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The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century
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The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century
William Lyon Phelps
Meaning of the word "advance"—the present widespread interest in poetry—the spiritual warfare—Henley and Thompson—Thomas Hardy a prophet in literature—The Dynasts—his atheism—his lyrical power—Kipling the Victorian—his future possibilities—Robert Bridges—Robert W. Service.
of the twentieth century seems inferior to the poetry of the Victorian epoch, for in England there is no one equal to Tennyson or Browning, and in America no one equal to Poe, Emerson, or Whitman, still it may fairly be said that we can discern an advance in English poetry not wholly to be measured either by the calendar and the clock, or by sheer beauty of expression. I should not like to say that Joseph Conrad is a greater writer than Walter Scott; and yet in The Nigger of the Narcissus there is an intellectual sincerity, a profound psychological analysis, a resolute intention to discover and to reveal the final truth concerning the children of the sea, that one would hardly expect to find in the works of the wonderful Wizard. Shakespeare was surely a greater poet than Wordsworth; but the man of the Lakes, with the rich inheritance of two centuries, had a capital of thought unpossessed by the great dramatist, which, invested by his own genius, enabled him to draw returns from nature undreamed of by his mighty predecessor. Wordsworth was not great enough to have written King Lear; and Shakespeare was not late enough to have written Tintern Abbey. Every poet lives in his own time, has a share in its scientific and philosophical advance, and his individuality is coloured by his experience. Even if he take a Greek myth for a subject, he will regard it and treat it in the light of the day when he sits down at his desk, and addresses himself to the task of composition. It is absurd to call the Victorians old-fashioned or out of date; they were as intensely modern as we, only their modernity is naturally not ours.
A great work of art is never old-fashioned; because it expresses in final
some truth about human nature, and human nature never changes—in comparison with its primal elements, the mountains are ephemeral. A drama dealing with the impalpable human soul is more likely to stay true than a treatise on geology. This is the notable advantage that works of art have over works of science, the advantage of being and remaining true. No matter how important the contribution of scientific books, they are alloyed with inevitable error, and after the death of their authors must be constantly revised by lesser men, improved by smaller minds; whereas the masterpieces of poetry, drama and fiction cannot be revised, because they are always true. The latest edition of a work of science is the most valuable; of literature, the earliest.
Apart from the natural and inevitable advance in poetry that every year witnesses, we are living in an age characterized both in England and in America by a remarkable advance in poetry as a vital influence. Earth's oldest inhabitants probably cannot remember a time when there were so many poets in activity, when so many books of
were not only read, but bought and sold, when poets were held in such high esteem, when so much was written and published about poetry, when the mere forms of verse were the theme of such hot debate. There are thousands of minor poets, but poetry has ceased to be a minor subject. Any one mentally alive cannot escape it. Poetry is in the air, and everybody is catching it. Some American magazines are exclusively devoted to the printing of contemporary poems; anthologies are multiplying, not "Keepsakes" and "Books of Gems," but thick volumes representing the bumper crop of the year. Many poets are reciting their poems to big, eager, enthusiastic audiences, and the atmosphere is charged with the melodies of ubiquitous minstrelsy.
The time is ripe for the appearance of a great poet. A vast audience is gazing expectantly at a stage crowded with subordinate actors, waiting or the Master to appear. The Greek dramatists were sure of their public; so were the Russian novelists; so were the German musicians. The "conditions" for poetry are intensified by reason of the Great War. We have got everything except the Genius. And the paradox is that although the Genius may arise out of right conditions, he may not; he may come like a thief in the night. The contrast between public interest in poetry in 1918 and in 1830, for an illustration, is unescapable. At that time the critics and the magazine writers assured the world that "poetry is dead." Ambitious young authors were gravely advised not to attempt anything in verse—as though youth ever listened to advice! Many critics went so far as to insist that the temper of the age was not "adapted" to poetry, that not only was there no interest in it, but that even if the Man should appear, he would find it impossible to sing in such a time and to such a coldly indifferent audience. And yet at that precise moment, Tennyson launched his "chiefly lyrical" volume, and Browning was speedily to follow.
Man is ever made humble by the facts of life; and even literary critics cannot altogether ignore them. Let us not then make the mistake of being too sure of the immediate future; nor the mistake of overestimating our contemporary poets; nor the mistake of despising the giant Victorians. Let us devoutly thank God that poetry has come into its own; that the modern poet, in public estimation, is a Hero; that no one has to apologize either for reading or for writing verse. An age that loves poetry with the passion characteristic of the twentieth century is not a flat or materialistic age. We are not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.
In the world of thought and spirit this is essentially a fighting age. The old battle between the body and the soul, between Paganism and Christianity, was never so hot as now, and those who take refuge in neutrality receive contempt. Pan and Jesus Christ have never had so many enthusiastic followers. We Christians believe our Leader rose from the dead, and the followers of Pan say their god never died at all. It is significant that at the beginning of the twentieth century two English poets wrote side by side, each of whom unconsciously waged an irreconcilable conflict with the other, and each of whom speaks from the grave today to a concourse of followers. These two poets did not "flourish" in the twentieth century, because the disciple of the bodily Pan was a cripple, and the disciple of the spiritual Christ was a gutter-snipe; but they both lived, lived abundantly, and wrote real poetry. I refer to William Ernest Henley, who died in 1903, and to Francis Thompson, who died in 1907.
Both Henley and Thompson loved the crowded streets of London, but they saw different visions there. Henley felt in the dust and din of the city the irresistible urge of spring, the invasion of the smell of distant meadows; the hurly-burly bearing witness to the annual conquest of Pan.
Here in this radiant and immortal street
Lavishly and omnipotently as ever
In the open hills, the undissembling dales,
The laughing-places of the juvenile earth.
For lo! the wills of man and woman meet,
Meet and are moved, each unto each endeared
As once in Eden's prodigal bowers befel,
To share his shameless, elemental mirth
In one great act of faith, while deep and strong,
Incomparably nerved and cheered,
The enormous heart of London joys to beat
To the measures of his rough, majestic song:
The lewd, perennial, overmastering spell
That keeps the rolling universe ensphered
and all for which life lives to long
Wanton and wondrous and for ever well.
The London Voluntaries of Henley, from which the above is a fair example, may have suggested something to Vachel Lindsay both in their irregular singing quality and in the direction, borrowed from notation, which accompanies each one, Andante con moto, Scherzando, Largo e mesto, Allegro maestoso. Henley's Pagan resistance to Puritan morality and convention, constantly exhibited positively in his verse, and negatively in his defiant Introduction to the Works of Burns and in the famous paper on R. L. S., is the main characteristic of his mind and temperament. He was by nature a rebel—a rebel against the Anglican God and against English social conventions. He loved all fighting rebels, and one of his most spirited poems deals affectionately with our Southern Confederate soldiers, in the last days of their hopeless struggle. His most famous lyric is an assertion of the indomitable human will in the presence of adverse destiny. This trumpet blast has awakened sympathetic echoes from all sorts and conditions of men, although that creedless Christian, James Whitcomb Riley, regarded it with genial contempt, thinking that the philosophy it represented was not only futile, but dangerous, in that it ignored the deepest facts of human life. He once asked to have the poem read aloud to him, as he had forgotten its exact words, and when the reader finished impressively
I am the Master of my fate:
I am the Captain of my soul—
"The hell you are," said Riley with a laugh.
Henley is, of course, interesting not merely because of his paganism, and robust worldliness; he had the poet's imagination and gift of expression. He loved to take a familiar idea fixed in a familiar phrase, and write a lovely musical variation on the theme. I do not think he ever wrote anything more beautiful than his setting of the phrase "Over the hills and far away," which appealed to his memory much as the three words "Far-far-away" affected Tennyson. No one can read this little masterpiece without that wonderful sense of melody lingering in the mind after the voice of the singer is silent.
Where forlorn sunsets flare and fade
On desolate sea and lonely sand,
Out of the silence and the shade
What is the voice of strange command
Calling you still, as friend calls friend
that cannot brook delay,
To rise and follow the ways that wend
Over the hills and far away?
Hark in the city, street on street
A roaring reach of death and life,
Of vortices that clash and fleet
And ruin in appointed strife,
Hark to it calling, calling clear,
Calling until you cannot stay
From dearer things than your own most dear
Over the hills and far away.
Out of the sound of ebb and flow,
Out of the sight of lamp and star,
It calls you where the good winds blow,
And the unchanging meadows are:
From faded hopes and hopes agleam,
It calls you, calls you night and day
Beyond the dark into the dream
Over the hills and far away.
In temperament Henley was an Elizabethan. Ben Jonson might have irritated him, but he would have got along very well with Kit Marlowe. He was an Elizabethan in the spaciousness of his mind, in his robust salt-water breeziness, in his hearty, spontaneous singing, and in his deification of the human will. The English novelist, Miss Willcocks, a child of the twentieth century, has remarked, "It is by their will that we recognize the Elizabethans, by the will that drove them over the seas of passion, as well as over the seas that ebb and flow with the salt tides…. For, from a sensitive correspondence with environment our race has passed into another stage; it is marked now by a passionate desire for the mastery of life—a desire, spiritualized in the highest lives, materialized in the lowest, so to mould environment that the lives to come may be shaped to our will. It is this which accounts for the curious likeness in our today with that of the Elizabethans."
As Henley was an Elizabethan, so his brilliant contemporary, Francis Thompson, was a "metaphysical," a man of the seventeenth century. Like Emerson, he is closer in both form and spirit to the mystical poets that followed the age of Shakespeare than he is to any other group or school. One has only to read Donne, Crashaw, and Vaughan to recognize the kinship. Like these three men of genius, Thompson was not only profoundly spiritual—he was aflame with religious passion. He was exalted in a mystical ecstasy, all a wonder and a wild desire. He was an inspired poet, careless of method, careless of form, careless of thought-sequences. The zeal for God's house had eaten him up. His poetry is like the burning bush, revealing God in the fire. His strange figures of speech, the molten metal of his language, the sincerity of his faith, have given to his poems a persuasive influence which is beginning to be felt far and wide, and which, I believe, will never die. One critic complains that the young men of Oxford and Cambridge have forsaken Tennyson, and now read only Francis Thompson. He need not be alarmed; these young men will all come back to Tennyson, for sooner or later, everybody comes back to Tennyson. It is rather a matter of joy that Thompson's religious poetry can make the hearts of young men burn within them. Young men are right in hating conventional, empty phrases, words that have lost all hitting power, hollow forms and bloodless ceremonies. Thompson's lips were touched with a live coal from the altar.
Francis Thompson walked with God. Instead of seeking God, as so many high-minded folk have done in vain, Thompson had the real and overpowering sensation that God was seeking him. The Hound of Heaven was everlastingly after him, pursuing him with the certainty of capture. In trying to escape, he found torment; in surrender, the peace that passes all understanding. That extraordinary poem, which thrillingly describes the eager, searching love of God, like a father looking for a lost child and determined to find him, might be taken as a modern version of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm, perhaps the most marvellous of all religious masterpieces.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with
all my ways.
Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell,
behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts
of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
The highest spiritual poetry is not that which portrays soul-hunger, the bitterness of the weary search for God; it is that which reveals an intense consciousness of the all-enveloping Divine Presence. Children do not seek the love of their parents; they can not escape its searching, eager, protecting power. We know how Dr. Johnson was affected by the lines
Quaerens me sedisti lassus
Redemisti crucem passus
Tantus labor non sit passus.
Francis Thompson's long walks by day and by night had magnificent company. In the country, in the streets of London, he was attended by seraphim and cherubim. The heavenly visions were more real to him than London Bridge. Just as when we travel far from those we love, we are brightly aware of their presence, and know that their affection is a greater reality than the scenery from the train window, so Thompson would have it that the angels were all about us. They do not live in some distant Paradise, the only gate to which is death—they are here now, and their element is the familiar atmosphere of earth.
Shortly after he died, there was found among
His papers a bit of manuscript verse, called "In No Strange Land." Whether it was a first draft which he meant to revise, or whether he intended it for publication, we cannot tell; but despite the roughnesses of rhythm—which take us back to some of Donne's shaggy and splendid verse—the thought is complete. It is one of the great poems of the twentieth century, and expresses the essence of Thompson's religion.
"IN NO STRANGE LAND"
O world invisible, we view thee:
O world intangible, we touch thee:
O world unknowable, we know thee:
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air,
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars:
The drift of pinions, would we harken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so
thou canst not sadder)
Cry; and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, clinging heaven by the hems:
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
Thompson planned a series of Ecclesiastical Ballads, of which he completed only two—Lilium Regis and The Veteran of Heaven. These were found among his papers, and were published in the January-April 1910 number of the Dublin Review. Both are great poems; but Lilium Regis is made doubly impressive by the present war. With the clairvoyance of approaching death, Thompson foresaw the world-struggle, the temporary eclipse of the Christian Church, and its ultimate triumph. The Lily of the King is Christ's Holy Church. I do not see how any one can read this poem without a thrill.
O Lily of the King! low lies thy silver wing,
And long has been the hour of thine unqueening;
And thy scent of Paradise on the night-wind spills its sighs,
Nor any take the secrets of its meaning.
O Lily of the King! I speak a heavy thing,
O patience, most sorrowful of daughters!
Lo, the hour is at hand for the troubling of the land,
And red shall be the breaking of the waters.
Sit fast upon thy stalk, when the blast shall with thee talk,
With the mercies of the king for thine awning;
And the just understand that thine hour is at hand,
Thine hour at hand with power in the dawning.
When the nations lie in blood, and their kings a broken brood,
Look up, O most sorrowful of daughters!
Lift up thy head and hark what sounds are in the dark,
For His feet are coming to thee on the waters!
O Lily of the King! I shall not see, that sing,
I shall not see the hour of thy queening!
But my song shall see, and wake, like a flower that dawn-winds shake,
And sigh with joy the odours of its meaning.
O Lily of the King, remember then the thing
That this dead mouth sang; and thy daughters,
As they dance before His way, sing there on the Day,
What I sang when the Night was on the waters!
There is a man of genius living in England today who has been writing verse for sixty years, but who received no public recognition as a poet until the twentieth century. This man is Thomas Hardy. He has the double distinction of being one of the great Victorian novelists, and one of the most notable poets of the twentieth century. At nearly eighty years of age, he is in full intellectual vigour, enjoys a creative power in verse that we more often associate with youth, and writes poetry that in matter and manner belongs distinctly to our time. He could not possibly be omitted from any survey of contemporary production.
As is so commonly the case with distinguished novelists, Thomas Hardy practised verse before prose. From 1860 to 1870 he wrote many poems, some of which appear among the Love Lyrics in Time's Laughingstocks, 1909. Then he began a career in prose fiction which has left him today without a living rival in the world. In 1898, with the volume called Wessex Poems, embellished with illustrations from his own hand, he challenged criticism as a professional poet. The moderate but definite success of this collection emboldened him to produce in 1901, Poems of the Past and Present. In 1904, 1906, 1908, were issued successively the three parts of The Dynasts, a thoroughly original and greatly-planned epical drama of the Napoleonic wars. This was followed by three books of verse, Time's Laughingstocks in 1909, Satires of Circumstance, 1914, and Moments of Vision, 1917; and he is a familiar and welcome guest in contemporary magazines.
Is it possible that when, at the close of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hardy formally abandoned prose for verse, he was either consciously or subconsciously aware of the coming renaissance of poetry? Certainly his change in expression had more significance than an individual caprice. It is a notable fact that the present poetic revival, wherein are enlisted so many enthusiastic youthful volunteers, should have had as one of its prophets and leaders a veteran of such power and fame. Perhaps Mr. Hardy would regard his own personal choice as no factor; the Immanent and Unconscious Will had been busy in his mind, for reasons unknown to him, unknown to man, least of all known to Itself. Leslie Stephen once remarked, "The deepest thinker is not really—though we often use the phrase—in advance of his day so much as in the line along which advance takes place."
Looking backward from the year 1918, we may see some new meaning in the spectacle of two modern leaders in fiction, Hardy and Meredith, each preferring as a means of expression poetry to prose, each thinking his own verse better than his novels, and each writing verse that in substance and manner belongs more to the twentieth than to the nineteenth century. Meredith always said that fiction was his kitchen wench; poetry was his Muse.
The publication of poems written when he was about twenty-five is interesting to students of Mr. Hardy's temperament, for they show that he was then as complete, though perhaps not so philosophical a pessimist, as he is now. The present world-war may seem to him a vindication of his despair, and therefore proof of the blind folly of those who pray to Our Father in Heaven. He is, though I think not avowedly so, an adherent of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann. The primal force, from which all things proceed, is the Immanent Will. The Will is unconscious and omnipotent. It is superhuman only in power, lacking intelligence, foresight, and any sense of ethical values. In The Dynasts, Mr. Hardy has written an epic illustration of the doctrines of pessimism.
Supernatural machinery and celestial inspiration have always been more or less conventional in the Epic. Ancient writers invoked the Muse. When Milton began his great task, he wished to produce something classic in form and Christian in spirit. He found an admirable solution of his problem in a double invocation—first of the Heavenly Muse of Mount Sinai, second, of the Holy Spirit. In the composition of In Memoriam, Tennyson knew that an invocation of the Muse would give an intolerable air of artificiality to the poem; he therefore, in the introductory stanzas, offered up a prayer to the Son of God. Now it was impossible for Mr. Hardy to make use of Greek Deities, or of Jehovah, or of any revelation of God in Christ; to his mind all three equally belonged to the lumber-room of discredited and discarded myth. He believes that any conception of the Primal Force as a Personality is not only obsolete among thinking men and women, but that it is unworthy of modern thought. It is perhaps easy to mistake our own world of thought for the thought of the world.
In his Preface, written with assurance and dignity, Mr. Hardy says: "The wide prevalence of the Monistic theory of the Universe forbade, in this twentieth century, the importation of Divine personages from any antique Mythology as ready-made sources or channels of Causation, even in verse, and excluded the celestial machinery of, say, Paradise Lost, as peremptorily as that of the Iliad or the Eddas. And the abandonment of the Masculine pronoun in allusions to the First or Fundamental Energy seemed a necessary and logical consequence of the long abandonment by thinkers of the anthropomorphic conception of the same." Accordingly he arranged a group of Phantom Intelligences that supply adequately a Chorus and a philosophical basis for his world-drama.
Like Browning in the original preface to Paracelsus, our author expressly disclaims any intention of writing a play for the stage. It is "intended simply for mental performance," and "Whether mental performance alone may not eventually be the fate of all drama other than that of contemporary or frivolous life, is a kindred question not without interest." The question has been since answered in another way than that implied, not merely by the success of community drama, but by the actual production of The Dynasts on the London stage under the direction of the brilliant and audacious Granville Barker. I would give much to have witnessed this experiment, which Mr. Barker insists was successful.
"Whether The Dynasts will finally take a place among the world's masterpieces of literature or not, must of course be left to future generations to decide. Two things are clear. The publication of the second and third parts distinctly raised public opinion of the work as a whole, and now that it is ten years old, we know that no man on earth except Mr. Hardy could have written it." To produce this particular epic required a poet, a prose master, a dramatist, a philosopher, and an architect. Mr. Hardy is each and all of the five, and by no means least an architect. The plan of the whole thing, in one hundred and thirty scenes, which seemed at first confused, now appears in retrospect orderly; and the projection of the various geographical scenes is thoroughly architectonic.
If the work fails to survive, it will be because of its low elevation on the purely literary side. In spite of occasional powerful phrases, as
What corpse is curious on the longitude
And situation of his cemetery!
the verse as a whole wants beauty of tone and felicity of diction. It is more like a map than a painting. One has only to recall the extraordinary charm of the Elizabethans to understand why so many pages in The Dynasts arouse only an intellectual interest. But no one can read the whole drama without an immense respect for the range and the grasp of the author's mind. Furthermore, every one of its former admirers ought to reread it in 1918. The present world-war gives to this Napoleonic epic an acute and prophetic interest nothing short of astounding.
A considerable number of Mr. Hardy's poems are concerned with the idea of God, apparently never far from the author's mind. I suppose he thinks of God every day. Yet his faith is the opposite of that expressed in the Hound of Heaven—in few words, it seems to be, "Resist the Lord, and He will flee from you." Mr. Hardy is not content with banishing God from the realm of modern thought; he is not content merely with killing Him; he means to give Him a decent burial, with fitting obsequies. And there is a long procession of mourners, some of whom are both worthy and distinguished. In the interesting poem, God's Funeral, written in 1908-1910, which begins
I saw a slowly stepping train—
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar—
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore
the development of the conception of God through human history is presented with skill in concision. He was man-like at first, then an amorphous cloud, then endowed with mighty wings, then jealous, fierce, yet long-suffering and full of mercy.
And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we dream,
And what we had imagined we believed.
Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.
Among the mourners is no less a person than the poet himself, for in former years—perhaps as a boy—he, too, had worshipped, and therefore he has no touch of contempt for those who still believe.
I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.
In the next stanza, the poet's oft-expressed belief in the wholesome, antiseptic power of pessimism is reiterated, together with a hint, that when we have once and for all put God in His grave, some better way of bearing life's burden will be found, because the new way will be based upon hard fact.
Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,
Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
"See you upon the horizon that small light—
Swelling somewhat?" Each mourner shook his head.
And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best….
Thus dazed and puzzled 'twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.
This pale gleam takes on a more vivid hue in a poem written shortly after God's Funeral, called A Plaint to Man, where God remonstrates with man for having created Him at all, since His life was to be so short and so futile:
And tomorrow the whole of me disappears,
The truth should be told, and the fact he faced
That had best been faced in earlier years:
The fact of life with dependence placed
On the human heart's resource alone,
In brotherhood bonded close and graced
With loving-kindness fully blown,
And visioned help unsought, unknown.
Other poems that express what is and what ought to be the attitude of man toward God are New Year's Eve, To Sincerity, and the beautiful lyric, Let Me Enjoy, where Mr. Hardy has been more than usually successful in fashioning both language and rhythm into a garment worthy of the thought. No one can read The Impercipient without recognizing that Mr. Hardy's atheism is as honest and as sincere as the religious faith of others, and that no one regrets the blankness of his universe more than he. He would believe if he could.
Pessimism is the basis of all his verse, as it is of his prose. It is expressed not merely philosophically in poems of ideas, but over and over again concretely in poems of incident. He is a pessimist both in fancy and in fact, and after reading some of our sugary "glad" books, I find his bitter taste rather refreshing. The titles of his recent collections, Time's Laughingstocks and Satires of Circumstance, sufficiently indicate the ill fortune awaiting his personages. At his best, his lyrics written in the minor key have a noble, solemn adagio movement. At his worst—for like all poets, he is sometimes at his worst—the truth of life seems rather obstinately warped. Why should legitimate love necessarily bring misery, and illegitimate passion produce permanent happiness? And in the piece, "Ah, are you digging on my grave?" pessimism approaches a reductio ad absurdum.
Dramatic power, which is one of its author's greatest gifts, is frequently finely revealed. After reading A Tramp-woman's Tragedy, one unhesitatingly accords Mr. Hardy a place among the English writers of ballads. For this is a genuine ballad, in story, in diction, and in vigour.
Yet as a whole, and in spite of Mr. Hardy's love of the dance and of dance music, his poetry lacks grace and movement. His war poem, Men Who March Away, is singularly halting and awkward. His complete poetical works are interesting because they proceed from an interesting mind. His range of thought, both in reminiscence and in speculation, is immensely wide; his power of concentration recalls that of Browning.
I have thought sometimes, and thought long and hard.
I have stood before, gone round a serious thing,
Tasked my whole mind to touch and clasp it close,
As I stretch forth my arm to touch this bar.
God and man, and what duty I owe both,—
I dare to say I have confronted these
In thought: but no such faculty helped here.
No such faculty alone could help Mr. Hardy to the highest peaks of poetry, any more than it served Caponsacchi in his spiritual crisis. He thinks interesting thoughts, because he has an original mind. It is possible to be a great poet without possessing much intellectual wealth; just as it is possible to be a great singer, and yet be both shallow and dull. The divine gift of poetry seems sometimes as accidental as the formation of the throat. I do not believe that Tennyson was either shallow or dull; but I do not think he had so rich a mind as Thomas Hardy's, a mind so quaint, so humorous, so sharp. Yet Tennyson was incomparably a greater poet.
The greatest poetry always transports us, and although I read and reread the Wessex poet with never-lagging attention—I find even the drawings in Wessex Poems so fascinating that I wish he had illustrated all his books—I am always conscious of the time and the place. I never get the unmistakable spinal chill. He has too thorough a command of his thoughts; they never possess him, and they never soar away with him. Prose may be controlled, but poetry is a possession. Mr. Hardy is too keenly aware of what he is about. In spite of the fact that he has written verse all his life, he seldom writes unwrinkled song. He is, in the last analysis, a master of prose who has learned the technique of verse, and who now chooses to express his thoughts and his observations in rime and rhythm.
The title of Mr. Hardy's latest volume of poems, Moments of Vision, leads one to expect rifts in the clouds—and one is not disappointed. It is perhaps characteristic of the independence of our author, that steadily preaching pessimism when the world was peaceful, he should now not be perhaps quite so sure of his creed when a larger proportion of the world's inhabitants are in pain than ever before. One of the fallacies of pessimism consists in the fact that its advocates often call a witness to the stand whose testimony counts against them. Nobody really loves life, loves this world, like your pessimist; nobody is more reluctant to leave it. He therefore, to support his argument that life is evil, calls up evidence which proves that it is brief and transitory. But if life is evil, one of its few redeeming features should be its brevity; the pessimist should look forward to death as a man in prison looks toward the day of his release. Yet this attitude toward death is almost never taken by the atheists or the pessimists, while it is the burden of many of the triumphant hymns of the Christian Church. Now, as our spokesman for pessimism approaches the end—which I fervently hope may be afar off—life seems sweet.
"FOR LIFE I HAD NEVER CARED GREATLY"
For Life I had never eared greatly,
As worth a man's while;
Peradventures that finished in nought,
Had kept me from youth and through manhood till lately
Unwon by its style.
In earliest years—why I know not—
I viewed it askance;
Conditions of doubt,
Conditions that slowly leaked out,
May haply have bent me to stand and to show not
Much zest for its dance.
With symphonies soft and sweet colour
It courted me then,
Till evasions seemed wrong,
Till evasions gave in to its song,
And I warmed, till living aloofly loomed duller
Than life among men.
Anew I found nought to set eyes on,
When, lifting its hand,
It uncloaked a star,
Uncloaked it from fog-damps afar,
And showed its beams burning from pole to horizon
As bright as a brand.
And so, the rough highway forgetting,
I pace hill and dale,
Regarding the sky,
Regarding the vision on high,
And thus re-illumed have no humour for letting
My pilgrimage fail.
No one of course can judge of another's happiness; but it is difficult to imagine any man on earth who has had a happier life than Mr. Hardy. He has had his own genius for company all his days; he has been successful in literary art beyond the wildest dreams of his youth; his acute perception has made the beauty of nature a million times more beautiful to him than to most of the children of men; his eye is not dim, nor his natural force abated. He has that which should accompany old age—honour, love, obedience, troops of friends.
The last poem in Moments of Vision blesses rather than curses life.
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the people say
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, will a gazer think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight"?
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
Will they say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone"?
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?
And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but he used to notice such things"?
Should Mr. Hardy ever resort to prayer—which I suppose is unlikely—his prayers ought to be the best in the world. According to Coleridge, he prayeth well who loveth well both man and bird and beast; a beautiful characteristic of our great writer is his tenderness for every living thing. He will be missed by men, women, children, and by the humblest animals; and if trees have any self-consciousness, they will miss him too.
Rudyard Kipling is a Victorian poet, as Thomas Hardy is a Victorian novelist. When Tennyson died in 1892, the world, with approximate unanimity, chose the young man from the East as his successor, and for twenty-five years he has been the Laureate of the British Empire in everything but the title. In the eighteenth century, when Gray regarded the offer of the Laureateship as an insult, Mr. Alfred Austin might properly have been appointed; but after the fame of Southey, and the mighty genius of Wordsworth and of Tennyson, it was cruel to put Alfred the Little in the chair of Alfred the Great. It was not an insult to Austin, but an insult to Poetry. With the elevation of the learned and amiable Dr. Bridges in 1913, the public ceased to care who holds the office. This eminently respectable appointment silenced both opposition and applause. We can only echo the language of Gray's letter to Mason, 19 December, 1757: "I interest myself a little in the history of it, and rather wish somebody may accept it that will retrieve the credit of the thing, if it be retrievable, or ever had any credit…. The office itself has always humbled the professor hitherto (even in an age when kings were somebody), if he were a poor writer by making him more conspicuous, and if he were a good one by setting him at war with the little fry of his own profession, for there are poets little enough to envy even a poet-laureat." Mason was willing.
Rudyard Kipling had the double qualification of poetic genius and of convinced Imperialism. He had received a formal accolade from the aged Tennyson, and could have carried on the tradition of British verse and British arms. Nor has any Laureate, in the history of the office, risen more magnificently to an occasion than did Mr. Kipling at the sixtieth anniversary of the reign of the Queen. Each poet made his little speech in verse, and then at the close of the ceremony, came the thrilling Recessional, which received as instant applause from the world as if it had been spoken to an audience. In its scriptural phraseology, in its combination of haughty pride and deep contrition, in its "holy hope and high humility," it expressed with austere majesty the genius of the English race. The soul of a great poet entered immediately into the hearts of men, there to abide for ever.
It is interesting to reflect that not the author of the Recessional, but the author of Regina Cara was duly chosen for the Laureateship. This poem by Robert Bridges appeared on the same occasion as that immortalized by Kipling, and was subsequently included in the volume of the writer's poetical works, published in 1912. It shows irreproachable reverence for Queen Victoria. Apparently its poetical quality was satisfactory to those who appoint Laureates.
Jubilee-Song, for music, 1897
Hark! the world is full of thy praise,
England's Queen of many days;
Who, knowing how to rule the free,
Hast given a crown to monarchy.
Honour, Truth, and growing Peace
Follow Britannia's wide increase,
And Nature yield her strength unknown
To the wisdom born beneath thy throne!
In wisdom and love firm is thy fame:
Enemies bow to revere thy name:
The world shall never tire to tell
Praise of the queen that reignèd well.
O Felix anima, Domina pracclara,
Amore semper coronabere
Rudyard Kipling's poetry is as familiar to us as the air we breathe. He is the spokesman for the Anglo-Saxon breed. His gospel of orderly energy is the inspiration of thousands of business offices; his sententious maxims are parts of current speech: the victrola has carried his singing lyrics even farther than the banjo penetrates, of which latter democratic instrument his wonderful poem is the apotheosis. And we have the word of a distinguished British major-general to prove that Mr. Kipling has wrought a miracle of transformation with Tommy Atkins. General Sir George Younghusband, in a recent book, A Soldier's Memories, says, "I had never heard the words or expressions that Rudyard Kipling's soldiers used. Many a time did I ask my brother officers whether they had ever heard them. No, never. But, sure enough, a few years after the soldiers thought, and talked, and expressed themselves exactly as Rudyard Kipling had taught them in his stories. Rudyard Kipling made the modern soldier. Other writers have gone on with the good work, and they have between them manufactured the cheery, devil-may-care, lovable person enshrined in our hearts as Thomas Atkins. Before he had learned from reading stories about himself that he, as an individual, also possessed the above attributes, he was mostly ignorant of the fact. My early recollections of the British soldier are of a bluff, rather surly person, never the least jocose or light-hearted except perhaps when he had too much beer."
This is extraordinary testimony to the power of literature—from a first-class fighting man. It is as though John Sargent should paint an inaccurate but idealized portrait, and the original should make it accurate by imitation. The soldiers were transformed by the renewing of their minds. Beholding with open face as in a glass a certain image, they were changed into the same image, by the spirit of the poet. This is certainly a greater achievement than correct reporting. It is quite possible, too, that the officers' attitude toward Tommy Atkins had been altered by the Barrack-Room Ballads, and this new attitude produced results in character.
I give General Younghusband's testimony for what it is worth. It is important if true. But it is only fair to add that it has been contradicted by another military officer, who affirms that Kipling reported the soldier as he was. Readers may take their choice. At all events the transformation of character by discipline, cleanliness, hard work, and danger is the ever-present moral in Mr. Kipling's verse. He loves to take the raw recruit or the boyish, self-conscious, awkward subaltern, and show how he may become an efficient man, happy in the happiness that accompanies success. It is a Philistine goal, but one that has the advantage of being attainable. The reach of this particular poet seldom exceeds his grasp. And although thus far in his career—he is only fifty-two, and we may hope as well as remember—his best poetry belongs to the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth, so universally popular a homily as If indicates that he has by no means lost the power of preaching in verse. With the exception of some sad lapses, his latter poems have come nearer the earlier level of production than his stories. For that matter, from the beginning I have thought that the genius of Rudyard Kipling had more authentic expression in poetry than in prose. I therefore hope that after the war he will become one of the leaders in the advance of English poetry in the twentieth century, as he will remain one of the imperishable monuments of Victorian literature. The verse published in his latest volume of stories, A Diversity of Creatures, 1917, has the stamp of his original mind, and Macdonough's Song is impressive. And in a poem which does not appear in this collection, but which was written at the outbreak of hostilities, Mr. Kipling was, I believe, the first to use the name Hun—an appellation of considerable adhesive power. Do roses stick like burrs?
His influence on other poets has of course been powerful. As Eden Phillpotts is to Thomas Hardy, so is Robert Service to Rudyard Kipling. Like Bret Harte in California, Mr. Service found gold in the Klondike. But it is not merely in his interpretation of the life of a distant country that the new poet reminds one of his prototype; both in matter and in manner he may justly be called the Kipling of the North. His verse has an extraordinary popularity among American college undergraduates, the reasons for which are evident. They read, discuss him, and quote him with joy, and he might well be proud of the adoration of so many of our eager, adventurous, high-hearted youth. Yet, while Mr. Service is undoubtedly a real poet, his work as a whole seems a clear echo, rather than a new song. It is good, but it is reminiscent of his reading, not merely of Mr. Kipling, but of poetry in general. In The Land God Forgot, a fine poem, beginning
The lonely sunsets flare forlorn
Down valleys dreadly desolate;
The lordly mountains soar in scorn
As still as death, as stern as fate,
the opening line infallibly brings to mind Henley's
Where forlorn sunsets flare and fade.
The poetry of Mr. Service has the merits and the faults of the "red blood" school in fiction, illustrated by the late Jack London and the lively Rex Beach. It is not the highest form of art. It insists on being heard, but it smells of mortality. You cannot give permanence to a book by printing it in italic type.
It is indeed difficult to express in pure artistic form great primitive experiences, even with long years of intimate first-hand knowledge. No one doubts Mr. Service's accuracy or sincerity. But many men have had abundance of material, rich and new, only to find it unmanageable. Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling succeeded where thousands have failed. Think of the possibilities of Australia! And from that vast region only one great artist has spoken—Percy Grainger.
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