Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 04

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Misinforming a Nation by Willard Huntington Wright
Chapter IV: The Poetry

IV


THE POETRY


In the field of poetry the Encyclopædia Britannica comes nearer being a competent reference library than in the field of painting, fiction, or drama. This fact, however, is not due to a spirit of fairness on the part of the Encyclopædia's editors so much as to the actual superiority of English poetry. In this field England has led the world. It is the one branch of culture in which modern England stands highest. France surpasses her in painting and in fiction, and Germany in music and the drama. But Great Britain is without a rival in poetry. Therefore, despite the fact that the Encyclopædia is just as biased in dealing with this subject as it is in dealing with other cultural subjects, England's pre-eminence tends to reduce in this instance that insular prejudice which distorts the Britannica's treatment of arts and letters.

But even granting this superiority, the Encyclopædia is neglectful of the poets of other nations; and while it comes nearer the truth in setting forth the glories of English prosody, it fails here as elsewhere in being an international reference book of any marked value. There is considerable and unnecessary exaggeration of the merits of British poets, even of second- and third-rate British poets. Evangelical criticism predominates, and respectability is the measure of merit. Furthermore, the true value of poetry in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United States is minimized, and many writers of these countries who unquestionably should have a place in an encyclopædia as large as the Britannica, are omitted. Especially is this true in the case of the United States, which stands second only to Great Britain in the quantity and quality of its modern poetry.

Let us first review briefly the complete and eulogistic manner in which English poets are dealt with. Then let us compare, while making all allowances for alien inferiority, this treatment of British poetry with the Encyclopædia's treatment of the poetry of other nations. To begin with, I find but very few British poets of even minor importance who are not given a biography more than equal to their deserts. Coventry Patmore receives a biography of a column and a half. Sydney Dobell's runs to nearly a column. Wilfred Scawen Blunt is accorded half a column; John Davidson, over a column of high praise; Henley, more than an entire page; Stephen Phillips, three-fourths of a column; Henry Clarence Kendall, eighteen lines; Roden Noel, twenty-eight lines; Alexander Smith, twenty-five lines; Lawrence Binyon, nineteen lines; Laurence Housman, twenty-three lines; Ebenezer Jones, twenty-four lines; Richard Le Gallienne, twenty lines; Henry Newbolt, fifteen lines; and Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy, twenty-nine lines. These names, together with the amount of space devoted to them, will give an indication of the thoroughness and liberality accorded British poets.

But these by no means complete the list. Robert Bridges receives half a column, in which we learn that “his work has had great influence in a select circle, by its restraint, purity, precision, and delicacy yet strength of expression.” And in his higher flights “he is always noble and sometimes sublime. . . . Spirituality informs his inspiration.” Here we have an excellent example of the Encyclopædia's combination of the uplift and hyperbole. More of the same moral encomium is to be found in the biography of Christina Rossetti, which is a column in length. Her “sanctity” and “religious faith” are highly praised; and the article ends with the words: “All that we really need to know about her, save that she was a great saint, is that she was a great poet.” Ah, yes! Saintliness — that cardinal requisite in British æsthetics.

An example of how the Britannica's provincial puritanism of judgment works against a poet is to be found in the nearly-two-page biography of Swinburne, wherein we read that “it is impossible to acquit his poetry of the charge of animalism which wars against the higher issues of the spirit.” No, Swinburne was not a pious uplifter; he did not use his art as a medium for evangelical exhortation. Consequently his work does not comply with the Britannica's parochial standard. And although Swinburne was contemporary with Francis Thompson, it is said in the latter's two-thirds-of-a-column biography that “for glory of inspiration and natural magnificence of utterance he is unique among the poets of his time.” Watts-Dunton also, in his three-fourths-of-a-column biography, is praised lavishly and set down as a “unique figure in the world of letters.”

William Watson receives over a column of biography, and is eulogized for his classic traditions in an age of prosodic lawlessness. The sentimental and inoffensive Austin Dobson apparently is a high favorite with the editors of the Encyclopædia, for he is given a column and three-fourths — more space than is given John Davidson, Francis Thompson, William Watson, Watts-Dunton, or Oscar Wilde — an allowance out of all proportion to his importance.

In closing this brief record of the Encyclopædia Britannica's prodigal generosity to British poets, it might be well to mention that Thomas Chatterton receives a biography of five and a half columns — a space considerably longer than that given to Heine. Since Thomas Chatterton died at the age of eighteen and Heinrich Heine did not die until he was fifty-nine, I leave it to statisticians to figure out how much more space than Heine Chatterton would have received had he lived to the age of the German poet.

On turning to the French poets and bearing in mind the long biographies accorded British poets, one cannot help feeling amazed at the scant treat- ment which the former receive. Baudelaire, for instance, is given less space than Christina Rossetti, William Watson, Henley, Coventry Patmore, John Davidson, or Austin Dobson. Catulle Mendès receives considerably less space than Stephen Phillips. Verlaine is given equal space with Watts-Dunton, and less than half the space given to Austin Dobson! Stéphane Mallarmé receives only half the space given to John Davidson, Christina Rossetti, or William Watson. Jean Moréas receives only half the space given to Sydney Dobell or Christina Rossetti. Viélé-Griffin draws a shorter biography than Kendall, the Australian poet; and Régnier and Bouchor are dismissed in fewer words than is the Scotch poet, Alexander Smith. Furthermore, these biographies are rarely critical, being in the majority of instances a cursory record of incomplete data.

Here attention should be called to the fact that only in the cases of the very inconsequent British poets is criticism omitted: if the poet is even fairly well known there is a discussion of his work and an indication of the place he is supposed to hold in his particular field. But with foreign writers — even the very prominent ones — little or nothing concerning them is vouchsafed save historical facts, and these, as a general rule, fall far short of completeness. The impression given is that obscure Englishmen are more important than eminent Frenchmen, Germans, or Americans. Evidently the editors are of the opinion that if one is cognizant of British culture one can easily dispense with all other culture as inferior and unnecessary. Otherwise how, except on the ground of deliberate falsification, can one explain the liberal treatment accorded English poets as compared with the meagre treatment given French poets?

Since the important French poets mentioned receive such niggardly and grudging treatment, it is not to be wondered at that many other lesser poets — yet poets who are of sufficient importance to be included in an encyclopædia — should receive no biographical mention. If you wish information concerning Adolphe Retté, René de Ghil, Stuart Merrill, Emmanuel Signoret, Jehan Rictus, Albert Samain, Paul Fort, who is the leading balladist of young France, Herold, Quillard, or Francis Jammes, you will have to go to a source even more “supreme” than the Encyclopædia Britannica. These poets were famous in 1900, and even in America there had appeared at that time critical considerations of their work. Again, one ought to find, in so “complete” a “library” as the Britannica, information concerning the principal poets of the Belgian Renaissance. But of the eight leading modern poets of Belgium only three have biographies — Lemonnier, Maeterlinck, and Verhaeren. There are no biographies of Eekhoud, Rodenbach, Elskamp, Severin and Cammaerts.

Turning to Italy we find even grosser injustice and an even more woeful inadequacy in the treatment accorded her modern poets. To be sure, there are biographies of Carducci, Ferrari, Marradi, Mazzoni, and Arturo Graf. But Alfredo Baccelli, Domenico Gnoli, Giovanni Pascoli, Mario Rapisardi, Chiarini, Panzacchi and Annie Vivanti are omitted. There should be biographies of these writers in an international encyclopædia one-fourth the size of the Britannica. Baccelli and Rapisardi are perhaps the two most important epic poets of modern Italy. Gnoli is one of the leaders of the classical school. Chiarini is not only a leading poet but is one of the first critics of Italy as well. Panzacchi, the romantic, is second only to the very greatest Italian poets of modern times, and as far back as 1898 British critics were praising him and regretting that he was not better known in England. Annie Vivanti, born in London, is a poet known and esteemed all over Italy. (It may be noted here that Vivanti wrote a vehement denunciation and repudiation of England in Ave Albion.)

But these names represent only part of the injustice and neglect accorded modern Italian poetry by the Britannica. There is not even so much as a mention in the entire twenty-nine volumes of the names of Alinda Bonacchi, the most widely known woman poet in Italy; Capuano, who, besides being a notable poet, is also a novelist, dramatist and critic of distinction; Funcini (Tanfucio Neri), a household word in Tuscany and one held in high esteem all over Italy; “Countess Lara” (Eveline Cattermole), whose Versi gave her a foremost place among the poets of her day; Pitteri, who was famous as long ago as 1890; and Nencioni, not only a fine poet but one of Italy's great critics. Nencioni has earned the reputation of being the Sainte-Beuve of Italy, and it was he who introduced Browning, Tennyson and Swinburne to his countrymen. Then there are such poets as Fontana, Bicci and Arnaboldi, who should at least be mentioned in connection with modern Italian literature, but whose names do not appear in “this complete library of information.”

But France, Belgium, and Italy, nevertheless, have great cause for feeling honored when comparison is made between the way the Encyclopædia Britannica deals with their modern poetry and the way it deals with modern German and Austrian poetry. Of all the important recent lyricists of Germany and Austria only one is given a biography, and that biography is so brief and inadequate as to be practically worthless for purposes of enlightenment. The one favored poet is Detlev von Liliencron. Liliencron is perhaps the most commanding lyrical figure in all recent German literature, and he receives just twenty-seven lines, or about one-fifth of the space given to Austin Dobson! But there are no biographies of Richard Dehmel, Carl Busse, Stefan George, J. H. Mackay, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gustav Falke, Ernst von Wolzogen, Kark Henckell, Dörmann, Otto Julius Bierbaum, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

There can be no excuse for many of these omissions. Several of these names are of international eminence. Their works have not been confined to Germany, but have appeared in English translation. They stand in the foremost rank of modern literature, and both in England and America there are critical books which accord them extensive consideration. Without a knowledge of them no one — not even a Britisher — can lay claim to an understanding of modern letters. Yet the Encyclopædia Britannica denies them space and still poses as an adequate reference work.

One may hope to find some adequate treatment of the German lyric to recent years with its “remarkable variety of new tones and pregnant ideas,” in the article on German Literature. But that hope will straightway be blasted when one turns to the article in question. The entire new renaissance in German poetry is dismissed in a brief paragraph of thirty-one lines! It would have been better to omit it altogether, for such a cursory and inadequate survey of a significant subject can result only in disseminating a most unjust and distorted impression. And the bibliography at the end of this article on modern German literature reveals nothing so much as the lack of knowledge on the part of the critic who compiled it. Not only is the Britannica deficient in its information, but it does not reveal the best sources from which this omitted information might be gained.

An even more absurdly inadequate treatment is accorded the poets of modern Sweden. Despite the fact that Swedish literature is little known to Americans, the poetry of that country ranks very high — higher (according to some eminent critics) than the poetry of France or Germany. But the Britannica makes no effort to disturb our ignorance; and so the great lyric poetry of Sweden since 1870 is barely touched upon. However, Mr. Edmund Gosse, a copious contributor to the Encyclopædia, has let the cat out of the bag. In one of his books he has pronounced Fröding, Levertin and Heidenstam “three very great lyrical artists,” and has called Snoilsky a poet of “unquestioned force and fire.” Turning to the Britannica we find that Snoilsky is dismissed with half the space given Sydney Dobell and a third of the space given Patmore. Levertin receives only a third of a column; and Fröding is denied any biography whatever. He is thrown in with a batch of minor writers under Sweden. Heidenstam, the new Nobel prize-winner, a poet who, according to Charles Wharton Stork, “stands head and shoulders above any now writing in England,” receives only eight lines in the general notice! And Karlfeldt, another important lyrist, who is the Sec- retary of the Swedish Academy, is considered unworthy of even a word in the “supreme” Encyclopædia Britannica.

It would seem that unfair and scant treatment of a country's poetry could go no further. But if you will seek for information concerning American poetry you will find a deficiency which is even greater than that which marks the treatment of modern Swedish poetry.

Here again it might be in place to call attention to the hyperbolical claims on which the Encyclopædia Britannica has been sold in America. In the flamboyant and unsubstantiable advertising of this reference work you will no doubt recall the claim: “It will tell you more about everything than you can get from any other source.” And perhaps you will also remember the statement: “The Britannica is a complete library of knowledge on every subject appealing to intelligent persons.” It may be, of course, that the editors believe that the subject of American literature does not, or at least should not, appeal to any but ignorant persons, and that, in fact, only middle-class English culture can possibly interest the intelligent. But unless such a belief can be proved to be correct, the American buyers of this Encyclopædia have a grave and legitimate complaint against the editors for the manner in which the books were foisted upon them. The Encyclopædia Britannica, as I have pointed out, is not a complete library of knowledge on the subject of literature; and in the following pages I shall show that its gross inadequacy extends to many other very important fields of endeavor. Moreover, its incompleteness is most glaringly obvious in the field of American æsthetic effort — a field which, under the circumstances, should be the last to be neglected.

On the subject of American poetry it is deficient almost to the extreme of worthlessness. In the article, American Literature, written by George E. Woodberry, we discover that truly British spirit and viewpoint which regards nothing as worth while unless it is old or eminently respectable and accepted. The result is that, in the paragraph on our poetry, such men as Aldrich, Stedman, Richard Watson Gilder, Julia Ward Howe, H. H. Brownell and Henry Van Dyke are mentioned; but very few others. As a supreme surrender to modernity the names of Walt Whitman, Eugene Field, James Whitcomb Riley and Joaquin Miller are included. The great wealth of American poetry, which is second only to that of England, is not even suggested.

Turning to the biography of Edgar Allan Poe, we find that this writer receives only a column and a half, less space than is given Austin Dobson, Coventry Patmore, or W. E. Henley! And the biography itself is so inept that it is an affront to American taste and an insult to American intelligence. One is immediately interested in learning what critic the Encyclopædia's editors chose to represent this American who has long since become a world figure in literature. Turning to the index we discover that one David Hannay is the authority — a gentleman who was formerly the British Vice-Consul at Barcelona. Mr. Hannay (apparently he holds no academic degree of any kind) lays claim to fame chiefly, it seems, as the author of Short History of the Royal Navy; but in just what way his research in naval matters qualifies him to write on Poe is not indicated. This is not, however, the only intimation we had that in the minds of the Encyclopædia's editors there exists some esoteric and recondite relationship between art and British sea-power. In the Britannia's criticism of J. M. W. Turner's paintings, that artist's work is said to be “like the British fleet among the navies of the world.” In the present instance, however, we can only trust that the other articles in this encyclopædia, by Mr. Hannay — to wit: Admiral Penn and Pirate and Piracy — are more competent than his critique on Poe.

Walt Whitman gets scarcely better treatment. His biography is no longer than Poe's and contains little criticism and no suggestion of his true place in American letters. This is all the more astonishing when we recall the high tribute paid Whitman by eminent English critics. Surely the Britannica's editors are not ignorant of Whitman's place in modern letters or of the generous manner in which he had been received abroad. Whatever one's opinion of him, he was a towering figure in our literature — a pioneer who had more influence on our later writers than any other American. And yet his biography in this great British cultural work is shorter than that of Mrs. Humphry Ward!

With such obviously inadequate and contemptuous treatment as that accorded Poe and Whitman, it is not surprising that all other American poets should be treated peremptorily or neglected entirely. There are very short biographical notes on Stedman, Louise Chandler Moulton, Sill, Gilder, Eugene Field, Sidney Lanier and Riley — but they are scant records of facts and most insufficient when compared to the biographies of second-rate poets of England.

But let us be grateful that the Encyclopædia Britannica was generous enough to record them at all; for one can look in vain through its entire twenty-nine volumes, no matter under what heading, for even a mention of Emily Dickinson, John Bannister Tabb, Florence Earle Coates, [[Author:Edwin Markham|Edwin Markham]], Lizette Woodworth Reese, Clinton Scollard, Louise Imogen Guiney, Richard Hovey, Madison Cawein, Edwin Arlington Robinson, George Sylvester Viereck, Ridgeley Torrence, Arthur Upson, Santayana, and many others who hold an important place in our literature. And the names of William Vaughn Moody, Percy MacKaye and Bliss Carman are merely mentioned casually, the first two under Drama and the last under Canadian Literature.

The palpable injustice in the complete omission of many of the above American names is rendered all the more glaring by the fact that the Encyclopædia Britannica pays high tribute to such minor British poets and versifiers as W. H. Davies, Sturge Moore, Locker Lampson, C. M. Doughty, Walter de la Mare, Alfred Noyes, Herbert Trench, Ernest Dowson, Mrs. Meynell, A. E. Housman and Owen Seaman.

This is the culture disseminated by the Encyclopædia Britannica, which “is a complete library of knowledge on every subject appealing to intelligent persons,” and which “will tell you more about everything than you can get from any other source!” This is the “supreme book of knowledge” which Americans are asked to buy in preference to all others. What pettier insult could one nation offer to another?