The Bigness of the World
‘ WHY does n’t Kipling write his masterpiece?’ I said to an Observer the other day, and the Observer replied laconically, ‘He can’t.’
‘But why can’t he?’ I persisted.
‘I don’t know,’ said the Observer, ‘unless it’s the bigness of the world.’
And so I followed this hint of the bigness of the world, its relative bigness, compared with the dimensions of any earlier world that ever inhabited this planet.
The littleness of the world is a commonplace; we meet our friends by chance at a festa in Assisi, at a snakedance in Walpi, or a carnival in Caracas, and exclaim platitudinously, ’How small is the world!’ Yet the encounter proves not our contention, but its reverse; not the smallness, but the vastness, of this modern world of closely gathering nations, of this hurrying epoch wherein minutes and life-times are gone before the individual has had time to measure his stature against the huge bewildering human mass.
What was the world of Euripides, the world to which he appealed, whose feeling and activity he expressed? A little cityful of people under a templed hill — no, not even a cityful, but the elect thereof, a few hundreds of men and a handful of women, whose applause was the whole round wreath of fame, and from whose yea or nay there was no appeal. Even the other Greek tribes did not exist for Euripides — those unfavored Lacedæmonians and Thebans who gathered together in sordid cities beyond the shadow of the Acropolis; and for him the other races of the earth were a dim outer fringe of fabulous barbarians, as remote and inaccessible and unreal as are to us those later children of myth and dream, the inhabitants of Mars.
Virgil’s world was a little larger; it included not only the intellectuals of Rome, but somewhat, though remotely and condescendingly, those sophisticated Athenians who sat in judgment upon the crude culture of their conquerors, even though their own was no longer creative. Petrarch’s world was a neighborly coterie of little Italian courts, all keen for his latest verselet, all exaggerating its importance. Racine’s world was France, as Rostand’s world essentially remains, in spite of vaporous praises and solid royalties which come to him from over-seas. For France still sets intellectual boundaries which her filial sons escape but little; and France meant to Racine, as it means to Rostand, Paris, though in Racine’s time it was a small Paris of the court and the salons, while in Rostand’s it is a larger Paris of the boulevards.
Shakespeare’s world was little London — an aristocratic and Bohemian little London. France and Spain did not count for him, Italy was a mere treasure-trove of romantic stories, and the immense background which was beginning to appear—America, Africa, and the rest — was still vague on the horizon, a fabulous region of savages and mystery. The world of Pope and Addison was even a lesser London, a London which had lost its background altogether, and had dwindled intellectually to a little intriguing wouldbe-cultivated court, and a half-dozen coffee-houses from whose literary dictation there was no appeal. And throughout this provincial eighteenth century, always making much of little things, each one of its separate little worlds, each London or Paris, was quite sufficient unto itself, until revolution bombarded the narrow walls, and Goethe, Shelley, Byron, and the rest, escaped into the vastness of the modern age.
At last the gates were down, at last poets began to discover that the earth was round, and that the neglectful democracy they spoke for knew neither barriers nor boundaries from the slums to the court, from London to Cathay. At first this sudden widening of the world was a vision and a glory rather than a literal fact. Goethe stood off and contemplated it from afar, tried to map the wilderness in Faust, to foresee ordered ways in the chaos, and to set them down on pages of light with his eagle’s quill. Shelley flew into the uncharted country on those strong white wings of his, sublimated his vision, in Prometheus Unbound, and cast out into the drifting winds wild lyrics of his ecstasies of wrath and hope. Byron was sane and solid-minded enough to explore and discover on the ground level; but the immensity of the task in comparison with the pathetic slightness of human personality, aroused in him that stultifying sense of tragic incongruity which is perhaps the most distinctive modern note, — a note which he struck in Don Juan and which, throughout the century that has passed since then, was to be sounded through a wide range of humor and protest and mad mockery, and to make the world laugh that it might not weep.
Burns was the first martyr, perhaps, the first great genius to be crushed between old and new; the first to feel the whole passion and thrill of the modern movement and yet to be tied hand and foot by ancient tangles so that he could not get his message out, and his pitiful refuge was drink and despair and stupefying vices which would dull the vision and silence the voices. But there have been other martyrs during this century or more of an expanding world: martyrs of a fate less obviously tragic than that of poor Burns because they were less entangled in the past, but perhaps no less profoundly bitter since, like him, they could not utter more than a passing strain or two of the truth that was in them.
For minds imaginative enough to have grasped, and creative enough to have moulded into some shapely image, those lesser worlds of long ago, are confronted in our larger world by the whole huge incoherent scheme of things, through which the little old compasses will not guide, against which the little old tools are impotent. It is as if one small pair of hands were set to carve a mountain into some winged image of man’s new hope of brotherly love and joy; and were armed for the purpose with strange new engines — turbines and hydraulic dredges and pneumatic drills. How utterly and inconceivably stupendous would be the task of these hands! They would have to convert the huge implements of science to the delicate service of art, and summon wild refractory forces to cope with nature’s bleak immensity. Old Egypt, carving the Sphinx at the dawn of time, when the primitive vastness of the world had not yet been obscured by babbling, trafficking, self-worshiping civilizations, achieved a babyish task compared with that which confronts the adequate creative mind to-day.
And so that adequate creative mind, which is to do for us what Dante did for mediævalism, must be not only greater in sheer bulk and power of intellect and imagination than the mind of the supreme artists of the past, but it must be also more heroic, resourceful, and persistent.
Did Dante believe in his time — did he wear proudly its gorgeous fabric of dogmatic theology and intriguing tyranny, even while he raged against all that stained its splendor and violated its ideal? Even more lovingly must our poet and prophet believe in our vaster modern age; even more proudly must he wear its garment of light; even more triumphantly must he find the order in its seeming chaos, and put down the evil things that obscure and retard.
Thus it is no wonder that great men fall by the wayside, that minds apparently adequate get lost in the wilderness, tangled in vast obscurities. They start out grandly amid the deafening and confounding blare of the whole world’s many-tongued applause; and we have Maeterlinck revealing the very inmost soul of brooding and bewildered youth in those marvelous little early plays of his; we have Kipling hinting, in his early stories, at the conflict and coming together of East and West,— suggesting something of the scope and meaning of this modern cosmopolitan movement of nations. But the years pass, and the disappointed world finds its prophets wandering in by-paths: the one confused by evidences of power in militarism and materialism, lost in a mere detail of the immense whole; the other wandering vaguely in obscurities, yielding fitfully to ancient worn-out seductions; both losing creative energy, making no headway, baffling our hopes and dreams, leading us nowhere. The flourish of trumpets came too soon and too loud; its effect was to deafen and deaden, and not to inspire. These men were not robust enough to endure the strain of that bold acclaim, not grand enough in stature to see over the heads of the crushing, clamorous crowd, not strong enough to put the world ruthlessly behind them, that they might lead the world on to the truth.
Or if the vates, the poet-prophet, meets dispraise and neglect, he meets them not in human forms which he can strike at, with human voices which he can answer. He starts out with gifts and weapons, — his message, his love, his wit, his wrath, —but encounters merely a vast immensity, a stultifying silence. He goes on shouting in the wilderness, but his voice sounds hollow and impotent, for no one hears. Or if voices come back to him they are not stout cries from a hardy enemy, but vague, half-articulate whispers, unintelligent, irresolute, unauthoritative, coming from no-whither, out of mere intolerable confusion. He is not Chatterton, superciliously snubbed by Horace Walpole and the other illuminati; or Keats under the bludgeon of the Quarterly; but a figure more tragic at last than they—a creature silenced by silence, enfeebled by lack of response from friend or enemy, dispirited by the blasting loneliness of a wilderness without metes and bounds. Power must expend itself on power, love must meet love or at least hate, wit and wrath must cross swords with wit and wrath; or else the work must go undone, the message unuttered, the result must be decay and death.
Francis Thompson, John Davidson — here are two tragic figures to prove the bigness of the modern world. Not that these two were giants; the rôle of vates might have been beyond them even if they had met enough, and not too much, of human sympathy and conflict. But they were true poets; no ‘idle singers of an empty day,’but men aware of their time and in love with it. Yet Thompson was destroyed before he began; he never even got the pitifulest hearing until starvation, and unsheltered London lights, and drugs and hideous misery, had ruined him beyond reach of the human sympathy which finally discovered and strove to save him. And John Davidson, trying to find his way through all the modern drift and turmoil, striking out bold discords and a few grand strains, journeyed alone, heard no reply, until the immensity seemed simply emptiness; until his shouting, as if uttered in a vacuum, seemed to make no noise; until he was baffled and defeated by the very grandeur of the continent he was sent to explore.
And so a more adequate man than these, one fully aware of modern life, one devoting to it all his energy of passion and hope, and meeting thus only an immense blankness, — the world’s blind preoccupation, its universal turning away, — such an one may credibly feel a corroding sense of inadequacy, a gradual loss of faith and power, ending in some kind of tragic impotence, like that which killed Burns in his youth, or which drove MacDowell to madness, or destroyed Nietsche.
For great art, the highest art, comes only when profound energy of creation meets profound energy of sympathy. The leader must have his army behind him, the vates must hear an outcry of passion and understanding from all his world. Of old, when the poet spoke for a few, the response of the few was enough. To-day, when he must speak for the many, the many must hear him, must not only hear but understand him in their profoundest secret instincts of sympathy or rebellion; else he cannot utter the truth that is in him, and modern democracy must go uninspired.
Thus we shall hardly have our vates until our huge heterogeneous crowd becomes as aware of the spirit as it is to-day of the flesh, as keen for truth and beauty as it is to-day for comfort. I do not mean to scoff at our striving for ease, at the world’s century-long preoccupation with inventions which should lessen human misery and increase opportunities for knowledge and happiness. How otherwise shall democracy rise to spiritual consciousness except through the conquest of souldestroying hunger and ignorance and pain? How otherwise shall the nations be brought together, and the brotherhood of man be revealed, except through locomotives and reapers and flying-machines, — perhaps even battleships and repeating-rifles, — all the miraculous modern bound-obliterating machinery of peace and war?
The inventors have had their world behind them; modern democracy is still giving them its commands. Science takes no steps forward that the man in the street does not know; he thrills over X-rays and radium, he is eager to test the mono-rail, he jokes about the inhabitants of Mars. In this direction lies increase of comfort and knowledge; here the creative energy of our age meets equal energy of sympathy, and each day records a new miracle. And all these are glorious deeds, necessary to the making of a larger world. We live in a great age, but a greater age must come.
Already there are many signs of an awakening of spiritual consciousness in the crowd — confused and scattered signs of far-blown sympathies, exaltations, ideals. Democracy is becoming awake and aware, is discovering a deeper need than the need of food and raiment. At present this instinct is vague and formless, voiced in dim and clouded questionings, almost worldwide political doubt, spiritual unrest.
The new democracy must grope and wander, lingering among vast uncharted uncertainties. It must search long for its poet-prophet who shall sing the old era away and usher in the new. And when he comes he must be of spiritual stature great enough to stand fitly on mountain-tops and behold a world more vast than ever man has seen.