In the dozy hours, and other papers/Pastels: A Query


I should like to be told by one of the accomplished critics of the day what is—or rather what is not—a pastel? Dictionaries, with their wonted rigidity, define the word as "a colored crayon," ignoring its literary significance, and affording us no clue to its elusive and mutable characteristics. When Mr. Stewart Merrill christened his pretty little volume of translations "Pastels in Prose," he gave us to understand, with the assistance of Mr. Howells' prefatory remarks, that the name was an apt one for those brief bits of unrhymed, unrhythmical, yet highly poetic composition in the execution of which the French have shown such singular felicity and grace. Some of these delicate trifles have the concentrated completeness of a picture, and for them the name is surely not ill-chosen. Sombre, or joyous, or faintly ironical, they bring before our eyes with vivid distinctness every outline of the scene they portray. "Padre Pugnaccio" and "Henriquez," by Louis Bertrand, and that strange lovely "Captive," by Ephraïm Mikhaël, are as admirable in their limitations as in their finish. They show us one thing only, and show it with swift yet comprehensive lucidity. But if "Padre Pugnaccio" be a pastel, then, by that same token, "Solitude" is not. It is a moderately long and wholly allegorical story, and its merits are of a different order. As for Maurice de Guérin's "Centaur," that noble fragment has nothing in common with the fragile delicacy of the pretty little picture poems which surround it. It is a masterpiece of breadth and virility. Its sonorous sentences recall the keener life of the antique world, and it stands among its unsubstantial companions like a bust of Hermes in a group of Dresden figures, all charming, but all dwarfed to insignificance by the side of that strong young splendor. To call "The Centaur" a pastel is as absurd as to call "Endymion" an etching.

However, Mr. Merrill's translations are far from defining the limits of the term. On the contrary, we have M. Paul Bourget's group of stories, "Pastels of Men," which are not prose poems at all, nor brief pen pictures; but tales of a rather elaborate and unclean order, full of wan sentiment, and that cheerless vice which robs the soul without gratifying the body. Occasionally, as in the sketch of the poor old teacher living his meagre life from hour to hour, M. Bourget draws for us, with melancholy skill, a single scene from the painful drama of existence. This is perhaps a pastel, since the word must be employed; but why should an interminable and shifting tale about a rich young widow, who cannot make up her mind in less than a hundred pages which of her four lovers she will marry, be called by the same generic title? If it be equally applicable to every kind of story, short or long, simple or involved, descriptive or analytic, then it has no real meaning at all, and becomes a mere matter of capricious selection. "Wandering Willie's Tale," and "The Cricket on the Hearth" could with propriety have been termed pastels.

Nor does the matter stop here. In Mr. Gosse's recent volume of essays, he has included two admirable criticisms on Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry, and on Mr. Rudyard Kipling's prose. These papers, discriminating, sympathetic, and exhaustive, are called pastels. They do not differ in any way from other critical studies of equal length and merit. They abound in agreeable quotations, and show a clear and genial appreciation of their themes. They are simply reviews of an unusually good order, and if their title be correctly applied, then it is serviceable for any piece of literary criticism which deals with a single author. Macaulay's "Madame D'Arblay," Mr. Birrell's "Emerson," Mr. Saintsbury's "Peacock," might all have been named pastels.

By this time the subject begins to grow perplexing. Miss Wilkins wanders far from her true gods, and from the sources of her genuine inspiration, to write a handful of labored sketches—pen pictures perhaps, albeit a trifle stiff in execution—which she calls pastels. Mr, Brander Matthews gives us, as his contribution to the puzzle, a vivid description of Carmencita dancing in a New York studio, and calls it a pastel. If we stray from prose to verse, we are tripped up at every step. Nebulous little couplets, songs of saddening subtlety, weird conceits and high-pacing rhymes are thoughtfully labeled pastels, so as to give us a clue to their otherwise impenetrable obscurity. Sullen seas, and wan twilights, and dim garden paths, relieved with ghostly lilies, and white-armed women of dubious decorum, are the chief ingredients of these poetic novelties; but here is one, picked up by chance, which reads like a genial conundrum:—

"The light of our cigarettes
Went and came in the gloom;
It was dark in the little room.

Dark, and then in the dark,
Sudden, a flash, a glow,
And a hand and a ring I know.

And then, through the dark, a flush,
Ruddy and vague, the grace—
A rose—of her lyric face."

Now, if that be a pastel, and Mr. Gosse's reviews are pastels, and M. Bourget's stories are pastels, and Maurice de Guérin's "Centaur" is a pastel, and Mr. Brander Matthews' realistic sketches are pastels, and Ephraïm Mikhaël's allegories are pastels, I should like to be told, by some one who knows, just where the limits of the term is set.