« PreviousContinue »
agreed. But these structural laws are never obvious in the great works of art; they are obeyed, not because they have been arbitrarily imposed by an authority from without, but because they are at one with the deepest artistic impulses and necessities. Shakespeare does not need to remind himself that he is an Englishman in order to write like one; he has but to follow the line of least resistance in expression, and his work will be English to the core. Literature may be said to approach perfection in the degree in which it reveals the life behind it, and at the same time conceals all trace of intention, contrivance, or method in making its revelation. In the highest work of all kinds obedience is spontaneous and apparently unconscious; for it is of the very essence of art that all traces of the workman should be effaced. A great poem has the volume, the flow, the deep and silent fulness, of a river; one cannot calculate the force of the springs which feed it; one gets from it only a continuous impression of exhaustless and effortless power. One has but to glance at the Rhone to feel that the Alps are feeding it. In the literature of races in their youth there may be no greater power than in the literature of the same races at maturity, but there is likely to be more buoyancy, confident ease, overflowing vitality, than at a later period; and these earlier works enrich all later work by the qualities they bring into the race consciousness. There was something in Homer which the dramatists could not reproduce, but which profited them much; there was a joy, a delight in life, a fragrance of the morning, in Chaucer which, reappearing in Shakespeare, make the weight of tragedy bearable. It is well for a race, as for a man, that it has childhood behind it, and that in those first outpourings of energy in play the beauty of the new day and the young world sinks into its heart and becomes part of its deepest consciousness; for it is out of these memories and dreams that the visions of art issue. The artist is always a child in freshness of feeling; in unworldly delight in the things which do not add to one's estate, but which make for inward joy and peace; in that easy possession of the world which brings with it the sense of freedom, the right to be happy, and the faith that life is greater than its works, and a man more important than his toil. A race, like an individual, must get this consciousness of possession before the work of the day becomes imperative and absorbing. The man who has not learned to play in childhood is not likely to learn to play in maturity; and without the spirit of play—the putting forth of energy as an end in itself, and for the sake of the joy which lies in pure activity—there can be no art. For work becomes art only when it is transformed into play.
Our race has had its youth, its dreams and visions; but that youth was lived on another continent; so far as the record of experience in our literature is concerned, we have always been mature people at hard work. The beginnings of our art are to be found, therefore, not in epics, ballads, songs, and stories, but in records of exploration, reports of pioneers, chronicles and histories; in Captain John Smith’s “True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Happened in Virginia”; in William Bradford’s “History of Plymouth"; in John Winthrop's “History of New England,” a narrative not without touches of youth—“We had now fair sunshine weather, and so pleasant a sweet air as did much refresh us, and there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden’’; in Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia”; in “Poor Richard's Almanac"; in Mrs. Bradstreet's rhymed history of “The Four Monarchies”; in Michael Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom,” of which Lowell said that it became “the solace of every fireside, the flicker of the pine knots by which it was conned perhaps adding a livelier relish to its premonitions of eternal combustion.” There are touches of beauty in Jonathan Edwards at his best; there is a spiritual charm in John Woolman's Journal; the directness and simplicity of genuine literature are in Franklin's Autobiography; in Freneau and Hopkinson there are strains which, in a more fortunate time, might easily have turned to melody; there were great notes struck by the writers and orators of the Revolutionary period—by Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Henry. But in all this early expression of the English race in the New World there is a clear, definite purpose, an ulterior aim, a subordination of the art to the religious or political intention, which stamp the writing of the time as essentially secondary.
Art involves forgetfulness of immediate ends; complete surrender to the inward impulse to give form to the beautiful idea or image or truth because it is beautiful. Of the naïveté of the old ballad, the careless rapture of Chaucer when the lark sings and the meadows grow sweet with the breath of May, the free and joyous play of imagination in Shakespeare, there is no trace in early writing on this continent. That writing was serious and weighty, often touching the heights of eloquence in noble argument for the inviolability of those rights which are the heritage of the English race; but the spontaneity, the freedom, the joyousness, of creative art were not in it. They could not be in it; the men who wrote our early chronicles and histories, who took part in the great debates which preceded the Revolution, and made the speeches which were heard from Williamsburg to Boston, had other work to do.
In Charles Brockden Brown a new note is heard—a note of mystery and tragedy; as if into the working world of the new continent the old elements of fate had come, to give experience a deeper tinge, and to make men aware that in the fresh as in the long-tilled soil the seeds of conflict and sorrow are sown. There is none of the joyousness of youth in Brown's romances; but there is the sense of power, the play of the imagination, the passion for expression for its own sake, which are the certain signs of literature. There is, above all, the daemonic element, that elusive, incalculable, mysterious element in the soul of the artist, which is present in all art; and which, when it dominates the artist, forms those fascinating, mysterious personalities, from Aristophanes to Poe, who make us feel the futility of all easy endeavors to formulate the laws of art, or to explain with assurance the relations of genius to inheritance, environment, education, and temperament. In art, as in all products of the creative force, there is a mystery which we cannot dispel. If we could analyze genius, we should destroy it. To the time of the publication of Wieland, or the Transformation, it is easy to explain the written expression of American life, to show how it was directed and shaped by conditions in the New World; but with the publication of Wieland the inexplicable appears, the creative spirit begins to reveal itself. Charles Brockden Brown did not master his material and organize it, and his work falls short of that harmony of spirit and form which is the evidence of a true birth of beauty; but there are flashes of insight in it, touches of careless felicity, which witness the possession of a real gift. The prophecy which the discerning reader finds in Brown's sombre romances was fulfilled in the work of Poe and Hawthorne. It is conceivable that a student of the Puritan mind might have foreseen the coming of Hawthorne; for the great romancer, who was to search the Puritan conscience as with a lighted candle, was rooted and grounded historically in the world behind him. There was that in Hawthorne, however, which could not have been predicted: there was the mysterious coworking of temperament, insight, individual consciousness, and personality which constitutes what we call genius. On one side of Hawthorne's work there are lines of historical descent which may be clearly traced; on the other there is the inexplicable miracle, the miracle of art, the creation of the new and beautiful form. It is the first and perhaps the most obvious distinction of Edgar Allan Poe that his creative work baffles all attempts to relate it historically to antecedent conditions; that it detached itself almost completely from the time and place in which it made its appearance, and sprang suddenly and mysteriously from a soil which had never borne its like before. There was nothing in the America of the third decade of the century which seemed to predict “The City in the Sea,” “Israfel,” and the lines “To Helen.” It is true, work of genuine literary quality had been produced, and a notable group of writers of gift and quality had appeared. Irving had brought back the old joyousness and delight in life for its own sake in “Knickerbocker's History of New York” and in the “Sketch Book”; Cooper had uncovered the romantic element in our history in “The Spy": “Thanatopsis" had betrayed an unexpected touch of maturity; Emerson was meditating at Concord that thin volume on “Nature,” so full of his penetrating insight into the spiritual symbolism of nature phenomena and processes; Longfellow had returned from that first year of foreign residence which had enriched his fancy, and through the sympathetic quality of his mind was to make him the interpreter of the Old World to the New. Hawthorne, born five years earlier than Poe—so like him in certain aspects of his genius, so unlike him in temperament and character—destined to divide with him the highest honors of American authorship, was hidden in that fortunate obscurity in which his delicate and sensitive genius found perhaps the best conditions for its ripening. The “TwiceTold Tales” did not appear until 1837. Lowell was a schoolboy, a college student, and a reluctant follower of the law; the “Biglow Papers,” his most original and distinctive contribution to our literature, being still a full decade in the future. Oliver Wendell Holmes, born in the same year with Poe—that annus mirabilis which gave the world Poe, Holmes, Tennyson, Lincoln, Gladstone, Darwin, Mendelssohn, and Chopin—had touched the imagination of the country by the ringing protest against the destruction of the Constitution in “Old Ironsides,” and in the same decade revealed his true lyric gift in “The Last Leaf.” Whittier was a young Quaker, of gentle nature but intense convictions, who was speaking to hostile audiences and braving the perils of mob violence in his advocacy of the anti-slavery cause. These names suggest the purity and aspiration, the high idealism and the tender domestic piety, which were soon to give early American literature its distinctive notes. To these earlier poets, romancers, and essayists were, later, to be added the name of Sidney Lanier, whose affluent nature needed another decade for its complete unfolding and coördination; and of Walt Whitman, who was so rich in the elemental qualities of imagination, and so rarely master of them. There was something distinctive in each of these writers—something which had no place in literature before they came, and is not likely to be repeated; and yet, from Bryant to Whitman, there were certain obvious relationships, both spiritual and historical, between each writer and his environment. Each was representative of some deep impulse finding its way to action; of some rising passion which leaped into speech before it turned to the irrevocable deed. To the men who were young between 1830 and 1840, there was something in the air which broke up the deeps