March 24, 1917
BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS
By ROBERT LYND
“I LIKE books about books,” confessed Charles Lamb. Mr. Arthur Symons, who quotes the sentence in Figures of Several Centuries adds the comment that this is “the test of the book-lover.” Of books about books none has been published in recent years, with the single exception of Henry James’s Notes on Novelists, more attractive, more full of enticements down pleasant and flower-bordered paths, than Mr. Symons’s new volume of essays. Mr. Symons’s world is peopled beyond that of most critics by authors and artists of all kinds. He exhibits authors to us with the fastidious enthusiasm of a collector. He seems at times scarcely to recognise the existence of the common world except as something to be painted or written about. At least his interest in it is mainly aesthetic. He is more concerned to discover some strangeness of the imagination or the passions in his authors than to delight in the sanity of genius. He is inevitably drawn to such authors as Villon and Donne and Baudelaire and Poe and Huysmans. Even though his absorption is on occasion the absorption of a critic rather than a disciple, this is none the less the company in which he instinctively finds himself. It is all the more surprising that one of the finest essays in a book of fine essays should be a chapter on Charles Lamb, and that in presence of Lamb Mr. Symons should bend the knee of the moralist as well as of the aesthete. One has met people in recent years who have tried to belittle Lamb. He has been well spoken of so long that it is natural those who do not constantly read him should be weary of his name. His praise, like that of Aristides, has grown monotonous. One has only to read him, however, to find him once again as fresh and unexpected as an April day. A taste for Lamb is scarcely less natural than our personal affections. He is almost part of the religion of many people, who worship him as a sort of saint of humour. He would himself have protested against sanctification of any sort, as he protested against Coleridge’s addressing him as “my gentle-hearted Charles” in print. “Please,” he wrote, “to blot out ‘gentle-hearted,’ and substitute drunken dog, ragged head, seld-shaven, odd-eyed, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the gentleman in question.” None the less, Lamb must be content to get into his stained-glass window, even though it be in the attitude of a man being carried home, legless with liquor and his halo a trifle askew, by his friends. And Mr. Symons in his new book has published the appropriate sermon for the occasion of the dedication of the window. “To read Lamb,” he declares,
makes a man more humane, more tolerant, more dainty; incites to every natural piety, strengthens reverence ; while it clean his brain of whatever dull fumes may have lodged there, stirs up all his senses to wary alertness, and actually quickens his vitality like high, pure air. It I s, in the familiar phrase, “a liberal education” ; but it is that finer education which sets free the spirit. His natural piety, In the full sense of the word, seems to me deeper and more sensitive than that of any other English writer. Kindness, in him, embraces mankind, not with the wide, engulfing arms of philanthropy, but with an individual caress. He is almost the sufficient type of virtue, so far as virtue can ever be loved ; for there is not a weakness in him which is not the bastard of some good quality, and not an error which had an unsocial origin. His jests add a new reverence to lovely and noble things, and light up an unsuspected “soul of goodness in things evil.”
For the rest, Mr. Symons’s portrait is beautiful and just, and he quotes his author with invariable happiness. In his appreciation of Lamb as a critic, however, he is inclined to exaggerate his infallibility. “The final test of a critic,” he declares, “is in his reception of contemporary work”—an arbitrary and disputable statement. And we would never gather from Mr. Symons that Lamb had estimated wrongly some of the greatest of his contemporaries. He undervalued Byron and scarcely valued Shelley at all. “I can no more understand Shelley than you can,” he once wrote to Bernard Barton. “His poetry is ‘thin sown with profit or delight.’ ” This does not prove Lamb to have been anything but one of the finest of English critics. But he was not “icily regular” in his tastes. He was freakish at times in his enthusiasms and disparage ments. He could read into Cyril Tourneur wonders of the imagination that were not there.
Mr. Symons’s own attitude to the work of his contemporaries would justify his claim to a high place among critics. He is always eager to portray his authors justly, though he portrays them, as is right, in the colours of his own temperament. He is an interested explorer of the personality that lies behind every book. When one describes him as an aesthete, one is in danger of failing to convey the impression that he is an exceptionally curious spectator of the lives of artists as well as of their poems and pictures. His “figures” are living creatures, some of whom—Pater and Coventry Patmore and Edmond de Goncourt, for instance—he has known in the flesh as well as in books. Perhaps the least restrained of his appreciations of contemporaries is that of Swinburne. It is as though, in writing about him, he had been infected by Swinburne’s own extravagance of enthusiasm. If Swinburne ever grows fatiguing, this, apparently, must be put down to the unerring and uniform perfection of his technique—surely an absurd and narrow use of the word “technique.” Mr. Symons even dismisses as foolish those who assert that “the dazzling brilliance of Swinburne’s form is apt to disguise a certain thinness, a poverty of substance.” He claims for Swinburne that he “is a great master of blank verse; there is nothing that can be done with blank verse that he cannot do with it.” And he goes on to bid his readers “listen” for proof to “these lines from Mary Stuart ” :
She shall be a world’s wonder to all time,
A deadly glory watched of marvelling men.
Not without praise, not without noble tears,
And if without what she would never have
Who had it never, pity—yet from none
Quite without reverence and some kind of love
For that which was so royal.
This is admirable mouthing; but to acclaim a poet on the strength of it a “great master of blank verse ” is mere whimsicality. At the same time, mingled with recurrent exaggerations, there are many excellent passages defining Swinburne’s genius in Mr. Symons’s essay.
If Mr. Symons is overkind to Swinburne, he is, as one would have expected, less than fair to another of his elder contemporaries, Ibsen. “The world,” he writes, “which Ibsen really knows is that little segment of the world which we call society; its laws are not those of nature, its requirements are not the requirements of God or of man.” For Mr. Symons, Ibsen wrote Peer Gyniin vain. He does not realise that Peer is one of the supreme comic figures in literature. Of Peer Gynt he writes : “It is Ibsen in high spirits; and it is like a mute dancing at a funeral. It is a harlequin of a poem, a thing of threads and patches; and there are gold threads in it and tattered clouts.” That the laughter in Peer Gynt is sardonic is true enough. But with Ibsen sardonic laughter was a kind of joy and a natural expression of his genius. The image of ” a mute dancing at a funeral ” is no more appropriate to him than to the Swift of Gulliver’s Travels. Mr. Symons has missed seeing what a miracle it is that the comic and tragic and poetic elements should have been mixed in Ibsen into almost a new kind of genius. The truth is, Ibsen’s social drama, in which the passions of the modern world are stated in sentences with hardly a single magnificence of phrase, repels Mr. Symons. He is interested in men and women only in so far as they can be presented under the illusion of beauty. The Ibsen that has impressed the imagination of the world is an artist in revolt against that illusion—an artist who desires to be done with masks and to realise how men and women actually live in the world we know. He was in much of his work the satirist of a shabby age, and poets and dreamers resent not only the existence of a shabby age, but its admission for treatment into literature. One may admit a preference for idealistic literature, in which lovers and heroes infect one with their exaltations. But this is no reason for deploring the fact that Ibsen, instead of echoing the poets who had gone before him, discovered new experiences for the imagination.
In the chapter on Donne, Mr. Symons writes with reservations as in the chapter on Ibsen. But Donne is sufficiently remote not to repel him in the same degree with his manner and his material when they are most open to criticism. He finds Donne guilty of “the heresy of the realist,” and of “producing at times poetry which is a kind of disease of the intellect, a sick offshoot of science.” But he portrays Donne, not in the spirit of doubt, but in the spirit of wonder, and the result is a noble and remarkable study of a poet’s personality and work. He seems to me not to do entire justice to Donne’s music. He refuses to endorse altogether Ben Jonson’s statement that “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” But the perversity of Donne’s use of metre has been exaggerated. After all, in his great poems, such as All Kings and All their Favourites, one delights in the measured music no less than in the passion of the verse. But it is Donne as a “figure” even more than as a poet that fascinates Mr. Symons. This adventurer, lover, and clergyman—this “fascinating and puzzling creature,” who one day is a soldier and another is lying on a sickbed and “notes down all his symptoms as he lies awake night after night, with an extraordinary and, in itself, morbid acuteness”—this neurotic, this student of the flesh and the grave, “himself the ultimate of his curiosities,” has excited Mr. Symons’s imagination to a glow beyond any of the other authors of whom he has written. But the personal chapters on Pater and Coventry Patmore are scarcely less delightful. Here, too, the authors “come to life.” But there is nothing in the book that is not good of its kind—even the scrappy little comments on Villon and Meredith, whose Love in the Valley, by the way, is not so much as mentioned in an estimate of the author as a poet!
Mr. John Freeman, who has just published a volume of literary essays, The Moderns, manifestly aims at something different in his criticism from Mr. Symons. He does not attempt to portray authors as “figures,” as Mr. Symons does. His attitude is rather that of a commentator, and of a commentator with pronounced moral and artistic prepossessions. His book has the dignity of grave thinking and careful writing. It does not, however, sufficiently mirror the authors discussed in it as it seems to me to be the function of critical essays of this kind to do. Thus there are fifty-one pages devoted to Mr. Bernard Shaw, which never for a moment give one the sense that one is in presence of an author primarily comic in his genius. It is not that Mr. Freeman does not discuss Mr. Shaw’s wit: it is that there is no reflection of Mr. Shaw, the wit, the man who has made his contemporaries smile and dance by turns, in these pages. The truth is, Mr. Freeman is antipathetic to the irreverence of the comic genius. One wonders whether, apart from a few choruses, he would admit Aristophanes into the ranks of artists. It is curious to find him, on the other hand, regarding the preface to Androcles as essentially reverent and Androcles itself as farce on a lower level of imaginative seriousness. To me it seems that the farce of Androcles is far more essentially serious and imaginative than the controversial portrait of Jesus in the preface. Mr. Freeman is more sympathetic to Mr. Wells and more expository in the essay he has written on him. Indeed, he writes with understanding of all the other moderns in his book—Mr. Hardy, Maeterlinck, Henry James, Mr. Conrad, Coventry Patmore, Mr. Robert Bridges, and Francis Thompson. He justly notes the burden of Noblesse Oblige that runs through the work both of Mr. Conrad and Henry James. It is strange, however, that he should be unable to find anything else in common between Mr. Conrad and James except the “zest for creation.” Surely, it was Henry James who taught Mr. Conrad how to write Chance, and have they not in common the passion for the study of a fine nature struggling against a poisoned atmosphere? Perhaps, the most suggestive essays in The Moderns are those on Mr. Hardy and Mr. Bridges. Mr. Freeman finds in Mr. Bridges especially a poet to whom he takes kindly in his very limitations. It is when he turns to the poets, indeed, or to the authors with an essentially poetic imagination, that Mr. Freeman is soundest and most clarifying in his criticisms.