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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 FELIX HOLT, as we have seen, had been taken up at a time when she was in despair of finishing a drama, which Lewes for once did not altogether approve. She had written three or four acts, and on reading the old work again "found it impossible to abandon it." The conceptions moved her deeply, and had "never been wrought out before." Still it required entire recasting. Some of her views at the time are given in an interesting letter to Mr. Frederic Harrison (15th August 1866). He had, it seems, proposed some theme for her consideration. "That," she says, "is a tremendously difficult problem which you have laid before me; and I think you see its difficulties, though they can hardly press on you as they do on me, who have gone through again and again the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me just in the flesh, and not in the spirit. I think aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching, because it deals with life in its highest complexity; but if it ceases to be purely aesthetic, if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram, it becomes the most offensive of all teaching." She proceeds to point out the "agonising labour to an English-fed imagination to make out a sufficiently real background for the desired picture--to get breathing individual forms and group them in the needful relations, so that the presentation will lay hold on the emotions as human experience--will, as you say, 'flash' conviction on the world by means of aroused sympathy." She recalls the "unspeakable pains" involved in the preparation of Romola and the acquisition of the necessary Italian "idiom." The problem suggested by Mr. Harrison--its precise nature is not told--would, she thinks, be one of "tenfold arduousness." The statement shows George Eliot's perception of the real difficulty. "Ideas" may be seen "in the flesh" or "in the spirit": that is, I take it, as the abstract formulae of philosophy or as the concrete visions of poetry. The question is whether the writer who starts from the abstract can by industrious study so incarnate his ideas that they may be as vivid and real as if he had started from the opposite point of view. "Enough!" one is induced to say, as Rasselas says to Imlac, "thou hast convinced me that no human being" (and no philosopher) "can ever be a poet." No deliberate absorption of imagery can ever make up for the direct spontaneous intuition, and a task which involves "agonising labour" is likely enough to result in painful reading. Why undertake it?
2 George Eliot, however, thought differently, and attempted to achieve this difficult task in the Spanish Gypsy. She is soon "swimming in Spanish history and literature," and on 15th October 1866 begins the recasting. Early in 1867 she visited Spain to get up the local colouring, and after many changes the poem was at last finished on 29th April 1868. Lewes was in an "unprecedented state of delight," and especially pleased with the "variety" of the work, because he had persuaded her to put it aside "on the ground of monotony." The book, though the sale was considerable, roused some hostile criticism at the time, and has not convinced even her warmest admirers that she was in her proper place as a poet. She left a note upon its history which is interesting, as giving her own defence against the obvious reasons for dissatisfaction, and as illustrating her general position. The subject, it seems, was originally suggested by a picture of the Annunciation, ascribed to Titian in the Scuola di san Rocco at Venice. It embodied, she thought, a "great dramatic motive." A maiden, "full of young hope," and about to share in the ordinary lot of womanhood, is suddenly made aware that she is to fulfil a great destiny, and to have a terribly different experience. "Here," she thought, "is a subject grander than that of Iphigenia, and it has never been used." She then tried to find an appropriate embodiment, and could think of nothing except the moment of Spanish history when the struggle with the Moors was attaining its climax. She could not make use of Moors and Jews, because the "facts of their history were too conspicuously opposed to the working out of my catastrophe." Facts have that awkward habit. She thought, however (though the point is surely doubtful), that this objection did not apply to the Gypsies. The subject, as she meditated, became "more and more pregnant." It might be "a symbol of the part which is played by hereditary conditions in the largest sense, and of the fact that what we call duty is entirely made up of such conditions." Tragedy consists in the "terrible difficulty of adjusting our individual needs to the dire necessity of our lot," in which, of course, the lives of our fellow-creatures are involved. The great Greek tragedies often turn upon such a conflict between the inherited Nemesis and the individual whom it crushes. Othello becomes a "most pathetic tragedy" instead of a simple story of jealousy, on account "of the hereditary conditions of Othello's lot"--a point surely not much considered by Shakespeare. We may grant, however, that a tragedy may thus show the individual giving way to the general. It cannot explain why the conflict should arise, but it sets forth the pathetic consequences. In the Spanish Gypsy the action represents the loving and sympathetic instincts which are converted into "piety, i.e. loving, willing submission and heroic Promethean effort towards high possibilities." Certain remarks upon ethical doctrines are apparently meant to show that such instincts cannot be governed by "rational reflection," and therefore may at once arouse sympathy and lead to terrible scrapes. There are, however, two "consolatory elements" woven into the very warp of the poem: "(1) The importance of individual deeds; (2) the all-sufficiency of the soul's passions in determining sympathetic action." I mention these elements, as George Eliot attaches so much importance to them, though I confess that they do not much console me. One other remark is noteworthy. It might, she says, be "a reasonable ground of objection against the whole structure of the Spanish Gypsy if it were shown that the action is outrageously impossible--lying outside all that can be congruously conceived of human actions. It is not a reasonable ground of objection that they would have done better to act otherwise, any more than it is a reasonable objection against the Iphigenia that Agamemnon would have done better not to sacrifice his daughter."
3 It is plain that if the Spanish Gypsy failed to succeed, it was not for want of careful consideration of aesthetic principles. Moreover, without following this excursion into theories, we may, I think, take one result for granted. Undoubtedly, the conflict between "the individual" and "the general," or, say, between the duties which a human being owes to his own friends and family, and those which he owes to his country or his gods, may be an admirable theme for tragedy. Fedalma, George Eliot's heroine, is distracted between her love for her destined bridegroom and her sense of duty to the race from which she sprang. Nobody will deny that such a struggle presents an interesting and worthy theme. The difficulty comes afterwards. Why did George Eliot suppose that the only fitting historical embodiment was at "a particular period of Spanish history"? This seems to involve a singular leap in the logic. It is especially noticeable in a writer who has insisted that the highest motives may be found under commonplace outsides; that country parsons and farmers may have the "root of the matter" in them; and that even the passions which inspired the Greek tragedies may be shown at work in the breast of an eight years' old girl. "Heredity" has been annexed of late years by "realistic" novelists; but, in any case, the struggle between loyalty to our race or family instincts, and the wider forces of evolution, might be illustrated from transactions less obscure than the struggle in the Spain of the fifteenth century. A hopeful young English maiden of the nineteenth may be called upon to choose between making a respectable marriage and devoting herself to some impracticable ideal with tragical, if perhaps also comic, results. Why place the heroine among conditions so hard to imagine?
4 One consequence of George Eliot's choice of this romantic setting for her characters is obvious. In romance we have to take leave of common sense. That is an easy sacrifice to make on some occasions. Children, even grown-up children, may delight in fairy tales and the Arabian Nights, though they get into a region where the impossible is the order of the day and morality ceases to be binding. Poetically-minded people can still take some pleasure, I believe, in the old romances, and find in Spenser's Faerie Queene not only a delightful series of pictures, but poetry informed with a lofty spirit of chivalry. But in the Spanish Gypsy we cannot get so far from downright historical fact. Our ethical sentiment is to be seriously interested, and conviction is to be "flashed" upon us by aroused sympathy. Now, to sympathise to any purpose, we must understand. We must be able to appreciate the difficulty of the position and the severity of the ordeal. Here, however, we are terribly at a loss. The critical scene of the Spanish Gypsy is the first interview between Fedalma and Zarca. Fedalma has been brought up from her earliest infancy as a Catholic and a Spaniard. She has only seen the gypsies as a band of prisoners brought through the town in chains. She is on the eve of marriage to a typical Spanish noble, with whom she is passionately in love. To her enters abruptly one of the gypsies. He explains without loss of time that he is her father; that he is about to be the Moses or Mahomet of a gypsy nation in Africa; and orders her to give up her country, her religion, and her lover to join him in this hopeful enterprise. She is, of course, a good deal put out, and explains some obvious objections; but after exchanging some paragraphs of blank verse, she walks off with her parent, leaving a short note to inform her lover that she can have nothing more to do with him. Admit the least touch of common sense, and the situation is surely, in George Eliot's words, "outrageously impossible." We know enough of the gypsies of history to perceive that Zarca behaved like a lunatic. We may try to escape by dropping history and regarding "Spain," like Shakespeare's Bohemia, as a phrase belonging to the geography of simple romance. But, then, the whole story becomes too unreal to appeal to our sympathies. We are able to accept the position of Iphigenia, to which George Eliot appeals, as treated by Euripides, or even by Racine, and for the moment take for granted that the human sacrifice is a reasonable mode of conduct. That assumption once made, the position becomes clear. The father is bound to kill the daughter, because, as we know, the gods will be pleased. But the difficulty of the Spanish Gypsy is that if we try, as George Eliot tried, to imagine the actual state of things, the dilemma is absurd; and if we substitute a world of pure fancy, everything becomes arbitrary. We do not see why the daughter is bound to act like a lunatic. She informs us, of course, that she is deeply affected, but we cannot perceive that her motives are reasonable and intelligible. Considered from the ethical side, the objection seems to be fatal. Dr. Congreve, an adequate authority, said that it was a "mass of positivism." The meaning, if an outsider may venture a guess, seems to be that the positivist insists upon a view of duty as corresponding to the vital instincts of the "social organism"; the identification of the individual with the body of which he is the product, and the constituent and consequent readiness to sacrifice life and happiness to the interest of the community into which he is born. This doctrine was already preached, though in an imperfect form, by Savonarola to Romola, and becomes prominent in the Spanish Gypsy. Now one may accept the principle as true and valuable, and yet regard the stroy as a reductio ad absurdum of some applications. Fedalma, in her first interview with Zarca, exclaims--

   "Father, my soul is not too base to ring
   At touch of your great thoughts; nay, in my blood
   There streams the sense unspeakable of kind,
   As leopard feels at ease with leopard."
5 The human being should have higher instincts than the leopard. Fedalma, however, is gradually led to admit the supreme force of this appeal. She will not be "half-hearted."

   "I will seek nothing but to shun base joy.
   The saints were cowards who stood by to see
   Christ crucified: they should have flung themselves
   Upon the Roman spears, and died in vain--
   The grandest death, to die in vain--for love,
   Greater than sways the forces of the world!
   That death shall be my bridegroom. I will wed
   The curse that blights my people."
6 Of course, the young lady is excited. She is in the state of mind in which irrationality is a recommendation. Death surely is made grand by the grandeur of the purpose, not by the futility of the means. Surely the death of the early Christians and their zeal was wasted on an ideal as absurd as Fedalma's. Her doctrine, stated in cold blood, seems to be that our principles are to be determined by the physical fact of ancestry. The discovery that my father was a Saxon or a Celt might perhaps be allowed to affect my sympathies, but surely should not change my views of home-rule. In an interval of common sense Fedalma suggests that she will marry and persuade her husband to protect the gypsies. Nobody could object to that; but to throw overboard all other ties on the simple ground of descent, and adopt the most preposterous schemes of the vagabonds to whom you are related, seems to be very bad morality whatever may be its affinity to positivism.
7 The error seems to be precisely that George Eliot was hopelessly trammelled by the conditions which she had accepted. She could not get her abstract principle to become "incarnate" in facts. She falls into a hopeless entanglement. The facts become absurd, and the principle has to be distorted. It may still be asked whether, in spite of such views, the Spanish Gypsy is not a great poem. Paradise Lost is a masterpiece poetically, though its theology is grotesque and its proposed justification of Providence an admitted failure. Can we say anything of the kind on behalf of the Spanish Gypsy? It may clearly be said that it certainly shows a powerful intellect stored with noble sentiment and impelled to utter great thoughts. It illustrates curiously the union observed by Lewes of great diffidence with great ambition. She aims at the highest mark, though at any given moment she is despondent of achievement. She adopted the title of the poem, she says, because it recalled the old dramatists, with whom she thought she had "more cousinship than with recent poets." [Middleton's Spanish Gipsie was acted about 1621.] It seems to have been first written in the dramatic form; though, as finished, it became a set of scenes interspersed with digressions into epic poetry. The passages which would be represented in the regular drama by stage directions are expanded into descriptive writing or into psychological disquisitions intended to introduce us to the characters. The old dramatists, to whom she refers, might give a precedent for introducing a good many sententious remarks upon human life which have no very direct relation to the story; but, in truth, she reminds us rather of "Philip van Artevelde" and other modern plays not intended for the stage; and if we complain that the book tried by dramatic tests becomes languid, it may be replied that we have had fair notice that it belongs to a different genus and should be judged from the author's point of view. This, however, does not answer the ordinary objection that, after all, it is not poetry; or does not decisively cross the indefinable but essential line which divides true poetry from the highest rhetoric. Here and there is a fine phrase, as in the opening passage about--

   "Broad-breasted Spain, leaning with equal love
   On the Mid Sea that moans with memories,
   And on the untravelled Ocean's restless tides."
8 Or a few lines later--

   "What times are little? To the sentinel
   That hour is regal when he mounts on guard."
9 Passages often sound exactly like poetry; and yet, even her admirers admit that they seldom, if ever, have the genuine ring. They do not satisfy the old criterion that nothing can be poetry, in the full sense, of which we are disposed to say that it would be as good in prose. The lyrics which are interspersed are palpable if clever imitations of the genuine thing. Perhaps it was simply that George Eliot had not one essential gift--the exquisite sense for the value of words which may transmute even common thought into poetry. Even her prose, indeed, though often admirable, sometimes becomes heavy, and gives the impression that instead of finding the right word she is accumulating more or less complicated approximations. Then one might inquire whether, after all, the problem of "incarnating" the abstract idea, if not really impracticable from the beginning, was suited to her powers. The dramatic form especially demands the intuitive instead of the discursive attitude of mind, and the vivid "presentation" of concrete men and women instead of the thoughtful analysis of their character. Might she not succeed by accepting the conditions frankly, and attempting, in spite of its bad name, an avowedly "philosophical form"? She loved Wordsworth well enough to forgive his admitted shortcomings; and if the Excursion is undeniably dull, it is still a work which, in spite of all critical condemnations, has profoundly impressed the spiritual development of many eminent persons.
10 George Eliot was in fact led to try various poetical experiments. A volume of poems published in 1874 contained the "Legend of Jubal," begun in 1869, "How Lisa loved the King" (from Boccaccio), "Agatha," "Armgart," and "A College Breakfast Party," which were written in the same period. That they all show great literary ability is undeniable, though it is still doubtful whether they show more. The "College Breakfast," with its downright plunge into metaphysics, set forth with an abundant display of metaphor and illustration, is a singular exhibition of (as I must think) misapplied ingenuity; and chiefly interesting to people who may wish to know George Eliot's judgment of Hegelianism, aestheticism, and positivism. The most remarkable, however, is the short poem called "O may I join the choir invisible." It has been accepted by many who sympathise with her religious views. The invisible choir is formed of those "immortal dead who live again in minds made better by their presence." So to live, we are told, "is heaven." The generous natures have set their example before us, and our "rarer, better, truer self" finds in them a help to harmonies discordant impulses, and seek a loftier ideal.

   "The better self shall live till human Time
   Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
   Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
   Unread for ever.
         This is life to come
   Which martyred men have made more glorious
   For us who strive to follow. May I reach
   That purest heaven, be to other souls
   The cup of strength in some great agony,
   Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
   Beget the smiles that have no cruelty--
   Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
   And in diffusion ever more intense.
   So shall I join the choir invisible
   Whose music is the gladness of the world."
11 To appreciate the sacred poetry of any church, one ought to be an orthodox member; and, to many people, of course, immortality thus understood seems to be rather a mockery. It would be better, they think, to admit frankly that immortality is a figment. Even they may agree that the aspiration is lofty and eloquently expressed. Reflections upon a similar theme inspire two other poems. Armgart is a prima donna, rejoicing in the overpowering success of her first appearance, who suddenly loses her voice by a sudden attack of throat disease; and has to reconcile herself to the abandonment of her hopes, and to becoming part of the choir inaudible. "Jubal"--which seems to me to be the nearest approach to genuine poetry--is the story of the patriarch who invented music. He leaves his tribe for a journey which, as he has the prediluvian longevity, is protracted for an indefinite time, and when he returns finds that people have got out of the habit of living for centuries. The descendants of his contemporaries are celebrating a feast in honour of the inventor of music; and, when he innocently observes that he is the person in question, he is pooh-poohed without further inquiry. As he lies down to die his Past appears to him, and explains that he should be content with having bestowed the great gift upon mankind.

   "Thy limbs shall lie dark, tombless on the sod,
   Because thou shinest in man's soul, a God,
   Who found and gave new passion and new joy
   That nought but earth's destruction can destroy."

The excellent R. H. Hutton was offended by the doctrine of this poem, especially by the apparent implication that death is, on the whole, a good thing, because it induced a race, which had taken things too easily as long as they fancied that they had an indefinite time before them, to rouse themselves and invent musical as well as other instruments. The logic indeed--if really intended--does not appear to be very cogent. The moral that, as we have got to die, we should be content with the consciousness of having played our part, without expecting reward or bothering ourselves about posthumous fame, is more to the purpose. Jubal, who happily lived in a purely legendary region, does not come into conflict with historical facts like Fedalma, and may be taken as a satisfactory poetical symbol of a characteristic mood, suggested by the old thought of mortality and oblivion. I cannot, indeed, believe that George Eliot achieved a permanent position in English poetry: she is a remarkable, I suppose unique, case, of a writer taking to poetry at the ripe age of forty-four, by which the majority of poets have done their best work. Perhaps that suggests that the impulse was acquired rather than innate, and more likely to succeed in impressing reflective and melancholy minds than in vivid presentation of concrete images.

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