Books New and Old

I

PLAYS

AMONG themes which have successfully asserted their fitness for serious dramatic uses are several of Scriptural origin. The French classical period did not disdain them, and they have left their mark elsewhere upon Continental drama. English dramatists, from the Elizabethans down, have found their literary inspiration in other quarters, so that the great themes to be drawn from Hebrew history have yet to be given permanent form in our tongue. Experiments toward that end have not been few among modern English-writing dramatists, but experiments they have obviously remained. Many of them, perhaps a majority of them during the past few years, have dealt directly or indirectly with the story of David. Two such studies have recently been issued by the same publishers.1 Mr. Rice’s work is, as heretofore, noteworthy for its elaboration rather than for its power. There is less of Shakespeare in it, and more of Mr. Stephen Phillips. In cultivated ingenuousness of tone, in diligent confusion of parts of speech and syntax, in a kind of limpid awkwardness of metrical effect, the writer may claim to have fairly outHeroded the author of Herod. This habit of verse produces such curious passages as: —

Michal. This knife
Unfailingly into my breast had spared
Me from him, had not flight.

And such effective ones as: —

David. . . . Only the birds have wings,
Yet on the vales behind me I have left
Haste and a swirling wonderment of air,
And in the torrent’s troubled vein amaze,
So swift I hurried hither at your urgence
Out of the fields and folding the far sheep.

The play is, one would say, skillfully constructed; it is not drawn out, it is not obscure. But emotion takes the place of action in it; its quality is, like that of Mr. Phillips’s plays, lyrical rather than dramatic. It is worth reading, it might be worth presenting with scenical and musical accessories. It could hardly be acted. Not that it fails to recognize, at least negatively, the exigencies of modern stagecraft. It remembers the drop-curtain and the footlights; the scenes are not many, and full directions are given for the setting.

These matters are still more circumstantially and technically attended to in Miss Wilkinson’s play, which is apparently intended, and fit, for acting. “A wooded path, L, with one practical exit back-stage. Two exits right. 1 E R leading up the mountain and continued on the scene to give the effect of distance. 2 E R past a palm-tree to Bethlehem;” — surely such exactness as this suggests that the play is, in the mind of the author at least, something to be done and not merely something to be read. The dialogue is, moreover, accompanied by bits of description of the stage business and characters. The play possesses, what is far more important, a vigor of action which from the outset forces the reader from any suspicion that he may be going to deal with a closet-dramatist. Here is a drama built, within and without, to act in a modern theatre; it is, incidentally, far better reading than if it were merely built to read.

Fortunately for the particular instance, Miss Wilkinson has eschewed blank verse. She has hit upon a form of prose singularly happy for the expression of her theme. Without having recourse to paraphrase, except in the instance of an occasional lyric, she has held pretty closely to the Old Testament idiom with especially happy suggestion of Hebrew parallelism and repetend. The play covers practically the same ground as Mr. Rice’s, the period from David’s anointing to the death of Saul. Miss Wilkinson’s second play has less distinction. It is less rugged and forcible than Paul Heyse’s Mary of Magdala, with which it naturally challenges comparison. It is distinctly inferior to the David in point of action; and the blank verse employed strikes one as being a chosen medium, rather than a felt mode, of expression.

In the fable of Tristan and Isolde Mr. Anspacher has found a theme sufficiently accredited for tragic uses.2 He is “ moving in fast company,”and does not, to speak bluntly, give proof of fitness for entry in the class. Even technically he cannot hope to pass muster among historical interpreters of that motive. Many of his verses are fairly unmetrical; more of them possess the deeper rhythmical quality which belongs to poetry of permanent excellence. It may be said that the writer’s intellectual conception of the points of dramatic interest possesses merit. One may imagine an excellent prose study of the Tristan legend from his hand. It is much that the episode of the potion, so often permitted to compromise the major action, should here be successfully subordinated. But as a play, even as a closet-play, the present effort has fatal limitations. It ambles when it should march, dawdles when it should thrust on to the next, if not to the final, issue. The speeches are often not only long and declamatory, but dull. It is well enough, at the moment of reunion after long separation, for Isolde to say: —

Ah, Tristan, love,
Thou art my sunlight; let me sheaf thee up
And garner thee within my arms ;

and for Tristan to reply, not altogether metrically: —

My bosom
Has been cold since thou hast left it bare.

But one hardly knows how to justify such commonplace as they are presently reduced to: —

Ah, yes, we ought be happy, ought we not ?
But happiness is yet an unknown tongue,
Too long forgotten to be reassumed
With all the fluency of constant use.
We ’ll speak about the past as if ’t were past.
We should be happy, ought we not, my love ?

As for the tone of the play as a whole, it is far too romantic and modern; the pride, the fatalism, the young emotion of the Middle Ages are absent from its atmosphere.

The mediæval atmosphere has been successfully suggested in the prose fancy of Mrs. Peattie,3 which is luckily less fantastical than its title and its preface or “apology” would lead most readers to expect. The “apology” is, indeed, somewhat finicking and precious in its phraseology: “I do not write of the lucid and formulated time—that remains for others. My tale is of the incoherent, joyful day, a morn of dew, in which the world, a-wandering by pleasant paths, discovered song. Yet have no fears that the theme will cloy you with its sweetness; for if you listen you shall hear a minor and fateful note — an under-harmony, presageful and of power.” What follows is, to put it least flatteringly, a historical romance in three chapters, or “tableaux,” as the author prefers to call them. It is fair to say that this brief sketch contains more substance than most romances of whatever length, and indeed seems to catch something of the very spirit of romance, without falling into the chaos of the merely sentimental. The action takes place in the land of Provence, where “the brooding day solicits lovers, finders of song, amorous and aspiring women, men whose pride it is to die for the sepulchre, and all other foolish persons.”

II

NATURE BOOKS

Mr. Burroughs’s recent essay on “ The Literary Treatment of Nature” should have done something toward clearing the air which has thickened of late about the heads of the naturalist and the naturelover. The familiar fact seems to have emerged from the controversial billows that it is right enough to make tinsel if one does not peddle it for gold. Whether it is better to be a literary man who finds his material in animal life, or a scientific observer whose records chance to have the literary quality, is evidently not the question at issue. Mr. Burroughs himself is a naturalist who has succeeded in giving attractive form to the records of his observations. He is an essay-naturalist as well as a scientific naturalist. He makes no objection to naturalists, or to others, who choose animals as material for fiction, and admit the fact.

Mr. Sharp is, by his own account, an enthusiastic observer of animal life rather than a scientific naturalist.4 He expresses a cordial contempt for the two extremes of absurdity connected with so-called nature-study. He has more than one vigorous comment to make upon the rapturous school of nature-adorers: “When they are not listening to the purpleeyed tickle - bird, they are whispering ’Twinkle, twinkle ’ to the stars, or calling, as they pace the beach, ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean.’ They love the out-of-doors. They exclaim over nature with the lips of all the poets. They adore her! All the time they go about looking for wonderful purple-eyed ticklebirds, and screamers, listening for wind voices, feeling for wave - pulses, and dreaming, forever dreaming, of how happy the morning stars must be that they sing together.” Presently there is a brisk word also for the book-naturalist, who “knows what he knows, namely, that Coccinella septempunctata is septempunctata and not novemnotata. All he knows (and what else is there to know ?) is septempunctata and novemnotata, — the names of things, the places, parts, laws, and theories of things.”

Mr. Sharp’s own work favorably illustrates his preference for the happy middle way. He has no tendency toward gush, no trivial inquisitiveness as to the applicability of Latin proper names. Elsewhere he states his creed with sufficient distinctness. “The true naturelover,” he says, “knows at least a little, and keeps learning all the time; he goes afield the seasons through; he sees accurately, reports honestly, interprets humanly, and loves sincerely.”

It says much for the confidence with which this writer inspires one that none of his anecdotes call for incredulity, though many of them are, apart from experiences in the land of animal romance, sufficiently extraordinary. His coon which insists upon washing everything before tasting it, if only in mud or straw; his fox which, pursued by hounds, pauses to sniff at Mr. Sharp’s boots; his flicker which drums on iron ventilators and bores holes in rain-pipes, — these may be individuals, but we are not asked to accept them as persons. In short, Mr. Sharp’s studies of animal life are literary not because they are romantically flattering to human intelligence, but because they are spontaneously sympathetic with animal intelligence.

Mr. Charles G. D. Roberts some time ago arrayed himself with the most popular writers of animal fiction. He has theories about the art. “If a writer,”reads the prefatory note to his latest collection of such tales.5 “has, by temperament, any sympathetic understanding of the wild kindreds; if he has any intimate knowledge of their habits, with any sensitiveness to the infinite variation of their personalities; and if he has chanced to live much among them during the impressionable periods of his life, and so become saturated in their atmosphere and their environment; — then he may hope to make his most elaborate piece of animal biography not less true to nature than his transcript of an isolated fact.”The conditional part of the sentence appears to loom something large; but if we are to take Mr. Roberts’s word for it and the evidence of his work, there are not too many clauses to be met by his own case. Many of his stories are romantic, a few of them are sentimental, more are grim. To the sombre intensity of the author’s mood we may take exception on grounds not of sincerity but of taste and sense. Why not allow ourselves to be reconciled to this stern law of nature which makes it the business of most living things to eat or otherwise dispose of other living things ? Is the case of the steer who is fattened and knocked on the head in a shambles for the preservation of the human animal less pathetic than that of the bull-moose hunted down and killed by a lynx (if such a consummation be possible) ? The present writer speaks neither as a vegetarian, a sportsman, nor a naturalist. Aware that he might live without beef, he finds more comfort in living with it. He has never gazed into the mild eye of a dying doe, and regretted his marksmanship. He has never seen the mother tickle-bird teach her young how to tickle, whether by precept or example. But speaking as a plain citizen, he ventures to suggest that there is something a little ridiculous in this tearfulness of ours over the “tragedies" of wild life. We, too, it appears, must weep into the needless stream, and stretch our leathern coats to bursting in sympathy for woes which are in no least sense comparable with the woes of humanity.

III

CRITICAL STUDIES

It is one of the privileges of this department, as its title indicates, to hark back whenever the spirit moves to books which no longer figure prominently in the current market quotations. Mr. Chesterton’s Varied Types,6 which is now hardly a year old, should not be numbered, perhaps, among such books. The present commentator has, at all events, to confess that a first taste of it at the moment of its publication did not tempt him to read it through. It was only the other day that a leisurely perusal served to make plain both the original cause of offense and new causes of attraction. Mr. Chesterton has a strain of genius, but he labors under the disadvantage of an extraordinary cleverness. His facility has been even greater than his fecundity. He is not verbose; his instinct is to express himself with much compactness. But it is too often the compactness of the extemporizing epigrammatist rather than of the deliberate artist. The essays too often lack structural unity, — a fact of no moment concerning such discursive felicities as made up The Defendant, but of inevitable moment in critical writing. Consequently many of the most agreeable essays in the present collection are among those which make least pretensions to sober and consecutive discussion. The Defendant contained nothing more amusing than the essay in this book on the German Emperor. One especially likes it because one has a notion that the writer intended to say something serious when he began, and was seduced by a mood into saying something far more unusual and better: something really funny. Why should we ridicule the Emperor’s uniforms, he asks ? — “Every one of us, or almost every one of us, does in reality fulfil almost as many offices as Pooh-Bah. Almost every one of us is a ratepayer, an immortal soul, an Englishman, a baptized person, a mammal, a minor poet, a juryman, a married man, a bicyclist, a Christian, a purchaser of newspapers, and a critic of Mr. Alfred Austin. We ought to have uniforms for all these things. How beautiful it would be if we appeared to-morrow in the uniform of a ratepayer, in brown and green, with buttons made in the shape of coins, and a blue income-tax paper tastefully arranged as a favour; or, again, if we appeared dressed as immortal souls, in a blue uniform with stars. It would be very exciting to dress up as Englishmen, or to go to a fancy dress ball as Christians.”

This kind of adventure does not always work out happily, and it is fair to say that in treating many themes more important than the German Emperor, Mr. Chesterton seldom attempts so extravagant a sally. The fact which will not be ignored is that not more than two or three of the papers are as good as the author might have made them. Most of them, according to the prefatory note, appeared in the London Daily News ; and they seem to retain somewhat too clear evidences, not of having been printed in a newspaper, but of having been written on occasion and under some sort of pressure. This brilliant critical searchlight illumines for an instant, most minutely and forgettably, various objects of extreme interest. Of the chapters on Carlyle and Scott more than this might be said.

Mr. Munger’s essays7 are as different from those beside which we here place them as they could well be. They are leisurely, well balanced, well contained. They will not catch the eye or the fancy, but they will make their way into quiet minds with quiet force. Persons who need to be shocked are persons to whom Mr. Chesterton is more likely to be of service than Mr. Munger. The considerable range of the essays here collected is justified by the flexibility of the writer’s mind and hand. That on the Church is perhaps the gravest and likely to be the most durable of them all; but it is not more interesting than those reflections on music which profess to be built upon no foundation of technical knowledge. And in his “ Notes on the Scarlet Letter,” the writer makes a valuable contribution to the study of Hawthorne.

Not long ago Professor Oscar Kuhns produced a book on Italian poetry, which, while it afforded a satisfactory summary of important facts, quite lacked distinction of matter or manner. The present volume 8 is more confined in theme and more compact in treatment. It purposes to show what influence Dante had upon the great English poets. The writer takes occasion at the outset to express his skepticism as to the value of the chasse aux parallèles; but he is himself at times somewhat too ardent at the sport. He derives the song of Fortune in Geraint and Enid from Dante’s lines in the seventh canto of the Inferno; and to the Tennysonian line, “ For man is man and master of his fate, ” appends the footnote: “This line evidently inspired the oft-quoted verse of W. E. Henley, ‘I am the master of my fate. ’ ” Apart from such matters of detail, Mr. Kuhns’s judgments are conservative enough. He discredits the attempts to saddle Dante upon Shakespeare, and indeed in more than one connection speaks for sober sense against pedantry and prepossession. The most valuable chapter is that on Shelley; the comparison of the Paradiso and Prometheus Unbound is especially suggestive.

A group of studies, undertaken in a spirit of even more careful scholarship, is The Views about Hamlet.1 In his initial study the author has set out not to write a new essay on the play, so much as “to classify and interpret the essays which have already been written;” a task of much nicety, admirably performed, to the great advantage of all students of the play. By his method of sorting and grouping, a few pretty distinct themes about Hamlet take shape out of the confusion which several centuries and several races of commentators have brought about. His final question is, “How far are the various explanations that have been offered, or partial explanations, compatible with one another, or even complementary; and how far are they antagonistic, or even completely irreconcilable ? The failure of critics to keep this question clearly before them has perhaps caused as much confusion as any fact connected with the study of the drama. A commentator has often sought to overthrow the opinion of a predecessor by presenting considerations entirely compatible with those which had been emphasized by his fellow-interpreter.” There is hardly a crux of criticism which does not offer material for profitable treatment on these lines by the specialist. Withal the present investigator retains his reverence for the great play which much commenting has made a puzzle of. It is not for us, he intimates, more than for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery. Besides several other studies of this useful kind, Mr. Tolman’s book contains a miscellany of essays, longer or shorter, on themes of a good deal of diversity, some of them rather technical, but all worth reading.

A new book by the author of Ephemera Critica is something to be looked forward to, and the arrival of a late volume from that hand has been attended by no disappointment.9 Mr. Collins has rare qualifications for appealing to this hasty and hungry generation. A scholar who does not need to be afraid of the appearance of knowing something exactly, a lover of the humanities who is in no danger of the charge of dilettantism, a sympathetic intelligence whose judgments may be counted upon for sincerity and force, — these are possessions to which our world, with all its faults, cannot be said to be indifferent. The opening essay on “ Shakespeare as a Classical Scholar” is extremely interesting. If there were any subject upon which Mr. Churton Collins could be induced to discourse at large, it would not be such a subject as this; but though he does not spare chapter and verse, one never for a moment fears that he is attending to a mere display of erudition. The modern critic’s proof of the fact which Lowell surmised — that Shakespeare knew the Greek classics by way of Latin translations — is especially well worth following. Many valuable papers succeed,— a thorough one on the “Text and Prosody of Shakespeare,” a skeptical one on “Shakespeare and Montaigne,” a summary one on “The Bacon-Shakespeare Mania. But if a passage were to be looked for which should best represent the spirit of the writer’s criticism, it would be taken, perhaps, from the noble essay on “ Sophocles and Shakespeare:"—

“We have long begun to feel more and more that the message which God sent by the Evangelists, save only in the record of the perfect life, has been miserably marred and blurred in the telling. But how sun-clear, how consistent with themselves and with each other, how corresponsive and mutually corroborative are the messages which have come to us through His other evangelists. The authors of the Psalms, the Hebrew Prophets, Homer, Pindar, Æschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Shelley, and we may add, whether longo intervallo or not Posterity will decide, Tennyson and Browning. Have they not pierced through different time-veils to the same eternal truths, and preached, each in his own manner and with his own symbols, the same authentic gospel ? The more men come to distinguish between what is local and what is universal, between what is accidental and what is essential, the more will they come to realize that as ethical truth is the immediate test of theological truth, so poetical truth is the final test of both. . . . In due course all that is perishable succumbs to the law of dissolution, and all that is imperishable passes into poetry.”

  1. David: a Tragedy. By CALE YOUNG RICE. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1904.
  2. Two Plays of Israel: David of Bethlehem ; Mary Magdalen. By FLORENCE WILKINSON. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1904.
  3. Tristan and Isolde. By LOUIS K. ANSPACHER. New York: Brentano’s. 1904.
  4. Castle, Knight, and Troubadour. By ELIA W. PEATTIE. Chicago : The Blue Sky Press. 1904.
  5. Roof and Meadow. By DALLAS LORE SHARP. New York : The Century Co. 1904.
  6. Watchers of the Trails. By CHARLES G. D ROBERTS. Boston : L. C. Page & Co. 1904,
  7. Varied Types. By G. K. CHESTERTON. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1903.
  8. Essays for the Day. By THEODORE T. MUNGER. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.
  9. Dante and the English Poets. By OSCAR KUHNS. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1904
  10. The Views about Hamlet, and Other Essays. By ALBERT H. TOLMAN. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.
  11. Studies in Shakespeare. By J. CHURTON COLLINS. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1904.