The Timidity of Our Boldness


ONE by one in recent years various new theories of literary practice have been put before us, all wearing a brave air as of triumphing revolutionists, and filled with prophecy of art marching on to new conquests. But yesterday that which was called realism in drama and fiction carried the banner; to-day it is the new poetry. Minor thistledown creeds of the last few years, such as futurism, it is hardly necessary to mention; the great winds of life have already blown them away. In following all this progress one cannot help being struck by a certain boldness of critical claim and manifesto, a certain timidity, usually, in the art product. This verse which casts off shackles of old form and claims for itself a new freedom; fiction which confines itself to putting down without bias that which the novelist has actually observed in life; drama which presents flashes of that which the dramatist has seen and felt, without the binding relationship of inevitability and the renunciation of the irrelevant, characteristic of great drama of old, are, after all, but negatively bold, daring only in the matter of externals, and almost pusillanimous in regard to the sterner demands of art.

We who watch and wait and listen for the interpreters to speak are conscious of a deeper need, a deeper lack. Looking at the new poetry in its whimsical fragmentariness; at the fiction which, in its dreary succession of meaningless details, too often borrows the great misleading name of realism, one is forced to confess that the great lack of the literary art of to-day and of the nearer yesterdays is lack of imagination, of the divining power of imagination, piercing to profound significances; of the shaping power of imagination, that gift whereby genius shows to the world its ability to clothe in outer terms of reality its inner vision of reality. Where among all the singers, most welcome singers, of to-day shall we find one with the great accent, the great penetration? Born in an age of analysis, of severing, pulling apart, they lack — perhaps it could not be otherwise — constructive idealism, faith, vision. Their art is an art of flickers of insight, flashes of suggestion, question, recording momentary impression, denying us that guiding thread of interpretation of existence which is the artist’s chief task.

This furtive and questioning art, halting, apologetic, of what is it afraid? Afraid of the new knowledge and half knowledge of to-day, of discoveries made by our age in the physical world; afraid of the limitations of knowledge by which science is bound; awed by methods of investigation of those who count as truth but that delivered to them by eye and ear; afraid of asserting something that microscope or telescope will not confirm; terrorized, paralyzed by discoveries in the physical world — which, after all, remain discoveries in the physical world! When before in earth’s history have the poets, the diviners and seers, been so cowed by contemporary advance in knowledge? The explorers, the discoverers of Elizabeth’s time did but stimulate the seers of visions; the new Baconian science did but confirm art. Now, fear of what the positive sciences have found out, and the still greater fear of what they have not found out, weighs like a nightmare upon the creative impulse of the world in matters spiritual.

The poets and the novelists of our time have been overawed, too, by the exaltation of the analytic processes of the mind; for the contemporary delusion that the world of matter is the world of reality is accompanied by a widespread belief, manifesting itself in various lines of intellectual endeavor, that truth will eventually be reached by ascertaining exactly all shades of difference, all details. Of those two processes forever at work in the human mind — synthesis, analysis — there has been during recent years in the world of art an overwhelming balance in favor of the latter, this analytic method, so admirable in securing certain results, so inadequate if taken as the whole or the only method of dealing with our great puzzle of existence. True sanity of mind depends upon keeping the right balance between them; our questioning of life must be followed by our answer to the question if we would escape the Hamlet defeat and death. How could the method of perpetual analysis, of mere enumeration of impressions, with no reaction of the human will upon the knowledge gained, serve as other than a disintegrating force in art? A great part of our fiction and our drama, in its presentation of the raw results of investigation of human conditions; a great part of our poetry, with its minute shredding of individual states of mind and emotion, leaves us with a sense of a world crumbling under corroding influence from within.

Literature, cowed and broken by the overwhelming domination of the passion for positive knowledge and of ‘realistic thought,’ has all but renounced this one great power upon which all high excellence in art depends — the penetrative imagination, the constructive imagination; while, in that realm of thought and endeavor which would, in theory, deny its very existence, — in theoretical and applied science, — a species of imagination is working with a courage and an assurance which literature has not known for many dreary years. The creative imagination is, ironically enough, almost falling into disuse, save in the socalled ‘positive sciences,’ which would be horrified by the open use of the word, and in the so-called practical pursuits. That this finest faculty of the human mind, its divining power, its power to shape in the image of the dream, should be engaged chiefly in our time in achieving results in the material world is as great cause for regret as it is for wonder.

Contemporary art follows science in that part of the mental processes which the latter will admit — analysis — and imitatively pulls things apart, scrutinizes, examines, unaware, apparently, of her more audacious mental processes, unacknowledged, unconfessed. Timid and broken interpretation of moments of existence we have in our lyric work; judicious observation, in our novel and drama, of successive moments; but the daring power of imagination, the shaping power of imagination, are not working with grandeur of creation in our literary art. Art makes timidly hazarded guesses, tells what the eyes have seen, the ears heard, fearing to bring upon herself, if she venture to construct, a box upon the ear from Schoolma’am Science; meanwhile Schoolma’am Science, asserting that she deals only with ‘fact,’ goes gayly frisking off along the line of her wildest fancy, with the nebular hypothesis, her planetesimal theory, her enchanting tale of matter being but a mode of motion, her series of busts and pictures, giving stages of human progress from ape through Neanderthaler man, the missing links supplied with ready assurance, all done with wild invention that the romancer might well envy.

It is sometimes a pleasure to turn from the grim matter-of-factness of realistic fiction to share the wild fanciful flights of science into the unknown. Because she claims that she deals with fact, reader and onlooker gaze, wonder, and believe. There is fine irony in her ready use of that mental faculty which none dare name in her presence, which art almost renounces in sheer awe of her. Audacious in daring hypothesis, boldly constructive in making machines that fly like a bird or swim like a fish — there is in her imaginative attempts a completeness of effort and design which our contemporary literature fails to achieve. Art has become mere floating and fragmentary stuff for art — star-dust, not stars. Here is want of conception, of courage to create works that will hold together. That the race-soul should in matters spiritual, in art, be so lacking in idealistic daring, in constructive thought, regarding the great concerns of the inner life, is pity inexpressible. We are shamed by the astronomers and the chemists, by the air-men and motormen and the captains of submarines. Our art fails in initiative, in affirmation, is timid and cautious, falling apart. We do not blame the modern writers for being radical in the often formless work put before us — far from it! The trouble is that they are not radical enough. They should dare forms, coherence, spiritual hypotheses, and not give us merely a succession of shattered states of consciousness.


There is actual pride, on the part of some contemporary writers, in lacking that which the meanest intelligence, be it sane, is supposed to have — a point of view, some conception of the significance of the spectacle before it. Unless there is that within us that weaves our manifold sense-impressions into unity, there is something lacking in our minds, we were taught long ago; has any one disproved it? That poet or artist, growing up under contemporary influences, may lack deep insight into life one can understand, but it is difficult to understand pride in the lack. Why glorify such limitation in delusion of new and wonderful achievement? To be non-committal is not necessarily to be great.

Lest we share this misconception, it is well to keep fresh in our minds great literature inherited from the past, if only to remind ourselves that, in earlier days, poet and idealist dared also construct, that there have been periods in which men had the courage of their insight, their vision, their conviction. It is not that we wish to echo their vision, conviction, but that we must not lose sight of the possibility of embodying such vision in the form of beauty; there should be an end to the delusion that certain new methods of investigating, of thinking, have ended, once for all, a kind of creation, of interpretation of existence which has greatly served the race. A Browning, a Meredith, even in the days of this new knowledge of the outer world, and at a moment when it was more dogmatic than it dare be to-day, were interpreters, not mere victims, of the spectacle before them, keeping a fine balance between synthesis and analysis, creating where they had pulled apart to scrutinize. In such work we find a more genuine realism, that is, a true rendering of the reaction of the writer’s soul to the facts of life, such as we do not find in the work of Arnold Bennett, of H.G. Wells, of Compton Mackenzie, of a Spoon River Anthologist of to-day, though, searching further, we may find it notably in the work of certain Russian writers. The delicate indecisions of John Galsworthy seem always hovering on the edge of some realm of truth that we would fain know.

It is this power of penetrating to significances, and of embodying this insight in convincing form, which in the long run determines the destiny of literary achievements. The work that has endured is the work of the interpreters: Sophocles, Shakespeare gave to us not mere fact but their sense of fact — interpreters of the human spectacle, through profound insight into its tragic irony, in the light of the knowledge, the achievement of the time. They whose work comes down to us from the past did not sit supine under mere impressions; they tried to think out the human predicament and to express their thought of it; they dared the lofty coherences of art. We must indeed turn back the pages of history to find such power of poet’s vision and power of perception of facts in perfect fusion. To these and to other immortals of an elder day, one may resort in thankfulness to find that fine adjustment between matter and spirit, between fact and the sense of fact, which is the mark of the supremely great in literature.

Has not life to-day been analyzed, pulled apart, almost enough? is it not time for poet and novelist to dare interpretative views, put life together, venture conjecture as to its meaning, and create in the light of that conjecture? We shall get nowhere in art or in life by mere continual asking of questions which no one stops to answer. Art must be more than mere pin-points of interrogation if it is to be enduring art. Individual estimate of the spectacle is the artist’s primary task; it is his business to form some conception, think out our predicament to a certain extent, not only to see into life but to see through it. We need more piercing imaginative insight and more constructive work along the line of that insight, shaping, creating, done in the light of idea. Is the literary artist of to-day afraid lest his interpretation may not keep pace with advancing knowledge, and abashed because he cannot now present the conclusions of his ultimate successors? Let him recognize the fact that others may follow, supersede, it may be contradict his interpretation; what matter? Let him at least give, in forms as bold and beautiful as he can achieve, his best, boldest, most daring conviction about the meaning of the spectacle.

Nor should he be so shy, because of the stupendous advance in recent decades in knowledge of the world of matter, of venturing even a spiritual hypothesis, if his observation and his experience incline him to this view. The rapidity of discovery and invention must not take away his finer breath; his soul must not be cowed by the knowledge of germs, by the existence of flying metal wings and swift rubber wheels. Science has not yet circumscribed, as it has not extended, our knowledge of the spiritual world. New knowledge, new thought have made no positive discoveries that can in any way account for, or justify, this change of front in literary art, its lessening faith in the unseen, its weakening grasp of inner realities as shaping factors in human life. Contemporary obsession with matter and the law’s of matter does not really make it necessary for the novelist to explain human life in terms of physical appetites, as did Zola — a fashion from which France has long since recovered, but which continues elsewhere, notably here in the work of Theodore Dreiser. Such work, and even the work of Thomas Hardy, with all its nature beauty, seems to say timidly to the dominant school of thought of our time, ‘Will you please permit me to have a point of view so long as I make it a low one?’


There is another aspect, perhaps even a greater one, of the artist’s task, aside from his need of courage to interpret the spectacle as he sees it. Is it not also his high privilege to interpret the spectacle as he fain would see it, with true insight into what is, true insight into what may be? Is it not his task, in part at least, to lead the souls of men? Art and life are far less matters of critical analysis than of creative synthesis; the artist should rise to daring spiritual conception, should risk the idealist’s interpretation of the possible in human life. ‘Life as it is’ has been the slogan of art of our time; yet I know of no one who has greatly served the human race who has accepted ‘ life as it is.’ Priest and prophet of old did not; our own pioneers and builders in the wilderness did not. Plato, Dante, daring to tell what man might be and should be, have left an ineffaceable impression upon the inner life of succeeding generations. We do not want the literary artist forever trailing after us to see what we do and what our neighbors do; we know all too well what we and our neighbors do! We want those who have insight into the finer values, deeper significances, to share with us their finer insight. On the basis of what we do, let them build their vision of what we might do and can do. Through deep spiritual challenge they should keep us from sitting passive under the blows of fate, teaching us that we are more than nerves to be played upon. They should not let us think that all high adventuring is adventure of the body. Aviators have at least the courage of their imaginative vision, and die gallantly for their conviction that men may fly. Aviators have learned much by watching birds fly; if they had done nothing but watch and watch, recording their momentary sensations in literary fashion, there would have been no flight. If modern investigators, modern thinkers have pulled the world to bits, and have thrown us the bits, it is our fault if we let them stay bits. Science makes fine wild guesses, audacious conjectures about the physical world, relying upon time and patience to verify them; in former days poet, idealist, dreamer dared do the same about the possibilities of the inner world, the world of spirit.

Why is it that the principle which was at the heart of one of the greatest schools of art that ever existed, Greek sculpture, the dream of perfection, is no longer permitted? Why, if it exist at all in contemporary literary work, is it banished to melodrama, where superhuman virtue is applauded by admiring thousands, and to books for young misses, where it assumes a coloring of the sickly and the sentimental? The populace is perfectly right in its instinct for idealization, its longing to see something nobler than itself, as it is usually right in its human impulses and instincts. Heroic poetry has served a great purpose in the past; it is hard to see what will in the future take the place of that trumpet call to faith in the stronger personality, bringing to the waverer a courage higher than his own. It is pity inexpressible that this great instinct does not find more worthy expression in contemporary literature; that art is so held to truth of fact instead of truth of possibility, unaware that the genuine idealist is on the trail of truth higher, perhaps, than they dream who base their conception of truth on the mere facts of to-day’s happenings.

Surely, if any age ought to know that what man has done or is doing does not limit the possibilities of his nature, we of this age, trained in evolutionary theory, ought to know it, and know it to our bettering. If the scientist, with fancy daring to the point of the ludicrous, can tell in plastic form and in picture his version of the tale of unachieved man, the idealist-poet, through divine imaginings, could surely tell to our bettering his version of the inner man more fully achieved spiritually than we. Let science tell the tale of the man of the past if she will, but leave to the poet the task of foretelling the man of the future. Science is always busy with her tremendous ‘may be’s’; timid art, afraid to venture as far as the ‘ may be’s,’ methodically busy with what is, should learn that her task extends even as far as the ‘must be’s,’ forever outstripping science in that, by reason of compelling beauty, she fashions the souls of men.

In art, as in life to-day, we have great need of spiritual courage. The advance of knowledge in the physical world — to many unseating old belief — has fostered a mistaken conviction that, if the old creed has, in certain particulars, been disproved, no spiritual interpretation of existence could be true; too many of the modern inventions, outcome of the intensest energy of the age, turn into instruments of cruelty, engines of war for slaying mankind. Our predicament calls, as never before, for the voice of the seers, for great spiritual affirmation; never was there so profound a need of great voices to lead the souls of men, of faith to dare, courage to dream — and never was there such a non-committal whimper of question, foreboding, on the part of the seers.

Poetry, in its beginnings, grew out of the triumphant chanting of victory, spurring men on to greater victory; lyric verse should never quite lose the fine emotional uplift of the first chorus. The poet should do more than cry out upon the hurt of things, should do more, even, than set his teeth. All great gallantry of life means a battle against uncertain odds; men will follow, not the leader who tells sadly old misadventures and defeats, but him who makes them know how great a conquering may be theirs. Is there not already, here and there, in song that grows out of this great struggle of nations, an advance note of something different from the verse of the last decades? Through the later work of Rupert Brooke, and here and there in the songs of other English poets, breathes something more akin to the old heroic strain to which the soul of the race has quivered, in Milton’s sonnets, in Wordsworth’s. Singer and listener are becoming aware, in the agony of a war-swept world, that they can no longer be content with a gospel of observation, with poetry which merely tells of things as they are.

The task of both soldier and poet is less with things as they are than with things as they should be: one could almost wish, for all singers wheresoever, the great boon of suffering, to make them understand the height of their privilege, the depth of their obligation.

The wars of nations cease in time; the war of the spirit endures. Where are the poets who will sing, as William Vaughn Moody sang, — a shining exception to the fashion of his time, — the endless struggle of the soul? In a world terrorized by the spectacle of force, and by the conception of material forces, we need to hear the voices of those to whom the great issues of life are spiritual issues. Under all the shock of falling faiths and hostile theory, let the poet make the noblest possible interpretation of life, and fight for it, dare the loftiest hypothesis, and let time confirm it, if it will. Moments of inspired guessing lie back of our material advance; why not here also, where aspiration counts most of all? Why should we fear to trust, in life or in art, the profounder instinct, the deeper impulse, forgetting that, in the long history of the race, faith has been an incomparably more potent weapon in fighting the great fight than mere knowledge?

We need greatly to-day the finer courage of diviner and dreamer which dares venture belief in man’s best, and create in the light of it. Let the poet, who has the deep resources of beauty at his command, lead the souls of men, teaching them to see with his eyes of more piercing vision. The world of fact is the world of spirit becoming visible, audible, that ‘sense’ may ‘help soul’ reach truth. It is for the artist to compel the world of matter to shadow forth his dream. He should shirk nothing, should know the horror, be aware of the ugliness, admit failure, but rise to enduring realism in helping to make greater things real. Set free from some of the common duties of mankind, he at least owes us this: he must think beyond and above his fellows, drag them up with him, not down. It is his business to dream the finer dream; poets should be diviners of the higher law or they are something less than poets. Unless they can greatly imagine, and greatly set forth the higher imagining, why write? The general confusion of things we can see for ourselves; of the sand-storm in the desert we are all aware, for it blinds our eyes.

It is not for the poet to tell the minute particulars, but to point the path. The will to beauty is his strenuous task, and the individual will to beauty, to harmony, to faith in the divine order of things may have larger share in the working of the Divine Will to beauty than we dream, for the primal act of creation is still going on. We, with our deep impulses, our aspirations, are part of it, and our share in determining the nature of the spectacle that we see is larger than we know. Art, which so largely guides the instinct and stirs the wall, should be no mere photograph of human existence, but that finer picturing wherein the facts of life are woven into the vision of eternity.