Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Literature and Life:  A Booklover’s Corner
[II. Alfred Einstein, A Short History of Music / Edgar Lee Masters, Life of Walt Whitman]

 

A Booklover’s Corner!  The phrase conjures up a vision of mellowed leisure; of slippered comfort, of an old, friendly jacket, of a chair long ago moulded to fit all physical needs, of sufficient and tempered light, but with no suggestion of Age in the occupant.  For there sits perpetual Youth.  If Tithonus, instead of asking the gods for immortality, had asked to be made a Book-lover he might have escaped his restless fate, for, in the end, he was turned into a grasshopper.  If he had chosen to be a Book-lover, transformation into a Book-worm would have been natural.  He found immortality without perpetual youth a bore; no doubt Eos, his wife, was bored, too.
     The vision conjures up BOOKS; they must be close at hand, each in its place, each with its history (how, when, and where it was acquired).  They must have been assembled without the commercial suggestions of any scheme for book-selling; acquired naturally and slowly, laid down like an alluvial deposit, or a vintage wine.  The value of the shelves is incalculable to the owner; the bibliophile who pays $300 for a first edition is Crawford would not offer $30 for the lot, but it is not for sale.
     This is, maybe, the ideal corner, but so long as the Lover is there with his Books the surroundings are not very important, even a certain discomfort vanishes the moment the charm begins to work.
     I have been interested in two books which have lately come from the press.  One of them, Alfred Einstein’s A Short History of Music, I would advise a book-buyer to add to his treasures, particularly is he [page 439] is a music-lover.  The other is the new Life of Walt Whitman, by Edgar Lee Masters.

 

•     •     •

 

     Should there be an apology or merely an explanation for a reference in this column to a new book on music?  Not if the work is literature, not if it is a little masterpiece, and A Short History of Music falls easily into that category.  Those who have written about music are usually wide of the mark; it is a difficult employment.  Those who have made aphorisms on music can only tell us there is a secret which they cannot divulge.  Browning says, “God has a few of us that He whispers in the ear; the rest may reason and welcome: ‘tis we musicians know.”  But what do they know?  Bernard Shaw says, “The poetry that lies too deep for music.”  What is this poetry?  There is no explicit answer to either question.
     Music asks questions and answers them, sets forth problems and gives the solution, but ever in its own material, if sound can be called material.  But while the explanation of the power and beauty of music lives in the music itself, and while philosophizing about it is idle, there is the development of the art from its beginnings which can be treated as the subject matter of history.  Music now lives in the air; touch that medium with the right wave-length and you are almost certain to get something good, indifferent or bad.  But amid all these millions of listeners, in the majority of whom listening has become a vice, there is a “saving remnant” that still has a respect for music.  By that remnant, and by the growing class of listeners who are becoming curious about the art, Einstein’s book will be welcomed.
     The greatest mathematician and scientist of our day is a musician, a theorist, and also a violinist, and his Short History of Music is informed by his extraordinary mentality.  As a tribute to the author the translation has been made and supervised by 15 qualified English critics of music.  In a book of 200 pages there is no room for discursive writing, and it is a marvel of conciseness and balance.  The thread of development is always in his hand leading him from the past to the present; and he never loses contact with the core of his argument, which one of the admirers of the book has stated to be “that great art is great feeling made greatly variable.”
     One of the charms of the book is the comment on the composers as they come into view, often not more than a sentence, sometimes [page 440] expanded to a paragraph, but always packed with meaning, inspired with truest perception.  I have no room for many quotations.  “To think of the miracle of human genius is to think of Schubert.”  “Bach is the greatest Christian preacher since Luther.”  [“]Finally in the Mass in B minor, Bach miraculously realized all that was most complete, comprehensive and objective in his conception of the essence and being of Christianity.  Supreme musicianship, the utmost vividness of imagination and the profoundest capacity for emotion were in Bach made one.[ ”]  Einstein can even be fair to jazz, which he calls “the most abominable treason against all the music of western civilization,” for in all he finds lurking a European desire for the “natural, primitive and barbaric.”  The end of this little masterpiece is so fine and so closely applicable to the present condition of all the arts that I must quote it:
We can only see that we are at the end of another chapter and that music has come to the end of her first, most youthful and loveliest phase of her development.  It is equally clear that she cannot find salvation in a return to the past, in a hopeless attempt to rediscover her age of innocence.  We must now seek the way to a new simplicity and trust; we must turn from irony to humour, from caricature to portraiture, from negotiation to affirmation.  If there be still a future for music it must be built upon a new humanization of its resources and its spirit.

•     •     •

 

     My copy of Leaves of Grass was picked up in 1888, when the storm of hatred which had rages around it since its publication had begun to abate.  It is curious to note the change in the attitude of the official novelists in this matter and it must have arisen from a change in the public heart.  In 1888, in England, Vizetelly was imprisoned and fined for publishing translations of Zola’s novels.  From time to time storms of virtue broke over the heads of bewildered authors.  But told many book that were wrecked and abandoned have sailed into port.  Even James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was a few years ago anathema, can be purchased in any book-shop in London; issued by the firm that had felt too outraged to publish The Rainbow.  I am told the war brought the altered outlook, together with all the other changes in manners and values that came in its train.  [page 441]
     Edgar Lee Masters is not the ideal source for a new book on Walt Whitman, but it has good points.  All the facts are there, but at the end the reader is confused by the lack of arrangement and the writing is sometimes slovenly.  One never feels that he is under the spell of an informed critic and one knows the reason when he meets this statement of the author’s faith, “that Shakespeare, the Bible and any book whatever, can be so constantly studied that it takes on elements of beauty and greatness which is does not really possess.”  From the mind of a critic in this condition not much can be expected.  This false beauty would delude upon a too constant study of Whitman!  But if the beauty and greatness is not in the work, where does it come from?
     The references to English literature do not inspire confidence.  Browning’s ballad, “Herve Riel,” is mentioned as giving immortality to England, land and spirit.  It glorified the heroism of a Breton pilot who saved some French ships from the English is 1692.  It is interesting to record that Browning received for the poem a hundred guineas from the Cornhill Magazine in 1871, and gave the sum to the Paris Relief Fund, the city being then under siege.
     The incident of Anne Gilchrist’s association with Whitman, unique in literary annals, received due attention.  When her letters, so full of passion, and his replies, so guarded and so lacking in any spontaneous warmth, are read, and when the passage in these lives is followed to its end there comes a sense of incongruity in the pure relationship.  Without derogation of Whitman’s genius, his friendship with Peter Doyle, the street car conductor, seems on his natural level; it was certainly more from the centre than his feelings for intellectuals, for such men as Emerson and Burroughs.  Our author curtly describes Mrs. Gilchrist as, “of England, then just beyond forty and a widow.”  This is inadequate.  Widows of forty years could have been supplied from England many times over, but not one with her background.  She and her husband were close friends of the Carlyles, living next them at Chelsea, and they were free of the artistic circle of the Rossettis, and the literary circle of Carlyle and Tennyson.  Her husband was a barrister of the Middle Temple.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti spoke of him as “a farsighted and nobly honest writer on subjects of which few indeed are able to treat worthily.”  He had written a life of Etty, the painter, and when he died he was engaged on a life of William Blake, the mystic, the great poet-artist.  His widow, with the assistance of the Rossettis and others, [page 442] completed the work.  This is the sensitive, cultured soul in her true environment; she seems out of place in the Whitman surroundings at Philadelphia.  Yet there we see her, with her children about her, with her eminently speaking face (described by William Rossetti), of which the eyes were full, dark, liquid and extraordinarily vivacious.
     She fell in love with Whitman from a perusal of his poems and was infatuated by her image of his personality. 
     Mr. Masters in a typical sentence says, “Her eager, almost frantic love came to whatever she was able to take from it in the way of spiritual sustenance.”  She wrote to Whitman from England:

It may be that this shaping of my life course towards you will have to be all inward, that to feed upon your words till they pass into the very substance and action of my soul is all that will be given to me, and the grateful, yearning, tender love growing ever deeper and stronger out of that will have to go dumb and actionless all my days here.

     Love of this quality must have suffered some severe shocks; it received no encouragement from its object.  It survived companionship for a few years for she came to America with her children and made for herself a home where she could meet Whitman.  If she was not disillusioned, her ardour abated and she went home to England.  Her literary activities did not cease, she wrote a life of Mary Lamb and the notice of Black in the Dictionary of National Biography.
     Whitman did not treat this adoration unworthily; his feeling was on a different plane and he attempted no simulation of deeper love.  His poem, “Going Somewhere,” is a feeble tribute.  His appreciations scattered through the records of conversations are more enthusiastic and warm-hearted.  He said:  “She was strangely different from the average; entirely herself; as simple as nature, she was in the most courageous of women; more than queenly; of high aspect in the best sense.”
     “Something too much of this”—as Hamlet said to Horatio—but it is the only clear record of Whitman’s association with a woman.  There are only the vague lines in his poems and the suspicious inferences of his critics to set over against the definite picture.
     Mr. Masters treats very fully his subject’s physical make-up and only gave this reader an uncomfortable feeling.  Fortunately he does not indulge in much psychoanalysis, that curse of modern biography.  His appraisement of the literary output is not clear nor conclusive. [page 443] He repudiates Walt as a prophet because he find him a false prophet; he flounders out of his depth in his tide of criticism that obeys no law.  He scores Whitman for not having the genius to celebrate Washington, forgetting his triumph in the Lincoln Elegy.  He blames him for failure to give America ballads like “Battle of the Baltic,” or Tennyson’s “Revenge” and is emphatic in the statement that Whitman wrote nothing so dramatic or emotional as “The Star Spangled Banner.”
     It is difficult for Mr. Master to fix his feet after such a declaration, but all his vaporing is beside the mark; the poetry survives because it is essentially great and cannot be killed by lack of sympathy or understanding.  I have to thank Mr. Masters for a quotation from Rabelais, which is Whitmanesque in its outlook and which I do not transcribe as a reflection on his book:  “Wisdom cannot enter an unkind spirit and knowledge without conscience is the ruin of the soul.” [page 444]

 

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