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We should make a sad mistake, however, in supposing that the truest poetry of the recent generation has been actuated either by a philosophical pessimism, or by the bitterness of realism that comes from an unrelieved study of the seamy side of life. Much of it which has most truly reflected the spirit of the age has been animated by a sense of man's inadequacy to the problems which life sets before him. It makes no attempt to suggest a comprehensive philosophy for man's satisfaction. It rather illustrates life's present moods in a day when religious and ethical convictions are in a state of flux.
Of course Matthew Arnold is the hierophant of this great company of minor poets, whether he himself is to be included in that category or not. To quote Mr. Hutton, "No one has expressed more powerfully and poetically its [i.e. this generation's] spiritual weaknesses, its craving for a passion that it cannot feel, its admiration for a self-mastery that it cannot achieve, its desire for a creed that it fails to accept, its sympathy with a faith that it will not share, its aspiration for a peace that it does not know." It is characteristic of this school as a whole that they never strive nor cry, but mourn genteelly and in excellently balanced numbers. The loss of faith, and the lack of any large inspiration for life, is a theme admirably adapted to gentle verse, and gentle verse has flowed superabundantly about it.
What, for instance, could be more graceful than Mr. Swinburne's
"And love grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful,
Weeps that no loves endure"?
Or what could more musically set forth the aspiration of a multitude of would-be unbelievers than the same poet's "Pilgrims"?
"We have drunken of Lethe at last, we have eaten of Lotus;
What hurts it us here that sorrows are born and die? We have said to the dream that caressed and the dread that smote us, Good-night and good-bye."
Of course the problem of the uninspired life reaches what may be called its acutest stage in face of death. Such a life manages fairly well in summer and good weather, but it has its winters of discontent. Mr. Lecky, the historian, appears to have seen an end of all perfection, and sums up life's tragedy in the apostrophe,
"How hard to die, how blessed to be dead!"
Mr. Rolleston of the Rhymers' Club sighs for Nirvana,
If God should bid me make reply,
"For others, Lord, Thy purging fires,
The loves reknit, the crown, the palm.
For me the death of all desires
In deep, eternal calm.'"'
A similar lack of any hope or expectation in death is echoed in the exquisite threnody of Alice Meynall entitled
To the Beloved Dead." It begins :
"Beloved, thou art like a tune that idle fingers
Play on a window-pane.
The time is there, the form of music lingers;
But O, thou sweetest strain,
Where is thy soul? Thou liest i' the wind and rain.”
There is a savor of the Old Testament thought of death in this, and in the same author's famous "Letter from a Girl to her Own Old Age" the suggestion is distinctly heightened.
On the other hand, this curiosity about life and death is
shot through with a glimmering of philosophical hope in Francis Thompson's lines,
"Life is a coquetry
Of Death, which wearies me,
Of the amour.
"A tiring-room where I
Death's divers garments try
Some fashion sit.
"It seemeth me too much
I do rehearse for such
And single scene."
Of course the characteristic tone of this whole school of poets is plaintive, but it does not lack here and there a voice that pushes the question to the ultimate conclusion of Omar Khayyam:
"Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where."
Such, for instance, is Mr. W. E. Henley's perverse Rondeau beginning:
"Let us be drunk, and for a while forget,
Forget, and ceasing even from regret,
Live without reason and in spite of rhyme. . ."
But this is the exception rather than the rule. nor poetry of the passing generation has more often emphasized anew the need of an ethical sanction, and the worth of high ethical ideals, even though, in the lack of such a sanction, they seem essentially unreasonable. There is profound religious suggestion in such verse as Mr. G. A. Greene's
"They have taken away my Lord;
They have shattered the one great Hope,
With our terrible selves: the sword
"They broke which the world restored;
They have cast down the King from on high;
Their derision has scaled the sky;
They have taken away my Lord.
"The strength of immortal Love;
The comfort of millions that weep;
Prayer and the Cross we adored
All is lost! there is no one above:
We are left like the beasts that creep:
They have taken away our Lord.”
If this were all that could be said of the suggestion of recent verse, I doubt if any sane man could quite bring himself to write of it. But it is not all. Side by side with the philosophical despair of Thomson, the bitter realism of Davidson, and the plaintive resignation of Matthew Arnold and his school, there has grown up a new realization of the place of man as a self-directive factor in the world. The poet has instinctively discerned that Cause is ultimately of the nature of Will. Men cannot be convinced for very long that,
"We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
In Midnight by the Master of the Show."
They know that they are something more than this; and, do what they will, they never can quite convince themselves that there is not a greater Reason, which their own reason feebly reflects, and a profound Ground for Causation of whose Nature their own ability to originate causes partakes. There have been those who find the now famous lines of Henley "To R. T. H. B." redolent of blasphemy. But they seem to me rather a very ill-mannered response to such a command as came to St. Paul by Damascus bidding him to stand upon his feet.
"Out of the night that covers me,
There speaks the man in sore need of being brought into right relations with a Heavenly Father, if indeed there be a Heavenly Father anywhere, but a man who is abundantly worth bringing because he is very conscious of his manhood's prerogatives and has no notion whatever of trading them for the first convenient mess of pottage that may be offered him. It is not a normal assertion of manhood. It is rather a rude, perverse, and half-boorish blurting-out of a badly hypertrophied egotism. But still there is manstuff there. The raw material of an apostle of Faith, Hope, and Love is at hand, only waiting to be wrought over and directed toward some gracious end.
We approach a little nearer to a sane and hopeful view of life in some of the later verses of Robert Louis Stevenson. He loves to sing of men who look out with clear and discerning eyes upon the change and chance of human experience.
"The evil wi' the guid they tak;
They ca' a gray thing gray, no black;
An' up the rude, unbieldy track
He assures the confirmed pessimist
"Ye've fund the very thing to do-
An' shune we'll hear the last o' you—
An' blithe to hear it!"
and closes the whole discussion with this rather telling figure:
"As whan a glum an' fractious wean
The ither bairns a' fa' to play'n',
As gleg's a gled."
There is a healthy tone about this. It savors of utter antagonism to that worst of heresies which would reduce