CHAPTER X. THE PRESENT AGE
We have carried our study down to the death of Ruskin and included in it authors like Swinburne and Meredith who survived till recently; and in discussing the novel we have included men like Kipling and Hardy—living authors. It would be possible and perhaps safer to stop there and make no attempt to bring writers later than these into our survey. To do so is to court an easily and quickly stated objection. One is anticipating the verdict of posterity. How can we who are contemporaries tell whether an author's work is permanent or no?
Of course, in a sense the point of view expressed by these questions is true enough. It is always idle to anticipate the verdict of posterity. Remember Matthew Arnold's prophecy that at the end of the nineteenth century Wordsworth and Byron would be the two great names in Romantic poetry. We are ten years and more past that date now, and so far as Byron is concerned, at any rate, there is no sign that Arnold's prediction has come true. But the obvious fact that we cannot do our grandchildren's thinking for them, is no reason why we should refuse to think for ourselves. No notion is so destructive to the formation of a sound literary taste as the notion that books become literature only when their authors are dead. Round us men and women are putting into plays and poetry and novels the best that they can or know. They are writing not for a dim and uncertain future but for us, and on our recognition and welcome they depend, sometimes for their livelihood, always for the courage which carries them on to fresh endeavour. Literature is an ever-living and continuous thing, and we do it less than its due service if we are so occupied reading Shakespeare and Milton and Scott that we have no time to read Mr. Yeats, Mr. Shaw or Mr. Wells. Students of literature must remember that classics are being manufactured daily under their eyes, and that on their sympathy and comprehension depends whether an author receives the success he merits when he is alive to enjoy it.
The purpose of this chapter, then, is to draw a rough picture of some of the lines or schools of contemporary writing—of the writing mainly, though not altogether, of living authors. It is intended to indicate some characteristics of the general trend or drift of literary effort as a whole. The most remarkable feature of the age, as far as writing is concerned, is without doubt its inattention to poetry. Tennyson was a popular author; his books sold in thousands; his lines passed into that common conversational currency of unconscious quotation which is the surest testimony to the permeation of a poet's influence. Even Browning, though his popularity came late, found himself carried into all the nooks and corners of the reading public. His robust and masculine morality, understood at last, or expounded by a semi-priestly class of interpreters, made him popular with those readers—and they are the majority—who love their reading to convey a moral lesson, just as Tennyson's reflection of his time's distraction between science and religion endeared them to those who found in him an answer or at least an echo to their own perplexities. A work widely different from either of these, Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, shared and has probably exceeded their popularity for similar reasons. Its easy pessimism and cult of pleasure, its delightful freedom from any demand for continuous thought from its readers, its appeal to the indolence and moral flaccidity which is implicit in all men, all contributed to its immense vogue; and among people who perhaps did not fully understand it but were merely lulled by its sonorousness, a knowledge of it has passed for the insignia of a love of literature and the possession of literary taste. But after Fitzgerald—who? What poet has commanded the ear of the reading public or even a fraction of it? Not Swinburne certainly, partly because of his undoubted difficulty, partly because of a suspicion held of his moral and religious tenets, largely from material reasons quite unconnected with the quality of his work; not Morris, nor his followers; none of the so-called minor poets whom we shall notice presently—poets who have drawn the moods that have nourished their work from the decadents of France. Probably the only writer of verse who is at the same time a poet and has acquired a large popularity and public influence is Mr. Kipling. His work as a novelist we mentioned in the last chapter. It remains to say something of his achievements in verse.
Let us grant at once his faults. He can be violent, and over-rhetorical; he belabours you with sense impressions, and with the polysyllabic rhetoric he learned from Swinburne—and (though this is not the place for a discussion of political ideas) he can offend by the sentimental brutalism which too often passes for patriotism in his poetry. Not that this last represents the total impression of his attitude as an Englishman. His later work in poetry and prose, devoted to the reconstruction of English history, is remarkable for the justness and saneness of its temper. There are other faults—a lack of sureness in taste is one—that could be mentioned but they do not affect the main greatness of his work. He is great because he discovered a new subject-matter, and because of the white heat of imagination which in his best things he brought to bear on it and by which he transposed it into poetry. It is Mr. Kipling's special distinction that the apparatus of modern civilization—steam engines, and steamships, and telegraph lines, and the art of flight—take on in his hands a poetic quality as authentic and inspiring as any that ever was cast over the implements of other and what the mass of men believe to have been more picturesque days. Romance is in the present, so he teaches us, not in the past, and we do it wrong to leave it only the territory we have ourselves discarded in the advance of the race. That and the great discovery of India—an India misunderstood for his own purposes no doubt, but still the first presentiment of an essential fact in our modern history as a people—give him the hold that he has, and rightly, over the minds of his readers.
It is in a territory poles apart from Mr. Kipling's that the main stream of romantic poetry flows. Apart from the gravely delicate and scholarly work of Mr. Bridges, and the poetry of some others who work separately away from their fellows, English romantic poetry has concentrated itself into one chief school—the school of the “Celtic Revival” of which the leader is Mr. W.B. Yeats. Two sources went to its making. In its inception, it arose out of a group of young poets who worked in a conscious imitation of the methods of the French decadents; chiefly of Baudelaire and Verlaine. As a whole their work was merely imitative and not very profound, but each of them—Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, who are both now dead, and others who are still living—produced enough to show that they had at their command a vein of poetry that might have deepened and proved more rich had they gone on working it. One of them, Mr. W.B. Yeats, by his birth and his reading in Irish legend and folklore, became possessed of a subject-matter denied to his fellows, and it is from the combination of the mood of the decadents with the dreaminess and mystery of Celtic tradition and romance—a combination which came to pass in his poetry—that the Celtic school has sprung. In a sense it has added to the territory explored by Coleridge and Scott and Morris a new province. Only nothing could be further from the objectivity of these men, than the way in which the Celtic school approaches its material. Its stories are clear to itself, it may be, but not to its readers. Deirdre and Conchubar, and Angus and Maeve and Dectora and all the shadowy figures in them scarcely become embodied. Their lives and deaths and loves and hates are only a scheme on which they weave a delicate and dim embroidery of pure poetry—of love and death and old age and the passing of beauty and all the sorrows that have been since the world began and will be till the world ends. If Mr. Kipling is of the earth earthy, if the clangour and rush of the world is in everything he writes, Mr. Yeats and his school live consciously sequestered and withdrawn, and the world never breaks in on their ghostly troubles or their peace. Poetry never fails to relate itself to its age; if it is not with it, it is against it; it is never merely indifferent. The poetry of these men is the denial, passionately made, of everything the world prizes. While such a denial is sincere, as in the best of them, then the verses they make are true and fine. But when it is assumed, as in some of their imitators, then the work they did is not true poetry.
But the literary characteristic of the present age—the one which is most likely to differentiate it from its predecessor, is the revival of the drama. When we left it before the Commonwealth the great English literary school of playwriting—the romantic drama—was already dead. It has had since no second birth. There followed after it the heroic tragedy of Dryden and Shadwell—a turgid, declamatory form of art without importance—and two brilliant comic periods, the earlier and greater that of Congreve and Wycherley, the later more sentimental with less art and vivacity, that of Goldsmith and Sheridan. With Sheridan the drama as a literary force died a second time. It has been born again only in our own day. It is, of course, unnecessary to point out that the writing of plays did not cease in the interval; it never does cease. The production of dramatic journey-work has been continuous since the re-opening of the theatres in 1660, and it is carried on as plentifully as ever at this present time. Only side by side with it there has grown up a new literary drama, and gradually the main stream of artistic endeavour which for nearly a century has preoccupied itself with the novel almost to the exclusion of other forms of art, has turned back to the stage as its channel to articulation and an audience. An influence from abroad set it in motion. The plays of Ibsen—produced, the best of them, in the eighties of last century—came to England in the nineties. In a way, perhaps, they were misunderstood by their worshippers hardly less than by their enemies, but all excrescences of enthusiasm apart they taught men a new and freer approach to moral questions, and a new and freer dramatic technique. Where plays had been constructed on a journeyman plan evolved by Labiche and Sardou—mid-nineteenth century writers in France—a plan delighting in symmetry, close-jointedness, false correspondences, an impossible use of coincidence, and a quite unreal complexity and elaboration, they become bolder and less artificial, more close to the likelihoods of real life. The gravity of the problems with which they set themselves to deal heightened their influence. In England men began to ask themselves whether the theatre here too could not be made an avenue towards the discussion of living difficulties, and then arose the new school of dramatists—of whom the first and most remarkable is Mr. George Bernard Shaw. In his earlier plays he set himself boldly to attack established conventions, and to ask his audiences to think for themselves. Arms and the Man dealt a blow at the cheap romanticism with which a peace-living public invests the profession of arms;The Devil's Disciple was a shrewd criticism of the preposterous self-sacrifice on which melodrama, which is the most popular non-literary form of play-writing, is commonly based; Mrs. Warren's Professionmade a brave and plain-spoken attempt to drag the public face to face with the nauseous realities of prostitution; Widowers' Houses laid bare the sordidness of a Society which bases itself on the exploitation of the poor for the luxuries of the rich. It took Mr. Shaw close on ten years to persuade even the moderate number of men and women who make up a theatre audience that his plays were worth listening to. But before his final success came he had attained a substantial popularity with the public which reads. Possibly his early failure on the stage—mainly due to the obstinacy of playgoers immersed in a stock tradition—was partly due also to his failure in constructive power. He is an adept at tying knots and impatient of unravelling them; his third acts are apt either to evaporate in talk or to find some unreal and unsatisfactory solution for the complexity he has created. But constructive weakness apart, his amazing brilliance and fecundity of dialogue ought to have given him an immediate and lasting grip of the stage. There has probably never been a dramatist who could invest conversation with the same vivacity and point, the same combination of surprise and inevitableness that distinguishes his best work.
Alongside of Mr. Shaw more immediately successful, and not traceable to any obvious influence, English or foreign, came the comedies of Oscar Wilde. For a parallel to their pure delight and high spirits, and to the exquisite wit and artifice with which they were constructed, one would have to go back to the dramatists of the Restoration. To Congreve and his school, indeed, Wilde belongs rather than to any later period. With his own age he had little in common; he was without interest in its social and moral problems; when he approved of socialism it was because in a socialist state the artist might be absolved from the necessity of carrying a living, and be free to follow his art undisturbed. He loved to think of himself as symbolic, but all he symbolized was a fantasy of his own creating; his attitude to his age was decorative and withdrawn rather than representative. He was the licensed jester to society, and in that capacity he gave us his plays. Mr. Shaw may be said to have founded a school; at any rate he gave the start to Mr. Galsworthy and some lesser dramatists. Wilde founded nothing, and his works remain as complete and separate as those of the earlier artificial dramatists of two centuries before.
Another school of drama, homogeneous and quite apart from the rest, remains. We have seen how the “Celtic Revival,” as the Irish literary movement has been called by its admirers, gave us a new kind of romantic poetry. As an offshoot from it there came into being some ten years ago an Irish school of drama, drawing its inspiration from two sources—the body of the old Irish legends and the highly individualized and richly-coloured life of the Irish peasants in the mountains of Wicklow and of the West, a life, so the dramatists believed, still unspoiled by the deepening influences of a false system of education and the wear and tear of a civilization whose values are commercial and not spiritual or artistic. The school founded its own theatre, trained its own actors, fashioned its own modes of speech (the chief of which was a frank restoration of rhythm in the speaking of verse and of cadence in prose), and having all these things it produced a series of plays all directed to its special ends, and all composed and written with a special fidelity to country life as it has been preserved, or to what it conceived to be the spirit of Irish folk-legend. It reached its zenith quickly, and as far as the production of plays is concerned, it would seem to be already in its decline. That is to say, what in the beginning was a fresh and vivid inspiration caught direct from life has become a pattern whose colours and shape can be repeated or varied by lesser writers who take their teaching from the original discoverers. But in the course of its brief and striking course it produced one great dramatist—a writer whom already not three years after his death, men instinctively class with the masters of his art.
J.M. Synge, in the earlier years of his manhood, lived entirely abroad, leading the life of a wandering scholar from city to city and country to country till he was persuaded to give up the Continent and the criticism and imitation of French literature, to return to England, and to go and live on the Aran Islands. From that time till his death—some ten years—he spent a large part of each year amongst the peasantry of the desolate Atlantic coast and wrote the plays by which his name is known. His literary output was not large, but he supplied the Irish dramatic movement with exactly what it needed—a vivid contact with the realities of life. Not that he was a mere student or transcriber of manners. His wandering life among many peoples and his study of classical French and German literature had equipped him as perhaps no other modern dramatist has been equipped with an imaginative insight and a reach of perception which enabled him to give universality and depth to his pourtrayal of the peasant types around him. He got down to the great elemental forces which throb and pulse beneath the common crises of everyday life and laid them bare, not as ugly and horrible, but with a sense of their terror, their beauty and their strength. His earliest play, The Well of the Saints, treats of a sorrow that is as old as Helen of the vanishing of beauty and the irony of fulfilled desire. The great realities of death pass through the Riders to the Sea, till the language takes on a kind of simplicity as of written words shrivelling up in a flame. The Playboy of the Western World is a study of character, terrible in its clarity, but never losing the savour of imagination and of the astringency and saltness that was characteristic of his temper. He had at his command an instrument of incomparable fineness and range in the language which he fashioned out the speech of the common people amongst whom he lived. In his dramatic writings this language took on a kind of rhythm which had the effect of producing a certain remoteness of the highest possible artistic value. The people of his imagination appear a little disembodied. They talk with that straightforward and simple kind of innocency which makes strange and impressive the dialogue of Maeterlinck's earlier plays. Through it, as Mr. Yeats has said, he saw the subject-matter of his art “with wise, clear-seeing, unreflecting eyes—and he preserved the innocence of good art in an age of reasons and purposes.” He had no theory except of his art; no “ideas” and no “problems”; he did not wish to change anything or to reform anything; but he saw all his people pass by as before a window, and he heard their words. This resolute refusal to be interested in or to take account of current modes of thought has been considered by some to detract from his eminence. Certainly if by “ideas” we mean current views on society or morality, he is deficient in them; only his very deficiency brings him nearer to the great masters of drama—to Ben Johnson, to Cervantes, to Moliere—even to Shakespeare himself. Probably in no single case amongst our contemporaries could a high and permanent place in literature be prophesied with more confidence than in his.
In the past it has seemed impossible for fiction and the drama, i.e. serious drama of high literary quality, to flourish, side by side. It seems as though the best creative minds in any age could find strength for any one of these two great outlets for the activity of the creative imagination. In the reign of Elizabeth the drama outshone fiction; in the reign of Victoria the novel crowded out the drama. There are signs that a literary era is commencing, in which the drama will again regain to the full its position as a literature. More and more the bigger creative artists will turn to a form which by its economy of means to ends, and the chance it gives not merely of observing but of creating and displaying character in action, has a more vigorous principle of life in it than its rival.