the first place, the intrusion of facts upon one's mind
is such an extremely dangerous event. They are almost
sure to have their influence upon the imagination. And
on any power so subtle and fine and sensitive and capacious
and elemental [as] imagination, only the most beautiful
forces should be allowed to play. And it is undeniable,
I think, that the current facts of life, as they are
reported to us in our daily press, are often unlovely,
almost always trivial, and not seldom extremely revolting.
The influence of such sordid and immoral suggestiveness
is immense and baneful; and it seems to me safer to
avoid it altogether, as our friends the transcendentalists
avoided sin, by denying it a place in their philosophy
at all. It would appear at first sight that this would
lead to embarrassment, and that one might be put to
confusion in one's pleasant human intercourse, by not
knowing the topic of the hour; but I find that I get
along very well with a good general knowledge of the
almanac. This keeps me posted on the progress of the
more important world events, the changes of dynasties,
and so on; and my delicate sensibilities are spared
the horrors of all the revolting atrocities of petty
crime, the turmoil of party politics, the jangle of
controversy, and the tedium of contact with mediocre
minds. It allows me to preserve an exclusive and aristocratic
habit of thought, a certain distinction of ignorance,
and immunity from that cheap omnivorousness which is
so deadly to true culture. It enables me to feel myself
more intrinsically a part of the abiding and the beautiful,
and less a whirling atom of the transient and ephemeral.
the second place, I like the surprise of hearing the
news from the lips of a friend, or catching it perforce
over the shoulder of a stranger. The other day, in a
street car, I caught sight of a portrait (recognizable
without the name) of a distinguished woman of letters.
It must have been a fortnight ago, now, and I do not
know yet whether the good lady is dead or only married
again. Now, how much more agreeable that is, how much
more conducive to openness of mind and the play of fancy,
than knowing the actual facts of the case. And again,
when my friend in Maiden lane or State street says to
me, of a fine morning:
a terrible catastrophy!"
shake my head and reply:
I seldom run any danger seeming ignorant. He is sure
to drop a cue, so that I shall be able to guess whether
the disaster is a train wreck, or the foundering of
steamer, or a simoon in India, or a bank failure. I
find this practise in conversation gives me great power
of seeming intelligent and at the same time remaining
exempt from the fatigue of exactness and detail.
habit of mind engendered by a diligent course of ignorance
of this sort, is an incalculable aid to the imaginative
faculty. For the artist it is the only line of self
discipline to pursue. The moment he cumbers his thought
with fact, with actuality, with the existence of things
in time and place, that moment his imagination begins
to be fettered and inert; his fancy trails a drooping
wing; and the fine well of inspiration is checked. The
imagination needs facts, only as a dictionary needs
words, or as a language needs an alphabet; it must be
free and untrammelled to make what use it pleases of
them. So that old facts are the best for its purpose,
since they cannot be called in question, and may be
used as mere conventional terms of expression.
one cannot altogether escape knowing what is passing
in the world, and occasionally (very occasionally, praise
fortune!) hints of literary gossip are blown across
one's range of hearing. It seems that one of those unnecessary
personages of modern civilization, an editor, some time
during the past winter, opened a discussion by printing
in his paper the ten best short poems in the English
language. I do not recall his list, but I believe it
contained contributions in verse from a gentleman named
Kipling, and from Mr. Thakeray the novelist, and from
poor Tom Hood, that genius who was killed by facts.
And I understand that others have been amusing themselves
more recently by making similar rosters of the masterpieces
of English lyric verse. Of course, there can be no final
list of this sort. If you pick out one of Shakespeare's
lyrics, there is no possible test which could declare
it superior to another of his songs. And now chose between
L'Allegro and the Penseroso, for example?
The truth is, the whole body of English lyric poetry
is too vast for such niceness of distinction. And any
attempt at judicial settlement of the matter lapses
inevitably into a declaration of personal preference.
I am inclined to hold that the only interest and value
of criticism is its personal quality, just as the chief
interest and value of all original work is a personal
one. The important thing about Shelley, for example,
is not one or the other of his poems; it is the whole
trend of his work, his influence, what he stands for
in the work of art and thought. In the same way the
important thing about a critic like Arnold is his point
of view, his temper, his habit of mind, much more than
any one of his essays in criticism. So that, however
futile any attempt to settle the relative merits of
the best English lyrics may be, it is still interesting
and instructive for us all to make up our own minds
on the important subject, and see that our conclusions
are duly set before the public.
understand that in a number of opinions called for by
a literary syndicate, the list made out by my friend,
Mr. Charles Roberts, had the distinction of being entirely
different from all others. He chose, it seems, not a
single poem pitched upon by any other expert. I have
not Mr. Roberts's list by me, but I am sure it showed
sound, sane, catholic taste. And if I venture to append
below my own small contribution to the growing volume
of discussion, I only trust that I may be sure in my
instincts as I feel he must have been.
my opinion the ten greatest lyrical poems in the English
language are these:
"A Northern Vigil"
2. "A Spring Song"
3. "The Moondial"
4. "At the Granite Gate"
5. "The Gravedigger"
6. "The Nancy's Pride"
7. "The Red Wolf"
8. "Behind the Arras"
9. "The Last Watch"
10. "In a Gondola"
will be noted that I have omitted Shakespeare from the
list. I have done so because Shakespeare's best short
poems are his sonnets, and anything is better than a
have chosen "In a Gondola" because I wished
to make room for Browning. He and Arnold are really
the only other Victorians one can consider in such a
connection, and I hesitated long between them, finally
submitting (I must confess) my own personal preference
to the weight of general opinion.
occurs to me, on second thought, that not all of these
poems have become household words in English. But that
is not my fault.