H. A. C. (essay date 1900)
SOURCE: A review of Heart of Man by George Edward Woodberry, in Poet-Lore, Vol. XII, No. 4, 1900, pp. 586-96.
[In the following excerpt, the critic praises Heart of Man.]
One of the most encouraging signs of the literary times is the coming into increased favor of the thoughtful essay among both writers and readers. There are enchanted realms of intellectual activity—who will deny it?—that cannot reach adequate expression in any form but that of the essay; neither in poetry nor in the novel, and most certainly not in so-called literature of knowledge. The essay is, indeed, pre-eminently the medium for the unfolding of the intricate mazes of creative thought, fitting itself to every whim of the fancy, to every profoundest feeling of the soul, as a silken glove to the delicate traceries or the deep lines of the human hand.
Is it not this intimacy of the form with man's thought that makes the essay so powerful a rival of the poem in the race for immortality? Poetry "shoots into a mould" the universal emotions of the race; but the creative essay does no less a service. It "shoots into a mould" the universal thought of the race, the mould in either case being of a piece with the imagination and tempered only by the ideal. Thus they each in their own sphere have a universality of appeal that the novel and the literature of knowledge, because concerned with the relational aspects of life rather than with the universal, rarely possess. Plato's 'Symposium' and Carlyle's 'Sartor Resartus' will no more cease to stimulate the imaginative thought of mankind than the creations of Homer, Shakespeare, and Browning, will cease to stimulate the imaginative emotion of mankind, while Scott and Dickens, even Zola, grow archaic. For these reasons a single volume of essays, like Woodberry's Heart of Man, appears a more enduring contribution to the literature of America than hosts of the popular novels, which, clever as they often are, smack of the mortality of the hour.
The Heart of Man is in many ways a remarkable volume, full of wisdom and beauty, and showing in the range of subjects and their treatment how various may be the charm of this form of literature. The first essay, 'Taormina,' combines an exquisite description of the natural beauties of that picturesque and historically interesting spot in Sicily with a striking sketch of the vicissitudes of fortune it has undergone for many hundreds of years. And, best of all, the manner of the telling breathes the rich human sympathy of the writer,—a perception of the beauty of earth, almost unearthly in its loveliness, and of the pathos of a great human woe that lies like a canker even in the heart of the beauty, letting itself be known only through the hopeless calm of the poor fisher-folk of Taormina, whom the centuries of life and tumult have at last cast adrift outside the wheel of progress, with no future before them but decay and death.
Not the least charming division of the essay takes one back to the ancient poets, whose songs are redolent of the perfume of this delightsome region. Our essayist saw with his own eyes a storm such as he had before wondered at in Virgil, and an idyl the counterpart of which he had loved for long in Theocritus.
Quite different is the second essay, 'A New Defence of Poetry,'—different in subject-matter, different in style. It is a closely reasoned argument to the effect that the very body of literary art must be the ideal, since "the subject-matter of literature is life in the forms of personality and experience, and the particular facts with respect to these are generalized by means of type and plot in concrete form, and so are set forth as phases of an ordered world for the intelligence, to the end that man may know himself in the same way as he knows nature in its living system." Those who deny this, and restrict literature to the actual in life, deny art, "which is the instrument of the creative, to literature; for as soon as art, which is the process of creating a rational world, begins, the necessity for selection arises, and with it the whole question of values, facts being no longer equal among themselves on the score of actuality, nor in fitness for the work in hand. The trivial, the accidental, the unmeaning, are rejected, and there will be no stopping short of the end; for art, being the hand-maid of truth, can employ no other...
(The entire section is 1827 words.)