Of course where the weakness of the artistic life really lies is that it is often not taken up out of mere communicativeness and happy excitement, as a child tells a breathless tale, but as a device for attracting the notice and earning the applause of the world; and then it is on a par with all other self-regarding activities. But if it is taken up with a desire to give rather than to receive, as an irrepressible sharing of delight, it becomes not a solemn and dignified affair, but just one of the most beautiful and uncalculating impulses in the world.
Then there falls another shadow across the path; the unhappiest natures I know are the natures of keen emotion and swift perception who yet have not the gift of expressing what they feel in any artistic medium. It is these, alas! who cumber the streets and porticoes of literature. They are attracted away from homely toil by the perilous sweetness of art, and when they attempt to express their raptures, they have no faculty or knack of hand. And these men and women fall with zealous dreariness or acrid contemptuousness, and radiate discomfort and uneasiness about them.
“A book,” said Dr. Johnson, “should show one either how to enjoy life or how to endure it”—was ever the function of literature expressed more pungently or justly? Any man who enjoys or endures has a right to speak, if he can. If he can help others to enjoy or to endure, then he need never be in any doubt as to his part in life; while if he cannot ecstatically enjoy, he can at least good-humouredly endure.
THE NEW POETS
There’s a dark window in a gable which looks out over my narrow slip of garden, where the almond-trees grow, and to-day the dark window, with its black casement lines, had become suddenly a Japanese panel. The almond was in bloom, with its delicious, pink, geometrical flowers, not a flower which wins one’s love, somehow; it is not homely or sweet enough for that. But it is unapproachably pure and beautiful, with a touch of fanaticism about it—the fanaticism which comes of stainless strength, as though one woke in the dawn and found an angel in one’s room: he would not quite understand one’s troubles!
But when I looked lower down, there was a sweeter message still, for the mezereon was awake, with its tiny porcelain crimson flowers and its minute leaves of bright green, budding as I think Aaron’s rod must have budded, the very crust of the sprig bursting into little flames of green and red.
I thought at the sight of all this that some good fortune was about to befall me; and so it did. When I came back there came a friend to see me whom I seldom see and much enjoy seeing. He is young, but he plays a fine part in the world, and he carries about with him two very fine qualities; one is a great and generous curiosity about what our writers are doing. He is the first man from whom I hear of new and beautiful work; and he praises it royally, he murmurs phrases, he even declaims it in his high, thin voice, which wavers like a dry flame. And what makes all this so refreshing is that his other great quality is an intensely critical spirit, which stares closely and intently at work, as through a crystalline lens.