Saturday, 18 January 2014

M. TAINE'S "NOTES ON ENGLAND."


[From the Paris Temps-.]

No. II.—ENGLISH POETRY AND RELIGION.

To a mind thus attuned the true medium of expression is poetry. In proportion as the English are inferior in other arts, is their superiority in this one. My belief is that no poetry equals theirs, and makes a stronger and sharper impression on the mind; that there is none of which the words are more charged with meaning, or which more faithfully reproduces the struggles and aims of the inner man, of which the grasp is more effective and firm, and which moves the individual and deep-seated fibres so as to draw forth from them such splendid and far-reaching harmonies. On this head it would occupy too much space were I to pass their literature in review ; I content myself with citing only one recent poem, " Aurora Leigh," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, an extraordinary work, which is also a masterpiece ; I repeat, that space fails me in order that I may state, after have perused it twenty times, how beautiful I consider it to be. It contains the confession of a generous, heroic, and impassioned spirit, one superabounding in genius, of which the culture has been complete ; a philosopher and a poet dwelling amid the loftiest ideas, and surpassing the elevation of her ideas by the nobility of her instincts, wholly modern by her education, by her highmindedness, by her daring, by the perpetual vibration of her strained sensibility, wound up to such a pitch that the slightest touch awakens in her a vast orchestra and the most wonderful symphony of concords. It is all soul, and the inward monologue, the sublime song of a young girl's and artist's great heart, attracted and irritated by an enthusiasm and a pride strong as her own ; the sustained contrast of the masculine and feminine utterances, which, amid the outbursts and the variations on the same theme, continually become separated and opposed in greater measure, till at last, suddenly combining, they unite in a prolonged, mournful, and exquisite duo, of which the strain is so lofty and so penetrating as to be wholly unsurpassable. Formerly an epic poem turned upon the foundation and destruction of cities, and the strife of gods ; this one turns on the struggles of ideas and passions, on the transformations of characters ; its author having drawn her materials not from the outer but the inner life; and, large though the epic framework is, the inner life is still ample enough to fill it. The vicissitudes of a soul so redundant and full of life are as important as the en- counters of armies. In default of legends and divine apparitions, it has forecasts of the infinite, dreams and aspirations which comprise the world, wild or luminous conception of bounty and of truth, its hell and its heaven, dazzling visions, ideal vistas which, unlike those of Homer, do not open upon a tradition, nor, like those of Dante, upon a dogma, but upon the highest peaks of modern ideas, in order to re-unite at a still loftier eminence around a sanctuary and a God. There is nothing official in this God; he is the God of the soul, of a fervid and fruitful soul in which poetry becomes piety, which developes its noble instincts all around, and diffuses over infinite nature its sentiment of holy bounty. The whole is set forth in a style almost unique, which is less a style than the most daring, and most faithful method of a notation, created at every moment and in every variety for the purpose, so that one never thinks about the words, beholding directly, and, as it were, face to face, the living thought leap forth with its quiverings, its surprises, its soaring suddenly checked, its unheard-of flights from sarcasm and familiarity up to ecstasy ; a strange language, but true down to the minutest details, the only one fitted for translating the heights and depths of the inner life, the approach, the arrival, and the turmoil of inspiration, the sudden concentration of a crowd of ideas, the unexpected outburst of imagery, and the endless illuminations which, like the aurora borealis, successively shine forth in a lyrical imagination.

Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age :
That when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand and say,
" Behold—behold the paps we all have sucked !
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating ; this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life."

A style like that is the natural complement of such thoughts.

Let us think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit.
As sovran nature does, to make the form ;
For otherwise we only imprison spirit
And not embody. Inward evermore
To outward—so in life, and so in art,
Which still is life.

Poetry, thus understood, has but one personage, the inner man, and but one style, the cry of a triumphant or broken heart.

The more I reflect upon this conformation of the English mind, on their habit of introspection, on this pre-eminence of the moral being from first to last, the more clearly do I arrive at an understanding of the strong and innumerable roots of that serious poem, which is here called religion. In order to comprehend with exactness its value and authority, it is essential to distinguish two things—on the one hand the wording of the editor, on the other the sentiment of the reader.

This wording varies according to the views of the different sects—Quakers, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Unitarians, Anglicans, but that of the last is the most commonly accepted. And with reason, for the Church of England has on her side antiquity, her alliance with the State, her privileges, her endowments, her Bishops seated in the House of Lords, her preponderance in the Universities, her mean position between two extremes, between the faith, the dogma, and the spirit of the Puritans, and the faith, the dogma, and the spirit of the Roman Catholics. In the first place she is an old and legal compromise, and this suits the majority, which every where loves compromises, willingly follows tradition, and is obedient to the law. Moreover, she is rich, she is a power in the State, she has ties among the aristocracy, she has good connections, she is one of the organs of the Constitution, and, in virtue of all those titles, she finds favour among statesmen, among Conservatives, among men of the world, among all those who wish to be considered respectable. To crown all her Prayer Book is very beautiful, her services are noble and impressive, her conduct is semi-tolerant, she permits some play to the free judgment of the individual. Thus accredited she proposes and imposes her version, and it may be said that this version is generally admitted. There are three distinct parties in this State Church one, which is the more aristocratic, leans more upon authority, has the greater fondness for ritual, is called the High Church ; the other, which is more popular, more ardent more eager to make conversions and renovate the heart, is called the Low Church party Both of them, being rather narrow and inflexible, leave scope for the operations of a Liberal party, the Broad Church, which includes the minds which are the most eminent and conciliatory, and the best qualified for reconciling science and faith. Thanks to the latter party, the gulf which separates lay thought from ecclesiastical tradition has ceased to be impassable.
Among several other polemic and dogmatic treatises, I have just read Alfords "Greek Testament," one of the most authorised commentaries on the Scriptures. He does not go so far as the German critics ; his historical judgment is hardened by fore gone conclusions, yet his concessions are sufficiently large to satisfy common sense. According to him the Evangelists are not in perfect accord ; sometimes even, more especially as regards chronology, they contradict each other. " This is because they were not mere speaking trumpets, channels of the Holy Ghost, but simple holy men inspired by it." They had common materials from which to write, to wit tradition and come imperfect texts, but these materials were " subject to all the varieties of diction arrangement, omission, and addition which a narrative admits of when it is the offspring of several individual minds and several different places.

Each narrator, according to the nature, the defects, and the compass of his information, his memory, his imagination, and his sentiment, left his mark upon it. The whole is true, but it is true as a whole only. Now, between the divine kernel and the human covering, the dividing point is not clear; each person may cut off more or less, and even in the Church itself many persons cut off a large portion. According to Dean Stanley, being a Christian does not consist in believing in particular events in the life of Jesus, in particular dogmas revealed by Jesus, but in Jesus himself, in the moral and religious spirit with which the Gospels are inspired. He explains the gift of tongues in the same way as M. Renan. He admits, like the German theologians, that the Gospels, such as we have them, were composed long after the Epistles of Saint Paul. His comments on those Epistles are in the style of modern criticism, being marked by the details, the judgment, the independent and piercing forecasts which now-a-days distinguish a commentary on Dante or Pascal. He depicts Corinth, with its sea and its temples, after Pausanias, after the reports of travellers, after the experience of his own travels. He exhibits Saint Paul dictating to Sosthenes, a disciple who site beside him and who stops every now and then to remind him of an omission. " We can imagine that the letter to which Saint Paul replied was enrolled before him in such a manner that he could see at a glance the difficulties suggested, raise objections in turn, sometimes citing them in the very words employed, and sometimes in his language." He effectively describes and explains Saint Paul's style, a style as powerful and wonderful as the matter itself; a style jerky and forced, owing to the interior motions, wholly composed of outbursts or of rough fragments of burning thoughts leaping and clashing like pieces of lava amid flame and smoke ; he likens it in some respects to that of Thucydides, better still to that of Cromwell. He shows the Hebraic temperament and the Oriental imagination of the Apostle, apropos of which he recalls the state of mind characteristic of the Prophets and the Psalmists, and he goes the length of pointing out the relics of a similar form of mental exaltation among the Mahometan dervishes. In short, according to him, in order to understand the era of the Evangelists it is necessary above all to form a conception of enthusiasts and of the scenes of enthusiasm such as formerly occurred among the Puritans, and may now be found in the "shoutings" of America. Mr. Jowett carries criticism further still. When reading the New Testament he puts the common version on one side, and takes that of Lachman, the first being to the second what the Sophocles and Thucydides of the Revival are to those of Dindorf and of Becker, or what the " Pensées" of Pascal, published by the Port-Royal, are to the same " Pensées" edited by M. Feugère. The faith of the early Christians did not exactly resemble ours. " They believed that the end of the world and the second coming of Christ were at hand ;" transported with their conversion they lived in a species of  "ecstasy ;" their faith was simple and child-like, "it was the belief of men who did not try to penetrate the designs of Providence, and who had never dreamed about the perspectives of the future ; it was the sentiment of men who thought about the coming of Christ as we think about the return of a lost friend, many of them having seen him upon earth, and being unable to believe that he had bean taken away for ever."  Regarding the outside only, and from the world's point of view, they left the impression which would be now made by a sect of Dissenters, poor dreamers whom the men of the world would consider fanatical, narrow-minded, eccentric, and even dangerous. Their language bears marks of their mental disposition. The words justice, faith, charity, are much more vague as used by Saint Paul than by us ; they correspond to a more excited frame of mind, to a less definite play of ideas. When he says that Adam's sin is imputed to us, he is moved by an outburst of passion, he writes in the style of the Hebrews ; this merely meant " that we are all as one man by the community of our evil nature," and by this community, and not otherwise, are we all united in Adam's transgression. The excitement and the imagination of the Apostle and the Oriental are manifested by his frequent use of " very nearly," and his figures of speech are not formulas. When he speaks of redemption and sin offering, he alludes to a Jewish custom. Between this stormy and inspired spirit, which comes out of the synagogue, speaks in ejaculations, thinks in blocks, and the lucid, exact, discursive modern intellect, which separates and follows, one by one, the mass of precise ideas, the difference is enormous. It would be absurd, and horrible in addition, to elevate local metaphors into philosophical doctrines. The reader sees for himself the consequence of principles like these—to wit, the advent of philology, of criticism, of psychology, the renovation of theology, the transfiguration of dogma. The effect of this is visible already. Distinguished men, historians, clergymen, have resigned their positions in the University and in the Church, because their consciences no longer assented to the Thirty nine Articles. Bishop Colenso, of Natal, when questioned by converts about the Old Testament, and asked to pledge his word of honour that it was all true, fell into deep reflection, began to study the subject, read the German explanations, and ended by publishing a book which relegated the Biblical stories to the rank of myths. One of my friends, who is very well informed, estimates that out of twenty-four bishops there are four who favour the liberal criticisms emanating from Oxford ; moreover, these find support among a large number of influential and respected lay men, who approve of them. The modern spirit filters through other fissures—by geology and natural history—for which the English have great aptitude, by the experimental psychology which they have always cultivated. In truth, an englishman chiefly loves demonstrated facts, either external or internal—the incontestable and existing facts of which everyone can at any moment gain experience either within him or without. This disposition may give birth to theories and even to a system of philosophy, to theories like those of Lyell, of Huxley, of Darwin and of Tyndall, to a Philosophy like that of J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer ; and, where such a taste predominates, it leads the mind towards one of the forms of positivism, and, indeed, under diverse forms, especially among men of science, positivism is no rarity here.

Among contemporary nations, among the French, for instance these things, in different proportions, are very much alike. There, too, we find a symbol, a text accepted by the majority, comprehensive or narrow interpretations admitted by several small groups, a scientific scepticism to suit some free-thinkers and several men of science who devote themselves to a special pursuit. In all those things the points of resemblance are striking, but they are merely superficial. The inner emotion remain to be considered, the attitude of the reader in presence of the accepted symbol ; it is in this particular that the two nations differ irreconcilably. An Englishman is naturally influenced by the sentiment of the far beyond. For him, beyond human experience, prolonged as far as it is possible to imagine, there is an abyss, a vast we know not what, whether blankness or brilliancy ; and in this matter the most determined votaries of pure experience are at one with the believers. Beyond attainable things Herbert Spencer expressly places something unattainable, the " unknowable,” the infinite basis, whereof we can touch but a portion and the surface. If J. S. Mill dare not affirm this infinity which oversteps all limits, he at least admits it as a possibility. An expanse of darkness, empty or peopled, enveloping the narrow circle, wherein flickers our little lamp, such is the common impression made upon the sceptics as well as upon the faithful by the spectacle of things. Such an impression puts the mind in a solemn attitude; in does not proceed without a tincture of terror ; the human being is in presence of an incommensurate and overwhelming spectacle ; he is is inclined to wonder and awe. As he is reflecting, prone to moralise, he has no difficulty in recognising the far beyond in the moral, as in the material world. He speedily feels that his power is limited, his vaticination short, his undertakings uncertain, that he resembles a leaf carried away in a vast and angry current. During days of sorrow, at the funerals of his relations, in sickness or in peril, when his dependence and ignorance stand before him in sharp and dread outlines, his emotion becomes poignant. He turns his eyes towards the great universal movement, towards the obscure and imposing government of the whole. By dint of meditating, he tries to image it to himself, and, in default of another image, he pictures it as the government of some one, as the result of an intelligent and determinate guidance, as the work of a power and a mind to which nothing is wanting of those things in which he himself is deficient. Yet another step. If, amidst the imperfections he discovers in himself, the gravest in his eyes are his evil inclinations, if he is chiefly concerned with ideas about the just and the unjust, if his conscience is awake and active, the primitive emotion guided, rendered clear, and completed, terminates in the conception of a moral Deity. Thomas Arnold wrote to a person troubled with doubt, " Begin by regarding every thing from the moral point of view, and you will end by believing in God.”  Upon the structure thus reared, at the summit of all those converging pillars, this belief comes of itself and takes its place there as the keystone of the arch. The mysterious, the infinite, the far-beyond, becomes the mysterious Providence, and the texts of Scripture and the Liturgy are simply mediums for expressing the inarticulate yearning of the heart.

Such is the soundless preparation, the inner ferment, whereby the conception of God is formed and developed. The child receives it from without like a graft. But, in order that this graft should take hold, and should not remain a piece of dead matter in his mind, it is necessary that the mind should adapt itself, and cling to it and impart its sap to it. This is not performed but after tedious, hidden, and unconscious labour. It ordinarily takes years for the junction to be made and the foreign cutting to become transformed into an acquired branch. As far as I can judge, this is done naturally and successfully in an English mind, according to the process I have described, by the conception of the infinite powers which overwhelm us, by the concentration of those shadowy powers is one person, and by the installation of this personage on the throne of the moral world. In this manner religion ceases to be an official formula which men repeat, and becomes a living sentiment which men feel. In order to be convinced of this the reader has but to study the details of daily life in the correspondence, in the biographies, in the poems, in the romances, in all the spontaneous evidences which cannot be suspected of hypocrisy. Some time ago the newspapers published it letter which a poor sergeant, slain at Petropaulowski, wrote to his wife Alice, on the eve of the engagement ; nothing could be nobler, more touching more profoundly earnest ; it was the testament of a soul. Among three novels taken at random there are two in which at a momentous crisis we perceive the intervention if not of prayer at least of the solemn emotion of the human being who feels that above his own head and every head reigns infinite justice. The doctrine may be discussed ; in presence of the sentiment itself we can but bow the head ; it is sublime.


The Mercury 24 February 1872,












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