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The lying insincerity of fables and their morals always shocks me, and the gross blindness of the fabulist to any view of transactions but that adopted by him to point his precept, fills me with contempt for him as an artist. In the Spelling-Book I do not feel myself at liberty to select the fables as I choose. I will take only one, the first that comes. It is about the swallow and the sparrow. It is a very bad specimen for my contention, but as I am the challenger I have not the choice of weapons, and I accept the first presented by Cobbett.
A swallow coming back to her old nest in the spring finds it occupied by a sparrow and his brood of young ones. The swallow demands possession on the grounds of having built the nest and brought up three broods in it. The sparrow will not budge. The swallow summons a number of swallows, and they wall up the sparrow and he and his brood die of hunger.
The first notice of bias the reader gets is that the swallow is called she, and the sparrow he. Why? For the dishonest purpose of enlisting sympathy with the swallow. There is no evidence or statement the sparrow was aware when taking possession of the nest that it would be reclaimed by the swallow. How was the sparrow to know that the swallow was not dead and buried by the mole? The nest was derelict. Again, when the swallow returned the sparrow had young ones, which it would be dangerous to remove from the nest. How was the sparrow to know the swallow was telling the truth, and that the nest was hers? Then, even supposing the sparrow to be all in the wrong, the punishment was out of all proportion to the offence. The sparrow had done no harm beyond intruding. He had not injured the furniture, or burned any of the swallow’s gas, or broken into the wine-cellar. Justice would have been vindicated by the expulsion of the intruder and his brood. But what takes place instead? The door is built up, and the sparrow with his innocent young is murdered! Surely if this is a fruitful fable, the moral is immoral. This is the old Mosaic theory of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and a little, or rather a great deal more. It is hideously un-Christian. I believe Cobbett professed Christianity. Why did he put this odious vengeful story in the forefront of his exemplars of righteous doing?
But the worst part of the story is in the Moral. “Thus it always is with the unjust,” says the Chorus of the fabulist. He means that the unjust are always nailed up in their houses with their blameless children and starved to death. Now neither Cobbett nor any other sane preacher believes anything of the kind. This is a lie, pure and simple; a lie no doubt told with a good object, but a lie all the same. Cobbett had too much common-sense not to know that it is not always “thus” with the “unjust.” As a rule, the unjust go scot free when they stop short of crime. The people who say otherwise are yielding to a feminine, sentimental weakness. Poetic justice no doubt does exist – in poetry.Most men are as unjust as they dare be, and most men get on comfortably from their cradles to their graves. It is only the fools, the men of ungovernable passions and impulses and the blunderers who suffer. Man is at heart a rapacious brute. All his centuries of civilization have not quelled the predatory spirit in him. Any man will become a thief if he only be sufficiently tempted when he is sufficiently desperate. The crime of the sparrow in appropriating the swallow’s nest is intelligible, the crime of the swallow in murdering the sparrow and his brood is intelligible, the crime of lying committed by the moralist is abominable. When the child to whom Cobbett lied grows up, he will know the lie, despise the liar, and have nothing left of the precious fable but a shaken faith in the words of all men, whether they be liars like Cobbett and the other moralists, or truth-tellers like the ordinary everyday folk, who do not pose as teachers and latter-day prophets. It is very improving to reflect on the freedom these teachers give themselves in act when enforcing their theories in writing. In order that Cobbett might exemplify his principles against the credit system, he signed his name across the face of acceptances for seventy thousand pounds!
Cobbett’s Grammar was written for sailors and soldiers and such men. I gave the only copy of it I ever had to a sailor who had abandoned living on the sea to live by the sea, who had eschewed the paint-pot and the stage aboard the merchant service for the palette and stool of the studio. It is years since I have seen the book, but I remember the contemptuous way in which the ex-soldier disposes of prosody. He says to his pupil in effect: You need pay no attention to this branch of grammar, as it deals only with the noise made by words. Cobbett’s treatment of prosody does not occupy more than one line or one line and a half of print. It is briefer than Dr. Johnson’s Syntax:
That is all the merciful Dr. Samuel Johnson has to say about syntax. Oh, Lindley Murray! Oh, memories of youth! Does it seem possible that Johnson could have enjoyed the luxury of speaking in this light and airy and debonair way of English grammar in his day, and that Lindley Murray could have matured his awful Grammar in so few years afterwards? Recollect there were not forty years between the lexicographer and the grammarian. Could not Lindley Murray have left the unfortunate English language alone? Johnson says no one need bother about syntax, and Cobbett says no one need bother about prosody. Thus we have only orthography and etymology to look after, when in comes Murray and spoils all! It is doubtful if the language will ever recover the interference of that Yankee merchant who invented syntax and made the life of dull school boys and girls a path of thorns and agony.
An allegory is a fable for fools of larger growth. I am writing in an off-hand way, and I will not pause to examine the question nicely; but is there any such thing as a successful allegory? I have no experience of one. I seem to hear a loud shout of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Well, I never could read the book through, and I have tried at least twenty times. I have put the reading of that book before myself in the most solemn manner. I have told myself over and over again that I ought to read it as an educational exercise. In vain. How any man with imagination can bear the book I do not know. Bunyan had inexhaustible invention, but no imagination. He saw a reason for things, not the things themselves. No creation of the imagination can lack consequence or verisimilitude. On almost every page of the Progress there is violation of sequence, outrage against verisimilitude. Christian has a great burden on his back and is in rags. He cannot remove the burden. (Why?) He is put to bed (with the burden on his back), then he is troubled in his mind (the burden is forgotten, and the vision altered completely and fatally); again we are reminded that he has the burden on his back when he tells Evangelist of it. Why can he not loose the burden on his back? How is it secured so that he cannot remove it? He cannot see a wicket gate across a very wide field, but he sees a shining light (where?), and then he begins to run (burden and all) away from his wife and children (which is immoral and abhorrent to the laws of God and man). For the mere selfish ease of his body he deserts his wife and children, who must be left miserably poor, for is he not in rags? The neighbours come out and mock at him for running across a field. Why? How do they know why he runs, and what neighbours are there to come out and mock at one when one is running across a large field? The Slough of Despond is in this field (for he has not passed through the wicket gate), and he does not seem to know of the Slough, or think of avoiding it. Fancy any man not knowing of such a filthy hole within a field of his home! How is it that Pliable and Obstinate have no burdens on their backs? It is not the will of the King that the Slough should be dangerous to wayfarers: this surely is blasphemy. The whole thing is grotesquely absurd and impossible to imagine. There is no sobriety in it, no sobriety of keeping in it; and no matter how wild the effort or vision of imagination may be there must always be sobriety of keeping in it or it is delirium not imagination, disease not inspiration. As far as I can see there is no trace of imagination, or even fancy, in the Pilgrim’s Progress. The story never happened at all. It is a horrible attempt to tinkerise the Bible.
One of the things I cannot understand about Macaulay is that he stands by Bunyan’s silly book. Macaulay was a man of vast reading and acquirements and of common-sense tastes. He was not a poet, but he was very nearly one, and ought to have responded in sympathy with poets. In politics he belonged to that most melancholy of all sects, the Whigs, and it may be that the spirit of political compromise to which he had familiarised himself in public life had slipped unknown to him into his literary briefs. Anyway, he himself says that the Pilgrim’s Progress is the only book which was promoted from the kitchen to the drawing-room. There is no difficulty in accounting for the fact that the book was popular among scullions and cooks, but how it ever gained currency among people of moderate education and taste cannot be explained. It is the most dull and tedious and monstrous book of any note in the English language, and how any man with a gleam of imagination can like it is more than I can understand. If one has been familiar with it when young, one may tolerate it on the score of tenderness – tenderness for memories and laziness in new enterprises; but I never yet knew any one with even fancy who, meeting it for the first time after the dawn of adolescence, could even endure it.
It is like celebrating one’s own apotheosis to drop Bunyan and take up Spenser. Here we share the air with an immortal god and not a bilious enthusiast. When I have laid aside the Spelling-Book and the Pilgrim’s Progress, and opened the Faerie Queen, I feel as though the leaden clouds of the north had rolled away, disclosing the blue of ?gean skies; as though for squalid porridge and buttermilk had been substituted ambrosia and nectar; as though for fallow and stubble had drifted under my feet soft meadow-grass dense with flowers; as though the moist and clayey crags had changed into purple hills, the green-mantled pools to azure lakes, the narrow waters of a stagnant mere to the free imperial waves and tides of the ocean. It is better than escaping out of an East-end slum into the green lanes and roads of Warwickshire.
And yet, melancholy truth! the Faerie Queen is most unpopular and most unreadable. It has with justice, I think, been said that of ten thousand people who begin the Faerie Queen, not ten read half way through it, and only one arrives at the end. I find by a mark in my copy that I have got a good deal more than half through it, but that I have not reached the last line of this most colossal fragment of a poem. What a mercy the rest of it was drowned in the Irish sea! My Faerie Queen occupies 792 pages of five stanzas to the page; that is, between thirty-five and thirty-six thousand verses, two hundred and sixty to seventy thousand words, or equal in length to a couple of ordinary three-volume novels! And still it is unperfite! I find that although I have owned the book for twenty years, I have got no further than page 472, so that I have read only three-fifths of the fragment of this stupendous poem.
It is not the length alone that defeats the reader. In all the field of English verse there is no poem of great length that comes upon the mind with more full and easy flow. The stanza after a long while becomes, no doubt, monotonous, but it is the monotony of a vast and freightful river that moves majestically, bearing interminable argosies of infinite beauty and variety and significance. After one hundred pages one might put down the book, wearied by the melodious monotony of the imperial chords. I have never been able to read anything like a hundred, anything like fifty pages at a time. I think I have rarely exceeded as many stanzas. Spenser is the poets’ poet, and the Faerie Queen the poets’ poem, and yet even the poets cannot read it freely and fully, as one reads Milton or Shakespeare or Shelley or Keats or the readable parts of Coleridge, all of whom are poets’ poets also.
The allegory bars the way. One reads on smoothly and joyously about a wood or a nymph, or a knight or a lady, or a castle or a dragon, and is half drunk on the wealthy poet’s mead (is not Spenser the wealthiest of English poets?), when suddenly Dan Allegory comes along and assures you that it is not a wood or a nymph, or a knight or lady, or a castle or dragon, but a virtue or a vice posing in property clothes; that in fact things are not what they seem, but visions are about. Cobbett intended his fables for little children, and Bunyan his allegory for the company of the stewpans, but Spenser’s story is for the ears of ladies and of knights; why then does he try to spoon-feed them with virtuous sentiment? There is not, as far as I know, a trace of dyspepsia in all the Faerie Queen, and yet he has sicklied it over “with the pale cast of thought.” In this Vale of Tears there are quite as many virtuous persons as any reasonable man can desire. Why should our poets – those rare and exquisite manifestations of our possibilities – turn themselves into moralists, who are, bless you, as common as grocers, as plentiful as mediocrity. In fact, nine-tenths of the civilised race of man are moralists. But poets ought not to be theorists. They are not sent to us for the purpose of converting us, but for the purpose of delighting us. They ought to be catholic and pagan. They are among the settled property of joy to which all mankind are heirs. They come in among the flowers and colours of the sky and earth, and the vocal rapture of the birds, and the perfumes of the breeze, and the love of woman and children and friends and kind. They are sent to us for our mere delight. They never grow less or fade away or change. They have nothing to do with dynasties or creeds or codes of manners. They are apart from all bias and strife. The will of Heaven itself is against poets preaching, for no poet has ever written hymns that were not a burden upon his reputation as a singer, and did not weigh him to the ground, compared with his flight when free and catholic and pagan.
After entertaining the nightmares of dulness born of Cobbett and Bunyan, how one’s shoulders swing back, one’s chest opens, and one’s breath comes with large and ample coolness and joy as one reads —
Or again here —
Is it not a miserable destiny to be obliged to read stanza after stanza redolent of such rich perfumed words about the lady, and then to find that Una is not a mortal or a spirit even – but Truth! An abstraction! A whim of degrading reason! A figment of a moralist’s heated and disordered brain. Any Lie of a poet is better than any Truth of a moralist. Why did Spenser stoop to run on the same intellectual plain as the accidental teacher? The teacher would have done admirably for Truth, but all the worthy essayists of England in the “spacious days of Queen Elizabeth,” put together, could not have written the stanzas about Una as Spenser saw her. This poaching of poets on the preserves of moralists is one of the most shameful things in the history of art.
There are few poets it is harder to select quotations from than Spenser. The fact is, all the Faerie Queen ought to be quoted except the blinding allegory. I find that in years of my movement from the opening of the poem to page 472, the limit I have reached, I have marked a hundred passages at least, some of them running through pages. In no other poem – except Shelley’s Alastor– do I notice such grievous, continuous pencil scores. What is one to do? Whither is one to turn? As I handle the book I am lost in a deeper forest of delight than ever knight of Gloriana’s trod. Here I find a passage of several stanzas marked. I am much too lazy to copy them, and the spelling is troublesome often. But who can resist this? —
I have quoted the three lines and a half of the earlier stanza merely that they may act as an overture to the last two lines. Surely there are no two lovelier lines in the language! In the last line the words seem to melt together of their own propinquity.
Here is an alexandrine that haunts me night and day —
As a rule, I hate writing with the books I am speaking of near me; they fetter one cruelly when they are at hand. There is a tendency to verify one’s memory, and read up the context of favourite lines. This is checking to the speed and chilling to the spirits. When I was saying something about the Spelling-Book and the Pilgrim’s Progress, I had the copies within arm’s length, for I did not know either well enough to trust to memory. Since I got done with them I have placed them in distant safety. But one likes to handle Spenser – to have it nigh. My copy is lying at my left elbow in the blazing sun as I write now. It seems to me I shall never again look into the Spelling-Book or the Pilgrim’s Progress. Fables and allegories are only foolishnesses fit for people of weak intellect and children. Well, when I put down this pen, and before this ink is dry, I shall have resumed my interrupted reading of the Faerie Queen at page 473. My intellect is too weak and my heart too childish to resist the seduction of Spenser’s verse. So much for my own theory of allegory and my respect for my own theory.
MY COPY OF KEATS
The only copy of Keats I ever owned is a modest volume published by Edward Moxon and Co. in the year 1861. By writing on its yellow fly-leaf I find it was given to me four years later, in September 1865. At that time it was clean and bright, opened with strict impartiality when set upon its back, and had not learned to respond with alacrity to hasty searches for favourite passages.
The binding is now racked and feeble from use; and if, as in army regulations, service under warm suns is to be taken for longer service in cooler climes, it may be said that to the exhaustion following overwork have been added the prejudices of premature age.
It is not bound as books were bound once upon a time, when they outlasted the tables and chairs, even the walls; ay, the very races and names of their owners. The cover is simple plain blue cloth; on the back is a little patch of printing in gold, with the words Keats’s Poetical Works in the centre of a twined gilt ribbon and twisted gilt flowers. The welt at the back is bleached and frayed; the corners of the cover are battered and turned in. There is a chink between the cover and the arched back; and the once proud Norman line of that arc is flattened and degraded, retaining no more of its pristine look of sturdy strength than a wheaten straw after the threshing.
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