.
  2. Rossetti. By ARTHUR C. BENSON. English Men of Letters Series. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1904.
  3. William Butler Yeats, and the Irish Literary Revival. By HORATIO SHEAFE KRANS. Contemporary Men of Letters Series. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1904.
  4. Whittier - Land : A Handbook of North Essex. By SAMUEL T. PICKARD. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.
  5. Juniper Hall. By CONSTANCE HILL. New York : John Lane. 1904.
  6. English Literature, and Society in the Eighteenth Century. By Sir LESLIE STEPHEN. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1904.
  7. Hortus Vitæ. By VERNON LEE. New York: John Lane. 1904.
  8. The Double Garden. By MAURICE MAETERLINCK : Translated by ALEXANDER TEIXRA VOL. XCIV - NO. DLXII DE MATTOS. New York : Dodd, Mead & Co. 1904.
  9. By the Fireside. By CHARLES WAGNER. Translated from the French by MARY LOUISE HENDEE. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1904.
  10. Work. By HUGH BLACK, M. A. New York : Fleming H. Revell Co. 1904.
  11. Human Work. By CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1904.
  12. Mankind in the Making. By H. G. WELLS. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1904.
  13. The Neighbor. By N. S. SHALER. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.