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The Ascending Effort

1910


Much good paper has been lamentably wasted to prove that science has
destroyed, that it is destroying, or, some day, may destroy poetry.
Meantime, unblushing, unseen, and often unheard, the guileless poets have
gone on singing in a sweet strain. How they dare do the impossible and
virtually forbidden thing is a cause for wonder but not for legislation.
Not yet. We are at present too busy reforming the silent burglar and
planning concerts to soothe the savage breast of the yelling hooligan. As
somebody--perhaps a publisher--said lately: "Poetry is of no account now-
a-days."

But it is not totally neglected. Those persons with gold-rimmed
spectacles whose usual occupation is to spy upon the obvious have
remarked audibly (on several occasions) that poetry has so far not given
to science any acknowledgment worthy of its distinguished position in the
popular mind. Except that Tennyson looked down the throat of a foxglove,
that Erasmus Darwin wrote _The Loves of the Plants_ and a scoffer _The
Loves of the Triangles_, poets have been supposed to be indecorously
blind to the progress of science. What tribute, for instance, has poetry
paid to electricity? All I can remember on the spur of the moment is Mr.
Arthur Symons' line about arc lamps: "Hung with the globes of some
unnatural fruit."

Commerce and Manufacture praise on every hand in their not mute but
inarticulate way the glories of science. Poetry does not play its part.
Behold John Keats, skilful with the surgeon's knife; but when he writes
poetry his inspiration is not from the operating table. Here I am
reminded, though, of a modern instance to the contrary in prose. Mr. H.
G. Wells, who, as far as I know, has never written a line of verse, was
inspired a few years ago to write a short story, _Under the Knife_. Out
of a clock-dial, a brass rod, and a whiff of chloroform, he has conjured
for us a sensation of space and eternity, evoked the face of the
Unknowable, and an awesome, august voice, like the voice of the Judgment
Day; a great voice, perhaps the voice of science itself, uttering the
words: "There shall be no more pain!" I advise you to look up that
story, so human and so intimate, because Mr. Wells, the writer of prose
whose amazing inventiveness we all know, remains a poet even in his most
perverse moments of scorn for things as they are. His poetic imagination
is sometimes even greater than his inventiveness, I am not afraid to say.
But, indeed, imaginative faculty would make any man a poet--were he born
without tongue for speech and without hands to seize his fancy and fasten
her down to a wretched piece of paper.

--

The book {6} which in the course of the last few days I have opened and
shut several times is not imaginative. But, on the other hand, it is not
a dumb book, as some are. It has even a sort of sober and serious
eloquence, reminding us that not poetry alone is at fault in this matter.
Mr. Bourne begins his _Ascending Effort_ with a remark by Sir Francis
Galton upon Eugenics that "if the principles he was advocating were to
become effective they must be introduced into the national conscience,
like a new religion." "Introduced" suggests compulsory vaccination. Mr.
Bourne, who is not a theologian, wishes to league together not science
and religion, but science and the arts. "The intoxicating power of art,"
he thinks, is the very thing needed to give the desired effect to the
doctrines of science. In uninspired phrase he points to the arts playing
once upon a time a part in "popularising the Christian tenets." With
painstaking fervour as great as the fervour of prophets, but not so
persuasive, he foresees the arts some day popularising science. Until
that day dawns, science will continue to be lame and poetry blind. He
himself cannot smooth or even point out the way, though he thinks that "a
really prudent people would be greedy of beauty," and their public
authorities "as careful of the sense of comfort as of sanitation."

As the writer of those remarkable rustic note-books, _The Bettesworth
Book_ and _Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer_, the author has a claim upon our
attention. But his seriousness, his patience, his almost touching
sincerity, can only command the respect of his readers and nothing more.
He is obsessed by science, haunted and shadowed by it, until he has been
bewildered into awe. He knows, indeed, that art owes its triumphs and
its subtle influence to the fact that it issues straight from our organic
vitality, and is a movement of life-cells with their matchless
unintellectual knowledge. But the fact that poetry does not seem
obviously in love with science has never made him doubt whether it may
not be an argument against his haste to see the marriage ceremony
performed amid public rejoicings.

Many a man has heard or read and believes that the earth goes round the
sun; one small blob of mud among several others, spinning ridiculously
with a waggling motion like a top about to fall. This is the Copernican
system, and the man believes in the system without often knowing as much
about it as its name. But while watching a sunset he sheds his belief;
he sees the sun as a small and useful object, the servant of his needs
and the witness of his ascending effort, sinking slowly behind a range of
mountains, and then he holds the system of Ptolemy. He holds it without
knowing it. In the same way a poet hears, reads, and believes a thousand
undeniable truths which have not yet got into his blood, nor will do
after reading Mr. Bourne's book; he writes, therefore, as if neither
truths nor book existed. Life and the arts follow dark courses, and will
not turn aside to the brilliant arc-lights of science. Some day, without
a doubt,--and it may be a consolation to Mr. Bourne to know it--fully
informed critics will point out that Mr. Davies's poem on a dark woman
combing her hair must have been written after the invasion of
appendicitis, and that Mr. Yeats's "Had I the heaven's embroidered
cloths" came before radium was quite unnecessarily dragged out of its
respectable obscurity in pitchblende to upset the venerable (and
comparatively naive) chemistry of our young days.

There are times when the tyranny of science and the cant of science are
alarming, but there are other times when they are entertaining--and this
is one of them. "Many a man prides himself" says Mr. Bourne, "on his
piety or his views of art, whose whole range of ideas, could they be
investigated, would be found ordinary, if not base, because they have
been adopted in compliance with some external persuasion or to serve some
timid purpose instead of proceeding authoritatively from the living
selection of his hereditary taste." This extract is a fair sample of the
book's thought and of its style. But Mr. Bourne seems to forget that
"persuasion" is a vain thing. The appreciation of great art comes from
within.

It is but the merest justice to say that the transparent honesty of Mr.
Bourne's purpose is undeniable. But the whole book is simply an earnest
expression of a pious wish; and, like the generality of pious wishes,
this one seems of little dynamic value--besides being impracticable.

Yes, indeed. Art has served Religion; artists have found the most
exalted inspiration in Christianity; but the light of Transfiguration
which has illuminated the profoundest mysteries of our sinful souls is
not the light of the generating stations, which exposes the depths of our
infatuation where our mere cleverness is permitted for a while to grope
for the unessential among invincible shadows.

Joseph Conrad