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Ch. 3 - The Great Victorian Poets

What was really unsatisfactory in Victorian literature is something much
easier to feel than to state. It was not so much a superiority in the
men of other ages to the Victorian men. It was a superiority of
Victorian men to themselves. The individual was unequal. Perhaps that is
why the society became unequal: I cannot say. They were lame giants; the
strongest of them walked on one leg a little shorter than the other. A
great man in any age must be a common man, and also an uncommon man.
Those that are only uncommon men are perverts and sowers of pestilence.
But somehow the great Victorian man was more and less than this. He was
at once a giant and a dwarf. When he has been sweeping the sky in
circles infinitely great, he suddenly shrivels into something
indescribably small. There is a moment when Carlyle turns suddenly from
a high creative mystic to a common Calvinist. There are moments when
George Eliot turns from a prophetess into a governess. There are also
moments when Ruskin turns into a governess, without even the excuse of
sex. But in all these cases the alteration comes as a thing quite abrupt
and unreasonable. We do not feel this acute angle anywhere in Homer or
in Virgil or in Chaucer or in Shakespeare or in Dryden; such things as
they knew they knew. It is no disgrace to Homer that he had not
discovered Britain; or to Virgil that he had not discovered America; or
to Chaucer that he had not discovered the solar system; or to Dryden
that he had not discovered the steam-engine. But we do most frequently
feel, with the Victorians, that the very vastness of the number of
things they know illustrates the abrupt abyss of the things they do not
know. We feel, in a sort of way, that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Carlyle when he asks the Irish why they do not bestir themselves and
re-forest their country: saying not a word about the soaking up of every
sort of profit by the landlords which made that and every other Irish
improvement impossible. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Ruskin when he says, with a solemn visage, that building in iron is ugly
and unreal, but that the weightiest objection is that there is no
mention of it in the Bible; we feel as if he had just said he could find
no hair-brushes in Habakkuk. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man
like Thackeray when he proposes that people should be forcibly prevented
from being nuns, merely because he has no fixed intention of becoming a
nun himself. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like Tennyson,
when he talks of the French revolutions, the huge crusades that had
recreated the whole of his civilisation, as being "no graver than a
schoolboy's barring out." We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Browning to make spluttering and spiteful puns about the names Newman,
Wiseman, and Manning. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Newman when he confesses that for some time he felt as if he couldn't
come in to the Catholic Church, because of that dreadful Mr. Daniel
O'Connell, who had the vulgarity to fight for his own country. We feel
that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like Dickens, when he makes a blind
brute and savage out of a man like St. Dunstan; it sounds as if it were
not Dickens talking but Dombey. We feel it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Swinburne, when he has a Jingo fit and calls the Boer children in the
concentration camps "Whelps of treacherous dams whom none save we have
spared to starve and slay": we feel that Swinburne, for the first time,
really has become an immoral and indecent writer. All this is a certain
odd provincialism peculiar to the English in that great century: they
were in a kind of pocket; they appealed to too narrow a public opinion;
I am certain that no French or German men of the same genius made such
remarks. Renan was the enemy of the Catholic Church; but who can imagine
Renan writing of it as Kingsley or Dickens did? Taine was the enemy of
the French Revolution; but who can imagine Taine talking about it as
Tennyson or Newman talked? Even Matthew Arnold, though he saw this peril
and prided himself on escaping it, did not altogether escape it. There
must be (to use an Irishism) something shallow in the depths of any man
who talks about the _Zeitgeist_ as if it were a living thing.

But this defect is very specially the key to the case of the two great
Victorian poets, Tennyson and Browning; the two spirited or beautiful
tunes, so to speak, to which the other events marched or danced. It was
especially so of Tennyson, for a reason which raises some of the most
real problems about his poetry. Tennyson, of course, owed a great deal
to Virgil. There is no question of plagiarism here; a debt to Virgil is
like a debt to Nature. But Tennyson was a provincial Virgil. In such
passages as that about the schoolboy's barring out he might be called a
suburban Virgil. I mean that he tried to have the universal balance of
all the ideas at which the great Roman had aimed: but he hadn't got hold
of all the ideas to balance. Hence his work was not a balance of truths,
like the universe. It was a balance of whims; like the British
Constitution. It is intensely typical of Tennyson's philosophical temper
that he was almost the only Poet Laureate who was not ludicrous. It is
not absurd to think of Tennyson as tuning his harp in praise of Queen
Victoria: that is, it is not absurd in the same sense as Chaucer's harp
hallowed by dedication to Richard II or Wordsworth's harp hallowed by
dedication to George IV is absurd. Richard's court could not properly
appreciate either Chaucer's daisies or his "devotion." George IV would
not have gone pottering about Helvellyn in search of purity and the
simple annals of the poor. But Tennyson did sincerely believe in the
Victorian compromise; and sincerity is never undignified. He really did
hold a great many of the same views as Queen Victoria, though he was
gifted with a more fortunate literary style. If Dickens is Cobbett's
democracy stirring in its grave, Tennyson is the exquisitely ornamental
extinguisher on the flame of the first revolutionary poets. England has
settled down; England has become Victorian. The compromise was
interesting, it was national and for a long time it was successful:
there is still a great deal to be said for it. But it was as freakish
and unphilosophic, as arbitrary and untranslatable, as a beggar's
patched coat or a child's secret language. Now it is here that Browning
had a certain odd advantage over Tennyson; which has, perhaps, somewhat
exaggerated his intellectual superiority to him. Browning's eccentric
style was more suitable to the poetry of a nation of eccentrics; of
people for the time being removed far from the centre of intellectual
interests. The hearty and pleasant task of expressing one's intense
dislike of something one doesn't understand is much more poetically
achieved by saying, in a general way "Grrr--you swine!" than it is by
laboured lines such as "the red fool-fury of the Seine." We all feel
that there is more of the man in Browning here; more of Dr. Johnson or
Cobbett. Browning is the Englishman taking himself wilfully, following
his nose like a bull-dog, going by his own likes and dislikes. We cannot
help feeling that Tennyson is the Englishman taking himself
seriously--an awful sight. One's memory flutters unhappily over a
certain letter about the Papal Guards written by Sir Willoughby
Patterne. It is here chiefly that Tennyson suffers by that very
Virgilian loveliness and dignity of diction which he put to the service
of such a small and anomalous national scheme. Virgil had the best news
to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be
sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of
Christianity. If he told the Romans to spare the vanquished and to war
down the mighty, at least he was more or less well informed about who
_were_ mighty and who _were_ vanquished. But when Tennyson wrote verses
like--

"Of freedom in her regal seat,
Of England; not the schoolboy heat,
The blind hysterics of the Celt"

he quite literally did not know one word of what he was talking about;
he did not know what Celts are, or what hysterics are, or what freedom
was, or what regal was or even of what England was--in the living Europe
of that time.

His religious range was very much wider and wiser than his political;
but here also he suffered from treating as true universality a thing
that was only a sort of lukewarm local patriotism. Here also he
suffered by the very splendour and perfection of his poetical powers. He
was quite the opposite of the man who cannot express himself; the
inarticulate singer who dies with all his music in him. He had a great
deal to say; but he had much more power of expression than was wanted
for anything he had to express. He could not think up to the height of
his own towering style.

For whatever else Tennyson was, he was a great poet; no mind that feels
itself free, that is, above the ebb and flow of fashion, can feel
anything but contempt for the later effort to discredit him in that
respect. It is true that, like Browning and almost every other Victorian
poet, he was really two poets. But it is just to him to insist that in
his case (unlike Browning's) both the poets were good. The first is more
or less like Stevenson in metre; it is a magical luck or skill in the
mere choice of words. "Wet sands marbled with moon and cloud"--"Flits by
the sea-blue bird of March"--"Leafless ribs and iron horns"--"When the
long dun wolds are ribbed with snow"--in all these cases one word is the
keystone of an arch which would fall into ruin without it. But there are
other strong phrases that recall not Stevenson but rather their common
master, Virgil--"Tears from the depths of some divine despair"--"There
is fallen a splendid tear from the passion-flower at the gate"--"Was a
great water; and the moon was full"--"God made Himself an awful rose of
dawn." These do not depend on a word but on an idea: they might even be
translated. It is also true, I think, that he was first and last a lyric
poet. He was always best when he expressed himself shortly. In long
poems he had an unfortunate habit of eventually saying very nearly the
opposite of what he meant to say. I will take only two instances of what
I mean. In the _Idylls of the King_, and in _In Memoriam_ (his two
sustained and ambitious efforts), particular phrases are always flashing
out the whole fire of the truth; the truth that Tennyson meant. But
owing to his English indolence, his English aristocratic
irresponsibility, his English vagueness in thought, he always managed to
make the main poem mean exactly what he did not mean. Thus, these two
lines which simply say that

"Lancelot was the first in tournament,
But Arthur mightiest in the battle-field"

do really express what he meant to express about Arthur being after all
"the highest, yet most human too; not Lancelot, nor another." But as his
hero is actually developed, we have exactly the opposite impression;
that poor old Lancelot, with all his faults, was much more of a man than
Arthur. He was a Victorian in the bad as well as the good sense; he
could not keep priggishness out of long poems. Or again, take the case
of _In Memoriam_. I will quote one verse (probably incorrectly) which
has always seemed to me splendid, and which does express what the whole
poem should express--but hardly does.

"That we may lift from out the dust,
A voice as unto him that hears
A cry above the conquered years
Of one that ever works, and trust."

The poem should have been a cry above the conquered years. It might well
have been that if the poet could have said sharply at the end of it, as
a pure piece of dogma, "I've forgotten every feature of the man's face:
I know God holds him alive." But under the influence of the mere
leisurely length of the thing, the reader _does_ rather receive the
impression that the wound has been healed only by time; and that the
victor hours _can_ boast that this is the man that loved and lost, but
all he was is overworn. This is not the truth; and Tennyson did not
intend it for the truth. It is simply the result of the lack of
something militant, dogmatic and structural in him: whereby he could not
be trusted with the trail of a very long literary process without
entangling himself like a kitten playing cat's-cradle.

Browning, as above suggested, got on much better with eccentric and
secluded England because he treated it as eccentric and secluded; a
place where one could do what one liked. To a considerable extent he did
do what he liked; arousing not a few complaints; and many doubts and
conjectures as to why on earth he liked it. Many comparatively
sympathetic persons pondered upon what pleasure it could give any man to
write _Sordello_ or rhyme "end-knot" to "offend not." Nevertheless he
was no anarchist and no mystagogue; and even where he was defective, his
defect has commonly been stated wrongly. The two chief charges against
him were a contempt for form unworthy of an artist, and a poor pride in
obscurity. The obscurity is true, though not, I think, the pride in it;
but the truth about this charge rather rises out of the truth about the
other. The other charge is not true. Browning cared very much for form;
he cared very much for style. You may not happen to like his style; but
he did. To say that he had not enough mastery over form to express
himself perfectly like Tennyson or Swinburne is like criticising the
griffin of a mediŠval gargoyle without even knowing that it is a
griffin; treating it as an infantile and unsuccessful attempt at a
classical angel. A poet indifferent to form ought to mean a poet who did
not care what form he used as long as he expressed his thoughts. He
might be a rather entertaining sort of poet; telling a smoking-room
story in blank verse or writing a hunting-song in the Spenserian stanza;
giving a realistic analysis of infanticide in a series of triolets; or
proving the truth of Immortality in a long string of limericks. Browning
certainly had no such indifference. Almost every poem of Browning,
especially the shortest and most successful ones, was moulded or graven
in some special style, generally grotesque, but invariably deliberate.
In most cases whenever he wrote a new song he wrote a new kind of song.
The new lyric is not only of a different metre, but of a different
shape. No one, not even Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as
that horrible one beginning "John, Master of the Temple of God," with
its weird choruses and creepy prose directions. No one, not even
Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as _Pisgah-sights_. No
one, not even Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as _Time's
Revenges_. No one, not even Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same
style as _Meeting at Night_ and _Parting at Morning_. No one, not even
Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as _The Flight of the
Duchess_, or in the same style as _The Grammarian's Funeral_, or in the
same style as _A Star_, or in the same style as that astounding lyric
which begins abruptly "Some people hang pictures up." These metres and
manners were not accidental; they really do suit the sort of spiritual
experiment Browning was making in each case. Browning, then, was not
chaotic; he was deliberately grotesque. But there certainly was, over
and above this grotesqueness, a perversity and irrationality about the
man which led him to play the fool in the middle of his own poems; to
leave off carving gargoyles and simply begin throwing stones. His
curious complicated puns are an example of this: Hood had used the pun
to make a sentence or a sentiment especially pointed and clear. In
Browning the word with two meanings seems to mean rather less, if
anything, than the word with one. It also applies to his trick of
setting himself to cope with impossible rhymes. It may be fun, though it
is not poetry, to try rhyming to ranunculus; but even the fun
presupposes that you _do_ rhyme to it; and I will affirm, and hold under
persecution, that "Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle-us" does not rhyme to
it.

The obscurity, to which he must in a large degree plead guilty, was,
curiously enough, the result rather of the gay artist in him than the
deep thinker. It is patience in the Browning students; in Browning it
was only impatience. He wanted to say something comic and energetic and
he wanted to say it quick. And, between his artistic skill in the
fantastic and his temperamental turn for the abrupt, the idea sometimes
flashed past unseen. But it is quite an error to suppose that these are
the dark mines containing his treasure. The two or three great and true
things he really had to say he generally managed to say quite simply.
Thus he really did want to say that God had indeed made man and woman
one flesh; that the sex relation was religious in this real sense that
even in our sin and despair we take it for granted and expect a sort of
virtue in it. The feelings of the bad husband about the good wife, for
instance, are about as subtle and entangled as any matter on this earth;
and Browning really had something to say about them. But he said it in
some of the plainest and most unmistakable words in all literature; as
lucid as a flash of lightning. "Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"
Or again, he did really want to say that death and such moral terrors
were best taken in a military spirit; he could not have said it more
simply than: "I was ever a fighter; one fight more, the best and the
last." He did really wish to say that human life was unworkable unless
immortality were implied in it every other moment; he could not have
said it more simply: "leave now to dogs and apes; Man has for ever." The
obscurities were not merely superficial, but often covered quite
superficial ideas. He was as likely as not to be most unintelligible of
all in writing a compliment in a lady's album. I remember in my boyhood
(when Browning kept us awake like coffee) a friend reading out the poem
about the portrait to which I have already referred, reading it in that
rapid dramatic way in which this poet must be read. And I was profoundly
puzzled at the passage where it seemed to say that the cousin
disparaged the picture, "while John scorns ale." I could not think what
this sudden teetotalism on the part of John had to do with the affair,
but I forgot to ask at the time and it was only years afterwards that,
looking at the book, I found it was "John's corns ail," a very
Browningesque way of saying he winced. Most of Browning's obscurity is
of that sort--the mistakes are almost as quaint as misprints--and the
Browning student, in that sense, is more a proof reader than a disciple.
For the rest his real religion was of the most manly, even the most
boyish sort. He is called an optimist; but the word suggests a
calculated contentment which was not in the least one of his vices. What
he really was was a romantic. He offered the cosmos as an adventure
rather than a scheme. He did not explain evil, far less explain it away;
he enjoyed defying it. He was a troubadour even in theology and
metaphysics: like the _Jongleurs de Dieu_ of St. Francis. He may be said
to have serenaded heaven with a guitar, and even, so to speak, tried to
climb there with a rope ladder. Thus his most vivid things are the
red-hot little love lyrics, or rather, little love dramas. He did one
really original and admirable thing: he managed the real details of
modern love affairs in verse, and love is the most realistic thing in
the world. He substituted the street with the green blind for the faded
garden of Watteau, and the "blue spirt of a lighted match" for the
monotony of the evening star.

Before leaving him it should be added that he was fitted to deepen the
Victorian mind, but not to broaden it. With all his Italian sympathies
and Italian residence, he was not the man to get Victorian England out
of its provincial rut: on many things Kingsley himself was not so
narrow. His celebrated wife was wider and wiser than he in this sense;
for she was, however one-sidedly, involved in the emotions of central
European politics. She defended Louis Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel; and
intelligently, as one conscious of the case against them both. As to
why it now seems simple to defend the first Italian King, but absurd to
defend the last French Emperor--well, the reason is sad and simple. It
is concerned with certain curious things called success and failure, and
I ought to have considered it under the heading of _The Book of Snobs_.
But Elizabeth Barrett, at least, was no snob: her political poems have
rather an impatient air, as if they were written, and even published,
rather prematurely--just before the fall of her idol. These old
political poems of hers are too little read to-day; they are amongst the
most sincere documents on the history of the times, and many modern
blunders could be corrected by the reading of them. And Elizabeth
Barrett had a strength really rare among women poets; the strength of
the phrase. She excelled in her sex, in epigram, almost as much as
Voltaire in his. Pointed phrases like: "Martyrs by the pang without the
palm"--or "Incense to sweeten a crime and myrrh to embitter a curse,"
these expressions, which are witty after the old fashion of the conceit,
came quite freshly and spontaneously to her quite modern mind. But the
first fact is this, that these epigrams of hers were never so true as
when they turned on one of the two or three pivots on which contemporary
Europe was really turning. She is by far the most European of all the
English poets of that age; all of them, even her own much greater
husband, look local beside her. Tennyson and the rest are nowhere. Take
any positive political fact, such as the final fall of Napoleon.
Tennyson wrote these profoundly foolish lines--

"He thought to quell the stubborn hearts of oak
Madman!"

as if the defeat of an English regiment were a violation of the laws of
Nature. Mrs. Browning knew no more facts about Napoleon, perhaps, than
Tennyson did; but she knew the truth. Her epigram on Napoleon's fall is
in one line

"And kings crept out again to feel the sun."

Talleyrand would have clapped his horrible old hands at that. Her
instinct about the statesman and the soldier was very like Jane Austen's
instinct for the gentleman and the man. It is not unnoticeable that as
Miss Austen spent most of her life in a village, Miss Barrett spent most
of her life on a sofa. The godlike power of guessing seems (for some
reason I do not understand) to grow under such conditions. Unfortunately
Mrs. Browning was like all the other Victorians in going a little lame,
as I have roughly called it, having one leg shorter than the other. But
her case was, in one sense, extreme. She exaggerated both ways. She was
too strong and too weak, or (as a false sex philosophy would express it)
too masculine and too feminine. I mean that she hit the centre of
weakness with almost the same emphatic precision with which she hit the
centre of strength. She could write finally of the factory wheels
"grinding life down from its mark," a strong and strictly true
observation. Unfortunately she could also write of Euripides "with his
droppings of warm tears." She could write in _A Drama of Exile_, a
really fine exposition, touching the later relation of Adam and the
animals: unfortunately the tears were again turned on at the wrong
moment at the main; and the stage direction commands a silence, only
broken by the dropping of angel's tears. How much noise is made by
angel's tears? Is it a sound of emptied buckets, or of garden hose, or
of mountain cataracts? That is the sort of question which Elizabeth
Barrett's extreme love of the extreme was always tempting people to ask.
Yet the question, as asked, does her a heavy historical injustice; we
remember all the lines in her work which were weak enough to be called
"womanly," we forget the multitude of strong lines that are strong
enough to be called "manly"; lines that Kingsley or Henley would have
jumped for joy to print in proof of their manliness. She had one of the
peculiar talents of true rhetoric, that of a powerful concentration. As
to the critic who thinks her poetry owed anything to the great poet who
was her husband, he can go and live in the same hotel with the man who
can believe that George Eliot owed anything to the extravagant
imagination of Mr. George Henry Lewes. So far from Browning inspiring or
interfering, he did not in one sense interfere enough. Her real
inferiority to him in literature is that he was consciously while she
was unconsciously absurd.

It is natural, in the matter of Victorian moral change, to take
Swinburne as the next name here. He is the only poet who was also, in
the European sense, on the spot; even if, in the sense of the Gilbertian
song, the spot was barred. He also knew that something rather crucial
was happening to Christendom; he thought it was getting unchristened. It
is even a little amusing, indeed, that these two Pro-Italian poets
almost conducted a political correspondence in rhyme. Mrs. Browning
sternly reproached those who had ever doubted the good faith of the King
of Sardinia, whom she acclaimed as being truly a king. Swinburne,
lyrically alluding to her as "Sea-eagle of English feather," broadly
hinted that the chief blunder of that wild fowl had been her support of
an autocratic adventurer: "calling a crowned man royal, that was no more
than a king." But it is not fair, even in this important connection, to
judge Swinburne by _Songs Before Sunrise_. They were songs before a
sunrise that has never turned up. Their dogmatic assertions have for a
long time past stared starkly at us as nonsense. As, for instance, the
phrase "Glory to Man in the Highest, for man is the master of things";
after which there is evidently nothing to be said, except that it is
not true. But even where Swinburne had his greater grip, as in that
grave and partly just poem _Before a Crucifix_, Swinburne, the most
Latin, the most learned, the most largely travelled of the Victorians,
still knows far less of the facts than even Mrs. Browning. The whole of
the poem, _Before a Crucifix_, breaks down by one mere mistake. It
imagines that the French or Italian peasants who fell on their knees
before the Crucifix did so because they were slaves. They fell on their
knees because they were free men, probably owning their own farms.
Swinburne could have found round about Putney plenty of slaves who had
no crucifixes: but only crucifixions.

When we come to ethics and philosophy, doubtless we find Swinburne in
full revolt, not only against the temperate idealism of Tennyson, but
against the genuine piety and moral enthusiasm of people like Mrs.
Browning. But here again Swinburne is very English, nay, he is very
Victorian, for his revolt is illogical. For the purposes of intelligent
insurrection against priests and kings, Swinburne ought to have
described the natural life of man, free and beautiful, and proved from
this both the noxiousness and the needlessness of such chains.
Unfortunately Swinburne rebelled against Nature first and then tried to
rebel against religion for doing exactly the same thing that he had
done. His songs of joy are not really immoral; but his songs of sorrow
are. But when he merely hurls at the priest the assertion that flesh is
grass and life is sorrow, he really lays himself open to the restrained
answer, "So I have ventured, on various occasions, to remark." When he
went forth, as it were, as the champion of pagan change and pleasure, he
heard uplifted the grand choruses of his own _Atalanta_, in his rear,
refusing hope.

The splendid diction that blazes through the whole of that drama, that
still dances exquisitely in the more lyrical _Poems and Ballads_, makes
some marvellous appearances in _Songs Before Sunrise_, and then mainly
falters and fades away, is, of course, the chief thing about Swinburne.
The style is the man; and some will add that it does not, thus
unsupported, amount to much of a man. But the style itself suffers some
injustice from those who would speak thus. The views expressed are often
quite foolish and often quite insincere; but the style itself is a
manlier and more natural thing than is commonly made out. It is not in
the least languorous or luxurious or merely musical and sensuous, as one
would gather from both the eulogies and the satires, from the conscious
and the unconscious imitations. On the contrary, it is a sort of
fighting and profane parody of the Old Testament; and its lines are made
of short English words like the short Roman swords. The first line of
one of his finest poems, for instance, runs, "I have lived long enough
to have seen one thing, that love hath an end." In that sentence only
one small "e" gets outside the monosyllable. Through all his
interminable tragedies, he was fondest of lines like--

"If ever I leave off to honour you
God give me shame; I were the worst churl born."

The dramas were far from being short and dramatic; but the words really
were. Nor was his verse merely smooth; except his very bad verse, like
"the lilies and languors of virtue, to the raptures and roses of vice,"
which both, in cheapness of form and foolishness of sentiment, may be
called the worst couplet in the world's literature. In his real poetry
(even in the same poem) his rhythm and rhyme are as original and
ambitious as Browning; and the only difference between him and Browning
is, not that he is smooth and without ridges, but that he always crests
the ridge triumphantly and Browning often does not--

"On thy bosom though many a kiss be,
There are none such as knew it of old.
Was it Alciphron once or Arisbe,
Male ringlets or feminine gold,
That thy lips met with under the statue
Whence a look shot out sharp after thieves
From the eyes of the garden-god at you
Across the fig-leaves."

Look at the rhymes in that verse, and you will see they are as stiff a
task as Browning's: only they are successful. That is the real strength
of Swinburne--a style. It was a style that nobody could really imitate;
and least of all Swinburne himself, though he made the attempt all
through his later years. He was, if ever there was one, an inspired
poet. I do not think it the highest sort of poet. And you never discover
who is an inspired poet until the inspiration goes.

With Swinburne we step into the circle of that later Victorian influence
which was very vaguely called Ăsthetic. Like all human things, but
especially Victorian things, it was not only complex but confused.
Things in it that were at one on the emotional side were flatly at war
on the intellectual. In the section of the painters, it was the allies
or pupils of Ruskin, pious, almost painfully exact, and copying mediŠval
details rather for their truth than their beauty. In the section of the
poets it was pretty loose, Swinburne being the leader of the revels. But
there was one great man who was in both sections, a painter and a poet,
who may be said to bestride the chasm like a giant. It is in an odd and
literal sense true that the name of Rossetti is important here, for the
name implies the nationality. I have loosely called Carlyle and the
BrontŰs the romance from the North; the nearest to a general definition
of the Ăsthetic movement is to call it the romance from the South. It is
that warm wind that had never blown so strong since Chaucer, standing in
his cold English April, had smelt the spring in Provence. The Englishman
has always found it easier to get inspiration from the Italians than
from the French; they call to each other across that unconquered castle
of reason. Browning's _Englishman in Italy_, Browning's _Italian in
England_, were both happier than either would have been in France.
Rossetti was the Italian in England, as Browning was the Englishman in
Italy; and the first broad fact about the artistic revolution Rossetti
wrought is written when we have written his name. But if the South lets
in warmth or heat, it also lets in hardness. The more the orange tree is
luxuriant in growth, the less it is loose in outline. And it is exactly
where the sea is slightly warmer than marble that it looks slightly
harder. This, I think, is the one universal power behind the Ăsthetic
and Pre-Raphaelite movements, which all agreed in two things at least:
strictness in the line and strength, nay violence, in the colour.

Rossetti was a remarkable man in more ways than one; he did not succeed
in any art; if he had he would probably never have been heard of. It was
his happy knack of half failing in both the arts that has made him a
success. If he had been as good a poet as Tennyson, he would have been a
poet who painted pictures. If he had been as good a painter as
Burne-Jones, he would have been a painter who wrote poems. It is odd to
note on the very threshold of the extreme art movement that this great
artist largely succeeded by not defining his art. His poems were too
pictorial. His pictures were too poetical. That is why they really
conquered the cold satisfaction of the Victorians, because they did mean
something, even if it was a small artistic thing.

Rossetti was one with Ruskin, on the one hand, and Swinburne on the
other, in reviving the decorative instinct of the Middle Ages. While
Ruskin, in letters only, praised that decoration Rossetti and his
friends repeated it. They almost made patterns of their poems. That
frequent return of the refrain which was foolishly discussed by
Professor Nordau was, in Rossetti's case, of such sadness as sometimes
to amount to sameness. The criticism on him, from a mediŠval point of
view, is not that he insisted on a chorus, but that he could not insist
on a jolly chorus. Many of his poems were truly mediŠval, but they would
have been even more mediŠval if he could ever have written such a
refrain as "Tally Ho!" or even "Tooral-ooral" instead of "Tall Troy's on
fire." With Rossetti goes, of course, his sister, a real poet, though
she also illustrated that Pre-Raphaelite's conflict of views that
covered their coincidence of taste. Both used the angular outlines, the
burning transparencies, the fixed but still unfathomable symbols of the
great mediŠval civilisation; but Rossetti used the religious imagery (on
the whole) irreligiously, Christina Rossetti used it religiously but (on
the whole) so to make it seem a narrower religion.

One poet, or, to speak more strictly, one poem, belongs to the same
general atmosphere and impulse as Swinburne; the free but languid
atmosphere of later Victorian art. But this time the wind blew from
hotter and heavier gardens than the gardens of Italy. Edward
Fitzgerald, a cultured eccentric, a friend of Tennyson, produced what
professed to be a translation of the Persian poet Omar, who wrote
quatrains about wine and roses and things in general. Whether the
Persian original, in its own Persian way, was greater or less than this
version I must not discuss here, and could not discuss anywhere. But it
is quite clear that Fitzgerald's work is much too good to be a good
translation. It is as personal and creative a thing as ever was written;
and the best expression of a bad mood, a mood that may, for all I know,
be permanent in Persia, but was certainly at this time particularly
fashionable in England. In the technical sense of literature it is one
of the most remarkable achievements of that age; as poetical as
Swinburne and far more perfect. In this verbal sense its most arresting
quality is a combination of something haunting and harmonious that flows
by like a river or a song, with something else that is compact and
pregnant like a pithy saying picked out in rock by the chisel of some
pagan philosopher. It is at once a tune that escapes and an inscription
that remains. Thus, alone among the reckless and romantic verses that
first rose in Coleridge or Keats, it preserves something also of the wit
and civilisation of the eighteenth century. Lines like "a Muezzin from
the tower of darkness cries," or "Their mouths are stopped with dust"
are successful in the same sense as "Pinnacled dim in the intense inane"
or "Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways." But--

"Indeed, indeed, repentance oft before
I swore; but was I sober when I swore?"

is equally successful in the same sense as--

"Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer
And without sneering teach the rest to sneer."

It thus earned a right to be considered the complete expression of that
scepticism and sensual sadness into which later Victorian literature was
more and more falling away: a sort of bible of unbelief. For a cold fit
had followed the hot fit of Swinburne, which was of a feverish sort: he
had set out to break down without having, or even thinking he had, the
rudiments of rebuilding in him; and he effected nothing national even in
the way of destruction. The Tennysonians still walked past him as primly
as a young ladies' school--the Browningites still inked their eyebrows
and minds in looking for the lost syntax of Browning; while Browning
himself was away looking for God, rather in the spirit of a truant boy
from their school looking for birds' nests. The nineteenth-century
sceptics did not really shake the respectable world and alter it, as the
eighteenth-century sceptics had done; but that was because the
eighteenth-century sceptics were something more than sceptics, and
believed in Greek tragedies, in Roman laws, in the Republic. The
Swinburnian sceptics had nothing to fight for but a frame of mind; and
when ordinary English people listened to it, they came to the conclusion
that it was a frame of mind they would rather hear about than
experience. But these later poets did, so to speak, spread their soul in
all the empty spaces; weaker brethren, disappointed artists, unattached
individuals, very young people, were sapped or swept away by these
songs; which, so far as any particular sense in them goes, were almost
songs without words. It is because there is something which is after all
indescribably manly, intellectual, firm about Fitzgerald's way of
phrasing the pessimism that he towers above the slope that was tumbling
down to the decadents. But it is still pessimism, a thing unfit for a
white man; a thing like opium, that may often be a poison and sometimes
a medicine, but never a food for us, who are driven by an inner command
not only to think but to live, not only to live but to grow, and not
only to grow but to build.

And, indeed, we see the insufficiency of such sad extremes even in the
next name among the major poets; we see the Swinburnian parody of
mediŠvalism, the inverted Catholicism of the decadents, struggling to
get back somehow on its feet. The Šsthetic school had, not quite
unjustly, the name of mere dilettanti. But it is fair to say that in the
next of them, a workman and a tradesman, we already feel something of
that return to real issues leading up to the real revolts that broke up
Victorianism at last. In the mere art of words, indeed, William Morris
carried much further than Swinburne or Rossetti the mere imitation of
stiff mediŠval ornament. The other mediŠvalists had their modern
moments; which were (if they had only known it) much more mediŠval than
their mediŠval moments. Swinburne could write--

"We shall see Buonaparte the bastard
Kick heels with his throat in a rope."

One has an uneasy feeling that William Morris would have written
something like--

"And the kin of the ill king Bonaparte
Hath a high gallows for all his part."

Rossetti could, for once in a way, write poetry about a real woman and
call her "Jenny." One has a disturbed suspicion that Morris would have
called her "Jehanne."

But all that seems at first more archaic and decorative about Morris
really arose from the fact that he was more virile and real than either
Swinburne or Rossetti. It arose from the fact that he really was, what
he so often called himself, a craftsman. He had enough masculine
strength to be tidy: that is, after the masculine manner, tidy about his
own trade. If his poems were too like wallpapers, it was because he
really could make wallpapers. He knew that lines of poetry ought to be
in a row, as palings ought to be in a row; and he knew that neither
palings nor poetry looks any the worse for being simple or even severe.
In a sense Morris was all the more creative because he felt the hard
limits of creation as he would have felt them if he were not working in
words but in wood; and if he was unduly dominated by the mere
conventions of the mediŠvals, it was largely because they were (whatever
else they were) the very finest fraternity of free workmen the world is
ever likely to see.

The very things that were urged against Morris are in this sense part of
his ethical importance; part of the more promising and wholesome turn he
was half unconsciously giving to the movement of modern art. His hazier
fellow-Socialists blamed him because he made money; but this was at
least in some degree because he made other things to make money: it was
part of the real and refreshing fact that at last an Šsthete had
appeared who could make something. If he was a capitalist, at least he
was what later capitalists cannot or will not be--something higher than
a capitalist, a tradesman. As compared with aristocrats like Swinburne
or aliens like Rossetti, he was vitally English and vitally Victorian.
He inherits some of that paradoxical glory which Napoleon gave
reluctantly to a nation of shopkeepers. He was the last of that nation;
he did not go out golfing: like that founder of the artistic shopman,
Samuel Richardson, "he kept his shop, and his shop kept him." The
importance of his Socialism can easily be exaggerated. Among other
lesser points, he was not a Socialist; he was a sort of Dickensian
anarchist. His instinct for titles was always exquisite. It is part of
his instinct of decoration: for on a page the title always looks
important and the printed mass of matter a mere dado under it. And no
one had ever nobler titles than _The Roots of the Mountains_ or _The
Wood at the End of the World_. The reader feels he hardly need read the
fairy-tale because the title is so suggestive. But, when all is said, he
never chose a better title than that of his social Utopia, _News from
Nowhere_. He wrote it while the last Victorians were already embarked on
their bold task of fixing the future--of narrating to-day what has
happened to-morrow. They named their books by cold titles suggesting
straight corridors of marble--titles like _Looking Backward_. But Morris
was an artist as well as an anarchist. _News from Nowhere_ is an
irresponsible title; and it is an irresponsible book. It does not
describe the problem solved; it does not describe wealth either wielded
by the State or divided equally among the citizens. It simply describes
an undiscovered country where every one feels good-natured all day. That
he could even dream so is his true dignity as a poet. He was the first
of the Ăsthetes to smell mediŠvalism as a smell of the morning; and not
as a mere scent of decay.

With him the poetry that had been peculiarly Victorian practically
ends; and, on the whole, it is a happy ending. There are many other
minor names of major importance; but for one reason or other they do not
derive from the schools that had dominated this epoch as such. Thus
Thompson, the author of _The City of Dreadful Night_, was a fine poet;
but his pessimism combined with a close pugnacity does not follow any of
the large but loose lines of the Swinburnian age. But he was a great
person--he knew how to be democratic in the dark. Thus Coventry Patmore
was a much greater person. He was bursting with ideas, like
Browning--and truer ideas as a rule. He was as eccentric and florid and
Elizabethan as Browning; and often in moods and metres that even
Browning was never wild enough to think of. No one will ever forget the
first time he read Patmore's hint that the cosmos is a thing that God
made huge only "to make dirt cheap"; just as nobody will ever forget the
sudden shout he uttered when he first heard Mrs. Todgers asked for the
rough outline of a wooden leg. These things are not jokes, but
discoveries. But the very fact that Patmore was, as it were, the
Catholic Browning, keeps him out of the Victorian atmosphere as such.
The Victorian English simply thought him an indecent sentimentalist, as
they did all the hot and humble religious diarists of Italy or Spain.
Something of the same fate followed the most powerful of that last
Victorian group who were called "Minor Poets." They numbered many other
fine artists: notably Mr. William Watson, who is truly Victorian in that
he made a manly attempt to tread down the decadents and return to the
right reason of Wordsworth--

"I have not paid the world
The evil and the insolent courtesy
Of offering it my baseness as a gift."

But none of them were able even to understand Francis Thompson; his
sky-scraping humility, his mountains of mystical detail, his occasional
and unashamed weakness, his sudden and sacred blasphemies. Perhaps the
shortest definition of the Victorian Age is that he stood outside it.


Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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