Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
Poetry and Religion*
this weighty title Mr. George Santayana has written
one of the best books of criticism yet issued in America.
It is seldom poetry receives such serious and profound
consideration at the hand of our literary men; for in
this country the critic and professional writer is very
likely to be too hurried, too encumbered with affairs,
or too much infected with the popular spirit of slipshod
excellence to make thorough research or really philosophic
inquiry. But Mr. Santayana is a student and a thinker
first of all; he showed that a few years ago when he
published his first critical volume, The Sense of
Beauty. And at the same time we must accord him
his place among men of letters, by virtue of his very
first book, a collection of sonnets and other poems.
That small volume marked its author at once as the possessor
of a pure classic style in versification, and an indubitable
genius for poetry. Its quiet, unaffected radiance of
thought, and its limpid Horation manner were most notable.
So that with his academic training and his original
endowments Mr. Santayana was well equipped for the task
for myself, I feel in Poetry and Religion the
breath of the Harvard chill blowing on me too distinctly.
It is very sobering certainly, but just a little depressing;
and while I should cheerfully recommend it to the frivolous
and self-satisfied, I am conscious of preferring a slightly
higher temperature than that which prevails in the environs
of Boston. I am afraid I should even dare to be guilty
of enthusiasm at times. Still an unbiassed judgement
must pronounce these essays altogether admirable in
their unflinching sincerity and uncompromising service
notion of the scope of the work may be had from the
preface, where the writer points out that his leading
idea is "that religion and poetry are identical
in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they
are attached to practical affairs. Poetry is called
religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when
it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing
of Tolstoi's interesting book called What is Art?
will recall that he finds the basis of poetry, as
of the other arts, simply in the need of expression
felt by the human soul; but that he further makes the
arts the children of religion, attempting to show how
religion alone has been the fostering influence in which
art has sprung into existence. Mr. Santayana's conception
is certainly more sound. Indeed, I see no way of honestly
avoiding his main conclusions. He is eminently the advocate
of sanity, of severe thought, of intelligence; and the
critic of all those misty semi-emotional creeds which
are never lacking in followers.
the sort of critical writing we are accustomed to in
current literature, the inane and false and hurried
judgements that prevail on every hand, one must admit
that a good deal of Mr. Santayana's book will be profoundly
novel; to the few who care for the stability of logic
and truth, however, it will be a welcome discovery,
to be treasured with the Essays in Criticism and
Religious Aspects of Philosophy.
is in his essay on "The Poetry of Barbarism"
that he comes more closely in contact with current interest.
Already his conclusions in this chapter have aroused
not a little excitement among the faithful followers
of Whitmam and Browning. I must confess I look upon
any invasion of the Browning sanctuary with bated breath,
though the desecration of the Whitman myth would leave
me unmoved by comparison. Still, is it not astounding
to have two demi-gods slain at a blow? As I have read
Mr. Santayana's dispassionate arraignment, and as step
by step I reluctantly assent to reason, I am torn between
two feelings. I do not know whether most to be regretful
for the vanishing domination of a master or grateful
for the emancipation from his influence. I am afraid
Browning will never quite be what he was before. Perhaps
this is the use of all criticism, to deliver us from
one entrancement after another, until we are at last
brought more closely into understanding that service
which is to be said to be "perfect freedom."
Anyhow, if you have been a Browning lover or a Whitman
lover, here is a test for that openness of mind of which
our little attempts at culture may have made us proud.
Can you relinquish your pet divinity at the inescapable
compulsion of a ruthless thinker? Do you still place
adherence to reason above loyalty to personal predilection?
Will you forsake the immortal Walt and Robert and follow
after the absolute Veritas, fleeting though she may
be? If not-if you are not equal to this sacrifice-you
may as well skip "The Poetry of Barbarism,"
for if you are not made wholesomely uncomfortable you
will be made unwholesomely annoyed. On the whole, I
believe I am most grateful to Mr. Santayana for his
diligent work, so luminous, so helpful, so free from
any vagary or inflation of any kind. And I could wish
that he would bring the same acumen to bear on other
recent masters of letters. His studies of Arnold and
Tennyson, for instance, would be a distinct gain to
our confused time. But then, I am sure, wherever his
search may lead him we shall be the gainers.
and Religion," Commercial Advertiser, Apr.
28, 1900 [back]