Paper delivered as lecture to the Historical and Literary Society of University College Dublin, February 1902.
‘Memorial I would have… a constant presence with those that love me.’
It is many a day since the dispute of the classical and romantic schools began in the quiet city of the arts, so that criticism, which has wrongly decided that the classical temper is the romantic temper grown older, has been driven to recognize these as constant states of mind. Though the dispute has been ungentle (to say no more) and has seemed to some a dispute about names and with time has become a confused battle, each school advancing to the borders of the other and busy with internal strife, the classical school fighting the materialism which attends it, and the romantic school to preserve coherence, yet as this unrest is the condition of achievement, it is so far good, and presses slowly towards a deeper insight which will make the schools at one. Meanwhile no criticism is just which avoids labour by setting up a standard of maturity by which to judge the schools. The romantic school is often and grievously misinterpreted, not more by others than by its own, for that impatient temper which, as it could see no fit abode for its ideals, chose to behold them under insensible figures, comes to disregard certain limitations, and, because these figures are blown high and low by the mind that conceived them, comes at times to regard them as feeble shadows moving aimlessly about the light, obscuring it; and the same temper, which assuredly has not grown more patient, exclaims that the light is changed to worse than shadow, to darkness even, by any method which bends upon these present things and so works upon them and fashions them that the quick intelligence may go beyond them to their meaning, which is still unuttered. Yet so long as this place in nature is given us, it is right that art should do no violence to that gift, though it may go far beyond the stars and the waters in the service of what it loves. Wherefore the highest praise must be withheld from the romantic school (though the most enlightened of Western poets be thereby passed over), and the cause of the impatient temper must be sought in the artist and in his theme. Nor must the laws of his art be forgotten in the judgment of the artist, for no error is more general than the judgment of a man of letters by the supreme laws of poetry. Verse, indeed, is not only the expression of rhythm, but poetry in any art transcends the mode of its expression; and to name what is less than poetry in the arts, there is need of new terms, though in one art the term ‘literature’ may be used. Literature is the wide domain which lies between ephemeral writing and poetry (with which is philosophy), and just as the greater part of verse is not literature, so even original writers and thinkers must often be jealously denied the most honourable title; and much of Wordsworth, and almost all of Baudelaire, is merely literature in verse and must be judged by the laws of literature. Finally, it must be asked concerning every artist how he is in relation to the highest knowledge and to those laws which do not take holiday because men and times forget them. This is not to look for a message but to approach the temper which has made the work, an old woman praying, or a young man fastening his shoe, and to see what is there well done and how much it signifies. A song by Shakespeare or Verlaine, which seems so free and living and as remote from any conscious purpose as rain that falls in a garden or the lights of evening, is discovered to be the rhythmic speech of an emotion otherwise incommunicable, at least so fitly. But to approach the temper which has made art is an act of reverence and many conventions must be first put off, for certainly the inmost region will never yield to one who is enmeshed with profanities.
That was a strange question which the innocent Parsifal asked—‘Who is good?’ and it is recalled to mind when one reads certain criticisms and biographies, for which the influence of a modern writer, misunderstood as the worship of broad-cloth, is answerable. When these criticisms are insincere they are humorous, but the case is worse when they are as sincere as such things can be. And so, when Mangan is remembered in his country (for he is sometimes spoken of in literary societies), his countrymen lament that such poetic faculty was mated with so little rectitude of conduct, surprised to find this faculty in a man whose vices were exotic and who was little of a patriot. Those who have written of him, have been scrupulous in holding the balance between the drunkard and the opium-eater, and have sought to discover whether learning or imposture lies behind such phrases as ‘from the Ottoman’ or ‘from the Coptic’: and save for this small remembrance, Mangan has been a stranger in his country, a rare and unsympathetic figure in the streets, where he is seen going forward alone like one who does penance for some ancient sin. Surely life, which Novalis has called a malady of the spirit, is a heavy penance for him who has, perhaps, forgotten the sin that laid it upon him, a sorrowful portion, too, because of the fine artist in him which reads so truly the lines of brutality and of weakness in the faces of men that are thrust in upon his path. He bears it well for the most part, acquiescing in the justice which has made him a vessel of wrath, but in a moment of frenzy he breaks silence, and we read how his associates dishonoured his person with their slime and venom, and how he lived as a child amid coarseness and misery and that all whom he met were demons out of the pit and that his father was a human boa-constrictor. Certainly he is wiser who accuses no man of acting unjustly towards him, seeing that what is called injustice is never so but is an aspect of justice, yet they who think that such a terrible tale is the figment of a disordered brain do not know how keenly a sensitive boy suffers from contact with a gross nature. Mangan, however, is not without some consolation, for his sufferings have cast him inwards, where for many ages the sad and the wise have elected to be. When someone told him that the account which he had given of his early life, so full of things which were, indeed, the beginnings of sorrows, was wildly overstated, and partly false, he answered—‘Maybe I dreamed it.’ The world, you see, has become somewhat unreal for him, and he has begun to contemn that which is, in fine, the occasion of much error. How will it be with those dreams which, for every young and simple heart, take such dear reality upon themselves? One whose nature is so sensitive cannot forget his dreams in a secure, strenuous life. He doubts them, and puts them from him for a time, but when he hears men denying them with an oath he would acknowledge them proudly, and where sensitiveness has induced weakness, or, as here, refined upon natural weakness, would even compromise with the world, and win from it in return the favour of silence, if no more, as for something too slight to bear a violent disdain, for that desire of the heart so loudly derided, that rudely entreated idea. His manner is such that none can say if it be pride or humility that looks out of that vague face, which seems to live only because of those light shining eyes and of the fair silken hair above it, of which he is a little vain. This purely defensive reserve is not without dangers for him, and in the end it is only his excesses that save him from indifference. Something has been written of an affair of the heart between him and a pupil of his, to whom he gave lessons in German, and, it seems, he was an actor afterwards in a love-comedy of three, but if he is reserved with men, he is shy with women, and he is too self-conscious, too critical, knows too little of the soft parts of conversation, for a gallant. And in his strange dress, in which some have seen eccentricity, and others affectation— the high, conical hat, the loose trousers many sizes too big for him, and the old umbrella, so like a bagpipes—one may see a half-conscious expression of this. The lore of many lands goes with him always, eastern tales and the memory of curiously printed medieval books which have rapt him out of his time—gathered together day by day and embroidered as in a web. He has acquaintance with a score of languages, of which, upon occasion, he makes a liberal parade, and has read recklessly in many literatures, crossing how many seas, and even penetrating into Peristan, to which no road leads that the feet travel. In Timbuctooese, he confesses with a charming modesty which should prevent detractors, he is slightly deficient, but this seems no cause for regret. He is interested, too, in the life of the seeress of Prevorst, and in all phenomena of middle nature and here, where most of all the sweetness and resoluteness of the soul have power, he seems to seek in a world, how different from that in which Watteau may have sought, both with a certain graceful inconstancy, ‘what is there in no satisfying measure or not at all.’
His writings, which have never been collected and which are unknown, except for two American editions of selected poems and some pages of prose, published by Duffy, show no order and sometimes very little thought. Many of his essays are pretty fooling when read once, but one cannot but discern some fierce energy beneath the banter, which follows up the phrases with no good intent, and there is a likeness between the desperate writer, himself the victim of too dextrous torture, and the contorted writing. Mangan, it must be remembered, wrote with no native literary tradition to guide him, and for a public which cared for matters of the day, and for poetry only so far as it might illustrate these. He could not often revise what he wrote, and he has often striven with Moore and Walsh on their own ground. But the best of what he has written makes its appeal surely, because it was conceived by the imagination which he called, I think, the mother of things, whose dream are we, who imageth us to herself, and to ourselves, and imageth herself in us—the power before whose breath the mind in creation is (to use Shelley’s image) as a fading coal. Though even in the best of Mangan the presence of alien emotions is sometimes felt the presence of an imaginative personality reflecting the light of imaginative beauty is more vividly felt. East and West meet in that personality (we know how); images interweave there like soft, luminous scarves and words ring like brilliant mail, and whether the song is of Ireland or of Istambol it has the same refrain, a prayer that peace may come again to her who has lost her peace, the moonwhite pearl of his soul, Ameen. Music and odours and lights are spread about her, and he would search the dews and the sands that he might set another glory near her face. A scenery and a world have grown up about her face, as they will about any face which the eyes have regarded with love. Vittoria Colonna and Laura and Beatrice—even she upon whose face many lives have cast their shadowy delicacy, as of one who broods upon distant terrors and riotous dreams, and that strange stillness before which love is silent, Mona Lisa—embody one chivalrous idea, which is no mortal thing, bearing it bravely above the accidents of lust and faithlessness and weariness; and she whose white and holy hands have the virtue of enchanted hands, his virgin flower, and flower of flowers, is no less than these an embodiment of that idea. How the East is laid under tribute for her and must bring all its treasures to her feet! The sea that foams over saffron sands, the lonely cedar on the Balkans, the hall damascened with moons of gold and a breath of roses from the gulistan—all these shall be where she is in willing service: reverence and peace shall be the service of the heart, as in the verses ‘To Mihri’:
My starlight, my moonlight, my midnight, my noonlight,
Unveil not, unveil not!
And where the music shakes off its languor and is full of the ecstasy of combat, as in the ‘Lament for Sir Maurice FitzGerald’, and in ‘Dark Rosaleen’, it does not attain the quality of Whitman indeed, but is tremulous with all the changing harmonies of Shelley’s verse. Now and then this note is hoarsened and a troop of unmannerly passions echoes it derisively, but two poems at least sustain the music unbroken, the ‘Swabian Popular Song’, and a translation of two quatrains by Wetzel. To create a little flower, Blake said, is the labour of ages, and even one lyric has made Dowland immortal; and the matchless passages which are found in other poems are so good that they could not have been written by anyone but Mangan. He might have written a treatise on the poetical art for he is more cunning in his use of the musical echo than is Poe, the high priest of most modern schools, and there is a mastery, which no school can teach, but which obeys an interior command, which we may trace in ‘Kathaleen-Ny-Houlahan’, where the refrain changes the trochaic scheme abruptly for a line of firm, marching iambs.
All his poetry remembers wrong and suffering and the aspiration of one who has suffered and who is moved to great cries and gestures when that sorrowful hour rushes upon the heart. This is the theme of a hundred songs but of none so intense as these songs which are made in noble misery, as his favourite Swedenborg would say, out of the vastation of soul. Naomi would change her name to Mara, because it has gone bitterly with her, and is it not the deep sense of sorrow and bitterness which explains these names and titles and this fury of translation in which he has sought to lose himself? For he has not found in himself the faith of the solitary, or the faith, which in the middle age, sent the spires singing up to heaven, and he waits for the final scene to end the penance. Weaker than Leopardi, for he has not the courage of his own despair but forgets all ills and forgoes his scorn at the showing of some favour, he has, perhaps for this reason, the memorial he would have had—a constant presence with those that love him—and bears witness, as the more heroic pessimist bears witness against his will to the calm fortitude of humanity, to a subtle sympathy with health and joyousness which is seldom found in one whose health is safe. And so he does not shrink from the grave and the busy workings of the earth so much as from the unfriendly eyes of women and the hard eyes of men. To tell the truth, he has been in love with death all his life, like another, and with no woman, and he has the same gentle manner as of old to welcome him whose face is hidden with a cloud, who is named Azrael. Those whom the flames of too fierce love have wasted on earth become after death pale phantoms among the winds of desire, and, as he strove here towards peace with the ardour of the wretched, it may be that now the winds of peace visit him and he rests, and remembers no more this bitter vestment of the body.
Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality. It speaks of what seems fantastic and unreal to those who have lost the simple intuitions which are the test of reality; and, as it is often found at war with its age, so it makes no account of history, which is fabled by the daughters of memory, but sets store by every time less than the pulsation of an artery, the time in which its intuitions start forth, holding it equal in its period and value to six thousand years. No doubt they are only men of letters who insist on the succession of ages, and history or the denial of reality, for they are two names for one thing, may be said to be that which deceives the whole world. In this, as in much else, Mangan is the type of his race. History encloses him so straitly that even his fiery moments do not set him free from it. He, too, cries out, in his life and in his mournful verses, against the injustice of despoilers, but never laments a deeper loss than the loss of plaids and ornaments. He inherits the latest and worst part of a legend upon which the line has never been drawn out and which divides against itself as it moves down the cycles. And because this tradition is so much with him he has accepted it with all its griefs and failures, and has not known how to change it, as the strong spirit knows, and so would bequeath it: the poet who hurls his anger against tyrants would establish upon the future an intimate and far more cruel tyranny. In the final view the figure which he worships is seen to be an abject queen upon whom, because of the bloody crimes that she has done and of those as bloody that were done to her, madness is come and death is coming, but who will not believe that she is near to die and remembers only the rumour of voices challenging her sacred gardens and her fair, tall flowers that have become the food of boars. Novalis said of love that it is the Amen of the universe, and Mangan can tell of the beauty of hate; and pure hate is as excellent as pure love. An eager spirit would cast down with violence the high traditions of Mangan’s race—love of sorrow for the sake of sorrow and despair and fearful menaces—but where their voice is a supreme entreaty to be borne with forbearance seems only a little grace; and what is so courteous and so patient as a great faith?
Every age must look for its sanction to its poetry and philosophy, for in these the human mind, as it looks backward or forward, attains to an eternal state. The philosophic mind inclines always to an elaborate life— the life of Goethe or of Leonardo da Vinci; but the life of the poet is intense—the life of Blake or of Dante—taking into its centre the life that surrounds it and flinging it abroad again amid planetary music. With Mangan a narrow and hysterical nationality receives a last justification, for when this feeble-bodied figure departs dusk begins to veil the train of the gods, and he who listens may hear their footsteps leaving the world. But the ancient gods, who are visions of the divine names, die and come to life many times, and, though there is dusk about their feet and darkness in their indifferent eyes, the miracle of light is renewed eternally in the imaginative soul. When the sterile and treacherous order is broken up, a voice or a host of voices is heard singing, a little faintly at first, of a serene spirit which enters woods and cities and the hearts of men, and of the life of earth—det dejlige vidunderlige jordliv det gaadefulde jordliv—beautiful, alluring, mysterious.
Beauty, the splendour of truth, is a gracious presence when the imagination contemplates intensely the truth of its own being or the visible world, and the spirit which proceeds out of truth and beauty is the holy spirit of joy. These are realities and these alone give and sustain life. As often as human fear and cruelty, that wicked monster begotten by luxury, are in league to make life ignoble and sullen and to speak evil of death the time is come wherein a man of timid courage seizes the keys of hell and death, and flings them far out into the abyss, proclaiming the praise of life, which the abiding splendour of truth may sanctify, and of death, the most beautiful form of life. In those vast courses which enfold us and in that great memory which is greater and more generous than our memory, no life, no moment of exaltation is ever lost; and all those who have written nobly have not written in vain, though the desperate and weary have never heard the silver laughter of wisdom. Nay, shall not such as these have part, because of that high, original purpose which remembering painfully or by way of prophecy they would make clear, in the continual affirmation of the spirit?
James A. Joyce
February 1, 1902.