“When the flicker of London
sun falls faint on the
Club-room’s green and gold
The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their
pens in the mould—
They scratch with their pens in the mould of their
graves and the ink and the anguish start,
For the Devil mutters behind the leaves: ’It’s pretty,
but is it Art?’”
The spirit of our revolt is indicated clearly enough on that page of Mr. Stevenson’s “Wrecker,” from which I have already quoted a phrase:—
“That was a home word of Pinkerton’s, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every School of Art: ’What I can’t see is why you should want to do nothing else.’ The dull man is made, not by the nature, but by the degree of his immersion in a single business. And all the more if that be sedentary, uneventful, and ingloriously safe. More than half of him will then remain unexercised and undeveloped; the rest will be distended and deformed by over-nutrition, over-cerebration and the heat of rooms. And I have often marvelled at the impudence of gentlemen who describe and pass judgment on the life of man, in almost perfect ignorance of all its necessary elements and natural careers. Those who dwell in clubs and studios may paint excellent pictures or write enchanting novels. There is one thing that they should not do: they should pass no judgment on man’s destiny, for it is a thing with which they are unacquainted. Their own life is an excrescence of the moment, doomed, in the vicissitude of history, to pass and disappear. The eternal life of man, spent under sun and rain and in rude physical effort, lies upon one side, scarce changed since the beginning.”
A few weeks ago our novelists were discussing the reasons why they were novelists and not playwrights. The discussion was sterile enough, in all conscience: but one contributor—it was “Lucas Malet”—managed to make it clear that English fiction has a character to lose. “If there is one thing,” she said, “which as a nation we understand, it is out-of-doors by land and sea.” Heaven forbid that, with only one Atlantic between me and Mr. W.D. Howells, I should enlarge upon any merit of the English novel: but I do suggest that this open-air quality is a characteristic worth preserving, and that nothing is so likely to efface it as the talk of workshops. It is worth preserving because it tends to keep us in sight of the elemental facts of human nature. After all, men and women depend for existence on the earth and on the sky that makes earth fertile; and man’s last act will be, as it was his first, to till the soil. All empires, cities, tumults, civil and religious wars, are transitory in comparison. The slow toil of the farm-laborer, the endurance of the seaman, outlast them all.
Open Air in Criticism.