« ForrigeFortsæt »
THE greater the circumference of man's mental achievements, the more vast he finds the inner boundary of what he has not achieved. We know it is a favourite argument with those of our own time who would excuse the characteristic lack of great and original works in imaginative literature, that genius is at a disadvantage that its efforts are anticipated by earlier efforts-that it has come too late. But this is only an excuse. It may salve the vanity of one or another disappointed aspirant to think so, but will never hold with the broad and liberal speculator on man's intellectual nature. Vast tracts of thought have, it is true, bean landed upon, seized, reclaimed, and become for ever the possession of others. But the continent is as boundless as ever; and it is only to plunge into the forest with half the energy of original enterprize, to find the plains, and the waters, and the mountains of vaster regions spread before us in their unexplored solitude and sublimity.
No doubt, genius must now be instructed. To dare is not enough. To know all that may be known, must precede the plunge into the unknown. The territory wrested from nature by man must be traversed, and the experience of its population mastered, before the desert can be made productive by human labour. Nay, morethe information thus acquired must form the groundwork and suggest the direction of further enterprise. must be predetermined what to aim at, and what to avoid; how to grapple with difficulties-how to improve advantages. The chivalrous adventurer of bygone ages, with whom the only impelling motive was the vague restlessness of his own spirit, and the only guide the stars of heaven, must now be succeeded by those who, fired by the same energy of purpose, and confiding with the same implicit reliance on the same exalted influences, own a great and intelligible object, and possess an elaborate and accurate chart.
Hence the avenues to success are perhaps less direct than they originally were. Spirits which might have arrived at its shrine when it was approached by a single step, may flag in the toilsome march of preliminary preparation; but GENIUS, that annihilator of difficulties, will only gain strength by opposing obstacles, rejoicing when it finds itself alone at the confines of that great tract, to reach which has been too much for minor celebrities, and within whose depths the footsteps of human imagination are still as untraceable as ever.
In this view we are aware we differ from some able critics, Jeffrey in particular, who deem it impossible-or so improbable as to amount to a practical impossibility-that any future genius will be found sufficiently vast to create, that is, to originate poetry, or poiesis, with the full grandeur and effect of those old masters of sacred and profane inspiration who found the tracts of human thought a solitude, and the waters of the great deep of the imagination moved over by the sole pinion of the Spirit of God. That man can make a Garden of Eden of the scored surface of arable land, or find the majesty of the "much-crowded main" in the crowded channel across which commerce ploughs its smoky way, from a brickand-mortar wharf on one shore to a fishing-quay on another, is not to be reasonably expected. But these enthusiasts for the past forget, that poetry does not deal with limitable materials-that the sides of Parnassus are only cultivated to a certain elevation that its steeps and its pinnacles are yet unreclaimed for the appropriation of genius, and that if it only commence the work from the superior limits of man's present domain, it will find the soil as virgin as at first, and each terrace reclaimed more sublime even than those appropriated by the energy of antiquity.
To assert that originality-that high characteristic of genius-is displayed
*Festus: a Poem. By Philip James Bailey. Fc. 8vo. London: William Pickering.
in the general conception and design of the remarkable poem before us, were to imply that there is any intelligible design whatever perceptible throughout it, which would be a mistake. As a whole, Festus is to the general reader as complete an enigma as Hamlet is to an unpoetical mind, or Faust to an unmetaphysical one. And the difference appears to be this: that whereas the English and the German poet sought each to convey to less imaginative or less philosophical temperaments something which was clear to his own superior intellect-each partially failing and partially succeeding in his object -the author of Festus has included the mystical in his original plan, and admitted from the first an esoteric meaning, which he is hopeless-or regardless of rendering intelligible to others. This appears to us to be the clue equally to his beauties and his defects, as far as the general design is concerned. Where mysticism-might we not call it mystification?-enhances the force of certain conceptions, and is the natural concomitant of certain lofty inspirations, there the poet has his triumphs: just as the judicious painter will wrap a cloud around the summit of a mountain, leaving it to the imagination to give it what altitude it pleases, and which is generally the major imago of the true. But where strong and foreground effects are to be produced-where human action and human passion have to be depicted, and the mind or heart smitten with a palpable stroke of nature, there the genius of Mr. Bailey is found wanting. We are put off with a hint, a glance, a whisper, an echo, a dream. Fanciful obscurity is substituted for energetic, earnest life. Panting to place one foot on the solid ground, we graze the shore, to be floated off again on heaven-reflecting but fleeting and unsubstantial waters.
Mr. Bailey has therefore failed in producing a work which can ever interest the public mind. No grand outlines mark it out for notice at a distance; no earnest and specific purpose explains the elaboration of the details, or the vastness of the scale. It is a pyramid of mental labour, great in itself, and suggestive of greatness in the builder, but uncommensurate with any discoverable exigency, and therefore, incapable of converting our wonder into interest and admiration.
Let us give Mr. Bailey the benefit of his own statement. In the course of the poem he puts into the mouth of his hero an account of its object, nature, and pretensions. He says:
"It has a plan but no plot."
And adds, as his reason:
"Life hath none."
But the intelligent reader will not be slow to see that the admission condemns him, whilst its grounds are anything but a justification. Life in the abstract, indeed, has "no plot;" but every individual life, in retrospect, and historically, has. A single actual biography is a drama, on the model of which all constructed ones are framed. And it is the consciousness of this dramatic truth of nature in the breasts of us all, that enables us to go along with the creations of the poet who is faithful to her, and allow fiction to usurp the interest, and engross the sympathies of reality.
Mr. Bailey's "plan" consists solely in the design of aiming at The Good, and evincing the power of virtue over evil, and truth over falsehood. Within these extreme limits he wanders without aim or restraint; beating up, as it were, against the wind, and keeping to no particular point of the compass, content if after each tack he be found to have gained somewhat in his course towards "the final consummation of all things."
The considerations offered above will sufficiently explain the history of the poem-its flattering reception by the most highly-gifted and competent judges, coupled with the almost complete indifference of the public. And it is additionally proper that we should exhibit this; for in making our extracts we cannot avoid presenting such beauties to the reader as without some explanation would render the present position of the poet and his work altogether unaccountable.
Even to say what the "poem" of Festus is, is difficult. It is dramatic in its form, consisting of scenes, though undivided into acts or other greater divisions. Its length is inordinate, extending to upwards of thirteen thousand lines. The scenes wander from heaven to earth-from earth on "the surface," to earth in its centre
thence to a Platonic sphere of purified existence thence to "hell!" One scene is designated as "space"-another, "anywhere"-another, "elsewhere!"— the final theatre of action being the "heaven of heavens!" The personages introduced are in keeping with these scenes; they consist of every class of being from the Father omnipotent, the Trinity, the archangels, angels, and other superior intelligences-man, and woman, in all their classes, grades, and varieties, to depraved and inferior orders, the infernal spirits, their rulers, and finally to the master spirit of evil! This, it will be allowed, is range enough in time, space, and degree!
Festus, the hero, is a pure abstraction. True, he is in every part borrowed, even to the very name, from the Faustus of the German poet. But in every part-including the name-only half borrowed. The characters are to each other in fact, (to borrow a technical phrase) as the names. unfortunately, the parts left behind in the appropriation are those which were, perhaps, the most essential to be retained. The link which holds the abstraction of Goëthe to human nature, and consequently to human hearts, is precisely that dropped by Mr. Bailey. He has grasped at the shadow, and lost the substance.
To illustrate this negative proposition is beyond our power. It could not be done otherwise than by presenting the poem at full length. But no one can rise from its perusal without admitting its truth. The body is wanting to the spirit. Festus is formless and featureless as a cloud, even in his grandeur and beauty. He is the projection of an unseen reality on amagic screen.
The Lucifer, too, who is a blended image of the Mephistopheles in "Faust" and the Tempter in Byron's "Cain," wants the characteristic fiendship of both one and the other of these evil creations of the poets. The Lucifer of Mr. Bailey appears, as in Job, and as in "Cain," before the throne of the Almighty, with a like request—
What wouldst thou, Lucifer?
LUCIFER. There is a youth Among the sons of men I fain would have Given up wholly to me.
He accordingly proceeds, in pursuance of the divine permission, to play his part, and work upon the mind of the mortal student. He finds Festus full of unearthly longings; sighing for the embraces of spirits, and the communion with things of other worlds, or the inanimate existences of this; full, too, of mingled cavils and credulities; of vague scepticism and objectless worship. Festus calls upon the elements in succession to respond to his aspirations; but in vain. Much beauty enters into these his invocations. The
following passage is contained in the address to the air; describing, with grace and power, the effects of that element :
Where men as garnered grain lie heaped together;
Freshening the cheeks, and mingling oft the locks
Of youth and beauty 'neath star-speaking eve;
Swelling the pride of canvas, or, in wrath,
Scattering the fleets of nations like dead leaves;
In all, the same o'ermastering sightless force,
Bowing the highest things of earth to heaven,
And lifting up the dust unto the stars; Fatelike, confounding reason, and like God's
Spirit, conferring life upon the world,-Midst all corruption incorruptible; Monarch of all the elements !"
Then it is that the mortal and immortal spirits mix with men and women. Characters come and go before this binary system of moral being, much in the manner of their presentation to Goethe's linked intelligences. It is
superfluous to criticise a plot so palpably appropriated from another; but the reader must bear in mind what we have already intimated, that whereas the German has brought his metaphysical hero in contact with, and to be an actor in, one intelligible and pathetic fable, Mr. Bailey throws before his a succession of disconnected and shadowy images, committing the fatal error of clothing the earthly or real personages he introduces, in that mystic garment which should have been worn as a contrast, and exclusively, by those intended to adumbrate metaphysical existences.
Clara loves Festus. She is the embodiment of woman. All the re-entrant angles of the feminine soul are described to a degree. Festus loves Clara; saliently, as a man. But he is hurried off to other contemplations. He must know the world. He meets a student, and discusses with him the internal constitution of humanity
"FESTUS. The heart is formed as
earth was-its first age
Formless and void, and fit but for itself; Then feelings half alive, just organized, Come next, then creeping sports and purposes,
Then animal desires, delights, and loves
For love is the first and granite-like effect
Of things-the longest and the highest:
The wild and winged desires, youth's saurian schemes,
Which creep and fly by turns; which kill, and eat,
And do disgorge each other: comes at
The mould of perfect matchless manhood-then
Woman divides the heart, and multiplies it.
The insipidity of innocence
Palls it is guilty, happy, and undone. A death is laid upon it, and it goesQuits its green Eden for the sandy world, Where it works out its nature, as it may, In sweat, smiles, blood, tears, cursings, and what not.
And giant sins possess it; and it worships
Works of the hand, head, heart-its own or others
A creature worship, which excludeth God's:
The less thrusts out the greater. Warning comes,
But the heart fears not-feels not; till at last
Down comes the flood from Heaven; and that heart,
Broken inwards, earthlike, to its centrai hell:
Or like the bright and burning eye we
Inly, when pressed hard backwards on the brain,
Ends and begins again-destroyed, is saved.
Every man is the first man to himself, And Eves are just as plentiful as apples; Nor do we fall, nor are we saved by
The Eden we live in is our own heart; And the first thing we do, of our free choice,
Is sure and necessary to be sin."
Lucifer urges these reflections to their infidel limits. But Festus reasons in his own way, and arrives at the conclusion that the sooner we are fit to be all mind, the better. "Blest," he says
"Is he whose heart is the home of the great dead,
And their great thoughts. Who can mistake great thoughts?
They seize upon the mind-arrest, and search,
And shake it-bow the tall soul as by wind
Rush over it like rivers over reeds, Which quaver in the current-turn us cold
And pale, and voiceless; leaving in the brain
A rocking and a ringing, glorious, But momentary, madness might it last, And close the soul with Heaven as with a seal!"
But the Tempter must shew his patient things beneath the surface of things. Accordingly he takes him to the centre, to "the fire-crypts of the world." Thence the pair make a visit to an earthly metropolis; and thence again are borne together to "another and a better world," where the Muse of Poetry is met and accosts them. The reply of Festus to the celestial personage is certainly eminently beautiful. We cannot bring ourselves to mutilate it :
Poets are all who lovewho feel great truths And tell them; and the truth of truths is love.
There was a time-oh, I remember well! When, like a sea-shell with its sea-born strain,
My soul aye rang with music of the lyre;
And my heart shed its lore as leaves their dew
A honey dew, and throve on what it shed.
All things I loved; but song I loved in chief.
Imagination is the air of mind;
Judgment its earth, and memory its main;
Passion its fire. I was at home in Heaven;
Swiftlike I lived above; once touching earth,
The meanest thing might master me: long wings
But baffled. Still and still I harped on song.
Oh! to create within the mind is bliss ; And, shaping forth the lofty thought, or lovely,
We seek not, need not Heaven: and when the thought
Cloudy and shapeless, first forms on the mind,
Slow darkening into some gigantic make, How the heart shakes with pride and fear, as heaven
Quakes under its own thunder; or as might,
Of old, the mortal mother of a god, When first she saw him lessening up the skies.
And I began the toil divine of verse, Which, like a burning bush, doth guest a god.
But this was only wing-flapping-not flight;
The pawing of the courser ere he win; Till, by degrees, from wrestling with my soul,
I gathered strength to keep the flect thoughts fast,
VOL. XXX.-No. 175.
And made them bless me. Yes, there was a time
When tomes of ancient song held eye and heart
Were the sole lore I recked of: the great bards
Of Greece, of Rome, and mine own master land,
And they who in the holy book are deathless,
Men who have vulgarized sublimity, And bought up truth for the nations; parted it,
As soldiers lotted once the garb of God; Men who have forged gods-utteredmade them pass:
In whose words, to be read with many a heaving
Of the heart, is a pow'r like wind in rain
Sons of the sons of God, who, in olden days,
Did leave their passionless Heaven for earth and woman,
Brought an immortal to a mortal breast; And, like a rainbow clasping the sweet earth,
And melting in the covenant of love, Left here a bright precipitate of soul, Which lives for ever through the lives
Flashing, by fits, like fire from an enemy's front
Whose thoughts, like bars of sunshine in shut rooms,
Mid gloom, all glory, win the world to light
Who make their very follies like their souls;
And like the young moon with a ragged edge,
Still, in their imperfection, beautiful— Whose weaknesses are lovely as their strengths,
Like the white nebulous matter between stars,
Which, if not light, at least is likest light,
Men whom we build our love round like an arch
Of triumph, as they pass us on their way
To glory and to immortality: Men whose great thoughts possess us like a passion
Through every limb and the whole heart; whose words Haunt us as eagles haunt the mountain air;
Thoughts which command all coming
times and minds,
As from a tower a warden,-fix themselves,
Deep in the heart as meteor stones in earth,
Dropped from some higher sphere; the words of gods,