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“What more magnificent prelude ever was uttered to oath than the portion of this speech preceding ‘No, by Tellus’! What more overpowering, leading up to an overwhelming threat, than the whole passage going before ‘Over the fiery frontier of my realms I will advance a terrible right arm’! What menacing deliberativeness there is in this whole speech, and what utter completeness of ruin to come is indicated by those words, ‘I will advance a terrible right arm’! You feel no sooner shall that arm move than ‘rebel Jove’s’ reign will be at an end, and that chaos will be left for Saturn to rule and fashion once more into order. Shut up the poem now. That’s plenty of Hyperion, and the other books of it are inferior. There is more labour and more likeness to Paradise Lost.” And so my friend, who is 16,000 miles away, and I turned from the Titanic theme, and spoke of the local board of guardians, or some young girl whose beauty was making rich misery in the hearts of young men in those old days.
There is no other long poem in the volume bearing any marks which indicate such close connection with any individual reader as in the case of Hyperion. Endymion boasts only one mark, and that expressing admiration of the relief afforded from monotony of the heroic couplets by the introduction in the opening of the double rhyming verses:
The friend to whom this mark is due never handled the volume, never even saw it; but once upon a time when he, another man, and I had got together, and were talking of the “gallipot poet,” the first friend said he always regarded this couplet as most happily placed where it appears. So when I reached home I marked my copy at the lines. Now, when I open the volume and find that mark, it is as good to me as, better than, a photograph of my friend; for I not only see his face and figure, but once more he places his index-finger on the table, as we three sit smoking, and whispers out the six opening lines, ending with the two I have quoted.Suppose I too should some day go 16,000 miles away from London, and carry this volume with me, shall I not be able to open it when I please, and recall what I then saw and heard, what I now see and hear, as distinctly as though no long interval of ocean or of months lay between to-night and that hour?
Can I ever forget my burly tenor friend, who sang and composed songs, and dinted the line in The Eve of St. Agnes,
and declared a hundred times in my unwearied ears that no more happy epithet than snarling could be found for trumpets? He over and over again assured me, and over and over again I loved to listen to his fancy running riot on the line, how he heard and saw brazen and silver and golden griffins quarrelling in the roof and around his ears as the trumpets blared through the echoing halls and corridors. He, too, marked
“Keats,” he would say, “seems to have got not only at the spirit of the music, but at the very flesh and blood of it. He has done one thing for me,” my friend continued. “Before I read these lines, and others of the same kind, in Keats, my favourite tunes always represented an emotion of my own mind. Now they stand for individual characters in scenes, like descriptions of people in a book. When I hear music now I am with the Falstaffs or the Romolas, with Quasimodo or Julius C?sar.”
I have been regarding the indentures in the volume chronologically. The next marks of importance in the order of the years occur, one in The Eve of St. Agnes, the other in the Ode to a Nightingale. These marks, more than any others, I regard with grateful memory. They are not the work of the hand of him for whom I value them. I have good reason to look on him as a valid friend. For months between him and me there had existed an acquaintance necessarily somewhat close, but wholly uninformed with friendship. We spoke to one another as Mr. So-and-so. Neither of us suspected that the other had any toleration of poets or poetry. Our commerce had been in mere prose. One day, in mid-winter, when a chilling fog hung over London, I chanced to go into a room where he was writing alone. After a formal greeting, I complained of the cold. He dropped his pen and looked up. “Yes,” he said, “very cold and dark as night. Do you know the coldest night that ever was?” I answered that I did not. “It was St. Agnes’s Eve, when
And so we fell to talking about Keats, and talked and talked for hours; and before the first hour of our talk had passed we had ceased “Mistering” one another for ever. The fire of his enthusiasm rose higher and higher as the minutes swept by. He knew one poet personally, for whose verse I had profound respect, and this poet, he told me, worshipped Keats. Often in our talks I laid plots for bringing him back to the simple sentence, “You should hear M. talk about Keats.” The notion that any one who knew M. could think M. would talk to me about Keats intoxicated me. “He would not let me listen to him?” I said half fearfully. “M. would talk to any one about Keats – to even a lawyer.” How I wished at that moment I was a Lord Chancellor who might stand in M.’s path. I have, in a way, been near to that poet since. I might almost have said to him,
So this friend I speak of now and I came to be great friends indeed. We often met and held carnivals of verse, carnivals among the starry lamps of poetry. He had a subtle instinct that saw the jewel, however it might be set. He owned himself the faculty of the poet, which gave him ripe knowledge of all matters technical in the setting.
He would quote these two lines and cry, “Was ever death so pangless as that spoken of here? ‘To cease upon the midnight!’ Here is no struggle, no regret, no fear. This death is softer and lighter and smoother than the falling of the shadow of night upon a desert of noiseless sand.”
For a long time the name of one man had been almost daily in my ears. I had been hearing much through the friend to whom I have last referred about his intuitive eye and critical acumen. That friend had informed me of the influence which his opinion carried; and of how this man held Keats high above poets to whom we have statues of brass, whose names we give to our streets. My curiosity was excited, and, while my desire to meet this man was largely mingled with timidity, I often felt a jealous pang at thinking that many of the people with whom I was acquainted knew him. At length I became distantly connected with an undertaking in which he was prominently concerned. Through the instrumentality of one friendly to us both, we met. It was a sacred night for me, and I sat and listened, enchanted. After some hours the talk wheeled round upon sonnets. “Sonnets!” he cried, starting up; “who can repeat the lines about Cortez in Keats? You all know it.” Some one began to read or repeat the sonnet. Until coming upon the words, “or like stout Cortez.” “That’s it, that’s it! Now go on.”
“‘And all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise,’” he repeated, “‘silent upon a peak in Darien.’ The most enduring group ever designed. They are standing there to this day. They will stand there for ever and for ever; they are immutable. When an artist carves them you may know that Buonarotti is risen from the dead and is once more abroad.”
That portion of a book which is called a preface and put first, is always the last written. It may be human, but it is not logical, that when a man starts he does not know what he has to say first, until he finds out by an elaborate guess of several hundred pages what he wants to say last. It would be unbecoming of me in a collection of ignorant essays to affect to know less than a person of average intelligence; but I am quite sincere when I say I am not aware who the author is of the great aphorism that “After all, there is a great deal of human nature in man.” There is, I would venture to say, more human nature than logic in man. My copy of Keats is no exception to the general rule of books. The preface ought to precede immediately the colophon. Yet it is in the forefront of the volume, before even the very title page itself. It forms no integral part of the volume, and is unknown to the printer or publisher. It was given to me by a thoughtful and kind-hearted friend at whose side I worked for a considerable while. One time, years ago, he took a holiday and vanished, going from among us I knew not whither. On coming back he presented each of his associates with something out of his store of spoil. That which now forms the preface to my copy he gave me. It consists of twelve leaves; twelve myrtle leaves on a spray. When he was in Rome he bore me in mind and plucked this sprig at the grave of the poet. It is consoling to remember Keats is buried so far away from where he was born, when we cannot forget that the abominable infamy of publishing his love-letters was committed in his own country – here in England. His spirit was lent to earth only for a little while, and he gave all of it to us. But we were not satisfied. We must have his heart’s blood and his heart too. The gentlemen who attacked his poetry when he was alive really knew no better, and tried, perhaps, to be as honest as would suit their private ends. But the publication of the dead man’s love-letters, fifty years after he had passed away, cannot be attributed even to ignorance. If any money was made out of the book it would be a graceful act to give it to some church where the burial ground is scant, and the parish is in need of a Potter’s Field.
When I take down my copy of Keats, and look through it and beyond it, I feel that while it is left to me I cannot be wholly shorn of my friends. It is the only album of photographs I possess. The faces I see in it are not for any eye but mine. It is my private portrait gallery, in which hang the portraits of my dearest friends. The marks and blots are intelligible to no eye but mine; they are the cherished hieroglyphics of the heart. I close the book; I lock up the hieroglyphics; I feel certain the book will last my time. Should it survive me and pass into new hands – into the hands of some boy now unborn, who may pluck out of it posies of love-phrases for his fresh-cheeked sweetheart – he will know nothing of the import these marginal notes bore to one who has gone before him; unless, indeed, out of some cemetery of ephemeral literature he digs up this key – this Rosetta stone.
DECAY OF THE SUBLIME
The sublime is dying. It has been pining a long time. At last dissolution has set in. Nothing can save it but another incursion of Goths and Huns; and as there are no Goths and Huns handy just now, the sublime must die out, and die out soon. You can know what a man is by the company he keeps. You can judge a people by the ideas they retain more than by the ideas they acquire. The philology of a tongue, from its cradle to its grave, is the social history of the people who spoke it. To-day you may mark the progress of civilisation by the decay bf the sublime. Glance at a few of the nations of earth as they stand. Italy and Spain still hold with the sublime in literature and art, although, being exhausted stocks, they cannot produce it any longer. France is cynical, smart, artistic, but never was and never can be sublime, so long as vanity rules her; and yet, by the irony of selection, sublime is one of her favourite words. Central Europe has had her sublime phases, but cannot be even thought of now in connection with the quality; and Russia and Turkey are barbarous still. If we come to the active pair of nationalities in the progress of current civilisation, the United States and England, we find the sublime in very poor case.
Young England across the water is the most progressive nation of our age, because it is the most practical. If ever there was a man who put his foot on the neck of the sublime, that man is Uncle Sam. His contribution to the arts is almost nothing. His outrages against established artistic canons have been innumerable. He owns a new land without traditions. He laughs at all traditions. He has never raised a saint or a mummy or a religion (Mormonism he stole from the East), a crusader, a tyrant, a painter, a sculptor, a musician, a dramatist, an inquisition, a star chamber, a council of ten. All his efforts have been in a strictly practical direction, and most of his efforts have been crowned with success. He has devoted his leisure time, the hours not spent in cutting down forests or drugging Indians with whisky, to laughing at the foolish old notions which the foolish old countries cherish. He had a wonderfully fertile estate of two thousand million acres, about only one fourth of which is even to this day under direct human management. In getting these five hundred million acres of land under him he had met all kinds of ground – valley, forest, mountain, plain. But in none of these did he find anything but axes and whisky of the least use. No mountain had been sanctified to him by first earthly contact with the two Tables of the Law. No plain had been rendered sacred as that upon which the miraculous manna fell to feed the chosen people. No inland sea had been the scene of a miraculous draught of fishes. All the land acquired and cultivated by Uncle Sam came to him by the right of whisky and the axe. The mountain was nothing more than so much land placed at a certain angle that made it of little use for tillage. The plains, the rivers, and inland seas had a simply commercial value in his eyes. He had no experience of a miracle of any kind, and he did not see why he should bow down and respect a mountain, that, to him, was no more than so many thousand acres on an incline unfavourable to cultivation. Such a condition of the ground was a bore, and he would have cut down the mountain as he had cut down the Indian and the forest, if he had known how to accomplish the feat. He saw nothing mystic in the waters or the moon. Were the rivers and lakes wholesome to drink and useful for carriage, and well stocked with fish? These were the questions he asked about the waters. Would there be moonlight enough for riding and working? was the only question he asked about that “orb?d maiden with white fire laden whom mortals call the moon.” His notions, his plains, his rivers, his lakes, were all “big,” but he never thought of calling them sublime. On his own farm he failed to find any present trace of the supernatural; and he discovered no trace of the supernatural in tradition, for there was no tradition once the red man had been washed into his grave with whisky. Hence Uncle Sam began treating the supernatural with familiarity, and matters built on the supernatural with levity. Now without the supernatural the sublime cannot exist any length of time, if at all.
It may be urged it is unreasonable to hold that the Americans have done away with the sublime, since in the history of all nations the earlier centuries were, as in America, devoted to material affairs. There is one fact bearing on this which should not be left out of count, namely, that America did not start from barbarism, or was not raised on a site where barbarism had overrun a high state of civilisation. The barbarous hordes of the north effaced the civilisation of old Rome, and raised upon its ashes a new people, the Italians, who in time led the way in art, as the old Romans had before them. The Renaissance was a second crop raised off the same ground by new men. The arts Rome had borrowed from Greece had been trampled down by Goths, who, when they found themselves in the land of milk and honey, sat down to enjoy the milk and honey, until suddenly the germs of old art struck root, and once more all eyes turned to Italy for principles of beauty. But America started with the civilisation of a highly civilised age. She did not rear her own civilisation on her own soil. She did not borrow her arts from any one country. She simply peopled her virgin plains with the sons of all the earth, who brought with them the culture of their respective nationalities. She has not followed the ordinary course of nations, from conflict to power, from power to prosperity, from prosperity to the arts, luxury, and decay. She started with prosperity, and the first use she made of her prosperity was, not to cultivate the fine arts in her own people, but to laugh at them in others. In the individual man the sense of humour grows with years. In nations the sense of humour develops with centuries. The literature of nations begins with battle-songs and hymns, and ends with burlesques and blasphemies.
Now although America has begun with burlesques and blasphemies, no one can for a moment imagine that America is not going to create a noble literature of her own. She is destined not only to found and build up a noble literature, but one which will be unique. When she has time, when she has let most of those idle one thousand five hundred million acres, she will begin writing her books. By that time she will have running in her veins choice blood from every race on earth, and it is a matter of certainty she will give the world many delights now undreamed of. No other nation on earth will have, or ever has had, such an opportunity of devoting attention to man in his purely domestic and social relations. The United States of to-day has, for practical purposes, no foreign policy. She has no foreign rivals, she is not likely to have foreign wars, while in her own country she has large bodies of men from every people on the world. She owns the largest assorted lot of mankind on the globe, and as years go by we may safely conclude she will add to the variety and number of her sons. In all this appears no hope for the sublime. There is no instance in literature of a nation going back from laughter to heroics. The two may exist side by side. But that is not the case in America. Up to this hour only one class of transatlantic writers has challenged the attention of Europe, and that class is humorous and profane. Emerson, Bryant, Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Lowell, Holmes, and Irving are merely Europeans born in America. But Ward, Harte, Twain, and Breitmann are original and American.
America is undoubtedly the literary promise-land of the future. It has done nothing up to this. Its condition has forbidden it to achieve anything, but great triumphs may be anticipated from it. Crossing the Atlantic, what do we find in the other great branch of the English-speaking race? Religious publications head the list by a long way. They have nothing to do with this subject save in so far as they are in the line of the sublime. All forms of the Christian and Jewish creeds are sublime. Looking at the other walks of literature, we find the death sentence of the sublime written everywhere. With the exception of Mr. Browning, here or there we have no poet or dramatist who attempts it. We have elegant trifles and beautiful form in many volumes of second-rate contemporary verse. There never was a time when the science of poetry was understood until now. Our critics can tell you with mathematical certainty the number of poems as distinguished from pieces of verse every well-known man has written. But we are not producing any great poetry, and none of the sublime kind. This is the age of elegant poetic incentive, of exquisite culture, but it is too dainty. We do not rise much above a poem to a shoe, or an ode to a ringlet, perfumed with one of Mr. Rimmel’s best admired distillations. We have a few poets who are continually trying to find out who or what the deuce they are, and what they meant by being born, and so on; but then these men are for the eclectic, and not the herd of sensible people. We have two men who have done noble work, Browning and Tennyson; but, speaking broadly, we find the sublime nowhere. It is true you cannot force genius as you force asparagus; and these remarks are not intended to indict the age with having no poetic faculty or aspiration. Abundance of poetry of a new and beautiful kind does exist, but it is not of the lofty kind born to the men of old.
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