G.K. Chesterton.

The Victorian Age in Literature online

. (page 8 of 10)
Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 8 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


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 Æsthetic. 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 mediæval
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
Brontës the romance from the North; the nearest to a general definition
of the Æsthetic 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 Æsthetic
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 mediæval 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 mediæval, but they would
have been even more mediæval 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 mediæval 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
mediævalism, the inverted Catholicism of the decadents, struggling to
get back somehow on its feet. The æsthetic 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 mediæval ornament. The other mediævalists had their modern
moments; which were (if they had only known it) much more mediæval than
their mediæval 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 mediævals, 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 æsthete 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 Æsthetes to smell mediævalism 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.


CHAPTER IV

THE BREAK-UP OF THE COMPROMISE


If it be curiously and carefully considered it will, I think, appear
more and more true that the struggle between the old spiritual theory
and the new material theory in England ended simply in a deadlock; and a
deadlock that has endured. It is still impossible to say absolutely that
England is a Christian country or a heathen country; almost exactly as
it was impossible when Herbert Spencer began to write. Separate elements
of both sorts are alive, and even increasingly alive. But neither the
believer nor the unbeliever has the impudence to call himself the
Englishman. Certainly the great Victorian rationalism has succeeded in
doing a damage to religion. It has done what is perhaps the worst of all
damages to religion. It has driven it entirely into the power of the
religious people. Men like Newman, men like Coventry Patmore, men who
would have been mystics in any case, were driven back upon being much
more extravagantly religious than they would have been in a religious
country. Men like Huxley, men like Kingsley, men like most Victorian
men, were equally driven back on being irreligious; that is, on doubting
things which men's normal imagination does not necessarily doubt. But
certainly the most final and forcible fact is that this war ended like
the battle of Sheriffmuir, as the poet says; they both did fight, and
both did beat, and both did run away. They have left to their
descendants a treaty that has become a dull torture. Men may believe in
immortality, and none of the men know why. Men may not believe in
miracles, and none of the men know why. The Christian Church had been
just strong enough to check the conquest of her chief citadels. The
rationalist movement had been just strong enough to conquer some of her
outposts, as it seemed, for ever. Neither was strong enough to expel the
other; and Victorian England was in a state which some call liberty and
some call lockjaw.

But the situation can be stated another way. There came a time, roughly
somewhere about 1880, when the two great positive enthusiasms of Western
Europe had for the time exhausted each other - Christianity and the
French Revolution. About that time there used to be a sad and not
unsympathetic jest going about to the effect that Queen Victoria might
very well live longer than the Prince of Wales. Somewhat in the same
way, though the republican impulse was hardly a hundred years old and
the religious impulse nearly two thousand, yet as far as England was
concerned, the old wave and the new seemed to be spent at the same time.
On the one hand Darwin, especially through the strong journalistic
genius of Huxley, had won a very wide spread though an exceedingly
vague victory. I do not mean that Darwin's own doctrine was vague; his
was merely one particular hypothesis about how animal variety might have
arisen; and that particular hypothesis, though it will always be
interesting, is now very much the reverse of secure. But it is only in
the strictly scientific world and among strictly scientific men that
Darwin's detailed suggestion has largely broken down. The general public
impression that he had entirely proved his case (whatever it was) was
early arrived at, and still remains. It was and is hazily associated
with the negation of religion. But (and this is the important point) it
was also associated with the negation of democracy. The same
Mid-Victorian muddle-headedness that made people think that "evolution"
meant that we need not admit the supremacy of God, also made them think
that "survival" meant that we must admit the supremacy of men. Huxley
had no hand in spreading these fallacies; he was a fair fighter; and he
told his own followers, who spoke thus, most emphatically not to play
the fool. He said most strongly that his or any theory of evolution left
the old philosophical arguments for a creator, right or wrong, exactly
where they were before. He also said most emphatically that any one who
used the argument of Nature against the ideal of justice or an equal
law, was as senseless as a gardener who should fight on the side of the
ill weeds merely because they grew apace. I wish, indeed, that in such a
rude summary as this, I had space to do justice to Huxley as a literary
man and a moralist. He had a live taste and talent for the English
tongue, which he devoted to the task of keeping Victorian rationalism
rational. He did not succeed. As so often happens when a rather
unhealthy doubt is in the atmosphere, the strongest words of their great
captain could not keep the growing crowds of agnostics back from the
most hopeless and inhuman extremes of destructive thought. Nonsense not
yet quite dead about the folly of allowing the unfit to survive began
to be more and more wildly whispered. Such helpless specimens of
"advanced thought" are, of course, quite as inconsistent with Darwinism
as they are with democracy or with any other intelligent proposition
ever offered. But these unintelligent propositions were offered; and the
ultimate result was this rather important one: that the harshness of
Utilitarianism began to turn into downright tyranny. That beautiful
faith in human nature and in freedom which had made delicate the dry air
of John Stuart Mill; that robust, romantic sense of justice which had
redeemed even the injustices of Macaulay - all that seemed slowly and
sadly to be drying up. Under the shock of Darwinism all that was good in
the Victorian rationalism shook and dissolved like dust. All that was


1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10

Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 8 of 10)