Studies in letters and life/Aubrey de Vere on Poetry


It is rare good fortune to find criticism in which the ideas are more excellent than the manner, and the spirit finer than the ideas; in which it is not the keener sympathy of the poet that speaks, or the sure sense of the trained artist for expression, or any single faculty, but the whole nature of the man; in which the judgment rendered does not proceed from any particular part of his mind—the scholarly or moral or æsthetic element by itself—but is felt to be grounded upon his total convictions. Aubrey de Vere's essays, therefore, are worth more than ordinary attention. He writes principally of Spenser and Wordsworth, and also of Milton, Shelley, and Keats. He considers mainly the doctrine of this poetry. He values it chiefly for its highest office as a teacher of moral wisdom, and a quickener of the spiritual part of our nature. He justly decides that its real subject is man's life; this is the centre of interest in all great thought, and the rest is but ornament and episode. He is a Christian idealist, and he refuses to regard poetry except in the light of those great ideas which belong to the spirit, and, being nobly and beautifully interpreted, are the substance of the poets who live by their wisdom as well as by charm. The ethical, the philosophical element in a large sense, is to him the engrossing thing; and criticism of this sort, so incited and so aimed, has a reality that does not fall far short of the worth of direct reflection upon the things of the mind, though it deals with them through the medium of literature instead of in life itself.

With Spenser, naturally, he has many affinities. The mediævalism, the sentiment of chivalry, the allegorizing spirit, and not less the Puritan elevation of the first of the Elizabethan poets, exercise a special fascination over a Catholic mind for whom the Ages of Faith, as he likes to call them, have in a peculiar degree the ideality that clothes the past. One no longer looks for original criticism of the father of English verse, who, more than Chaucer, may claim the paternity of great poets in later days; but to remind us of his excellence has become, in the lapse of time and the decline of poetic taste, almost as desirable an office as it once was to unfold its secret. Spenser is a poet who requires no common critic to speak justly of him. His position was a unique one, and by some infelicity of his stars he failed to rise to the greatness which seems to have been possible to him. Aubrey de Vere remarks that the great romantic poem of the Middle Ages, one that should sum them up on the human as Dante did upon the divine side, was never written; and, looking back, it appears to us that Spenser was the choice spirit that missed this destiny. His pure poetic quality, that sensibility to beauty and delight in it as in his element, was perfect to such a degree that Milton and Keats, who possessed it in something of the same measure, seem almost to have derived it from him, whose poems nourished it in them. The sweetness and noble ease of his expression reveal the presence of a marvelous literary faculty. His responsiveness to the historical and legendary elements in the past, his power of abstracting and idealizing them for poetic use, and his profound interest in human life, were great endowments, and he possessed in a high degree and a pure form that moral reason which is the attribute of genius. But by defects as striking as this gift he made his poem less than we fondly think it might have been. The Elizabethan prolixity, the obscure perception of the nature of form in literary work, the artificiality incident to the allegorizing temperament, account for much of what he lost; but, for all that, his poems are marvels of the creative intellect, and it is this intellect that Aubrey de Vere dwells on. Any one can point out Spenser's loveliness, but the great spirit that brooded over his verse is not so easily realized. His aim was "to strengthen man by his own mind," and it is this effort which the critic analyzes, and by so doing tries to show how well he deserved the epithet "grave" as well as "gentle Spenser."

His work, with its intricate allegory, its machinery of faëryland and chivalry, its ideal landscape, is regarded as remote from life; but just as the creations of art, which also have this unreality, are yet the expression, oftentimes, of the most real human feeling and the most substantial thought of the mind, so the figures of his embroidered poem compose a procession of true life. They are conceived and used in accordance with a comprehensive doctrine of the nature of humanity, which Spenser undoubtedly meant to enforce through the medium of the imagination; this doctrine, in fact, is the stuff they are made of.

It is not an easy thing to resolve into its moral elements the creations of a poet who blends many strains of truth. His method is not the consecutive process of logical reflection and explication, but the simultaneous embodiment of what, however arrived at, he presents as intuitive, needing only to be seen, to be acknowledged. In the analysis, the distinctive poetic quality is too apt to be dissipated, and the poet is forgotten in the philosopher. Certain broad aspects may be easily made out. Chivalry, with its crowd of faëry knights, certainly rests, in Spenser's great work, upon the old conception of the Christian life as one militant against the enemies of the soul in the world; and quite as clearly he also represents this life as being, within the breast, ideal peace. Peace within and war without: these are two root-ideas out of which the poem flowers on its great double branches. He teaches specifically how to attain self-control, and how to meet attacks from without; or rather how to seek those many forms of error which do mischief in the world, and to overcome them for the world's welfare. This is a bald statement, but it indicates well enough in what way Spenser employed the knightly ideal of succor on the one hand, and the Christian ideal of moral perfection on the other, in order to make a poem which should instruct as well as delight the world. He himself asserts that his aim was so lofty, and to a man such as he was a lower aim, a merely artistic purpose, would have been impossible. It is fortunate that he was not less endowed with the sense of loveliness than with a serious mind; for he thus illustrates not only the possible union of the two principal aims of poetry in all times, but also the truth that to a man whose perception of beauty is most perfect the beauty of holiness is the more impressive and authoritative in its commands. Aubrey de Vere devotes himself especially to the declaration and the proof that Spenser's poetic character was essentially that of a man deeply interested in human life, and he tries to prevent the poet's severely ideal, and sometimes fantastic, method from obscuring, as for many minds it does, the real nature of that allegory, so marvelous for invention, eloquence, and perpetual charm of style, which is seldom thought to be more than an intricate and lovely legend of the imagination. The critic is not blind to the great defects of the work,—and no poem of equal rank has more,—nor does he neglect the excellences that are obvious to the least thoughtful reader; but he succeeds in placing before us its intellectual and moral substance.

In doing this he reveals his own theory of poetry, and it is one that derives its philosophy from the great historic works of our literature, and is grounded on the practice of the English masters whose fame is secure. Its cardinal principle is that man is the only object of interest to man, all else being subordinate, and valuable only for its relations to this main theme; and more particularly this subject is the spiritual life, not the material manifestations of his energies in deeds apart from their meaning. The Italian masters of Spenser too often lost themselves in incident, in romance, in story for its own sake; they were destitute of that ethical spirit which insists on planting in the deeds their significance, and regarding this as an integral, and indeed the only immortal, part of the action. The laws of life, not the chances of individuals, were Spenser's subject, and in this he differs from Ariosto, and leaves his company. Spenser's genius was thus abstract and contemplative, and Platonic in the sense that he used images always with some reference to the general truths that transcend imagination, and are directly apprehended only intellectually. Allegory was therefore his necessary method. Spenser never succeeded in harmonizing the disparate elements of the material to which he fell heir by literary tradition; and besides the inconsistencies and incoherencies of the Renaissance culture, which never reached any unity in its own time, there were also special disturbances in his intellectual life because of the political and religious conflicts in England itself, from entanglement with which he was not free; and, moreover, he does not seem to have subdued the philosophical and poetic impulses of his own nature to any true accord. His poem, therefore, did not take on that perfection, that identity of purpose and execution, which would have placed it in the first rank, and he remains below the supreme poets of the world. The study of his work, as an illustration of the conditions and art of poetry, is most instructive. Its defects teach more than its excellence, but they do not disturb the theory which Aubrey de Vere sets forth; and he would be but a blind critic who should easily argue that Spenser succeeded when he obeyed the pure artistic impulse, and failed because of the interference of his graver genius with the poetical mind, his thought with his sensibility.

Aubrey de Vere's contemplative mind, his strong hold on the abstract rather than on the concrete, help him over the poetically dry places in Spenser, and serve him even better in the case of Wordsworth. This is choosing the better of two alternatives; for, if the landscape of Arcady is incomplete for him unless there is some "swan-flight of Platonic ideas" over it, such as he says is always in Spenser's sky, he has an appreciation for beauty as steadfastly as for the higher truths of life, and it is better to suffer with deficiencies in poetic art for the sake of the matter than to be content with art alone.

The great difference between Wordsworth and Spenser is, that Spenser was concerned with the moral virtues and man's acquirement of them, while Wordsworth was more narrowly limited to the influence of nature in forming the soul. Both looked to the same end, spiritual life; but Wordsworth had a different starting-point. His mind was more individual, and he assumed that his own history was typical; he was less rich in the stores of antiquity, and he had less sensibility to beauty in its ideal forms; but he knew the place that nature held in his own development, and he became specifically the poet of nature, not only as beauty visible to the eye, but also, and mainly, as an invisible influence in the lives of men. Much of his verse was a pastoral form of philosophy; meditation counted for more than beauty in it; but the scene was the English country, and the characters were rustics. There was, too, something of imaginative untruth in it, no doubt, similar to that inherent in all pastoral poetry. These common men, however, were not individuals, but stood for man, and Wordsworth, in delineating their histories, was writing a parable as well as a story. In other portions of his verse he used a more abstract method. As a moralist he was much given to maxims; and in all that concerns the social and political life of man, as well as his personal relations to virtue, Wordsworth was, as the critic affirms with much emphasis, filled with a certain ardor, which may be called passion if one likes. The lack of passion in the ordinary sense—and it cannot be made out that Wordsworth possessed this quality—only renders more plain the moral endowment of the poet, his absorbing interest in the manly virtues, and the supreme value which he placed on the spiritual life and its ideal relations. He considered these relations most directly as existing toward nature, and having their operation in the emotion which nature excites. He did not altogether escape from the pantheism incident to such a constant preoccupation of the mind with the works and course of nature, and consequently he is less distinctively Christian than Spenser; but Aubrey de Vere easily makes it out that Wordsworth's philosophy, much as it differed from Spenser's, is concerned with the same topics of moral and spiritual life, and is the substance of his poetry.

It is not surprising that a writer of Aubrey de Vere's temperament is annoyed by the charge that Wordsworth is destitute of "passion." He has much to say on this point. Wordsworth himself gave as the reason why he did not write love-poems the fear that they would be too passionate. Aubrey de Vere makes what defense he can by pointing out the half-dozen idealizations of woman in the shorter lyrics; but his real apology consists in the counter-assertion that Wordsworth is especially distinguished for "passion." He uses the word, however, with a difference, and means by it the poetic glow, the exaltation of feeling, the lyrical possession, which attends the moment of creation and passes into the verse. Of this sort of passion every form of poetry is as capable as is the amorous: the sæva indignatio of satire would come under this head as properly as the moral enthusiasm or the patriotic fervor shown in the Ode to Duty or the Sonnets. Wordsworth truly possessed this capability, and it gives to his poems their masculine strength. Whether equal success is to be credited to the critic's glosses upon the more commonplace subjects of Wordsworth's muse, is doubtful; it seems rather that he makes the mistake which Coleridge attributed to Wordsworth himself, of giving a value to the idea which it has in his own mind, but which it does not have in the bare words addressed to the reader. When the idea and the expression are not identical, every poet suffers from this cause; in his mind the idea, coming first, dignifies the words, but to the reader the words coming first, too often mutilate the idea. It is a good result of Aubrey de Vere's Wordsworthianism that it gives him courage to force into the front of his essay the Orphic Odes, which are among the least known of the poet's work, and contain some of the noblest of his lines.

To Milton he seems somewhat unjust. The earlier poems receive his warm appreciation, but of the later ones he is hardly so tolerant, and nowhere does he give him his due. This is the passage:—

"It is not, however, its deficient popularity so much as its subject and its form which proves that Milton's great work is not a national poem, high as it ranks among our national triumphs. Some will affirm that he illustrated in that work his age if not his country. His age, however, gave him an impulse rather than materials. Puritanism became transmuted, as it passed through his capacious and ardent mind, into a faith Hebraic in its austere spirit—a faith that sympathized indeed with the Iconoclastic zeal which distinguished the anti-Catholic and anti-patristic theology of the age, but held little consort with any of the complex definitions at that time insisted on as the symbols of Protestant orthodoxy. Had the Puritan spirit been as genuine a thing as the spirit of liberty which accompanied it; had it been such as their reverence for Milton makes many suppose it to have been, the mood would not so soon have yielded to the licentiousness that followed the Restoration.... To him the classic model supplied, not the adornment of his poem, but its structure and form. The soul that wielded that mould was, if not exactly the spirit of Christianity, at least a religious spirit—profound, zealous, and self-reverent—as analogous, perhaps, in its temper to the warlike religion of the Eastern Prophet as to the traditional faith of the Second Dispensation. Such was the mighty fabric which, aloof and in his native land an exile, Milton raised; not perfect, not homogeneous, not in any sense a national work, but the greatest of all those works which prove that a noble poem may be produced with little aid from local sympathies, and none from national traditions."

Some expressions in this passage, and many others scattered through these volumes, indicate where the current of sympathy was broken by default of which the critic understands Milton imperfectly. Ideal he was, but there is no poet who is more bone and flesh of the English nation in the substance of his genius, or in whom it developed a spirituality more noble; nor are his defects, in his conception of womanhood for example, such as cannot be easily paralleled from the other poets of highest genius in the line from Spenser. But, on the other hand, the critic is more than just to Keats, and towards Shelley he exhibits a respect, a penetration of the elements of his thoughtful temperament, and a comprehension of the remarkable and intimate changes of his incessant growth, that are almost unexampled in authors writing from Aubrey de Vere's standpoint. In writing of the others he has opportunity for still further illustration of the theory of poetry he holds, and he shows that these later poets have their best success the closer they keep to the subject of man, and the more they treat it with a pure, spiritual method; while on the other hand, they are defective in proportion as they fail in this.

It would be impossible for a critic with such standards as these to pass in review the work of the moderns, and not to notice the general decline in the moral weight and the spirituality of late poetic literature. Materialism, both as respects the objects of man's pursuit and the character of his speculation in philosophy, has been so important and growing a factor of the times, that, if there is any validity in this theory of poetry, it must follow that our poetic work has lost elevation, meaning, and utility. Religion itself, so far as the general thought of nineteenth-century civilization is concerned, has suffered a diminution of its authority, and consequently the spiritual life of man has filled a less prominent part in the eyes of these generations.

In connection with this, room should be made for some original remarks of the writer upon the Pagan element in our modern poetry. He is very well affected towards Platonism, and recognizes it historically as "the chief secondary cause of the diffusion of Christianity, doing for it more than the favor of Constantine could ever have done." He thus affirms for Greek religion and Greek philosophy "an element of greatness and truth." Our poets, in returning to its life and thought, seem to him to be making a return to the spiritual element which in the revolutionary ages has been obscured and too often lost. He speaks in this as a Catholic, but he is more Christian than Catholic, if it may be permitted to say so; and all religious writers admit and lament the inroad of skepticism and consequent materialism. The turn he gives to these facts is a striking one:—

"The arts of the Middle Ages soared above Paganism: the imaginative mind of modern times stands for the most part aloof from it; but it often stands aloof from Christianity also. Secularity is its prevailing character, while even in Paganism there is a spiritual element. We may not, without a risk of insincerity and presumption, indulge in either an exultation or a regret higher than corresponds with our low position. Can we with truth say that the portion of our modern literature which reverts to ancient mythology is less religious than the rest? Is it not, in the case of some authors, the only portion which has any relations, even through type or symbol, with religious ideas? Would Dante, would even Milton, have found more to sympathize with in the average of modern literature than in Homer or in Sophocles, in Wordsworth's Laodamia or Keats's Hymn to Pan? What proportion of our late poetry is Christian either in spirit or in subject—nay, in traditions and associations? Admirable as much of it is, it is not for its spiritual tendencies that it can be commended. Commonly it shares the material character of our age, and smells of the earth; at other times, recoiling from the sordid, it flies into the fantastic.... It is our life which is to be blamed; our poetry has been but the reflection of that life."

This is valuable, not only for its suggestion, but because it sums up and speaks out plainly the protest which is implicit in all this criticism. The æsthetic lover of beauty, the artist who is satisfied with feats of poetic craft, will not find anything to his liking in Aubrey de Vere's essays. They are presided over by a severe Platonism intellectually, by an exacting and all-including Christianity when the subject touches upon man's life, and they will prove somewhat difficult reading, perhaps, because the thought continually reverts to great ideas, to that doctrine of life which the author seeks for in the poets, and prizes as the substance of their works. But it is well, in poetic days like these, to be brought back to the more serious muses which inspired the great ideal works of our literature, and to converse with them under the guidance of such a spirit as fills these essays with a sense of the continual presence in great literature of the higher interests of man, his life on earth, and his spiritual relation to the universe. These essays contain the fruits of habitual familiarity with poetry, the convictions of a lifetime with regard to those things which are still important subjects of thought to thoughtful men; and there is, mingled with the style, the sweet persuasiveness of a refined and liberal nature, which is only too well aware that it must plead its cause, and pleads with strength and charm.