Poems (Pushkin, Panin, 1888)/Introduction
I. POETIC IDEAL.
1. Pushkin was emphatically a subjective writer. Of intense sensibility, which is the indispensable condition of creative genius, he was first of all a feeler with an Æolіап attachment. He did not even have to take the trouble of looking into his heart in order to write. So full of feeling was his heart that at the slightest vibration it poured itself out; and so deep was its feeling that what is poured out is already melted, fused, shaped, and his poems come forth, like Minerva from Jupiter's head, fully armed. There is a perfection about them which is self-attesting in its unstudiedness and artlessness; it is the perfection of the child, touching the hearts of its beholders all the more tenderly because of its unconsciousness, effortlessness; it is the perfection which Jesus had in mind when he uttered that sentence so profound and so little followed because of its very profundity: "Unless ye be like little children." So calm and poiseful is Pushkin's poetry that in spite of all his pathos his soul is a work of architecture,—a piece of frozen music in the highest sense. Even through his bitterest agony,—and pathos is the one chord which is never absent from Pushkin's song, as it is ever present in Chopin's strains, ay, as it ever must be present in any soul that truly lives,—there runneth a peace, a simplicity which makes the reader exclaim on reading him: Why, I could have done the self-same thing myself,—an observation which is made at the sight of Raphael's Madonna, at the oratory of a Phillips, at the reading of "The Vicar of Wakefield," at the acting of a Booth. Such art is of the highest, and is reached only through one road: Spontaneity, complete abandonment of self. The verse I have to think over I had better not write. Man is to become only a pipe through which the Spirit shall flow; and the Spirit shall flow only where the resistance is least. Ope the door, and the god shall enter! Seek not, pray not! To pray is to will, and to will is to obstruct. The virtue which Emerson praises so highly in a pipe—that it is smooth and hollow—is the very virtue which makes him like Nature, an ever open, yet ever sealed book. Bring to him your theories, your preconceived notions, and Emerson, like the great soul of which he is but a voice, becomes unintelligible, confusing, chaotic. The words are there; the eyes see them. The dictionary is at hand, but nought avails; of understanding there is none to be had. But once abandon will, once abandon self, once abandon opinion (a much harder abandonment this than either!), and Emerson is made of glass, just as when I abandon my logic, God becomes transparent enough. … And what is true of Emerson is true of every great soul.
2. The highest art then is artlessness, unconsciousness. The true artist is not the conceiver, the designer, the executor, but the tool, the recorder, the reporter. He writes because write he must, just as he breathes because breathe he must. And here too, Nature, as elsewhere, hath indicated the true method. The most vital processes of life are not the voluntary, the conscious, but the involuntary, the unconscious. The blood circulates, the heart beats, the lungs fill, the nerves vibrate; we digest, we fall asleep, we are stirred with love, with awe, with reverence, without our will; and our highest aspirations, our sweetest memories, our cheerfullest hopes, and alas! also our bitterest self-reproaches, come ever like friends at the feast,—uninvited. You can be happy, blest at will? Believe it not! Happiness, blessedness willed is not to be had in the market at any quotation. It is not to be got. It comes. And it comes when least willed. He is truly rich who has nought left to be deprived of, nought left to ask for, nought left to will.…
3. Pushkin, therefore, was incapable of giving an account of his own poetry. Pushkin could not have given a theory of a single poem of his, as Рое has given of his "Raven." Poe's account of the birth of "The Raven" is indeed most delightful reading. "I told you so," is not so much the voice of conceit, of "I knew better than thou!" but the voice of the epicurean in us; it is ever a delight to most of us to discover after the event that we knew it all before. … Delightful, then, it is indeed, to read Poe's theory of his own "Raven;" but its most delightful part is that the theory is a greater fiction than the poem itself. It is the poem that has created the theory, not the theory the poem. Neither could Pushkin do what Schiller has done: give a theory of a drama of his own. The theory of Don Karlos as developed in Schiller's letters on that play are writ not by Friedrich Schiller the poet, the darling of the German land, the inspirer of the youth of all lands, but by Herr von Schiller the professor; by Von Schiller the Kantian metaphysician; by Von Schiller the critic; by another Schiller, in short. Pushkin, however, unlike most of us, was not half a dozen ancestors—God, beast, sage, fool—rolled into one, each for a time claiming him as his own. Pushkin was essentially a unit, one voice; he was a lyre, on which a something, not he—God!—invisibly played.
4. And this he unconsciously to himself expresses in the piece, "My Muse."
"From morn till night in oak's dumb shadow
To the strange maid's teaching intent I listened;
And with sparing reward me gladdening,
Tossing back her curls from her forehead dear,
From my hands the flute herself she took.
Now filled the wood was with breath divine
And the heart with holy enchantment filled."
Before these lines Byelinsky, the great Russian critic, stands awe-struck. And well he may; for in the Russian such softness, smoothness, simplicity, harmony, and above all sincerity, had not been seen before Pushkin's day. And though in the translation everything except the thought is lost, I too as I now read it over on this blessed Sunday morn (and the bell calling men unto the worship of the great God is still ringing!), I too feel that even before this sun, shorn of its beams though it be, I am still in hallowed presence. For the spirit is independent of tongue, independent of form; to the god-filled soul the leaf is no less beautiful than the flower. Discrimination, distinction, is only a sign that we are still detached from the whole; that we are still only half; that we are still not our own selves,—that we still, in short, miss the blessed One. To the god-filled soul the grain of sand is no less beautiful than the diamond; the spirit breaks through the crust (and words and forms are, alas, only this!), and recognizes what is its where'er it finds it, under whatever disguise. The botanist prizes the weed as highly as the flower, and with justice, because he seeks not the gratification of the eye, but of the spirit. The eye is delighted with variety, the spirit with unity. And the botanist seeks the unity, the whole, the godful in the plant. And a fine perception it was,—that of Emerson: that a tree is but a rooted man, a horse a running man, a fish a floating man, and a bird a flying man. Logical, practical Supreme Court Justice, with one eye in the back of his head, declares, indeed, such utterance insane, and scornfully laughs, "I don't read Emerson; my garls do!" but the self-same decade brings a Darwin or a Heckel with his comparative embryos; and at the sight of these, not even a lawyer, be he even Chief Justice of Supreme Court, can distinguish between snake, fowl, dog, and man.
5. In time, however, Pushkin does become objective to himself, as any true soul that is obliged to reflect must sooner or later; and God ever sees to it that the soul be obliged to reflect if there be aught within. For it is the essence of man's life that the soul struggle; it is the essence of growth that it push upward; it is the essence of progress in walking that we fall forward. Life is a battle,—battle with the powers of darkness; battle with the diseases of doubt, despair, self-will. And reflection is the symptom that the disease is on the soul, that the battle is to go on.
6. Pushkin then does become in time objective, and contemplates himself. Pushkin the man inspects Pushkin the soul, and in the poem, "My Monument," he gives his own estimate of himself:—
"A monument not hand-made I have for me erected;
The path to it well-trodden, will not overgrow;
Risen higher has it with unbending head
Than the monument of Alexander.
No! not all of me shall die! my soul in hallowed lyre
Shall my dust survive, and escape destruction—
And famous be I shall, as long as on earth sublunar
One bard at least living shall remain.
"My name will travel over the whole of Russia great
And there pronounce my name shall every living tongue:
And long to the nation I shall be dear."
Observe here the native nobility of the man. There is a heroic consciousness of his own worth which puts to shame all gabble of conceit and of self-consciousness being a vice, being immodest. Here too, Emerson sets fine example in not hesitating to speak of his own essays on Love and Friendship as "those fine lyric strains," needing some balance by coarser tones on Prudence and the like. This is the same heroic consciousness of one's own worth which makes a Socrates propose as true reward for his services to the State, free entertainment at the Prytaneum. This is the same manliness which in a Napoleon rebukes the genealogy-monger who makes him descend from Charlemagne, with the remark, "I am my own pedigree." This, in fine, is the same manliness which made Jesus declare boldly, "I am the Way, I am the Life, I am the Light," regardless of the danger that the "Jerusalem Advertiser" and the "Zion Nation" might brand him as " deliciously conceited." This recognition of one's own worth is at bottom the highest reverence before God; inasmuch as I esteem myself, not because of my body, which I have in common with the brutes, but because of my spirit, which I have in common with God; and wise men have ever sung, on hearing their own merit extolled, Not unto us, not unto us! There is no merit in the matter; the God is either there or he is not....
7. Pushkin, then, even with this in view, is not so much a conscious will, as an unconscious voice. He is not so much an individual singer, as a strain from the music of the spheres; and he is a person, an original voice, only in so far as he has hitched his wagon to a star. In his abandonment is his greatness; in his self-destruction, his strength.
"The bidding of God, О Muse, obey.
Fear not insult, ask not crown:
Praise and blame take with indifference
And dispute not with the fool!"
"And dispute not with the fool!" The prophet never argues; it is for him only to affirm. Argument is at bottom only a lack of trust in my own truth. Cæsar's wife must be above suspicion; and to bear misunderstanding in silence,—this is to be great. Hence the noblest moment in Kepler's life was not when he discovered the planet, but when he discovered that if God could wait six thousand years for the understanding by man of one of his starlets, he surely could wait a few brief years for his recognition by his fellow-men. God is the great misunderstood, and he—never argues. In living out my truth in silence, without argument even though misunderstood, I not only show my faith in it, but prove it by my very strength. If I am understood, nothing more need be said; if I am not understood, nothing more can be said. Pushkin, therefore, often weeps, sobs, groans. He at times even searches, questions, doubts, despairs; but he never argues. Broad is the back of Pegasus, and strong is his wing, but neither his back nor his wings shall enable him to float the rhyming arguer. No sooner does the logician mount the heavenly steed than its wings droop, and both rider and steed quickly drop into the limbo of inanity. Melancholy, indeed, is the sight of a dandy dressed for a party unexpectedly drenched by the shower; sorrowful is the sight of statesman turned politician before election; and pitiful is the spectacle of the manufacturing versifier, who grinds out of himself his daily task of one hundred lines, as the milkman squeezes out his daily can of milk from the cow. But most pitiful of all, immeasurably pathetic to me, is the sight of pettifogging logician forsaking his hair-splitting world, and betaking himself to somersaulting verse. To much the bard is indeed called, but surely not to that.…
8. To affirm then the bard is called, and what in "My Monument" is but hinted, becomes clear, emphatic utterance in Pushkin's "Sonnet to the Poet."
"Poet, not popular applause shalt thou prize!
Of raptured praise shall pass the momentary noise;
The fool's judgment thou shalt hear, and the cold mob's laughter—
Calm stand, and firm be, and—sober!
"Thou art king: live alone. On the free road
Walk whither draws thee thy spirit free:
Ever the fruits of beloved thoughts ripening,
Never reward for noble deeds demanding.
"In thyself reward seek. Thine own highest court thou art;
Severest judge, thine own works canst measure.
Art thou content, О fastidious craftsman?
Content? Then let the mob scold,
And spit upon the altar, where blazes thy fire.
Thy tripod in childlike playfulness let it shake."
But because the bard is called to affirm, to inspire, to serve, he is also called to be worn. To become the beautiful image, the marble must be lopped and cut; the vine to bear sweeter fruit must be trimmed, and the soul must go through a baptism of fire.… Growth, progress is thus ever the casting off of an old self, and Scheiden thut weh. Detachment hurts. A new birth can take place only amid throes of agony. Hence the following lines of Pushkin on the poet:—
"…No sooner the heavenly word
His keen ear hath reached,
Then up trembles the singer's soul
Like an awakened eagle.
"The world's pastimes now weary him
And mortals' gossip now he shuns.
Wild and stern rushes he
Of tumult full and sound
To the shores of desert wave
Into the wildly whispering wood."
9. This is as yet only discernment that the bard must needs suffer; by-and-by comes also the fulfilment, the recognition of the wisdom of the sorrow, and with it its joyful acceptance in the poem of "The Prophet."
"And out he tore my sinful tongue
And ope he cut with sword my breast
And out he took my trembling heart
And a coal with gleaming blaze
Into the opened breast he shoved.
Like a corpse I lay in the desert,
And God's Voice unto me called:
Arise, О prophet, and listen, and guide.
Be thou filled with my will
And going over land and sea
Fire with the word the hearts of men!"
"Be thou filled with my will!" His ideal began with abandonment of self-will; it ended with complete surrender of self-will. When we have done all the thinking and planning and weighing, and pride ourselves upon our wisdom, we are not yet wise. One more step remains to be taken, without which we only may avoid the wrong; with which, however, we shall surely come upon the right. We must still say, Teach us, Thou, to merge our will in Thine.…
II. INNER LIFE.
10. I have already stated that Pushkin is a subjective writer. The great feelers must ever be thus, just as the great reasoners must ever be objective, just as the great lookers can only be objective. For the eye looks only on the outward thing; the reason looks only upon the outward effect, the consequence; but the heart looks not only upon the thing, but upon its reflection upon self,—upon its moral relation, in short. Hence the subjectivity of a Tolstoy, a Byron, a Rousseau, a Jean Paul, a Goethe, who does not become objective until he has ceased to be a feeler, and becomes the comprehender, the understander, the seer, the poised Goethe. Marcus Aurelius, Pascal, Amiel, look into their hearts and write; and Carlyle and Ruskin, even though the former use "Thou" instead of "I," travel they never so far, still find their old "I" smiling by their side. But the subjectivity of Pushkin, unlike that of Walt Whitman, is not only not intrusive, but it is even delight-giving,—for it paints not the Pushkin that is different from all other men, but the Pushkin that is in fellowship with all other men; he therefore, in reporting himself, voices the very experience of his fellows, who, though feeling it deeply, were yet unable to give it tongue. It is this which makes Pushkin the poet in its original sense,—the maker, the sayer, the namer. And herein is his greatness,—in expressing not what is his, in so far that it is different from what is other men's, but what is his, because it is other men's likewise. Herein he is what makes him a man of genius. For what does a genius do?
11. What is it that makes the water, when spouting forth in a smooth stream from the hose, such a power? What is it that makes the beauty of the stem and curve of the body of water, as it leaps out of the fountain? It is the same water which a few yards back we can see flowing aimless in stream or pond. Yes, but it is the concentration of the loose elements into harmonious shape, whether for utility, as in the case of the hose-spout, or for beauty, as in the case of the fountain. Nought new is added to the mass existing before. This is precisely the case of genius. He adds nought to what has gone before him. He merely arranges, formulates. A vast unorganized mass of intelligence, of aspiration, of feeling, becomes diffused over mankind. Soon it seeks organization. The poet, the prophet, the seer, cometh, and lo, he becomes the magnet round which all spiritual force of the time groups itself in visible shape, in formulated language.
12. Pushkin, then, is self-centred; but it is the self that is not Pushkin, but man. His mood is others' mood; and in singing of his life, he sings of the life of all men. The demon he sings of in the poem called "My Demon" is not so much his demon alone as also yours, mine, ours. It is his demon because it is all men's demon.
"A certain evil spirit then
Began in secret me to visit.
Grievous were our meetings,
His smile, and his wonderful glance,
His speeches, these so stinging,
Cold poison poured into my soul.
Providence with slander
Inexhaustible he tempted;
Of Beauty as a dream he spake
And inspiration he despised;
Nor love, nor freedom trusted he,
On life with scorn he looked—
And nought in all nature
To bless he ever wished."
And this demon—"the Spirit of Denial, the Spirit of Doubt"—of which he sings wards so pathetically tormented him long. He began with "Questionings:"—
"Useless gift, accidental gift,
Life, why art thou given me?
Or, why by fate mysterious
To torture art thou doomed?
"Who with hostile power me
Out has called from the nought?
Who my soul with passion thrilled,
Who my spirit with doubt has filled?..."
And he continues with "Sleeplessness:"—
"I cannot sleep, I have no light;
Darkness 'bout me, and sleep is slow;
The beat monotonous alone
Near me of the clock is heard
Of the Fates the womanish babble,
Of sleeping night the trembling,
Of life the mice-like running-about,—
Why disturbing me art thou?
What art thou, О tedious whisper?
The reproaches, or the murmur
Of the day by me misspent?
What from me wilt thou have?
Art thou calling or prophesying?
Thee I wish to understand,
Thy tongue obscure I study now."
13. And this demon gives him no rest, even long after he had found the answer,—that the meaning of Life is in Work. Solve the problem of life? Live, and you solve it; and to live means to do. But that work was the solution of the problem of life he indeed discerned but vaguely. It was with him not yet conscious fulfilment. He had not yet formulated to himself the gospel he unconsciously obeyed. Hence the wavering of the "Task:"—
"The longed-for moment here is. Ended is my long-yeared task.
Why then sadness strange me troubles secretly?
My task done, like needless hireling am I to stand,
My wage in hand, to other task a stranger?
Or my task regret I, of night companion silent mine,
Gold Aurora's friend, the friend of my sacred household gods?"
14. And for the same reason, when he had ceased to be a roamer and at last settled down to quiet home-life, the memory of the days of yore still gives him a pang; and at the sight of the gypsies, whose free and easy life once occupied his thoughts seriously, not only to sing of them, but to live with them, only a plaintive note bursts forth from his soul:—
"Thee I greet, О happy race!
I recognize thy blazes,
I myself at other times
These tents would have followed.
"With the early rays to-morrow
Shall disappear your freedom's trace,
Go you will—but not with you
Longer go shall the bard of you.
"He alas, the changing lodgings,
And the pranks of days of yore
Has forgot for rural comforts
And for the quiet of a home."
15. And this too when these same "rural comforts" he now regrets to have taken in exchange for his wanderings were the very circumstances he sighed for when he did lead the free life he now envies the gypsies for. For this is what he then had been singing:
"Mayhap not long am destined I
In exile peaceful to remain,
Of dear days of yore to sigh
And rustic muse in quiet
With spirit calm to pursue.
"But even far, in a foreign land
In thought forever roam I shall
Around Trimountain mine:
By meadows, river, by its hills,
By garden, linden, nigh the house."
16. No wonder, therefore, that the demon, having unsettled the poet's soul with restlessness, should now unsettle his reasoning powers with regrets. For regret is at bottom a disease, an inability to perceive that the best way to mend harm once done is not in lamenting the past, but in struggling for a future; in which future much of the past could be undone; or if it could not be undone, at least it could be prevented from contaminating with its corpse the life of the future. And his regret is bitter enough. In the first of the two poems, "Regret" and "Reminiscence," the feeling again is as yet only discernment; but in the second, the poison has already entered his soul, and accordingly it no longer is a song, but a cry of agony....
At first it is is only—
"But where are ye, О moments tender
Of young my hopes, of heartfelt peace?
The former heat and grace of inspiration?
Come again, О ye, of spring my years!"
But later it becomes—
"Before me memory in silence
Its lengthy roll unfolds,
And with disgust my life I reading
Tremble I and curse it.
Bitterly I moan, and bitterly my tears I shed
But wash away the lines of grief I cannot.
In laziness, in senseless feasts,
In the madness of ruinous license,
In thraldom, poverty, and homeless deserts
My wasted years there I behold...."
17. Regret, in itself a disease, but only of the intellect, soon changes into a more violent disease: into a disease of the constitution, which is fear, fear of insanity. In ordinary minds such disease takes the form of fear for the future, of worry for existence; in extraordinary minds it takes more ghastly shapes,—distrust of friends, and dread of the close embrace of what is already stretching forth its claws after the soul,—insanity.
"God grant I grow not insane:
No, better the stick and beggar's bag;
No, better toil and hunger bear.
If crazy once,
A fright thou art like pestilence,
And locked up now shalt thou be.
"To a chain thee, fool, they 'll fasten
And through the gate, a circus beast,
Thee to nettle the people come.
"And at night not hear shall I
Clear the voice of nightingale
Nor the forest's hollow sound,
"But cries alone of companions mine
And the scolding guards of night
And a whizzing, of chains a ringing."
18. That thoughts of death should now be his companions is only to be expected. But here again his muse plainly sings itself out in both stages,—the stage of discernment and the stage of fulfilment. In the first of the two poems, "Elegy" and "Death-Thoughts," he only thinks of death; in the second he already longs for it.
In the first it is only—
"My wishes I have survived.
My ambition I have outgrown!
Left only is my smart,
The fruit of emptiness of heart.
"Under the storm of cruel Fate
Faded has my blooming crown!
Sad I live and lonely,
And wait: Is nigh my end?"
But in the second it already becomes—
"Whether I roam along the noisy streets
Whether I enter the peopled temple,
Whether I sit by thoughtless youth,
Haunt my thoughts me everywhere.
"I say, Swiftly go the years by:
However great our number now,
Must all descend the eternal vaults,—
Already struck has some one's hour.
"Every year thus, every day
With death my thought I join
Of coming death the day
I seek among them to divine."
19. Pushkin died young; that he would have conquered his demon in time there is every reason to believe, though the fact that he had not yet conquered him at the age of thirty-eight must show the tremendous force of bad blood, and still worse circumstance, which combined made the demon of Pushkin. But already he shows signs of having seen the promised land. In the three poems, "Resurrection," "The Birdlet" (iv. 133), and "Consolation," the first shows that he conquered his regret-disease; the second, that he already found in Love some consolation for sorrow. And the third shows that he already felt his way at least to some peace, even though it be not уet faith in the future, but only hope. For hope is not yet knowledge; it only trusts that the future will be good. Faith knows that the future must be good, because it is in the hands of God, the Good.
In the first it is—
"Thus my failings vanish too
From my wearied soul
And again within it visions rise
Of my early purer days."
In the second,—
"And now I too have consolation:
Wherefore murmur against my God
When at least to one living being
I could of freedom make a gift?"
And in the last,—
"In the future lives the heart:
Is the present sad indeed?
'T is but a moment, all will pass.…"
This is consoling utterance, but not yet of the highest; and the loftiest spiritual song, the song of the Psalmist, was not given unto Pushkin to sing.
III. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.
20. I have translated the poems of Pushkin not so much because they are masterpieces in the literature of Russia, as because I think the English reading-public has much to learn from him. English literature is already blessed with masterpieces, which, if readers would only be content to study them for the sake of what they have to impart (not amuse with!), would give enough employment as well as amusement for all the time an ordinary reader can give to literature. So that merely for the sake of making new beauty accessible to English readers, it is hardly worth while to go out of English literature, and drag over from beyond the Atlantic poor Pushkin as a new beast in a circus for admiration. The craze for novelty has its place in human nature but not as an end in itself. As a literary method, it might be found commendable in a magazine editor, whose highest ambition is to follow the standard of a public even he does not respect. It might be found commendable in a gifted author to whom bread is dearer than his genius, so that he is ready to sacrifice the one to the other; but an inexperienced author, who has not yet learned wisdom (or is it prudence merely?) from the bitter literary disappointments which are surely in store for every earnest, aspiring soul,—such an author, I say,—must not be expected to make mere novelty his motive for serious work. Nay, the conclusion at which Pascal arrived, at the age of twenty-six, that there is really only one book that to an earnest soul is sufficient for a lifetime to read,—namely, the Bible,—extravagant though this sound, I am ready, after many years of reflection on this saying of Pascal, to subscribe to, even at an age when I have six years of experience additional to his.… To read much, but not many books, is old wisdom, yet ever new. A literary masterpiece is to be read, not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but scores of times. A literary masterpiece should, like true love, grow dearer with intercourse. A literary masterpiece should be read and re-read until it has become part of our flesh and circulates in our blood, until its purity, its loftiness, its wisdom, utter itself in our every deed. It is this devotion to one book that has made the Puritans of such heroic mould; they fed on one book until they talked and walked and lived out their spiritual food. If any one think this estimate of the influence of one great book exaggerated, let him try to live for one week in succession wholly in the spirit of the one book that to him is the book (I will not quarrel with him if it be Smiles instead of St. Matthew, or Malthus's Essay on Population instead of the Gospel of St. John, or even our modern realistic Gospel of dirt), and let him see what will come of it.
21. Shakespeare, Milton, Carlyle, Ruskin, Emerson, Scott, Goldsmith, Irving, Johnson, Addison, furnish a library which is really enough for the life-time of any one who takes life seriously, and comes to these masters, not as a conceited lord waiting for amusement,—as a judge, in short,—but as a beggar, an humble learner, hoping to carry away from them not the tickle of pleasure, but the life-giving sustenance. To make letters a source of amusement is but to dig for iron with a spade of gold. Amusement is indeed often necessary, just as roasting eggs is often necessary; but who would travel to a volcano for the sake of roasting his eggs? No, the masters in letters are not sent to us for our amusement; they are sent to us to give the one answer to each of us, which at the peril of our lives we must sooner or later receive,—the answer to the question: How shall we live to be worthy of that spark from heaven which is given us in trust to keep alive for the brief years of life on earth? The great masters, then, are the inspirers; and God ever sees to it that there be enough inspirers, if men but see to it that there be enough inspired.
22. But of the millions of the English-speaking readers, who to-day assimilates the masterpieces of English literature? Generations come, and generations go. The classic writers keep their reputation; but do they hold their readers? Do the readers hold to the masters? Not the masters sway the public taste, not the writers of the first rank, not the giants; but the pygmies, the minions, the men of the second, fifth, twentieth rank. If any one think me extravagant, let him cast a glance of his open eyes at our monthly reviews and magazines, both here and in England, especially those whose circulation reaches into the hundreds of thousands.…
23. Not, then, because additional masterpieces are needed for rousing our degenerate literary taste have I translated Pushkin. As long as the literary editors (who, from the very fact of once having the ear of the public, become the stewards of the hungry) insist on feeding it with the Roes and the Crawfords and the Haggards and the Stevensons and the rest of them, not only new masterpieces, but even the old ones will remain unread. The Bible lies on parlor table (if it ever get there I) unread; Milton lies indeed beautifully bound, but has to be dusted once a week; and Emerson need not even be dusted,—he has not yet got as far as to be the ornament of parlor table.
But I have translated Pushkin because I believe that even the masters of English literature have defects which are part of the English character; and as such they must reappear in its literature. And it is against these that Pushkin's poems offer a healthy remedy.
24. For the first characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race is that it is a race of talkers; and the destinies of the two most advanced nations of that race are to-day governed almost wholly by men whose strength is neither in the head nor in the will nor in the heart, but in the tongue. But the talker cares only for the effect of the moment. With the great hereafter he has but little to do; hence he becomes, first of all, a resounder, a thunderer, a sky-rockety dazzler. And once that, the orator need not even care whether he persuade or not; if he merely astound the ear, dazzle the eye, and overwhelm the hearer himself for the moment,—if, in short, he but produce an effect, even if it be not the effect desired,—it is well with him in his own estimation. The orator thus soon becomes the mere rhetorician. And this rhetorical quality, appealing as it does only to the superficial in man, and coming as it does only from the surface of the man, is found nowhere in such excess as in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon race. Ornament, metaphor, must be had, and if it cannot be had spontaneously from a fervid imagination, which alone is the legitimate producer of metaphor, recourse must be had to manufactured sound. Hence there is scarcely a single poet in the English tongue whose style is not vitiated by false metaphor; this is true of the greatest as well as of the least. The member of Parliament who smelt a rat, and saw it brewing in the air until it was in danger of becoming an apple of discord to the honorable members of the House, could have been born only on British soil. To take up arms against a sea of trouble, and to discover footprints in the sands of time while sailing over life's solemn main (no less than five false metaphors in this example from the Psalm of Life!) are feats that can be accomplished by the imagination of even a Shakespeare or a Longfellow solely because these are Anglo-Saxons. And I am yet to see five consecutive pages of any Anglo-Saxon poet free from this literary vice of false metaphor! I call this a vice because it is at bottom an insincerity of imagination. The false metaphors are not pictures seen, but pictures made up; they are not the spontaneous outbursts of an overflowing imagination, but the ground-out product of pictureless will for the sake of effect. And this I do not hesitate to call literary insincerity even though the process of making them up be unconscious at the time to the poet himself.
25. Now it is Pushkin's great virtue that his imagination is eminently spontaneous. He seldom uses adjectives; but when he does use them, he uses such only as do actually describe something. He seldom uses similes or metaphors,—he prefers to sing of the subjects themselves, not of what they resemble; but when he does use them, the reader's imagination is able to see the picture the poet had in mind, which is not often true of the English bards. Examples for comparison are innumerable; let a few suffice. Turn to Pushkin's lines, "Regret." He there regrets the days of his youth, but first tells by way of contrast what he does not regret; and his poem is simple, straightforward. Byron, however, in his "Stanzas for Music," of which Canon Farrar thought well enough to insert them in his "With the Poets," and Mr. Palgrave thinks good enough to be admitted into his "Treasury of English Poetry," finds it necessary to preface it with something like philosophical remarks, and then proceeds in this fashion:—
"Then the few whose spirits float above the wreck of happiness
Are driven o'er the shoals of guilt or ocean of excess:
The magnet of their course is gone, or only points in vain
The shore to which their shivered sail shall never stretch again.
"Then the mortal coldness of the soul till death itself comes down;
It cannot feel for other's woes, it dare not dream its own.
That heavy chill has frozen o'er the fountain of our tears,
And though the eye may sparkle still, 't is where the ice appears.
"Oh, could I feel as I have felt, or be what I have been,
Or weep as I could once have wept o'er many a vanished scene,
As springs in deserts found seem sweet, all brackish though they be,
So midst the withered waste of life, those tears would flow to me."
One must go to Shakespeare's Sonnets for poetry as false as this. Among writers with the true poetic feeling, such as Byron truly had, I know not the like of this except these. Of these twelve lines only the first two of the last stanza are true, are felt; the rest are made. How are we, not Arabs but English-talking folk, to know the springs which in deserts found seem (do they?) sweet, brackish though they be? And Byron was a poet! But even a Byron cannot make a shivered sail or a coldness of a soul which is mortal, or a chill that freezes over a fountain of tears anything but mere verbiage, and verbiage moreover which instead of the intended sadness is dangerously nigh raising laughter.…
26. Again, take Longfellow's "Hymn to Night:"—
"I heard the trailing garments of the night
Sweep through her marble halls!
I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light
From the celestial walls.
From the cool cisterns of the midnight air,
My spirit drank repose."
For the like of this one can no longer go even to Shakespeare's Sonnets. For Shakespeare was still a poet. One must now go to Mrs. Deland, who is not even that. For observe: Night has halls, and these halls are marble halls; and this marble-halled Night is unable to stay at home, and must go forth, and accordingly she does go in full dress with her garments trailing with a right gracious sweep. And the bard not only sees the sable skirts which dangle about in fringes made phosphorescent by contact with the celestial walls of such peculiar marble, but he even hears the rustle.… And these halls with accommodating grace are changed into cool, deep cisterns from which accordingly the bard's spirit with due solemnity draws into his spirit's wide-opened mouth a draught of repose.
27. Turn from this "Hymn to Night" of thirty lines to the three lines of Pushkin in his "Reminiscence," which alone he devotes to Night:—
"When noisy day to mortals quiet grows,
And upon the city's silent walls
Night's shadow half-transparent lies."
The marble halls and the trailing garments were ground out from the writer's fingers; the half-transparent shadow of the poet came to the poet.…
28. After such examples of wretchedness from real giants such as Byron and Longfellow indisputably are, I do not hesitate to ask the reader for a last example to turn first to Pushkin's "Cloud," and then read Shelley's poem on the same subject:—
"I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams. [Just how are leaves thus laid?]
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,
As she dances about in the sun."
(Oh, good, my Shelley! one dances to and fro; one cannot dance in a uniform, straightforward motion. Thy imagination never saw that picture! Spin, whirl, rush,—yes, but dance?)
"That orbed maiden with white fire laden
Whom mortals call the Moon
Glides glimmering o'er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet
Which only the angels hear
May have broken the woof of my tent's roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer."
Who has not been stirred by the sight of the fleece-like, broken clouds on a moonlight night? But who on looking up to that noble arch overhead at such a moment could see it as a floor?…
29. I call this wretched poetry, even though other critics vociferously declare Shelley's "Cloud" to be one of the masterpieces of the English language. De gustibus поп disputandum. The Chinese have a liking, it is said, for black teeth, and a bulb of a nose is considered a great beauty in some parts of Africa, and a human leg is considered a great delicacy by some Islanders; but…
30. And the second characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race, which, however valuable it may prove in practical life, is reflected disastrously in its poetry, is its incapacity to appreciate true sentiment. An Anglo-Saxon knows sentimentality when he sees it, he knows morbidness when he sees it; but the healthy sentiment of which these are but the diseases he is incapable of appreciating to a depth where it would become part of his life. Hence, though a Malthus might have written his Essay on Population anywhere, since it is a truly cosmopolitan book, a Malthusian doctrine with all that it means and stands for could have grown up only on British soil; and though the warning voice against the dangers of sentimental charity (if there really be such a thing, and if such a thing, supposing it to exist, be really dangerous!) might be lifted in any land, the hard, frigid, almost brutal doctrine of scientific charity could strike root only in London, and blossom out in full array only in a city like Boston. The reader will please observe that I do not here undertake to judge. Malthusian doctrine, scientific charity, brutality of any kind may be necessary, for aught I know. A great many well-meaning and kind-hearted people have in sober thought decided that it often is necessary. I am only stating what seems to me to be a fact. To me this is a most melancholy fact; to others it may be a joyful fact. But whether joyful or melancholy, this fact explains why so little sentiment is found among the Anglo-Saxon poets even when they feel their passions, and do not, as is usually the case with them, reason about them, or what is worse, compose far-fetched similes about them. Glimpses of sentiment are of course found now and then, but only now and then. It is not often that Wordsworth sings in such pure strains as that of the lines,—
"My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky."
It is not often that Byron strikes a chord as deep as that of the lines "In an Album:"—
"As o'er the cold, sepulchral stone,
Some name arrests the passer-by."
It is here, however, that Pushkin is unsurpassed. One must go to Heine, one must go to Uhland, to Goethe, to find the like of him. And what makes him master here is the fact that his sentiment comes out pure, that it comes forth fused. And it comes thus because it comes from the depths; and as such it must find response even in an Anglo-Saxon heart, provided it has not yet been eaten into by Malthusian law and scientific charity. Pushkin's sentiment extorts respect even where it finds no longer any response; and as the sight of nobility stirs a healthy soul to noble deeds, as the sight of beauty refines the eye, so the presence of true sentiment can only awaken whatever sentiment already sleeps within us. It is for supplying this glaring defect in the English poets that a reading of Pushkin becomes invaluable. I almost fear to quote or compare. Sentiment cannot be argued about; like all else of the highest, deepest, like God, like love, it must be felt. Where it is understood, nothing need be said; where it is not understood, nothing can be said.…31. And yet a single example I venture to give. Pushkin's "Inspiring Love" and Wordsworth's "Phantom of Delight" treat of the same theme. Pushkin sees his beloved again, and after years—
"Enraptured beats again my heart,
And risen are for it again
Both reverence and Inspiration
And life, and tears, and love."
Wordsworth also gets now a nearer view of his "Phantom of Delight;" and the sight rouses him to this pitch of enthusiastic sentiment:
"And now I see with eye serene,
The very pulse of the machine."
In the presence of such bungling, I am almost ashamed to call attention, not to the machine that has a pulse, but to that noble woman who, purified, clarified in the imagination by the heat of a melted heart, can only become to the poet, a—machine. And this is the poet (whose very essence should be sensitiveness, delicacy, sentiment) who is ranked by Matthew Arnold as the greatest poet since Shakespeare.…
32. I have given only one example, though there is hardly a volume of English poetry, with the possible exception of those of Burns, which does not furnish dozens of examples. If I give only one, it is because I have in mind Æsop's lioness, who gave such smart reply when chided for giving birth to only one young.…
33. There is, indeed, one poet in the English language whose pages throb with sentiment, and who is moreover singularly free from that literary vice which I have called insincerity of imagination; in purity of pictures, in simplicity of sentiment, Goldsmith is unsurpassed in any tongue, but Goldsmith was not an Anglo-Saxon. And even Macaulay's great praise of "The Traveller" has not been sufficient to give it a place of authority among readers. The persons that read "The Traveller" once a year, as such a possession for all times should be read by rational readers, are very few.
34. From what I have designated as the first characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race—its rhetorical quality—springs the second, which I have designated as the superficiality of sentiment; since the rhetorician needs no depth, and when he does need it, he needs it only for the moment. And from this same rhetorical quality springs the third characteristic of English writers which appears in literature as a vice. I mean their comparative lack of the sense of form, of measuredness, literary temperance,—the want, in short, of the artistic sense. For architectural proportion, with beginning, middle, and end in proper relation, English poets have but little respect, and it is here that Pushkin is again master. It is the essence of poetry, that which makes it not-prose, that it is intense; but intensity to produce its effect must be short-lived. Prolonged, like a stimulant, it ceases to act. Hence, one of the first laws of poetry is that the presentation of its scenes, emotions, episodes, be brief. Against this law the sins in English literature among its masters are innumerable. Take, for instance, the manner in which Pushkin, on the one hand, and English poets, on the other, treat an object which has ever affected men with poetic emotion.
35. Many are the English poets who have tried their voices in singing of birds; Wordsworth's lines to the Skylark, the Green Linnet, the Cuckoo, Shelley's piece "To a Skylark," Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," Bryant's "Lines to a Waterfowl," attest sufficiently the inspiration which tender birdie hath for the soul of man. Now read these in the light of Pushkin's twenty lines called "The Birdlet." Bryant alone, it seems to me, holds his own by the side of Pushkin. Shelley and Keats are lengthy to weariness; and Wordsworth is almost painfully tame. What thoughtlet or emotionlet these are stirred with at the sight of birdie is like a babe in the swaddling-clothes of fond, but inexperienced parents, suffocated in its wrappage.
36. This measuredness Pushkin displays best in his narrative poems. His story moves. His "Delibash" is the finest example of rapidity of execution combined with fidelity of skill. And the vividness of his stories in "The Drowned," "The Roussalka," and "The Cossak," is due not so much to the dramatic talent Pushkin doubtless possessed as to the sense of proportion which saved him from loading his narrative with needless detail. Gray's "Elegy," for instance, matchless in its beauty, is marred by the needless appendage of the youth himself. This part of the poem seems patched on. Wordsworth's "Lucy Gray" seems to justify Goldsmith's bold metaphor,—for it does drag a lengthening chain at each remove. Longfellow's "Prelude" has like "Sartor Resartus" a most unwieldy apparatus for getting ready. The poet there is ever ready to say something, but hardly says it even at the end. And even Tennyson, who at one time did know what it was to keep fine poise in such matters, is frequently guilty of this merely getting ready to say his say.
37. These, then, are the three great virtues of Pushkin's poems: They have sincere imagination, which means pure taste; they have true sentiment, which means pure depth; they have true measure, which means pure art. Pushkin has many more virtues which are common to all great poets; but of these three I thought necessary to speak in detail.
- Jeremiah Mason.