John Collings Squire.

Books in general online

. (page 2 of 13)
Online LibraryJohn Collings SquireBooks in general → online text (page 2 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


a poem as exalted in spirit as Adonais. But
Ave atque V ale is emotionally as genuine and
powerful as Adonais ; its form is as good ;
its detail is as good ; and its languid music
is as perfect in its fashion as Shelley's loveliest
and most magnificent. The stanza was a
marvellous invention ; the perfect tube
through which just that music should be
blown :

For always thee the fervid languid glories

Allured of heavier suns in mightier skies >
28



Swinburne's Defects

Thine ears knew all the wandering watery

sighs
Where the sea sobs round Lesbian promontories.

The barren kiss of piteous wave to wave

That knows not where is that Leucadian

grave
Which hides too deep the supreme head of song.

Ah, salt and sterile as her kisses were,
The wild sea winds her and the green gulfs bear
Hither and thither, and vex and work her wrong,

Blind gods that cannot spare.

All his stock words come into this poem ; but
in this poem they are not stock words, but
used accurately, appropriately. As a matter
of fact, many of them came from Baudelaire,
and were best used by Swinburne when he
was describing [Baudelaire's personality and
work. Later, they were counters and they
all came into anything he wrote, whether it
was an ode to the sea or a sonnet on a bad
dramatist.

No great poet is so obviously a case for
selection. The proportion of " waste " in
his complete works is extraordinarily large.
No man is good all through. Little, if a
critic were separating unmistakable chaff from
the grain, could be left out of Milton. There
is little that is utterly empty and super-
erogatory (though he is really first-rate only
a quarter of his time) in Browning ; those

29



Books in General

who like him well like him almost everywhere.
But the profoundest admirer of Tennyson
would not mind if half his works had never
been written ; in fact the bad half has damaged
and obscured the good half. A sound selec-
tion from Keats would include most of him,
though many of his poems are only good in
places ; Shelley can, for habitual reading, be
greatly reduced, and so can Wordsworth and
Coleridge. But Swinburne is I speak for many
who I know feel this as I do an extreme
case. For, if one had really gone thoroughly
through his works and cut out the small part
that one really liked, one would never want to
look at the rest again. This scarcely holds of
anyone else. I may not habitually read the
whole of Wordsworth, but I should be sorry
to know that there was any page of his that
I should never be allowed to look at again.
But much of Swinburne need never have been
written : he took a nominal subject and, in
a rapture of fluent self-imitation, turned the
handle of the old magnificent barrel organ
rapidly round and round. When you are
reading him in anthologies you have a higher
opinion of him than at any other time. It is
a strange thing ; but the psychological states
that lie behind it are by now pretty well
understood ; and one need read no more
than Mr. Gosse's Life and Mrs. Meynell's short
essay to know what he was and what happened
to him.

30



Swinburne's Defects

On looking at the above I find that for the
five-and-fiftieth time I have seized the oppor-
tunity of arguing that most of Swinburne is
rubbish* Why ? Unconsciously, I imagine,
I have been impelled by the feeling that it is
the most dangerously plausible rubbish that
exists ; that influence exercised by Swinburne
is the worst influence, artistically, to which a
writer can be subjected ; that, in fact, enthu-
siastic youth should always be warned against
him. He was (when not inspired) an extra-
ordinarily clever composer of fakes, the large
movement of which conceals the deplorably
loose writing ; and many have derived from
him the conception of verse as merely the
accumulation of sweet or sonorous lines and
rotund words. He imposed bad artistic habits
and a bad vocabulary on a whole generation
of minor writers.

And this has left a whole generation of
critics, who have suffered from the said
generation of minor poets, unjustifiably in-
censed against him, conscious that they are
unjust and yet hardly able to bridle their
feelings. There is not in Swinburne, at first
sight, much to get angry about or even to
dispute about. It is impossible to be agitated
one way or the other by any of his opinions.
They are not that sort of opinion. And, for
the rest, his poems are either good poems or
bad : it is even unusually easy to distinguish

3 1



Books in General

between the good and the bad. Nevertheless,
the modern critic reads Swinburne with a
desire for expression rising insurgent within
him. The cause of this is, I think, that
Swinburne's qualities and mannerisms never
change. When they are appropriately applied
the result is a good poem : otherwise it is a
bad poem. Thus ghosts of the bad poems
haunt the reader in the best pages that Swin-
burne ever wrote. You are never once allowed
to forget, as Wordsworth lets you forget, how
bad a poet he could be, when circumstances
conspired to that end. And consequently
criticism is for ever teased with the difficulty
of making clear how, and explaining why, he
could be both so good and so bad. There is,
of course, no answer to these momentous
questions, and well we know it. Swinburne
was made like that ; but it will be a ,long time
before we can persuade ourselves calmly to
accept the fact, without itching to expound it.



Why Write a Bad Hand?

BY the same post jthere reached me an
indecipherable letter from a friend
and a book on Handwriting Reform
by Mr. David Thomas, Director of Education
for Carnarvonshire. The collocation was too
striking, and I sat down at once to read a

32



Why Write a Bad Hand?

book that, in the ordinary way, I might have
considered off my beat. It is an interesting
little book, and I recommend it to all teachers
and parents. It contains diverse information.
You may learn from it the reason why left-
handed people stammer if they are forced to
do things with their right hands ; how the
Red Indians made themselves expert in the
art of carving portraits of Queen Victoria ;
the number of the Chinese symbols ; the
development of our alphabet from picto-
graphs ; and what songs the Sirens sang. It
contains much argument, fully illustrated,
concerning the physical effects of various
attitudes, and the relative advantages of
various attitudes, and the relative advantages
of various ways of holding the pen. But the
chief " reform " advocated is the adoption
of a new style of writing in the schools. The
hand traditionally taught has developed from
" copperplate " which, as Mr. Thomas reason-
ably points out, goes directly the opposite
way to the script of the copperplate engraver.
Children are taught to slope forward, to
thicken their down strokes, to join their letters
and (to all appearances) to make their letters
and words look as like each other as possible.
The new style is the oldest style ; a style
like that of print (which grew out of mediaeval
MSS.) or that of contemporary " calligraphers."
Experiments have proved that children who
are taught this style write beautifully in a

c 33



Books in General

few months, though their old-style fists have
been atrocious. It is also believed that,
writing vertical print-like letters not joined
together, a child can write just as fast as he
could in the common way. This is difficult
to believe. If one tries to print nicely oneself
one takes hours over a page. But one must
take a gentleman's word, especially when he
backs it up with professional-looking statistics.
The new style is easy and rapid for the writer,
hygienic from the medical point of view, and
productive of pleasure in the reader. What
more can one ask ? Specimens are given ;
and they completed a conversion begun by
Mr. Thomas's argument.

Having read this book and agreed thor-
oughly with its conclusions, I considered what
next I should do. To have sound principles
is better than not to have sound principles ;
to approve of reform is better than to be
obscurantist. I am of that school ancient,
it must be admitted, and widespread which
holds that faith ought to be supplemented
by works. It is, theoretically, never too late
to mend ; it is no good believing a thing if
you don't act on it ; an ounce of practice is
better than a pound of precept. It therefore
seemed to me that my duty was to endeavour
to reform my own handwriting, of which fre-
quent and not entirely baseless complaint has
been made.

34



Why Write a Bad Hand ?

I set to work systematically. First I made
notes on position and discovered (i) that I
twist myself as the boy does in the picture
where the desk is too high ; (2) that I lean my
head down to the paper as the boy does where
the desk is too low. These things mean
round shoulders and curvature of the spine ;
probably also, as my nose comes too close
to the paper, a squint. Any of these maladies
alone I might be able to bear, but I do not
fancy an accumulation of the lot. I next
studied the position of the fingers. My species
is that most violently denounced, of which the
dominant note is an acutely crooked fore-
finger with a protruding knuckle. This de-
rives (our authority says) from holding the
pen too tightly when young ; or possibly from
early efforts with a pencil and a slate. In-
stead of slanting the pen backwards at an
angle of 20 to the straightforward line, I
slope it slightly forward. Finally, as the
outcome of this concatenation of gross errors,
there is a kind of writing which would certainly
not secure Mr. Thomas's commendation. It
is not, I comfort myself, the kind of writing
for which he reserves his most thorough cen-
sure. Nobody has ever said to me " Why do
you model your handwriting on that abomin-
able copperplate ? " When I read the passages
exposing the infamy of copperplate I hold my
head up. But if my writing is not like copper-
plate I must candidly admit that it is still

35



Books in General

less like print. In fact, I cannot think of
anything at all that it is like.

So I determined to turn over all the new
leaves at once. I juggled with desk and chair,
finally restoring the status quo with the con-
viction that the fault was not in the furniture.
I carefully placed the chair and desk at what
the diagrams showed to be the sound distance
from each other. I shifted to the left and sat
up, with the pride of the Sphinx surveying
the desert sands on which its paws so assuredly
rest. I poked the pen and my fingers about
until the pen was at the exact angle to the
paper and the precise position between thumb
and two first ringers. I noted that the soft
pad of the hand was on the paper and, as for
the third and fourth fingers, feeling that I
ought to do the very best thing right off and
take the advice of Mr. Edward Johnston, one
of the greatest of all calligraphists, I tucked
them clean away into my palm. No margin
of error could be allowed. I was determined
to carry out my instructions to the letter.
I felt, I admit, very uncomfortable : rather
as one feels in the dentist's chair after the
pinions have been fixed. But I meant to see
it through.

I then wrote. I tried to write like print.
I was anxious to turn out something like those
beautiful copies of verses, reproduced by Mr.

36



Why Write a Bad Hand?

Thomas, which have been done by children of
seven, and even six, in the public elementary
schools of London. A page in that style,
I thought, would make rather a nice present ;
people might even like to frame it : and,
ransacking my brain for the words of The
Lake Isle of Innisfree, I set to work. But how
difficult is the path of virtue. With what
thorns is it beset. With the utmost con-
centration, teeth set and in the mood of Zara-
thustra, I stuck at it. But what happened
was not writing like print. It was the sort
of print that comes out of an irascible plan-
chette when it is jibbing against an un-
sympathetic manipulator. Mr. Yeats, him-
self, I am sure would not have recognised his
charming poem. I have little time to spare
and I think in this regard I had better leave
progress to the next generation.

It is scarcely to be supposed that the recom-
mendations of Mr. Thomas and those who
agree with him will be universally taken up
at once, though one has more hope now that
the Board of Education is under Mr. Fisher
than one has in ordinary times. These things
spread gradually ; it takes a long time for
one good custom to corrupt the world ! But
the better thing does always prevail in the
long run if its superiority is obvious to the
physical senses and, granted an average life
in accordance with the insurance tables, I

37



Books in General

hope to see the day when copperplate and
its stiff derivatives have disappeared. There
was a time when any manuscript was a
pleasure to contemplate : it was a work of art
with a style. The time will come again.
Mr. Johnston and Mr. Graily Hewitt will not
be freaks, but rather unusual exponents of
an art that everybody practises. When the
children on whose work Mr. Thomas draws
have grown up, one will begin getting bills
and demands for Income Tax inscribed in
so fair a hand that it will be a pleasure to pay.



If One Were Descended from
Shakespeare

WE all have our day-dreams. We
lie indolent in chairs, not even
doing the very modest things that
our intelligence and physique enable us to do,
and in reverie perform feats of which we are
incapable and enjoy successes which we shall
never earn. We rescue the perishing, sway
multitudes, win victories by sudden strokes,
make orations surpassing the finest efforts of
Demosthenes, and erect in a week houses
which Dr. Addison would consider the work
of ten laborious years. My own favourite
foible is hitting sixes out of Lord's, cricket
being a game at which no amount of practice

38



Descended from Shakespeare

and coaching could have made me anything
but a complete duffer. There are no doubt
those (possibly cricketers) who day-dream of
success as authors, setting all England agog
with epics or selling hundreds of thousands
of copies of a six-shilling novel. That sort of
dream would never sufficiently distract me to
take my eye off my tray-full of pots, perhaps
because it has some sort of relation to qualities
I actually possess ; I could get no sort of
thrill out of any triumph with literature com-
parable to the delight of striding to an applaud-
ing pavilion after that hurricane century
which saved the side.

But apart from these dreams of things which
we do in our own proper selves, and which
would be quite open to us if we were really
competent to do them, there are the dreams
which postulate a change in external con-
ditions beyond our contriving. " If I were
King " is a traditional phrase for a dream
probably universal. There is no private citizen
in the world who, were he one morning set
upon the throne, would not show these pro-
fessional monarchs their business. Conceive
what could be done in that position, both
directly and by the force of virtuous example :
but, of course, you know as well as I do.
I will admit to this dream. I have imagined
accident, not the force of my nature, placing
me on the most ancient thrones of Europe ;

39



Books in General

and I fondly persuade myself that I know
what I should do if I got there, as also I know
what I should do if (a consummation I wish
far more devoutly) a millionaire with a pene-
tration and a sense of justice and propriety
more than ordinary suddenly gave me an
enormous sum of money. There are no desir-
able and not many undesirable situations in
which I have not imagined myself ; there are
few sorts of accidents, pleasant or other, with
which I have not dallied, and of which I have
not endeavoured to surmise the effects. But
this week I was presented, gratis, by another
person, with a day-dream of a sort new to
me ; and I don't know whether it is a pleasant
one or not.

It is one of those ingenious dogs, one's
correspondents : the people who have so
little honest work to do in the world that they
can afford to track down one's smallest errors
and, when the possibilities of this base pastime
have been temporarily exhausted, employ
themselves in constructing problems some-
times ingenious but never useful. " What
would you do," is the question, " if you came
upon proof, absolutely irrefragable (a good
word that), that you, a writer yourself, w r ere
a lineal descendant in the male line of William
Shakespeare ? Would you divulge ? ' :

Divulge ! Why not ? What fun it would
40



Descended from Shakespeare

be ; besides, with that behind one, the com-
munity would never allow one to starve, a
certainty that would be very agreeable, how-
ever it was obtained. One lecture-tour in
America, or even in England, with those mighty
credentials behind one, and one would have a
bank-balance built upon the rock. Think
of the prices especially if one dropped the
name of Eagle and appeared as Solomon
Shakespeare that one's critical pronounce-
ments would command, especially if one took
the obvious course and set up for an expert
on the drama. " Mr. William Archer may
say what he likes about the apron-stage, but
there is a tradition in my family which . . . " ;
" Nobody who bears, as I have the honour to
bear, the dramatist's name would consider
for an instant the idiotic suggestion that
Hamlet was mad." " Mr. Gubb says that
Shakespeare was a drunken, illiterate clown ;
if he really wishes to begin bandying words
about ancestors I shall presently unloose my
tongue." Weight would be lent to anything
one said ; the subtle influence would pervade
even those opponents who considered them-
selves immune from it. All these patent
advantages appeared at once to me. But when
my fancy really got working, when I began to
conceive the thing as really happening, I
discovered that there would be drawbacks, too.

The announcement would, no doubt, make

41



Books in General

a prodigious sensation. But would it not be
seen mainly in a comic light ? The first fine
glow would be a little chilled by those parallel
portraits in the newspapers with the captions
(beginning " Look on this picture and on this ")
calling attention to the shrinkage of the Shake-
speare forehead. One would have lustre of
a sort, but it would be a comic lustre. No
imaginary debate in Punch those debates in
which Sir Hall Caine and Sir James Crichton-
Browne take part would be complete without
the younger Shakespeare, and if one ventured,
as one obstinately w r ould, to continue pro-
ducing attempts at what is called " creative
work " the guffaws, on each occasion, would
be general and loud. You can conceive those
comments : " On the whole we still prefer
King Lear " ; " Not up to the standard of the
Old 'Un yet, Mr. Shakespeare " ; " The Cygnet
of Avon is at present a somewhat callow and
ungainly bird " ; " Not marble nor the gilded
monuments of princes shall outlive this power-
ful rhyme we don't think ! ?: The produc-
tion of a new play, if any such there were,
would bring this unseemly jesting to a climax ;
a thousand doltish chuckling voices would
inform me that my progenitor's position was
still secure. And what compensations, beyond
the pleasure of the first dramatic disclosure,
and the comfort of the adventitious dollars
that could certainly be gathered in a hundred
ways, would there be for all this humiliation ?
42



Descended from Shakespeare

I think, none. After the first excitement,
the first fevered chase had finished, one would
be little more than a stock and slightly stale
joke. One would be revered by very simple
and humourless folk. There would be unpre-
tentious drawing-rooms where they would be
proud to see one and fluttered to defer to
one's authority on Elizabethan literature.
The Shakespeare Society of Skegness-on-Sea
would solicit, and could not be refused, the
privilege of putting one's name among those
of the patrons or hon. presidents at the top
of its official notepaper. The eyes of un-
sophisticated illiterate men in the shires would
light up if they were invited to play a round
of golf with one ; they would remember it
and the recollection would be treasured in
their families. One would be requested to
make a little speech at the opening of the
Shakespeare Festival at the Theatre Royal,
Bexhill. A platform seat would always be
provided at Shakespeare and National Theatre
festivals in London ; some fairly conspicuous
role might be allowed at the annual junketings
in Stratford. But mostly life would be a
life of suburban bazaars, small prizegivings,
and competitions in the recital of dramatic
poetry. So life would wear on, and as it
wore on one's expression would grow either
more and more smug or more and more harassed
I think the latter. And every morning
one would that is to say, I should gaze in

43



Books in General

the mirror with haunting fear. The depraved
impulse to grow a moustache and a little
pointed beard I think I could control ; in any
event one could never, even if one wished to
succumb to that mania, hope to look as much
like Shakespeare, Senr., as Sir Hall Caine
does. But no power of self-control, no (as
I believe) barber's medicaments, not poppy,
nor mandragora, nor hair-massage can arrest
that baldness which begins on the top of the
head and spreads doggedly downwards on
each side. When that began I should feel
that the cup of my bitterness was full : I
should not know whether to put up with it
or to buy a wig, the motive of which might be
instantly, shamefully, detected by the Press.

So I think if I discovered those irrefragable
proofs I should, for fear of consequences,
suppress them. They could only be made
innocuous if one discovered simultaneously
proofs, equally conclusive, that Shakespeare
did not write his plays but was merely an
obliging, or a rapacious, soul who lent his
surname to Bacon or another.



44



Endymion "



Endymion

JUST before he died Mr. Theodore Watts-
Dunton wrote to the Times a letter
concerning Keats in which he protested
against the current and almost universal
undervaluation of Endymion. Quoting words
of his own previously written, he observed
that " the conventional talk about the futility
of Endymion has come down to us from the
unfair criticisms of Keats's own time. It
is full of poetry. When it descends into
prattle, which it sometimes assuredly does,
it is always the prattle of a baby Olympian."
Even men who cannot quite swallow the
contention of another correspondent that
Endymion contains an exalted ethical system
may welcome this protest. For whenever
Keats is mentioned in a company people
often people who state that they have been
unable to read the poem are to be heard
declaring Endymion to be almost worthless.

What are the charges commonly made
against this poem ? The general charge is
that, owing to the faults of its construction,
it is dull to the point of being unreadable.
People will frequently talk of the poem as
though the only part of it worth preserving
were the Song of the Indian Maid, which

45



Books in General

has passages admittedly almost equal to
Keats's greatest work ; and the contrast
with Hyperion is frequently pointed as though
to imply that one poem was written by a
Jekyll and the other by a Hyde. The other
charges are that the rhythm is monotonous,
the language too luscious, the influence of
the Cockney Hunt too strong, and forcing
to suit the rhyme too frequent : that the
poem, in fact, is a heterogeneous mass of
crudities, interesting only because it is faintly
iridescent with the light of the genius that
later revealed itself. All these charges have
some foundation, but not enough to affect
Endymion's position as one of the finest long
poems in the language.

That the general construction is bad and
that some of the long digressions are con-
fusing may be admitted at once. Those
people who read long poems for " the story "
must certainly have a tedious time with
Endymion. Not that Keats is alone in respect
of his inability to keep the story going and
the characters interesting. Homer (especially
Pope's Homer) sometimes nods ; Milton some-
times drowses ; Spenser occasionally goes
to sleep ; and the Wordsworth of the Excursion
frequently snores like a Dutch sailor. There
is not a long poem in the language which
presents the perfect form of a good lyric,
and there are few in which the narrative
proceeds as cleanly, and the characters are
46



" Endymion"

delineated as clearly, as they often are even


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryJohn Collings SquireBooks in general → online text (page 2 of 13)