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The Silent Isle - Chapter 15 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3115

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 15


In one respect only does the advance of age cast a shadow over my mind; in most matters it is a pure gain. Even though a certain peculiar quality of light-hearted happiness visits me more rarely--a happiness like that of a lark that soars, beats her wings, and trills in the blue sky--yet the loss is more than compensated for by the growth of an equable tranquillity, neither rapturous nor sad, which abides with me for long spaces.

But here is the secret wound--_clausum pectore volnus!_--I am or would be an artist in words. Well, when I look round at the work of the artists whose quality I envy and adore, I am struck by this alarming fact, that in almost every case their earliest work is their best work.

This is almost invariably true in one particular domain, that of purely imaginative poetical work. By which I do not mean poetry only, but poetical prose like Pater's, poetical fiction like Charlotte Bronte's; I think that a narrative writer, a humorous writer, a critical writer, a biographical writer may continue to improve until his faculties begin to decay. He may get a wider, a more penetrating, a more tolerant view of life; his style gain lucidity, impressiveness, incisiveness, pungency; but in the case of the poetical and the reflective writer it seems to me that something evaporates--some quite peculiar freshness, naivete, indiscreetness, which, can never be recaptured. Take a few typical instances. Coleridge lost the poetical gift altogether when he left his youth behind; Wordsworth wrote all his best poetry in a few early years; Milton lost his pure lyric gift. But the most salient instance of all is Tennyson; in the two earliest volumes there is a perfectly novel charm, a grace, a daring which he lost in later life. He became solemn, mannerised, conscious of responsibility. Sometimes, as in some of the lyrics of _Maud_, he had a flash of the old spirit. But compare the _Idylls of the King_, for all their dignity and lavish art, their sweet cadences, their mellifluous flow, with the early fragment in the same manner, the _Morte d'Arthur_, and you become aware that some exquisite haunted quality has slipped away from the later work which made the _Morte d'Arthur one of the most perfect poems of the century. The _Morte d'Arthur is seen, the _Idylls are laboriously imagined. The _Idylls_, again, are full of an everyday morality--the praise of civic virtues, the evolution of types--and how tiresome they thus become! but in the _Morte d'Arthur there is only a prophetic mysticism, which is all the more noble because it is so remote from common things.

With Browning it is the same in a certain degree; there is a charm about _Pauline_, for all its immaturity, which creates an irrepressible, uncalculating mood of undefined longing, utterly absent from his latest work. Perhaps one of the most remarkable instances is that of Rossetti. In the course of the _House of Life_, the dark curtain of the exotic mood, with its strange odours and glimpses, its fallen light, its fevered sense, is raised at intervals upon a sonnet of pure transparency and delicate sweetness, as though the weary, voluptuous soul, in its restless passage among perfumed chambers, looked out suddenly from a window upon some forest glade, full of cool winds and winter sunshine, and stood silent awhile. These sonnets will always be found to be the earlier writings transplanted into the new setting.

I suppose it is to a certain extent a physical thing. It is the shadow of experience, of familiarity, of weariness that creeps over the soul. In youth the spirit expands like an opening rose, and things heard and seen strike upon the senses with an incredible novelty and freshness, hinting at all sorts of sweet surprises, joyful secrets, hopeful mysteries. It is the subtle charm of youth that evaporates, the charm that makes a young and eager boy on the threshold of manhood so interesting, so delightful, even though he may be inarticulate and immature and self-absorbed. Who does not remember friends of college days, graceful and winning creatures, lost in the sense of their own significance, who had nothing, it may be, particular to say, no great intellectual grip, no suggestiveness, yet moving about in a mysterious paradise of their own, full of dumb emotion, undefined longing, and with a deep sense of the romantic possibilities of life. Alas, as the days move on and the crisis delays, as life brings the need of labour, the necessity of earning money, as love and friendship lose their rosy glow and settle down into comfortable relations, the disillusionment spreads and widens. I do not say that the nearer view of life is not more just, more wholesome, more manly. It is but the working of some strictly determined law. The dreams fade, become unreal and unsubstantial; though not rarely, in some glimpse of retrospect, the pilgrim turns, ascends a hillock by the road, and sees the far-off lines, the quiet folds, of the blue heights from which he descended in the blithe air of the morning, and knows that they were desirable. Perhaps the happiest of all are those who, as the weary day advances, can catch a sight of some no less beautiful hills ahead of him, their hollows full of misty gold, where the long journey may end; and then, however wearily the sun falls on the dusty road and the hedged fields to left and right, he knows that the secrets of the earlier day are beautiful secrets still, and that the fine wonder of youth has yet to be satisfied. And yet the shadow does undoubtedly fall heavily on the way for me and for such as me, whose one hope is that before they die they may make some delicate thing of beauty and delight which may remind those that come after that the first beauty of opening light and the song of the awakening bird is a real and true thing, not a mere effect of air and sun and buoyant spirit. Experience and fact and hard truth have a beauty of their own, no doubt. Politics and commerce, the growth of social liberty and law, civic duty and responsibility--dull words for noble things--have their place, their value, their significance. But to the poet they seem only the laborious organising of his dreams, the slow and clumsy manufacture of what ought to be instinctive and natural. If the world must grow upon these lines, if men must toil in smoke-stained factories or wrangle in heated Parliaments, then it is well that the framework of life should be made as firm, as compact, as just as it can. But not here does his hope lie; he looks forward to a far different regeneration than can be effected by law and police. He looks forward to a time when the hearts of men shall be so wise and tender and simple that they shall smile at the thought that life needs all this organising and arranging. For those who labour for social good lose sight too often of the end in the means. They think of education as a business of delightful intricacy, and forget that it is but an elaborate device for teaching men to love quiet labour and to enjoy the delight of leisure. They lose themselves in the dry delight of codifying law, and forget that law is only necessary because men are born brutal and selfish. Morality may be imposed from without, or grace may grow from within; and the poet is on the side of the inner grace, because he thinks that if it can be achieved it will outrun the other lightly and easily.

But as we journey through the world, as we become aware of the meanness and selfishness of men, as we learn to fight for our own hand, the high vision is apt to fade. Who then can be more sad than the man who has felt in the depths of his soul the thrill of that opening light, and the further that he journeys, finds more and more weary persons who tell him insistently that it was nothing but a foolish incident of youth, a trick of fancy, a passing mood, and that life must be given to harder and more sordid things? It is well for him if he can resist these ugly voices; if he can continue to discern what there is of generous and pure in the hearts of those about him, if he can persevere in believing that life does hold a holy and sweet mystery, and that it is not a mere dreary struggle for a little comfort, a little respect, a little pleasure by the way. It is upon a man's power of holding fast to undimmed beauty that his inner hopefulness, his power of inspiring others, depends. But though it is sad to see some artist who has tasted of the morning dew, and whose heart has been filled with rapture, trading and trafficking, in conventional expression and laborious seriousness, with the memories of those bright visions, it is sadder far to see a man turn his back cynically upon the first hope, and declare his conviction that he has found the unreality of it all. The artist must pray daily that his view may not grow clouded and soiled; and he must be ready, too, if he finds the voice grow faint, to lay his outworn music by, though he does it in utter sadness of soul, only glad if he can continue sorrowful.

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