George Wyndham

The Right Hon. George Wyndham, MP, on 'Literature'

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. III, no. 8, April 1908, pp. 120-30.

The Annual Dinner of the Club was held on February 28th at the Trocadero Restaurant. Owing largely to the prevalence of influenza, the company was smaller than it usually is on such occasions. Nevertheless the evening was a pronounced success, as it was sure to be under the genial Priorship of Friar William Senior and with so popular a Club Guest as the Right Hon. George Wyndham, MP. The Vice-Chairmen were Friars Sir F. Carruthers Gould, Arthur Spurgeon, G. B. Burgin and W. Lindley Jones. Following the toast of 'The King' and some remarks from the Chair, Friar W. R. Paterson ('Benjamin Swift') proposed the toast of the evening, coupled with the name of the Guest of the evening.

Friar Paterson said : In his brilliant and scholarly essay on the 'Poems of Shakespeare', Mr Wyndham makes the remark that in literature we modern people have created nothing. If this is the case, I find myself in a somewhat extraordinary situation, for I am rising to propose the health of an organism which has apparently ceased to exist. Whether the death of literature was recent or sudden or violent I do not know, but if literature is dead we may be at least allowed to propose its resurrection. ('Hear, hear.') Perhaps Mr Wyndham meant merely that although not
totally defunct, literature is leading today a precarious and somewhat sickly life; and, for all I know, criticism, which is the nurse of literature, is as sick as the patient. Both have been afflicted in their twin history by synchronous maladies. But, in the essay from which I have already quoted, Mr Wyndham reminds us that the contemporaries of Shakespeare believed that they, too, were living in a decadent age, and I find some comfort in that fact. For it means that contemporary criticism is generally only provisional. (Laughter.) Not once nor twice in the history of letters the opinion of one age has been reversed in the next, and it looks as if each generation, unable to appraise its own artistic labours, delegates to its successors the final aesthetic judgment.
When I hear our poets described only as minor poets, I always remind myself of Théophile Gautier's admirable essay, in which he says that if you wish genuine poetry, you should go to the minor poets for it. (Hear, hear.) And I notice that the minor poets of one age have a habit of becoming the major poets of the next. No doubt, during the longest part of his career, every man of letters has generally been an Athanasius contra mundum. But there are too many of us today. (Laughter.) Those of us who sell our knowledge – or our ignorance – to the public are sometimes reminded that the trade is too full. Book kills book, and they have to compete not merely with each other, but also with a dangerous rival and often predatory species in the form of newspapers. (Laughter.) I notice that the modern novelist does not observe even the etiquette of the organ-grinder who never starts his piano until the other man has finished. (Laughter.) We are all fiddling to the public different tunes at the same time, and the result is hardly a symphony. (Laughter.) Add to our domestic troubles the fact that from the outside great and hostile forces seem to be threatening the hegemony of literature.
Only last year, in this room, Mr Balfour suggested that the toast of 'Literature' should be displaced by the toast of 'Science'. He said that in the future we are going to be dominated, not by the man of letters, but by the man of science. Great as is my respect for Mr Balfour, I venture, on this occasion, very humbly to differ from him. (Laughter.) Even although it were true that the dominating personality of the intellectual world is, or is going to be, the man of science, he will not be able to dispense with literature as a means of spreading his ideas, ('Hear, hear.') And he will spread them more rapidly and effectively, and they will be more certain of immortality, if he has learnt the discipline of literature – and it is no easy discipline – and if he has attained to the style of a Bacon or a Pascal. ('Hear, hear.') It was my privilege to be a student of Kelvin at the University on whose roll of Lord Rectors Mr Wyndham's is one of the most distinguished names – ('hear, hear') – but, great as was my reverence for Kelvin, I could not help regretting that to his other immense endowments Nature had not added the gift of lucid and literary expression. Posterity will certainly be familiar with his great work and his great name, but they, too, will regret that a mind so intimate with the forces of the universe was unable or unwilling to leave a message about them in a great book.

After all, if the sciences have a voice, they have to thank literature. There is no other medium whereby the experience of mankind as rational and emotional beings can be gathered up. And the words which have influenced the world have been and will be the words with wings, the words of the masters not only of thought but of phrase. ('Hear, hear.') If we have any faith in literature, we ought to believe that the world's best books have yet to be written. Truth, beauty, and mystery come afresh to every age. (Applause.) No doubt today we appear to be living under special disadvantages. Unlike the great writers of antiquity, unlike the mediaeval singers, we are not living on a great tradition. Disintegrating and dissolvent forces are at work around us, and they have spread the contagion of their unrest into the books that are being written to-day. It is not an age of fixed belief, and yet in its deepest form belief has always had an intimate connection with the highest kind of literature. ('Hear, hear.') But those who still cling to the old ship of Faith are not always able to hear the watchman calling in the night, 'All's well!'
Those of us, again, who keep our eyes fixed on the vast social forces of Europe are sometimes made to pause by a fear lest in one mad moment of alarm those forces might combine to shatter the fabric of human well-being. I do not think that I shall be guilty of great exaggeration if I say that we are living in a time of intellectual chaos, and that we do not know if any cosmos is at the birth. Literature suffers from such conditions. Nevertheless, surely just for such reasons must she recapture her ascendency, and she will regain it and retain it if she remembers that it is no task of hers to imitate in a mere slavish way the world that lies about her; that she is more than a megaphone, to reproduce the world's noise or even its harmony; that in all her realism her idealism should be mixed, and that she is essentially an instrument of interpretation and guidance. ('Hear, hear.')

It is for such reasons that the toast which I have the honour to propose will remain, at least in this Club, no idle toast. This is a Club composed of men who live by literature – I hope that none of us die by it. (Laughter,) There was a great English poet, who, by the way, is sometimes called a minor poet, although he was nothing of the kind – John Donne – who defined the philosopher as 'Nature's secretary'. I sometimes think that Nature, after the manner of distinguished statesmen, has selected in the man of letters an additional secretary, unpaid. (Laughter.) But whether paid or unpaid, I think that in his better moments – if he has them – he believes that literature in her better moments – and she often has them still – represents and makes articulate as nothing else in the world can do the ideals of life. ('Hear, hear.') Hence, once every year, we ask some distinguished man to come here to remind us how these things are to be accomplished. We have as our guest tonight a gentleman who is as distinguished in the world of letters as in the world of politics. (Applause.) I do not know whether the world of politics is any more fissured and split up by controversy than the world of letters. At any rate, in both those worlds Mr Wyndham has found fame and has kept it, and in the opinion of opponents, as well as of friends, he stands as one of the most chivalrous figures in English public life. (Applause.)
I need not remind an audience of this sort of his literary achievements. He is not one of those men who believe that literature is a mere affair of belles lettres. In his admirable study of Ronsard, he condemns in a happy phrase what he calls the 'languid fallacy of Art for Art's sake'. There is nothing languid in his own work. ('Hear, hear.') His essay on Shakespeare betrays a wide and deep acquaintance with, the sources of Elizabethan literature, and has been of great service to all Shakespearian students. His 'Introduction to Plutarch' reveals both literary and historical insight and historical emotion of no common kind. In the monograph on Ronsard, he astonished his readers by the strange felicity of his translations of some of the most delicate poetry of France. (Applause.) Perhaps I may venture to suggest that one day Mr Wyndham may do for a man whom the Pléiade despised, but who, I believe, was greater than any of them – I say, I hope, that one day Mr Wyndham will do for Villon what he has done for Ronsard and his confreres. (Applause.)

Lastly, I may be allowed to say that some time ago, when Mr Wyndham was Lord Rector of Glasgow University, one of his enthusiastic constituents sent to me the Rectorial Address on 'The Development of the State', an address which is full of illuminating ideas on a vast subject. ('Hear, hear.') Mr Prior, I am afraid that I have already gone far beyond the duties of a herald who should never annoy his audience by performing a solo on his trumpet. (Laughter.) He should use that instrument only for the purpose of heralding more important events. (Laughter and applause.)

The toast having been drunk with much enthusiasm, Mr Wyndham said:

Reverend Prior, ghostly Friars, and my fellow-guests, I thank you with all my heart for the kindness, and let me add the indulgence, with which you have drunk my health when coupled with the august subject of Literature. Of the tribute which has been paid by Friar Paterson to my desultory excursions into the field from which you have reaped such ample harvests I will say little or nothing. Friar Paterson touched on an indescretion of ten years since, my little book on Shakespeare. 1 did not recognise the first passage to which he alluded – (laughter) – in which I am supposed to have mourned for an absence of all creative power at the present moment, but I did recognise the second; and I say to-night, as I said then, that periods of what are called decadence are really periods of exaggerated return to a multiplicity of births no less than of deaths. ('Hear, hear.')

Friar Paterson astonished me by saying that my revered political chief, Mr Balfour, when occupying this place, sought in your presence to dethrone Literature, and to install Science where literature should for ever sit, as she has sat through all the ages. I am shocked, and, emboldened by the absence of Mr Balfour – (laughter) – I associate myself heartily with Friar Paterson. My gratitude to you springs from this, that you have allowed me to appear tonight in the capacity of what I have always thought the most fortunate character in the whole ambit of Holy Writ – in the capacity of the prodigal son. (Laughter and applause.)

You have welcomed me as a prodigal son of literature, returning famished from the House of Commons and the husks of political controversy – (laughter, and 'hear, hear') – battered by the waves of acrimonious partisanship, to land, like another Don Juan, on a shore, which Shakespeare – anticipating Mr Bernard Shaw's stage directions – (laughter) – would have described as the 'Sea Coast of Bohemia'. (Laughter.) I mean the ideal Bohemia; not the historical Bohemia which my friend, Count Lützow, has made real for us. (Applause.) But there is this difference, that the prodigal son tonight is apparently expected to supply some part of the entertainment. (Laughter.) By inviting me to respond for Literature, you are asking me to answer for a good deal. I promise you one thing, I shall not attempt to improve the occasion – I believe that is the classic phrase – for two reasons. In the first place, from my point of view, as the prodigal son, the occasion cannot be bettered – (laughter) – and, in the second place, because improving the occasion often means that a politician abuses the opportunity to respond for Literature by talking about education instead of talking about literature. I leave that aspect of the question on one side, because nobody has yet in England been able to trace any connection between the two. (Loud laughter.) Another reason is that if I improve the occasion I shall enlarge the subject, and it is already of Gargantuan proportions. (Laughter.)

I leave out the subject of education, but if I am to deal with Literature – if I am to restrict myself to the subject before me – I must define. I thought of that the day before yesterday – (laughter) – and in order to arrive at a succinct definition I looked in the dictionary, where I found 'Literature' defined as 'the entire results of all knowledge and fancy preserved in writing'. (Laughter.) You laugh! (More laughter.) I do not laugh. In the course of an after-dinner speech you do not, I presume, expect me to cover the whole field, from Cadmus, the legendary inventor of letters, to the prospect of Esperanto as a medium for pure lyrics or problem plays. (Laughter.) I must set up some device for reducing this enormous mass to reasonable proportions, to manageable limits. Selection would be invidious. The republic of letters is not only republican. It is also cosmopolitan, and if I, confined myself only to English literature, I should be affronting the ripe knowledge of the majority of those before me, who, I dare say, know more of Greek, Latin, French, and Italian literature than of our own. (Laughter.) There is only one other plan – to lay down a generalisation. It must be at once brief and exhaustive. Your generalisation must be vast enough to be vague, profound enough to be obscure. Thereby he who indulges in it may boldly defy the chance of instantaneous argumentative refutation. (Laughter.) For example, when Arnold said : 'Poetry is a criticism of Life', nobody could refute him. You say, 'Oh, well, yes, perhaps – (laughter) – but what then?' He is safe. I mean to make myself safe. But since the days of Matthew Arnold, paradox has become so vulgar, that the guest of the evening in order to be singular – and singular he must be or he would not be invited – laughter) – must put his generalisation into the shape of a platitude. (Laughter.)

My platitude is this – Literature is the voice of humanity. (Hear, hear.) That is wide enough to embrace all the literary world. Is it deep? Let me demonstrate its profundity by telling you what happened to me the other day at breakfast. (Laughter.)
A little child only five years old addressed to me, with the abruptness appropriate to that age, this question. She had brought me suddenly the toy hippopotamus out of her Noah's ark, and she asked: 'What noise does this animal make?' (Laughter.) I was not disconcerted. I improvised something between a shout and a gurgle. (Laughter.) It carried conviction. (Laughter.) It led to an encore. (Continued laughter.) But when the flush of triumph and an unusual physical exertion had faded from my brow, I began to wonder what I should have answered had she brought me either Noah, or Shem, or Ham, or Japhet. (Laughter and applause.) I wondered, and for some time – as even politicians will – and now I know. The answer is the generalisation which I have ventured to lay before this Society. (Applause,) The noise peculiar to man, as neighing is to the horse, as bellowing is to the bull, as roaring is to the lion – the noise peculiar to man is literature. (Applause.) I exclude conversation, love making, argument, quarrelling – (laughter) – these are all indulged in by our fellow-creatures who are not human – onomatopoetically. I exclude these, and address myself solely to Literature, the noise peculiar to Man. Literature is the cry of the human pack scenting out the quarry of its destiny. (Renewed applause.)
No doubt it can be carried to a high degree of artifice. But it ceases to be literature when it ceases to be an instinctive cry, uttering memories of all which has seemed good for man, and hopes for something unknown, but better than any good which memory records. ('Hear, hear.') The noise of man, the cry of the human pack, is ever compounded of aspiration and regret. Literature ceases to be Literature unless it tells, or hints at least, of

'That something still which prompts the eternal sigh,
For which we bear to live or dare to die.'

You see even Pope, for all his artifice, can be quoted by me in confirmation of my generalisation. ('Hear, hear.') That is the noise that man makes – compounded of aspiration and regret. It follows therefore – I must proceed briefly and therefore boldly – that all literature, pure literature, falls into two categories – the categories of song and of story, and that the highest Literature is both – the story that is sung. That is why even now, though many of us are imperfectly acquainted with Greek and Latin, we still sometimes allude to Homer and to Virgil. ('Hear, hear.') I suppose that is perhaps a high-falutin' statement. Let me prove my contention by a commonplace.

It is not so long ago, in years as we reckon years when we are more than forty, since we used to read a great deal in the newspapers and magazines about the choice of books. There were men so hardy as to draw up lists of the hundred best books – (laughter) – but I would put it to the test of experience – that familiar test – what one book would, a man choose if he were starting on a long and lonely voyage? It has only been my good luck twice in the course of life to start on a long and lonely voyage. I am leaving the Bible out, though I think it would prove my case – ('hear, hear') – I am leaving out Homer, because I know little Greek. On the first occasion I took Shakespeare, the Globe edition, bound in limp covers. (Laughter, and 'hear, hear.')
The second time I took Virgil, and read the Æneid through from the first line to the last, without being distracted by any other literature of any kind. ('Hear, hear.') I think if I took a third voyage I should take Chaucer – ('hear, hear') – and having exhausted the best repertory of stories that are sung, I should then, supposing I was fortunate enough to have a fourth and a fifth Odyssey, take with me the Arabian Nights and Boccaccio. ( Applause.) I throw that out as a test of experience answering the question, 'What book would a man take if he were to be limited to one book?' But it is not only the man who crosses Africa, or who seeks the North Pole, who embarks upon a long and lonely voyage. It is every man who is born of woman into this world. (Applause.) Every man to be thrilled and encouraged on his quest must be able to hear the cry of the human pack.

I ought now to consider some objections. I leave out Science. I believe Mr Balfour dealt with that last year. As to another possible objection, somebody may say: 'But what about Philosophy?' If Philosophy is not metaphysic, then I have not left it out. Philosophy which is not metaphysic is a pleasing or a tedious moralising over all the best songs and all the best stories in the world. ('Hear, hear.') Philosophy if it is metaphysic, I leave out, and I leave it out of set purpose. I leave it out because I believe that any man starting on a long and lonely voyage will say with Romeo: 'Hang up Philosophy. Can Philosophy make a Juliet?' (Laughter.) No; and it cannot, with Shakespeare, make a Mercutio, a Falstaff, or a Beatrice; with Virgil, a Dido and a Camilla; with Chaucer an: –

'Emelye that fairer was to seene,
Than is the lilye on her stalke greene.'

and a Wife of Bath into the bargain. (Applause.) Here you can have the companionship of the whole world of men and women. I rule that out, then, and assert that metaphysical Philosophy is not literature. It is all that is left when you have extracted all the songs and all the stories out of the medium of human experience. Some people say that nothing remains. I believe that Professor Huxley was of that opinion. He regarded the man who set out to find anything by means of metaphysic as comparable to a man who tried to lift himself from the earth by his own braces. (Laughter.) Metaphysic is nothing to those who care for the companionship of the human race. ('Hear, hear.')

There is another objection which I ought to meet. I may be told that I have left out the essay. I have not left out the essay. The essay, if it be a good essay – if it be the kind of essay which Montaigne modelled upon Plutarch, and which everybody else has modelled on Montaigne – is either a narration of all the best
stories, and these are the oldest stories, in the world, or else it is a song in prose. (Applause.) Not a song in lyrical form, but a lyric in prose. What is a lyric? It has been defined over and over again. And this is what all the definitions amount to. The lyric is the expression of an emotion compounded of aspiration and regret, refracted through the temperament of one human being. ('Hear, hear.') Take the pure lyric: –

'O, that it were possible after long grief and pain,
To find the arms of my true love round me once again.'

or you can illustrate it fantastically from Thackeray: –

'Oh, what fun!
To have a plum bun!
How I wish it never were done!'

(Laughter.) That is the archetype of the lyric, the expression of aspiration and regret refracted through the temperament of a greedy little boy of ten years old. (Laughter.) You will find that the essays which are not reflections of stories, but which are lyrics
in prose, are pure lyrics, no matter what their subject may be – conviviality or the splendour of Alpine dawns, marriage, or the delight of battle with our peers – I am not now alluding to the Prime Minister – (laughter) – I am merely adapting another quotation of Lord Tennyson. But enough! and more than enough, of my generalisation; of the deductions I have drawn from it and the objections I have met, or very properly scouted and ignored. It is time for me to sit down, for I understand that the austerities of your monastic rule do not preclude, but rather enjoin (I gather from the programme), the ritual of song, and (I gather from my own experience) the ritual of stories interchanged between the lay brethren during the hours of refection. (Laughter, and 'hear, hear.') I will therefore delay the practice of the creed I have dared to preach no longer than to say that I do thank you, shortly because sincerely, but with all my heart, for the honour which you have conferred upon me with so much kindness tonight.