THE MODERN POETRY OF DOUBT.
SOME fine anonymous stanzas in the February number of Macmillan's Magazine, written on occasion of the meeting of the (Ecumenical Council on the Feast of the Epiphany, give us a fresh illustration of one of the most curiously marked and con- stantly recurring features of the unbroken succession of English poets between Shelley's day and our own,—the always bitter and sometimes almost tragic cry of desolation, with which one after the other, as they gaze eagerly into the spiritual world, they nerve themselves to confess what they have not found and cannot find there. It is true that the Laureate, with that comprehension of grasp, that deliberate rejection of single strands of feeling, which always distinguishes him, has rarely allowed himself to echo the mere wail of agonizing doubt without shedding some glimpse of faith, some ray of light from Him whom he "deems the Lord of all," upon the darkness, but even Mr. Tennyson's gleams of light have rarely quite equalled his "shadow-streaks of rain." There is no lyric in all his volumes quite equal to that which tells us how
"The stately ships go on To their haven under the hill, But oh for the touch of a vanished hand And the sound of a voice which is still!"
If the greatest of our living poets is unequalled in touching the dreariest landscape with some beam of living hope, he is even greater in creating the passionate need and craving for it, the almost unspeakable fear that we may be left alone with that Nature utterly careless of the "single life," and almost equally careless of "the type,"—of Nature "red in tooth and claw" ravening on the lives she sacrifices in millions, in that process of selection which science has so triumphantly established, but which only a poet can picture to us in all its terror. Yet no one can fairly deem the Poet Laureate one who takes any pleasure in depicting such moods of desolation as Shelley abounds in. He has saved the higher poetry of our generation 'from despair, and it is remarkable enough that every other poet of note has so far felt either his influence, or some influence which he and they have felt in common, as to mingle with even the most profound expressions of unsatisfied longing, a tacit assumption that it is something of the nature of faith—as surely it is—which confers the power to pour out doubt so truthfully and yet so sadly to the silent skies. There was nothing of this in Shelley's song as he shuddered on the edge of the void he thought he saw. The English language does not contain lines of despair at once so calm and so poignant, as those with which he closed the unequal but marvellous poem of " Alastor," and painted the immeasurable emptiness, the piercing vacancy, which so often robs the whole universe of its meaning when one mortal life dies out :—
"It is a woe 'too deep for tears' when all Is ref t at once, when some surpassing Spirit Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves Those who remain behind not sobs or groans, The passionate tumult of a clinging hope, But pale despair and cold tranquillity, Nature's vast frame, the web of human things,
Birth and the grave, that are not as they were."
Nor was it, of course, ouly in a passage here and there that this vivid sense of unutterable desolation of spirit, boldly faced and confessed to himself, found expression in Shelley. It was a thread of paiu running through his whole poets"-, though now and then, as in "Adonais," it was replaced for a moment by flashes of almost triumphant hope. Passionate but hopeless desire wailed like the wind in an /Eolian harp in more than half his lyrics. When will any chord be struck of a despair deeper than this ?—
" When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead ; When the cloud is scattered The rainbow's glory is shed ; When the lute is broken,
Sweet notes are remembered not;
When the lips have spoken, Loved accents are soon forgot.
" As music and splendour Survive not the lamp and the lute, The heart's echoes render
No song when the spirit is mute:—
No song but sad dirges Like the wind in a ruined cell, Or the mournful surges That ring the dead seaman's knell."
No doubt, the two modern poets who have most nearly taken up the same intellectual ground as Shelley in gazing into the spiritual world, Mr. Clough and Mr. Arnold, have, as has been already intimated, interwoven with his tone of utter desolation a thread of manly and solemn conviction that "there is more faith in honest doubt," as Tennyson himself says, than in all the creeds. The student of their poetry is not unnerved by their boldest confes- sions as he is by Shelley's desolate cry. Even when Mr. Clough paces about the "great sinful streets of Naples," murmuring to himself,—in order to relieve the wonder and the heat with which his heart burns within him as he gazes on all that fermenting mass of evil,— —there is an under-current of faith in the power which enables him to confess his doubt. Nay, even as he goes over the familiar old ground of those 'evidences' which he had imprinted on his heart in his intense desire to believe in the Gospel, and link by link declares them all untrustworthy, there is a burning remnant of hope, very different from Shelley's thrilling desolation, in the ascetic minuteness of the vigilance with which he cuts away his own hope from under him :—
" What if the women ere the dawn was grey,
Saw one or more great angels, as they say, (Angels or Him Himself)? Yet neither there nor then, Nor afterwards, nor elsewhere, nor at all, Hath he appeared to Peter and the ten, Nor save in thunderous terrors to blind Saul; Save in an after Gospel and late Creed,
He is not risen indeed,— Christ is not risen."
Nor are we surprised to find this wonderfully fine piece of spiritual asceticism, in which a great mind filled with a passionate love for Christ flings away one after another the grounds of hope which he thought he could not honestly retain, followed by one— of far less poetical intensity, indeed,—but of evident sincerity, in which the poet asserts his confidence that,—
" Though Ho be dead, He is not dead,
Nor gone though fled, Not lost, though vanished ; Though He return not, though He lies and moulders low ; In the true creed, Ho is yet risen indeed, Christ is yet risen."
For of Mr. Clough it is plain that though the doubt and difficulty and denial were immense, though the intellect of the poet sternly denied his heart many a once cherished and still longed-for faith, yet beneath the doubt and difficulty and denial there was a residuum of victorious trust which aloue,—if we may so express it, —gave him heart to doubt. And so again in some true sense it is with Mr. Arnold. His poetry indeed is not so full of bitter and almost heart-rending resolve to surrender every grain of belief its author cannot justify. And as the confession is the confession of a milder pain, so the reassertion of the faith behind the doubt is less triumphant. But there is nothing in our modern poetry more touching in its quiet sadness than this :—
" While we believed, on earth He went
And open stood His grave; Men called from chamber, church, and tent,
And Christ was by to save.
"Now He is dead. Far hence he lies In the lorn Syrian town,
And on His grave with shining eyes The Syrian stars look down.
" Christ is not risen. No, He lies and moulders low ; Christ is not risen,"
"In vain men still, with hoping new, Regard His death-place dumb, And say the stone is not yet to, And wait for words to come.
"Ah, from that silent sacred land Of sun and arid stone, And crumbling wall, and sultry sand, Comes now one word alone !
"From David's lips this word did roll, 'Tis true and living yet ; 'No man can save his brother's soul Nor pay his brother's debt.'
"Alone, self-poised, henceforward man Must labour; must resign His all too human creeds, and scan Simply the way divine."
Yet here, too,—and it is a fair specimen of a whole thread of feeling penetrating everywhere Mr. Arnold's poetry,—this confes- sion of a great doubt is mellowed by the confession of a fainter yet deeper trust.
And it is just the same with the fine poem just published in Macmillan, which gives out evanescent flavours of many other poets,—of Clough, of Arnold, even of Mortis. The author des- cribes first in a far from Roman Catholic spirit, and with something of the Chaucerian pity of the last-named poet, the procession of the Bishops :-
"Thereby the conclave of the Bishops went, With grave brows, cherishing a dim intent, As men who travelled on their eve of death From everywhere that man inhabiteth, Not knowing wherefore, for the former things Fade from old eyes of bishops and of kings."
And then after a very picturesque passage on the various elements of the conclave, and a digression in eulogy of St. Francis and his Franciscans, he draws a picture of two figures seen by his, though not by every eye, in the great Council Hall. One of them is but a faint vision, a vision, as the prophet says, " neither clear nor dark ":—•
" To my purged eyes before the altar lay A figure dreamlike in the noon of day ; Nor changed the still face, nor the look thereon, At ending of the endless antiphon,
Nor for the summoned saints and holy hymn Grew to my sight less delicate and dim:— How faint, how fair that immaterial wraith! But looking long I saw that she was Faith."
But the other figure is neither delicate nor dim. It is the figure of some Oriental seer, who for a hundred years had sought passionately for truth and rejected dreams :—
" His brows black yet and white unfallen hair Set in strange frame the face of his despair, And I despised not, nor can God despise, The silent splendid anger of his eyes. A hundred years of search for flying Truth Had left them glowing with no gleam of youth, A hundred years of vast and vain desire Had lit and filled them with consuming fire."
And it is this eager and angry seer who first stamps his mark on the assembly, addressing them in lines of which we extract the greater part :—
‘, Better for us to have been, as men may be,
Sages and silent by the Eastern sea, Than thus in new delusion to have brought Myrrh of our prayer, frankincense of our thought, For One whom knowing not we held so dear, For One who aware it, but who is not here.
Better for you, this shrine when ye began, Au earthquake should have hidden it from man, Than thus through centuries of pomp and pain To have founded andlave finished it in vain,— To have vainly arched the labyrinthine shade, And vainly vaulted it, and vainly made For saints and kings an everlasting home High in the dizzying glories of the dome.
For not one minute over hall or Host Flutters the peerless presence of the Ghost, Nor falls at all, for art or man's device,
On mumbled charm andmumming sacrifice,—
But either cares not, or forspent with care Has flown into the infinite of air.
Apollo left you when the Christ was born, Jehovah when the Temple's veil was torn,
And now, even now, this .last, time and again,
The presence of a God has gone from men. Live in your dreams, if ye must live, but I Will find the light, and in the light will die."
But while his speech still paralyzes the Council, Faith rises in the likeness of the Virgin Mary, and is rapt away,—her " transla- tion " to heaven,—the poet's equivalent for the assumption of the body of the Virgin, which it is supposed that the Council will decree,—being thus described in some fine lines, containing more. than an echo of Mr. Clough's :—
" And yet, translated from the Pontiff's side, She did not die, 0 say not that she died ! She died not, died not, 0 the faint and fair ! She could not die, but melted into air!"
And with that hope that Faith had only become invisible, had not died,—a hope weaker than Mr. Clough's, less definite than Mr.
Arnold's, but yet containing no echo of Shelley's poignant wail, the poet leaves us to content ourselves as we may.
Is there not something striking about this consensus of the higher poets of our day in this frank and sad confession of Doubt with an undertone of faith,—an undertone that varies with the individual strength of the poet,—rising in Mr. Tennyson to the assertion that "the strong Son of God, immortal Love," will unquestionably prevail even over all those doubts which he sings in so unflinching and yet sad a strain,—falling in the poet of these ne w and beautiful stanzas, as he records the disappearance of Faith from mortal sight, to the trembling entreaty, "0 say not that she died !" It seems to us to show one of two things,—either that we are on the eve of a long and uncertain era of spiritual suspense,—scepticism quali- fied by a yearning hope,—or that the way is preparing for a day of clearer and more solid trust than the world has yet known. And for which issue of the two it is that "the generations are prepared," every man will decide according as he perceives, or fails to perceive, that when the great controversy between faith and suspense has been pleaded to its last plea, a supernatural Power steps in which fastens upon every really candid and open heart a final compulsion of faith, enabling the soul to beat up against the strongest head-winds of sceptical theory, and "flee unto the mountain" where from all these troublings there is rest.