Louise Imogen Guiney

Wilful sadness in literature

Leave things so prostitute.
And take the Alcaic lute!
-Ben Jonson.

Mr. Matthew Arnold, in the preface to the first edition of his collected poems (1853) withdrew from circulation, and gave reasons for withdrawing, his splendid Empedocles on Etna. Nothing in Mr. Arnold’s career did him more honor than that fine scrupulousness leading him to decry his dramatic masterpiece as too mournful, too introspective, too unfruitful of the cheer and courage which it is the business of poets to give to the world. He says of it, that it belongs to a class of faulty representations “in which suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in actual life, they are painful, not tragic: the representation of them in poetry is painful also.” The same verdict that condemns the stagnant sadness of Empedocles reacts upon Clough’s Dipsychus, to some of us the most attractive of modern monodies, on Marlowe’s Faustus, and on Hamlet itself. But every one of these is an inestimable experience to the happy and the virtuous who love the intimate study of humanity, and are made, by the perusal, more thoughtful and tender. On none but general considerations, could Mr. Arnold have attempted to suppress Empedocles. The great rules of aesthetics, as for ethics, must be for the many, not for the few; and the many are neither happy nor virtuous: and it may well seem a sort of treachery in a man of genius to speak aloud at all, in our vast society of the desponding and the unspiritual, unless he can speak the helping word. This cannot be sufficiently insisted upon before young writers, who are too ready to burst in upon us with their Ahs and Wella-days, and to set up, at twenty, for jaded cynics, and lovers who have loved, according to their own pinched measure, too well. Some public censor, a Stoic having a heart, and perfect control of it, should be appointed, in every township, to kill off in the egg, whatever is uselessly doleful, and spread abroad the right idea of what is fit to be uttered in this valley of tears. The elect should be supplied with Empedocleian extras: but the multitude which can be impressed by their intrinsic evil should never be incited to approach their extrinsic beauty.

The play which leaves us miserable and bewildered, the harrowing social lesson leading nowhere, the transcript from commonplace life in which nothing is admirable but the faithful skill of the author— these are bad morals because they are bad art. With them ranks the invertebrate poetry of two and three generations ago, which has bequeathed its sickly taint to its successor in popular favor, our modern minor fiction. Authors are, in a sense, the universal burden-bearers; those who can carry much vicariously, without posing or complaining. Mr. Arnold’s penance for his melancholy is a noble spectacle; and it will always do what he feared Empedocles would fail to do, “inspirit and rejoice the reader.” The ancients stepped securely in this matter of sadness; for piety, retribution, awe, spring from every agony of Oedipus and Orestes. Many of the Elizabethan dramas are dark and terrible; but they compel men to think, and teach more humanities than a university course. Mr. Meredith’s influence, in our own day, is not such as will induce you to sit shaking your maudlin head over yourself and all creation; neither —need it be added?— is Mr. Stevenson’s. Mr. Henry James has just said of Mr. Lowell: “He is an erect fighting figure on the side of optimism and beauty.” What made Browning exceedingly popular at last, was his courage in overthrowing blue devils.

What had I on earth to do
With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly?

His many and unique merits have small share in the result.

Now, wilful sadness, as Plato thinks, as the School-men heartily thought after him, is nothing less than an actual crime. Sadness which is impersonal, reluctantly uttered, and adjusted, in the utterance, to the eternal laws, is not so. It is well to conceal the merely painful, as did the Greek audiences and the masters of their drama. That critic would be crazy, or excessively sybaritic, who would bar out the tragic from the stage, the studio, the orchestra, or the library shelf. Melancholy, indeed, is inseparable from the highest art. We cannot wish it away; but we can demand a mastery over it in the least, as well as in the greatest: a melancholy like that of Burns, truth itself, native dignity itself; or the Virgilian melancholy of Tennyson, in his sweet broodings over the abysses of our unblest life, and the turn of his not hopeless thought and phrase. We can demand, in these matters, the insincerity of the too-little, rather than the cant of the too-much. The danger of expressing despondency is extreme. The maudlin shoots like a parasite from the most moving themes, and laughter dogs us in our rapt mood. It was not without reason that Thackeray made fun of Werther. What Sidney sweetly calls, “Poore Petrarch’s long-deceased woes,” stirred up the scepticism of one Leigh Hunt, and of the indelicate public after him. No poet can put fully into words the ache and stress of human passion: no very wise poet will ever try to do so, save by the means of reserves, elisions, evasions. The pathos which goes deep is generally a plain statement, not a reflection. The old ballad, “Waly, Waly” for instance, is a hard thing to get away from, dry-eyed. Nothing is so poignant, at times, in poetry, as a mere obituary announcement. Hear the long throbbing lines of the old elegy supposed to be by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke:

Learning her light hath lost, Valor hath slain her knight:
Sidney is dead, dead is my friend, dead is the world’s delight.

Or Chapman :

For now no more of Uncus’ race survived: they all were gone.
No more his royal self did live; no more his noble son.
The golden Meleager now: their glasses all were run.

The heart-breaking climax of Lear, the bursting-point of so much grandeur and so much suffering, is a dying commonplace almost grotesque: “Pray you, undo this button”. But to harrow us is another affair altogether. Plato could never forgive a subject not inevitable, chosen simply because it is in itself piteous or startling, and invites the rhetorical gabble which its creator, after one fashion or another, can spend upon it.

The French and their followers have driven us into a demand for decency, and unmuzzled pessimism is no more decent than the things oftener named and contested by our worthiest critics. What use have we for any Muse, be she the most accomplished in the world, who lives but to be, in a charming phrase of Southey’s, “soothed with delicious sorrow”? Art has little to do with her: for art is made of seemly abstinences. The moment it speaks out fully, lets us know all, ceases to represent a choice and a control of its own material, ceases to be, in short, an authority and a mystery, and prefers to set up for a mere Chinese copy of life —just so soon its birthright is transferred.

“I answer paradoxically, but truly, I think truly,” that even Beauty has her responsibilities, and Art her ideals of conduct. Nay, she has her definite dogma. “Our only chance,” says Addington Symonds in a private letter to Robert Louis Stevenson, “seems to me to maintain, against all appearances, that evil can never, and in no way, be victorious.”

We owe our gratitude to the men of letters who deliberately undertake to be gay: for nobody expects unconscious and spontaneous gayety in books nowadays. The modern spirit has seen to that. No thanks of ours are too good even for the bold bad Mr. Henlev, who is so acrid towards Americans: for he is the one living poet already famous, who has struck, and means to strike, the very note of “How happy is he born and taught,” and “Shall I, wasting in despair.” But if our dilettantes lament a withered wildflower, or praise a young face, they feel that they have done enough towards clearing the air, and justifying “the ways of God to man.” It is inconvenient to have the large old fundamental feelings: to be energetic, or scornful, or believing. The fashionable poetic utterance is dejected, and of consummate refinement; le besoin de sentir is about it like a strange fragrance. We have had disheartening modern music, and of the highest order, too long. Beginning with Byron, and, in a far different manner, with Shelley, we may count those problems of our life few indeed which have lacked the poor solution of a protest or a tear. Wordsworth was the last great man

contented if he might enjoy
The things that others understand.

Yet Wordsworth counts for little in this case, since he had no marked constitutional sensitiveness. The lyres of “Parnaso mount” have grown passive and unpartisan. They have ceased to rouse us, and we have ceased to wonder at them because of it. To sigh, to scowl, to whimper, is the ambition of minstrels in the magazines; of the three, whimpering is the favorite. Now, to “make a scene” is not mannerly, even on paper. Before the implacable Fates we may as well be collected. It seems less than edifying to ask the cold one, though in enchanting numbers, whether her bosom be of marble, or of her ghost whether it will not visit us in the garden. Yet such attitudinizing pathos, impossible so long as faith was general, and true emotion therefore unexhausted, the pathos of the decadence, the exaggeration of normal moods and affectation of more than is felt, are expression forte des sentiments faibles,— is the prevailing feature of current verse. Rather, to be quite accurate, it was the prevailing feature a moment ago. There are, in the east, other portents more significant. It is indicative not only of his middle age, but of something touching ourselves and our tomorrow, that Mr. Swinburne, let us say, is less stormy and less maledictory, and longs not so incessantly to be laid in the exquisite burial-places of his imagination. They that wail well in duodecimo may presently be accused of giddiness and shallow thought. For literature, at last, is picking up heart: health and spring and fight are re-establishing themselves. Out of the alcoves of time, certain sunny faces of old look fatherly and smiling, as the vapors disperse. Hail also, young meek out-riders, morning-colored contemporarles! At least, you are of excellent cheer. You have done with sourness, and

hear it sweep
In distance down the dark and savage vale.

Change is at hand. The Maypole is up in Bookland.


MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “Wilful sadness in literature.” 1892. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Nov 2008. 04 Dec 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/wilful_sadness/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“The literature of knowledge and the literature of power”

Thomas De Quincey

There is, first, the Literature of Knowledge; and, secondly, the Literature of Power. The function of the first is — to teach; the function of the second is — to move

“A shelf in my bookcase”

Alexander Smith

It may be said that the books of which I have been speaking attain to the highest literary excellence by favour of simplicity and unconsciousness.

“The literary uses of experience”

Elisabeth Morris

For whereas the remoteness of memory is unalterable and eternal, the remoteness of our art-perceptions is apt to be momentary, and in part at least a matter of our own choice.

“Essayists, old and new”

Alexander Smith

A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin.

“Letter III”

Mary Wollstonecraft

We must have an object to refer our reflections to, or they will seldom go below the surface.