The Sacred Wood Essays on Poetry and Criticism
The Sacred Wood
“Intravit pinacothecam senex canus, exercitati vultus etqui videretur nescio quid magnum promittere, sed cultu nonproinde speciosus, et facile appareret eum ex hac nota litteratumesse, quos odisse divites solent ... 'ego’ inquit'poeta sum et ut spero, non humillimi spiritus, si modocoronis aliquid credendum est, quas etiam ad immeritosdeferre gratia solet.’”—Petronius.
“I also like to dine on becaficas.”
H. W. E.
“Tacuit Et Fecit”
viiCertain of these essays appeared, in thesame or a more primitive form, in TheTimes Literary Supplement, The Athenæum,Art and Letters, and The Egoist. Theauthor desires to express his obligation tothe editors of these periodicals.
To anyone who is at all capable of experiencingthe pleasures of justice, it is gratifying to beable to make amends to a writer whom one hasvaguely depreciated for some years. The faults andfoibles of Matthew Arnold are no less evident to menow than twelve years ago, after my first admirationfor him; but I hope that now, on re-reading some ofhis prose with more care, I can better appreciate hisposition. And what makes Arnold seem all the moreremarkable is, that if he were our exact contemporary,he would find all his labour to perform again. Amoderate number of persons have engaged in what iscalled “critical” writing, but no conclusion is anymore solidly established than it was in 1865. In thefirst essay in the first Essays in Criticism we readthat
it has long seemed to me that the burst of creativeactivity in our literature, through the first quarter ofthis century, had about it in fact something premature;and that from this cause its productions are doomed,most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes whichaccompanied and do still accompany them, to provexhardly more lasting than the productions of far lesssplendid epochs. And this prematureness comesfrom its having proceeded without having its properdata, without sufficient material to work with. Inother words, the English poetry of the first quarter ofthis century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creativeforce, did not know enough. This makes Byron soempty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordswortheven, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completenessand variety.
This judgment of the Romantic Generation has not,so far as I know, ever been successfully controverted;and it has not, so far as I know, ever made verymuch impression on popular opinion. Once a poetis accepted, his reputation is seldom disturbed, forbetter or worse. So little impression has Arnold’sopinion made, that his statement will probably be astrue of the first quarter of the twentieth century as itwas of the nineteenth. A few sentences later, Arnoldarticulates the nature of the malady:
In the Greece of Pindar and Sophocles, in theEngland of Shakespeare, the poet lived in a currentof ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishingto the creative power; society was, in the fullestmeasure, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent andalive; and this state of things is the true basis for thecreative power’s exercise, in this it finds its data, itsmaterials, truly ready for its hand; all the books andreading in the world are only valuable as they arehelps to this.
At this point Arnold is indicating the centre of interestxiand activity of the critical intelligence; and it is atthis perception, we may almost say, that Arnold’scritical activity stopped. In a society in which thearts were seriously studied, in which the art of writingwas respected, Arnold might have become a critic.How astonishing it would be, if a man like Arnoldhad concerned himself with the art of the novel, hadcompared Thackeray with Flaubert, had analysed thework of Dickens, had shown his contemporariesexactly why the author of Amos Barton is a moreserious writer than Dickens, and why the author ofLa Chartreuse de Parma is more serious than either?In Culture and Anarchy, in Literature and Dogma,Arnold was not occupied so much in establishing acriticism as in attacking the uncritical. The differenceis that while in constructive work something can bedone, destructive work must incessantly be repeated;and furthermore Arnold, in his destruction, went forgame outside of the literary preserve altogether, muchof it political game untouched and inviolable by ideas.This activity of Arnold’s we must regret; it mightperhaps have been carried on as effectively, if notquite so neatly, by some disciple (had there been one)in an editorial position on a newspaper. Arnold isnot to be blamed: he wasted his strength, as men ofsuperior ability sometimes do, because he saw somethingto be done and no one else to do it. Thetemptation, to any man who is interested in ideas andprimarily in literature, to put literature into the cornerxiiuntil he has cleaned up the whole country first, isalmost irresistible. Some persons, like Mr. Wellsand Mr. Chesterton, have succeeded so well in thislatter profession of setting the house in order, andhave attracted so much more attention than Arnold,that we must conclude that it is indeed their properrôle, and that they have done well for themselves inlaying literature aside.
Not only is the critic tempted outside of criticism.The criticism proper betrays such poverty of ideasand such atrophy of sensibility that men who oughtto preserve their critical ability for the improvementof their own creative work are tempted into criticism.I do not intend from this the usually silly inferencethat the “Creative” gift is “higher” than the critical.When one creative mind is better than another, thereason often is that the better is the more critical.But the great bulk of the work of criticism could bedone by minds of the second order, and it is justthese minds of the second order that are difficult tofind. They are necessary for the rapid circulation ofideas. The periodical press—the ideal literaryperiodical—is an instrument of transport; and theliterary periodical press is dependent upon theexistence of a sufficient number of second-order (I donot say “second-rate,” the word is too derogatory)minds to supply its material. These minds arenecessary for that “current of ideas,” that “societypermeated by fresh thought,” of which Arnold speaks.
xiiiIt is a perpetual heresy of English culture to believethat only the first-order mind, the Genius, the GreatMan, matters; that he is solitary, and produced bestin the least favourable environment, perhaps thePublic School; and that it is most likely a sign ofinferiority that Paris can show so many minds of thesecond order. If too much bad verse is published inLondon, it does not occur to us to raise our standards,to do anything to educate the poetasters; the remedyis, Kill them off. I quote from Mr. Edmund Gosse:
Unless something is done to stem this flood ofpoetastry the art of verse will become not merelysuperfluous, but ridiculous. Poetry is not a formulawhich a thousand flappers and hobbledehoys ought tobe able to master in a week without any training, andthe mere fact that it seems to be now practised withsuch universal ease is enough to prove that somethinghas gone amiss with our standards.... This is allwrong, and will lead us down into the abyss like somany Gadarene swine unless we resist it.
We quite agree that poetry is not a formula. Butwhat does Mr. Gosse propose to do about it? IfMr. Gosse had found himself in the flood of poetastryin the reign of Elizabeth, what would he have doneabout it? would he have stemmed it? What exactlyis this abyss? and if something “has gone amiss withour standards,” is it wholly the fault of the youngergeneration that it is aware of no authority that it mustrespect? It is part of the business of the critic toxivpreserve tradition—where a good tradition exists. Itis part of his business to see literature steadily and tosee it whole; and this is eminently to see it not asconsecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; tosee the best work of our time and the best work oftwenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes.It is part of his business to help the poetaster tounderstand his own limitations. The poetaster whounderstands his own limitations will be one of ouruseful second-order minds; a good minor poet (somethingwhich is very rare) or another good critic. Asfor the first-order minds, when they happen, they willbe none the worse off for a “current of ideas”; thesolitude with which they will always and everywherebe invested is a very different thing from isolation, ora monarchy of death.
Note.—I may commend as a model to critics whodesire to correct some of the poetical vagaries of thepresent age, the following passage from a writer whocannot be accused of flaccid leniency, and the justiceof whose criticism must be acknowledged even bythose who feel a strong partiality toward the school ofpoets criticized:—
“Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, isnever wholly lost; if they frequently threw away theirwit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struckout unexpected truth: if their conceits were far-fetched,xvthey were often worth the carriage. To writeon their plan, it was at least necessary to read andthink. No man could be born a metaphysical poet,nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptionscopied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed fromimitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditarysimiles, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility ofsyllables.
“In perusing the works of this race of authors, themind is exercised either by recollection or inquiry:something already learned is to be retrieved, or somethingnew is to be examined. If their greatnessseldom elevates, their acuteness often surprises; ifthe imagination is not always gratified, at least thepowers of reflection and comparison are employed;and in the mass of materials which ingenious absurdityhas thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledgemay be sometimes found buried perhaps in grossnessof expression, but useful to those who know theirvalue; and such as, when they are expanded toperspicuity, and polished to elegance, may give lustreto works which have more propriety though lesscopiousness of sentiment.”—Johnson, Life of Cowley.
|The Perfect Critic||1|
|Swinburne as Critic||15|
|A Romantic Aristocrat||22|
|The Local Flavour||29|
|A Note on the American Critic||34|
|The French Intelligence||39|
|Tradition and the Individual Talent||42|
|The Possibility of a Poetic Drama||54|
|Euripides and Professor Murray||64|
|Rhetoric and Poetic Drama||71|
|Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe||78|
|Hamlet and His Problems||87|