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The astonishing thing is that a human being should be found to indite such doctrine. Just mark the words "absolute truth" that takes no care of fact." I will not ask anybody to think of a witness in a witness-box being told that he must tell the absolute truth, taking no care of fact, but I will ask him to think of an artist sitting down to paint a tree determined to produce the "absolute truth" of the tree without any regard to the facts of the tree; or the "absolute truth" of a snowstorm without any regard to the facts of snowstorms. Think of one proceeding to write a poem, say, of a mouse without any regard to the facts of mouse life! That had been an excellent exercise for Robert Burns! But yet this appears to be what Mr Swinburne demands of the poet and of the artist. "Art sees," he declares, "that Achilles and Ulysses are even now more actual by far than Wellington and Talleyrand," that they are actually more positive and real.” 1 The imaginary blockhead, Achilles, actually, according to our essayist, a more substantial personage than the man who, as the leader of British valour, saved Europe from the scourge of despotic conquest! And yet Mr Swinburne is accepted by some people as a critic! It is very confusing.
28. His doctrine of Poetry, in conflict with Commonsense. On the subject of poetical principles he writes: "The two primary and essential qualities of poetry are imagination and harmony. Where these qualities are wanting there can be no poetry properly so called," which, so far, is quite true;
1 'Essays and Studies,' p. 47.
2 Lord Chesterfield regarded Achilles as both a brute and a scoundrel."
* There is a review of Swinburne's "Midsummer Holiday" in 'The Athenæum,' 1884, Vol. ii. pp. 651-3, wherein it appears to me that the critic vies with the poet in his feats of vagueness and self-obfuscation.
but he continues: "When these qualities are perceptible in the highest degree, there, even though they should be unaccompanied and unsupported by any other great quality whatever, even though the ethical or critical faculty should be conspicuous by its absence, there and there only is the best and highest poetry," 1 from which it would appear that a composition bearing no evidence whatever that it had been written by a responsible person; no evidence even that it had been written by one possessed of secular Common-sense, might yet be the greatest of poems! This notion of his must be the key to the fact that there is frequently so little trace of common-sense visible in his own volumes. It also enables us to understand his boundless admiration of Shelley, who, possessed of imagination, language, and metrical facility, but abundantly lacking at times in commonsense, was too prone to relapse from his high calling of poet into that of versifying desperado.2 Mr Swinburne has failed to notice that commonsense must govern imagination as well as pure thought —that there can be incongruous and absurd imaginations as well as incongruous and absurd thoughts. The works of all rhapsodic writers, perhaps, yield manifold exemplifications of the truth of this doctrine. Of such it was written :
"Twice twenty asses when they all begin
Their hideous concert raise not such a din."
1 'Miscellanea,' pp. 69-70.
2 Lamb wrote to Bernard Barton: "I can no more understand Shelley than you can. His poetry is 'thin sown with profit or delight.' Hazlitt said well of it, 'Many are wiser or better for reading Shakespeare, but nobody was ever wiser or better for reading Shelley.' 'Works,' Vol. ii. p. 310. He greatly objected to Shelley's voice : Shelley I once saw. His voice was the most obnoxious squeak I was ever tormented with, ten thousand times worse than the Laureate's, whose voice is the worst part about him, except his Laureateship."-Ib., p. 280.
I think it will be found that the ethical and the critical faculties are amongst the most essential endowments of the poets as well as of other geniuses; and we may cordially exclaim with Burns :
'Hail Poesie! thou nymph reserved!
In chase o' thee, what crowds hae swerved
Common-sense demands all the beauty that can be achieved-consonant with nature. Ruskin insisted upon consummate and accumulated truth." He declares: "I have always said, he who is closest to nature is best. All rules are useless, all genius is useless, all labour is useless, if you do not give facts. The more facts you give the greater you are; and there is no fact so unimportant as to be prudently despised if it be profitable to represent it." 2 Nothing opposed to Reason can be right. Above and beyond all other purposes, the Human Head is as a House made for Reason to dwell in and to govern. I think it will be found, and that we shall be able to show, that the highest products of poetical genius are essentially strong in common-sense and moral outlook. In respect of prose fiction, Mr Swinburne allows that these qualities must be present; for in his essay on Charles Reade he rightly speaks of moral truth as being "that condition of reality, the want of which deprives fiction of all right to exist and all reason for existence." 3 Truer word
1 "On Pastoral Poetry."
2 Ruskin, 'Modern Painters,' Vol. iii. pp. 130-136. Turner ". was entirely ignorant of all the laws we have been developing-i.e., he only knew them instinctively." He had merely accustomed himself to see impartially, intensely, and fearlessly.-Ib., Vol. v. p. 53.
3 'Miscellanea,' p. 290. Also, in speaking of Ford's Love Sacrifice,' he says, "The conception is essentially foul because it is essentially false, and in the sight of art, nothing is so foul as falsehood."-Ib., p. 287.
could not be spoken. By everything outside Bedlam, why, then, deny the necessity of the intelligent and ethical faculties in poetry! Mr Swinburne and all his school should reflect that the very Sun in its glory is a manifestation not only of Divine Power but of Divine Intelligence; for I take it that, in its manifestations, Divine Intelligence is nothing else than the adaptation of magnificent means to magnificent ends, from which source springs our rapture over the glories of the universe.
29. What is implied in the Psychology of Commonsense?-The Psychology of Common-sense implies that you have not raised a stable structure of any kind until you can rest assured that it has been founded in Nature. Until your structure is founded firmly in Nature, it is no better than a drunkard's dream. This doctrine applies no less to Theology than to Philosophy, no less to Fixed Stars than to Bricks, no less to Poetry than to Prose a simple truth which has yet to be learned by a great many people.
30. Mr Swinburne's droll theory concerning Poets and Common-sense.-We must have understanding in all things and at all times-even when we are called upon to understand that something cannot be understood. We cannot praise God nobly without understanding; we cannot laugh in a healthy manner without full concurrence of heart and brain. What is emptier than the brainless laugh or drunken ribaldry? What is more false than the miscreant's snigger? What is more objectionable than the hard cackling laugh that has no mirth, no heart in it? Depend upon it that you are of no account as a poet unless you are possessed of a substantially sound understanding. But upon this subject Mr Swinburne is terribly fog-bound. It is a fact, he says, beyond disproof, from the days of Plato to our own,
"that the nature of poets is essentially and incurably incompetent to apprehend or to estimate aright the simplest practical matters of public life or polity."1 David Hume in his time caustically adverted to this ridiculous notion as an ancient prejudice industriously propagated by the dunces in all countries that a man of genius is unfit for business." 2 If Mr Swinburne's doctrine were true, the old German notion would inevitably hold good-namely, that the poet is, in the main, only a droll fellow, a kind of buffoon." If it were true, save us from all the poets!
30a. In absolute opposition to Swinburne, I hold that the sanest of Common-sense is necessary for the equipment of the great poet.-But fortunately it is not true; fortunately there is not a spark of truth in it except as to the poets of the feebler kind, of whom the fewer the better. David of Israel, Isaiah, Homer, Eschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Burns, Scott, Goethe-is it creditable that any one of them was "incurably incompetent to apprehend or to estimate aright the simplest practical matters of public life or polity"? Just think of the absurdity of the contention. Not Mr Swinburne himself in his calm senses would venture to maintain such a doctrine. Nor, on the other hand, would he be bold enough to maintain that either one or other of this group was not a great poet. Charles Lamb takes the right view of the case. So far, says he, "from the position holding true that great wit (or genius in our modern way of speaking) has a necessary alliance with insanity, the greatest wits, on the contrary, will ever be found to be the sanest writers. . The greatness of wit, by which the poetic talent is here chiefly to be understood, manifests itself in
1 'Miscellanea,' p. 303.
2'Essays, Moral, Political,' &c., Vol. i., note, p. 171.