Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

The Modern School of Poetry in England


 

There have been many definitions of poetry[,] chiefly two. It has been defined by one to be the "Interpretation of the Invisible" by another the "Criticism of Life." But poetry is not altogether the interpretation of the invisible and it is more than the criticism of life. As religion is called by Mr. Matthew Arnold "Morality touched with emotion" so poetry is the criticism of life, touched with emotion and something besides. The best naming of it that I have ever seen is that of Mr. Alfred Austin in a paper on "Old and New Canons of Criticism" in Nineteenth Century Review. He calls it "The Transfiguration of Life," meaning Life with the halo of the imagination thrown over it[.] That is, it seems to me, the nearest definition that can be got in a single phrase.

If then poetry is the transfiguration of life, in order to establish the value of the poet’s work, it is necessary to consider whether the life which he has transfigured is the true life, whether the transfiguration is real[—]that is whether he has thrown the true light of the imagination over it, and finally how much of the true life his work of transfiguration has covered. It seems almost impossible that one living in the same generation with the poet should be able to decide upon any of these things with certainty. It is only after the change of many years, when the irresistible bias of schools and the haunting flavour of mannerisms are forgotten, that the permanent worth of any man’s work is finally laid bare, and then it is not the critics, who discover it, but the universal heart of man.

It seems to me however, that there is one thing concerning the true life which may be laid down as a guide in criticism. It is this. Life is not a dreary thing. Human beings are not mere hopeless play things in the hands of chance, utter[ly] governed by a multitude of passions, that must mar and twist them, befoul them or beautify them as they will. Human nature may be represented by the ancient Pan—half human and half beast—but the human is the mightier part, and the whole is ever striving to be divine. The main current of the human spirit through many changes, and many falls[,] is setting eternally toward a condition of order and divine beauty and peace. A poet may never have uttered this thought, may never perhaps have been even conscious of it, but unless the general body of his work is in some way accordant with it, unless his transfiguration of life has in some way tended to strengthen and glorify the universal yearning for order and beauty and peace, the heart of man will keep no hold of it. A dilettante class, and such as are lovers of powerful creation and passionate utterance for genius[‘] sake, may preserve it as a monument of strength and fire, but the succeeding time must surely cast it off, along with any other empty dream or custom as something unessential to the perfecting movement of its spirit. The greatest poets have taught us that a life of nobility and purity may be made happy, and that only such a life is worth the living. Those who have not taught this, either directly or indirectly, have never been called great. The sympathy with this main truth is what strikes as being conspicuously absent from the dreary and monotonous realism of almost all our present literature.

Moreover it seems to me that in endeavouring to reach approximately the worth of a living poet, there are two qualities to be specially looked for as indications of the genuineness of his transfiguration, and of the liberality with which he has entered into the fullness of the true life. These are variety or versatility, and geniality. The work of all the greatest poets has been very varied, and it has been very genial. Looking with a wide and hearty and sympathetic eye upon all life, they have touched innumerable notes, and have absorbed themselves readily into every phase of its humour or pathos. They have laughed and wept with living men and women; and in their laughter is the kindliness of a large heart, in their sadness the sweetness of brotherly sympathy. Two especially in the present century may be cited as examples of these qualities—Keats and Tennyson. Keats’ life was cut short of twenty-six yet in his brief writing season he produced eight noble poems[.] Not one of these is like another; each has a peculiar flavour: for his genius was easy and versatile. He was able to immerse his imagination totally in the spirit of the most different themes. As instances—the "Ode to [sic] a Grecian Urn" is quiet, reflective and antique; each phrase like a curve in the marble—but the "Eve of St. Agnes" is rich and mediæval, having the flavour of stained windows, storm and old time phantasy. No doubt if Keats had lived, a wider contact with individual human life, would have given him also the spirit of geniality—indeed he even had somewhat of it in his own delicate and romantic way. So Tennyson has written for instance three poems, among many others, which but for a certain mannerism might be deemed the product of different hands— the "Lady of Shallott [sic]," mystic and Armorican, the "Lotos Eaters" with its southern glamour and lazy cadence—lastly the "Talking Oak," with its sweet humour and flavour of parks and minster-bells[.] It was when Tennyson had come to write the "Talking Oak", that time and the working of human experience had mellowed his hand and made it genial.

It is these men who were the masters; for their eyes were not forever fixed upon one usurping corner of life, till it became vast and lurid, but they sang out of the midst of the inner spirit of many conditions of man’s happiness and pain. They sang not for themselves only; but in the person of every living creature[.] Moreover they held that life for all its woes and perplexities might be a cheery thing, and that the centre of man’s heart was bright and pure. Hardly any of the famous poetry of the present day is like this. For the most part it is not the transfiguration of life. It is little more than the restless utterance of refined selfishness, the transfiguration of personal chimæras. For that reason it has no variety and very little geniality[.] It is not versatile, for it has one uniform coloring for everything, wonderfully beautiful colouring to be sure, but wearisome for lack of change. It is not genial; for it is limited in sympathy and has failed to find beauty in some of the purest and most sacred of human yearnings. If we search the poets of the Preraphaelite school from end to end, we shall find not one thing that may remind us of the lovely cheerfulness of Milton’s "L’Allegro" or the delicate bonhomie of the "Talking Oak."

In fine these men have transfigured very little of life and what they have dealt with lacks much of being the true. Their chief merit lies in the manner of the transfiguration. They have taught the world how verses should be made. It is reserved for a future generation of poets to show how the lesson, so taught, should be used. They have wrought for us the loveliest garments of poetry, but have given it no pure body or soul. They are cunning painters and musicians, but not great poets; for the great poet must be a broad and noble thinker. They have written much that will charm the world’s sense for a moment with its strength of vision and music, not one thing that will hearten it in its journey toward order and divine beauty and peace. They have forgotten that human nature is something more than mere primal nature[.] One of them in especial seems to have cast off all regard for the spiritual garment of law that time is weaving eternally for the covering of our baser instincts. He has painted the soul[‘]s existence as little more than a brief delirium, a hopeless texture of strange delights and miseries, springing from the darkness of birth and passing into the darkness of death. Such work can be of no avail. Man is to be taught self-government and hope. Only such teaching will he ultimately accept. The poet who has nothing to show to him, but such phantasmal pictures, [as] some of these men have drawn, no lesson to teach him but such madly confused ones as these men have taught, is only setting his shoulder unconsciously against the pure current of civilization, and all his gifts, how great soever, will hardly help him to be long remembered. Longfellow with his gentle sweetness and occasional insipidity will be remembered, when Poe, for all his strange and fascinating power will be forgotten. Matthew Arnold’s "Forsaken Merman" will live, when all the beautiful insanity of Swinburne is spoken of no longer.

II

The greatest of the Preraphaelite school was Dante Gabriel Ros[s]etti[,] painter and poet. He was a secluded artist, brooding acutely upon certain strange things of life, one of those upon whom routine obtained no hold. Of a morbid and impressionable disposition, every object in inanimate nature, every hour of time, every thought and emotion was marked by him as having an inner feeling and a mystic worth. In several attributes of the poet he was great, and his work was distinctly original. He had a quick and sensitive imagination, a piercing insight into some sombre and wayward shades of feeling, and a rich gift of music. Although the ideas and emotions, with which he deals are often subtle and occult, his style is wonderfully plain and direct. In this he is different and superior to the rest of his school. He seldom makes an elaborate description of outward things,— indeed he had not the healthy delight in them, which leads men to do so— but rather he is a sketcher in brief and magical phrases, which sometimes strike upon the imagination with the effect of astonishment. He was fond of giving material shape to the inmost motions of the heart and soul, using a system of mystic imagery, which is the most singular and poetic characteristic of his genius. Thought and imagination with him were inseparable in their working, every idea became a bodily tangible thing.

He wrote little. His poems like his paintings were the result of peculiar moods, fashioned with long brooding thought, and subject to perpetual change. They will have little hold upon mankind at large, of whose needs and aspirations he studied for the most part only a few unusual phases. They are rather food for poets, and the searchers in the by-ways of emotion. But Ros[s]etti made at least one poem, which has already caught the general heart and is likely to hold it. That is "The Blessed Damosel [sic]"; for though a purely visionary thing the idea at the bottom of it is beautiful, like something that Charles Kingsley holds in one of his letters. The love of men and women was ever present to Ros[s]etti’s mind as an infinitely wonderful and strange thing. To him it could not be earthly only, wholly mortal and ephemeral. It was more than that. It was spiritual and eternal. The perfect union on earth was but the prelude to a beautiful and mystic condition hereafter that should have no end forever. In "Love[’]s Nocturn" too and the "Stream", and the beautiful lyric called "Love-Lily", we find representations of the same delicate and intense spirituality woven into the speech of earthly passion. But "The Blessed Damosel [sic]" is the succinct expression of it. In this poem also, written at the age of eighteen, we find some of the finest instances of his disposition to give to every mental and emotional thing a material shape—as an instance the words of the Blessed Damosel [sic]:

We two shall stand beside the shrine,
     Occult, withheld, untrod,
Whose lamps are stirred continually
     With prayers sent up to God,
And see our old prayers, granted, melt,
     Each like a little cloud.

With Ros[s]etti every material thing was but the expression of something inward and spiritual, and whatever spiritual thing had no outward shape in nature, must have an exact one somewhere in the realm of thought and emotion.

If all Ros[s]etti’s poems had been like these it would have been better. He has unfortunately written others of a very different character and worth. The best known of these is the one called "Jenny." It embodies a criticism of life to be sure, of a very strange and hideous condition of life; but is chiefly noteworthy as being a representative work of the whole school and of the later literature generally, bare, realistic and hopeless—one of the several entirely unpleasant things that Ros[s]etti wrote. It is a picture of dark life, bare and simple, without any help or lesson in it whatever, with very little light of the imagination, and not a vestige of emotion. Whatever bad thing a master has done, the pupils are most ready to follow. The imitators of Ros[s]etti have caught little of his truth and beauty, but such work as "Jenny" has been abundantly and drearily imitated. Another poem, realistic also, but of somewhat greater worth is the "Last Confession", the narrative of one who has loved with Italian fervour and revenged desertion by striking a dagger into the heart of his mistress. The manner of it is intensely quiet and vivid. There are passages of enormous pathos, with a subtle and terrible insight into the darker workings of passion. It is put together with consummate talent, but is, of course, in its nature, painful and disagreeable.

Ros[s]etti is perhaps best known as a fine sonneteer. The sonnet was a form exquisitely adapted to his exact and acutely brooding genius. In one or two of his sonnets he has given new form to some old lessons that can never be too often spoken for mankind—for instance the one on the value of time, and how some good thing should be done in every day that we live.

Most of these poems were unknown to the world, until the year 1870 when the first volume was published. The second and last of ballads and sonnets was issued in 1881. Some of them have a modern groundwork. The most are quaint and mediæval, for Ros[s]etti loved to get back into simpler days. Modern life is vast and complex, and the poet often finds that such primary feelings as belong to all ages and places may be dealt with more freely and with a sharper accentuation, when they are wrought upon a background of ruder and simpler custom. But as Ros[s]etti’s mind was moody and personal, so his range was narrow. He dealt with little of life— and, though what he worked upon is strikingly done,—for he was serious and sincere—yet he cannot be called a great poet. He had not the large mobile heart, that can throw itself into every variety of life, laughing and weeping with every condition in turn. He has not the cheery manfulness, that is for all of us like the sign and seal of the genuine mastership in verse. His work is in spirit sombre and disturbing. He is confined in art and has no variety of flavour. He is not broadly human in thought and has little geniality. Though he has taught the world some very beautiful things, for which he can never be quite forgotten, he has not cheered its main heart much.

The next of this school[,] as it seems to me, in order of greatness is Charles Algernon Swinburne. Mr. Swinburne is a wonderful musician. One might imagine that he had fallen by mistake into poetry. Everything in his hands turns to enchanting sound[.] In the beautiful management of words, cadences, and forms of metre and stanza, he has reached, it would almost seem, the highest developement [sic] of art. In the Songs before Sunrise, at best they are so many harpings upon one cracked string; he has sometimes held for stanzas together to strain[s] of sonorous sublimity, that might remind us, but for the hollowness of the subject, of some utterance of the old Testament prophets. His lyrics are full of riotous melody. He claims, justly enough, the sea-wind and the sea for the makers of his spirit[:]

Yours was I born, and ye,
The seawind and the sea,
Made all my soul in me
         A song forever,
A harp to string, and smite,
For love’s sake of the bright
Wind and the sea’s delight
         To fail them never.

Yet beneath this lovely mastery of expression there is much wanting when we come to look into it. His vocabulary is not large, his range of imagery astonishingly narrow. He has certain set images—day and night, light and darkness, sunrise and sundown, snow and sleep and the like, the use of which is perpetually recurring with the effect of monotony in every thing he has written. We find stanza upon stanza, wrought almost entirely of such things as these, woven and rewoven in glamorous and bewildering confusion. The matter of his verse is generally impalpable, misty, illusive, running on from line to line, in such manner that when we have reached the end, we find ourselves in contact with no thought but merely rolling in a musical ecstacy. The practical value of a writer’s work may almost be determined by its adaptability to quotation. There is hardly a line of Swinburne’s that any man will ever quote for any purpose, but to show the astonishing gift of the composer. He has uttered no lesson, directly or indirectly, or given striking expression to any truth old or new. His is not the transfiguration of life but[,] as it seems to me, a strange transfiguration of only two things—political and social anarchy. His Songs before Sunrise are mere vague communistic chants, mad glorifications of liberty, defining nothing and teaching nothing. At the bottom of them is no idea whatever save that of blind confusion. In the "Last Oracle", one of his later poems and the completest expression of himself, he hails the Greek Apollo, the ruler of light, "strong to help and heal, to lighten and to slay", and invokes the return of Hellenic beauty and freedom[.] The age of Christianity, with the lessons, that she has taught us of nobility and purity, is only darkness to him or the twilight of the Gods[.] For thus he calls upon Apollo[:]

Age on age thy mouth was mute, thy face was hidden,
     And the lips and eyes that loved thee blind and dumb
Song forsook their lips that held thy name forbidden,
     Light their eyes that saw the strange God’s kingdom come[.]
Fire for light and hell for heaven, and psalms for paeans
     Filled the clearest eyes and lips most sweet of song
When for chant of Greeks, the wail of Galilæans
     Made the whole world moan with hymns of wrath and                                                                                     wrong[.]

Again in another part of this marvelous pagan song he cries

Yet it may be, Lord and Father, could we know it,
     We, that love thee, for our darkness shall have light.

"Light." It is a favorite word with him; but he has nowhere told us what it means. From the Songs before Sunrise, as I have said before, we gather that in politics it means anarchy—or the rule of Cleon and the rabble. From the rest of his poetry we find that socially it means license. In morality Mr Swinburne is the singer of unfettered passion. Reason and order have nothing to do in the matter. In the "Laus Veneris", the praise of Venus, to him the goddess simply of libertinism, he cries

Thy ways, Lord Christ, are very fair;
But, lo, her wonderfully woven hair.

The ways of Christ, that did most to give to us the idea of the beauty and whiteness of innocence, are very fair to be sure; but they are nothing to him and to those, who are of art and earnest looking toward the light.

Mr. Swinburne, even as an artist, is utterly without restraint. He has nothing of the depth and calm of the master, and for all his impassioned music, has no dignity, and reasonably so, for he has very little that is noble and true to say. He is quite destitute of dramatic or narrative power. In his lyrics, however unwholesome the spirit of most of them is, he is irresistibly fascinating. One is completely carried away with the supreme loveliness of word and form and rhythm. His dramatic work on the contrary is almost unreadable. The movement is heavy, the range of action and feeling circumscribed and gloomy. Even the manner of expression is intricate and lifeless. His C[h]astelard and Bothwell can hardly seem otherwise than monuments of misdirected labour. His Tristram of Lyonesse, a narrative poem on the story of Tristram and Queen Iseulte, has the same defects. The movement is utterly heavy. The style, the imagery and description are glamorous and intricate, without life or interest[.] The first fifty lines of the poem are enough to frighten any reader away from it. Moreover the treatment of the subject is over sensuous and unhealthy, and wherever it was possible to give any morally hideous colouring to the original tale, he has done so to the full. There is surely nothing in this work to be remembered and everything that it were well to forget. All such poetry of Mr. Swinburne[‘]s and a great deal of his lyric writing too, will last, I think, but a little time in the world’s memory: for as it has been said; the core of the world’s heart—and it is that that always settles the value of these things in the end—is working for peace and purity—and it will not bear to be contaminated. Instead of helping man in his labour for order and divine beauty and peace, he has given his whole strength to disturb him. The soul of Mr. Swinburne’s work is shere recklessness—a mad self-abandonment to the rush of music and sensuous vision. For this reason his glorious gift of expression will only serve as matter of study to those who may know better how to use it. He has never meditated genially and sympathetically upon the homely things of life. He has not entered heartily in the stir of human nature, and many of its most sacred instincts he is incapable of understanding. His spirit is certainly unhealthily [sic] and destructive. His poetry looks like a beautiful ignis fatuus—and when we have followed it to its goal we find that we have only wandered into a lurid and miasmatic wilderness, wherein is no happiness at all, but only delight that is sapped with pain and pain that has no guide of truth whatever in the soul to help or save.

Of all this poet’s enormous bulk of writing the only parts which seem likely to live are a few of his lyrics, such rare ones as have dealt with inanimate nature, sweetened with simple human reflection—and especially those that [are] written with much tenderness and geniallity [sic] about children and childhood. Perhaps also men will not quite forget the Atalanta in Calydon, which though one of the earliest is strangely enough the sanest and soberest of his longer works.

The third and last poet of consequence in the Preraphaelite school is William Morris, who like Swinburne has written a great deal too much. His greatest work is the Earthly Paradise, written somewhat in imitation of Chaucer, but without Chaucer’s blithe geniallity [sic] and practical wisdom. A ship full of Norwegians set sail in the fourteenth century to search for a fabled country in the West, where there is no death or pain. After many adventures and many miseries they came, when they were worn and old, to an unknown island and found there certain Greeks, whose ancestors had emigrated long ago from the mother land, bringing with them their customs and legends. The Greeks made homes for the Norwegians, and in their hours of idleness they amused one another by telling stories alternately from the Greek Mythology and the northern sagas. These tales are very sweetly told; but they have no strength or variety. One cannot read many of them without weariness. They have no genuine hearty sympathy with the movement of life—no humour or real pathos—no dramatic or narrative force[.] Beautiful as they are, one cannot long follow without a sense of monotony an idle story, which has nothing to recommend it but the easy flow of a sensuous imagination, sometimes gar[r]ulous and an indolent murmuring versification. The Life and Death of Jason is more unreadable; for it is long and equally purposeless and the idea at the bottom of it dark and cheerless. The Story of Sigurd the Volsung [is] most unreadable of all. How any man could have undertaken to reconstruct the whole Nibelung legend in English ballad verse, would be incomprehensible, if we had not already had a specimen of William Morris’ marvelous diligence in the Life and Death of Jason. All these poems, besides their universal monotony and want of hearty life, are rendered of no avail by the prevailing curse of the whole modern school—a morbid unhealthiness of the soul. This man, like the rest, has no true and vital principle, upon which to base his work. His whole stock for thought seems to be, the power and blind prevalence of material passion and the dreariness of death and old age. The world has been told already too much about these things, and she will welcome most readily him who will teach her to forget them[.] William Morris has done nothing to help the cause of order and divine beauty and peace, and his work can therefore hardly be of much lasting interest to mankind.

To repeat and conclude, the modern men have taught us many things in the graces of art. They have taught us much about the magic of colour and much about beauty in form. We find in them a more glowing delight in nature than in most of our elder poets. They have taught us also many secrets in the use of words and metres—the sweetest mysteries of sound. The artistic failings of the school are the failings of the age—restlessness and want of restraint. It has neglected the grandest attribute of genius, patience. Most of its members have written too much and too unevenly. But their most serious fault is a moral one—and that is want of innocence. It seems to me that the Preraphaelite poets have forgotten this. That original nature is not precisely human nature. Those things which are the laws of original nature they have mistaken to be the laws also of human nature. They have forgotten that society, for its own happiness and peace, has formed for itself age by age and change by change a system of order and law, which has now come to be as much a part of human nature as our primal instincts are. This they have forgotten and in forgetting have been led almost to glorify and treat as things divine some of the very passions, which it has been the aim of social progress to soften and command. They have forgotten also another thing. That all true art must rest upon a sense of wonder,—a sense of the invisible that is around everything,—and that this sense of wonder can only dwell in its purity in a perfectly simple and innocent mind—true art must be naive.* Now a mind which is not in accord with those main social laws which are become instincts, is not simple and innocent,—and its sense of wonder is overshadowed and distorted. Contact with uninnocent emotion has unsettled it, till it is no longer capable of the clearest poetry: [t]hat is the reason why so much of our modern verse is gifted with innumerable attributes of poetry, but is at the soul, feverish and unmanly. It is the utterance of minds that are longing for the true happiness and have mistaken the way to find it. They have sung for us the extremes of human joy and pain, but never anything of manful trust or hearty endurance—or if they have ever preached to us, restraint and endurance, it has been a hang-dog stoacism [sic], wearing the yoke about its neck. All this is very useless to us, and it seems to me that the modern school cannot have much permanent influence upon taste, for the one grand reason that they have done nothing to help mankind in the gradual and eternal movement toward order and divine beauty and peace.



* Tennyson says of the poet’s mind
          Clear and bright it should be ever
          Flowing like a crystal river
          Bright as light and clear as wind. [back]