Page images
PDF
EPUB

imagination from its strait-jacket of formalism. Keats would not have hesitated to rank Johnson among those who “blasphemed the bright Lyrist to his face.”

Keats himself may serve as a type of the new imaginative spontaneity and of the new fullness and freshness of sensuous perception. If Johnson is wise without being poetical, Keats is poetical without being wise, and here again we need to remember that distinctions of this kind are only approximately true. Keats has written lines that have high seriousness. He has written other lines which without being wise seem to lay claim to wisdom notably the lines in which, following Shaftesbury and other æsthetes, he identifies truth and beauty; an identification that was disproved for practical purposes at least as far back as the Trojan War. Helen was beautiful, but was neither good nor true. In general, however, Keats's poetry is not sophistical. It is simply delightfully recreative. There are signs that Keats himself would not have been content in the long run with a purely recreative rôle-- to be “the idle singer of an empty day.” Whether he would ever have achieved genuine ethical purpose is a question. In working out a wise view of life he did not, like Dante, have the support of a great and generally accepted tradition. It is not certain again that he would ever have developed the critical keenness that enabled a Sophocles to work out a wise view of life in a less traditional age than that of Dante. The evidence is rather that Keats would have succumbed, to his own poetical detriment, to some of the forms of sham wisdom current in his day, especially the new humanitarian evangel."

1 His attempt to rewrite Hyperion from a humanitarian point of view is a dismal failure.

In any case we may contrast Sophocles and Dante. with Keats as examples of poets who were not merely poetical but wise — wise in the relative and imperfect sense in which it is vouchsafed to mortals to achieve wisdom. Sophocles and Dante are not perhaps more poetical than Keats — it is not easy to be more poetical than Keats. As Tennyson says, “there is something magic and of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he wrote.” Yet Sophocles and Dante are not only superior to Keats, but in virtue of the presence of the ethical imagination in their work, superior not merely in degree but in kind. Not that even Sophocles and Dante maintain themselves uniformly on the level of the ethical imagination. There are passages in Dante which are less imaginative than theological. Passages of this kind are even more numerous in Milton, a poet who on the whole is highly serious. It is in general easy to be didactic, hard to achieve ethical insight.

If Keats is highly imaginative and poetic without on the whole rising to high seriousness or sinking to sophistry, Shelley, on the other hand, illustrates in his imaginative activity the confusion of values that was so fostered by romanticism. Here again I do not wish to be too absolute. Shelley has passages especially in his “Adonais” that are on a high level. Yet nothing is more certain than that the quality of his imagination is on the whole not ethical but Arcadian or pastoral. In the name of his

1 There is also a strong idyllic element in Paradise Lost as Rousseau (Emile, v) and Schiller (Essay on Naïve and Sentimental Poetry) were among the first to point out. Critics may be found even to-day who, like Tennyson, prefer the passages which show a richly pastoral imagination to the passages where the ethical imagination is required but where it does not seem to prevail sufficiently over theology.

Arcadia conceived as the "ideal” he refuses to face the facts of life. I have already spoken of the flimsiness of his “Prometheus Unbound" as a solution of the problem of evil. What is found in this play is the exact opposite of imaginative concentration on the human law. The imagination wanders irresponsibly in a region quite outside of normal human experience. We are hindered from enjoying the gorgeous iridescences of Shelley's cloudland by Shelley's own evident conviction that it is not a cloudland, an “intense inane,” but a true empyrean of the spirit. And our irritation at Shelley's own confusion is further increased by the long train of his indiscreet admirers. Thus Professor C. H. Herford writes in the “Cambridge History of English Literature" that what Shelley has done in the “Prometheus Unbound," is to give "magnificent expression to the faith of Plato and of Christ”! 1 Such a statement in such a place is a veritable danger signal, an indication of some grave spiritual bewilderment in the present age. To show the inanity of these attempts to make a wise man of Shelley it is enough to compare him not with Plato and Christ, but with the poet whom he set out at once to continue and contradict — with Æschylus. The “Prometheus Bound" has the informing ethical imagination that the "Prometheus Unbound" lacks, and so in its total structure belongs to an entirely different order of art. Shelley, indeed, has admirable details. The romanticism of nympholeptic longing may almost be said to culminate, at least in England, in the passage I have already cited (“My soul is an enchanted boat”). There is no reason why in recreative moods one should not imagine one's

* XII, 74.

a

1

soul an enchanted boat and float away in a musical rapture with the ideal dream companion towards Arcady. But to suppose that revery of this kind has anything to do with the faith of Plato and of Christ, is to fall from illusion into dangerous delusion.

We may doubt whether if Shelley had lived longer he would ever have risen above emotional sophistry and become more ethical in the quality of his imagination. Such a progress from emotional sophistry to ethical insight we actually find in Goethe; and this is the last and most complex case we have to consider. Johnson, I have said, is wise without being poetical and Keats poetical without being wise; Sophocles is both poetical and wise, whereas Shelley is poetical, but with a taint of sophistry or sham wisdom. No such clear-cut generalization can be ventured about Goethe. I have already quoted Goethe's own judgment on his “Werther” as weakness seeking to give itself the prestige of strength, and perhaps it would be possible to instance from his early writings even worse examples of a morbid emotionalism (e.g. “Stella"). How about “Faust” itself? Most Germans will simply dismiss such a question as profane. With Hermann Grimm they are ready to pronounce “Faust” the greatest work of the greatest poet of all times, and of all peoples. Yet it is not easy to overlook the sophistical element in both parts of “Faust.” I have already commented on those passages that would seem especially sophistical: the passage in which the devil is defined as the spirit that always says no strikes at the very root of any proper distinction between good and evil. The passage again in which Faust breaks down all precise discrimination in favor of mere emotional intoxication is an extreme example of the

[ocr errors]

Rousseauistic art of “making madness beautiful.” The very conclusion of the whole poem, with its setting up of work according to the natural law as a substitute for work according to the human law, is an egregious piece of sham wisdom. The result of work according to the human law, of ethical efficiency in short, is an increasing serenity; and it is not clear that Faust is much calmer at the end of the poem than he is at the beginning. According to Dr. Santayana he is ready to carry into heaven itself his romantic restlessness his desperate and feverish attempts to escape from ennui. Perhaps this is not the whole truth even in regard to “Faust”; and still less can we follow Dr. Santayana when he seems to discover in the whole work of Goethe only romantic restlessness. At the very time when Goethe was infecting others with the wild expansiveness of the new movement, he himself was beginning to strike out along an entirely different path. He writes in his Journal as early as 1778:“A more definite feeling of limitation and in consequence of true broadening." Goethe here glimpses the truth that lies at the base of both humanism and religion. He saw that the romantic disease was the imaginative and emotional straining towards the unlimited (Hang zum Unbegrenzten), and in opposition to this unrestraint he was never tired of preaching the need of working within boundaries. It may be objected that Goethe is in somewhat the same case here as Rousseau: that the side of his work which has imaginative and emotional driving power and has therefore moved the world is of an entirely different order. We may reply that Goethe is at times both poetical and wise. Furthermore in his maxims and conversations

1 Three Philosophical Poets, 188.

« PreviousContinue »