« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
Can we recommend this to readers unacquainted with the Greek as Homeric? The truth is the passage has neither distinction of phrase nor rhythm. There are better, there are many striking passages in Sigurd, inspiring and noble, which one reads with delight and admiration, but there are no Homeric passages. Sigurd is not a poem of action, it is a resonant chant, rising and falling like the long ocean swell, it is—and in Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse we have a parallel-a piece of music woven about a great story, which rises at times into lyrical splendour. But to compare it as narrative, as a record of things attempted and done, with Homer or with Scott, these descriptions so slow, cloudy, and indefined with the bright clear pictures, the swift movement of the Iliad or the Odyssey, can only make for confusion. Any one who has a sense for poetry does not need to be told that Morris was here overweighted, that he undertook a task as much beyond his strength as it was outside his natural province, that to have given of this terrific old-world story a final and worthy, that is a sublime version, would have taxed the resources of a poet far greater than he, that his style, exquisitely adapted, perfectly equal to such narrative as one reads with pleasure in The Earthly Paradise, a delicate and charming style, contained few elements of real greatness, the spiritual virtue, the burning sincerity, the moral depth which we associate with lofty eminence, without which grandeur is unattainable. In the style of Sigurd, moreover, there is a great defect, a defect which in the close grapple with Time must prove fatal to any poem-its wordiness. It is not," as Lowell said, “ the great Xerxes army of words, but the compact Greek ten thousand that marches safely down to posterity.” The quality to which above all others the classic style owes its superiority is its economy, its hatred of the superfluous. In style there should be, as Schopenhauer said, a certain trace of kinship with the epigraphic or monumental. What delights one in Homer as in Milton is that every word counts. And the reader who wishes in nineteenth-century poetry to catch, though it be from far, an echo of Homer, must turn not to Sigurd, but to the work of another poet, to Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum.
Whole-heartedly an adherent of the classical tradition, Arnoldone can hardly dispute it—lacks freedom. Both in his prose and verse there is something academic, and the academic note is not welcome in poetry. Yet since Landor's Gebir what statelier narrative has been written, what more impersonal and impressive?
In Sohrab and Rustum some readers feel indeed that, so far from being wholly absorbed in his subject, the author has his eye too constantly upon his model, the ancient model of which he was from first to last a consistent worshipper, and that he is in consequence not spontaneous enough, not natural enough. Arnold felt, and felt rightly, however, that in our literature generally, in these days particularly, unpruned luxuriance, verbosity, laxity in rhythm and language, a too careless freedom were the common and prevailing faults. English writers he thought self-indulgent, capricious, and as a result unequal, often spirited and inspiring, as often jejune and insipid or rhetorical and hollow. He aimed and aimed consciously at a pure and concise, a severe and disciplined style, which even when uninspired remained at least dignified and sufficient. Is such a style unreservedly to be preferred? Place, for the sake of comparison, a passage from Morris side by side with one from Arnold, and a conflict of ideals, of styles emerges, the conflict between the style of ease and affluence and the style of economy and restraint. The first passage describes the death of Brynhild in the third book of Sigurd, the second is taken from the conclusion of Sohrab and Rustum
“ Then she raised herself on her elbow, but again her eyelids sank, And the wound from the sword-edge whispered, as her heart from the
' So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead,
Down o'er his face, and sate by his dead son,
His house, now, mid their broken flights of steps,
And night came down over the solemn waste,
Preference for one or other of these styles will be, doubtless, a matter of temperament. If one asks, however, which outgoes the other in moving quality, which makes the deeper and more lasting impression, to which are we most likely to return, there seems little room for doubt. How are we to reconcile ourselves to the rhythm of such lines as—
"Now at last, O my beloved, all is gone; none else is near and its immediate successor, or to such vague phrases as for unrest all overlong or shall we wear, so evidently due to the necessity of rhyme? The future will deal more kindly with the severe and restrained style, which displays a continuous respect for the exact meaning of words, than with the fluent and easy style, which employs them to fill a gap, or to eke out a line without much regard for their precise significance. Schopenhauer was surely right, there should be in style a touch of the epigraphic, the monumental. What is to last must be written upon stone, must have the quality of sculpture. In Sohrab and Rustum Arnold illustrates his own principles-the need of a careful choice of subject, the need to subordinate the interest of expression to the interest of the action and characters, the need of attention to form, the need of a style of few and decisive words, neither capricious nor ornamental, but at once noble and disciplined, like an athlete in training, whose movements are marked by a continual and sinewy firmness, and are beautiful only because they are perfectly adapted to his undertakings.
The long poem has not flourished in our literature since Milton. In closing a survey of the kind attempted in this volume, a survey of our greater narrative poetry for a thousand years, one has to confess the result in some measure disappointing the strength of English literature is not so conspicuous here as in other fields. Putting Beowulf aside, putting aside also Paradise Lost, no intelligent critic will claim for this country any signal success in formal epic. Since the word epic," however, admits of various interpretations, we have passed in review the chief of our more ambitious narrative poems, to which the highest honours might in a moment of enthusiasm be assigned. Disregarding the convention altogether, judging these works simply as poems, how seldom has it been possible to praise unreservedly, how often when the severest tests were applied have they been seen to come short of the grandeur, even of the excellence which the high aims and pretensions of such poetry lead us to expect. How many outright and irredeemable failures there are, like Wilkie's and Glover's, how many very partial successes, like Scott's or Byron's, how many of the spirited attempts remain, like the Hyperion of Keats, mere fragments. The same causes cannot be assigned for all these failures. The reason of Blackmore's failure was not the reason of Tennyson's, the failure of Scott differs from that of Morris, and Cowley's from both. What, then, are the true causes? Many, one might say, indeed, most failures in poetry arise from an insufficient appreciation of its difficulty. Poetry appears to some easy to write. The truth is, there is no success in the world so ardently pursued, so frequently missed. So high and rare is the gift for it that an hour's inspiration, a few lines like Landor's
"I strove with none, for none was worth my strife a few stanzas, like Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, confer immortality upon their author. And when we come to the greater poetry, for which a happy hour, a momentary inspiration will not suffice, the chances of success, even for a man of extraordinary poetic talent, are terribly reduced. What is required of a poet is that he shall have at command not merely
unflagging invention, but a sure sense for style which never forsakes him. No people has possessed a richer national genius for poetry than the English. Their ill success in the longer narrative, the objective as distinguished from the subjective type of poetry, cannot, therefore, be traced to any fundamental disability. But in the greater poetry, natural genius is not enough. Our poetry, as Arnold never wearied of insisting, failed through neglect of form, or through indifference to qualities of style which may be absent even where genius is present. That he was right the poetry reviewed in this book abundantly proves. In no writer since Milton can we feel that the sense for style is continually evident, “ the certain excellence and perfection of language" of which Longinus speaks; he is
our one first-rate master in the grand style.” For the most part also our poets rarely foresaw the end from the beginning, rarely so planned their works as to subordinate the parts to the whole and to bring them to a natural and fit conclusion. They embarked on their voyages without charts, sometimes, one might fancy, without thought of any port of destination. What an eloquent example is Spenser. His Faerie Queene, though longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—a royal barque, indeed-never reached harbour. But in a long poem, if its success is to be measured by its pretensions, not only is form necessary, a sustained nobility is necessary. Beware," said Goethe, "of attempting a large work. . . What exertion and expenditure of mental force are required to arrange and round off a great whole ; and then what powers, and what a tranquil, undisturbed situation in life, to express it with the proper fluency." A lyric may be supported during its brief flight by the spirit and fervour of its initial impulse. In the long poem the author must frequently conduct us through stretches of level country, along the lower slopes of Parnassus, where the pressure of inspiration is barely felt. Through such stretches, along these lower levels, if he be master of an assured style he will continue to give us pleasure, though pleasure of a quieter
But many of our poets who attempted epic or the longer narrative, though the true nature of poetry was not hidden from