It is characteristic of this period of literature that, with exceptional vigour, it both provokes and defeats large historical generalisations. For its writers show an exceedingly high degree of historical self-consciousness and debate their problems in terms of ‘the needs of the age ’, believing that theirs is an age which calls for radically new insights, approaches and departures of the mind. On the other hand, this feeling is but a symptom of the dissolution of all naively held common beliefs, a negative fact which makes it hard to find for the epoch any positive common denominator. Is it a scientifically minded, materialistic, positivistic age? Yes, it is the age of Comte, Feuerbach, Darwin, Marx and Herbert Spencer. Yet it is also romantic, idealistic and anxiously waiting upon the spirit of man and his cultural possessions. Its intellectual history would certainly be badly out of focus if no mention were made of Carlyle, Emerson, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. Is it an age estranged from religion? Certainly. Yet religious feelings run high, and not only feelings. There are such profound and dramatic religious thinkers as Kierkegaard and Cardinal Newman, and there is, in literature, the deeply religious genius of Dostoevsky. Is it a prosaic age? Very likely; yet it is also the age which invented and passionately practised the doctrine of ‘pure poetry’, and which revelled in the emotional abandon of Richard Wagner’s music. Is it an age which believes in the innate power of man to embark on a voyage of infinite progress? It would no doubt be easy to answer in the affirmative were it not for the eager reception given—and by no mean hosts—to the metaphysical pessimism of Schopenhauer. It seems impossible to portray the age on a canvas of limited dimensions.
However, one generalisation can be made which is likely to prove fruitful for our understanding of the intellectual character of the epoch: the novel dominates the literary scene. This is clear not only in retrospect; it was recognised at the time. A contributor to the Prospective Review wrote in 1849 that ‘the novel is now what the drama was in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I’; and when the same journal said in 1850 of the novel that it was ‘the vital offspring of modem wants and tendencies’, it certainly spoke not only for England but for almost the whole world of letters.
Bagehot, reviewing in 1858 the course of the English novel from Walter Scott to George Eliot, hit upon yet another trend which was noticeable also outside the English literary scene: ‘The desire to attain a belief, which has become one of the most familiar sentiments of heroes and heroines, would have seemed utterly incongruous to the plain sagacity of Scott, and also to his old-fashioned art.’ In other words, the novel has a history: from the simple epic narrative which takes for granted that a human being responds in a universally established and plainly comprehensible manner to certain situations and events, it moves towards an ever-subtler delineation of the inner life, which is felt to be too complex to permit epic simplicity. Nietzsche once enumerated some of the qualities of mind ideally suited to the purposes of the new novelist: he must be endowed with subtle and bold senses, must be inquisitive to the point of cynicism, logical because he is disgusted with the muddle of life, a conqueror of riddles, a friend of the Sphinx. A far cry indeed from Scott’s ‘plain sagacity’! We catch a glimpse of the extremities of this development by comparing James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to that of Homer. The ancient hero travels through time and space, exploring the outer world; the modem Ulysses stays in town and in one day braves the adventures lying in wait for him in his own soul. The whole distance from Homer to James Joyce seems all but condensed into the few decades of our period. Walter Scott, who died in 1832, is, in this sense, still close to Homer; yet there is but a short way from Dostoevsky, who died in 1881, to James Joyce, or from George Eliot to Proust.
This increasing preoccupation with ‘psychology’ is, of course, related to the ‘desire to attain a belief’ which, according to Bagehot, had become ‘one of the most familiar sentiments of heroes ’. In the epic and the older type of novel beliefs did not enter the plot because they formed the clear background which threw up in relief the meaning of actions, events and sentiments. It was only with the blurring of that background that the search for meaning could itself become part of the story. The world of the old beliefs was a ‘cosmos’, the fundamental order of which was established once and for all. Many strange and exciting things could happen in this world, but whatever happened fell into its place. In the new world there were no preordained places. They had to be discovered in the souls of individual men and women; and the search turned out to be endless, with every new discovery brought into question by a still subtler suspicion. For in the algebra of the human soul one belief lost does not equal one doubt acquired; it equals an infinity of possible truths and untruths. John Stuart Mill described this situation well, even while he attributed its causes rather arbitrarily to two men, when in 1867 he wrote: ‘By Bentham, beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? and by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it?’ And the question asked by the hero of Disraeli’s Tattered (1847) could well serve as a motto to many works of the period: ‘What ought I to believe?’
With the gradual weakening and eventual collapse of the framework of fundamental beliefs about the meaning of life, literature was irresistibly tempted to modify its own meaning and function. It could no longer be content to provide higher entertainment or moral examples; it became itself an instrument of exploration, a tool in the search for truth. The early German romantics, above all Friedrich Schlegel, knew that this would happen, and even believed that it should. It is Schlegel’s voice that speaks through Carlyle writing in 1833: ‘Poetry, it will more and more come to be understood, is nothing but higher Knowledge; and the only genuine Romance (for grown persons) Reality.’ And at the end of our period the following was written: ‘We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.’ The author of this is, of course, Matthew Arnold. Was such ‘replacement’ not, for instance, carried out by ‘Mark Rutherford’ (William Hale White)—who said of Wordsworth that he had done for him ‘what every spiritual reformer has done—he recreated my Supreme Divinity’? Before the nineteenth century no statement of this kind is likely ever to have been made about a lyrical poet.
The exploratory character of literature, the conviction that it is ‘higher Knowledge’ and dedicated to ‘Reality’ expresses itself, on one level, as ‘realism’ in the commonly accepted sense of the term. The name suggests that now, for the first time in history, literature concerned itself with the ‘real’. To accept this claim would be to pander to an illusion and Nietzsche was undoubtedly right in saying that ‘realism in art is an illusion... All the writers of all the ages were convinced that they were realistic’. In truth, the realist writer is only, like any other writer at any other time, fascinated by certain aspects of reality, and uses the selective scheme of his fascination for the aesthetic ordering of his chosen materials. For we seem to get to know one thing at the price of losing sight of another; and however wide our interests, the sharp edge of our perception in one sphere is but in contrast to the bluntness of our sensibility in another. What then is it, Nietzsche went on to ask, that distinguishes modem realism? He arrived at an answer much in keeping with at least one form of the belief that the new literature should be ‘Knowledge’. The new writers were possessed, Nietzsche thought, by the desire to know and understand reality in an analytical and almost scientific manner; and thus, he said, ‘the artists of our century willy-nilly glorify the scientific beatitudes’.
This indeed marks a distinctive quality of nineteenth-century realism. For neither the ‘realistic’ subject-matter of the great realistic novels nor the brave contemplation of the ‘seamy side of life’ is new. Chaucer is exquisitely ‘realistic’ and the eighteenth century has given us considerable literary documents of life as it was lived, enjoyed or bungled, by people in the unheroic and unspectacular regions of existence. Dickens, in his Introduction of 1841 to Oliver Twist, believed he had to prepare the readers of his realistic novel for a shock: ‘...there are people of so refined and delicate a nature, that they cannot bear the contemplation of these horrors. Not that they turn instinctively from crime; but that criminal characters, to suit them, must be, like their meat, in delicate disguise’ But ‘the stern and plain truth’ of the ‘horrors’ which he promised would have seemed mild indeed to a Jacobean audience used to John Webster, Cyril Tourneur and John Ford; and Dickens’s ‘realistic frankness’ in the face of the unromantic and indelicate might even have been judged as not entirely free from prudery by readers accustomed to the straightforwardness of Fielding’s Tom Jones. No, the presentation neither of horrors nor of ‘realistic’ indelicacies breaks new literary ground. But what might strike readers of the past as new in nineteenth-century realism is the particular passion which is at work in the books of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (although not, or hardly at all, in the English novels of this period, with the exception of George Eliot). It is the passion of understanding, the desire for rational penetration and imaginative appropriation, the driving force towards the resolution of the mystery of living.
Baudelaire noticed how strange it was that Balzac’s fame as a realist writer should rest on his power of detached observation. It was the quality, in Balzac, of passionate ardour and visionary zeal which struck Baudelaire—a quality which distinguishes him from Dickens with whom he has often been compared.
Indeed, how tedious would be Balzac’s elaborate descriptions if they were not alive with the zeal for absolute imaginative possession of the things so described; how cheap would be Stendhal’s melodramas if the emotions were merely evoked without being completely controlled by the analytical intelligence and made transparent by the master-eye which sees through it all with rational irony! And Dostoevsky’s genius is closely allied to the spirit of detection, his singular greatness being due to the fact that the light by which he searches is also the fire by which he is consumed. Nor is it beside the point—the point of his art as a novelist—that Tolstoy repeatedly declared ‘Reason, that is good’. For the apparent quietness and equipoise of Tolstoy’s prose (some critics have even called it ‘idyllic’) is yet vibrant with the pugnacious enthusiasm of rational understanding.
Thus it would seem that nineteenth-century realism is a more complex phenomenon than its usual definitions suggest. On the other hand, it is of course clear that it has to do with the radical changes in the nature of society which are conveniently summed up as ‘capitalism’ and ‘Industrial Revolution ’. More than ever before, man now lived in a world which was, blatantly and noisily, made by himself. The domains of ‘civilisation’ and ‘nature’ fell apart. Both the quick accumulation of wealth and the sudden exposure to destitution appeared to be the probable fortunes awaiting an ever greater number of people; and while the lives of men were overcrowded with ‘stuff ’, the relations between men themselves, and between them and the mass-produced ‘things’, were rendered ever more problematical and ‘abstract’. With the ‘natural’ privileges of birth and inherited status retreating before the skill of making money, life became ever more strenuously competitive, things assumed ever more the character of commodities, and human worth was ever more definable in terms of finance. This is what Karl Marx meant when he spoke of the ‘abstract’ nature of human relationships within capitalism, of man’s ‘self-alienation’ in the midst of a world which was dominated by ‘things’ to the point of being finally itself transformed into a negotiable object.
The relevance of this to the contemporary literature is obvious. There is hardly a writer of any importance whose work does not reflect, in fascination for, or revulsion from it, or both, this major theme of the age. Hard Times (1854)—the very title of one of Dickens’s novels reflects the overpowering (and often overpowered) consciousness of the social and spiritual problems of the age, a consciousness which is an almost all-pervasive element in the English literature of the period. If an English journal in 1832 complained that ‘no one talks of literature in these stormy and changeful times... no attention is paid to anything but speculations on reform and change of rulers’, then, within a decade or so, it had become all but impossible to pay attention to literature without being talked to about reforms. On every level of immature sentiment or mature moral intelligence utterance is given—in the words of Mrs Gaskell’s preface to Mary Barton (1848)—‘to the agony which... convulses this dumb people’. The English novel is as problem-ridden as society itself, and obsessed with the identical problems. However, more important than the note of social indignation within many novels is the fact that sometimes, as, for instance, in Dickens’s Dombey and Son, the critique of society becomes the novel itself, is embodied in it and truly assumes its form.
Balzac’s great endeavour to depict, in a long series of novels, the human comedy, revolves around the theme of the essential falseness of human relationships in a world dominated by thoughts of money and power; and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) exposes the heart’s corruption, brought about by the discrepancy between ideas about life, vaguely and unauthentically inherited from the past, and the reality of living. Such doubts about the possible attainment of true authenticity amid the universal betrayal of traditional human values gives the genre ‘Bildungs-roman’—the novel which has as its central subject the gradual integration of one individual character—a new twist.
The literary archetype of the ‘Bildungsroman’ is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795 and 1829) which exercised an inescapable spell over the German romantics as well as the German realists. They could hardly think of a novel save in the image of Wilhelm Meister and its ostensible theme (ostensible because it is by no means easy to extract a thematic design from so labyrinthine an architecture). This theme was the ultimate reconciliation between a man and a world; and the only two considerable novels in German in our period, Gottfried Keller’s Der grune Heinrich (1854 and 1879) and Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (1857), are undoubtedly cast in the mould of Goethe’s work. Yet already with Goethe the antagonistic pair, individual and world, although finally persuaded by the poet to come to terms with one another, are of remarkably unequal stature. While the hero has a convincing (and convincingly autobiographical) existence, the world is an eccentric and hazy entity—as hazy as the ‘common good’ to which also Goethe’s other hero, Faust, in the end redeemingly dedicates his soul, all but damned in its powerful subjectivity. Even where the grip on the world is more realistic, as it is, for instance, with Keller, it takes two versions of Der grune Heinrich, separated by a quarter of a century, to decide on the true nature and outcome of the feud. If we add that in Stifter’s Nachsommer, one of the most beautiful creations of this period, the ‘world’ in which the hero’s education is accomplished is no longer the world at all, but a secluded and carefully guarded province of humanity, it will be clear that the ‘Bildungsroman’ was bound to undergo a radical change in an age which made the relationship between the self and the world problematical to the point of unsteadying the very notion of the integrity and authenticity that the individual might possibly achieve in it. Small wonder then that the term ‘realistic novel’, which rightly suggests a concern of the writer with the ‘real’, the external world, is almost synonymous with ‘psychological novel’ suggesting introspective preoccupation with the inner life. Where the traditional beliefs of society are thinned out into mere conventions and are no longer felt to be true, an unbridgeable gulf is fixed between them and the inner truths of individual existence. True authenticity becomes then a disturbing and hardly realisable demand. The question of reconciliation between such a world and such selves hardly arises, and the individual is compelled to embark on the chimerical chase after ‘self-realisation’— chimerical, because there no longer exists a valid model of an ideal self. The ‘Bildungsroman’ turns into the record of this chase, more often than not with a hero who exemplifies this subtle form of moral falseness, its dangers and its virtual inevitability.
This theme and this kind of hero enter into the novel, never to leave it, with Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816), the story of a young man who is driven to do what ‘ought’ not to be done, and is incapable of feeling what ‘ought’ to be felt. And although reminiscences of the traditional ‘Bildungsroman’ may be found in some of the English novels of the period, in Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), Thackeray’s Pendennis (1850), George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch (1872), the genre is most vigorously and influentially alive through its most ‘transformed character’: Julien Sorel of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830), who was to become the prototype of the ‘inauthentic’ hero— ‘inauthentic’ because ‘life’ provides no place for a superior being (‘un esprit superieur ’), as Taine described Julien. A genius is destined to remain an outsider in a spiritually corrupt society and to be, in his own way, corrupted himself in his state of alienation. The romantic imagination would have conceived a hero of this kind simply as an example of greatness uncomprehended by a dull world. Stendhal’s realistic sensibility is profounder: society is, at the deepest level, successful in denying integrity to genius. This is what gives finality and completeness to Stendhal’s critique. Julien Sorel, a ‘napoleonic’ youth, of socially inferior parentage, sets out on his career by seeking the black robe of the Church which was to open for him the doors of the world to richer feasts of power than would the red uniform of the Army, and ends by being guillotined for attempting to murder his one-time mistress who interferes with his ambitious marriage plans. The melodramatic plot is transfigured by Stendhal’s art into one of the subtlest works of literature, a work which has remained the classical example of the psychological novel. This kind of falsity was to occur again and again as the dominant theme of this genre. Balzac’s social cosmos, phosphorescent with disorder, is overpopulated by a race of villains and frauds, driving home the lesson that goodness is synonymous with failure. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) is the denial of authenticity, while his L'Education sentimentale (1869), the title of which promises a ‘Bildungsroman’, is in fact the reverse: not integrity and reconciliation, but moral disintegration is the outcome of subjective complexity and idealistic enthusiasm in contemporary society.
The theme persists in many variations and on many different levels throughout the psychological novel. In a different setting and with strong romantic overtones, it is yet central to Lermontov’s A Hero of our Times (1840), a book which holds a distinguished place in the distinguished history of the Russian novel. In the novels of George Meredith (1828-1909) the theme recurs repeatedly, often treated in the vein of sophisticated comedy. It is raised to the height of religious passion in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866).
We seem to have arrived at yet another possible generalisation about the literature of our period: in a large and representative portion of it the ‘hero’ becomes increasingly unheroic. True, from Stendhal and Carlyle to Nietzsche the heroic hero is again and again the object of yearning, romantic worship and metaphysical expectation, but the central figure of the great realistic novels hardly ever justifies the traditional name. It tends to become a mere technical term; and the heroic hero declines for the very reason which accounts for the emergence of the realistic, analytical, psychological novel itself. This took the place of the more ‘poetical’ forms of narrative because ‘life’ had ceased to lend itself to condensed poetical expression. To the new writers life appeared no longer as something given and definite, but as in a state of indefinite flux, in process of being made—and made by men themselves. Hence it constantly invited a new understanding, and yet constantly evaded it, protracting the search for meaning and the true interpretation over the pages of ever more voluminous books. For where there is no given and generally accepted order, anything—literally any thing, any thought, dream, or whim—may help to reveal the elusive truth. In such a world there can be no real hero. The traditional hero enacts his destiny in the face of a given world, a world which makes or breaks him; the new ‘hero’, on the other hand, is either on the brink of becoming the entrepreneur, the industrialist, of his own world and soul, or else of being submerged by the waves of historical circumstance. There is a kind of inner logic by which extremely disparate works can be identified as belonging to the same period: Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir with its profound critique of the heroic ideal; the same writer’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839) with its ironical reflections upon the actual reality of a heroic occasion, the battle of Waterloo; Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), the novel challengingly introduced as ‘A Novel without a Hero’ (in accordance with the author’s conviction, expressed in a letter, that, by its very nature, a novel should ‘convey as strongly as possible the sentiment of reality as opposed to a tragedy or poem, which may be heroical’); and Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-9), the epic of men and women at the mercy of the mysterious forces of history.
Of course this is by no means true of every work produced in the period. In English literature, an important exception is the works of the Bronte sisters, above all Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), a sanctuary of elemental passions, unaffected by the analytical, ironical, reforming, moralising, or rationalising temper of the literary world around. And if, reading a novel of this time, we chance upon words like these: ‘Delight is to him.. .who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever struck forth his own inexorable self ’, we may rightly wonder whether we are not, having left behind the main stream of the age, adrift in an unfamiliar ocean of timelessness and timeless heroic adventure. We are reading in fact what may well be the strangest of all literary masterpieces, the New Englander Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), the epic of Ahab, a whaleship captain, pursuing in the South Seas the white whale Moby Dick with all the passion, fascination and hatred of an ‘inexorable self’ at grips with an inexorable destiny and doom. In this novel, told against the background of a realistic setting meticulously and even pedantically described, realism for once merges, in a deeply stirring, if not wholly successful, manner with a heroic grandeur and symbolic immediacy which seems of another age, the age of Homer or of Shakespeare.
Further, by way of ‘exception’, there is, above all, the unruly genius of Victor Hugo—unruly because he defies all categories of historical classification and apprehension. In terms of literary history, he is an eccentric who yet occupies a central position in the literature of France; an enemy of classicism who became a classical, if somewhat belated, exemplar of romanticism. The heyday of European romanticism was certainly over when Hugo in 1830 took the Paris stage by storm, and shattered its seemingly invincible classical conventions with his Hernani, to repeat and strengthen his success with Ruy Bias in 1838. Although ‘romanticism’ is one of the most elusive (and most pervasive) characters in literary history, resisting every attempt to catch it in a categorical net, it yet has a forceful and distinguished ‘personality ’—and Hugo is certainly one of its incarnations. Reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir after Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831)—two almost contemporaneous novels—is like awakening from a lurid dream to the sober precision of daylight; and this despite the fact that it is easy to find many romantic ingredients in the realist’s work. Still, the medieval setting of Hugo’s novel, the architectural mysticism of the Gothic cathedral, passion expressed and not analysed, virtues and vices embodied in distinct figures, not debating their claims within the same persons, the flow and eloquence of rhetorical diction assailing the imagination with calculated melodrama and macabre images, paralysing rather than stimulating the critical intelligence—all this romantically relegates Notre-Dame de Paris to a place far removed from the literary centre of the period. Yet Hugo has a kingdom of his own, if somewhat impoverished in literary status, and in it he towers majestically, through the sheer force of his poetical ability, power of language and imaginative inventiveness, above many a minor caterer for the romantic requirements of the day. Among the latter, Alexandre Dumas pere (Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844; Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, 1845) and, on a considerably higher literary level, Prosper Merimee (La Chronique du regne de Charles IX, 1829; and, in a different vein, Carmen, 1845) are the most popular. Nevertheless, even in so romantic a writer as Hugo the spirit of the times in the end asserted itself: while an exile from Louis Napoleon’s France in Guernsey he wrote, among other novels, Les Misirables (1862) in which the heroic-romantic manner of storytelling is incongruously, but vigorously, made to serve the unheroic and unromantic social preoccupations of the time.
Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris is the most spectacular survival in our period of the genre ‘historical novel’, which only just before had held a dominant position by virtue of the power and influence of its inaugurator, Walter Scott. Indeed, it would be tempting to assume that the historical novel, as an upshot of the romantic discovery of the past (the German romantic Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, 1802—is the first truly literary manifestation of the genre) must of necessity be romantic. This assumption might draw support from the realist Flaubert’s trespass upon romantic territory, a literary misdeed which happened to take the form of a historical novel, Salammbd (1862); yet it would have to be abandoned if confronted with Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852), Dickens’s The Tale of Two Cities (1859), Adalbert Stifter’s Witiko (1864-7) and above all Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-9), a historical novel which many regard, with good reason, as the greatest achievement of literary realism in the nineteenth century. Indeed, realism, as a mode of presentation, invades not only history but another apparent preserve of the romantic sensibility: the ‘natural life’, the ‘rural idyll’. It is interesting to observe how, with the growing interest in ‘the people’, the romantic affection for simple and unsophisticated modes of living in town and country merges with the social and political preoccupations of the new realism, finally to be superseded by the latter; how the ‘pure Present’, romantically admired in the lives of humble folk, is transformed into ‘the claims of the Future’ which Disraeli, in his novel Sybil (1845) saw ‘represented by suffering millions’; how the romantically tinged and highly individualistic exploits of George Sand’s earlier novels (Indiana, 1831; Valentine, 1832; and Lelia, 1833) give way to the socialist enthusiasm of her later works (Le Meunier d'Angibault, 1845; and Le Peche de Monsieur Antoine, 1847); not to mention the distance from the almost idyllic and sentimental to the more sternly realistic which Dickens travelled between The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Bleak House (1853) or Hard Times (1854), between Christmas Books (1843-8) and Little Dorrit (1857).
This change of mood in the writer’s dealings with the poor expresses itself in a variety of literary styles, yet their common denominator is realistic observation and the absence of romantic sentimentality. It takes the form of satire in the Russian Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), a work designed after the model of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but with its first part (and only the first part exists) more reminiscent, in its plotless and rambling explorations of the social scene, of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836—7) from which, however, it differs in almost every other respect: through the violence of its satire which is yet shot through with mystical elements, and through the aggressive caricatures of its almost Jonsonian ‘humours’, the whole yet issuing into the prophecy of future national glory. In Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk (1845), which made its author famous in his country (‘A new Gogol has arisen!’ cried a Russian poet when he first read the manuscript), the realistic temper is infused with poignant pity and compassion. The Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius, who wrote under the name of Jeremias Gotthelf (Der Bauernspiegel, 1837; Uli der Knecht, 1841; Uli der Pachter, 1849), combines his very great gifts as a realistic writer with didactic zeal, conservatively upholding the truth of religion against the revolutionary appeals of his time. On the other hand, Turgenev’s book with the deceptively jovial title of A Sportsman's Sketches (1847-52), a collection of stories about the life of peasants, and one of the masterpieces of Russian realism, is alleged to have had a spectacular political effect (if so, certainly not against the author’s intention) in persuading one of its readers that serfdom had to be abolished. This reader was the future Tsar Alexander II.
Contemplation of the indisputable excellence of the Russian realistic novel is bound to put the reader on guard against two widely held views. The first, shared by many a literary historian, concerns the connection between literature and society. The realistic novel, it is maintained, is the literary form typical of the social, if not political, predominance of the middle classes, the artistic correlative of the arrival of an industrialised and industrialising bourgeoisie as the power socially and intellectually in control of affairs. In the light of this theory, the strength of English and French realism is then compared with the embryonic state of realistic literature in ‘backward’ Germany. Set against the mature social and political consciousness of Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, for instance, the literature of ‘Young Germany’ is politically immature and socially confused: even at its most ‘provincial’, the English realistic novel is decisively superior to its German counterpart. If we compare, say, Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855) or Barchester Towers (1857) with Gustav Freytag’s Soil und Haben (1855) or Otto Ludwig’s Zwischen Himmel und Erde (1856) we shall be struck, in the Englishman’s work, by a note of literary assurance and quiet competence, by a vitality and spontaneity of the imagination which is absent from the German works, or if perceptible at all, certainly to a considerably lesser degree. And before the ‘doubting’ women of Mrs Gaskell or George Eliot, the ‘Young-German’ Gutzkow’s Wally die Zweiflerin (1835) dwindles to the status of a jejune and dilettante literary exercise. On a higher level, Immermann’s Munchhausen (1838) will hardly bear comparison with the all but contemporary Pickwick Papers; and is it not revealing, a sociologically minded critic may ask, that Immermann, one of Germany’s most talented realists, should choose as his hero the mendacious baron of the ‘tall tale’? Is he not a symbol of the lack of social reality? And what are Spielhagen’s Problematische Naturen (1860) to the problematical natures of the contemporaneous French novel?
In support of the same argument the literary historian could evoke the American scene to show how the experimental nature and unsettledness of American society is reflected in the exotic flights and literary selfconsciousness of its writers. It may indeed be due to the (as yet indefinite) character of America’s social existence that her literary imagination, in all its incipient realism, tends to dwell in outlandish and fantastic spheres (Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe) or in the realm of timeless heroic passion (Herman Melville) or seek its roots in a novel brand of nature-mysticism and pantheistic transcendentalism, cultivated by the New Englanders, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, in their ‘Lake District’, the Massachusetts countryside, with—from a European point of view—surprisingly out-of-date idealistic determination. And how self-conscious, by the side of the European realists, is the realism of Nathaniel Hawthorne, marred occasionally by allegorical and symbolical contrivances even in his greatest achievement, The Scarlet Letter (1850)! Eventually, this sociological theory of literature may be reinforced by the fact that one of the best-known American writers of the period immediately following, the remarkable, pessimistic and didactic buffoon and humorous sage Mark Twain, wrote two masterpieces whose heroes are children, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884). For is not childhood farthest removed (except passively—and Huckleberry Finn is not at all like Oliver Twist) from social actuality, and closest to that elemental quality in life which will for ever make it an ageless adventure?
Yet even in America our theory would come up against a major hurdle; for it was in America that a new poetic voice began to speak—a ‘realist’ voice: that of Walt Whitman. And it would come to grief when encountering the Russian realist novel, and the fact that ‘backward’ Germany, more than England or France, was the model of ‘advanced’ Europe for the Russian intelligentsia, those prolific critics of their own sadly retarded country, whose ‘westernising’, indeed ‘Germanising’, efforts certainly contributed to the powerful efflorescence of Russian realism—in a social milieu of feudalist survivals, lingering serfdom and only the most timid beginnings of bourgeois capitalism.
The other common assumption which is brought into question by the Russian literature of this period concerns the essential ‘otherness’ of the Russian soul and mind. It is a double-edged belief, at work both in the criticisms and perhaps still more in the apologetics indulged in by the West towards Russian realities. Of course, Russian literature is Russian, but it would be hard to state with any precision the difference which sets it off from, say, English literature in a more ‘essential’ manner than English literature differs from that of France. If the concept of Europe is to make any intellectual or literary sense, it would be impossible to exclude from it such writers as Turgenev and Tolstoy, and it would certainly be incomplete without the ‘uniquely Russian’ Dostoevsky. Russian literature reflects, often in a dramatically heightened and spiritually more poignant way, the social, moral and religious perplexities which are common to Europe as a whole. The prototypes of Turgenev’s intellectual world, for instance, are not mythical figures of the steppes, but Hamlet and Don Quixote—two European literary heroes to whom he devoted his celebrated essay of 1860; and his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) with its pessimistically detached and artistically accomplished treatment of the conflict between two generations easily finds its place within a European pattern, establishing itself in it still more firmly on account of its preoccupation with the problems of unbelief, materialism and austere intellectualism. If Turgenev was the first Russian to be received by the West as a great novelist, this was because his manner of writing had great affinities to that cultivated in Paris, and not because he was essentially less ‘Russian’ than Tolstoy or Goncharov.
Even Dostoevsky—is he more ‘Russian’ than the rest of Russian novelists? Perhaps only in the sense in which Emily Bronte is less ‘English’ than Dickens. Indeed, Dostoevsky is ‘strange’, but he is a stranger also in his own literary home. The profound difference, for instance, between him and Tolstoy has become a classical subject of critical speculation and literary philosophising. And Dostoevsky is doubly bewildering because in the sphere of political and quasi-political thought and activity he amply shares, in his own manner, the interests and aspirations of the contemporary Russian intelligentsia, while all his major novels take place in a world in which there is no room whatever for political remedies or collective solutions. His world is indeed as much a social world as any which is presented in European realist literature, and Dostoevsky is as skilful as Dickens or Balzac at dramatising its conflicts in mystery, suspense and detection, but every human relationship in it is inextricably entangled with the promise of salvation or the threat of damnation. His creatures are certainly made of flesh and blood, but in their flesh and blood divine anxiety and the passion of spiritual fulfilment are incarnate. Compared to him, Tolstoy is, despite the serene acceptance of life which informs War and Peace, puritanical: ‘life’ is one thing, ultimate moral and religious demands are another. Hence Tolstoy is undoubtedly the greater artist by any purely aesthetic or literary standards, and has his assured place—perhaps the highest—in the history of the European realist novel. Therefore, too, Tolstoy wished, after his religious conversion in 1880, to abandon literature,-denouncing it as a deeply immoral concern.
Such a puritanically religious disavowal of art would have been meaningless to Dostoevsky. With him it is religion itself which takes shape in his books: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1871-2) and in the greatest of all, The Brothers Karamazov (1880). For his religion is not a religion of communal work, or transcendental felicity; it is a religion of flesh and blood and ecstasy and suffering. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are great psychologists, but their psychologies are different. Tolstoy probes the hidden motives and motivations of human behaviour, revealing the subtle interplay of natural impulses, social conventions and earthly ambitions. Dostoevsky’s psychological insight, on the other hand, leaves us, when all the probing is done, and done most penetratingly, with a psychologically indissoluble core of mystery from which every person acts out his part in a cosmic drama. And from this drama there is no dispensation. Dostoevsky’s Saviour has not come to set man free from pain, but to sanctify it in all its cruelty and sordidness. Religious rapture, therefore, is expressed in Dostoevsky’s works not through the mystical contemplation of pure spirit, but through man embracing the earth—the soil in all its impurity.
With Dostoevsky every human situation, even the seemingly most trivial, may find itself at the crossroads between Heaven and Hell—a location very different from that which the majority of realist writers would allot to human affairs; and it may well be that the undercurrent of spiritual pessimism, so clearly perceptible in most of the outstanding works of European realism, can be ascribed to the failure to share Dostoevsky’s sacramental vision of the world. On the other hand, the very uniqueness of Dostoevsky’s spirituality may give to it the occasional note of shrillness and hysterical over-emphasis, so different from the perfectly controlled poetic vitality of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that masterpiece which defies the faculty of critical appraisal by giving the appearance of being neither smaller nor larger than life, but just as large as life itself, thus setting the reader wondering whether this is not too large for a work of art. It certainly is the rarest example of a rarely achieved equilibrium between the artistic imagination and the actuality of living, an equilibrium so complete that no room is left for tragedy or melodrama, satire or sentimentality, caricature or moral purpose— ingredients hardly ever completely absent from the novel of the period. However, Tolstoy himself was unable to maintain this balance. Already upon his next work, Anna Karenina (1875-7), there fell the shadows of that despair which marks the beginning of his flight from literature into the life of religion.
At another extreme of the Russian novel, realistic pessimism and melancholy humour come into their own—and so suggestively and successfully that the hero of Goncharov’s Oblomov (1868), the story of an utterly purposeless life, became the great symbolic character of a Tost generation’, a Hamlet who ‘cannot care less’, a Faust who ‘cannot be bothered’. A pessimistic literary observer might see significance in the fact that the history of the realistic and psychological novel in our period begins with Le Rouge et le noir, that subtle and ruthless critique of society, its feelings and its ideals, and ends with the epic of Oblomov, who thinks life not worth the effort of rising from his bed.
Such an observer was Nietzsche. He had never heard of Oblomov, but he guessed his existence. Planning a book on ‘European nihilism’ (a book he never wrote), he intended to base its first chapter on an analysis of the literature of realism. This was to show, as a posthumous note suggests, how ‘between 1830 and 1850 the romantic faith in love and in the future turned into the craving for nothingness’. From his notes it would appear that foremost in his mind was Flaubert. And there is little doubt that with Flaubert a latent nihilistic disposition in realism emerges into the open. For the ‘realistic’ sense of reality, which possessed so many minds in the nineteenth century, lured him ever farther towards the rational conquest of the human world only to prove to him its absolute meaninglessness. Psychological truthfulness and faithful representation, the great virtues of realism, are, for Flaubert, nothing but the conventional surface of his literary enterprise. At its heart is the hatred of reality and the desire to conquer it. Even the ‘reality’ of the person who does the writing seemed to him at times a mere obstacle to the ultimate rational and aesthetic triumph. If only the human subject could be reduced to nothing but observing, understanding and writing; if only the real object could be transmuted into nothing but words! Reality ought to be dissolved by insight and style! Yet again and again, as we can see from his correspondence, Flaubert was dismayed by the undue resistance offered by the meaningless world. After the ‘realistic’ labour of L'Education sentimentale he said: ‘Beauty is incompatible with modem life, and this is the last time I will have anything to do with it. I have had enough.’ It seemed that no purity of style, however hygienically contrived, could prevail against the infection that realism was bound to contract by dealing with reality at all. Perhaps the immaculate victory over reality could be achieved only by writing, as Flaubert once said, ‘a book about nothing at all, a book without any external connection, and which would support itself entirely by the internal force of style’.
This, clearly, would no longer be realism. But these words of the realist Flaubert are relevant to a type of poetry which is the most original poetic creation of our period, and the suspicion that ‘beauty is incompatible with modern life’ is certainly one of the motives determining the course of poetry from romanticism to an ever more radical insistence on the ‘purity’ of the poetic sphere. The extreme antithesis of reality and poetry is the most characteristic feature of the literary history of the epoch so that, while the realist novel strives to come to ever closer grips with the ‘real’ world, lyrical poetry seeks to settle in fields which are at the farthest possible remove from ‘life ’. At the beginning there seemed still some hope of reconciliation: in 1826 Alfred de Vigny, the French romantic poet, wrote in the introductory essay to his Cinq-mars: ‘In our troubled and contradictory hearts we should find two needs which seem opposed to each other, but which—to my way of thinking—blend together in a common source: one is the love of the true, the other the love of the fabulous' The opposition is by no means new. It is at least as old as Plato, who attacked, in the name of truth, the misleading fabrications of poetic fancy. But what is new is that the opposing forces should become entrenched in the field of literature itself. For the two loves of de Vigny inspire the two main literary trends of the age: realism and romanticism; and if he still hoped for a reconciliation, then at the end of our period the poetry and life of his fellow-countryman Rimbaud stood as symbols of the incompatibility of the poetic with the real.
While ‘realism’ is, on the whole, the appropriate formula for the prose literature of the epoch, its poetry is predominantly ‘romantic’. To give any precise definition of ‘realism’ is difficult enough, but it seems to be of the essence of ‘romanticism’ that it is indefinable. It is an aroma rather than an entity; it is not in the shape of a deed but in the state of a soul vaguely reflected in action, not in the syntax and grammar of an utterance but in its intonation and cadence. Romantic practice throughout Europe has certainly not been entirely faithful to the programme of the German legislators of the movement. For this programme embraced, in its vast intellectual ambition, every conceivable contradiction of the human mind; and yet historically Friedrich Schlegel was not so wrong in proclaiming that thenceforward all poetry was to be romantic poetry. This has proved true in so far as almost all poetry since has been in ‘romantic’ opposition to the prosaic ways of the world—an opposition expressed not through a system of opinions but through a mode of imaginative responses. Thus the main source and theme of romanticism can better be stated negatively: it is the estrangement of the imagination and of the nobler passions of the mind, indeed, of mind itself, from ‘reality’. This is also one of the great themes of the philosophy of the romantic period from Fichte to Marx. Hegel already wrote of ‘mind mourning over the loss of its world’, then ‘rising above it’ and finally ‘creating, out of its own pure self, its true nature’. ‘In such an epoch’, Hegel added, ‘absolute art emerges.’ In saying this, he prophesied that ‘absolute poetry’ which is the climax of the story of romanticism. Rimbaud was to lament its tragic failure in Une Saison en enfer (1873): ‘I have created all feasts, all dramas. I have tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new languages. I believed I had acquired supernatural powers. Well, I must bury my imagination and my memories!... I who called myself seer and angel, exempt from all morality, I am brought back to earth, with a duty to pursue, and rugged reality to embrace!’ It was a near-contemporary of Hegel, the German romantic poet Clemens Brentano, who, some thirty years before Rimbaud, anticipated this particular outcome of the romantic cult of the creative imagination. ‘We have nourished nothing but the imagination’, he said, ‘and this, in its turn, has all but devoured us.’
A brief survey of the poetry written between, roughly, 1830 and 1870 is bound to confine itself, with one or two exceptions, to France, England and Germany. The classical poet of Russia, Pushkin, and the Italian Leopardi belong, with their main poetic work, to the preceding period. And of the three countries mentioned, it is France which contributes to the history of romantic poetry its most concentrated chapter. In Germany and England the ‘classics’ of romanticism had had their day. Goethe— whose poetry, despite his hostility to the romantic ideologues, partakes of the essence of romanticism—died in 1832. Novalis’s short life had ended in 1801, and Des Knaben Wunderhorn of Amim and Brentano, which, with its devotion to the lyrical spontaneity of the folk-song, is the most characteristically German of romantic enterprises, was published in 1805-8. In England, Coleridge and Wordsworth had practically ceased to write poetry; Keats, Shelley and Byron were dead. In France, however, where the classical model of literature had established itself with a persuasiveness and exclusiveness which it lacked in the rest of Europe, romanticism arrived with some delay, assisted partly by the fascination the German romantic theorist August Wilhelm Schlegel had for Madame de Stael. It was her De l'Allemagne (1810) which spread the new literary gospel of Germany among the French intelligentsia. Once accepted, romanticism enjoyed a more radically consistent career in France than anywhere else. Perhaps it was the logicality of the French mind—the very heritage of classicism—which allowed the romantic passion of poetry to play itself out so unrestrainedly that ultimately it could set up its reign of poetic terror over such men as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme.
If the early German romantics created the idea of romanticism and furnished it with all the profundities and paraphernalia of philosophical speculation, it was the French romantic poets who, more than any others, provided the popular imagination with the rich, if vague, picture of romantic practice. The literary history of France during our period reads like a complete inventory of romantic equipment. In Alphonse de Lamartine’s Meditations poetiques (1820) and Nouvelles Meditations (1823) a young man wanders through woods and mountains listening to the song of birds and the promptings of his lonely heart. In his Les Harmonies poetiques et religieuses (1830) God and Nature are one. Passions of angels and men, divine and human love meet in La Chute d'un ange (1838) and Jocelyn (1836). The tragic loneliness of the great, be they prophets of God or poets among men, is the pessimistically recurring theme of Alfred de Vigny: Moses (in Poemes antiques et modernes, 1836), Christ (in Les Destinees, 1864), and the Poet (in the play Chatterton, 1835, and in Journal d'un poete, 1867) share a common agony, the agony of the spirit deserted and victimised by God and the world. In Alfred de Musset’s life (1810-57) and writing the turbulent affairs of love and spirit are arranged against a background of exotic and ominous beauty, dandyism mingles with despair, Byronic irony with melancholy, delicate health is raised by spiritual yearning to the mal du siecle, and night is the time for poetry: Les Nuits (1840) is Musset’s most celebrated cycle of poems. With Gerard de Nerval (1808-55) poetry enters into the romantic alliance with madness, the subconscious mind bursts the boundaries of the dream and invades with its emblems of enigmatic beauty the daylight of verse; some of Nerval’s poems point backward to Coleridge and forward to the symbolists.
Theophile Gautier (1811-72) marks an important point in the history of romantic poetry: the point where the poetic self, after all the excesses of private and subjective outpourings, avenges itself upon a hostile world by setting up an autonomous world of poetry. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier pronounces the dogma of Art for Art’s sake. In calling for absolute obedience to the laws of this independent sphere, Gautier adds the classical virtue of form to the romantic code, and Greek and Roman antiquity to the romantic explorations of the Old Testament and the Middle Ages. With the establishment of a poetic world in its own right, a new objectivity becomes possible and necessary. The poet need no longer devote himself, in a poetically sterile world, to the poetic affections of his own soul and heart; a new world, poetical throughout, offers itself to his contemplative gaze. Gautier’s doctrine, exemplified in his volume of poems Lmaux et camies (1852), became the inspiration of the Parnassian movement which had its centre in Le Parnasse contemporain, a journal of contemporary poetry which appeared between 1866 and 1876. Although several poets, among them Leconte de Lisle and Jose-Maria de Heredia, gave distinction to the Parnassus, the name of Gautier may rely for survival on his own considerable poetic achievement and, perhaps still more safely, on Baudelaire’s dedicating to him Les Fleurs du mal. For Baudelaire was the most important lyrical poet of the period under review.
In the middle of the century, however, the question who were the greatest poets, would have been answered without much hesitation: Victor Hugo in France, Heinrich Heine in Germany, Alfred Tennyson in England. What we have said about Hugo the novelist could be repeated of Hugo the poet: he is both exceptional and typical. Moreover, no other poet can teach us better the degree of caution required in handling the almost useless yet indispensable concept ‘romanticism’. For it could be said that his is both the most and the least romantic among the great romantic reputations. Not for Victor Hugo the blue flowers of insatiable yearning, the spiritual seclusion of inwardness and tuberculosis, the mingled contempt and timidity in the face of the world. Small wonder that Alfred de Musset denied him altogether the title of poet! What could be less romantic than his seemingly boundless vitality, his greatly satisfied appetite for ‘life’, his regarding the unutterable and ineffable as mere tributaries to swell the mighty river of his eloquence? On the other hand, is there anything more romantic than his desire to enlarge the domain of poetry by conquering for it ever new and ever more foreign land, as in his early Odes et ballades and in Les Orientates (1829); or the intense exploration of his own feelings, passions and beliefs in volumes such as Les Feuilles d'automne, Les Chants du crepuscule, Les Voix interieures, Les Rayons et les ombres (1831-40), or his highly subjective reaching-out for ultimate mysteries in his Les Contemplations (1865), or his aspiration to render in a vast epic the whole history of the spirit of man: La Legende des siecles (1859-83)? Also, he was the most broadly comprehensible and therefore the most effective anti-classical innovator, experimenting with new images, new metres and new rhythms, and the most romantic of romantics in crediting poetry with prophetic powers, indeed in believing that the voice of the poet was so similar to the voice of God that the one might easily be taken for the other.
In his amazing versatility and eloquence, his power to blur the distinction between pose and sincerity, his political excitability, his talent to irritate and to divide literary judgment, Victor Hugo has his equal in Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the enfant terrible of German romanticism, with whom he also shares the experience of exile: as Victor Hugo writes Les Chatiments (1853), his satires against Louis Napoleon, in Guernsey, so Heine satirises from Paris the political conditions of Germany in his Deutschland—ein Wintermarchen (1844). Already his first collection of poems, Das Buck der Lieder (1827), had established Heine’s fame, which spread with the ease and smoothness of his verse and the infectious suggestiveness of his rhythms. No doubt Heine has a claim to greatness; it can be safely based on the immensity of his talent. It would be less safe to base it on his genius; if he has it, then his is the bewildering case of talent getting in the way of genius. He brilliantly succeeds in creating the impression of superficiality and irresponsibility, but he does not always silence the suspicion that he may in fact be superficial and irresponsible.
Nevertheless, the suspicion would be unjust. Heine deeply feels the conflict of the romantic sensibility: the intelligence refusing to co-operate with the emotions. But with Heine, poetry is not, as with the true romantics, the means of appeasing the conflict. On the contrary: he makes the lack of co-operation between the two faculties the very method of his poetry. Emotion and intelligence are kept apart and then suddenly brought face to face in a devastatingly ironical denouement. Hence Heine, like hardly another poet of his time, can render to perfection the emotional simplicity of folk-song and folk-ballad in a kind of pastiche which is so brilliantly executed that it transcends itself and occasionally even its model. At times he sustains the tone of naivete without the slightest ironical interference, although more often he uses his gift for superior mockery, not in order to discredit the sentimental, but, in a cunning manoeuvre of face-saving, in order to retain for it a measure of poetic respectability. Whatever are the merits of this technique, it has certainly endeared Heine to a large reading public whom he wittily allows to enjoy lyrical banalities with a clear intellectual conscience.
Heine develops his method to still higher degrees of virtuosity in such volumes as Atta Troll (1847) and Romanzero (1851), in which his irony becomes ever more aggressive, his rhyming ever more self-consciously outrageous, and the quality of his poetry ever more intriguing. ‘And what person of any importance is not something of a charlatan?’ he once asked, and the question reveals his scandalous honesty as well as reflects upon the character of his age. Heine’s ‘charlatanry’, however, acquires the attributes of a force of nature in the poems he wrote in his last years, between 1853 and 1856, when, lying in his ‘mattress-grave’ in Paris, tortured by pain, and every day expecting to die, he contemplates life, agony and death still in the same poetic vein, angry, playful and mocking, like foam at the foot of a cliff.
It is by no means an accident that of all the German poets of this period only Heine has gained a secure place in the literary consciousness of the world. He represents the cosmopolitan extreme of the peculiar romantic tension between the demands of the great world and the concerns of individual souls or small communities, a tension which, at its other pole, brought about a revival of forgotten national literatures, such as Provencal in whose resurrection the poet Frederic Mistral played an outstanding part. Heine, in his turn, certainly adjusted the folk-song idiom of the late German romantics, their village moons and forest whispers and river gurgles, to metropolitan tastes, just as he europeanised German prose. Compared to him, even such exquisite poets as Eichendorff, Morike and Annette von Droste-Hulshoff are provincial. Yet this need not necessarily speak for the world or against the province. The best romantic poetry is, by virtue of its linguistic intimacy, untranslatable, and the biggest noises are certainly not the purest poetic sounds. World-wide reputations in lyrical poetry are usually world-wide misunderstandings based on hearsay.
In a strictly poetic sense Morike, for instance, may be one of the finest poets of the period if we believe that poetry may reveal a possible perfect congruity between the natures of a thing, a feeling, a thought, and a word. It is this which, again and again, strikes the reader of Morike’s Gedichte (1838), many of which maintain, without aping it, the spirit of Goethe’s lyrical genius. And some of Eichendorff’s Gedichte (1837) are not less successful in their unassuming declaration of the romantic love for moon, mountains, woods and meadows. More obviously complex than Morike (and he is fundamentally by no means simple) is the poetry of Annette von Droste-Hulshoff, whose earlier poems were published between 1837 and 1844. Her myopic pictures of the details of nature are vibrant with the anxiety of a soul fearing the loss of its world, and the simultaneous presence of religious strength, morbidity and exquisiteness of language in Das geistliche Jahr (1851) almost suggests the world of Baudelaire. Very different is Nikolaus Lenau, yet another embodiment of the romantic idea of the unhappy poet, sublimely agonised and ending in madness. His poetic-dramatic or semi-epic heroes are, characteristically, Faust (1836), Savonarola (1837) and Don Juan (1844), but his real talent is lyrical, and some of his nature-poems are, by virtue of their intensity and poignancy, considerable achievements in the genre. He is enchanted with the gentle dying away of all things—‘Ich liebe dieses milde Sterben’; and much of German poetry during this period is under the same melancholy spell. It is the poetry of poets who know that they can neither rival their master, Goethe, nor escape the power of his vision and idiom.
England’s poetry at this time is certainly wider in power and scope, though not necessarily greater. Its centre is comfortably occupied by Tennyson, the Victorian Poet Laureate, a truly representative writer, above all in the sense of having supplied a wide public, whose standard of poetic profundity and subtlety were not over-exacting, with a highly respectable and aesthetically convenient idea of ‘the poet’. While the poets of France intensively searched for the meaning poetry could have in an unpoetical age and, pelican-like, tore out their hearts in order to feed the starving spirit of the race, Tennyson is content to give poetic decorum to an undecorous world. His fire is not of the volcano; it is of the fireplace, and gently warms the surface of the soul. Yet if there is not much he has to say, he says it with a very fine sense of language and lyrical precision. As with so many other poets of the period, his strength lies in the brief and exact lyrical utterance, in ‘the short swallow flights of song’, instanced by his Poems of 1842. Again like many other poets, he is less fortunate where he is lured into competition with the ‘epic spirit’ which had been so successfully appropriated by the contemporary novel. Thus he largely fails in the attempt, renewed throughout his career, to render in Idylls the legendary and heroic world of King Arthur, unable as he is fully to integrate his lyricisms into the narrative, and his allegorical moralising into the body of poetry. The Princess (1847) and Enoch Arden (1864) are, despite their formal and decorative merits, likely to remain Victorian curiosities, brave defeats of the Muse in taking the spirit of poetry on long journeys, despite its preference for living in the brief moment of lyrical exaltation. However, in his intensely personal and confessional poem In Memoriam (1850), written on the death of a friend, he rises to the standard of poetic seriousness set by the preceding epoch.
Second to Tennyson, but not quite so secure in the esteem of the Victorians, is Robert Browning, the romantic hero of Wimpole Street. Thence he abducted, and took as his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, whom he (and not only he) judged to be a great poetess. Indeed, her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), more so than Aurora Leigh (1856), show genuine if delicate poetic gifts, marred only by that preciousness and extravagance with which the age punished so many of its minor poets for their selfconscious deviations from sober living. Robert Browning himself became a controversial figure; understandably in so far as he was either a defective genius or a bad poet of great ingenuity. Though lacking the poetical courtesy of Tennyson, he was capable of writing swiftly-moving lyrics; but he seldom aimed at the melodious smoothness which was accepted as natural to poetry. His rhythms and rhymes are often harsh, crude and unobliging, and he dares to have ideas and provoke thought. Yet he never quite succeeds in quelling uneasiness: is the inner purpose firm enough to justify the unorthodox display? Is the thought profound enough to reward the effort of thinking? His chosen form was the unactable lyrical drama or the ‘dramatic monologue’. It is a form best suited to his literary temperament in which egocentricity is coupled with the desire for objective comprehensiveness. Examples of this genre are Paracelsus (1835), Pippa Passes (1841), and the three volumes of Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personae (1864), in which many a figure from the Bible and the Italian Renaissance springs into a somewhat over-produced and over-managed existence. His longest and most sustained attempt to bestow poetic life upon his philosophy is The Ring and the Book (1868-9), at the centre of which is the problem of evil. In so far as evil remains ‘a problem’, and a problem which vastly exceeds the philosophical melodrama it engenders, this work is Browning’s most original and distinguished failure.
The most romantic contribution to English poetry in this period—romantic in the exotic choice of a Persian model, and not less in the manner of its adaptation—is Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859). Fitzgerald might have remained unknown, had he not been discovered by the literary and artistic circle around D. G. Rossetti, whose theories go beyond the Parnassian ‘Art for Art’s sake’, heading, as they do, for ‘Life for Art’s Sake’. Art is the vehicle of Truth, and therefore has to shun the aesthetic over-refinements of virtuosity. In poetry as well as painting Rossetti aimed at that bold simplicity which he found in Italian painting before Raphael, an ideal of which, as a poet, he hardly reached more than the colourful haze of its enveloping atmosphere. One of his followers was William Morris, a man of many artistic trades, whose poetry, medievalising in its subject-matter (The Defence of Guinevere, 1858) or Chaucerian in its technique (The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70), practically came to an end in his later life when he devoted himself to the task of social reform, the urgency of which had been impressed upon him by Ruskin. Coventry Patmore, also connected with the group and best known through his verse-novel The Angel in the House (1854-6), went in a very different direction: towards an ever-firmer attachment to the Roman Catholic Church; and as his spirituality deepened, he became, as for instance in The Unknown Eros, a remarkable, and remarkably independent, poet.
To complete this sketch of English poetry, we may set against the largely academic virtues of Matthew Arnold, whose critical insight was more acute than his poetic genius, the highly unacademic and unvirtuous verse of Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose first (and best) poetry appeared at the close of our period: Atalanta in Calydon (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866). He has remained a controversial poet although the controversy is no longer concerned with the shock he administered to those of his contemporaries who identified poetry with the niceties of a domesticated fancy. Swinburne outraged them with the blatant eroticism of his themes and the pagan sensuality of his rhythms. He did not recollect emotions in tranquillity but appeared to assemble words for a debauch. The outrage, of course, has become irrelevant; since Swinburne’s day poetic taste has not only grown accustomed to his themes, but almost lost interest in themes altogether. Poems are not made of ideas, said Mallarme, they are made of words. This is a critical sentiment which has come to dominate the appreciation of poetry; and because Swinburne seems to dwell ‘exclusively and consistently among words’, as T. S. Eliot said, he meets with a less condescending interest now than most other Victorian poets. Yet Mallarme’s dictum must not be taken too literally; however boisterous and intense a poet’s verbal expressiveness, ultimately the substance expressed will matter more. In weight of substance Swinburne hardly stands comparison with Baudelaire, whom he acknowledged as a master, and by whose poetry, more than by life itself, he appears to have been initiated into the depths of sensual excess.
Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857) are nourished by the purest and truest substances of the romantic soil. Here the opposition of spirit and reality, of word and flesh, of ‘ideal’ and ‘spleen’, is maintained so radically that the tension becomes unbearable, resolving itself in language which comprehends and assimilates both the sublimity and the degradation, the beatitude and the anger. The formal perfection and superb workmanship seem to bear out the fruitfulness of the dogma of ‘Art for Art’s sake’—of the poet who cares only for the excellence of his craft; yet the poems prove that this ideal can only be realised if the poet cares in fact for much more than his art. And Baudelaire is concerned with good and evil, seemingly sacrificing good in a single-minded pursuit of evil. But Les Fleurs du Mai would not be the great poetry it is if it did not announce through its very beauty the one hope of salvation surreptitiously upheld by a soul which fears that it is damned. It is as if God were to be persuaded, by the poetic saintliness of the celebrant, divinely to pervert the course of the satanic celebration. This rare combination of aesthetic exquisiteness and spiritual intensity has made Baudelaire the classical poet of modern poetry. It was he who first took the squalor and dialect of city life into a poetic sphere as radiant and lucid as that of Racine, and he who first endowed the boredom of metropolitan dissipation with true, if negative, spiritual significance.
The American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe might well have remained a peripheral figure, had he not been transfigured by Baudelaire (who translated his Tales of Mystery and Imagination) into the patron-saint of modem French poetry. It was Poe’s insistence upon the need for brevity—a Tong poem’ seemed to him a contradiction in terms—as well as upon the banishment of all non-poetic matter, didactic or instructive, which endeared him to Baudelaire and many French poets after Baudelaire. While Poe enjoyed only a moderate reputation among his literary fellow-countrymen—Emerson called him ‘jingle-man’1 and Lowell ‘three-fifths genius and two-fifths sheer fudge’—he was hailed by the French as the quintessentially ‘pure poet’. ‘There are some facts in the physical world which have a really wonderful analogy with others in the world of thought’, Poe wrote, and it was observations of this kind which confirmed Baudelaire’s belief, inspired originally by E. T. A. Hoffmann, in a universe held together by a mysterious system of communications, correspondances, so that colours, for instance, were intimately related to tastes, sounds to aromas, and images to states of the soul. Life was ‘a forest of symbols’, with their branches touching one another and setting off a whispered chorus of intimations. Thus Poe had a share in Baudelaire’s great gift to poetry: to have bestowed upon metaphors and poetic symbols a new sense of immediacy and associative power, and added to poetic language the dimension which was to be so keenly explored and exploited by the symbolist movement and such poets as Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarme.
In the history of poetry Baudelaire marks the crossroads at which romanticism, in its distrust of reality, chooses the road which leads to the absolute denial of the ‘real’. At the close of our period Baudelaire’s correspondances, which still point towards a mystical unity of everything that is, can be freely manipulated by the poet because the imagination is no longer limited by any significant and independent reality. If there is to be any significant world, it has not only to be re-experienced and renamed; it has to be re-created in totality. Rimbaud, whose prose-poems, Les Illuminations (written in or before 1873) owe something of their poetic technique to Baudelaire’s Les Petits Poemes en prose, already believed that the poet had to become a voyant, a seer; but he meant much more than the word usually implies. In order to ‘see’, the poet had systematically to derange his senses which, in their ordered state, can convey to him nothing but a senseless world. Soon words themselves threatened to become too ‘real’ to be of any poetic use: poetry (Mallarme’s, for instance) was to approach the point where words would have to be replaced by immaculate and esoteric hieroglyphs, akin to music and uncontaminated by ‘real’ meanings. This is the romantic journey’s end, anticipated, as we have seen, even by the despairing realist Flaubert.
Only two major poets of the period travel in a different direction and at great distance from the main stream of romanticism: the Russian Nekrasov and the American Walt Whitman. Both are the ‘true democrats’ among an aesthetic aristocracy, and were therefore accused of being ‘non-poetical’. Turgenev said of Nekrasov that ‘poetry never so much as spent a night in his verse’, and Emerson of Whitman: ‘I expect him to make the songs of the nation but he seems contented to make the inventories.’ ‘Romantic’ is Nekrasov’s love of folk-song, but with him it is not, as it is with the Germans, the song of a dreamily nostalgic people; it is more like the popular ballads of the street-singers: brutal, melodramatic and outrageous. The Thief (1846), The Pedlars (1861) and Frost the Red-Nosed (1863)—the very titles announce a kind of poetry very different from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. His longest work, a satire in the folk-song manner, which he wrote in the 1870’s, is called Who is Happy in Russia?, while ‘Everybody should be happy in America’ might serve as an alternative title for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). And Whitman’s poetic ideal: ‘the dialect of common sense’, is certainly shared by Nekrasov. Sympathy is the main inspiration of both the Russian and the American, the difference being that Nekrasov’s is sympathy with a suffering people, and Whitman’s with the anticipated joy of a nation setting up its community of freedom. Leaves of Grass was written at about the same time as Les Fleurs du mal—reason enough for caution in generalising about literary periods, and for wonder at the vast distance which separates the houses of poetry. Nevertheless, Whitman’s boisterous, vital, lyrical oratory, dedicated to the soul of the people, is, in the century’s literary history, a lonely voice amidst multitudes of romantic loneliness.
Solitude was the predominant condition of literature even in its reception. More and more the ‘reading public’ consisted of individuals engaged in the lonely pursuit of printed words. Not even so small a group as the family circle, which listened to the reading aloud of the novels of Scott or Jane Austen or Dickens, could possibly keep up with the writers’ increasing complexities and intimacies. When people assembled to enjoy the finer pleasures of art, it was music which drew them together. The literary word had become too finely spun to exert a collective spell. ‘Le theatre c’est un terrain banal’, Andre Gide once said. He was not only summing up the nineteenth-century situation in which theatrical robustness seemed no longer compatible with depth, but also hinting at a prerequisite of great drama: that the author should be united with his audience in a profound yet broadly comprehensible (and, therefore, in a sense, ‘banal’) common interest. For only then is his audience an audience, and not a number of individuals more suitably approached in their privacy. More than any other literary medium the drama needs for its health a common readiness to believe in the immediate significance of the strong and simple deeds and passions. And precisely this was lacking in our period, as is shown both by the novel, with its increasing analytical probing, and by poetry, with its ever more determined withdrawal from life. No representative stage could be built in the vacuum which was left between the extremes of realistic psychology and romantic inwardness. England, it has been said, had no dramas because it had hardly any buildings in which to perform them. It may equally be correct to say that it had no theatres because it had no dramas. Even where there was no scarcity of theatres as, for instance, in France, dramatic writing, though undoubtedly more plentiful, fell far below the level of excellence reached by the novel and by poetry. Scribe, with hundreds of well-contrived plays to his credit, as well as Augier and Dumas fils, moralising with theatrical skill on the contrasts and entanglements between the humble front-parlours and the ostentatious drawing-rooms of society, have hardly any literary existence left once the names of Stendhal and Baudelaire are mentioned. Even the apparently invincible Victor Hugo, after having romantically succeeded with his Spanish cloaks and daggers in Hernani and Ruy Bias, was eventually driven off the stage when his Les Bur graves collapsed as noisily in 1843 as Hernani had triumphed in 1830. Only Musset’s experiments with the form of drama (and he intended them to be read rather than acted) achieve the distinction of his poetry: the hardly actable play Lorenzaccio (1834), whose hero romantically pursues self-realisation and ‘identical being’ by becoming an assassin, and the short comedies and ‘proverbs’, sophisticated in their sentimentality, extravagant in their playfulness, and romantic in their pensive humour.
Again, the Russian contribution comes from writers who need not rely for their reputation on the theatre, although Gogol’s Revizor (The Government Inspector, 1836) was one of his great achievements in social satire, one which, like his Dead Souls, by far transcends the usually narrow artistic limits of the genre. And Turgenev’s comedies (A Month in the Country, 1850, and The Provincial Lady, 1851) are, with their psychological niceties and their device to introduce ‘atmosphere’ as one of the main dramatis personae, akin to the dramatic essays of Musset and anticipate the trappings (if not more) of the genius of Chekhov. The Russian drama just before and just after our period too is represented by non-dramatists—Pushkin and the later Tolstoy—while during the period itself it is Ostrovsky who, by virtue of his Scribe-like fertility and dramatic resourcefulness, dominates the Petersburg stage with his un-Scribe-like realism poetically redeemed only in his Thunderstorm (1860).
Weightier than either the French or the Russian (not to mention the negligible English) contribution is the German and Austrian drama. It has in Grillparzer and Hebbel dramatic poets of high purpose, rare singlemindedness and great artistic integrity. In Grillparzer’s uneven and almost pathologically pessimistic genius the ‘classical’ impulses of Goethe’s and Schiller’s epoch mingle with the theatrical fancy and sentimentality of the ‘baroque’ tradition of Vienna. And from the Habsburgs’ Austria it is not far to Spain: Lope de Vega and Calderon are almost as close to Grillparzer’s mind as Goethe and Schiller. Although Grillparzer is too pessimistic to write great tragedy, too sentimental to write great comedy, and too introspective to write great drama, his work is nevertheless pervaded by the sense and taste of dramatic greatness. Only with his last plays does he belong to our period, and he fell silent when his comedy Weh' dem, der lugt (1838) failed to please the public. After his death in 1872 three plays were found in his drawers, among them Ein Bruderzwist im Hause Habsburg, his most successful bid, by virtue of the character of Rudolf II, for the highest honours of drama.
Grillparzer said of himself that his true roots were in the ‘ghost-and-fairy-land of the Leopoldstadt Theatre’, the home of the Vienna ‘Volksstuck ’, the popular comedy interspersed with music and song. And it was in the Leopoldstadt, that provincial enclave in the middle of the Habsburg metropolis, that the theatre then lived its most spontaneous life, uninhibited by dramatic theories and high literary ambitions. No one had ever worried there about Diderot or Lessing. ‘Time you did something for posterity’ said a friend once to Johann Nestroy, the most prolific supplier of the Leopoldstadt stage, a truly profound wit and man of those letters that are awkwardly written in the heart of a people. ‘For posterity?’, Nestroy replied, ‘what has posterity done for me?’ But in writing, producing and acting for his own day his satirical, exuberant, fantastic comedies, full of those traps of language in which the pompous illusions of life are caught and of which only true characters can wriggle themselves free, he has, together with his older contemporary Ferdinand Raimund, given Vienna a kind of domestic Elizabethan stage, and himself survived with a vigour denied to many a serious dramatist of his time.
For instance, to Friedrich Hebbel, whose Judith (1840) Nestroy parodied and whose dramatic work, despite its seriousness and literary importance, may fall victim to that unkind process of time which, regardless of other merits, relentlessly punishes any discrepancies in art between substance and intention. Hebbel attempted the impossible: he undertook not only to write great poetic drama but also, by intense philosophical digging, to unearth once more the foundation on which alone, in his opinion, great poetic drama could be erected: a comprehensive mythology or systematic metaphysical interpretation of life and the world. His diaries, prefaces and essays in dramatic theory—often fascinating—bear testimony to his intellectual passion. ‘Art is the realisation of philosophy’, he said, and the philosophy which his dramas are meant to realise is an uneasy compound of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical pessimism and Hegel’s eschatological historicism (although a witness to the reality of the Zeitgeist, he may have arrived at these ideas without any substantial help from the philosophers themselves). Individual existence is itself tragic, for it is, for Hebbel as for Schopenhauer, the result of a necessary but ultimately self-defeating emancipation from the wholeness of life. Thus his theory of tragic guilt is a secular variant of the doctrine of the Fall: to be is to be guilty. Therefore some of Hebbel’s heroes and heroines are doomed not because of a tragic flaw in their character, or an involvement in active guilt, but simply because of the most original of sins: the sin of being. Hebbel presents this sin dramatically by endowing his creatures with an excessive quality of being: the heroine of Agnes Bernauer (1855) is innocent but surpassingly beautiful, Siegfried in Die Nibelungen (1862) is good but surpassingly strong—excesses which render the tragic outcome inevitable. Yet their doom must have a dramatic meaning—and at this point Hegel’s historical optimism takes over from Schopenhauer’s pessimism: the undoing of the hero is meaningful because it is a sacrifice on the altar of historical necessity, change and progress: Siegfried’s death ushers in a higher state of peace and good-will among men, Agnes Bemauer’s horrible end gives rise to a firmer rule of law and order in the state, the murderous love-and-hate struggle between Herodes und Mariamne (1850) opens the dialectical gate for the entrance of Christianity into a pagan world.
Hebbel complicates still further his metaphysical structure of historically hopeful gloom by insisting upon yet another element, reminiscent more of Kant than of Hegel or Schopenhauer: the tragic consequences which follow upon the violation of the individual’s sacred autonomy: the Nibelung cataclysm comes about through the deceitful disregard of Brunhilde’s individuality, Herodes’s love for Mariamne spells disaster because it is blind to the autonomous right of her person—a theme which dominates with still greater force the drama of Gyges und sein Ring (1854).
With the burden of such philosophical thought upon his plays, Hebbel’s shortcomings are less surprising than the considerable measure of his success. Like his contemporary Richard Wagner (both were born in 1813), he was obsessed with ‘the problem of the drama’ in an age which lacked any spontaneous sense of the dramatic significance of life. Yet by following the heroic-poetic manner, evolved by poets who knew little of Hebbel’s central concern, he was bound to assert his intention against the natural pull of the medium, without ever quite resolving his problem in a truly appropriate form. For under the pressure of this problem, genuine enough in itself, the chosen form deteriorated into a convention which not even the heat of his mind could quicken into convincing life. Incomparably more legitimate and ultimately more poetic is the ‘unpoetic’ work of Georg Buchner who produced his two despairingly nihilistic dramas as early as 1835 and, probably, 1836: Dantons Tod and Woyzeck.
It was left to the Norwegian writer Ibsen to give to the epoch’s problems, so ‘undramatic’ in terms of the inherited conventions of great drama, their authentic dramatic form. Some of Hebbel’s themes pointed already in the direction of Ibsen’s later plays while, with some historical logic, the great ‘naturalist’ wrote his two best-known poetic dramas: Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), at the close of our period. Soon afterwards, however, he was to conquer, with dramatic masterpieces of poetic realism, a theatre which for so long had known hardly anything but the feeble survivals of the ‘drame bourgeois’ and the rear-guard of the poetic-heroic drama in retreat. As far as the period itself is concerned, it is the measure of its failure dramatically to speak its uneasy mind that its greatest theatrical achievements lie outside the province of literary history: in the operas of Verdi and Richard Wagner.