John Collings Squire.

Books in general online

. (page 3 of 13)
Online LibraryJohn Collings SquireBooks in general → online text (page 3 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in inferior prose romances. Spenser, whose
Faerie Queene is a most bewildering maze to
tread, was a bad master of architectonics
for Keats, and the structure of Endymion
is as loose as it could be. The " story "
scarcely moves at all. The introduction is
confusing ; the goddess is vaguely conceived,
and we forget her between her rare appear-
ances ; Endymion is a shadow, and his
experiences are so hazily described that one
is often at a loss to know whether he is awake
or dreaming ; and every person who appears,
be it the Indian Maid or Glaucus, is responsible
for an involved digression. There is, in
fact, no " story " in the usual sense of the
word ; we knew before we started that
Endymion was beloved by Diana, and we
know little more of their relations when we
end, in spite of all the peregrinations through
caves and waters, in dells, jasmine bowers,
and boats.

The details, again, are sometimes weak,
though the style as a whole is nothing like
so immature and weak in taste as some
people pretend. There are redundancies such
as the older Keats might not have committed.
There is a striking one in the Second Book,
where Endymion ceases speaking in the
cavern :


Books in General

Thus ending loudly, as he would overleap
His destiny, alert he stood : but when
Obstinate silence came heavily again
Feeling about for its old couch of space
And airy cradle.

Here a fine piece of imaginative description
is crippled by its feebly tautologous termina-
tion. The poet intrudes England and his
own personality too much into the work,
and shows a juvenile proclivity for interrupt-
ing his tale with exclamations like

Muse of my native land, am I inspired ?

Here and there more discretion might have
been used in the language. The word which
jarred on many who read the song recently
published in the Times reappears here :

My Indian bliss !

My river-lily bud ! one human kiss !
One sigh of real breath one gentle squeeze.

Objection to this may be a matter for differ-
ence of opinion, as may the picture of the
moonbeams relieving the tedium of the " poor
patient oyster," but no one could find beauty
in Endymion's address to the goddess's lips :

Those lips, slippery blisses.
Such a faux pas as this is, however, very

"Endymion "

exceptional. And though laboured and un-
gainly phrases like

Hereat Peona, in their silver source

Shut her pure sorrow-drops with glad exclaim

may be found if one looks for them, they are
not numerous. Its defects of outline Endymion
shares with many great poems ; its defects
of detail are far less numerous than seems
usually supposed.

Over against its faults must be set merits
which would have ensured its immortality
had its author never written anything else.
However long the digressions, there is some-
thing to be said for wandering from the strait
and narrow path if one's feet are always led
into pleasant places. The poem is one long
procession of inexhaustibly varied beauties,
of music, of image, and of phrase. You have
only to read the first page of it to realise
that here was a poet who was handling the
couplet as it had not been handled for genera-
tions. That the summery undulations of
the rhythm should in places become soporific
was inevitable, but Keats's mastery over it
rarely fails. That the reader is sometimes
cloyed and glutted with the richness and
profusion of the imagery may be true ; but
the fault involved is a fault of the right
sort, and the sumptuousness of the poem is

D 49

Books in General

spontaneous, and not arduously accumulated.
The vocabulary is almost Shakespearean in
its resource ; and every page is starred with
passages of exquisitely accurate expression
and enchanting sound. So interwoven are
many of them with their context that, pulled
out by the roots, they lose something of their
strength and radiance ; but there are also
many isolated phrases, such as

Old ocean rolls a lengthened, wave to the shore
Down whose green hack the short-lived foam,

all boar,
Burst gradual, with a wayward indolence.

which would show, did nothing else exist to
show, w r hence the descriptive poets who
came after Keats obtained their method.
The passages here quoted are mostly not
exceptional ; they are a few out of hundreds
and none of them comes from the much-
anthologied Song :

It seemed he flew, the way so easy was ;
And like a new-born spirit did he pass
Through the green evening quiet in the sun
O'er many a heath, through many a woodland

Through buried paths, where sleepy twilight

The summer time away. One track unseams


"Endymion "

A wooded cleft, and, far away, the blue
Of ocean jades upon him ; then anew,
He sinks adown a solitary glen,
Where there was never sound of mortal men,
Saving, perhaps, some snow-light cadences
Melting to silence, when upon the breeze
Some holy bark let forth an anthem sweet,
To cheer itself to Delphi.

Forth from a rugged arch, in the dusk below,
Came mother Cybele ! alone alone
In sombre chariot ; dark foldings thrown
About her majesty, and front death-pale,
With turrets crown' d. Four maned lions hale
The sluggish wheels ; solemn their toothed


Their surly eyes brow-hidden, heavy paws
Uplifted drowsily, and nervy tails
Cowering their tawny brushes. Silent sails
This shadowy queen athwart, and faints away
In another gloomy arch.

Hist / when the airy stress
Of music's kiss impregnates the free winds,
And with a sympathetic touch unbinds
JEolian magic from their lucid wombs :
Then old songs waken from enclouded tombs,
Old ditties sigh above their father's grave ;
Ghosts of melodious prophesyings rave
Round every spot where trod Apollo's foot ;
Bronze clarions awake, and faintly bruit,
Where long ago a giant battle was ;

S 1

Books in General

And from the turf, a lullaby doth pass

In every place where infant Orpheus slept.

This still alarm,

This sleepy music! forced him to walk tiptoe,
For it came more softly than the east could blow
Arion's music to the Atlantic isles ;
Or than the west, made jealous by the smiles
Of throned Apollo, could breathe back the life
To seas Ionian or Tyrian.

In these and scores of other passages of
Endymion all Keats's gifts are displayed,
from the highest gift of intense imagination
to the minor technical faculty of using decora-
tive proper names with Miltonic power.

There is little appeal to the religious sense
in man. Keats had, when he wrote it, a limited
conception of the text with which he began
it ; and in Endymion the old myths appeal
to him rather by virtue of their picturesque-
ness than because of their spiritual significance.
Had he lived he might have become a philoso-
phical poet, but the immortals of Endymion
are merely mortals indued with immortality,
and it contains little sign of inward strife.
Anything a man says, provided it is sincerely
said, can be traced back to something funda-
mental in him, but the poet of Endymion
was not much concerned with the nature and
destiny of man or his relations with the

5 2

Solid Ben Jonson

universe. He was preoccupied with the beauty
of the material world, the pathos of love,
youth, and age. On these he spent artistic
powers, already almost ripe, unequalled in
his century. But though Endymion may not
be conspicuous for profundity of thought,
it contains in abundance every other attribute
of supreme poetry. No part of the poem is
equal to the opening of Hyperion or the most
consummate passages of the Odes ; and for
coherence of narration and " human interest "
it cannot hope to vie with Out with the Lifeboat
or Christmas Day in the Workhouse. Keats
himself spoke of it as rather " an endeavour
than a thing accomplished," and " a poor
prologue to what, if I live, I humbly hope to
do." But how else, if he spoke of it at all,
could he speak of it ? Slightly inexperienced,
but marvellously written, it remains a great
poem, which will be read, as it has been read,
by every person who is fit to read poetry
at all.

Solid Ben Jonson

Jonson, in Macmillan's "English Men
of Letters Series," has at last appeared.
It is the best thing on Jonson that exists,
very readable in parts, and elsewhere as
readable as anything on the subject could be.


Books in General

The accounts of Ben's life and character
are excellent. They were more remarkable
than his plays. His stepfather brought him
up as a bricklayer ; as a young bricklayer
he became a master of the classical tongues.
He possibly went to Cambridge, after being
sent to Westminster by a man who had heard
him reciting Greek. At about twenty he
spent some time as a soldier in the Low
Countries, killing his man in single combat
in sight of both armies. Before 1598 (he was
twenty-five or so), when Every Man in His
Humour appeared, he had done a good deal of
work for the stage. In that year he was tried
at the Old Bailey for killing an actor (honour-
ably, he says), escaped the gallows by pleading
benefit of clergy, was fined and branded. In
1604 he was thrown into prison and narrowly
escaped sentence of mutilation for making a
joke about Scotsmen. Thereafter his career
was chequered, but not quite so violently.
He lived to become Poet Laureate (save in
name) and City Chronologer and to receive a
Royal pension. His learning far exceeded
that of any other playwright ; his output, for
volume and diversity of content, was enormous.
He wrote tragedies, comedies, masques, songs,
epitaphs, epigrams, monologues, and a gram-
mar. For many years he was the acknow-
ledged president of letters ; yet most of his
works failed, and he made little money out
of them.


Solid Ben Jonson

Professor Gregory Smith analyses and classi-
fies them with great care. He corrects the
general error that Jonson ruined himself by a
classified pedantry ; in the major part of his
work, the comic, his pedantry was a doctrine
of his own ; he was reacting against the
romantics, determined to be a realist and
show character. What his works would have
been like had his theories been different (I
have heard him called the Ibsen of his time)
is a vain speculation, though the lovely and
fantastic poetry of 'The Sad Shepherd must
provoke it. He was what he was : a scholar
with the realistic passion ; his works are
intermittently inflated with life, and all that
concerns him is interesting because of the
force of his character. No figure among his
contemporaries is so vivid as that of this
great man, lank and raw-boned when young,
very corpulent in middle age, who would bear
no contradiction, yet was primarily concerned
with the theories for which he fought, not
because they were his, but because they were
truths. The resemblances to Samuel Johnson
have often been pointed out, resemblances of
figure, of physical disability, of taste, of habit.
The parallel should not be pushed too far.
Johnson's drink was tea and his weapon talk ;
of Ben it was said that strong liquor was " one
of the elements in which he liveth," and he
was a bruiser. Samuel had more common-
sense than Ben, and less poetry, and for all


Books in General

the great Cham's domineering he was a great
success in mixed company. Ben's fierceness
gave mortal offence ; he called people " illi-
terate apes " to their faces, and suffered for it.
" Fortune," he said, " could never break him,
or make him less." But he offered her more
provocations than Samuel did, and she was
harder on the first Jonson than on the second.

Professor Gregory Smith's book was worth
waiting for. There are no rival studies of
this range for it to supersede ; if there were
they would have to be very good indeed not
to be superseded. It is done with thorough
competence. Professor Gregory Smith does
not write brilliantly, and his criticism is not
of that imaginative kind that makes literature
out of literature. But he has unusual com-
monsense, and he has taken immense pains.
The form of his book is admirable ; and every
chapter, without being overcrowded, is well
filled. If there are errors of detail it is not
I who can correct them ; I agree with every
judgment that I am in a position to test, and
I find the quotations most admirably selected.
They show, in little, the range of Ben's know-
ledge, the richness of his plays as a storehouse
of contemporary manners, the vigour of his
conversational phrasing, the insistence of his
self-revelation, the little, but precious, honey
that was in the rough carcase of this lion.
The one quotation that I miss would be one


Solid Ben Jonson

of the best known as it would certainly be
the loveliest ; a few lines from that song of
the swan's down and the nard of the bee, in
which Ben handled an unusual lyrical rhythm
with the delicacy of Campion or Mr. Bridges.
The absence of a bibliographical chapter
we could do with a list, and a summary of
the problem of the collected works would be
useful is no doubt accounted for by lack of
space. The one thing I do find faulty is the
contrast between the tone of the first chapter
(which deals with Ben's life) and the last,
in which we hear of his disciples and his in-
fluence. Engaged, at the beginning, with
Ben's loneliness and independence and poverty,
Professor Gregory Smith, with a natural
inclination to heighten the pathos of the white-
haired playwright's last years, overdoes his
picture by omissions. It was just in those
years that the loyal young tribe of Ben, the
Carolines, were about ; a few of the references
in the last chapter, if transferred to the first,
would modify the impression that the first
gives. It is a mistake anyone might have
made, and the blemish does not much matter.

I do not think that after this book, any
more than before, I shall become a habitual
reader of Ben Jonson. It is not without
reason that nobody reads him ; he is tough
work, and there is not enough behind most
of the toughness to repay the labour of pene-


Books in General

tration. But the less one likes reading him
the more impressed one is by the force of
that personality which has kept him, to genera-
tions that have not opened his plays, on a
pedestal higher than all except the greatest
names in our literature. His magnetic strength
is so great at least to me that even a sight
of the portrait of the honest, passionate old
bully's bearded heavy face is enough to send
one back to his plays. An extract or two
from Drummond's conversations his remarks,
for instance, that Donne ought to have been
hanged for writing bad verses, and that
Shakespeare sometimes had been sat on for
talking too much produce a similar effect.
Here, in this biography, we have all the best
and most characteristic of him, and it sent
me straight back to my volume of the folio
" Woorkes " of 1641. It is a remarkable
copy. The candid bookseller who sold it to
me years ago said : " If you buy this you will
be able to say that you have the worst com-
plete copy of Ben Jonson in the world." Who
could resist the opportunity of such a boast ?
Worm and water have reduced the book to
the appearance and consistency of a mouldy
sponge. But it is " all there." I took it up
once more, paused on the marked passages,
songs, and epigrams and bits of banter in
the plays (much the same things as Professor
Gregory Smith selects for commendation)
and tried to read some of the plays right

The Deaths of the Philosophers

through. I knew, from experience, that I
could just manage The Alchemist ; I knew,
from experience, that only an effort not worth
making twice would take me through E-picczne
or Folpone ; I knew, from experience, that
only the threat of death or mutilation as an
alternative would get me through Sejanus or
Catiline; so I tried one or two others that
I had not for many years looked at. But
even Bartholomew Fair was only entertaining
in places, as a rule altogether too crowded with
topicality of the kind that does not carry
across the ages, and full of lumbering humour ;
and I knew again, as I have known before,
that what I want is a very small selection
from Ben Jonson, containing only his best.
I deduce from his book that (though as a
scholar he would like somebody to do the
complete poems of Jonson, which have not
been brought together) as a reading person
the Professor also would prefer a small selec-
tion. Cannot he make one ?

The Deaths of the Philosophers

HAS anyone ever dared to explain how
it was that most of the distinguished
philosophers of antiquity met with
unusual and even extraordinary deaths ? Men
of all professions (notably men attached to


Books in General

the profession of arms) often came to violent
ends in those vigorous ages. The oratory of
Cicero did not save him from the sword, and
all the tragedies of ^Eschylus were of no avail
against the eagle that chose his bald head as
a stone on which to drop a massive tortoise.
But the philosophers were marked out by the
acrimonious gods in such a way as to make it
seem probable that the celestial powers felt
revengeful towards them. Olympus was irri-
tated with these eavesdroppers and spies.
They must be shown that the hold was well
guarded and the garrison awake ; that no
stealth and no daring could ultimately save
the mortal scout from the weapons of the
sentinels. Thus it was that few of the
philosophers met the normal deaths of men.

It is easy, if one cares, to confirm this by
reference to those who have written of these
philosophers ; to Diogenes Laertius, to Valerius
Maximus, to Horace and Pliny, and to the
untiring Julius Lemprierius who synthesises
them all. Very few are those who escaped
some sudden and disastrous ejection from the
world ; so few that one cannot resist the
conclusion that for these individuals there
was some excuse or palliation that tempered
the divine anger. So it was with Zeno the
Stoic who died in his ninety-eighth year having
never (previously) been ill in his life ; so
also with Theophrastus ; though that Lesbian

The Deaths of the Philosophers

Diderot scarcely deserved his preferential
treatment. For, dying in the hundred and
seventh year of his age, he ventured to com-
plain of the shortness of life and of " the
partiality of nature in granting longevity to
the crow and the stag but not to man." But
for most of them there was no clemency, and
they died by murder, by suicide, or by the
ferocity of the elements.

Great Archimedes, obsessed by his hy-
draulics, could not collect his thoughts suffi-
ciently to reveal his identity to the invading
soldier ; he fell with Syracuse. Longinus
at Palmyra similarly was carved up ; he had
massacred many another author in his critical
days, if indeed he was himself and not another

f^ntleman of the same name. Zeno the
leatic was tortured to death by a tyrant ;
though, on the pretence of an important
whisper, he contrived to bite off the tyrant's
ear, and thus remove a portion of death's
sting. Socrates was compelled to poison him-
self, and Seneca to commit auto-phlebotomy
in his bath. The death of Epicurus was
inexpressibly painful, and Plato expired in
the act of writing something ; which must
have been agonising for him.

Chrysippus met the end he deserved. All
his life he had made puns and quibbles of
which a negro-minstrel corner-man would


Books in General

have been ashamed, and he died from excess
of laughter caused by the spectacle of an ass
eating figs from a silver platter. Stilpo (brazen
enough to call himself a Stoic) deliberately
got drunk when in extremis, so that the aspect
of death might appear less terrible ; and Chilo
(one of the seven alleged wise men) succumbed
to a fit of joy caused by his son's success at
Olympia. Yet this has undeniable elements
of a glorious, though unpleasantly sudden

death. Make it Professor and the Antwerp

Stadium and the gulf is most apparent ; the
utmost we can say is that Herbert Spencer
knew the game of billiards and once went to
see the Derby. Ariston, like ^Eschylus, found
his bald head the gateway of doom ; though
in this case the instrument of destiny was not
a tortoise, but the sun. Drowned each one,
as men suppose, were Protagoras, Archytas,
Xenocrates and Aristotle. Of the first's demise
we know no more ; but Archytas found death
in a shipwreck, Xenocrates, after one knows
not what an evening, fell from his couch
depositing his head in a basin of water, and the
Stagirite, his industry thwarted at last, flung
himself (it is reported) into the Euripus
because he was unable to discover the cause
of its flux and reflux.

The flames of Etna devoured the body of
Empedocles. Polemon buried himself alive
as a protest against persistent gout. As for

The Deaths of the Philosophers

Heraclitus, he who paraded his misanthropy
and his egoism, the mode of his departure
is uncertain. At least it was one thing or
the other. Either he was devoured by dogs
with the possible exception of the palms of
his hands and the soles of his feet or he
perished on a dunghill whose warmth he had
hoped would relieve the dropsy he had con-
tracted from a foolish regime of fresh air and
vegetarian diet.

Into the night go one and all ; the goal is
always the same, but the vehicles on the way
vary in speed, in comfort, and in dignity.
Philosophers nowadays do not die as they used
to do, furious drivers on the Styx highroad.
Like others they saunter. The gods no longer
goad them ; they do not drown themselves
over insoluble problems or sit on unwhole-
some dunghills or harvest knowledge in be-
leaguered towns or laugh at masticating
donkeys. They are treated like the rest of

us and the manner of Professor 's death

will be even as yours and mine. But whether
this is because the gods have relented and
repented their anger against the race of
cosmic adventurers, or whether it is that
they believe the danger to their secrets to
have passed by and care not to dignify with
their hate the harmless and the mean, I
have neither the desire nor the authority
to say.


Books in General

Perhaps, after all, there is merely a lull in
the persecution of the philosophers. Next
year or the year after Providence may again
interpose to remind them of its existence and
their own rashness. We may yet live to see
a return to the old system of things. Pro-
fessor Pott may kill himself in order to demon-
strate the futility of Monism ; dogs may eat
Sir Murray Watt-Hoe; Dr. Junkermann may
be choked by swallowing a fly, and a sudden
thunderbolt may dispose of Principal Wilkins,
F.R.S., author of that excellent little work
" A Manual of Metaphysics."

Pacifism in Poetry

IN a shop I noticed a collection called The
Minstrelsy of Peace (by J. B. Glasier),
and, as I had never seen a peace anthology
before, I bought it. It has been compiled
in a missionary spirit, but the editor has
taken great trouble with his selection, has
not overloaded his book with very bad pro-
pagandist verse, and has, on the whole, made
as good a job of it as anyone is likely to

There are obvious limitations to a peace
anthology. In a collection of war-literature
you can put anything which is conditioned

Pacifism in Poetry

by a state of war ; not only songs expressing
the pure joy of combat (which are very few
in number), but laments for the slain, ex-
hortations to those who are fighting for a
just cause, and poems springing out of that
intense, and often admirable, self-conscious
patriotism which is generated by a conflict,
and especially by a conflict against odds. If
war-anthologies could draw on nothing except
works glorifying war and fighting for their
own sakes, irrespective of justice and over-
looking bloodshed and suffering, they would
be very thin indeed. Your militarist is not
usually a good poet ; cruelty and aggressive-
ness seldom go with a feeling for beauty.
But the pacifist anthologist has no such wide
reference as the martial anthologist usually
takes. He cannot at least he does not
include the whole range of pacific occupations
and aspirations within his purview. He does
not take in Gray's Elegy because Gray would
not have been able to write it if a battle had
been raging around Stoke Poges when he was
there, and he cannot regard the whole field
of pastoral poetry as his province merely
because of the absence of war. Peace is
normal and war is abnormal. He is con-
fined to moralising exposures of the horrors
of war and to propagandist expositions of the
comparative attractions of peace ; he is in
fact, compelled to confine himself to directly

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryJohn Collings SquireBooks in general → online text (page 3 of 13)