Bohemia And Verlaine by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

It is one of the pleasures of my life that I never saw Tennyson. Hence I am still able to think of him as a poet, for even his photograph is not disillusionising, and he dressed for the part almost as well as Beerbohm Tree would have done. Why one’s idea of a poet is a fine frenzied being, I do not quite know. One seems to pick it up in the very nursery, and even the London gamin knows a poet when he doesn’t see one. Probably it rests upon the ancient tradition of oracles and sibyls, foaming at the mouth like champagne bottles. Inspiration meant originally demoniac possession, and to “modern thought” prophecy and poetry are both epileptic. “Genius is a degenerative psychosis of the epileptoid order.” A large experience of poets has convinced me as little of this as of the old view summed up in genus irritabile vatum. Poets seem to me the homeliest and most hardworking of mankind–‘t is a man in possession, not a daimon nor a disease. Of course they have their mad moods, but they don’t write in them. Writing demands serenity, steadiness, patience; and of all kinds of writing, poetry demands the steadiest pen. Complex metres and curious rhyme-schemes are not to be achieved without pain and patience. Prose is a path, but poetry is a tight-rope, and to walk on it demands the nicest dexterity. You may scribble off prose in the fieriest frenzy–who so fiery and frenzied as your journalist with the printer’s devil at his elbow?–but if you would aspire to Parnassus, you must go slow and steady. Fancy inditing a sonnet with the compositors waiting for “copy”! Pegasus were more truly figured as a drayhorse than a steed with wings; he jogs along trot-trot, and occasionally he stands at an obstinate pause. The splendid and passionate lyrics of Swinburne, with their structural involutions and complicacies, must have been “a dem’d grind.” The English language does not easily lend itself to so much “linked sweetness long drawn out.” Even the manuscript of Pope’s easy meandering verse is disfigured by ceaseless corrections. As he himself says:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.

Probably these very lines run in the original manuscript somewhat as follows:

Shelley is the ideal of a poet, a soul of white fire, fed by bread and raisins; yet Shelley’s last manuscripts are full of lacunae and erasures, some of which have had to be reproduced perforce in the printed editions.

Clothed with the … as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like … next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

It reads like a puzzle set by a Competition Editor. Here is another one, which begins as beautifully as Hedda Gabler could desire, and ends in blankness.

Within the surface of the fleeting river
The wrinkled image of the city lay,
Immovably unquiet, and for ever
It trembles, but it never fades away;
Go to the [ ______ ]
You, being changed, will find it then as now.

The fact is, of course, that inspiration is no guarantee of perfection. The limitations of inspiration vary with the limitations of the writer–a proposition that may be commended to the theologians. Genius can no more safeguard a man against his own ignorance than it can find a rhyme to “silver.” Inspiration could not save Keats from his Cockney rhymes nor Mrs. Browning from her rhymeless rhymes. I met a poet in a London suburb–it seemed odd to see one out of Fleet Street–but after a few bewildered instants I recognised him. There was on his brow the burden of a brooding sorrow. I sought delicately to probe the cause of his grief, and he confessed at last that in a much-praised poem just published he had made a monosyllable dissyllabic. He had never got over a youthful mispronunciation, and in an unguarded moment of inspiration it had slipped in.

This prosaic view of poetry is distasteful to many, who like to think that “Paradise Lost” came out in a jet. But all these grandiose conceptions belong to the obscurantist view of human life, which is popular with all who hate, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “to think clear and see straight.” People fancy that the dignity of human life demands that artists at least should be Ouidaesque, but the true dignity of the artist is to be sublimely simple rather than simply sublime. The finest art–be it literature, music, or painting–is, after all that inspiration can do has been done, a matter of painful pegging away; and the finest artists will be found quietly occupying themselves with their art without pose or fuss. That side of the business is largely monopolised by the little men. But even the big men sometimes fall victims to the popular conception, as when a Byron stagily takes the centre of the universe, and looms lurid like the spirit of the Brocken. We do not need biographical scandal-mongers to tell us what “the real Lord Byron” was like. He was like “Don Juan,” his own poem; shrewd, cynical, worldly, with flashes of exquisite feeling. The poem which is cut out of young ladies’ editions of Byron is the one that represents him most truly in his blend of sensualism and idealism, whereas the Brocken figure is but Byron as he appeared to himself in his stormiest and gloomiest moments, and even that phantasm artistically draped and limelit by a poet’s imagination. If people realised how much Byron wrote in his pitiable span of thirty-six years, how much hard labour went to make those cleverly-rhymed stanzas of “Childe Harold” or “Don Juan,” despite Swinburne’s accusation of botchery, they would see that he really had very little time to be wicked. They would understand that art–even the most decadent–is based on strenuous labour.

See also  Idler 037 [No. 37: Useful things easy of attainment] by Samuel Johnson

Young, gay,
Radiant, adorned outside; a hidden ground
Of thought and of austerity within.

Even in poetically declaring himself a decadent, the artist must take as many pains as fall to the prosiest bourgeois. This is the paradox of the position. Just as the pyrrhonist in maintaining that there is no truth asserts one, so the literary pessimist partly contradicts his contention of the futility of existence by his anxiety to express himself elegantly. Leopardi’s Italian and Schopenhauer’s German are far superior to those of the optimistic philosophers; and one of the most polished poems of our day is poor Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night.” So, too, the poet who declares himself an idler and a vagabond gives the lie to his pretensions by the labour he takes to clothe them in unimpeachable verse. The other morning I looked out of my study window after breakfast and discovered that the weather was heavenly. I had lingered over the meal, reading the beautiful political speeches, from which I gathered there was a Crisis at hand. I knew that Crisis. I had heard about it ever since I learnt to hear. Nevertheless, the newspapers were still devoting as much space to it as if it were brand-new, and beguiling me to take interest in it. I felt quite annoyed when I looked at the blue sky after breakfast and took deep breaths of ambrosial air, and thought how I had wasted my time. Thrilled by the sunshine, a cosmic rapture seized me, and I wondered that men should fritter away their time in politics and other serious occupations. The inspiration grew and grew, and I felt that my lips had been touched by the sacred fire, and that I had been called to preach a great moral lesson to mankind. So I took up my pen and wrote:

Bright the sun this lovely May-day;
Youth and love should have their heyday;
Every day should be a play-day.

Yet mankind will work and worry,
Over trifles fuss and flurry,
Getting hot as Indian curry.

Orators, in such a season,
How unreasonable is reason!
‘Gainst the sunshine’t is a treason.

What care I for Gladstone’s glories?
Hang the Radicals and Tories!
Give me hammocks, pipes and stories!

What’s the use of all this wrangling,
Grammar and emotions mangling?
Up the river let’s go angling.

Sweet are walks and swimming nice is,
Bring me lemon-squash and ices,
Bother that eternal Crisis!

I was called away to lunch in the middle of the attack of inspiration. Inspiration is of course very useful, but it has a way of suggesting words that won’t rhyme, and luring you off into all sorts of false tracks. Moreover, it affords no help whatever in polishing. After lunch I set to work with renewed zeal, licking the lines into their present perfection. At last they were finished, and as I lit the gas to enable me to see to make a fair copy, I realised that the beautiful blue day was gone.

See also  Disasters At Sea by James Runciman

Yes, the busy bee is a fraud by the side of the irresponsible artistic butterfly.

Sims Reeves tells an amusing anecdote of Mario the singer. Being brought one Thursday night by an eminent composer to sing at a big fashionable party, he found so great a line of carriages in front of his own that it was past midnight ere he arrived at the door. The thought that it was already Friday, and that he was about to sing in a new house, whose hostess he did not even know, had already dismayed the superstitious singer. But when he saw the number on the door was 13, no power on earth and no amount of argument could induce him to enter. “Ah, yes,” said the hostess, smiling pleasantly, when the composer explained, “a very ingenious excuse, for which Mario ought to be grateful to you. Of course he was intoxicated, and after a long argumentation you at last persuaded him to go home.”

Poe was doubtless occasionally drunk; but think of the years of sober labour, of stooping over desks, that must have gone to make those wonderful tales! Which is the true Poe, the hard drinker or the hard worker? That the artist must get drunk is, indeed, the belief of certain schools of young men even to-day; but is it not based on the old eternal false-logic, that because some artists have got drunk, therefore to get drunk is to be artistic? It was Murger who invented the Bohemian artist, poor and gay and of an easy morality. “Musette and Mimi!” says Sarcey. “The image of those ideal beings shone on every man who was twenty-one about 1848. ‘La Vie de Boheme’ was youth’s breviary–fifty years ago.” The great dramatic critic goes on to complain of the onslaught made upon him because he wrote against this “idleness of disposition, this heedlessness for the morrow, this inclination to look for the day’s tobacco and the quarter’s rent from loans and debts rather than from honest work, this witty contempt for current morality.” But this is scarcely the teaching of the ever delightful book, which catches the spirit of youth and gaiety and irresponsibility wedded to artistic ardour as no other book has done before or since, and for which one might put in the plea that Charles Lamb made for the dramatists of the Restoration. Its world is only a pleasing fiction, and the ordinary rules of morality do not carry over into it. It is the East of Suez of literature, “where there ain’t no Ten Commandments, and a man may raise a thirst.” The real Bohemia, as Jules Valdes showed in “Refractaires,” is a world of misery and discontent. Still more sordid is the English Bohemia expounded by Mr. Gissing in “New Grub Street.” Mr. Robert Buchanan indeed writes as if there had been a Murgerian Bohemia in England in his young days. “Et ego fui in Bohemia. There were inky fellows and bouncing girls, then; now there are only fine ladies, and respectable God-fearing men of letters.” Really! Surely there are plenty of bouncing girls and inky fellows still, just as there were respectable God-fearing men of letters and fine ladies even in the roaring forties. I doubt if Bohemia was ever so amusing as Mr. Buchanan imagines now, and I suspect the bouncing girls were “gey ill to live with.” What is true in the immortal Bohemian myth, what appeals to the universal human instinct, is the eternal contrast between the dreams and aspirations of youth and the sobrieties of success and middle age. As Jeffery Prowse sang:

I dwelt in a city enchanted,
And lonely, indeed, was my lot;
Two guineas a week, all I wanted,
Was certainly all that I got.
Well, somehow I found it was plenty,
Perhaps you may find it the same,
If–if you are just five-and-twenty,
With industry, hope, and an aim;
Though the latitude’s rather uncertain,
And the longitude also is vague,
The persons I pity who know not the City,
The beautiful City of Prague!

See also  Robert Louis Stevenson by Arthur Quiller-Couch

This Bohemia will never disappear, because every generation of youth reconstructs it afresh, to migrate from it into the world of respectability above or the world of shame below. “Qu’on est bien a vingt ans!” will always be a cry to fill the breast of portly respectability with tender regret. As Thackeray put it in that delightful poem, which is almost an improvement on Beranger:

With pensive eyes the little room I view,
Where, in my youth, I weathered it so long;
With a wild mistress, a staunch friend or two,
And a light heart still breaking into song;
Making a mock of life and all its cares,
Rich in the glory of my rising sun,
Lightly I vaulted up four pair of stairs
In the brave days when I was twenty-one.

What a pity that life is so stern and severe, that for the light morality of Bohemia somebody must pay, some life be wrecked! Nature fills us with youth and romance, but for her own purposes only. She is the great matrimonial agent, and heavy is the penalty she exacts from those who would escape her books, and extract from life more poetry than it holds. And so the beautiful roselight of Bohemia veils many a tragedy, many a treachery. Yet will the grisette be ever a gracious memory, and literature will always embalm the “Mimi Pinson” of De Musset.

She is dead now, la grisette, even in Paris, and “hic jacet” may be written over the bonnet she threw pardessus les moulins.

Ah, Clemence! When I saw thee last
Trip down the rue de Seine,
And turning, when thy form had pass’d,
I said, “We meet again,”
I dreamed not in that idle glance
Thy latest image came,
And only left to Memory’s trance
A shadow and a name.

That is how she affected even the Puritan Oliver Wendell Holmes. Yes, there is something in the Bohemian tradition that touches the sternest of us–not the roystering, dissolute, dishonourable, shady Bohemia that is always with us, bounded by the greenroom, the racecourse, the gambling club, and the Bankruptcy Court, but the Bohemia that is as unreal as Shakespeare’s “desert country near the sea,” the land of light purses and light loves, set against the spiritual blight that sometimes follows on pecuniary and connubial blessedness. For, after all, morality is larger than a single virtue, and Charles Surface is always more agreeable than Joseph or Tom Jones than Blifil, even when Joseph or Blifil is as proper as he pretends. And if Tom or Charles is a poet to boot, what can we not forgive him? The poet must have his experiences–be sure that nine tenths of them are purely of the imagination. For the other tenth–well, if Burns had been strictly temperate, “the world had wanted many an idle song,” and we should not have celebrated his centenary so enthusiastically. The poet expresses the joy and sorrow of the race whose silent emotions become vocal in him, and it is necessary that he should have a full and varied life, from which “nihil humanum” is alien. Mr. Barry Pain once wrote a subtle story, which only three persons understood, to show that a great poet might be an elegant egotist, of unruffled life and linen. If so, I should say that such a poet’s genius would largely consist of hereditary experience; he would, in language that is not so unscientific as it sounds, be a reincarnation of a soul that had “sinned and suffered.” But as a rule the poet does his own sinning and suffering, and catches for himself that haunting sense of the glory and futility of life which is the undertone of the modern poet’s song, and which finds such magical expression in Heine’s verses:

I have loved, oh, many a maiden kind,
And many a right good fellow,–
Where are they all? So pipes the wind,
So foams and wanders the billow.

See also  Horace Greeley As A Boy by Edward Eggleston

But the poet’s morals are maligned. The fierce light which beats upon the throne of song reveals the nooks and crannies of the singers’ lives, which for the rest they themselves expose rather than conceal. I should say that the average morality of the poet is much superior to the average morality of the man of the world who sins in well-bred silence. The poet gloats over his sins–is musically remorseful or swingingly defiant; he hints or exaggerates or invents. That is where the poet’s imagination comes in–to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. The poet’s imagination is often far more licentious than his life; the “poet’s licence” is rightly understood to be limited to his language. To have written erotic verses is almost a certificate of respectability: the energy that might have been expended in action has run to rhyme. Qui ose tout dire arrive a tout faire, say the French. Arrives at, perhaps, though even this is doubtful, but certainly does not start from that platform. Much less questionable were it to say: Qui ose tout faire arrive a ne rien dire.

The late M. Verlaine will be cited as a substantiation of the popular idea of the vagabond poet. The Verlaine legend has now been consecrated by his death; and for all time, I suppose, Verlaine will rank with Villon as an impossible person. He may have been all that is said, all that is hinted, even in Mr. George Moore’s famous description of him. “I once saw Verlaine. I shall not forget the bald prominent forehead (une tete glabre), the cavernous eyes, the macabre expression of burnt-out lust smouldering upon his face.”

But there is another side to him, and it is perhaps because I do not go about the world with Mr. Moore’s “macabresque” eye, which to-day happily sees things in a soberer colouring, that I saw this other side of Verlaine when, like Mr. George Moore, I hunted him up on his native heath. For one thing, I was not prepared to see anything very lurid and diabolique: life is really not so picturesque as all that. I knew besides that he had been a schoolmaster in England; and can you imagine anything more tedious and toilsome than to be the “French master,” the poor, despised, “frog-eating Mounseer Jacques” of boys’ stories, the butt of all their facetious brutality? If ever anything was calculated to make a man diabolique! I trust biographers will not forget to place all this depressing drudgery to our “vagabond’s” credit. Think of it! The first poet of France correcting French exercises! The poet of the passions conjugating the verb aimer in its hideous grammatical reality!

Fumons philosophiquement,
Promenons-nous
Paisiblement:
Rien faire est doux.

So might Verlaine write, though contradicting himself by doing something in so doing; but in the absurd actual he had to earn his bread and butter, and man cannot live by poetry alone, unless one sings the joys and sorrows of the middle classes. It was rather late at night before, having vainly hunted for him in his favourite restaurants, I found the narrow, poverty-stricken rue in which Verlaine was living a year or so ago. Passing through a dark courtyard, I had to mount interminable stone stairs, lighting foul French matches as I went, to relieve the blackness. At last I arrived outside his door, very near the sky. I knocked. A voice called out, “I’ve gone to bed.” I explained my lateness and said I would call to-morrow.

“No, no! Attendez!” I heard him jump out of bed, stumble and grope about, and then strike a match; and in another instant the door opened, and in the interstice appeared a homely nightcapped bourgeois pulling on his trousers. There flashed on me incongruously the thought of our English laureate’s stately home by the sea, in which, jealously guarded by hedges and flunkeys, the poet chiselled his calm stanzas; and all the vagabond in me leapt out to meet the unpretentious child of Paris. He greeted me with simple cordiality; and, ugly and coarse though his face was, it was lit up throughout by a pleasant smile. His notorious leg was bandaged, but not repulsively. No, “homely” is the only impression I shall ever have of Verlaine, the man. Even in that much maligned “macabresque” head of his, there was more of the bonhomme than of the poet or the satyr. The little garret was his all in all; a bed took up half the space. On the table stood the remains of supper. A few shelves of books, a sketch or two, and a bird-cage with a canary were the only attempts at ornament.

See also  No. 079 [from The Spectator] by Richard Steele

Such was Verlaine at the climax of his fame, when he had won a sure immortality; simple and childlike, and with a child’s unshamed acceptance of any money one might leave behind on the mantelpiece. He seems to have made very little by his verses. He spoke English quite well, having probably acquired it when teaching French; and he was perhaps more proud of it than of his poems. Mr. Moore says he wished to translate Tennyson. He read aloud a poem he had just written in celebration of his own fiftieth birthday. There was an allusion to a “crystal goblet.” “Ce verre-la!” he interpolated, with a humorous smile, pointing to a cheap glass with the dregs of absinthe that stood on the table. There was also an allusion to a “blue-bird,” a sort of symbol of the magic of spring, I fancy, that flutters through many of his poems. (The “plumage bleute de l’orgueil” figures in one of his very last verses.) When he arrived at this “blue-bird” he pointed to the cage with the same droll twinkle: “Cet oiseau-ci.” When I left him he stood at the head of the gloomy stone stairs to light me down, and the image of him in his red cotton nightcap is still vivid. And now he is only an immortal name. Ah, well! after the English school-rooms, the French prisons, the Parisian garrets and hospitals, the tomb is not so bad. Rien faire est doux.

In giving him place with the immortals I feel no hesitation. An English clergyman found immortality by writing one poem,–“The Burial of Sir John Moore,”–and, however posterity may appraise Verlaine’s work as a whole, he has left three or four lyrics which can die only if the French language dies, or if mankind in its latter end undergoes a paralysis of the poetic sense such as Darwin suffered from in his old age. Much of his verse–especially his later verse–is to me, at least, as obscure as Mallarme. But

Il pleut dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut dans la rue

can never be surpassed for the fidelity with which it renders the endless drip, drip of melancholia, unless it is by that other magical lyric:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

He is the poet of rhythm, of the nuance, of personal emotion. French poetry has always leant to the frigid, the academic, the rhetorical–in a word, to the prosaic. The spirit of Boileau has ruled it from his cold marble urn. It has always lacked “soul,” the haunting, elusive magic of wistful words set to the music of their own rhythm, the “finer light in light,” that are of the essence of poetry. This subtle and delicate echo of far-off celestial music, together with some of the most spiritual poems that Catholicism has ever inspired, have been added to French literature by the gross-souled, gross-bodied vagrant of the prisons and the hospitals! Which is a mystery to the Philistine. But did not our own artistic prisoner once sing:

Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God?

Was ever more devout Catholic than Benvenuto Cellini, who murdered his enemies and counted his beads equal gusto?

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *