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occasionally even prosaic in the bad sense, as when he uses: the word
"meticulously," or makes his lost mariners say:

How striking like that boat were we
In the days, sweet days, when we put to sea.

That he was a poet of the fancy rather than of the imagination also
tended to keep his poetry near the ground. His love of the ballad-design
and "the good coloured things of Earth" was tempered by a kind of
infidel humour in his use of them. His ballads are the ballads of a
brilliant dilettante, not of a man who is expressing his whole heart and
soul and faith, as the old ballad-writers were. In the result he walked
a golden pavement rather than mounted into the golden air. He was an
artist in ornament, in decoration. Like the Queen in the _Queen's Song_,
he would immortalize the ornament at the cost of slaying the soul.

Of all recent poets of his kind, Flecker is the most successful. The
classical tradition of poetry has been mocked and mutilated by many of
the noisy young in the last few years. Flecker was a poet who preserved
the ancient balance in days in which want of balance was looked on as a
sign of genius. That he was what is called a minor poet cannot be
denied, but he was the most beautiful of recent minor poets. His book,
indeed, is a treasury of beauty rare in these days. Of that beauty, _The
Old Ships_ is, as I have said, the splendid example. And, as it is
foolish to offer anything except a poet's best as a specimen of his
work, one has no alternative but to turn again to those
gorgeously-coloured verses which begin:

I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep
Beyond the village which men still call Tyre,
With leaden age o'ercargoed, dipping deep
For Famagusta and the hidden sun
That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire;
And all those ships were certainly so old -
Who knows how oft with squat and noisy gun,
Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
The pirate Genoese
Hell-raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit and corpses up the hold.
But now through friendly seas they softly run,
Painted the mid-sea blue or shore-sea green,
Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold.

That is the summary and the summit of Flecker's genius. But the rest of
his verse, too, is the work of a true and delightful poet, a faithful
priest of literature, an honest craftsman with words.




XII

TURGENEV


Mr. Edward Garnett has recently collected his prefaces to the novels and
stories of Turgenev, and refashioned them into a book in praise of the
genius of the most charming of Russian authors. I am afraid the word
"charming" has lost so much of its stamp and brightness with use as to
have become almost meaningless. But we apply it to Turgenev in its
fullest sense. We call him charming as Pater called Athens charming. He
is one of those authors whose books we love because they reveal a
personality sensitive, affectionate, pitiful. There are some persons
who, when they come into a room, immediately make us feel happier.
Turgenev seems to "come into the room" in his books with just such a
welcome presence. That is why I wish Mr. Garnett had made his book a
biographical, as well as a critical, study.

He quotes Turgenev as saying: "All my life is in my books." Still, there
are a great many facts recorded about him in the letters and
reminiscences of those who knew him (and he was known in half the
countries of Europe), out of which we can construct a portrait. One
finds in the _Life of Sir Charles Dilke_, for instance, that Dilke
considered Turgenev "in the front rank" as a conversationalist. This
opinion interested one all the more because one had come to think of
Turgenev as something of a shy giant. I remember, too, reading in some
French book a description of Turgenev as a strange figure in the
literary circles of Paris - a large figure with a curious chastity of
mind who seemed bewildered by some of the barbarous jests of civilized
men of genius.

There are, indeed, as I have said, plenty of suggestions for a portrait
of Turgenev, quite apart from his novels. Mr. Garnett refers to some of
them in two excellent biographical chapters. He reminds us, for example,
of the immense generosity of Turgenev to his contemporaries and rivals,
as when he introduced the work of Tolstoy to a French editor. "Listen,"
said Turgenev. "Here is 'copy' for your paper of an absolutely
first-rate kind. This means that I am not its author. The master - for he
is a _real_ master - is almost unknown in France; but I assure you, on my
soul and conscience, that I do not consider myself worthy to unloose the
latchet of his shoes." The letter he addressed to Tolstoy from his
death-bed, urging him to return from propaganda to literature, is
famous, but it is a thing to which one always returns fondly as an
example of the noble disinterestedness of a great man of letters. "I
cannot recover," Turgenev wrote: -

That is out of the question. I am writing to you specially to say
how glad I am to be your contemporary, and to express my last and
sincere request. My friend, return to literary activity! That gift
came to you whence comes all the rest. Ah, how happy I should be if
I could think my request would have an effect on you!... I can
neither walk, nor eat, nor sleep. It is wearisome even to repeat it
all! My friend - great writer of our Russian land, listen to my
request!... I can write no more; I am tired.

One sometimes wonders how Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could ever have
quarrelled with a friend of so beautiful a character as Turgenev.
Perhaps it was that there was something barbarous and brutal in each of
them that was intolerant of his almost feminine refinement. They were
both men of action in literature, militant, and by nature propagandist.
And probably Turgenev was as impatient with the faults of their strength
as they were with the faults of his weakness. He was a man whom it was
possible to disgust. Though he was Zola's friend, he complained that
_L'Assommoir_ left a bad taste in the mouth. Similarly, he discovered
something almost Sadistic in the manner in which Dostoevsky let his
imagination dwell on scenes of cruelty and horror. And he was as
strongly repelled by Dostoevsky's shrieking Pan-Slavism as by his
sensationalism among horrors. One can guess exactly the frame of mind he
was in when, in the course of an argument with Dostoevsky, he said: "You
see, I consider myself a German." This has been quoted against Turgenev
as though he meant it literally, and as though it were a confession of
denationalization. His words were more subtle than that in their irony.
What they meant was simply: "If to be a Russian is to be a bigot, like
most of you Pan-Slav enthusiasts, then I am no Russian, but a European."
Has he not put the whole gospel of Nationalism in half a dozen sentences
in _Rudin?_ He refused, however, to adopt along with his Nationalism the
narrowness with which it has been too often associated.

This refusal was what destroyed his popularity in Russia, in his
lifetime. It is because of this refusal that he has been pursued with
belittlement by one Russian writer after another since his death. He had
that sense of truth which always upsets the orthodox. This sense of
truth applied to the portraiture of his contemporaries was felt like an
insult in those circles of mixed idealism and make-believe, the circles
of the political partisans. A great artist may be a member - and an
enthusiastic member - of a political party, but in his art he cannot
become a political partisan without ceasing to be an artist. In his
novels, Turgenev regarded it as his life-work to portray Russia
truthfully, not to paint and powder and "prettify" it for show purposes,
and the result was an outburst of fury on the part of those who were
asked to look at themselves as real people instead of as the
master-pieces of a professional flatterer. When _Fathers and Children_
was published in 1862, the only people who were pleased were the enemies
of everything in which Turgenev believed. "I received congratulations,"
he wrote,

almost caresses, from people of the opposite camp, from enemies.
This confused me, wounded me; but my conscience did not reproach
me. I knew very well I had carried out honestly the type I had
sketched, carried it out not only without prejudice, but positively
with sympathy.

This is bound to be the fate of every artist who takes his political
party or his church, or any other propagandist group to which he
belongs, as his subject. He is a painter, not a vindicator, and he is
compelled to exhibit numerous crooked features and faults in such a way
as to wound the vanity of his friends and delight the malice of his
enemies. Artistic truth is as different from propagandist truth as
daylight from limelight, and the artist will always be hated by the
propagandist as worse than an enemy - a treacherous friend. Turgenev
deliberately accepted as his life-work a course which could only lead to
the miseries of being misunderstood. When one thinks of the long years
of denunciation and hatred he endured for the sake of his art, one
cannot but regard him as one of the heroic figures of the nineteenth
century. "He has," Mr. Garnett tells us, "been accused of timidity and
cowardice by uncompromising Radicals and Revolutionaries.... In an
access of self-reproach he once declared that his character was
comprised in one word - 'poltroon!'" He showed neither timidity nor
cowardice, however, in his devotion to truth. His first and last advice
to young writers, Mr. Garnett declares, was: "You need truth,
remorseless truth, as regards your own sensations." And if Turgenev was
remorseless in nothing else, he was remorseless in this - truth as
regards both his own sensations and the sensations of his
contemporaries. He seems, if we may judge from a sentence he wrote about
_Fathers and Children_, to have regarded himself almost as the first
realist. "It was a new method," he said, "as well as a new type I
introduced - that of Realizing instead of Idealizing." His claim has, at
least, this truth in it: he was the first artist to apply the realistic
method to a world seething with ideas and with political and
philosophical unrest. His adoption of the realistic method, however, was
the result of necessity no less than of choice. He "simply did not know
how to work otherwise," as he said. He had not the sort of imagination
that can invent men and women easily. He had always to draw from the
life. "I ought to confess," he once wrote, "that I never attempted to
create a type without having, not an idea, but a living person, in whom
the various elements were harmonized together, to work from. I have
always needed some groundwork on which I could tread firmly."

When one has praised Turgenev, however, for the beauty of his character
and the beautiful truth of his art, one remembers that he, too, was
human and therefore less than perfect. His chief failing was, perhaps,
that of all the great artists, he was the most lacking in exuberance.
That is why he began to be scorned in a world which rated exuberance
higher than beauty or love or pity. The world before the war was afraid
above all things of losing vitality, and so it turned to contortionists
of genius such as Dostoevsky, or lesser contortionists, like some of the
Futurists, for fear restfulness should lead to death. It would be
foolish, I know, to pretend to sum up Dostoevsky as a contortionist; but
he has that element in him. Mr. Conrad suggests a certain vice of
misshapenness in Dostoevsky when he praises the characters of Turgenev
in comparison with his. "All his creations, fortunate or unfortunate,
oppressed and oppressors," he says in his fine tribute to Turgenev in
Mr. Garnett's book, "are human beings, not strange beasts in a
menagerie, or damned souls knocking themselves about in the stuffy
darkness of mystical contradictions." That is well said. On the other
hand, it is only right to remember that, if Turgenev's characters are
human beings, they (at least the male characters) have a way of being
curiously ineffectual human beings. He understood the Hamlet in man
almost too well. From Rudin to the young revolutionist in _Virgin Soil_,
who makes such a mess of his propaganda among the peasantry, how many of
his characters are as remarkable for their weakness as their unsuccess!
Turgenev was probably conscious of this pessimism of imagination in
regard to his fellow man - at least, his Russian fellow man. In _On the
Eve_, when he wished to create a central character that would act as an
appeal to his countrymen to "conquer their sluggishness, their weakness
and apathy" (as Mr. Garnett puts it), he had to choose a Bulgarian, not
a Russian, for his hero. Mr. Garnett holds that the characterization of
Insarov, the Bulgarian, in _On the Eve_, is a failure, and puts this
down to the fact that Turgenev drew him, not from life, but from
hearsay. I think Mr. Garnett is wrong. I have known the counterpart of
Insarov among the members of at least one subject nation, and the
portrait seems to me to be essentially true and alive. Luckily, if
Turgenev could not put his trust in Russian men, he believed with all
his heart in the courage and goodness of Russian women. He was one of
the first great novelists to endow his women with independence of soul.
With the majority of novelists, women are sexual or sentimental
accidents. With Turgenev, women are equal human beings - saviours of men
and saviours of the world. _Virgin Soil_ becomes a book of hope instead
of despair as the triumphant figure of Marianna, the young girl of the
Revolution, conquers the imagination. Turgenev, as a creator of noble
women, ranks with Browning and Meredith. His realism was not, in the
last analysis, a realism of disparagement, but a realism of affection.
His farewell words, Mr. Garnett tells us, were: "Live and love others as
I have always loved them."




XIII

THE MADNESS OF STRINDBERG


The mirror that Strindberg held up to Nature was a cracked one. It was
cracked in a double sense - it was crazy. It gave back broken images of a
world which it made look like the chaos of a lunatic dream. Miss
Lind-af-Hageby, in her popular biography of Strindberg, is too intent
upon saying what can be said in his defence to make a serious attempt to
analyse the secret of genius which is implicit in those "115 plays,
novels, collections of stories, essays, and poems" which will be
gathered into the complete edition of his works shortly to be published
in Sweden. The biography will supply the need of that part of the public
which has no time to read Strindberg, but has plenty of time to read
about him. It will give them a capably potted Strindberg, and will tell
them quietly and briefly much that he himself has told violently and at
length in _The Son of a Servant, The Confession of a Fool_, and, indeed,
in nearly everything he wrote. On the other hand, Miss Lind's book has
little value as an interpretation. She does not do much to clear up the
reasons which have made the writings of this mad Swede matter of
interest in every civilized country in the world. She does, indeed,
quote the remark of Gorki, who, at the time of Strindberg's death,
compared him to the ancient Danubian hero, Danko, "who, in order to help
humanity out of the darkness of problems, tore his heart out of his
breast, lit it, and holding it high, led the way." "Strindberg," Miss
Lind declares, "patiently burnt his heart for the illumination of the
people, and on the day when his body was laid low in the soil, the
flame of his self-immolation was seen, pure and inextinguishable." This
will not do. "Patiently" is impossible; so is "pure and
inextinguishable." Strindberg was at once a man of genius (and therefore
noble) and a creature of doom (and therefore to be pitied). But to sum
him up as a spontaneous martyr in the greatest of great causes is to do
injustice to language and to the lives of the saints and heroes. He was
a martyr, of course, in the sense in which we call a man a martyr to
toothache. He suffered; but most of his sufferings were due, not to
tenderness of soul, but to tenderness of nerves.

Other artists lay hold upon life through an exceptional sensibility.
Strindberg laid hold on life through an exceptional excitability - even
an exceptional irritability. In his plays, novels, and essays alike, he
is a specialist in the jars of existence. He magnified even the smallest
worries until they assumed mountainous proportions. He was the kind of
man who, if something went wrong with the kitchen boiler, felt that the
Devil and all his angels had been loosed upon him, as upon the righteous
Job, with at least the connivance of Heaven. He seems to have regarded
the unsatisfactoriness of a servant as a scarcely less tremendous evil
than the infidelity of a wife. If you wish to see into twhat follies of
exaggeration Strindberg's want of the sense of proportion led him, you
cannot do better than turn to those pages in _Zones of the Spirit_ (as
the English translation of his _Blue Book_ is called), in which he tells
us about his domestic troubles at the time of the rehearsals of _The
Dream Play._

My servant left me; my domestic arrangements were upset; within
forty days I had six changes of servants - one worse than the other.
At last I had to serve myself, lay the table, and light the stove.
I ate black broken victuals out of a basket. In short, I had to
taste the whole bitterness of life without knowing why.

Much as one may sympathize with a victim of the servant difficulty, one
cannot but regard the last sentence as, in the vulgar phrase, rather a
tall order. But it becomes taller still before Strindberg has done with
it.

Then came the dress-rehearsal of _The Dream Play._ This drama I
wrote seven years ago, after a period of forty days' suffering
which were among the worst which I had ever undergone. And now
again exactly forty days of fasting and pain had passed. There
seemed, therefore, to be a secret legislature which promulgates
clearly defined sentences. I thought of the forty days of the
Flood, the forty years of wandering in the desert, the forty days'
fast kept by Moses, Elijah, and Christ.

There you have Strindberg's secret. His work is, for the most part,
simply the dramatization of the conflict between man and the irritations
of life. The chief of these is, of course, woman. But the lesser
irritations never disappear from sight for long. His obsession by them
is very noticeable in _The Dream Play_ itself - in that scene, for
instance, in which the Lawyer and the daughter of Indra having married,
the Lawyer begins to complain of the untidiness of their home, and the
Daughter to complain of the dirt:

THE DAUGHTER. This is worse than I dreamed!

THE LAWYER. We are not the worst off by far. There is still food in
the pot.

THE DAUGHTER. But what sort of food?

THE LAWYER. Cabbage is cheap, nourishing, and good to eat.

THE DAUGHTER. For those who like cabbage - to me it is repulsive.

THE LAWYER. Why didn't you say so?

THE DAUGHTER. Because I loved you. I wanted to sacrifice my own
taste.

THE LAWYER. Then I must sacrifice my taste for cabbage to you - for
sacrifices must be mutual.

THE DAUGHTER. What are we to eat then? Fish? But you hate fish?

THE LAWYER. And it is expensive.

THE DAUGHTER. This is worse than I thought it!

THE LAWYER _(kindly)._ Yes, you see how hard it is.

And the symbolic representation of married life in terms of fish and
cabbage is taken up again a little later: -

THE DAUGHTER. I fear I shall begin to hate you after this!

THE LAWYER. Woe to us, then! But let us forestall hatred. I promise
never again to speak of any untidiness - although it is torture to
me!

THE DAUGHTER. And I shall eat cabbage, though it means agony to me.

THE LAWYER. A life of common suffering, then! One's pleasure the
other one's pain.

One feels that, however true to nature the drift of this may be, it is
little more than bacilli of truth seen as immense through a microscope.
The agonies and tortures arising from eating cabbage and such things
may, no doubt, have tragic consequences enough, but somehow the men whom
these things put on the rack refuse to come to life in the imagination
on the same tragic plane where Prometheus lies on his crag and Oedipus
strikes out his eyes that they may no longer look upon his shame.
Strindberg is too anxious to make tragedy out of discomforts instead of
out of sorrows. When he is denouncing woman as a creature who loves
above all things to deceive her husband, his supreme way of expressing
his abhorrence is to declare: "If she can trick him into eating
horse-flesh without noticing it, she is happy." Here, and in a score of
similar passages, we can see how physical were the demons that endlessly
consumed Strindberg's peace of mind.

His attitude to women, as we find it expressed in _The Confession of a
Fool, The Dance of Death_, and all through his work, is that of a man
overwhelmed with the physical. He raves now with lust, now with
disgust - two aspects of the same mood. He turns from love to hatred with
a change of front as swift as a drunkard's. He is the Mad Mullah of all
the sex-antagonism that has ever troubled men since they began to think
of woman as a temptress. He was the most enthusiastic modern exponent of
the point-of-view of that Adam who explained: "The woman tempted me."
Strindberg deliberately wrote those words on his banner and held them
aloft to his generation as the summary of an eternal gospel. Miss
Lind-af-Hageby tells us that, at one period of his life, he was
sufficiently free from the physical obsessions of sex to preach the
equality of men and women and even to herald the coming of woman
suffrage. But his abiding view of woman was that of the plain man of the
nineteenth century. He must either be praising her as a ministering
angel or denouncing her as a ministering devil - preferably the latter.
It would be nonsense, however, to pretend that Strindberg did not see at
least one class of women clearly and truly. The accuracy with which he
portrays woman the parasite, the man-eater, the siren, is quite
terrible. No writer of his day was so shudderingly conscious of every
gesture, movement, and intonation with which the spider-woman sets out
to lure the mate she is going to devour. It may be that he prophesies
against the sins of women rather than subtly analyses and describes them
as a better artist would have done. _The Confessions of a Fool_ is less
a revelation of the soul of his first wife than an attack on her. But we
must, in fairness to Strindberg, remember that in his violences against
women he merely gives us a new rendering of an indictment that goes back
to the beginning of history. The world to him was a long lane of
oglings, down which man must fly in terror with his eyes shut and his
ears covered. His foolishness as a prophet consists, not in his
suspicions of woman regarded as an animal, but in his frothing at the
mouth at the idea that she should claim to be treated as something
higher than an animal. None the less, he denied to the end that he was a
woman-hater. His denial, however, was grimly unflattering: -

I have said that the child is a little criminal, incapable of
self-guidance, but I love children all the same. I have said that
woman is - what she is, but I have always loved some woman, and been
a father. Whoever, therefore, calls me a woman-hater is a
blockhead, a liar, or a noodle. Or all three together.

Sex, of course, was the greatest cross Strindberg had to bear. But there
were hundreds of other little changing crosses, from persecution mania
to poverty, which supplanted each other from day to day on his back. He
suffered continually both from the way he was made and from the way the
world was made. His novels and plays are a literature of suffering. He
reveals himself there as a man pursued by furies, a man without rest. He
flies to a thousand distractions and hiding-places - drink and lust and
piano-playing, Chinese and chemistry, painting and acting, alchemy and
poison, and religion. Some of these, no doubt, he honestly turns to for
a living. But in his rush from one thing to another he shows the
restlessness of a man goaded to madness. Not that his life is to be


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Online LibraryRobert LyndOld and New Masters → online text (page 9 of 18)