Essays On Some Of The Forms Of Literature by George MacDonald

Story type: Essay

[Footnote: “Essays on some of the Forms of Literature.” By T.T. Lynch, Author of “Theophilus Trinal.” Longmans.]

Schoppe, the satiric chorus of Jean Paul’s romance of Titan, makes his appearance at a certain masked ball, carrying in front of him a glass case, in which the ball is remasked, repeated, and again reflected in a mirror behind, by a set of puppets, ludicrously aping the apery of the courtiers, whose whole life and outward manifestation was but a body-mask mechanically moved with the semblance of real life and action. The court simulates reality. The masks are a multiform mockery at their own unreality, and as such are regarded by Schoppe, who takes them off with the utmost ridicule in his masked puppet-show, which, with its reflection in the mirror, is again indefinitely multiplied in the many-sided reflector of Schoppe’s, or of Richter’s, or of the reader’s own imagination. The successive retreating and beholding in this scene is suggested to the reviewer by the fact that the last of these essays by Mr. Lynch is devoted in part to reviews. So that the reviews review books,–Mr. Lynch reviews the reviews, and the present Reviewer finds himself (somewhat presumptuously, it may be) attempting to review Mr. Lynch. In this, however, his office must be very different from that of Schoppe (for there is a deeper and more real correspondence between the position of the showman and the reviewer than that outward resemblance which first caused the one to suggest the other). The latter’s office, in the present instance, was, by mockery, to destroy the false, the very involution of the satire adding to the strength of the ridicule. His glass case was simply a review uttered by shapes and wires instead of words and handwriting. And the work of the true critic must sometimes be to condemn, and, as far as his strength can reach, utterly to destroy the false,–scorching and withering its seeming beauty, till it is reduced to its essence and original groundwork of dust and ashes. It is only, however, when it wears the form of beauty which is the garment of truth, and so, like the Erl-maidens, has power to bewitch, that it is worth the notice and attack of the critic. Many forms of error, perhaps most, are better left alone to die of their own weakness, for the galvanic battery of criticism only helps to perpetuate their ghastly life. The highest work of the critic, however, must surely be to direct attention to the true, in whatever form it may have found utterance. But on this let us hear Mr. Lynch himself in the last of these four lectures which were delivered by him at the Royal Institution, Manchester, and are now before us in the form of a book:–

“The kritikos, the discerner, if he is ever saying to us, This is not gold; and never, This is; is either very humbly useful, or very perverse, or very unfortunate. This is not gold, he says. Thank you, we reply, we perceived as much. And this is not, he adds. True, we answer, but we see gold grains glittering out of its rude, dark mass. Well, at least, this is not, he proceeds. Perverse man! we retort, are you seeking what is not gold? We are inquiring for what is, and unfortunate indeed are we if, born into a world of Nature, and of Spirit once so rich, we are born but to find that it has spent or has lost all its wealth. Unhappy man would he be, who, walking his garden, should scent only the earthy savour of leaves dead or dying, never perceiving, and that afar off, the heavenly odour of roses fresh to-day from the Maker’s hands. The discerning by spiritual aroma may lead to discernment by the eye, and to that careful scrutiny, and thence greater knowledge, of which the eye is instrument and minister.”

And again:–

“The critic criticized, if dealt with in the worst fashion of his own class, must be pronounced a mere monster, ‘seeking whom he may devour;’ and, therefore, to be hunted and slain as speedily as possible, and stuffed for the museum, where he may be regarded with due horror, but in safety. But if dealt with after the best fashion of his class, a very honourable and beneficent office is assigned him, and he is warned only–though zealously–against its perversions. A judicial chair in the kingdom of human thought, filled by a man of true integrity, comprehensiveness, and delicacy of spirit, is a seat of terror and praise, whose powers are at once most fostering to whatever is good, most repressive of whatever is evil…. The critic, in his office of censurer, has need so much to controvert, expose, and punish, because of the abundance of literary faults; and as there is a right and a wrong side in warfare, so there will be in criticism. And as when soldiers are numerous, there will be not a few who are only tolerable, if even that, so of critics. But then the critic is more than the censurer; and in his higher and happier aspect appears before us and serves us, as the discoverer, the vindicator, and the eulogist of excellence.”

But resisting the temptation to quote further from Mr. Lynch’s book on this matter of Criticism, which seemed the natural point of contact by which the Reviewer could lay hold on the book, he would pass on with the remark that his duty in the present instance is of the nobler and better sort–nobler and better, that is, with regard to the object, for duty in the man remains ever the same–namely, the exposition of excellence, and not of its opposite. Mr. Lynch is a man of true insight and large heart, who has already done good in the world, and will do more; although, possibly, he belongs rather to the last class of writers described by himself, in the extract I am about to give from this same essay, than to any of the preceding:–

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“Some of the best books are written avowedly, or with evident consciousness of the fact, for the select public that is constituted by minds of the deeper class, or minds the more advanced of their time. Such books may have but a restricted circulation and limited esteem in their own day, and may afterwards extend both their fame and the circle of their readers. Others of the best books, written with a pathos and a power that may be universally felt, appeal at once to the common humanity of the world, and get a response marvellously strong and immediate. An ordinary human eye and heart, whose glances are true, whose pulses healthy, will fit us to say of much that we read–This is good, that is poor. But only the educated eye and the experienced heart will fit us to judge of what relates to matters veiled from ordinary observation, and belonging to the profounder region of human thought and emotion. Powers, however, that the few only possess, may be required to paint what everybody can see, so that everybody shall say, How beautiful! how like! And powers adequate to do this in the finest manner will be often adequate to do much more–may produce, indeed, books or pictures, whose singular merit only the few shall perceive, and the many for awhile deny, and books or pictures which, while they give an immediate and pure pleasure to the common eye, shall give a far fuller and finer pleasure to that eye that is the organ of a deeper and more cultivated soul. There are, too, men of peculiar powers, rare and fine, who can never hope to please the large public, at least of their own age, but whose writings are a heart’s ease and heart’s joy to the select few, and serve such as a cup of heavenly comfort for the earth’s journey, and a lamp of heavenly light for the shadows of the way.”

One other extract from the general remarks on Books in this essay, and we will turn to another:–

“In all our estimation of the various qualities of books, if it be true that our reading assists our life, it is true also that our life assists our reading. If we let our spirit talk to us in undistracted moments–if we commune with friendly, serious Nature, face to face, often–if we pursue honourable aims in a steady progress–if we learn how a man’s best work falls below his thought, yet how still his failure prompts a tenderer love of his thought–if we live in sincere, frank relations with some few friends, joying in their joy, hearing the tale and sharing the pain of their grief, and in frequent interchange of honest, household sensibility–if we look about us on character, marking distinctly what we can see, and feeling the prompting of a hundred questions concerning what is out of our ken:–if we live thus, we shall be good readers and critics of books, and improving ones.”

The second and third of these essays are on Biography and Fiction respectively and principally; treating, however, of collateral subjects as well. Deep is the relation between the life shadowed forth in a biography, and the life in a man’s brain which he shadows forth in a fiction–when that fiction is of the highest order, and written in love, is beheld even by the writer himself with reverence. Delightful, surely, it must be; yes, awful too, to read to-day the embodiment of a man’s noblest thought, to follow the hero of his creation through his temptations, contests, and victories, in a world which likewise is–

“All made out of the carver’s brain;”

and to-morrow to read the biography of this same writer. What of his own ideal has he realized? Where can the life-fountain be detected within him which found issue to the world’s light and air, in this ideal self? Shall God’s fiction, which is man’s reality, fall short of man’s fiction? Shall a man be less than what he can conceive and utter? Surely it will not, cannot end thus. If a man live at all in harmony with the great laws of being–if he will permit the working out of God’s idea in him, he must one day arrive at something greater than what now he can project and behold. Yet, in biography, we do not so often find traces of those struggles depicted in the loftier fiction. One reason may be that the contest is often entirely within, and so a man may have won his spiritual freedom without any outward token directly significant of the victory; except, if he be an artist, such expression as it finds in fiction, whether the fiction be in marble, or in sweet harmonies, or in ink. Nor can we determine the true significance of any living act; for being ourselves within the compass of the life-mystery, we cannot hold it at arm’s length from us and look at its lines of configuration. Nor of a life can we in any measure determine the success by what we behold of it. It is to us at best but a truncated spire, whose want of completion may be the greater because of the breadth of its base, and its slow taper, indicating the lofty height to which it is intended to aspire. The idea of our own life is more than we can embrace. It is not ours, but God’s, and fades away into the infinite. Our comprehension is finite; we ourselves infinite. We can only trust in God and do the truth; then, and then only, is our life safe, and sure both of continuance and development.

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But the reviewer perhaps too often merely steals his author’s text and writes upon it; or, like a man who lies in bed thinking about a dream till its folds enwrap him and he sinks into the midst of its visions, he forgets his position of beholding, and passes from observation into spontaneous utterance. What says our author about “biography, autobiography, and history?” This lecture has pleased the reviewer most of the four. Reading it in a lonely place, under a tree, with wide fields and slopes around, it produced on his mind the two effects which perhaps Mr. Lynch would most wish it should produce–namely, first, a longing to lead a more true and noble life; and, secondly, a desire to read more biography. Nor can he but hope that it must produce the same effect on every earnest reader, on every one whose own biography would not be altogether a blank in what regards the individual will and spiritual aim.

“In meditative hours, when we blend despair of ourself with complaint of the world, the biography of a man successful in this great business of living is as the visit of an angel sent to strengthen us. Give the soldier his sword, the farmer his plough, the carpenter his hammer and nails, the manufacturer his machines, the merchant his stores, and the scholar his books; these are but implements; the man is more than his work or tools. How far has he fulfilled the law of his being, and attained its desire? Is his life a whole; the days as threads and as touches; the life, the well-woven garment, the well-painted picture? Which of two sacrifices has he offered–the one so acceptable to the powers of dark worlds, the other so acceptable to powers of bright ones–that of soul to body, or that of body to soul? Has he slain what was holiest in him to obtain gifts from Fashion or Mammon? Or has he, in days so arduous, so assiduous, that they are like a noble army of martyrs, made burnt-offering of what was secondary, throwing into the flames the salt of true moral energy and the incense of cordial affections? We want the work to show us by its parts, its mass, its form, the qualities of the man, and to see that the man is perfected through his work as well as the work finished by his effort.”

Perhaps the highest moral height which a man can reach, and at the same time the most difficult of attainment, is the willingness to be nothing relatively, so that he attain that positive excellence which the original conditions of his being render not merely possible, but imperative. It is nothing to a man to be greater or less than another–to be esteemed or otherwise by the public or private world in which he moves. Does he, or does he not, behold, and love, and live, the unchangeable, the essential, the divine? This he can only do according as God hath made him. He can behold and understand God in the least degree, as well as in the greatest, only by the godlike within him; and he that loves thus the good and great, has no room, no thought, no necessity for comparison and difference. The truth satisfies him. He lives in its absoluteness. God makes the glow-worm as well as the star; the light in both is divine. If mine be an earth-star to gladden the wayside, I must cultivate humbly and rejoicingly its green earth-glow, and not seek to blanch it to the whiteness of the stars that lie in the fields of blue. For to deny God in my own being is to cease to behold him in any. God and man can meet only by the man’s becoming that which God meant him to be. Then he enters into the house of life, which is greater than the house of fame. It is better to be a child in a green field than a knight of many orders in a state ceremonial.

“One biography may help conjecture or satisfy reason concerning the story of a thousand unrecorded lives. And how few even of the deserving among the multitude can deserve, as ‘dear sons of memory,’ to be shrined in the public heart. Few of us die unwept, but most of us unwritten. We shall find a grave–less certainly a tombstone–and with much less likelihood a biographer. Those ‘bright particular’ stars that at evening look towards us from afar, yet still are individual in the distance, are at clearest times but about a thousand; but the milky lustre that runs through mid heaven is composed of a million million lights, which are not the less separate because seen undistinguishably. Absorbed, not lost, in the multitude of the unrecorded, our private dear ones make part in this mild, blissful shining of the ‘general assembly,’ the great congregation of the skies. Thus the past is aglow with the unwritten, the nameless. The leaders, sons of fame, conspicuous in lustre, eminent in place; these are the few, whose great individuality burns with distinct, starry light through the dark of ages. Such stars, without the starry way, would not teach us the vastness of heaven; and the ‘way,’ without these, were not sufficient to gladden and glorify the night with pomp of Hierarchical Ascents of Domination.”

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There are many passages in this essay with which the reviewer would be glad to enrich his notice of the book, but limitation of space, and perhaps justice to the essay itself, which ought to be read in its own completeness, forbid. Mr. Lynch looks to the heart of the matter, and makes one put the question–“Would not a biography written by Mr. Lynch himself be a valuable addition to this kind of literature?” His would not be an interesting account of outward events and relationships and progress, nor even a succession of revelations of inward conditions, but we should expect to find ourselves elevated by him to a point of view from which the life of the man would assume an artistic individuality, as it were an isolation of existence; for the supposed author could not choose for his regard any biography for which this would be impossible; or in which the reticulated nerves of purpose did not combine the whole, with more or less of success, into a true and remarkable unity. One passage more from this essay,–

“Biography, then, makes life known to us as more wealthy in character, and much more remarkable in its every-day stories, than we had deemed it. Another good it does us is this. It introduces us to some of our most agreeable and stimulative friendships. People may be more beneficially intimate with one they never saw than even with a neighbour or brother. Many a solitary, puzzled, incommunicative person, has found society provided, his riddle read, and his heart’s secret, that longed and strove for utterance, outspoken for him in a biography. And both a love purer than any yet entertained may be originated, and a pure but ungratified love already existing, find an object, by the visit of a biography. In actual life you see your friend to-day, and will see him again to-morrow or next year; but in the dear book, you have your friend and all his experiences at once and ever. He is with you wholly, and may be with you at any time. He lives for you, and has already died for you, to give finish to the meaning, fulness, and sanctity, to the comfort of his days. He is mysteriously above as well as before you, by this fact, that he has died. Thus your intimate is your superior, your solace, but your support, too, and an example of the victory to which he calls you. His end, or her end, is our own in view, and the flagging spirit revives. We see the goal, and gird our loins anew for the race. Or, speaking of things minor, there is fresh prospect of the game, there is companionship in the hunt, and spirit for the winning. Such biography, too, is a mirror in which we see ourselves; and we see that we may trim or adorn, or that the plain signs of our deficient health or ill-ruled temper may set us to look for, and to use the means of improvement. But such a mirror is as a water one; in which first you may see your face, and which then becomes for you a bath to wash away the stains you see, and to offer its pure, cool stream as a restorative and cosmetic for your wrinkles and pallors. And what a pleasure there will be sometimes as we peruse a biography, in finding another who is so like ourself –saying the same things, feeling the same dreads, and shames, and flutterings; hampered and harassed much as poor self is. Then, the escapes of such a friend give us hope of deliverance for ourself; and his better, or if not better, yet rewarded, patience, freshens our eye and sinews, and puts a staff into our hand. And certain seals of impossibility that we had put on this stone, and on that, beneath which our hopes lay buried, are by this biography, as by a visiting angel, effectually broken, and our hopes arise again. Our view of life becomes more complete because we see the whole of his, or of hers. We view life, too, in a more composed, tender way. Wavering faith, in its chosen determining principles, is confirmed. In quiet comparison of ourselves with one of our own class, or one who has made the mark for which we are striving, we are shamed to have done no better, and stirred to attempt former things again, or fresh ones in a stronger and more patient spirit.”

It is, indeed, well with him who has found a friend whose spirit touches his own and illuminates it.

“I missed him when the sun began to bend;
I found him not when I had lost his rim;
With many tears I went in search of him,
Climbing high mountains which did still ascend,
And gave me echoes when I called my friend;
Through cities vast and charnel-houses grim,
And high cathedrals where the light was dim;
Through books, and arts, and works without an end–
But found him not, the friend whom I had lost.
And yet I found him, as I found the lark,
A sound in fields I heard but could not mark;
I found him nearest when I missed him most,
I found him in my heart, a life in frost,
A light I knew not till my soul was dark.”

Next to possessing a true, wise, and victorious friend seated by your fireside, it is blessed to have the spirit of such a friend embodied–for spirit can assume any embodiment–on your bookshelves. But in the latter case the friendship is all on one side. For full friendship your friend must love you, and know that you love him. Surely these biographies are not merely spiritual links connecting us in the truest manner with past times and vanished minds, and thus producing strong half friendships. Are they not likewise links connecting us with a future, wherein these souls shall dawn upon ours, rising again from the death of the past into the life of our knowledge and love? Are not these biographies letters of introduction, forwarded, but not yet followed by him whom they introduce, for whose step we listen, and whose voice we long to hear; and whom we shall yet meet somewhere in the Infinite? Shall I not one day, “somewhere, somehow,” clasp the large hand of Novalis, and, gazing on his face, compare his features with those of Saint John?

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The essay on light literature must be left to the spontaneous appreciation of those who are already acquainted with this book, or who may be induced, by the representations here made, to become acquainted with it. Before proceeding to notice the first essay in the little volume, namely, that on Poetry, its subject suggests the fact of the publication of a second edition of the Memorials of Theophilus Trinal, by the same author, a portion of which consists of interspersed poems. These are of true poetic worth; and although in some cases wanting in rhythmic melody, yet in most of these cases they possess a wild and peculiar rhythm of their own. The reviewer knows of some whose hearts this book has made glad, and doubtless there are many such.

The essay on Poetry is itself poetic throughout in its expression. And how else shall Poetry be described than by Poetry? What form shall embrace and define the highest? Must it not be self-descriptive as self-existent? For what man is to this planet, what the eye is to man himself, Poetry is to Literature. Yet one can hardly help wishing that the poetic forms in this Essay were fewer and less minute, and the whole a little more scientific; though it is a question how far we have a right to ask for this. As you open it, however, the pages seem absolutely to sparkle, as if strewn with diamond sparks. It is no dull, metallic, surface lustre, but a shining from within, as well as from the superficies. Still one cannot deny that fancy is too prominent in Mr. Lynch’s writings. It is true that his Fancy is the fairy attendant on his Imagination, which latter uses the former for her own higher ends; and that there is little or no mere fancy to be found in his books; for if you look below the surface-form you find a truth. But it were to be desired that the Truth clothed herself always in the living forms of Imagination, and thus walked forth amongst her worshippers, looking on them from living eyes, rather than that she should show herself through the windows of fancy. Sometimes there may be an offence against taste, as in page 20; sometimes an image may be expanded too much, and sometimes the very exuberance of imaginative fancy (if the combination be correct) may lead to an association of images that suggests incongruity. Still the essay is abundantly beautiful and true. The poetical quotations are not isolated, or exposed to view as specimens, but are worked into the web of the prose like the flowers in the damask, and do their part in the evolution of the continuous thought.

“If poetry, as light from the heart of God, is for our heart, that we may brighten and distinguish individual things; if it is to transfigure for us the round, dusk world as by an inner radiance; if it is to present human life and history as Rembrandt pictures, in which darkness serves and glorifies light; if, like light, formless in its essence, all things shapen towards the perfection of their forms under its influence; if, entering as through crevices in single beams, it makes dimmest places cheerful and sacred with its golden touch: then must the heart of the Poet in which this true light shineth be as a hospice on the mountain pathways of the world, and his verse must be the lamp seen from far that burns to tell us where bread and shelter, drink, fire, and companionship, may be found; and he himself should have the mountaineer’s hardiness and resolution. From the heart as source, to the heart in influence, Poetry comes. The inward, the upward, and the onward, whether we speak of an individual or a nation, may not be separated in our consideration. Deep and sacred imaginative meditations are needed for the true earthward as well as for the heavenward progress of men and peoples. And Poetry, whether old or new, streaming from the heart moved by the powerful spirit of love, has influence on the heart public and individual, and thence on the manners, laws, and institutions of nations. If Poesy visit the length and breadth of a country after years unfruitfully dull, coming like a showery fertilizing wind after drought, the corners and the valley-hidings are visited too, and these perhaps she now visits first, as these sometimes she has visited only. For miles and for miles, the public corn, the bread of the nation’s life, is bettered; and in our own endeared spot, the roses, delight of our individual eye and sense, yield us more prosperingly their colour and their fragrance. For the universal sunshine which brightens a thousand cities, beautifies ten thousand homesteads, and rejoices ten times ten thousand hearts. And as rains in the mid season renew for awhile the faded greenness of spring; and trees in fervent summers, when their foliage has deepened or fully fixed its hue, bedeck themselves through the fervency with bright midsummer shoots; so, by Poetry are the youthful hues of the soul renewed, and truths that have long stood full-foliaged in our minds, are by its fine influences empowered to put forth fresh shoots. Thus age, which is a necessity for the body, may be warded off as a disease from the soul, and we may be like the old man in Chaucer, who had nothing hoary about him but his hairs–

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“‘Though I be hoor I fare as doth a tree
That blosmeth er the fruit ywoxen be,
The blosmy tree n’ is neither drie ne ded:
I feel me nowhere hoor, but on my head.
Min herte and all my limmes ben as grene
As laurel through the yere is for to sene.’”

Hear our author again as to the calling of the poet:–

“To unite earthly love and celestial–‘true to the kindred points of heaven and home;’ to reconcile time and eternity; to draw presage of joy’s victory from the delight of the secret honey dropping from the clefts of rocky sorrow; to harmonize our instinctive longings for the definite and the infinite, in the ideal Perfect; to read creation as a human book of the heart, both plain and mystical, and divinely written: such is the office fulfilled by best-loved poets. Their ladder of celestial ascent must be fixed on its base, earth, if its top is to securely rest on heaven.”

Beautifully, too, does he describe the birth of Poetry; though one may doubt its correctness, at least if attributed to the highest kind of poetry.

“When words of felt truth were first spoken by the first pair, in love of their garden, their God, and one another, and these words were with joyful surprise felt to be in their form and glow answerable to the happy thought uttered; then Poetry sprang. And when the first Father and first Mother, settling their soul upon its thought, found that thought brighten; and when from it, as thus they mused, like branchlets from a branch, or flowerets from their bud, other thoughts came, ranging themselves by the exerted, yet painlessly exerted, power of the soul, in an order felt to be beautiful, and of a sound pleasant in utterance to ear and soul; being withal, through the sweetness of their impression on the heart, fixed for memory’s frequentest recurrence; then was the world’s first poem composed, and in the joyful flutter of a heart that had thus become a maker, the maker of a ‘thing of beauty,’ like in beauty even unto God’s heaven, and trees, and flowers, the secret of Poesy shone tremulously forth.”

Whether this be so or not, the highest poetic feeling of which we are now conscious springs not from the beholding of perfected beauty, but from the mute sympathy which the creation with all its children manifests with us in the groaning and travailing which looketh for the sonship. Because of our need and aspiration, the snowdrop gives birth in our hearts to a loftier spiritual and poetic feeling, than the rose most complete in form, colour, and odour. The rose is of Paradise–the snowdrop is of the striving, hoping, longing Earth. Perhaps our highest poetry is the expression of our aspirations in the sympathetic forms of visible nature. Nor is this merely a longing for a restored Paradise; for even in the ordinary history of men, no man or woman that has fallen can be restored to the position formerly occupied. Such must rise to a yet higher place, whence they can behold their former standing far beneath their feet. They must be restored by attaining something better than they ever possessed before, or not at all. If the law be a weariness, we must escape it by being filled with the spirit, for not otherwise can we fulfil the law than by being above the law. There is for us no escape, save as the Poet counsels us:–

“Is thy strait horizon dreary?
Is thy foolish fancy chill?
Change the feet that have grown weary,
For the wings that never will.
Burst the flesh and live the spirit;
Haunt the beautiful and far;
Thou hast all things to inherit,
And a soul for every star.”

But the Reviewer must hasten to take leave, though unwillingly, of this pleasing, earnest, and profitable book. Perhaps it could be wished that the writer helped his readers a little more into the channel of his thought; made it easier for them to see the direction in which he is leading them; called out to them, “Come up hither,” before he said, “I will show you a thing.” But the Reviewer says this with deference; and takes his leave with the hope that Mr. Lynch will be listened to for two good reasons: first, that he speaks the truth; last, that he has already suffered for the Truth’s sake.

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