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The Silent Isle - Chapter 48 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2316

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 48

CHAPTER XLVIII

It is often said that poets have no biographies but their own works, but that is only a half-truth. It is to me one of the most delightful things in the world to follow the footsteps of a poet about, in scenes perhaps familiar to myself; to see how the simple sights of earth and sky struck fire from his mind, to realise what he thought about under commonplace conditions. I have often stayed, for instance, at Tan-yr-allt in North Wales, where Shelley spent some months, and where the strange adventure of the night-attack by the assassin occurred--a story never satisfactorily unravelled; it was a constant pleasure there to feel that one was looking at the fine crags which Shelley loved, so nobly weather-stained and ivy-hung, that one was threading the same woodland paths, and rambling on the open moorland where he so often paced. The interest, the inspiration of the process comes from the fact that one sees how genius transmutes the dull elements of life, those elements which are in reach of all of us, into thoughts rich and strange. I often think of the plum-tree in the tiny garden of Wentworth Place, where Keats, one languid spring day, sate to hear the nightingale sing, and scribbled the _Ode on loose half-sheets of paper, careless if they were preserved or no. It makes one discern the quality of genius to realise how there is food for it everywhere, and how little right one has to blame one's surroundings for not being more suggestive. Indeed, I cannot help feeling that the very vulgarity of Keats' circle, with its ill-flavoured jokes, its provincial taint, is even more impressive than the romance in which Shelley lived, because it marks his genius more impressively. Shelley was at least in contact with interesting personalities, while Keats' circle was on the whole a depressing one.

But the point which has been deeply borne in upon me, and which we are apt, in reflecting on the posthumous glories of men of genius, to forget, is the reflection how extraordinarily scanty was the recognition which both Keats and Shelley met with in their lifetime. Keats was nothing more than an obscure poetaster; he had a few friends who believed in him, but which of them would have dared to predict the volume and magnitude of his subsequent fame? Shelley was in even worse case, for he was regarded by ordinary people as a monster of irreligion and immorality, the custody of whose children had been denied him by the most respectable of Lord Chancellors, on account of his detestable opinions and the infamy of his mode of life. There are, I will venture to say, a hundred living English writers who have more, far more, of the comfortable sense of renown, and its tangible rewards, than either of these great poets enjoyed in their lifetime. Byron himself, who by the side of Shelley cuts so deplorable a figure, had at least the consciousness of being an intensely romantic and mysterious figure, quickening the emotional temperature of the world and making its pulse beat faster. But Keats and Shelley worked on in discouragement and obscurity. It is true that they judged their own work justly, and knew within themselves that there was a fiery quality in what they wrote. But how many poets have fed themselves in vain on the same hopes, have thought themselves unduly contemned and slighted! There is hardly a scribbler of verse who has not the same delusion, and who has not in chilly and comfortless moments to face the fact that he does not probably count for very much, after all, in the scheme of things. How hard it is in the case of Keats and Shelley to feel that they had not some inkling of all the desirous worship, the generous praise, that has surrounded their memory after their death! How hard it is to enter into the bitterness of spirit which fell upon Shelley, not once nor twice, at the acrid contempt of reviewers! How hard it is to put oneself inside the crushing sense of failure that haunted Keats' last days, with death staring him in the face! Of course, one may say that a writer ought not to depend upon any consciousness of fame; that he ought to make his work as good as he can, and not care about the verdict. That is a fine and dignified philosophy; but at the same time half of the essence of the writer's work lies in its appeal. He may feel the beauty of the world with a poignant emotion; but his work is to make others feel it too, and it is impossible that he should not be profoundly discouraged if there is no one who heeds his voice. It is not that he craves for stupid and conventional praise from men who can only applaud when they see others applauding. What he desires is to express the kinship, the enthusiasm of generous hearts, to make an echo in the souls of a few like-minded people. He may desire this--nay, he must desire it, if he is to fulfil his own ideal at all. For in the minds of poets there is the hope of achievement, of creation; he dedicates time and thought and endeavour to his work, and the test of its fineness and of its worth is that it should move others. If a man cannot have some faint hope that he is doing this, then he had better sink back into the crowd, live the life of the world, earn a wage, make a place for himself. Indeed, he has no justification for refusing to shoulder the accustomed burden, unless he is sure that the task to which he devotes himself is better worth the doing; a poet must always be haunted by the suspicion that he is but pleasing himself and playing indolently at a pretty game, unless he can believe that he is adding something to the sum of beauty and truth. These visions of the poet are very faint and delicate things; there is little of robust confidence about them, while there are plenty of loud and insistent voices on every side of him to tell him that he is shirking the work of the world, and that he is not lifting a finger in the cause of humanity and progress. There are some self-conscious artists who would say that the cause of humanity and progress is not the concern of the artist at all; but, on the other hand, you will find but few of the great artists of the ages who have not been thrilled and haunted with the deep desire to help others, to increase their peace and joy, to interpret the riddle of the world, to give a motive for living a fuller life than the life of the drudge and the raker of stones and dirt.

But this very absence of recognition and fame was what made the lives of these two great poets so intensely beautiful; there is hardly a great poet who has achieved fame who has not been in a degree spoilt by the consciousness of worth and influence. Tennyson, Pope, Byron, Wordsworth--how their lives were injured by vanity and self-conceit! Even Scott was touched by the grossness of prosperity, though he purged his fault in despair and tears. But such poets as did not guess their own greatness, and remained humble and peaceable, how much sweeter and gentler is their example, walking humbly in the company of the mighty, and hardly seeming to guess that they are of the happy number. And thus we may rank it amongst the greatest gifts that were given to Keats and Shelley, though they did not know their own felicity, that they were never overshadowed by the approbation of the world, and had no touch of the complacent sense of greatness that so disfigures the spirit of a mortal.

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