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The Silent Isle - Chapter 27 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1334

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 27

CHAPTER XXVII

I have often thought that in Art, judging by the analogy of previous development, we ought to be able to prophesy more or less the direction in which development is likely to take place. I mean that in music, for instance, the writers of the stricter ancient music might have seen that the art was likely to develop a greater intricacy of form, an increased richness of harmony, a larger use of discords, suspensions, and chromatic intervals, a tendency to conceal superficial form rather than to emphasise it, and so forth. Yet it is a curious question whether if Handel, say, could have heard an overture of Wagner's he would have thought it an advance in beauty or not--whether it would have seemed to him like the realisation of some incredible dream, a heavenly music, or whether he would have thought it licentious, and even shapeless. Of course, one knows that there is going to be development in art, but the imagination is unable to forecast it, except in so far as it can forecast a possibility of an increased perfection of technique. It is the same with painting. It is a bewildering speculation what Raffaelle or Michelangelo would have thought of the work of Turner or Millais: whether they would have been delighted by the subtle evolution of their own aims, or confused by the increase of impressional suggestiveness--whether, indeed, if Raffaelle or Michelangelo had seen a large photograph, say, of a winter scene, or a chromo-lithograph such as appears as a supplement to an illustrated paper, they might not have flung down their brush in a mixture of rapture and despair.

There is the same difficulty when we come to literature. What would Chaucer or Spenser have thought of Browning or Swinburne? Would such poetry have seemed to them like an inspired product of art, or a delirious torrent of unintelligible verbiage? Of course, they would not have understood the language, to begin with; and the thought, the interfusion of philosophy, the new problems, would have been absolutely incomprehensible. Probably if one could have questioned Spenser, he would have felt that the last word had probably been said in poetry, and would not have been able to conceive of its development in any direction.

The great genius who is also effective is generally the man who is not very far ahead of his age, but just a little ahead of it--who foresees not the remote possibilities of artistic development, but just the increased amount of colour and quality which the received forms can bear, and which are consequently likely to be acceptable to people of artistic perceptions. If a Tennyson had lived in the time of Pope, he would doubtless have used the heroic couplet faithfully, and put into it just a small increase of melody, a slightly more graceful play of thought, a finer observation of natural things--but he probably would not have strayed beyond the accepted forms of art.

Then there comes in a new and interesting question as to whether it is possible that any new species of art will be developed, or whether all the forms of art are more or less in our hands. It is possible to conceive that music may in the future desert form in favour of colour; it is possible to conceive that painters might produce pictures of pure colour, quite apart from any imitation of natural objects, in which colour might aspire more to the condition of music, and modulate from tone to tone.

In literary art, the movement in the direction of realistic art, as opposed to idealistic, is the most marked development of later days. But I believe that there is still a further possibility of development, a combination of prose and poetry, which may be confidently expected in the future.

It is clear, I think, that the old instinct which tended to make a division between poetry and prose is being gradually obliterated. The rhythmical structure of poetry, and above all the device of rhyme, is essentially immature and childish: the use by poets of rhythmical beat and verbal assonance is simply the endeavour to captivate what is a primeval and even barbarous instinct. The pleasure which children take in beating their hands upon a table, in rapping out a tattoo with a stick, in putting together unmeaning structures of rhyme, is not necessarily an artistic thing at all; what lies at the root of it is the pleasure of the conscious perception of similarity and regularity. This same tendency is to be seen in our buildings, in the love of geometrical forms, so that the elementary perception is better pleased by contemplating a building with a door in the middle and the same number of windows on each side, than in contemplating the structure of a tree. Uneducated people are far more charmed by the appearance of a rock which has a resemblance to something else--a human face or an animal--than by a beautifully proportioned and irregular crag. The uncultivated human being, again, loves geometrical forms in nature, such as the crystal and the basalt column, or the magnified snowflake, better than it loves forms of lavish wildness. We gather about our dwellings flowers which please by their sharply defined tint, and their correspondence of petal with petal; and yet there is just as precisely ordered a structure in natural objects, which appear to be fortuitous in shape and outline, as there is in things whose outline is more strictly geometrical. The laws which regulate the shape of a chalk down or an ivy tendril are just as severe as the laws which regulate the monkey-puzzle tree or the talc crystal. My own belief is that the trained artistic sense is probably only in its infancy, and that it will advance upon the line of the pleased apprehension of the existence of less obvious structure.

If we apply this to literature, it is my belief that the love of human beings for the stanza and the rhyme is probably an elementary thing, like the love of the crystal and the flower-shape, and that it is the love not so much of the beautiful as of the kind of effect that the observer could himself produce. The child feels that, given the materials, he could and would make shapes like crystals and flowers; but to make things of more elaborate structure would be outside his power.

To confine ourselves, then, to one single literary effect, it appears to me that the poetry of the future will probably not develop very much further in the direction of metre and rhyme. Indeed, it is possible to see, not to travel far for instances, in the work of such writers as Mr. Robert Bridges or Mr. Stephen Phillips, a tendency to write lines which shall conceal as far as possible their rhythmical beat. It is indeed a very subtle pleasure to perceive the effect of lines which are unmetrical superficially but which yet confine themselves to a fixed structure below, by varying the stresses and compensating for them. It is possible, though I do not think it very likely, that poetry may develop largely in this direction. I do not think it likely, because such writing is intricate and difficult, and ends too often in being a mere _tour de force_; the pleasure arising from the discovery that, after all, the old simple structure is there, though strangely disguised, I think it more probable that the superficial structure will be frankly given up. If we consider what rhyme is, and what detestable limitations it enforces on the writer for the sake of gratifying what is, after all, not a dignified pleasure, the only wonder is that such a tradition should have survived so long.

What I rather anticipate is the growth among our writers of a poetical prose, with a severe structure and sequence of thought underlying it, but with an entire irregularity of outline. The pleasure to be derived from perfectly proportioned lucid prose is a far subtler and more refined pleasure than that derived from the rhythmical beat of verse. Take, for instance, such works as _The Ring and the Book and _Aurora Leigh_. Is there anything whatever to be gained by the relentless drumming, under the surface of these imaginative narratives, of the stolid blank verse? Would not such compositions have gained by being written in pure poetical prose? The quality which at present directs writers to choosing verse-forms for poetical expression, apart from the traditions, is the need of condensation, and the sense of proportion which the verse-structure enforces and imparts. But I should look forward to the writing of prose where the epithets should be as diligently weighed, the cadence as sedulously studied; where the mood and the subject would indicate inevitably the form of the sentence, the alternation of languid, mellifluous streams of scented and honied words with brisk, emphatic, fiery splashes of language. Indeed, in reading even great poetry, is one not sometimes sadly aware, as in the case of Shelley or Swinburne, that the logical sequence of thought is loose and indeterminate, and that this is concealed from one by the reverberating beat of metre, which gives a false sense of structure to a mood that is really invertebrate?

What I am daily hoping to see is the rise of a man of genius, with a rich poetical vocabulary and a deep instinct for poetical material, who will throw aside resolutely all the canons of verse, and construct prose lyrics with a perfect mastery of cadence and melody.

The experiment was made by Walt Whitman, and in a few of his finest lyrics, such as _Out of the Cradle endlessly rocking_, one gets the perfection of structure and form. But he spoilt his vehicle by a careless diffuseness, by a violent categorical tendency, and by other faults which may be called faults of breeding rather than faults of art--a ghastly volubility, an indiscretion, a lust for description rather than suggestion; and thus he has numbered no followers, and only a few inconsiderable imitators.

I think, too, that Whitman was, in position, just a little ahead, as I have indicated, of the taste of his time; and he was not a good enough artist to enforce the beauty and the possibilities of his experiment upon the world.

There is, moreover, this further difficulty in the way of the literary experimentalist. Whitman, in virtue of his strength, his vitality, his perception, his individuality, rather blocks the way; it is difficult to avoid imitating him, though it is easy to avoid his errors. It is difficult in such poetry not to apostrophise one's subject as Whitman did.

It may be asked, in what is this poetical prose to differ from the prose of great artists who have written melodious, reflective, essentially poetical prose--the prose of Lamb, of Ruskin, of Pater? The answer must be that it must differ from Lamb in sustained intention, from Ruskin in firmness of structure, from Pater in variety of mood. Such prose as I mean must be serious, liquid, profound. It must probably eschew all broad effects of humour; it must eschew narrative; it must be in its essence lyrical, an outburst like the song of the lark or the voice of the waterfall. It must deal with beauty, not only the beauty of natural things, but the beauty of human relations, though not trenching upon drama; and, above all, it must take into itself the mystery of philosophical and scientific thought. Science and philosophy are deeply and essentially poetical, in that they are attempts to build bridges into the abyss of the unknown. The work of the new lyrist must be to see in things and emotions the quality of beauty, and to discern and express the magic quickening thrill that creeps like a flame through the material form, and passes out beyond the invisible horizon, leaping from star to star, and from the furthest star into the depths of the ancient environing night.

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