Nineteen Hundred and Now


A WELL-KNOWN Max Beerbohm cartoon serves me in place of an exordium. In it the Eighteenth Century, wigged, silk-stockinged, and rapiered, stands gazing with pained eyes at its imagined successor — a shadowy, etiolated replica of its own self, the decadent ghost of an achieved perfection. Below, the actual Nineteenth Century, burly, bland, and extremely solid, is beaming through cheerful but calculating spectacles at a larger, even solider, even cheerfuler self — a Twentieth Century facing the whole stretch of time with unshakable confidence, proud in the simple certainty of righteous might. In a third picture, beneath these two lucid summaries of Modern English History, appears the actual Twentieth Century, a slender, hesitant, nerveracked young man with features bearing some resemblance to those of Mr. T. S. Eliot. About him and before him is spread darkness, broken only, at the point where the vision should appear, by a faintly luminous query.

A reproduction of this picture wriggled in the drafts above my fireplace for a long while before I finally twitched it from its pin and dropped it into the flames. It had been annoying me for some time. A singularly numbing full stop rounds off the best of Max Beerbohm’s jeux d’esprit. Turn them over in the mind and your smile suddenly seems to become a smirk. With the twentieth century a quarter way through, and its tendencies declaring themselves more clearly every week, that stooping, puzzled figure lost his point; he became the representative, not of this century, but of the tail end of the last.

The literary critic is usually anxious to disclaim the possession of any fortune-telling ability. But, if the wandering Cagliostro, or Professor Buncombe, who plies so brisk a trade in his booth at the village fair really does no more than read his clients’ tendencies, the critic ought to recognize himself as a fellow member of the craft. For every author who is worth considering gives us in his work a sample of current tendencies. It he does this unwittingly, as the poet and novelist may, so much the better. But we cannot in any case appraise his merits without, consciously or unconsciously, estimating these tendencies. Every critic worth the name is a minor prophet by vocation.

Before trying to sum up the chief happenings to the spirit of man in this first quarter of our century let me first point for a moment to some of the snares which beset the rash venture. We must beware of mistaking a surface tendency for one which works more deeply. Tolstoy — rejecting Shakespeare in favor of Uncle Tom’s Cabin because Mrs. Stowe claimed to be preaching the brotherhood of man but Shakespeare did not — made himself an awful warning for all time through just this error. It is not the tendencies which an author professes, but those which actuate him, that we must use as our guide; and to discover these is no light undertaking.

Equally dangerous is the fallacy of the procession. Starting from the reflection that we are not all living in the same era, either intellectually or morally, we pass readily to the image of mankind as an army, guides, vanguard, main body, and laggards, advancing like a procession or writhing by like a snake. But this image is very inexact. The mind grows in many directions at once. An octopus would be a better image than a snake, and a tree is perhaps the best of all. Poets and original writers are the growing points of this tree. If we assume that, in spite of its prehistoric roots and sturdy strength, the mind of man is still a sapling, we shall feel free to watch for those stirrings of growth in the upper branches which indicate where the main boughs will spread in the future. A subtle and incessant rivalry between different trends is necessary for this growth. Forking and ramification are not a calamity, but a condition of health. Our question here is simply: Where is the sap most vigorously flowing?

A third danger, harder still to guard against, is the following. Sometimes influences which loom very large and appear very important pass by rapidly and leave no deep or permanent effect. Others, less salient but as it were more massive, pervade the community for long periods and modify our outlook without being much noticed. The Russian Ballet, for example, made an immense disturbance when it first came to London. It rapidly won over the ‘advanced guard’ while merely antagonizing the main body of taste and opinion. But a few years later it had become a fashion spreading with characteristic rapidity to all classes and types. To-day its only opponents are the new ‘advanced guard.’ It has set its stamp upon the wholesale furnishing houses and replaced a dingy type of commercial decoration by less restful schemes, but its success is probably symptomatic of nothing with which we need be concerned here. An instance of the other kind of influence, powerful, permanent, but unobtrusive, is the growing interest in psychology. With these ‘warnings’ duly noted, — we shall have occasion to look back to them, — let us proceed.


The chief, the dominant trend is toward a reversal of the róles of intellect and feeling. Bergson led the way in this, but, great though his influence was when backed up by William James, the causes of this revolution probably lay deeper than he alleged. It was neither the failure of intellectual philosophy, bankrupt though it was, nor the psychology of instinct, as this was understood when Bergson wrote, that prompted the revolt against logic. I should trace it myself to the currents that for more than a century have been sweeping against religion, flowing down from the uninhabitable polar zones of science. Indeed, just as the meteorologist founds his study of cyclones upon the assumption of an inflow of cold air toward the equator, so the contemporary critic must, I believe, always remember that religion, hitherto man’s chief means of envisaging the universe, is being challenged and affected even for believers. Complications of course ensue, and the currents are often found flowing in the opposite direction. But, directly or indirectly, science has disturbed us all. Man’s trust in the universe is probably less to-day than it has ever been, as it is certainly harder to rationalize. At times he feels himself to be alone in a queer place. None the less there are hours when he feels secure, but these hours are not so much climaxes of thought as states of feeling. Thus feeling, but not necessarily religious feeling, comes to be regarded as our chief guide and support.

This trend toward feeling rather than thought is not contradicted by the fact that the young so often seem more intellectualized than ever. The discussion of principles tirelessly continues, but it follows a new set of laws. Formerly a few principles stood fairly solid and the feelings were more or less in revolt against them. The contest circled about them. Nowadays more principles are in the field and they shift and change at the prompting, less and less disguised, of rival feelings which are the main disputants. We can see the difference very clearly if we set the discussions with which Kingsley used to exercise the Victorians against those with which Mr. Aldous Huxley indulges us. Mr. Huxley is peculiarly the philosopher of the Oxford freshman. In the mounds of last season’s talk which are piled so high beneath Those Barren Leaves the enthusiastic young reader scents the comfort of a confirmation in his own half-rationalized confusion of impulses. Eased from the smart of his own provincialism, but unable to perceive the something more— it is not as much as it should be — that Mr. Huxley attempts, he contents himself with trying to be as witty and as complex as his original. Mr. Huxley, indeed, excellently represents the most frequent predicament of the Anglo-American (or AngloNew York?) intelligentsia: the feelings neither simple enough, strong enough, nor sufficiently rooted to win a stable poise, and the intelligence merely a clever subordinate, abetting — like the servant in an old comedy — all the rival machinations of the principal figures in rotation.

I have turned the discouraging side of the picture to the front, making very free with Mr. Huxley for the purpose. But there is a very different side to be examined. Twenty years ago, and this is a symptom of great importance, Mr. Huxley’s most cordial admirers would have been disciples of Mr. Wells. The New Machiavelli (1911; the date seems worth inserting, so fast does the mental landscape change to-day) was regarded on its appearance as a very daring and shocking book. Daring it was, in view of the then current mentality, a mentality which Mr. Wells has played his part in changing; but that it should have shocked proves very clearly how immense a load of unhealthy inhibitions has been lifted in recent years. But this often remarked and much discussed tendency away from prudery is not the one upon which I wish to insist. Mr. Wells, with his passion for explicit statements, for programmes, policies, and concrete prophecies, is a perfect example of the habit of mind away from which we have been trending. In spite of the skepticism of logic which he sometimes shows (we have to remember our first ‘warning’ above), and in spite of such safety-valve outbursts as produced his God, the Invisible King, Mr. Wells retains the outlook of Thomas Huxley, the confidence that hard thinking is by itself a sufficient guide in life. That is why the younger generation no longer reads him with the same enthusiasm. Mr. Wells is in fact a rationalist; and the sons and daughters, the nephews and nieces, of the generation that eagerly adopted his world-outlook have exhausted its emotional possibilities. Add the disillusionment coming from the war, and it ceases to be surprising that Mr. Wells, by addressing himself to human reasonableness, should seem to them to be missing the point.

But there is a further explanation for this failing influence. Mr. Wells, as The History of Mr. Polly and the early romances show, might have been a great creative novelist if he had not chosen instead to be the first educator of his age. We are all immensely indebted to him for saner and betterinformed views upon innumerable social problems, but his carelessness as an artist has made his later books look ‘thin’ to the eyes of a more selfconscious and self-critical generation. General disorientation, preoccupation with feeling, and the increasing mixture of cultures have made us more introspective. The contemporary young man has more information about himself than he can handle. His bewilderment: is quite different from the social and political problems with which Mr. Wells is concerned. It is in fact the bewilderment with which only the artist can grapple. We feel a need for order in our own minds before we can set about ordering the affairs of men in general, and only the artist can give us this order that we can no longer win from religion. Thus the decline in Mr. Wells’s influence is partly due to his perhaps deliberate renunciation of the task of the artist.

A similar ‘thinness’ is also the accusation brought against Mr. Shaw, who seems equally, in spite of great popular successes, to be vanishing over the horizon. It is a commonplace of criticism that Mr. Shaw’s plays show no natural command of emotion. He is a master of those feelings that are struck out by the clash of ideas, but hardly ever comprehends the feelings which lie behind the ideas. And his set emotional pieces, the death of Dubedat, for example, in The Doctor s Dilemma, are so plainly factitious that they cast a fatal doubt upon his authority as a guide to life. Our age has learned a great deal from him, but its deeper concerns do not come within his province.

The passing of these two rationalist gods of the dawning century is significant. It is doubtful, though, whether we can be so optimistic as Emerson. When half-gods go it is less likely that the gods arrive than that other halfgods take their place. Or, what is more probable in this case, merchants with new gods for sale may appear. The decline of Mr. Wells and Mr. Shaw is deplorable if it means only more room for crude mysticisms. But to describe Mr. D. H. Lawrence, in spite of The Plumed Serpent, as a merchant with gods to sell would be very unfair. For Mr. Lawrence’s sincerity, in the deepest sense of this abused word, is awe-inspiring. Its quality makes him a very significant contrast to Mr. Shaw. (Again we have to remember our first warning against mistaking a surface tendency or doctrine for a deeper trend.) Mr. Shaw talks in Back to Methuselah of the Life Force; Mr. Lawrence feels it, whatever it is. And when Mr. Lawrence writes about it, as he is too apt to do, we still feel that he has known what he is talking about; but Mr. Shaw’s Life Force is never anything more than an excogitated hypothesis.

No one better than Mr. Lawrence represents the still largely inarticulate yearning of the moderns for a closer contact with life, or, to speak more clearly, for a fuller, less inhibited, and more natural response in feeling. The conventions of a morality which has largely lost its social and religious sanctions press upon us more and more. Whether we applaud or regret it, the fact now stares us in the face that our needs are altering. By changing the conditions of our lives the industrial revolution has changed us too. Our morality begins more and more to be a misfit — too tight in some places, and not nearly tight enough in others.

How far we have changed already from the morality of our forefathers may be seen by comparing even so conservative a book as The Old Wives’ Tale with David Copperfield, The Scarlet Letter, or Tom Jones. Over every act of each of Dickens’s characters (I except Mr. Micawber as being not a character but a phantasy — about as real as Rumpelstiltskin) there hangs a clear moral judgment. They did right or wrong, were well or ill advised according to a moral plan in Dickens’s mind as definite as a chessboard. So also with Hawthorne and with Fielding. These men possessed moral principles fully qualifying them for a seat on the Bench at the Day of Judgment. In comparison Arnold Bennett is utterly unprincipled, but we may still consider that the morality — not an affair of principles, but purely a morality of sympathetic feeling — that rules in his great novel is more adequate to life as we know it.

The moral misfit has its comic possibilities. Mr. Shaw, nicely dressed after an eighteenth-century fashion, can be content to exploit them, with now and then a whiff of scorn or commiseration for ugliness and discomforts which he does not share and only imperfectly divines. But Mr. Lawrence, who is alive to all the real horrors which a misfitting morality entails, and who feels to the uttermost both the unnatural tension and the lack of support, is inevitably agonized. It is his power to present this agony, rather than any positive contribution toward a new morality, that makes Mr. Lawrence so significant. He is gifted with a sensitiveness which few have equaled and with a vigor which makes his most emotional contemporaries seem dilettanti beside him, but the characteristic failing of his generation has none the less betrayed him. He has not been content to let his feelings work out a salvation, as a poet of equal endowment in a happier age might have done. In spite of his revolt against those traditional doctrines or principles or ideals that try either to stifle feeling or to force it in ways no longer sanctioned by our circumstances and our needs, he has not been able to refrain from manufacturing new doctrines, equally if not more disturbing in their interference. The purity and freshness of the best parts of his early work, of The White Peacock, for example, have given place to the murky mysticism of Phantasias of the Unconscious. Harking back to the primitive mentality described in The Golden Bough, he has constructed an artificial framework of doctrine which acts like a forcing house to his feelings. Hence the dreary exaggerations of so much of his later work. The doctrinaire has tyrannized over the poet, and Mr. Lawrence’s return to reality has ended too often in a worse falsification than that against which he originally revolted.


Before proceeding let us glance back over the ground so far covered in this triangulation of contemporary consciousness. One result of the subordination of reason to feeling may be the state of affairs which I took Mr. Huxley to illustrate — feelings too slight and too shifting to dictate any steady or consistent view of life. At the other extreme is the state of affairs exemplified in Mr. Lawrence — feelings so deep and strong that the reason becomes a mere slave in their service. Confusion, shallow or profound, seems to be the outcome in either case, but against this we may set the increased fidelity to our fullest experience that the reascendance of feeling has brought about. In an age of confusion it is not surprising that our most representative authors should be bewildered.

But confusion need not be the outcome. To prove this we can turn to the work of the best of our younger poets. We have, of course, great poets such as Mr. Bridges or Mr. Housman, who have kept, more or less deliberately, out of the stream of current tendencies and influences. But their poems might have been written as well, or better, eighty years ago; to recall our image of the human tree, their work is a blossoming upon side branches rather than a stirring upon the main lines of growth. And we have poets whose work, however admirable, is significant chiefly as a confession of defeat — Mr. de la Mare harking back always, when he writes well, to a child’s world untroubled by contemporary problems, or Mr. Yeats in his later poetry retreating from actuality behind a smoke screen of occultism. There are innumerable ways of dodging the issue, of sheltering from the storm, but our interest here turns to those who make their poetry not a refuge from the present hour but a means of gathering together their faculties to win a new order from the turmoil. Picking out, as before, a chief figure to indicate a general tendency, let us attempt to plot a curve with the aid of Mr. T. S. Eliot.

The first impression made by Mr. Eliot’s poetry is perhaps one of an unexampled confusion. No rational scheme seems to unite the items. Allusions, quotations, materials of every imaginable kind, seem to jostle one another at random, and the reader usually completes his first perusal without attaining even a dim idea of what the poem is ‘about.’ None the less, if he is a reader used to great poetry, and if he has read the lines slowly and carefully enough to give them time to take shape to him as sounds, he will probably have received another impression very rarely made by anything but great poetry. The words have a final and authoritative ring. They sound both passionate and sincere, as though the choice were strictly governed by feeling and as though that feeling were deep, intricate, and coherent. Between this first impression and the conquest of the poem, which may require many readings and even a lapse of years, a double process takes place. It is partly an imaginative realization of the feeling governing the choice of words, partly a work of detective intelligence exactly parallel to the more creditable feats of Sherlock Holmes. This happy guesswork supplies those links in the poet’s thought which would, if supplied by him, have impaired the concentration of the poetry and deadened the astonishing emotional resonance of his phrasing. They might, however, have been given in a gloss to be read apart from t he poem at the reader’s discretion.

It may be objected that this is a strange amount of trouble to take over a poem and an exorbitant demand for a poet to make. ‘Beauty is simplicity,’ someone will remark, forgetting that some very simple effects can only be produced by very complicated means. It is much easier to produce a noise, for example, than a pure musical tone. But indeed there is nothing in this account of Mr. Eliot’s poetry that does not apply to many other poets — to Donne, to Milton, or to Shelley at his best (the Shelley of The Triumph of Life), to name three who differ as widely as possible from him and from one another. That it may take even a very serious and gifted reader years to master a good poet need surprise no one. Even with the help of all the commentators not a little of Shakespeare at his best still requires seven readings. It must be so, if the poet is not merely exploiting our ready-made feelings, but is weaving them into new patterns that have never existed before. In brief, the creative poet has to create something in us and we must not blame him if this costs us trouble. The only question is whether it is worth while.

Ours is an age of mixed feelings; so is Mr. Eliot’s poetry a poetry of mixed feelings. But the mixture may be ordered or random. And the method by which we attempt to right the disorder must be judicious, or worse ensues. If the signs of the times as revealed in literature point to anything it is this: that no doctrine to-day has any power to free us. Disordered feelings cannot be purified by preaching. Nor can we escape by quashing those of our feelings that are troublesome. A wider acceptance of life is, in fact, the only way out. Thus when Mr. Eliot sets some august example of ancient passion beside some tawdry fragment of contemporary existence it is not to point scorn at the present or to glorify the past. In his hands, when he makes such a collocation, the past docs not seem so glorious, nor the present so debased, for the same currents of life are felt to flow through them both. Without a whiff of doctrine and merely by a more balanced inclusiveness, the counterpoising feelings have been added to our experience. The miracle is simple enough; two conflicting feelings meet and coalesce.

But the poise, the serenity, the capacity to see life steadily and see it whole, will not ensue in the reader unless he starts where Mr. Eliot started. To some readers Mr. Eliot’s best and longest poem, The Waste Land, so significant in its title, does not bring any release, but only an increased sense of disillusionment and despair. Still more does this reflection apply to Air. James Joyce’s Ulysses, the other supremely representative work of this third decade. Only those who arc unprepared for nothing, however painful, repellent, or abhorrent, that life can offer will escape shock, perhaps severe shock, from its titanlike convulsions. This is the justification of the censorship which has been exercised against it. But upon those who arc ripe its robust acceptance of everything has an enheartening, calming effect that comes like a culmination of all the tendencies of the century. The quiver that welcomes release from illusion is so close to the horror of disillusionment as to be sometimes indistinguishable from it. If our increasing knowledge of ourselves shows much to distress us, the antidote or counterpoise is also uncovered. If acceptance is sometimes terrible, so that Mr. Eliot once said that Ulysses was written to put the fear of God into us, it is really an end and not a beginning of terrors.

This third decade, if I have chosen its spokesmen aright, sees us with much better mental foundations if with less towering edifices. The whole quarter century has been a period of deflation. Hopes are not so lofty, ideals less in evidence, and faith, if we distinguish this from knowledge, much declined. All this, however, applies to those only who stand out preeminently in our literature. Among lesser writers, those of less sincerity and clear-sightedness, the opposite characteristics are often manifest. But if, as we may reasonably assume, the clearest spirits set forth what is obscurely present in the souls of others, this phenomenon may be understood. Strong convictions often mask a secret hesitation. I should add finally that, although one of my instances is an American, only the spiritual history of England comes within this survey. It would be more difficult to write the equivalent chapter for America. The cultural background, the economic present, the probable future issues of the two countries, are so diverse that separate treatment is unavoidable.