Lafcadio Hearn.

Books and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn online

. (page 5 of 19)
Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 5 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Because you spend your lives in praising;
To praise, you search the wide world over;
Then why not witness, calmly gazing,
If earth holds aught - speak truth - above her?
Above this tress, and this, I touch
But cannot praise, I love so much!

You see the picture, I think, - probably some artist's studio for a
background. She sits or stands there with her long hair loosely flowing
down to her feet like a river of gold; and her lover, lifting up some of
the long tresses in his hand, asks his friend, who stands by, to notice
how beautiful such hair is. Perhaps the girl was having her picture
painted. One would think so from the question, "Since your business is to
look for beautiful things, why can you not honestly acknowledge that this
woman is the most beautiful thing in the whole world?" Or we might imagine
the questioned person to be a critic by profession as well as an artist.
Like the preceding poem this also is a picture. But the next poem, also by
Browning, is much more than a picture - it is very profound indeed, simple
as it looks. An old man is sitting by the dead body of a young girl of
about sixteen. He tells us how he secretly loved her, as a father might
love a daughter, as a brother might love a sister. But he would have
wished, if he had not been so old, and she so young, to love her as a
husband. He never could have her in this world, but why should he not hope
for it in the future world? He whispers into her dead ear his wish, and he
puts a flower into her dead hand, thinking, "When she wakes up, in another
life, she will see that flower, and remember what I said to her, and how
much I loved her." That is the mere story. But we must understand that the
greatness of the love expressed in the poem is awakened by an ideal of
innocence and sweetness and goodness, and the affection is of the
soul - that is to say, it is the love of beautiful character, not the love
of a beautiful face only, that is expressed.


EVELYN HOPE

Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead!
Sit and watch by her side an hour.
That is her book-shelf, this her bed;
She plucked that piece of geranium-flower,
Beginning to die too, in the glass;
Little has yet been changed, I think:
The shutters are shut, no light can pass
Save two long rays through the hinge's chink.

Sixteen years old when she died!
Perhaps she had scarcely heard my name;
It was not her time to love; beside,
Her life had many a hope and aim,
Duties enough and little cares,
And now was quiet, now astir,
Till God's hand beckoned unawares, -
And the sweet white brow is all of her.

Is it too late, then, Evelyn Hope?
What, your soul was pure and true,
The good stars met in your horoscope,
Made you of spirit, fire and dew -
And just because I was thrice as old
And our paths in the world diverged so wide,
Each was naught to each, must I be told?
We were fellow mortals, naught beside?

No, indeed! for God above,
Is great to grant, as mighty to make,
And creates the love to reward the love:
I claim you still, for my own love's sake!
Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
Much is to learn, much to forget,
Ere the time be come for taking you.

But the time will come, - at last it will,
When, Evelyn Hope, what meant (I shall say)
In the lower earth, in the years long still,
That body and soul so pure and gay?
Why your hair was amber, I shall divine,
And your mouth of your own geranium's red -
And what you would do with me, in fine,
In the new life come in the old one's stead.

I have lived (I shall say) so much since then,
Given up myself so many times,
Gained me the gains of various men,
Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes;
Yet one thing, one, in my soul's full scope,
Either I missed or itself missed me:
And I want and find you, Evelyn Hope!
What is the issue? let us see!

I loved you, Evelyn, all the while!
My heart seemed full as it could hold;
There was space and to spare for the frank young smile,
And the red young mouth, and the hair's young gold.
So, hush, - I will give you this leaf to keep:
See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand!
There, that is our secret: go to sleep!
You will wake, and remember, and understand.

No other poet has written so many different kinds of poems on this subject
as Browning; and although I can not quote all of them, I must not neglect
to make a just representation of the variety. Here is another example: the
chief idea is again the beauty of truthfulness and fidelity, but the
artistic impression is quite different.

A simple ring with a single stone,
To the vulgar eye no stone of price:
Whisper the right word, that alone -
Forth starts a sprite, like fire from ice.
And lo, you are lord (says an Eastern scroll)
Of heaven and earth, lord whole and sole
Through the power in a pearl.

A woman ('tis I this time that say)
With little the world counts worthy praise:
Utter the true word - out and away
Escapes her soul; I am wrapt in blaze,
Creation's lord, of heaven and earth
Lord whole and sole - by a minute's birth -
Through the love in a girl!

Paraphrased, the meaning will not prove as simple as the verses: Here is a
finger ring set with one small stone, one jewel. It is a very
cheap-looking stone to common eyes. But if you know a certain magical
word, and, after putting the ring on your finger, you whisper that magical
word over the cheap-looking stone, suddenly a spirit, a demon or a genie,
springs from that gem like a flash of fire miraculously issuing from a
lump of ice. And that spirit or genie has power to make you king of the
whole world and of the sky above the world, lord of the spirits of heaven
and earth and air and fire. Yet the stone is only - a pearl - and it can
make you lord of the universe. That is the old Arabian story. The word
scroll here means a manuscript, an Arabian manuscript.

But what is after all the happiness of mere power? There is a greater
happiness possible than to be lord of heaven and earth; that is the
happiness of being truly loved. Here is a woman; to the eye of the world,
to the sight of other men, she is not very beautiful nor at all remarkable
in any way. She is just an ordinary woman, as the pearl in the ring is to
all appearances just a common pearl. But let the right word be said, let
the soul of that woman be once really touched by the magic of love, and
what a revelation! As the spirit in the Arabian story sprang from the
stone of the magical ring, when the word was spoken, so from the heart of
this woman suddenly her soul displays itself in shining light. And the man
who loves, instantly becomes, in the splendour of that light, verily the
lord of heaven and earth; to the eyes of the being who loves him he is a
god.

The legend is the legend of Solomon - not the Solomon of the Bible, but the
much more wonderful Solomon of the Arabian story-teller. His power is said
to have been in a certain seal ring, upon which the mystical name of
Allah, or at least one of the ninety and nine mystical names, was
engraved. When he chose to use this ring, all the spirits of air, the
spirits of earth, the spirits of water and the spirits of fire were
obliged to obey him. The name of such a ring is usually "Talisman."

Here is another of Browning's jewels, one of the last poems written
shortly before his death. It is entitled "Summum Bonum," - signifying "the
highest good." The subject is a kiss; we may understand that the first
betrothal kiss is the mark of affection described. When the promise of
marriage has been made, that promise is sealed or confirmed by the first
kiss. But this refers only to the refined classes of society. Among the
English people proper, especially the country folk, kissing the girls is
only a form of showing mere good will, and has no serious meaning at all.

All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine, - wonder, wealth, and - how far
above them -
Truth, that's brighter than gem,
Trust, that's purer than pearl, -
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe - all were for me
In the kiss of one girl.

There is in this a suggestion of Ben Jonson, who uses almost exactly the
same simile without any moral significance. The advantage of Browning is
that he has used the sensuous imagery for ethical symbolism; here he
greatly surpasses Jonson, though it would be hard to improve upon the
beauty of Jonson's verses, as merely describing visual beauty. Here are
Jonson's stanzas:


THE TRIUMPH

See the Chariot at hand here of Love,
Wherein my Lady rideth!
Each that draws is a swan or a dove,
And well the car Love guideth.
As she goes, all hearts do duty
Unto her beauty;
And enamoured do wish, so they might
But enjoy such a sight,
That they still were to run by her side,
Through swords, through seas, whither she would ride.

Do but look on her eyes, they do light
All that Love's world compriseth!
Do but look on her hair, it is bright
As love's star when it riseth!
Do but mark, her forehead's smoother
Than words that soothe her;
And from her arch'd brows such a grace
Sheds itself through the face,
As alone there triumphs to the life
All the gain, all the good, of the elements' strife.

Have you seen but a bright lily grow
Before rude hands have touched it?
Have you mark'd but the fall of the snow
Before the soil hath smutch'd it?
Have you felt the wool of beaver
Or swan's down ever?
Or have smelt o' the bud o' the brier,
Or the nard in the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!

The first of the above stanzas is a study after the Roman poets; but the
last stanza is Jonson's own and is very famous. You will see that Browning
was probably inspired by him, but I think that his verses are much more
beautiful in thought and feeling.

There is one type of ideal woman very seldom described in poetry - the old
maid, the woman whom sorrow or misfortune prevents from fulfilling her
natural destiny. Commonly the woman who never marries is said to become
cross, bad tempered, unpleasant in character. She could not be blamed for
this, I think; but there are old maids who always remain as unselfish and
frank and kind as a girl, and who keep the charm of girlhood even when
their hair is white. Hartley Coleridge, son of the great Samuel, attempted
to describe such a one, and his picture is both touching and beautiful.


THE SOLITARY-HEARTED

She was a queen of noble Nature's crowning,
A smile of hers was like an act of grace;
She had no winsome looks, no pretty frowning,
Like daily beauties of the vulgar race:
But if she smiled, a light was on her face,
A clear, cool kindliness, a lunar beam
Of peaceful radiance, silvering o'er the stream
Of human thought with unabiding glory;
Not quite a waking truth, not quite a dream,
A visitation, bright and transitory.

But she is changed, - hath felt the touch of sorrow,
No love hath she, no understanding friend;
O grief! when Heaven is forced of earth to borrow
What the poor niggard earth has not to lend;
But when the stalk is snapt, the rose must bend.
The tallest flower that skyward rears its head
Grows from the common ground, and there must shed
Its delicate petals. Cruel fate, too surely
That they should find so base a bridal bed,
Who lived in virgin pride, so sweet and purely.

She had a brother, and a tender father,
And she was loved, but not as others are
From whom we ask return of love, - but rather
As one might love a dream; a phantom fair
Of something exquisitely strange and rare,
Which all were glad to look on, men and maids,
Yet no one claimed - as oft, in dewy glades,
The peering primrose, like a sudden gladness,
Gleams on the soul, yet unregarded fades; -
The joy is ours, but all its own the sadness.

'Tis vain to say - her worst of grief is only
The common lot, which all the world have known
To her 'tis more, because her heart is lonely,
And yet she hath no strength to stand alone, -
Once she had playmates, fancies of her own,
And she did love them. They are past away
As fairies vanish at the break of day;
And like a spectre of an age departed,
Or unsphered angel woefully astray,
She glides along - the solitary-hearted.

Perhaps it is scarcely possible for you to imagine that a woman finds it
impossible to marry because of being too beautiful, too wise, and too
good. In Western countries it is not impossible at all. You must try to
imagine entirely different social conditions - conditions in which marriage
depends much more upon the person than upon the parents, much more upon
inclination than upon anything else. A woman's chances of marriage depend
very much upon herself, upon her power of pleasing and charming. Thousands
and tens of thousands can never get married. Now there are cases in which
a woman can please too much. Men become afraid of her. They think, "She
knows too much, I dare not be frank with her" - or, "She is too beautiful,
she never would accept a common person like me" - or, "She is too formal
and correct, she would never forgive a mistake, and I could never be happy
with her." Not only is this possible, but it frequently happens. Too much
excellence makes a misfortune. I think you can understand it best by the
reference to the very natural prejudice against over-educated women, a
prejudice founded upon experience and existing in all countries, even in
Japan. Men are not attracted to a woman because she is excellent at
mathematics, because she knows eight or nine different languages, because
she has acquired all the conventions of high-pressure training. Men do not
care about that. They want love and trust and kindliness and ability to
make a home beautiful and happy. Well, the poem we have been reading is
very pathetic because it describes a woman who can not fulfil her natural
destiny, can not be loved - this through no fault of her own, but quite the
reverse. To be too much advanced beyond one's time and environment is even
a worse misfortune than to be too much behind.




CHAPTER IV

NOTE UPON THE SHORTEST FORMS OF ENGLISH POETRY


Perhaps there is an idea among Japanese students that one general
difference between Japanese and Western poetry is that the former
cultivates short forms and the latter longer ones, gut this is only in
part true. It is true that short forms of poetry have been cultivated in
the Far East more than in modern Europe; but in all European literature
short forms of poetry are to be found - indeed quite as short as anything
in Japanese. Like the Japanese, the old Greeks, who carried poetry to the
highest perfection that it has ever attained, delighted in short forms;
and the Greek Anthology is full of compositions containing only two or
three lines. You will find beautiful translations of these in Symonds's
"Studies of Greek Poets," in the second volume. Following Greek taste, the
Roman poets afterwards cultivated short forms of verse, but they chiefly
used such verse for satirical purposes, unfortunately; I say,
unfortunately, because the first great English poets who imitated the
ancients were chiefly influenced by the Latin writers, and they also used
the short forms for epigrammatic satire rarely for a purely esthetic
object. Ben Jonson both wrote and translated a great number of very short
stanzas - two lines and four lines; but Jonson was a satirist in these
forms. Herrick, as you know, delighted in very short poems; but he was
greatly influenced by Jonson, and many of his couplets and of his
quatrains are worthless satires or worthless jests. However, you will find
some short verses in Herrick that almost make you think of a certain class
of Japanese poems. After the Elizabethan Age, also, the miniature poems
were still used in the fashion set by the Roman writers, - then the
eighteenth century deluged us with ill-natured witty epigrams of the like
brief form. It was not until comparatively modern times that our Western
world fully recognized the value of the distich, triplet or quatrain for
the expression of beautiful thoughts, rather than for the expression of
ill-natured ones. But now that the recognition has come, it has been
discovered that nothing is harder than to write a beautiful poem of two or
four lines. Only great masters have been truly successful at it. Goethe,
you know, made a quatrain that has become a part of world-literature:

Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate, -
Who ne'er the lonely midnight hours,
Weeping upon his bed has sate,
He knows ye not, ye Heavenly Powers!

- meaning, of course, that inspiration and wisdom come to us only through
sorrow, and that those who have never suffered never can be wise. But in
the universities of England a great deal of short work of a most excellent
kind has been done in Greek and Latin; and there is the celebrated case of
an English student who won a prize by a poem of a single line. The subject
given had been the miracle of Christ's turning water into wine at the
marriage feast; and while other scholars attempted elaborate composition
on the theme, this student wrote but one verse, of which the English
translation is

The modest water saw its Lord, and blushed.

Of course the force of the idea depends upon the popular conception of
wine being red. The Latin and Greek model, however, did not seem to
encourage much esthetic effort in short poems of English verse until the
time of the romantic movement. Then, both in France and England, many
brief forms of poetry made their appearance. In France, Victor Hugo
attempted composition in astonishingly varied forms of verse - some forms
actually consisting of only two syllables to a line. With this
surprisingly short measure begins one of Hugo's most remarkably early
poems, "Les Djins," representing the coming of evil spirits with a storm,
their passing over the house where a man is at prayer, and departing into
the distance again. Beginning with only two syllables to the line, the
measure of the poem gradually widens as the spirits approach, becomes very
wide, very long and sonorous as they reach the house, and again shrinks
back to lines of two syllables as the sound of them dies away. In England
a like variety of experiments has been made; but neither in France nor in
England has the short form yet been as successfully cultivated as it was
among the Greeks. We have some fine examples; but, as an eminent English
editor observed a few years ago, not enough examples to make a book. And
of course this means that there are very few; for you can make a book of
poetry very well with as little as fifty pages of largely and widely
printed text. However, we may cite a few modern instances.

I think that about the most perfect quatrains we have are those of the
extraordinary man, Walter Savage Landor, who, you know, was a rare Greek
scholar, all his splendid English work being very closely based upon the
Greek models. He made a little epitaph upon himself, which is matchless of
its kind:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life:
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

You know that Greeks used the short form a great deal for their exquisite
epitaphs, and that a considerable part of the anthology consists of
epitaphic literature. But the quatrain has a much wider range than this
funereal limitation, and one such example of epitaph will suffice.

Only one English poet of our own day, and that a minor one, has attempted
to make the poem of four lines a specialty - that is William Watson. He has
written a whole volume of such little poems, but very few of them are
successful. As I said before, we have not enough good poems of this sort
for a book; and the reason is not because English poets despise the short
form, but because it is supremely difficult. The Greeks succeeded in it,
but we are still far behind the Greeks in the shaping of any kind of
verse. The best of Watson's pieces take the form of philosophical
suggestions; and this kind of verse is particularly well adapted to
philosophical utterance.

Think not thy wisdom can illume away
The ancient tanglement of night and day.
Enough to acknowledge both, and both revere;
They see not clearliest who see all things clear.

That is to say, do not think that any human knowledge will ever be able to
make you understand the mystery of the universe with its darkness and
light, its joy and pain. It is best to revere the powers that make both
good and evil, and to remember that the keenest, worldly, practical minds
are not the minds that best perceive the great truths and mysteries of
existence. Here is another little bit, reminding us somewhat of Goethe's
quatrain, already quoted.

Lives there whom pain hath evermore passed by
And sorrow shunned with an averted eye?
Him do thou pity, - him above the rest,
Him, of all hapless mortals most unblessed.

That needs no commentary, and it contains a large truth in small space.
Here is a little bit on the subject of the artist's ambition, which is
also good.

The thousand painful steps at last are trod,
At last the temple's difficult door we win,
But perfect on his pedestal, the God
Freezes us hopeless when we enter in.

The higher that the artist climbs by effort, the nearer his approach to
the loftier truth, the more he understands how little his very best can
achieve. It is the greatest artist, he who veritably enters the presence
of God - that most feels his own weakness; the perception of beauty that
other men can not see, terrifies him, freezes him motionless, as the poet
says.

Out of all of Watson's epigrams I believe these are the best. The rest
with the possible exception of those on the subject of love seem to me
altogether failures. Emerson and various American poets also attempted the
quatrain - but Emerson's verse is nearly always bad, even when his thought
is sublime. One example of Emerson will suffice.

Thou canst not wave thy staff in air,
Or dip thy paddle in the lake,
But it carves the bow of beauty there,
And the ripples in rhyme the oar forsake.

The form is atrociously bad; but the reflection is grand - it is another
way of expressing the beautiful old Greek thought that "God _geometrizes_
everywhere" - that is, that all motion is in geometrical lines, and full of
beauty. You can pick hundreds of fine things in very short verse out of
Emerson, but the verse is nearly always shapeless; the composition of the
man invariably makes us think of diamonds in the rough, jewels uncut. So
far as form goes a much better master of quatrain is the American poet
Aldrich, who wrote the following little thing, entitled "Popularity."

Such kings of shreds have wooed and won her,
Such crafty knaves her laurel owned,
It has become almost an honour
Not to be crowned.

This is good verse. The reference to "a king of shreds and patches" - that
is, a beggar king - you will recognize as Shakespearean. But although this
pretty verse has in it more philosophy than satire, it approaches the
satiric class of epigrams. Neither America nor England has been able to do
very much in the sort of verse that we have been talking about. Now this
is a very remarkable thing, - because at the English universities beautiful
work has been done in Greek or Latin - in poems of a single line, of two
lines, of three lines and other very brief measures. Why can it not be
done in English? I suspect that it is because our English language has not
yet become sufficiently perfect, sufficiently flexible, sufficiently
melodious to allow of great effect with a very few words. We can do the
thing in Greek or in Latin because either Greek or Latin is a more perfect
language.

So much for theory. I should like to suggest, however, that it is very
probable many attempts at these difficult forms of poetry will be
attempted by English poets within the next few years. There is now a
tendency in that direction. I do not know whether such attempts will be
successful; but I should like you to understand that for Western poets


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 5 of 19)