Amiel's Journal—(Six O'clock.)
more the day is drawing to its close.
The heat of afternoon has vanished quite,
And all the mountains lose their tender light,
Save Mont Blanc, rising flushed with perfect rose.
Alas! the restless hours, without repose,
How they oppress the soul with sudden night.
In vain we cry, "Oh, time, suspend thy flight!"
In vain! for as we cry the moment goes.
What days to keep? The glad days? Yea, we will.
The lost days, too; the first memory retrieves,
The last are but remorse and mockery.
A gust of wind; a few clouds in the sky;
The nightingale is silent, but it leaves
The cricket and the river singing still.
Arnold, who is Wordsworth's most famous admirer, and
without doubt the best judge of his finest work, considers
the poem called "Michael" to be his greatest
poem. Therefore as a brief study of the poet's worth
(for poet I concede him to be, though not of the highest
order) I would like to direct attention for a space
to this particular poem. I would begin by denying that
it is a poem at all in the true sense of the word. If
poetry is mere thought or sentiment, no matter how expressed,
then many of the essays and sermons, not to speak of
short stories, prevalent to-day are poems. But we know
this is not so. Then on what grounds can this poem be
called great or even passably beautiful, according to
the poetical canons? Can any of Wordsworth's admirers
state such grounds so as to satisfy the average mind?
The tale, for such it is, has a certain pathos, naturally
pertaining to the subject. But so far from being a poem,
the story might just as well have been written in prose,
in fact it is written in prose, as far as the language
used is concerned, which is simple, common-place prose,
marked out in blank verse metre, but not any more beautifully
expressed than such tales of life as we commonly meet
with in the magazines of to-day. Many of these tales,
for beautiful and fitting simplicity of diction, far
surpass this so-called poetical tale of Wordsworth's.
To prove my statement, I will quote at random:—
the forest-side in Grassmere vale there dwelt a shepherd.
Michael was his name, an old man, stout of heart and
strong of limb. His bodily frame had been from youth
to age of an unusual strength; his mind was keen, intense
and frugal, apt for all affairs, and in his shepherd's
calling he was prompt and watchful, more than ordinary
is nothing more than ordinary prose, and of the most
common-place character, and the whole tale is of this
order of language. As I have already stated, there is
a certain pathos in the story, but no more than is found,
as I have stated, in many strong and original short
stories of to-day. We feel sorry for the old shepherd
who is left alone in his old age to mourn his erring
son, but there is a touch of the patriarchs of the Old
Testament, as seen through modern religious ideals,
that suggests a borrowed pathos, if unconsciously so.
The idea of David weeping for Absalom, or, more in keeping,
the patriarchal fatherhood of Abraham, comes to mind.
The current characteristic of the whole poem is that
of the orthodox idea; it is a story told by a religious
moraliser. I admit there is humanity and pathos in the
story, but it owes this largely to, as I have said,
its imitation of the Old Testament type. Mr. Richard
Harding Davis, a young prose writer of to-day, had a
short time ago a strong and pathetic tale in The Century
Magazine, called "The Ninety and Nine." It
had the same pathos, and yet, like Wordsworth's tale,
it is a modern edition of the prodigal son. No one denies
the strength and beauty of Mr. Davis' short tale, but
he would be mad to call it a poem. Now, I contend that
"Michael" is no more a poem in the real sense
than "The Ninety and Nine." In both, it is
the pathos inherent in the story, it is the human incident
that appeals to us. But to call "Michael"
a great poem is another thing. There is diffuseness,
there is moralising, there is a certain touch of nature,
the tale is even picturesque, if it were not so long-winded
and common-place in its detail, but there are not six
lines of poetry in it.
On the whole,
I fail to see Wordsworth's greatness as a poet. I would
like one of his intense admirers to quote from his works
enough instances of really great verse to prove their
admiration. Wordsworth was thoughtful, I grant, but
it was largely the thoughtfulness of a prosaic order.
He was even poetical at times, when he was not carried
away by a common-place moralising, which he expressed
in blank verse or crude rhymes. He had in a gentle,
innocent, but childish manner, an interest in life and
man's destiny, but his mind was not original enough
to lead him beyond the commonest orthodoxy of his day,
and he was too much wrapt up in himself and his own
little world of shepherds and lambs and common-place
gardeners to feel the pulse-beat of the great humanity
outside. We hear stories of his intense interest in
the French revolution, and we see some of it in his
works, but he never really was a part of it, as was
Shelley, who, with all his faults, was a born poet.
Wordsworth was a good, innocent soul, no doubt, but
it can be seen he was rather selfish, and too self-centred
to be great, in the best sense. He much resembled many
good, old-time clergymen, whose lives were good, in
a sense, because they had no great tendency to practical
evil, but who have bored us by long-winded sermons.
His disciples see in him greatness, hidden meanings
and lofty heights he would never have dreamed of. His
descriptions of nature are mere catalogues, mingled
with all sorts of digressions as to his own experiences.
Now and then he strikes a good thought or expression
but such instances are like rare cases in a desert of
tiresome verbiage. In short, you can find hundreds of
young minor poets of to-day who show more real practical
power of expression than he ever had. The mass of his
work, if written now by an unknown man, would not be
tolerated even by his most ardent admirers. I admit
that much of his thought is often sincere and pure,
but mere sincerity and purity of thought do not give
a patent greatness in any age. He is childish in his
sympathies, almost senile in his descriptions. He lacks
the most ordinary taste in his choice of subjects, and
is about as advanced in his ideas as the ordinary parish
rector of his day. He is just the kindly, simple, placid
old man (for who could ever think of Wordsworth as being
young?) who wandered about, leaving the every-day cares
to his wife and sister, and weaving his tiresome doggerels
and inane platitudes in the quiet English lake country.
Considering the peaceful life he led, his evident desire
to express himself and his charming environment, it
is no marvel that now and again he uttered a thought
that might stir the mind and touch the heart, but it
is a strong argument against his having high poetical
gifts, that in such favorable surroundings he wrote
so much utter trash as to form and thought. When we
look on the scores of geniuses who have had to struggle
with infirmities, both moral and physical, and had to
bear privations and intense misery away in busy haunts
of men, far from peaceful nature; men like Hood and
Burns and Poe, who yet managed to give us even single
gems of song, that it is passing strange that such a
man as Wordsworth should be placed among the first poets
in the English language. To say that his supreme greatness
consists in the height form which he looks on life,
is to insult all the other poets who have written. No
one poet can claim such a plane as his own. No poet
was a true poet who did not get on to a high plane.
But a mock spirituality in poetry as in religion is
not a sign of greatness. Sermonising is not necessarily
evidence of a great mind, but very often proceeds from
a small, distorted and self-complacent environment,
that would shrivel up the whole of this great universe
of humanity and nature with its marvellous and weird
beauty, its terrible tragedy and pathos, into the narrow
horison of a country sheep fold.
Louis Stevenson's last book, "The Wrecker,"
we find ourselves possessed by the shifting, various,
omnipresent spirit of our own age. We flit about the
world as if it were a thing measurable by a few strides.
We are in the South Sea, then in Paris, in San Francisco,
in Edinburgh, in the midst of the Pacific, in Austria,
in Devonshire, in Barbison. We meet with strange varieties
of men and manners; and all this gliding panorama is
made real to us with a deliberate clearness and sureness
of touch that might be the envy of the avowed realist.
If we look for any particular quality in literature
we are very likely to find it where it is least professed.
I think that Mr. Stevenson is a much more genuine realist
than most of those who are commonly named as masters
of the realist school. He never describes a scene which
he has not beheld, and his characters, striking and
singular as they are, are manifestly in every case founded
upon the careful study of actual models. Then there
is a keenness of insight and accuracy of understanding
evidenced in the picturesque and clinging phraseology
of his, so instinct with Scotch strength and Scotch
imperturbability, that afford us a perfect guarantee
of artistic truth. One can read Stevenson with comfort;
we are seldom harassed by the sense of any inadequacy
of the result as compared with the design. He never
undertakes what he cannot do, and he always brings to
his work that rare and priceless faculty of artistic
judgment which enables him to know what is too much
or what is too little, or, in other words, precisely
what and how many strokes should go to the picture.
The same observation
may be made, however, about Mr. Stevenson's books, that
applies to all the best fiction writing of our time.
It is good art, but not good drama. It is very clear,
strong, subtle, picturesque, but it has not the fine
breath of life. The art of conveying the reader into
an actual moving world of delightfully animated people
appears to have died with George Eliot, and even with
her was on the decline. In "The Wrecker,"
notwithstanding its rapidly-changing scene and its diversity
of actors, every movement is studied, every speech is
deliberately thought out, and the reader knows it. In
this book there is, perhaps, less spontaneity than in
some of Mr. Stevenson's former works, "Kidnapped,"
for instance, in which some very life-like passages
is very fond of the study of characters, common enough,
as every humane person knows, in which the mixture of
good and evil is strongly and strangely marked. His
sea-captain Nares and his little disreputable San Francisco
lawyer seem to me quite true and successful portraitures,
and the capacity the writer shows for understanding
human nature in this way inclines one to form a favorable
estimate of his own qualities of heart. The figure of
Pinkerton—almost the principal one in the book—is
that of the buoyant, indefatigable, unconquerable and
forever inventive American man of speculation—a
delightful figure, although I think the naivety is just
a trifle exaggerated. The story of the wretched lawyer
Bellairs is one of the truest and most tragical things
in all Mr. Stevenson's literature.
has not yet discarded his diabolical taste for bloodshed.
In this case it is no less than the murder of a whole
ship's crew, a slaughter so sickeningly horrible that
one cannot help feeling that the abrupt termination
of the story and the absence of any further tragic consequence
are a dramatic defect. With all his manifest delight
in the ever-varying human spectacle, there is certain
want of gentleness and contagious humanity. He is too
fond of an artistic triumph, and does not always sufficiently
consider the actual import of the thing portrayed with
reference to the laws governing human motive and action.
It seems to me that the narrative of the "Flying
Send" is not altogether good work from an ethical
point of view.