Satires and Profanities/The Swinburne Controversy

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The Swinburne Controversy by James Thomson (B.V.)
as published in Satires and Profanities

THE SWINBURNE CONTROVERSY.

(1866.)

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Not having read Mr. Swinburne's "Poems and Ballads," I have nothing to say on the special case in which they are involved. A few of the adverse critiques I have chanced to see, and these almost avail to convince one that Mr. Swinburne is a true poet. The Saturday Review, shocked out of the complacency of its stark peevishness, cried, "Pretty verses these to read aloud to young ladies in the drawing-room!" As if there were any great book in existence proper to read aloud to young ladies in drawing-rooms! and as if young ladies in drawing-rooms were the fit and proper judges of any great book! I should like to watch the smuggest and most conceited of Saturday Reviewers attempting to read aloud to young ladies in a drawing-room certain chapters in the Bible, certain scenes of Shakespere, certain of the very best passages in Chaucer, Spenser, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Burns, Byron, Shelley. When Mr. Swinburne answers that he writes for full-grown men and women, the acute Fun affirms that men have read his book and have condemned it. As if our present brood of periodical critics were men! At home in private life, some of them probably are; but in their critical capacity, that is to say incapacity, how many of them have any virility? The Athenæum squashes the detestable book by proclaiming that it contains such and such things in the style of Alfred de Musset, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Ovid, etc.; that is to say, in the style of some of the best Latin and modem French writers! As for Punch, he makes a joke worthy of his present lively condition (were it not for Mr. C. H. Bennett, one would say that there was no blood at all left in Mr. Punch when the great Leech dropped off), suggesting that the author should take the appropriate name of Swine-born. But the mass of our present critics are so far beneath contempt that we will waste no more time upon them.

I have just one remark to make, however, before saying a few words on the general issue raised by this particular process. A large number of highly respectable elderly personages in gowns, for the most part belonging to the priesthood of our very dear National Church, and who by themselves and by good Bumbledom in general are accounted the real clerisy of England, have devoted all, or nearly all, the years of their maturity to what is termed the classical instruction of ingenuous youth. The ingenuous youth thus magnificently instructed comprise young men of the highest rank, with the most money and leisure and the reddest blood in the nation. Is it not rather ludicrous to see the said begowned elderly personages all wringing their hands and smiting their breasts, weeping and lamenting in sore astonishment and perplexity and terror, when one of these young men dares to give sign that he has actually in some degree assimilated such classical instruction, instead of merely gulping it down hastily and then vomiting it all crude at the examinations?

As to the general questions, I will start by avowing frankly my conviction, that, in the present state of England, every thoughtful man who loves literature should rejoice in the advent of any really able book which outrages propriety and shocks Bumbledom, should rejoice in its advent simply and exactly because it does outrage propriety and shock Bumbledom, even if this book be nauseous to his own taste and bad in his own judgment. For the condition of our literature in these days is disgraceful to a nation of men: Bumble has drugged all its higher powers, and only the rudest shocks can arouse them from their torpor. We have still, indeed, by the inscrutable bounty of nature, three or four great writers, the peers of the greatest in Europe; but they stand like so many forest-trees, antique oaks of Old England, in a boundless flat of kitchen-gardens—cabbage and lettuce, radishes and onions, and all the many-leaved "pot-boilers," fit only to be soddened and seethed in a pot, and "to pot," thank goodness, they all quickly go.

Our literature should be the clear and faithful mirror of our whole world of life, but at present there are vast realms of thought and imagination and passion and action, of which it is not allowed to give any reflex at all, or is allowed only to give a reflex so obscure and distorted as to be worse than none. But, it may be objected, suppose Satyrs come leering into your mirror and Bacchantes whirl before it? I answer that the business of a mirror is clear reflection: if it does not faithfully image the Satyr, how can it faithfully image Hyperion? And do you dread that the Satyr will be preferred to Hyperion, when both stand imaged in clear light before us? It is only when the windows are curtained, when the mirror is a black gulph and its portraitures are vague dark shadows, that the beautiful and the noble can pass undistinguished from the hideous and the vile.

If, indeed, the realities not reflected became unrealities, were annihilated, then there would be some sense in veiling those portions of the mirror in front of which certain features of our life are exposed. And if that which sees not could not be seen, it would be very sensible of the hunted ostrich to hide its head in the sand. But we all know that in darkness what is filthy and vile grows ever filthier and viler, what is pure and sweet sickens and decays.

"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us." We have suppressed mention of all facts which Bumble would fain ignore, and utterance of all opinions likely to disturb his sacred peace; we have canted enough to nauseate the angels, and have continually lied for God as for a man to pleasure him; so our popular books are fit for emasculated imbeciles, the Times is our leading journal, and the Daily Telegraph boasts the largest circulation in the world! And in the meanwhile the police-reports are full of putrid flesh, all the blue-books are crammed with statistical dry bones; flesh from the carcases and bones from the skeletons in that mass of death and corruption under our imperial whited sepulchre.

I do not complain of the kitchen-garden literature; many of the vegetables are very wholesome and savory in their season, very good for eating to-day and forgetting to-morrow; I complain that in the interest of kitchen-gardens the rearing of all grander and loftier vegetation, the growth of secular forest-kings has become almost impossible in England. The stupidest popular book would not be popular did it not find a large number of people still more stupid than itself, to whom it is really entertaining and instructive. These stupid people one does not blame, one can only pity or envy them according to one's mood. But what shall one say of that large number of educated people who are not stupid, who are familiar with continental literature; who yet, if an English book appears advocating ideas such as they have been delighted with in a French or German dress, feign astonishment and horror, and join with all the poor little curs of Bumbledom in yelping and snarling at it? These men who know well what they are doing are the accomplices of Bumble who does not know what he is doing, who fondly fancies that he is doing something very different, in starving on thin diet and stupifying with narcotic drugs the intellect of our nation once so robust and active; and assuredly if the process goes on much longer we shall come to rank mentally as a third-rate Power in Europe.

No intelligent man in England, without (which is a contradiction in terms) his ideas are exactly coincident with the non-ideas of Bumble, or without he is rich and independent, can afford to devote himself to honest treatment of any great religious or social, moral or philosophical question. If treated in a book, he must himself pay the expense of publication; if treated in an article, not even by payment could he get the portals of any popular periodical to open unto him. For periodicals—newspapers, magazines, reviews—are the Fools' Paradise of the commonplace, the mediocre, the orthodox, the respectable. As the strength of a chain must be measured by its weakest link, so the thought of a periodical must be measured by the thought of its most imbecile subscribers. A periodical to live must be a commercial success; the faintest thrill of new ideas would affect its circulation by shocking off some of its regular readers; it must suit its articles to the size of its customers—a very little hat for a very little head, a very little thought for a very little brain. Thus, though in thinking of their criticisms I spoke so contemptuously of our critics, I do not doubt that many of them are much wiser than their articles. The most honest of them must live by their pen, so they do not attempt to tell the whole truth though they will not tell a lie; many, however, undoubtedly are as apt for the sin of commission as for the sin of omission.

A noteworthy instance occurs to me as I write. An eminent English author, in some respects even a great author, complained that in our country no one since Fielding had dared to attempt the full and faithful portraiture of a man, and he set himself to the task in a work published by instalments. As he entered upon certain phases of common virile life, the circulation of the serial began to decrease. This author was eminent, well-off, much more honest and wise and brave than ninety-nine authors in a hundred: of course, having begun his work he would honestly finish it, he would not only tell the truth and nothing but the truth, he would also tell the whole truth?—he quietly left off painting the features objected to, finished such as were agreeable to the public, and said with a cynical scorn (flavored perhaps with some bitterness of self-scorn), "So you don't want to see and hear the whole truth? Very well!" This author was revered by the great and noble-hearted Charlotte Brontë; this author was Thackeray, strong with all the prestige of Vanity Fair; he could not think of continuing a course injurious to his "circulation," so "Pendennis" is not almost worthy (as it might, else have been) to stand beside "Un Grande Homme de Province à Paris" of Balzac.

When such is Thackeray, what must be Gigadibs?

If I write this rather strongly it is because I feel that I am writing in the interest of strength and health and purity and freedom, at a time when the mass of our literature is infected with servile weakness and disease and that "obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life." For all obscene things batten on darkness, and light is fatal to them. But for the Bumble who rules over us, the naked beauty is obscene and the naked truth is blasphemous; he thinks that the Venus de Medici came out of Holywell Street, and is inclined to believe that all the fossil records of geology were forged by the Devil to throw discredit upon the book of Genesis. One cannot without a keen pang of shame and rage think of what we are when one remembers what we were, when one recalls our old and glorious literature, in the wide world unsurpassed; our literature noble and renowned, ever most glorious when most manly and daring.