I have often wondered vaguely, as from time to time I read fresh estimates by the critic of the moment of the great masters of the past, why it is that finality in this sort of criticism seems so rarely to be reached, and how it can be possible for the new critic of each succeeding age to put forward a revised estimate and to gain some acceptance for it. Surely, I would say to myself, the best critics of the day, the leading minds of a poet’s generation, ought to be able to lay down such a definite criterion, once and for all, that it should afterwards be unassailable. For after all, the things that really matter are quite definite. Sheer, absolute merit, sheer quality, is definite. When we open a certain book of plays at random, and come upon such a passage as
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Walks tiptoe on the misty mountain tops . . .
or we turn a page or two and read
Unarm, Eros, the long day’s task is done,
And we must sleep . . .
—when we light on such passages—and Shakespeare keeps letting fall such consummate trifles as these with a careless facility that almost frightens us, so entirely effortless it seems to be—we don’t argue, we know. We just say to ourselves, “Well, there you are! That’s it!”
Then again, originality is quite a definite thing—can be proved, indeed, by exact quotation; and as for novelty, which is much the same thing but not quite, being on a lower plane, it is the most easily proved of all. Three instances of novelty as such occur to me, which I give in their historical order: the “faked” poems attributed to Ossian, which in the eighteenth century by sheer novelty of treatment almost carried by storm the best critical opinion of the day, with the exception of the sturdy Dr. Johnson and a few others; and then there is the case of Martin Tupper, whose “Proverbial Philosophy,” couched in a diction and versification which at least were something quite new to the reading public, had an enormous vogue. These two books are long dead and rightly so, being instances of novelty and little else. But in my third instance, that of Walt Whitman, we note a difference. Here we had novelty indeed, but we had, as well, original genius of a high order; and it is interesting to note that here the novelty was of little assistance to the poet, for many readers who loved the matter were repelled by the form. Still, Whitman is an instance of what I mean by the appeal of novelty as distinguished from originality of genius.
If, then, these tests can be so easily applied, and if real genius emits a radiance of its own that hardly demands a test at all, how is it that when the great critic A has said his say and classified his man, thirty years later critic B comes along, and thirty years afterwards critic C, each with a new estimate, and I am bound to say an estimate which often seems an improvement on its predecessor, and especially the one that is nearest to our own generation. And yet sheer quality, as such, remains the same through all the ages; and you can take a pencil and mark the passages of sheer poetic beauty in the Iliad or the Aeneid as easily as you can those in, say, “Childe Harold,” by Byron, or “The Excursion,” by Wordsworth, or “The Ring and the Book,” by Browning.
It seemed to me, pondering on these matters, that there was some missing element in all such criticism, or else in the matter criticised, always there, like radium, for instance, but not recognised or not sufficiently recognised — at any rate not kept constantly before the mind of reader or critic as it should be—and it was my business to try and find out what that was.
But I did not find the task so very easy. What I wanted would not come to the surface and become visible, though I was sure it was lurking there, because I could perceive the effects though I could not identify the cause. Astronomers have found that there are certain dark stars — stars, that is, which for some reason neither emit nor reflect light. They are in fact invisible, and are only known to be there by the influence, the attraction or repulsion, that they are perceived by observers to exert upon the bodies that are their neighbours—their contemporaries in space, if I may so express it. It is, in fact, by that pull or push that the astronomer weighs them, measures them, gradually sizes them up, so to speak, and eventually gives them place and name among the hierarchy of heaven. Something like that was to be my task—to identify the invisible cause of an irregularity of movement among my literary planets.
We have agreed that what I have called the missing element has nothing to do with the sheer quality of the writer, nor with that form of genius which we call originality, nor with novelty, for these things we can identify and define. By leaving them out, then, it is easier to run to earth the fox we are really after. (There is some slight mixing of metaphors here, I know, but as some eminent person has said, the man who never mixes his metaphors never mixes anything— or words to that effect.)
Well, I got my fox by the brush at last and pulled him out, and though he is not much to look at, I think he is a genuine canis vulpes. What is usually missing, I think, in criticism or estimates of past writers, is a proper recognition of the special contemporary appeal which almost every good writer has for his own actual contemporaries,—the subtle liaison, the bond between himself and his actual contemporaries only, and never between the writer and later generations. Other bonds there are, of course, and plenty, between him and posterity; never this particular one.
Perhaps I may also speak of it, this thing that I call the “contemporary appeal,” as the “incommunicable thrill.” Other thrills there are, which may pass downwards through the centuries, but this particular one cannot be communicated by one generation to its successor. This thrill exists for its own generation alone.
Of course one may reply, “Oh, but we have always known that. We have always realised that a writer, whatever he may pretend, writes for, and at, his contemporaries and not posterity, and that his appeal to them must therefore be closer and more intimate than to later readers.” That may be. But is it always steadily borne in mind by those who estimate past work afresh, brushing aside contemporary judgments, that to themselves there is and must be something missing, something they can never hope to recover, and a very real thing too, something you have no business to ignore, as it is too often ignored disdainfully — the contemporary appeal? Of course it is true that good literature is an almost imperishable thing, which continues to glow and to palpitate through the generations that succeed its birth; but I am afraid that it is also true that literature which reflects very strongly the special taste of the day, such as the classicism of the eighteenth century, may become a sort of hortus siccus, a collection of pressed and dried flowers, in which the colour is still there, and the form—indeed, you can recognise the petals and stamens, and count them—but the first bloom and irridescence is gone for ever. But it was not gone for its contemporaries. They got that, but they cannot hand it on. Still, it was there at the time, and when it can be identified it will prove to be a fine and precious thing, and poets are entitled to credit for it,
If you will let me give you a few illustrations of what I really mean, my contention will perhaps begin to make itself more clear. Here is one. I remember reading in some memoir or autobiography or other—I cannot lay my hands on my authority at the moment—how on a certain night in the year 1850 a group of young men were assembled in the rooms then occupied by Rossetti, in Chatham Place, by Blackfriars Bridge, long ago pulled down. They were all young, all budding poets or artists, and the occasion was, that one of them, through his friendship with some printer or publisher, had been promised that night, as a special favour, an advance copy of a book of poetry that was to be published next day—a book called “In Memoriam,” by one Alfred Tennyson, a young poet then rapidly rising in public favour. The emissary was sitting at the publisher’s office at the moment, and the group were eagerly awaiting his return. It was past midnight when he entered at last, waving the magic volume over his head. The best reader was then selected, and the remainder of the night was spent in the reading aloud of these poems to a silent, enthralled, spellbound audience. It was broad daylight, the author tells us, when the meeting broke up at last, and he and his friends walked homeward along the Embankment, all still silent, still strangely moved and shaken, as if by some new revelation.
Now I am not going to criticise “In Memoriam,” one way or the other. I will only ask you to observe that if the most ardent Tennysonian now living—and there are still a few such—had by some singular chance or accident never read “In Memoriam,” and it were put into his hands today, he would be surprised and delighted indeed, he would lose no time in possessing himself of its contents; but I do not think he would deliberately devote the hours of the night to something that could as well be tackled in the morning; and I think also, that while delighted, he would also be critical. He would compare, and analyse, and dissect, this dead specimen of a past generation. Those boys of 1850—for they were little more than boys—never criticised. They were, as it were, drunk—drunk with the contemporary appeal, drunk with the incommunicable thrill.
Remember, also, that Rossetti and his followers were not, strictly speaking, Tennysonians at all. They were the founders of another school of poetry, a school that very soon drifted far away from the Tennyson idiom. But—they were contemporaries, and that is the point of the story.
I will give you another instance. When my grandmother was a young girl, living at home with her parents—in London, I think, though I cannot be sure of that—one night a certain mild excitement was caused in the house by the arrival of the Edinburgh Mail. Now the Edinburgh Mail of those days was carried by a coach and four horses, and took some four days to get through with luck and travelling hard, so its arrival was something of an event. There were the usual business letters for the father, and the long letters of gossip — Edinburgh and Glasgow gossip — crossed and recrossed for the mother, and there was besides a dumpy package tied up with string, bearing the label of the well-known publishing firm of Ballantyne; and on this the girl, my grandmother, fell with a shout of triumph, for she knew it could be nothing else but an early copy of the very latest Waverley Novel—I forget which of them it was now—a book waited for throughout the length and breadth of England with an intensity which seems strange to us now. So, when the girl took her bedroom candlestick and climbed upstairs to her little room at the top of the house, she managed to carry the precious parcel with her, intending to start on the book the following day, as early as her domestic duties, which came first in those days, would permit her. Arrived in her bedroom, she said to herself, “I wonder if it would be very wrong of me if I just took a peep at the first page, merely to see how the story begins?” So she stretched herself on the hearth-rug, with her candlestick on the floor beside her, and cut the string of the parcel. And the hours slipped by, and the candle burnt low, and the grey dawn began to filter in past the blind, and still the girl read on. And the candle guttered in its socket, and the dawn gave way to full daylight which took the place of the candle, and still the girl read on, entranced, bewitched, possessed and held spellbound by a touch of the wand of him who was already known as the Wizard of the North.
Now let us suppose—if it is not making too monstrous a demand on our powers of imagination — that there were actually in existence today some young person who cared a straw for Walter Scott’s works and who by chance had never read one of the best of them. Supposing it came into her hands, she would be delighted indeed, but it would be ridiculous to suppose that she would lie on the hard boards of her bedroom floor all night, like my poor little grandmother. Indeed a great part of her interest in the thing would be that which one takes in a literary curiosity. She would not be handling a real, live, pulsating thing, of which you could almost hear the heartbeats. But my grandmother was! For her there was the contemporary appeal, the thrill at its height. She was one of Walter Scott’s contemporaries.
Let us take another instance. In Boswell’s “Life of Dr. Johnson,” under the year 1777, we find him, Boswell, corresponding with a certain critic on the style of Dr. Johnson’s book, “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.” Boswell took Dr. Johnson on a tour through Scotland to try and cure him of his prejudice against the Scotch—which he did not succeed in doing—and when they got back they each of them wrote a book about it. The critic in question had “praised the very fine passage upon landing at Icolm-kill,” but proceeded to disapprove of “the richness of Johnson’s language.” Boswell then proceeds to quote the criticised passage in full, “in justification of its author”:
We were now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy, as may conduct us, indifferent and unmoved, over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. The man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.
Boswell continues, speaking for himself: “Had our Tour produced nothing else but this sublime passage, the world must have acknowledged that it was not made in vain. Sir Joseph Banks, the present respectable President of the Royal Society, told me, he was so much struck on reading it, that he clasped his hands together, and remained for some time in an attitude of silent admiration.” So Boswell.
Now I want to say here, and at once, that when Sir Joseph Banks clasped his hands together and remained for some time in silent admiration, Sir Joseph Banks did what was only just and right. For it is indeed a fine passage. Written though it be in the rigid, frigid, somewhat ponderous style of the period, it is sonorous, well-balanced, beautifully restrained, and even deeply moving. English literature owes a great debt of gratitude to Johnson, and to others like him—if indeed there be any others like him—who have set themselves a severe and lofty standard of writing such as this; for such standard is a sort of fixative which keeps our language from slipping away, as it always has a tendency to do, into a careless slovenliness and inexactitude of expression.
We do not read them now; neither their style nor their matter pleases us longer, but their works remain to show us with what earnest care, with what reverence and regard, the English language used to be treated by those who thought themselves worthy to write it. But what I want you to notice just now is, that if you were to read this passage to “the present respectable President of the Royal Society,” whoever he may be, he would probably say, “Yes, that is an admirable specimen of a formal and laboured style of writing, now happily long past.” He would not clasp his hands together—why indeed should he? He isn’t a contemporary! And if he remained silent for some time, it would probably be not from admiration, but from boredom. He is not moved by the contemporary appeal—he would feel no thrill. But Sir Joseph Banks, his predecessor, did—and hence he acted in the manner Boswell has so faithfully recorded for us.
Here is another instance, from the same source. Boswell tells us that Johnson’s “Life of Richard Savage,” the poet, is “one of the most interesting narratives in the English language. Sir Joshua Reynolds,” he continues, “told me, that upon his return from Italy he met with it in Devonshire, knowing nothing of its author” (this was in Johnson’s early days) “and began to read it while he was standing with his arm leaning against a chimney-piece. It seized his attention so strongly that, not being able to lay down the book till he had finished it, when he attempted to move he found his arm totally benumbed.”
You see, poor Sir Joshua came off rather worse then Sir Joseph. The respectable Banks only suffered a temporary paralysis of the vocal organs, but Reynolds had a limb put out of action in this his first encounter with the irresistible eloquence of Johnson. I have never read this “Life of Savage” myself, so can express no opinion on the matter; but I do not remember ever having heard or seen this masterpiece quoted or referred to by any modern critic or writer or speaker. Yet Reynolds, who was a writer himself as well as consummate artist, was as sound a literary critic as any of his critical generation.
Another criticism of the same book, written at the time of its publication, concludes with the following passage: “His reflections open to all the recesses of the human heart; and, in a word, a more just or pleasant, a more engaging or a more improving treatise on all the excellencies and defects of human nature, is scarce to be found in our own, or perhaps any other language.”
That criticism, though anonymous, was believed by many to be written by no other than Henry Fielding himself. Now when you get two men of the calibre of Joshua Reynolds and Henry Fielding writing in this manner, you simply dare not ignore them. They carry too much metal.
Johnson was, by the unanimous voice of his age, the greatest writer of his period. There was no question about it. Gibbon was writing, Goldsmith was writing, Fielding was writing, and many another; but every one awarded the palm to Johnson. And he was also a voluminous writer. Today, these writings are all dead—dead and buried, and have been so for many a long year. The “thrill” has died out of them, and if Johnson’s posthumous fame depended on his writings alone, his name would be rarely heard. Johnson lives to us now—and very vigorous he is, too—solely by virtue of his sayings and doings, chiefly his sayings, his table-talk, as reported, and very scrappily and imperfectly reported, by Boswell, Thrale, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and one or two others.
It is the thrill incommunicable over again. There were evenings at the Literary Club, when Johnson had been taking the floor and was in specially good form, when the members—distinguished men all of them—would walk home, silent and deeply moved, just like those youngsters after that first reading of “In Memoriam”—only able to gasp out at intervals “What a Man!” or words to that effect. But they all agreed that it was impossible to give to posterity anything more than the merest echo of the real Johnson. And we know that they were right. Only his contemporaries could feel the real, the authentic, thrill.
It is interesting to note that it is just in our delight in these scraps and fragments of talk, whenever evidently reported faithfully and verbatim, that we seem to get nearest to his contemporaries’ feeling about him; and yet we know that that appreciation was based on his writings, not his talk, because naturally only a very few of his host of admirers ever even set eyes on the man. His writings, however, do not help us a bit, in the way that his reported talk does, to get into the skin of his contemporary admirers. They might of course help us if we ever read them, but we do not and will not—I might even say we cannot. I suppose the explanation is that, as compared with colloquial talk, all writing has a touch of artificiality about it, and the essayists of the eighteenth century deliberately pushed this artifice to an extreme—almost as far as the short-lived Euphuists and Gongorists of the sixteenth century. They meant to be artificial, and they were. Really at times with Johnson you are not quite sure when you are reading English and when you are reading Latin. For example, here is a sentence from the Preface to “The Dictionary,” singled out by Boswell for our special admiration: “When the radical idea branches out into parallel ramifications, how can a consecutive series be formed of senses in their own nature collateral?” The enraptured Boswell, heaving up his either hand, like the child in Herrick’s poem, declares this sentence to be “the perfection of language.” And so it is, in a way—the eighteenth-century way. But not our way. They deliberately thought that the more English resembled Latin the better it must be. So thinking, they lost all flexibility; we, for our part, cannot and will not stand an inflexible language.
I was privileged recently to listen to a young poet delivering his apologia or defence of the work of his particular school of poetry, and very interesting it was. To be sure, I did not know that anyone had attacked him, but he appeared to be on his defence, and in the course of such defence had to say something slightly disparaging about both Tennyson and, I think, Swinburne. This he was perfectly entitled to do, nor was he in the least unfair or even severe; but as I listened I could tell that he was making no allowance for, indeed probably did not realise, the special appeal of these two poets to their contemporaries, who included many men just as good as himself. Indeed, he would probably, if challenged, have refused to admit that such contemporary appeal possessed any value for the critic. “Poetic merit,” he would probably have said, “is absolute, not relative. It either exists or it doesn’t. The passing of a generation or two cannot affect it.” That is true, but it is not the whole truth.
Take the case of Swinburne first. I daresay that when our young poet was in the nursery, and the nursemaid had corrected him on account of some youthful indiscretion, such as even young poets sometimes commit, she added to the punishment some sarcastic remarks about the lilies and languor of virtue as compared with the roses and rapture of vice; and I daresay the young poet, between his sobs, would cry out, “0 for heaven’s sake, Mary Ann, not that stale old cliche again!” And rightly, for by that time it was a stale old cliche, and in the mouth of every nursemaid. What should he know, by that time, of the wonderful thrill that shook the reading world when the ballad of “Dolores” made its appearance in the ‘sixties? How undergraduates of both universities—even Cambridge—rushed to each others’ rooms to shout it and declaim it, how they whooped and chortled over it or dreamed and moaned it in their sleep, how they parodied it, and how alas! they tried to write similar poetry with very indifferent success, “Thou wert fair,” this new poet sang,—
Thou wert fair in the fearless old fashion, And thy limbs are as melodies yet . . .
Limbs, if you please! In the ‘sixties, up to then, there had been no limbs in England. Not a single limb. Now, we have very little else, but it doesn’t really seem to make much difference, at least not the difference we thought it would make in the ‘sixties, when poor Swinburne got all the blame for it. Then there was the rest of that wonderful First Series of “Poems and Ballads,” with its haunting, almost odorous atmosphere, and its medievalism which was yet a new medievalism; and, much about the same time, “Atalanta in Calydon,” with its ringing, dew-sprinkled choruses, beloved by dons and scholars even more than they were by undergraduates because they were good enough to be set for Greek or Latin verse. Those two books made a special appeal to their delighted audience of the ‘sixties which they have never made to any later one; and of all this our young poet should have been well aware, from the report of others, and probably was aware—only, not perhaps counting such appeal as a literary virtue in itself, he was not inclined to give its inspirer any credit on that account.
Turn to Tennyson. Doubtless our young poet, when he was playing as a boy in the garden, and wanted his sister to come and have a game of lawn tennis, occasionally yelled through the window “Come into the garden, Maudl” because this was a very common catchword of that period. For by that time a catchword was all it was. No trace was left by then of the strong wave of emotion, mingled with controversy, which flooded the literary world on the appearance, in 1855, of “Maud”—not for the story, nor for the philosophy, but for its wonderful singing lyrics, “O let the solid ground,” “Birds in the high Hall-garden,” “Go not, happy day,” “O that ‘twere possible,” and above all, “Come into the garden, Maud,” which the best critics of the time hailed as a perfect specimen of a flawless lyric, capable of standing the severest test that meticulous criticism could apply. And indeed it would be difficult to suggest alteration, substitution, elision, or change of a syllable in this passionate yet most restrained lyric. But fine as the sheer quality of this poem is, its contemporary appeal was, by all accounts, transcendent. This is the second time that I have used Tennyson as an illustration, and this is not because I am specially addicted to Tennyson above other poets, but because Tennyson, in a quite remarkable way, gave voice to the thought and feeling of his own period, to an extent, I believe, never known in any other English poet.
Many years ago, I found myself sitting at dinner, or rather at the close of dinner, next to Francis Turner Pal-grave, the poet, better remembered as the compiler of “The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics,” perhaps the best known and most popular anthology of English verse. And I remember his turning to me and saying: “Now, you are a good deal younger than I am, and I want you to tell me, is there any real merit at all in any of these new writers whose names I hear so frequently? There is a young man called Stevenson, for instance, and another called Kipling. Is there really any lasting worth in what they write, or are they just the fleeting fashion of the day?” I did my best to give him a resume of the qualities of these two writers, and I ventured to suggest that if he could spare an hour or two, some evening, to the works of either or both of them I thought he would not find his time had been wasted. He only shook his head rather sadly. “My interest in English literature,” he said, “stopped short at Tennyson. He was to me the culminating point, and I didn’t care somehow to go on any further. I have never read the later writers.” You will find the same sort of idea—this idea of the finality of Tennyson—in books such as Edward FitzGerald’s letters, and in various memoirs and reminiscences by famous men who were contemporary with Tennyson or slightly older. They all wanted to stop there. They didn’t want any more—they didn’t indeed see how there could be any more! Now, by this time, I think we may consider Tennyson to be pretty fairly ranked and placed. However high his merit, he is not Shakespeare and he is not Dante. But when a poet can make so tremendous an appeal as that to his own age, surely he is entitled to some special good marks for that thing alone, in addition to the marks he earns for intrinsic merit. And these men, who held Tennyson so high, were no fools. Brilliant men, nearly all of them, and just as good critics as those of the present day.
I may, however, just add that I am frankly puzzled by this special claim to finality put forward by Tennyson’s contemporaries on his behalf. I don’t remember it being made in the case of any other poet. Is it possible that there was more than a touch of self-complacency in the composition of the Mid-Victorian—self-righteousness, as we should call it in another connection? Or is an even simpler explanation the right one, namely that they were suffering from satiety, from a sense of repletion? In this connection, I am reminded of something I once read about George Eliot in her later years. An acquaintance told her that he proposed to bring so-and-so to call on her the following Sunday, adding, “A very interesting person, whom you will be glad to include in the number of your friends.” George Eliot, however, did not seem to be enthusiastic at the prospect before her, and merely observed plaintively, “Don’t you think that we have most of us got enough friends?” And I remember how that esteemed writer and gentle spirit, Walter Pater, having in the kindness of his heart undertaken to dine with an undergraduate at his lodgings, felt it his duty to admire warmly everything that the lodginghouse keeper’s taste thought most fitting in decoration—the oleographs on the walls, the rep curtains, the veneered walnut furniture, and so on. This continued till the end of the meal, when the dessert was placed on the table in a service of more than usual Mid-Victorian atrocity. Pater was heard to murmur, “Pretty plates! Pretty plates! Only they mustn’t make any more!” Perhaps, then, the Mid-Victorians were merely thinking that for the time they had had enough poets, that Nature mustn’t make any more, that they wanted a rest; for there certainly were a lot of poets knocking about, in those palmy days.
For instance, among many others, there was Robert Browning, who in that same year, 1855, published his “Men and Women,” in which some of his most famous work appeared. But I am dragging Browning in here in order to be able to remark that there never was a great English poet who had less of that quality which I am calling the contemporary appeal, than Browning. As Browning’s thoughts were peculiarly his own, so was his language; and really it was not till his admirers very sensibly formed a society to, so to speak, unload Browning stock on the market, that he could be said to have got a real public hearing. The experiment was entirely successful. The public always likes a prospectus with a good list of directors; and Browning was thenceforward accepted as a recognised National Poet. As soon as they eventually placed him at all they placed him high, and he remains at the same level. Had he possessed more of that quality of the contemporary appeal, he would certainly have been ranked higher in the ‘forties and ‘fifties; and if we hold that it is a poet’s business to appeal to his own generation first, and future generations afterwards, we shall reluctantly have to refuse to Browning those special extra marks which we are allotting. George Meredith was in much the same boat as Browning. Intensely individual— I am thinking here of Meredith the poet—thinking his own thoughts and expressing them in a special language of his own that he was determined to use and no other, he was like a man writing for his own private enjoyment only; and he was never in close enough contact with his contemporaries (except a few of them, of course) to evoke that answering thrill.
In the few instances I have taken as illustrations of my theme, I have confined myself to writers of such assured and acknowledged position in the world of letters as to make them independent of mere “popularity,” even if they possessed it. There are scores and scores of other writers, men of fame in their day, whom I could have quoted as instances of intense contemporary “popularity,” if that had been what I was after; writers, too, actually more “popular” in their day than the great men I have quoted. Indeed, of these last, Scott was perhaps the only one who was really “popular” in the widest sense. He was read by high and low, educated and ignorant alike. Johnson, as a writer, was only “popular,” naturally, among educated people; and as for Tennyson, he never, in spite of “The May Queen” and “Locksley Hall,” achieved a tenth part of the “popularity” of Longfellow. No, popularity is not the same thing.
Nor is vogue. Vogue differs from popularity in that vogue always contains some hint of fashion. One reads so-and-so because the best people all read him. Samuel Rogers was the great instance of vogue in the last century. Rogers was rich; Rogers entertained; and Rogers wrote of his travels in Italy, and the Grand Tour in Italy was still the fashionable thing, and he could afford to have illustrations by Turner.
Before leaving these occasional instances of really great poets who nevertheless made little or no contemporary appeal, one cannot refrain from glancing at the case of Keats, in some ways the most singular of them all. One would have thought that a generation which, wearying of classical severity and perpetual Latinism, had already begun, however reluctantly, to welcome that change of thought and manner of expression represented best by that group then known as the Lake Poets, would have welcomed Keats in his turn as only a fuller and more sensuous development of the new manner. But it was not so. The change, the rate of progress, was too rapid for the public. Keats was ahead of the taste of his time, and it was not till a generation later that public appreciation began to place him on that pinnacle where he has since remained. But it was then too late for any one to feel the contemporary appeal, the real authentic thrill. By then Keats had become a classic, and a classic is something we criticise and even dissect. We feel our own thrill, of course, but that is not the same thrill that would have gone through the whole reading public of, say, the year 1820, had Keats instantly come into his own.
But the latest example of this sort, in date, that I dare to quote is that of Samuel Butler, author of “Erewhon” and several other now very well-known books, who died only as recently as 1902. Butler, for reasons which were partly his own fault, for he refused to tackle the public and the book-market in the same way that other men did, certainly made no contemporary appeal. His first book, remarkable, original, and also amusing, as it was, fell flat as regards the public, and thereupon Butler deliberately declared that he would write no more for his contemporaries to read, but only for posterity. This is how he puts it—I quote from the well-known “Notebooks of Samuel Butler”: “If my books succeed after my death . . . let it be understood that they failed during my life for a few very obvious reasons of which I was quite aware. . . . I had money enough to live on, and preferred addressing myself to posterity rather than to any except a very few of my own contemporaries. . . . I have addressed the next generation.” Those are his own words.
Now you would scarcely think that it was in the power of any writer to say who should read his published works and who should not. It is for the reading public itself to settle that, and the reading public is both wilful and capricious, and above all resents being dictated to on such a matter. Supposing the public had said “We’re going to read ‘Erewhon’ and ‘Erewhon Revisited’ because they are jolly good books, and we don’t care a hang for what old Butler says,” what could Butler have done then? The odd thing was, that it all fell out exactly as Butler had predicted. During his life, except from the very few who knew, he received very little public notice or appreciation. Directly after his death, the next generation—the very next generation, as he said, not any dim and misty future generations — took him up warmly, especially the young reading men, and I think we may say now that every thoughtful young man has read, or is reading, the works of Samuel Butler. Had he been living and writing now, there would have been plenty of contemporary thrill—so far as any one could thrill at all about such a rather cold-blooded and very perverse, though brilliant, writer as Butler. As it was, like that very different person, Keats, he just missed his market by some thirty years.
We have our consolations; when a genius arises today, who makes also a particular appeal to his own times, it is we who get the full benefit of that, as against succeeding generations. We have no right to expect to have it both ways; to expect to sit in the first row of the stalls on the first night of all the masterpieces of time as well as our own. Another consolation is that there is a range of poets, who from a certain joyous quality blent with freshness and simplicity, never have dated themselves, and apparently never will. Their appeal is probably as fresh today as when their works first appeared. I can do no more than indicate the names of a few of that happy band. Herrick is, I think, the most striking example; Robert Burns, Shelley, perhaps Andrew Mar-veil, have this dateless quality; and of course there are others, which all readers will like to supply for themselves.
I hope I may have succeeded, by observing and noting, after the astronomical fashion, the action of an invisible object on its neighbours suspended in literary space, in making evident the existence of my “dark star,” as I have called this influence, the contemporary appeal, which, unrecognised or not sufficiently recognised, has so often affected, even deflected, literary judgment.