Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

RICHARD LE GALLIENNE AS A LITERARY MAN*


 

Mr. Le Gallienne is an all-round man of letters—poet, critic, novelist and essayist. In all these fields of literary activity he has achieved a distinction which comports rather oddly with the kind of fame which the newspapers have thrust upon him. It is the distinction conferred by the discriminating votes of the few rather than by the plaudits of the many. For Mr. Le Gallienne’s real strength lies in those qualities which are rewarded by an enduring rather than a wide approbation. His contribution to the literature of this century-end is of a delicacy which causes the hasty observer to call it slight; but I feel secure in predicting that behind its lightness and grace there will prove to be a strength that will outlast the creations of more aggressively "robustious" contemporaries.

Mr. Le Gallienne’s literary output consists of three volumes of verse—"English Poems," "Robert Louis Stevenson and Other Poems" and "Rubáiyát of Khayyám"; two volumes of prose fiction—"The Quest of the Golden Girl" and "The Romance of Zion Chapel"; two volumes of literary criticism—"Retrospective Reviews" and "George Meredith, Some Characteristics"; three volumes of essays—"The Book Bills of Narcissus," "Prose Fancies," "Prose Fancies: Second Series"; a prose study called "The Religion of a Literary Man"; and a considerable bulk of fugitive and minor compositions.

Of these works the most significant are probably the poetry, the fiction and the "Prose Fancies," and to them I shall devote the scanty space at my disposal. Mr. Le Gallienne’s criticism is competent, discriminating, appreciative, and to some degree constructive. It is in many respects a model of what the criticism of one’s contemporaries should be. But it is more or less ephemeral. It is not by virtue of his book-reviews, sane and satisfying though they are, that Mr. Le Gallienne will hold his place among English men of letters.

His first two volumes of verse contain many things for which he would doubtless be the first to disclaim the title of poetry—things curiously lacking in distinction, and serviceable chiefly for keeping the covers a dignified distance apart. But each volume contains a certain amount of work whose direct and simple beauty cannot be gainsaid. In "Paolo and Francesca," an old story tenderly and skilfully retold, the influence of Keats is plainly seen, but the disciple does no discredit to his master. Elsewhere we find a few less felicitous suggestions of Swinburne. But for the most part Mr. Le Gallienne’s note is his own, not aggressive in its originality, but authentic, and with a wholesome reminiscence of Elizabethan chords and cadences. There is as yet none of the inexplicable and commanding music which takes men’s souls captive they know not why; there is little of that lyric poignancy which we have learned to look for in English poetry since Shelley sang. But these qualities appear to some extent in the Omar paraphrases; and meanwhile there are spontaneity, a straightforward treatment of familiar emotion, and a modesty not always conspicuous in members of the singing craft.

In prose, it seems to me that Mr. Le Gallienne has done even better than in verse. His "Prose Fancies" stand quite by themselves. In them he shows his literary descent from the well-loved Elia, and displays that kind of mastery which is apt to win the tribute of imitation. The best of these little essays have that finality of style which is one of the surest safeguards against oblivion. Some have the iridescent fragility of the gossamer. Others express a homely human sentiment with a freshness of appreciation that makes it seem all new. A few, indeed, degenerate into sentimentalism, which is, however, a fault to be treated with indulgence in these days. Very generally they are characterized by a fine and happy humor, which laughs with, rather than at, the venial follies of mankind. Mr. Le Gallienne’s tolerant jibe hits his own weakness freely as those of his neighbor. "The long hair of the poet" is to him as fit subject for delicate raillery as the "business man’s importance," "the swagger of the bad actor," "the blue shirt of the socialist." If he himself seems to himself a pat example of the weakness he is depicting, he is the first to show a genial interest in the fact. It may be safely predicated of any man who possesses this kind of clear-seeing humor that he is no poseur at heart, though he may for a little amuse himself with any pose that catches his whim.

These prose fancies possess another characteristic which will make largely for their permanence. Their amber embalms a thousand little idiosyncrasies of today. In them the future student of manners and customs of this century-end will find infinite riches in little room. Every one of these prose studies has some living contemporary interest, some native, unmistakably modern savor. This constitutes a winning bid for the attention of posterity.

The distinguishing excellences of the prose fancies are the same, I think, as those which give their charm to "The Quest of the Golden Girl" and "The Romance of Zion Chapel." Each of these works may not unfairly be characterized as a kind of prolonged prose fancy. The former work, whose indebtedness to Sterne is in no way such as to discredit its originality either of conception or of treatment, rather eludes classification. It is a delicate and charming fantasia, and so perfectly maintains its gracious sprightliness throughout all but the last half-dozen of its pages that the strong note on which it ends seems out of key. It seems to me a book whose fate will be a thousand resurrections. No matter how often it drops down into the forgotten shelves, some rummager will ferret it out, delight in its whimsical graces, write a proudly possessive preface, and launch it for a brief but sunny voyage on the favor of the elect.

"The Romance of Zion Chapel" seems to me more significant than "The Quest of the Golden Girl," but far less adequate and satisfactory as a work of art. It reveals a new power in Mr. Le Gallienne, the sympathetic comprehension of homely and common- place people, and the faculty of delineating them with love. It touches tragic deeps, it presents at least two characters that live and breathe, and it abounds in passages as suggestive and exquisite as the best of the prose fancies. And it leads one to believe that Mr. Le Gallienne has not yet fully exploited his genius.

 


"Richard Le Gallienne as a Literary Man," Cosmopolitan 25:4, August 1898, 459-62 [back]