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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 28
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 28 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2455

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII

A few days ago an old friend of mine, who has been a good friend to me, who is more careful of my reputation even than myself, gave me some serious advice. He said, speaking with affectionate partiality, that I had considerable literary gifts, but that I was tending to devote myself too much to ephemeral and imaginative literature, and that I ought to take up a task more worthy of my powers, write a historical biography such as a Life of Canning, or produce a complete annotated edition of the works of Pope, with a biography and appendices. I assured him that I had no talents for research, and insufficient knowledge for a historical biography. He replied that research was a matter of patience, and that as for knowledge, I could acquire it.

I thanked him sincerely for his thoughtful kindness, and said that I would hear it in mind.

The result of my reflections is that the only kind of literature worth writing is literature with some original intention. Solid works have a melancholy tendency to be monumental, in the sense that they cover the graves of literary reputations. Historical works are superseded with shocking rapidity. One remembers the description which FitzGerald gave of the labours of his friend Spedding upon Bacon. Spedding gave up the whole of his life, said FitzGerald, to editing works which did not need editing, and to whitewashing a character which could not be whitewashed. It is awful to reflect how many years Walter Scott gave to editing Dryden and Swift and to writing a Life of Napoleon--years which might have given us more novels and poems. Did Scott, did anyone, gain by the sacrifice? Of course one would like to write a great biography, but the biographies that live are the lives of men written by friends and contemporaries, living portraits, like Boswell's _Johnson or Stanley's _Arnold_. To write such a book, one needs to have been in constant intercourse with a great personality, to have seen him in success and failure, in happiness and depression, in health and sickness, in strength and weakness. Such an opportunity is given to few.

Of course, if one has a power of wide and accurate historical survey, a trustworthy memory, a power of vitalising the past, one may well give one's life to producing a wise and judicious historical work. But here a man must learn his limitations, and one can only deal successfully with congenial knowledge. I have myself a very erratic and unbusinesslike mind. There are certain things, like picturesque personal traits, landscape, small details of life and temperament, that lodge themselves firmly in my mind; but when I am dealing with historical facts and erudite matters, though I can get up my case and present it for the time being with a certain cogency, the knowledge all melts in my mind; and no one ought to think of attempting historical work unless his mind is of the kind that can hold an immense amount of knowledge in solution. I have a friend, for instance, who can put all kinds of details into his mind--he has an insatiable appetite for them--and produce them again years afterwards as sharp and definite in outline as when he put them away. His mind is, in fact, a great spacious and roomy warehouse, where things are kept dry and in excellent order. But with myself it is quite different. To store knowledge of an uncongenial kind in my own mind is just as though I put away a heap of snowballs. In a day or two their outline is blurred and blunted; in a few months they have melted away and run down the gutters. So much for historical work.

Then there comes the question of editorial work: and here again I have the greatest admiration for men like Dr. Birkbeck Hill or Professor Masson, who will devote a lifetime to patiently amassing all the facts that can be gleaned about some great personality. But this again requires a mind of a certain order, and there is no greater mistake in literary work than to misjudge the quality and force of one's mind.

My own work, I am certain, must be of a literary kind; and when one goes a little further back and asks oneself what it is that makes great personalities, like Milton or Dr. Johnson, worth spending all this labour about, why one cares to know about their changes of lodgings and their petty disbursements, it is, after all, because they are great personalities, and have displayed their greatness in imaginative writings or in uttering fertile and inspiring conversational dicta. Imagine what one's responsibility would have been if one could have persuaded Charles Lamb to have taken up the task of editing the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, and to have deserted his ephemeral contributions to literature. Or if one could have induced Shelley to give up writing his wild lyrics, and devote himself to composing a work on Political Justice. Jowett, who had a great fancy for imposing uncongenial tasks on his friends, is recorded to have said that Swinburne was a very brilliant, young man but that he would never do anything till he had given up wasting his time in poetry. Imagine the result if Jowett had had his way!

Of course, it all depends upon what one desires to achieve and the sort of success one sets before oneself. If one is enamoured of academical posts or honorary degrees, why, one must devote oneself to research and be content to be read by specialists. That is a legitimate and even admirable ambition--admirable all the more because it brings a man a slender reputation and very little of the wealth which the popular writer hauls in.

The things which live in literature, the books which make a man worth editing a century or two after he is dead, are, after all, the creative and imaginative books. It is not in the hope of being edited that imaginative authors write. Milton did not compose _L'Allegro in the spirit of desiring that it might be admirably annotated by a Scotch professor. Keats did not write _La Belle Dame sans Merci in order that it might be printed in a school edition, with a little biography dealing with the paternal livery-stable. It may be doubted whether any very vital imaginative work is ever produced with a view to its effect even upon its immediate readers. A great novelist does not write with a moral purpose, and still less with an intellectual purpose. He sees the thing like a picture; the personalities move, mingle, affect each other, appear, vanish, and he is haunted by the desire to give permanence to the scene. For the time being he is under the thrall of a strong desire to make something musical, beautiful, true, life-like. It is a criticism of life that all writers, from the highest to the humblest, aim at. They are amazed, thrilled, enchanted by the sight and the scene, by the relationships and personalities they see round them. These they must depict; and in a life where so much is fleeting, they must seek to stamp the impression in some lasting medium. It is the beauty and strangeness of life that overpowers the artist. He has little time to devote himself to things of a different value, to the getting of position or influence or wealth. He cannot give himself up to filling his leisure pleasantly, by society or amusement. These are but things to fill a vacant space of weariness or of gestation. For him the one important thing is the shock, the surprise, the delight, the wonder of a thousand impressions on his perceptive personality. And his success, his effect, his range, depend upon the uniqueness of his personality in part, and in part upon his power of expressing that personality.

Of course, there are natures whose perceptiveness outruns their power of expression--and these are, as a rule, the dissatisfied, unhappy temperaments that one encounters; there are others whose power of expression outruns their perceptiveness, and these are facile, fluent, empty, agreeable writers.

There are some who attain, after infinite delays, a due power of expression, and these are often the happiest of all writers, because they have the sense of successful effort. And then, lastly, there are a divine few, like Shakespeare, in whom both the perception and the power of expression seem limitless.

But if a man has once embraced the artistic ideal, he must embark upon what is the most terrible of all risks. There is a small chance that he may find his exact subject and his exact medium, and that the subject may be one which is of a widespread interest. But there are innumerable chances against him. Either the fibre of his mind is commonplace; or he is born out of his due time, when men are not interested in what are his chief preoccupations; or he may miss his subject; or he may be stiff, ungainly, puerile in expression.

All of these are our literary failures, and life is likely to be for them a bitter business. I am speaking, of course, of men who embrace the matter seriously; and the misery of their position is that they will be confounded with the dilettantes and amateurs who take up literature as a fancy or as a hobby, or for even less worthy motives.

A man such as I have described, who has the passion for authorship, and who fails in the due combination of gifts, must face the possibility of being regarded as a worse than useless being; as unpractical, childish, slipshod, silly, worth no one's attention. He is happy, however, if he can find a solace in his own work, and if he is sustained by a hopefulness that makes light of results, if he finds pleasure in the mere doing of unrecognised work.

And thus, in my own case, I have no choice, I must perfect my medium as far as I can, and I must look diligently for a congenial subject. I must not allow myself to be discouraged by advice, however kindly and well-intentioned, to devote myself to some more dignified task. For if I can but see the truth, and say it perfectly, these writings, which it is so easy to call ephemeral, will become vital and enriching. It is not the subject that gives dignity; it is not wholly the treatment either; it is a sort of fortunate union of the two, the temperament of the writer exactly fitting the mould of his subject--no less and no more.

In saying this I am not claiming to be a Walter Scott or a Charles Lamb. But I can imagine a friend of the latter imploring him not to waste his time, with his critical gifts, upon writing slender, trifling essays; and I maintain that if Charles Lamb knew that such essays were the work that he did best, with ease and delight, he had the right to rebuff the hand that held out a volume of Marlowe and begged him to annotate it. What spoils our hold on life for so many of us is this false sense of conventional dignity. In art there is no great and small. Whatever a mind can conceive clearly and express beautifully, that is good art, whether it be a harrowing tragedy in which murders and adulteries cluster as thick as flies, or the shaking of a reed in a stream as the current plucks it softly from below. If a man can communicate to others his amazed bewilderment in the presence of the tragedy, or his exquisite delight in the form and texture and motion of the reed, he is an artist. Of course, there will always be more people who will be affected by a melodrama, by strange and ghastly events, by the extremes of horror and pathos, than will be affected by the delicate grace of familiar things--the tastes of the multitude are coarse and immature. But a man must not measure his success by the range of his audience, though the largest art will appeal to the widest circle. Art can be great and perfect without being large and surprising. And thus the function of the artist is to determine what he can see clearly and perfectly, and to take that as his subject. It may be to build a cathedral or to engrave a gem; but the art will be great in proportion as he sees his end with absolute distinctness, and loves the detail of the labour that makes the execution flawless and perfect. The artist, if he would prevail, must not be seduced by any temptation, any extraneous desire, any peevish criticism, any well-meant rebuke, into trying a subject that he knows is too large for him. He must be his own severest critic. No artistic effort can be effective, if it is a joyless straining after things falteringly grasped. Joy is the essential quality; it need not always be a present, a momentary joy. There are weary spaces, as when a footsore traveller plods along the interminable road that leads him to the city where he would be. But he must know in his heart that the joy of arrival will outweigh all the dreariness of the road, and he must, above all things, mean to arrive. If at any moment the artist feels that he is not making way, and doubts whether the object of his quest is really worth the trouble, then he had better abandon the quest; unless, indeed, he has some moral motive, apart from the artistic motive, in continuing it. For the end of art is delight and the quickening of the pulse of emotion; and delight cannot be imparted by one who is weary of the aim, and the pulse cannot be quickened by one whose heart is failing him. There may, as I say, be moral reasons for perseverance, and if a man feels that it is his duty to complete a work when his artistic impulse has failed him, he had better do it. But he must have no delusions in the matter. He must not comfort himself with the false hope that it may turn out to be a work of art after all. His biographer draws a terrible picture of Flaubert pacing in his room, flinging himself upon his couch, rising to pace again, an agonised and tortured medium, in the search of the one perfect word. But the misery was worth it if the word was found, and the fierce faint joy of discovery was worth all the ease and serenity of declining upon the word that sufficed, instead of straining after the word required.

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