Henry Cabot Lodge.

The Best of the World's Classics, Restricted to Prose, Vol. X (of X) - America - II, Index online

. (page 9 of 17)
Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeThe Best of the World's Classics, Restricted to Prose, Vol. X (of X) - America - II, Index → online text (page 9 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of beauty, so as that it should accord with the freedom of nature, and
be as unmovably eternal as that. The dreams of poets are morning
dreams, coming to them in the early dawn and daybreaking of great
truths, and are surely fulfilled at last. They repeat them, as
children do, and all Christendom, if it be not too busy with
quarreling about the meaning of creeds, which have no meaning at all,
listens with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile of pitying
incredulity; for reformers are always madmen in their own age, and
infallible saints in the next.

We love to go back to the writings of our old poets, for we find in
them the tender germs of many a thought which now stands like a huge
oak in the inward world, an ornament and a shelter. We can not help
reading with awful interest what has been written or rudely scrawled
upon the walls of this our earthly prison house, by former dwellers
therein. From that which centuries have established, too, we may draw
true principles of judgment for the poetry of our own day. A right
knowledge and apprehension of the past teaches humbleness and
self-sustainment to the present. Showing us what has been, it also
reveals what can be done. Progress is Janus-faced, looking to the
bygone as well as to the coming; and radicalism should not so much
busy itself with lopping off the dead or seeming dead limbs, as with
clearing away that poisonous rottenness around the roots, from which
the tree has drawn the principle of death into its sap. A love of the
beautiful and harmonious, which must be the guide and forerunner to
every onward movement of humanity, is created and cherished more
surely by pointing out what beauty dwells in anything, even the most
deformed (for there is something in that also, else it could not even
be), than by searching out and railing at all the foulnesses in
nature.

Not till we have patiently studied beauty can we safely venture to
look at defects, for not till then can we do it in that spirit of
earnest love, which gives more than it takes away. Exultingly as we
hail all signs of progress, we venerate the past also. The tendrils of
the heart, like those of ivy, cling but the more closely to what they
have clung to long, and even when that which they entwine crumbles
beneath them, they still run greenly over the ruin, and beautify those
defects which they can not hide. The past as well as the present,
molds the future, and the features of some remote progenitor will
revive again freshly in the latest offspring of the womb of time. Our
earth hangs well-nigh silent now, amid the chorus of her sister orbs,
and not till past and present move harmoniously together will music
once more vibrate on this long silent chord in the symphony of the
universe.




II

THE FIRST OF THE MODERNS[36]


Dryden has now been in his grave nearly a hundred and seventy years;
in the second class of English poets perhaps no one stands, on the
whole, so high as he; during his lifetime, in spite of jealousy,
detraction, unpopular politics, and a suspicious change of faith, his
preeminence was conceded; he was the earliest complete type of the
purely literary man, in the modern sense; there is a singular
unanimity in allowing him a certain claim to greatness which would be
denied to men as famous and more read - to Pope or Swift, for example;
he is supposed, in some way or other, to have reformed English poetry.
It is now about half a century since the only uniform edition of his
works was edited by Scott. No library is complete without him, no name
is more familiar than his, and yet it may be suspected that few
writers are more thoroughly buried in that great cemetery of the
"British Poets."

[Footnote 36: From the first essay in the first series entitled "Among
My Books." Copyright, 1870, by James Russell Lowell. Published by
Houghton, Mifflin Company.]

If contemporary reputation be often deceitful, posthumous fame may be
generally trusted, for it is a verdict made up of the suffrages of the
select men in succeeding generations. This verdict has been as good as
unanimous in favor of Dryden. It is, perhaps, worth while to take a
fresh observation of him, to consider him neither as warning nor
example, but to endeavor to make out what it is that has given so
lofty and firm a position to one of the most unequal, inconsistent,
and faulty writers that ever lived. He is a curious example of what we
often remark of the living, but rarely of the dead - that they get
credit for what they might be quite as much as for what they are - and
posterity has applied to him one of his own rules of criticism,
judging him by the best rather than the average of his achievement, a
thing posterity is seldom wont to do. On the losing side in politics,
it is true of his polemical writings as of Burke's - whom in many
respects he resembles, and especially in that supreme quality of a
reasoner, that his mind gathers not only heat, but clearness and
expansion, by its own motion - that they have won his battle for him in
the judgment of after times.

To us, looking back at him, he gradually becomes a singularly
interesting and even picturesque figure. He is, in more senses than
one, in language, in turn of thought, in style of mind, in the
direction of his activity, the first of the moderns. He is the first
literary man who was also a man of the world, as we understand the
term. He succeeded Ben Jonson as the acknowledged dictator of wit and
criticism, as Dr. Johnson, after nearly the same interval, succeeded
him. All ages are, in some sense, ages of transition; but there are
times when the transition is more marked, more rapid; and it is,
perhaps, an ill fortune for a man of letters to arrive at maturity
during such a period, still more to represent in himself the change
that is going on, and to be an efficient cause in bringing it about.
Unless, like Goethe, he is of a singularly uncontemporaneous nature,
capable of being _tutta in se romita_, and of running parallel with
his time rather than being sucked into its current, he will be
thwarted in that harmonious development of native force which has so
much to do with its steady and successful application. Dryden
suffered, no doubt, in this way. Tho in creed he seems to have drifted
backward in an eddy of the general current; yet of the intellectual
movement of the time, so far certainly as literature shared in it, he
could say, with Æneas, not only that he saw, but that himself was a
great part of it.

That movement was, on the whole, a downward one, from faith to scepticism,
from enthusiasm to cynicism, from the imagination to the understanding. It
was in a direction altogether away from those springs of imagination and
faith at which they of the last age had slaked the thirst or renewed the
vigor of their souls. Dryden himself recognized that indefinable and
gregarious influence which we call nowadays the spirit of the age, when he
said that "every age has a kind of universal genius." He had also a just
notion of that in which he lived; for he remarks, incidentally, that "all
knowing ages are naturally sceptic and not at all bigoted, which, if I am
not much deceived, is the proper character of our own." It may be conceived
that he was even painfully half-aware of having fallen upon a time
incapable, not merely of a great poet, but perhaps of any poet at all; for
nothing is so sensitive to the chill of a skeptical atmosphere as that
enthusiasm which, if it be not genius, is at least the beautiful illusion,
that saves it from the baffling quibbles of self-consciousness. Thrice
unhappy he who, born to see things as they might be, is schooled by
circumstances to see them as people say they are - to read God in a prose
translation. Such was Dryden's lot, and such, for a good part of his days,
it was by his own choice. He who was of a stature to snatch the torch of
life that flashes from lifted hand to hand along the generations, over the
heads of inferior men, chose rather to be a link-boy to the stews....

But at whatever period of his life we look at Dryden, and whatever,
for the moment, may have been his poetic creed, there was something in
the nature of the man that would not be wholly subdued to what it
worked in. There are continual glimpses of something in him greater
than he, hints of possibilities finer than anything he has done. You
feel that the whole of him was better than any random specimens, tho
of his best, seem to prove. _Incessu patet_, he has by times the large
stride of the elder race, tho it sinks too often into the slouch of a
man who has seen better days. His grand air may, in part, spring from
a habit of easy superiority to his competitors; but must also, in
part, be ascribed to an innate dignity of character. That this
preeminence should have been so generally admitted, during his life,
can only be explained by a bottom of good sense, kindliness, and sound
judgment, whose solid worth could afford that many a flurry of vanity,
petulance, and even error should flit across the surface and be
forgotten. Whatever else Dryden may have been, the last and abiding
impression of him is that he was thoroughly manly; and while it may be
disputed whether he was a great poet, it may be said of him, as
Wordsworth said of Burke, "that he was by far the greatest man of his
age, not only abounding in knowledge himself, but feeding, in various
directions, his most able contemporaries."




III

OF FAULTS FOUND IN SHAKESPEARE[37]


Mr. Matthew Arnold seems to think that Shakespeare has damaged English
poetry. I wish he had! It is true he lifted Dryden above himself in
"All for Love"; but it was Dryden who said of him, by instinctive
conviction rather than judgment, that within his magic circle none
dared tread but he. Is he to blame for the extravagances of modern
diction, which are but the reaction of the brazen age against the
degeneracy of art into artifice, that has characterized the silver
period in every literature? We see in them only the futile effort of
misguided persons to torture out of language the secret of that
inspiration which should be in themselves. We do not find the
extravagances in Shakespeare himself. We never saw a line in any
modern poet that reminded us of him, and will venture to assert that
it is only poets of the second class that find successful imitators.
And the reason seems to us a very plain one. The genius of the great
poet seeks repose in the expression of itself, and finds it at last in
style, which is the establishment of a perfect mutual understanding
between the worker and his material. The secondary intellect, on the
other hand, seeks for excitement in expression, and stimulates itself
into mannerism, which is the wilful obtrusion of self, as style is its
unconscious abnegation. No poet of the first class has ever left a
school, because his imagination is incommunicable; while, just as
surely as the thermometer tells of the neighborhood of an iceberg, you
may detect the presence of a genius of the second class in any
generation by the influence of his mannerism, for that, being an
artificial thing, is capable of reproduction. Dante, Shakespeare,
Goethe, left no heirs either to the form or mode of their expression;
while Milton, Sterne, and Wordsworth left behind them whole regiments
uniformed with all their external characteristics.

[Footnote 37: From the essay entitled "Shakespeare Once Again,"
printed in the first series entitled "Among My Books." Copyright,
1870, by James Russell Lowell. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.]

We do not mean that great poetic geniuses may not have influenced
thought (tho we think it would be difficult to show how Shakespeare
had done so, directly and wilfully), but that they have not infected
contemporaries or followers with mannerism. The quality in him which
makes him at once so thoroughly English and so thoroughly cosmopolitan
is that aeration of the understanding by the imagination which he has
in common with all the greater poets, and which is the privilege of
genius. The modern school, which mistakes violence for intensity,
seems to catch its breath when it finds itself on the verge of natural
expression, and to say to itself, "Good heavens! I had almost
forgotten I was inspired!" But of Shakespeare we do not even suspect
that he ever remembered it. He does not always speak in that intense
way that flames up in Lear and Macbeth through the rifts of a soil
volcanic with passion. He allows us here and there the repose of a
commonplace character, the consoling distraction of a humorous one. He
knows how to be equable and grand without effort, so that we forget
the altitude of thought to which he has led us, because the slowly
receding slope of a mountain stretching downward by ample gradations
gives a less startling impression of height than to look over the edge
of a ravine that makes but a wrinkle in its flank.

Shakespeare has been sometimes taxed with the barbarism of profuseness
and exaggeration. But this is to measure him by a Sophoclean scale.
The simplicity of the antique tragedy is by no means that of
expression, but is of form merely. In the utterance of great passions
something must be indulged to the extravagance of Nature; the subdued
tones to which pathos and sentiment are limited can not express a
tempest of the soul. The range between the piteous "no more but so,"
in which Ophelia compresses the heartbreak whose compression was to
make her mad, and that sublime appeal of Lear to the elements of
nature, only to be matched, if matched at all, in the "Prometheus," is
a wide one, and Shakespeare is as truly simple in the one as in the
other. The simplicity of poetry is not that of prose, nor its
clearness that of ready apprehension merely. To a subtile sense, a
sense heightened by sympathy, those sudden fervors of phrase, gone ere
one can say it lightens, that show us Macbeth groping among the
complexities of thought in his conscience-clouded mind, and reveal the
intricacy rather than enlighten it, while they leave the eye darkened
to the literal meaning of the words, yet make their logical sequence
the grandeur of the conception, and its truth to nature clearer than
sober daylight could. There is an obscurity of mist rising from the
undrained shallows of the mind, and there is the darkness of
thunder-cloud gathering its electric masses with passionate intensity
from the clear element of the imagination, not at random or wilfully,
but by the natural processes of the creative faculty, to brood those
flashes of expression that transcend rhetoric, and are only to be
apprehended by the poetic instinct.

In that secondary office of imagination, where it serves the artist,
not as the reason that shapes, but as the interpreter of his
conceptions into words, there is a distinction to be noticed between
the higher and lower mode in which it performs its function. It may be
either creative or pictorial, may body forth the thought or merely
image it forth. With Shakespeare, for example, imagination seems
immanent in his very consciousness; with Milton, in his memory. In the
one it sends, as if without knowing it, a fiery life into the verse,

"Sei die Braut das Wort,
Bräutigam der Geist";

in the other it elaborates a certain pomp and elevation. Accordingly,
the bias of the former is toward over-intensity, of the latter toward
over-diffuseness. Shakespeare's temptation is to push a willing
metaphor beyond its strength, to make a passion over-inform its
tenement of words; Milton can not resist running a simile on into a
fugue.

One always fancies Shakespeare in his best verses, and Milton at the
keyboard of his organ. Shakespeare's language is no longer the mere
vehicle of thought; it has become part of it, its very flesh and
blood. The pleasure it gives us is unmixt, direct, like that from the
smell of a flower or the flavor of a fruit. Milton sets everywhere his
little pitfalls of bookish association for the memory. I know that
Milton's manner is very grand. It is slow, it is stately, moving as in
triumphal procession, with music, with historic banners, with spoils
from every time and every region, and captive epithets, like huge
Sicambrians, thrust their broad shoulders between us and the thought
whose pomp they decorate. But it is manner, nevertheless, as is proved
by the ease with which it is parodied, by the danger it is in of
degenerating into mannerism whenever it forgets itself. Fancy a parody
of Shakespeare - I do not mean of his words, but of his tone, for that
is what distinguishes the master. You might as well try it with the
Venus of Melos. In Shakespeare it is always the higher thing, the
thought, the fancy, that is preeminent; it is Cæsar that draws all
eyes, and not the chariot in which he rides, or the throng which is
but the reverberation of his supremacy. If not, how explain the charm
with which he dominates in all tongues, even under the disenchantment
of translation? Among the most alien races he is as solidly at home as
a mountain seen from different sides by many lands, itself superbly
solitary, yet the companion of all thoughts and domesticated in all
imaginations.




IV

AMERICANS AS SUCCESSORS OF THE DUTCH[38]


For more than a century the Dutch were the laughing-stock of polite
Europe. They were butter-firkins, swillers of beer and schnapps, and
their _vrouws_ from whom Holbein painted the all but loveliest of
Madonnas, Rembrandt the graceful girl who sits immortal on his knee in
Dresden, and Rubens his abounding goddesses, were the synonyms of
clumsy vulgarity. Even so late as Irving the ships of the greatest
navigators in the world were represented as sailing equally well
stern-foremost. That the aristocratic Venetians should have

"Riveted with gigantic piles
Thorough the center their new catchèd miles"

was heroic. But the far more marvelous achievement of the Dutch in
the same kind was ludicrous even to republican Marvell. Meanwhile,
during that very century of scorn, they were the best artists,
sailors, merchants, bankers, printers, scholars, jurisconsults, and
statesmen in Europe, and the genius of Motley has revealed them to us,
earning a right to themselves by the most heroic struggle in human
annals. But, alas! they were not merely simple burghers who had fairly
made themselves High Mightinesses, and could treat on equal terms with
anointed kings, but their commonwealth carried in its bosom the germs
of democracy. They even unmuzzled, at least after dark, that dreadful
mastiff, the Press, whose scent is, or ought to be, so keen for wolves
in sheep's clothing and for certain other animals in lions' skins.
They made fun of sacred majesty, and, what was worse, managed
uncommonly well without it. In an age when periwigs made so large a
part of the natural dignity of man people with such a turn of mind
were dangerous. How could they seem other than vulgar and hateful?

[Footnote 38: From the essay entitled "On a Certain Condescension in
Foreigners," printed in "From My Study Windows." Copyright, 1870,
1871, 1890, by James Russell Lowell. Published by Houghton, Mifflin
Company.]

In the natural course of things we succeeded to this unenviable
position of general butt. The Dutch had thriven under it pretty well,
and there was hope that we could at least contrive to worry along. And
we certainly did in a very redoubtable fashion. Perhaps we deserved
some of the sarcasm more than our Dutch predecessors in office. We had
nothing to boast of in arts or letters, and were given to bragging
overmuch of our merely material prosperity, due quite as much to the
virtue of our continent as to our own. There was some truth in
Carlyle's sneer after all. Till we had succeeded in some higher way
than this, we had only the success of physical growth. Our greatness,
like that of enormous Russia, was greatness on the map - barbarian mass
only; but had we gone down, like that other Atlantis, in some vast
cataclysm, we should have covered but a pin's point on the chart of
memory, compared with those ideal spaces occupied by tiny Attica and
cramped England. At the same time, our critics somewhat too easily
forgot that material must make ready the foundation for ideal
triumphs, that the arts have no chance in poor countries. But it must
be allowed that democracy stood for a great deal in our shortcoming.
The _Edinburgh Review_ never would have thought of asking, "Who reads
a Russian book?" and England was satisfied with iron from Sweden
without being impertinently inquisitive after her painters and
statuaries. Was it that they expected too much from the mere miracle
of freedom? Is it not the highest art of a republic to make men of
flesh and blood, and not the marble ideals of such? It may be fairly
doubted whether we have produced this higher type of man yet. Perhaps
it is the collective, not the individual humanity that is to have a
chance of nobler development among us. We shall see. We have a vast
amount of imported ignorance, and, still worse, of native ready-made
knowledge, to digest before even the preliminaries of such a
consummation can be arranged. We have got to learn that statesmanship
is the most complicated of all arts, and to come back to the
apprenticeship system too hastily abandoned....

So long as we continue to be the most common-schooled and the least
cultivated people in the world, I suppose we must consent to endure
this condescending manner of foreigners toward us. The more friendly
they mean to be the more ludicrously prominent it becomes. They can
never appreciate the immense amount of silent work that has been done
here, making this continent slowly fit for the abode of man, and which
will demonstrate itself, let us hope, in the character of the people.
Outsiders can only be expected to judge a nation by the amount it has
contributed to the civilization of the world; the amount, that is,
that can be seen and handled. A great place in history can only be
achieved by competitive examinations, nay, by a long course of them.
How much new thought have we contributed to the common stock? Till
that question can be triumphantly answered, or needs no answer, we
must continue to be simply interesting as an experiment, to be studied
as a problem, and not respected as an attained result or an
accomplished solution. Perhaps, as I have hinted, their patronizing
manner toward us is the fair result of their failing to see here
anything more than a poor imitation, a plaster-cast of Europe.

Are they not partly right? If the tone of the uncultivated American
has too often the arrogance of the barbarian, is not that of the
cultivated as often vulgarly apologetic? In the America they meet with
is there the simplicity, the manliness, the absence of sham, the faith
in human nature, the sensitiveness to duty and implied obligation,
that in any way distinguishes us from what our orators call "the
effete civilization of the Old World"? Is there a politician among us
daring enough (except a Dana[39] here and there) to risk his future on
the chance of our keeping our word with the exactness of superstitious
communities like England? Is it certain that we shall be ashamed of a
bankruptcy of honor, if we can only keep the letter of our bond? I
hope we shall be able to answer all these questions with a frank yes.

[Footnote 39: The reference is to Richard Henry Dana, author of "Two
Years Before the Mast," who in 1876 was appointed by President Grant
minister to England, but failed of confirmation in the Senate, owing
to political intrigues due to his independence. Lowell appears to have
inserted this reference to Dana in an edition published subsequent to
the first, the date of the first being 1871.]

At any rate, we would advise our visitors that we are not merely
curious creatures, but belong to the family of man, and that, as
individuals, we are not to be always subjected to the competitive
examination above mentioned, even if we acknowledged their competence
as an examining board. Above all, we beg them to remember that America
is not to us, as to them, a mere object of external interest to be
discust and analyzed, but in us, part of our very marrow. Let them not
suppose that we conceive of ourselves as exiles from the graces and
amenities of an older date than we, tho very much at home in a state
of things not yet all it might be or should be, but which we mean to
make so, and which we find both wholesome and pleasant for men (tho
perhaps not for _dilettanti_) to live in. "The full tide of human
existence"[40] may be felt here as keenly as Johnson felt it at


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeThe Best of the World's Classics, Restricted to Prose, Vol. X (of X) - America - II, Index → online text (page 9 of 17)