War and Romance


WHEN historians come to tell of the great war for democracy, they will find no easy task, so far, at least, as the Allies are concerned, in the expected introductory survey. It will be hard to make oven-song and morning-song accord; to recognize in the champions of democracy people who had spent several decades in discussing the causes of democratic failure. These discussions began to be serious, and of intimate uppeal, when Packman, in the last pages of his Montcalm and Wolfe, put Western democracy upon a kind of probation, and Godkin, in a letter to Professor Norton, made the probation a mere respite, and Tennyson, in the ‘gray thoughts’ of Locksley Hall SixtyYears After, recanted his democratic belief.

That was three-and-thirty years ago, the time when literature also began to lower the key; a whole generation has been nurtured in political and aesthetic mistrust. Croce’s new criticism, which gained favor because of its breach with the past, and its contempt for system, for precedent, for law, made a long stride toward anarchy in art; while its positive doctrine, such as the welcome to free verse, the unquoting to the unquotable, implied ruin for all that had counted as classic. In short, men who looked to the signs of the times for the new year of 1914 had cause to predict the end of more than one ‘auld sang’ — the end of law in poetry; the end of hope and cheer in letters; the end of the classics, a ‘gentleman’s library’ which bade fair in any case to vanish with the library’s gentleman; the end of quotation, once innocent ‘little language’ of the lovers of literature, which had now come to be confession of imbecility; the end of literary convention; but chiefly the end of the middle classes and the consequent end of what had been known as democracy.

Then broke the war; and suddenly, as if over-night, men forgot their political pessimism and began to talk of democracy as vital, perennial, crescent, a thing to be taken for granted. Commonplace joined paradox to say that the chief feature of the end of an era is the refusal of the era to end, and that the close of this democratic age finds democracy, if not triumphant, at least militant and full of hope.

What wrought such a huge and sudden change of the political heart? It was not merely the crude logic of an appeal to arms. It was no reasoned revival of belief in the cause. The old vices and defects still abounded, while sundry props of democratic faith were visibly weaker. Labor, as one calls it, is a very uncertain ally, and would fain have no politics at all; in Russia, where it seemed to share the belief of Mr. L. P. Jacks that state-idolatry is at the root of the world’s present trouble, and where it tried to substitute the economic for the political problem, it has fallen headlong into ochlochracy. Science, theoretic or applied, which is justly regarded as democracy’s best gift to the world, is wavering in its allegiance. One hears little now of that blessed word ‘evolution’ in its flattering equation with confederate social progress; while applied science has played a scurvy trick upon its old guardian. Mr. H. G. Wells, some years ago, saw science ‘bending, like a beautiful goddess, over all the squat darkness of human life.’ Now, if truth be told, we are afraid of science.

Above all, there was no literary prompting and preparation for the great change of heart; hardly a hint or a gesture of confidence in democracy came from literature. There was discussion, there was pleading, there was advice in plenty, from counsel of perfection to counsel of despair; but of such confidence and hope as Mill, at the height of democratic prosperity, put into his Representative Government, literature had not a word to say. In particular there was no ‘Rousseau stuff,’ as breezy writers now call it, to sing loud in the brain what was sung in the heart, and so drown all cynical comment. Whence, then, came the new hope and confidence and courage for this great crusade?

They came from romance, discredited romance, which had struck such deep roots in the political traditions of Englishman, Frenchman, and American that it lived there when it died everywhere else. Literature might ban romance, but statecraft cherished it. To invoke its spirit in our politics was to return to first principles; for while the Declaration may be Rousseau, and the Constitution may be Montesquieu, both are documents of romance. The English case is no exception. We call the policies of Disraeli ‘romantic’; but it was the liberal policy that really deserved the name, and Gladstone, with his appeal to the great middle class for justice, and his crusades against sanctioned atrocity, was the actual adventurer. French democracy was visibly born of romance. And so the romantic spirit was called to save democracy, for the good reason that democracy is itself a romantic adventure.

How else shall one describe our entrance into the war? Mr. Wilson’s speeches were, one and all, romantic; appeal was taken less to the head than to the heart; and even the announcement of a tax or a bond was a call to cr usade. Such poverty of logic and such wealth of sentiment as inspired my Uncle Toby’s word about Le Fevre have filled all the famous declarations, even Lincoln’s own, that democracy shall not die. If the democratic hosts had paused to think out their faith instead of feeling it, democracy would have died in good earnest.


Romance is doing all that for democracy. What is democracy doing, or intending to do, for romance? Outside of politics, romance has not a friend; its name has become an inclusive epithet of critical condemnation, its machinery has been scrapped, its ways all boarded up. An American critic, in a recent and most authoritative statement, declares the task of literature to be ‘ interpretation of modern life in the arena of the concrete,’ — only this, and nothing more, — naming Sincerity as chief literary virtue, and Idealism as the really dangerous lapse. Such a cult of sincerity, says the same authoritative voice, brings it about that modern readers — our strong young man seems to have taken a vote—actually prefer The Vanity of Human Wishes to the best poem of Tennyson.

Now ‘ sincerity ’ is a tender word; but Lord Morley has proposed a plainer one. ‘Low spirits,’ he says, are ‘what we call the mood in which we see things as they are ’ — that is, in the arena of the concrete. As for examples, there is better modern stuff than the shopworn compound of Dr. Johnson and Juvenal. Although the vivacity and wit of the problem-drama fail to mask its real depression, it has captured the stage; while Mr. Masters, pricking the bubbles, not only of romance, but of romantic democracy as well, in the remarks of one Hoheimer, a warrior, about the pro patria on his tomb, and fulfilling exactly that critical command to interpret life with absolute sincerity in the arena of the concrete, made the literary success of the day. And that day is now fairly forgotten.

Moreover, Mr. Masters really pointed out the inconsistency of our modern attitude toward romance in letters and romance in politics. A writer in the new reviews, for example, has to interpret modern life into literature at the lowest values, and wholly in the arena of the concrete; but in the political vision he must babble of green fields, see an earthly paradise to come, and say over and over the romantic creed of democracy. If, however, romance is right in politics, it ought to be right all along the line. If romance is essentially futile, why give it an artificial validity in politics? In consistency is strength; and the German, who was shocked at the flippant expressions of romantic sentiment over Louvain and Rheims from a people whose responsible critics and favorite authors have pronounced romantic sentiment to be officially dead, declared that his own amazing strength was due to his consistency in dealing with both democracy and romance. A court-martial in the grand style has decided for democracy; does not its verdict carry as well the triumph of romance itself?

Creative German literature also deserted romance; but even the friends of Germany admit that the first fruits of this policy were very sour. It will not do to say that this was the international and general case as well. Others might kill romance; with the German it was suicide. He buried his own poetic glory when the drums and tramplings of his two great romantic conquests, twelfth century and eighteenth alike, ceased to echo in his singing and his saying. As for his literature since 1870, a fairly clever copy of foreign models, no sane critic dares to praise it. Arno Holz, champion of the contemporary, the naturalistic, the arena of the concrete, putting it all to document, made of it a fair reductio ad absurdum. Gerhart Hauptmann brought real genius to it; but his backslidings into historical material, as opposed to the contemporary, and into romance, as opposed to the sincere, show his genius in its authentic work, and condemn the rest.

Otherwise, and by all his other literary spokesmen, the German’s destructive work has been complete. He has so destroyed all trace of romance in politics that when he began his autocratic war, the majority of his Socialists, who still called themselves democrats, sold out their democracy and followed him, because they had no romantic impulses in them. He has so purged his literature and criticism and science of all romance, that he has sterilized them. For romance, as any record will show, is fecundity. The German is consistent: but: the price of his consistency is too high, and the ultimate losses arc too great. There remains another consistent way: to bid romance come back to life and literature, as it has come back, or rather remained constant, to politics.

One of the lions in his way is criticism, the established dress and fashion of literature. Romance ‘is not worn.’ Another lion is our inveterate and false idea of what romance really means. A century ago, the 1 physician of the iron age’ made a diagnosis, still quoted at second or third hand, and declared romance to be laden with the seeds of death. He is directly quoted as saying that ‘romantic is disease,’ contrasted with ‘classic’ health. This misunderstood phrase of Goethe became canonical, and valid for the whole world of letters and art. It made Baumstark, a professor, write pleasantly about ‘the rose-red romanticism of the sickly-sentimental Tacitus.’ D. F. Strauss, in his clever satire of 1848, A Romanticist on the Throne of the Cœsars, compared Emperor Julian with the King of Prussia by laying stress upon the abnormal features of romance. Men have even called the present Hohenzollern ‘romantic,’ because he professed to turn back all the clocks, and to put out all the lights, and talked feverishly about Kaiser and God. Take it where one will, that mutilated word of Goethe’s still prevails: the romantic spirit is invariably confused with its erratic and morbid manifestations.

For Goethe did not really read morbidness and romance as convertible terms, and thus reject his own Faust, the romantic masterpiece — winch contains, moreover, a formal renunciation of his earlier doctrine about the classics. And what he said to Eckermann, in 1829, was simply his ‘reaction,’ as modern slang puts it, to certain horrible graveyard ‘romances,’ chiefly French, which he condemned in the same famous phrase, corrected by a reminder that on this reckoning the Nibelungen Lay should be thought as ‘classic,’ that is as ‘healthy,’ as Homer. He had such horrors and sensationalisms in mind when, not far from the same time, he wrote his verses ‘ To the United States,’ and hoped, if Americans took to authorship, they might be preserved from stories of ‘knights, and robbers and ghosts’; happy folk, he cried, ‘you have no ruined castles.’ In brief, a profoundly vital force in letters and art was presented to the octogenarian under abnormal and morbid conditions; and in his testy moment he gave the name of the patient to the disease. So a belated Tory might make equation of democracy and the Terror. But democracy is not Robespierre: it is Lincoln, it is Cavour. Romance is not the graveyard horrors of which Goethe was reminded: it is the Faery Queen; it is the Elizabethan spirit, so unstable and yet so splendidly vital, incarnate in Raleigh; it is the Tempest, the Antiquary, the Ancient Mariner, Pickwick; it is George Meredith in the Woods of Westermain; Wordsworth in his first manner; Victor Hugo, absurdities and rant included, even in Les Miserables.

Romance is not to be defined by its single moods and phases — by Gieck’s ‘irony,’ for example, or by Rousseau’s famous ‘ sentiment of the past.’ It is the audacious but not irresponsible treatment of fact. It is a spurning of such limits for the artist as that ‘arena of the concrete,’ and of such assumptions as ruled the recent discussion whether American literature represents American life. The best gifts of literature to life outweigh in value the gifts of life to literature. ‘Justice’ is such a gift. In literature which merely copies life it has no place; in ‘happy endings’ the critic calls it ‘poetical,’ a farce, a romantic figment; ‘nature’ knows nothing of it. But in that splendid lyric of the later Faust, Goethe tells of the origin of all such ideas: ‘It is in our own hearts,’ he says, ‘we find what the whole world denies.’ That is romantic gospel. Or take the word of a practical critic, a great critic, Hazlitt, speaking of Wordsworth: ‘He sees nothing loftier than human hopes, nothing deeper than the human heart.’ These the poet may ‘interpret.’

Romance, then, is in wide range the control and combination of facts by imagination and hope; in poetry it ‘ submits the shows of things to the desires of the mind.’ The mediaeval way, too often confused with the romantic, was to let imagination, in system, and hope, in dogma, not only control facts, but pervert, deny, and sometimes fabricate them. That is not romance. The rationalistic, ‘ sincere,’ concrete way, is to submit the desires of the mind to the shows of things, to let facts sterilize imagination and obscure hope; it is the triumph of childless ideas. Of course, when imagination runs wild, it needs a cure. If Dickens had been in the habit of reading an ode of Horace every Sunday, Jonas Chuzzlewit would have been made believable. M. Anatole France’s formula of irony and pity, as set forth in that classic passage of the Jardin d’Épicure, has its precious and comfortable uses, and in competent hands can make the battered conventions of romance look like cardboard castles. But here concession ends. Centripetal forces may never pose as vital energy, nor Mephistopheles as a creator. Common sense run wild, as in the case of Mr. G. B. Shaw, is far more abnormal and shocking than romance run wild; moreover, common sense always means compromise, and it follows the adventure. If it preceded, there would be no adventure — none of those fine leaps in the dark that are called progress and ought to be called romance.


Can romance come back, and if it does, can it speak otherwise than in the thin accents of a ghost? Precedents give a favorable answer. Romance is fecundity; and whenever sterility seemed to be most triumphant, the romantic spirit has come again and again to letters, to the arts, to science, but ‘not with observation,’ never with crash of apocalyptic thunders to announce a new heaven and a new earth of poetry and prose. Innovators, to be sure, have a fixed idea that they are really doing something new—‘new’ poetry, for instance, which was welcomed by the great Frenchman a century and a half ago, much in its present form, as very regeneration of the art.

So, too, with the wider reach of prose. In his introduction to Donald Hankey’s Student in Arms, Mr. Strachey says that the war is begetting a literature absolutely new in matter, style, essence, appeal; out of the unprecedented horror must spring an unprecedented fashion of feeling and expressing the facts of life; and he offers his student’s book as a kind of prologue and example. But neither the forecast nor the evidence is impressive. There is more to say for the Socialist, with his new society and the new literature to match a wholly altered world, economic rather than political in its foundation lines; but revolutionary announcements and proofs of this kind have long been that ‘continual renovation of hope’ and that ‘unvaried succession of disappointments’ which Dr. Johnson noted for the writings of poor old Sheridan. Even Tolstoi’s men and Ibsen’s characters have not put Plutarch’s men and Shakespeare’s characters out of date: so soon as Socialism tries to be constructive in literature, it fails. It is so afraid of romance, which it takes to mean unreality, and of sentiment, which it restricts to a Victorian craving for Colonel Newcomes and Little Nells, that it never creates in the positive: all its literary successes are anarchistic, the drama of social disintegration and the epic of failure and futility. So, too, extreme socialistic criticism is rarely constructive. Tolstoi’s best novels are masterpieces of the ‘sincere’; but have his widely praised theories of art and poetry brought anything new except to critics whose own ars nesciendi forbids them to seek lessons in the past? In any case, the socialistic ‘novelties’ are not likely to block the return of romance; what should be prayed for is the happy union of romance with those ideas of a saner and truer social democracy which shall replace the sterilized Socialism of Germany and the ochlocracy of Russia.

For romance must come back. It would seem, by precedents of every sort, that the deeper instincts of literature, its imaginative, hopeful, halfsibylline powers, are wont to move to the needs of such a cause as democracy in the day of its peril. In 1759 Candide and his strange mate Rasselas bade fair to set an everlasting negation upon romance; and the modern Socialist looks for some literary thunderbolt like Candide to be hurled against the false democratic romance of the war. But in 1759 also appeared the Nouvelle Héloïse; and its romance took Europe captive. Similar happenings followed the Napoleonic wars. Nor are signs lacking of a definite turn in the tide of romance, signs of a coming flood, slight and yet cheering, like those that Clough interpreted in his one perfect poem. The novelists seem really to be retreating from Russia; readers run from Sinister Street to Green Mansions. The change of spirit in Mr. Wells has had sufficient comment. Mr. Galsworthy, it is true, still paints in his favorite contemporary grays, picked out by that vivid sex-red; but Mr. Locke, in the ‘happy ending’ of his war novel, asserts the incorrigible optimism of romance.

The donnée is all for low spirits; but those battered folk, the mutilated servant (‘Sancho Panza still!’ he seems to cry), the emotionally wrecked heroine, the bedridden hero, or narrator, on whom the curtain falls at the right instant of wedding-bells, are just the old romantic group who insist that all is well in the worst of all possible worlds. Even the great master of the craft, Mr. Thomas Hardy, who has composed the modern Candide in many versions, at last deviates into romantic ways. Typical ‘sincerity’ is his final report of Elizabeth Jane, of Casterbridge, — a great favorite of the author, one would guess,—who solves the problem of life both by cultivating her garden and by ‘making limited opportunities endurable’ by ‘the cunning enlargement of those minute forms of satisfaction that offer themselves to everybody not in positive pain.’ Less subtle, but effective, is his challenge to romance in the death-sentence of poetic justice on the last page of the Trumpet-Major, and in the arraignment of social justice at the close of Tess, and in the ironical solution of the tragedy of A Pair of Blue Eyes.

In his verso, too, notably in his latest volume, Moments of Vision, sincerity achieves its masterpiece with a poem where the poet looks up from his writing to meet the moon’s spectral gaze, and to hear her explain how she has been scanning pond and hole and waterway for the body of a suicide frenzied over a son ‘slain in brutish battle’; but now, she says, she is curious to Took into the blinkered mind ’ of a man who can even think of writing a book ‘in a worid of such a kind.’ These moments of vision are true to the spirit of the poet’s earlier verse, when life ‘ bared its bones’ to him, and left him with a glimpse of the baffled purpose at the end of every human path; but it must not be forgotten that the onset of war surprised Mr. Hardy into sounding the romantic note. His volume of verse called Satires of Circumstance was printing when the summons came in that memorable August, and Dorset men went off to fight and fall. The poet watches them, hears them chant the faith that is in them, and sets down, surely in praise and partnership, their song, —

‘ In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just . . .
Hence the faith and fire within us’ —

Romance may come back hand in hand with justice to literature, where justice was first made known; for democracy fives only by the hope of justice; and justice was never yet discovered by low spirits in the arena of the concrete; this ‘moment of vision’ is pure romance, war’s handsel to poetry for the new spirit of song. That chant of the Dorset men who march away is the only kind of music, the only kind of sentiment, with its faith and fire instead of sincerity’s fear and chill, to which men will keep step, and in which, after the event, they are willing to remember their travail of soul.