"The Crystal Vase"
By Maurice Henry Hewlett
I have often wished that I could write a novel in which, as mostly in life, thank goodness, nothing happens. Jane Austen, it has been objected, forestalled me there, and it is true that she very nearly did - but not quite. It was a point for her art to make that the novel should have form. Form involved plot, plot a logic of events; events - well, that means that there were collisions. They may have been mild shocks, but persons did knock their heads together, and there were stars to be seen by somebody. In life, in a majority of cases, there are no stars, yet life does not on that account cease to be interesting; and even if stars should happen to be struck out, it is not the collision, nor the stars either, which interest us most. No, it is our state of soul, our mental process under the stress which we care about, and as mental process is always going on, and the state of the soul is never the same for two moments together, there is ample material for a novel of extreme interest, which need never finish, which might indeed be as perennial as a daily newspaper or the Annual Register. Why is it, do you suppose, that anybody, if he can, will read anybody else's letter? It is because every man-Jack of us lives in a cage, cut off from every other man-Jack; because we are incapable of knowing what is doing on in the mind of our nearest and dearest, and because we burn for the assurance we may get by evidence of homogeneity procurable from any human source. Man is a creature of social instinct condemned by his nature to be solitary. Creatures in all outward respects similar to himself are awhirl about him. They cannot help him, nor he them; he cannot even be sure, for all he may assume it, that they share his hope and calling.
The novel which I dreamed of writing has recently been done, or rather begun, by Miss Dorothy Richardson. She betters the example of Jane Austen by telling us much more about what seems to be infinitely less, but is not so in reality. She dips into the well whereof Miss Austen skims the surface. She has essayed to report the mental process of a young woman's lifetime from moment to moment. In the course of four, if not five, volumes nothing has happened yet but the death of a mother and the marriage of a sister or so. She may write forty, and I shall be ready for the forty-first. Mental process, the states of the soul, emotional reaction - these as they are moved in us by other people are Miss Richardson's subject-matter, and according as these are handled is the interest we can devote to her novels. These fleeting things are Miss Richardson's game, and they are the things which interest us most in ourselves, and the things which we desire to know most about in our neighbours.
But, of course, it won't do. Miss Richardson does not, and cannot, tell us all. A novel is a piece of art which does not so much report life as transmute it. She takes up what she needs for her purpose, and that may not be our purpose. And so it is with poetry - we don't go to that for the facts, but for the essence of fact. The poet who told us all about himself at some particular pass would write a bad poem, for it is his affair to transfigure rather than transmute, to move us by beauty at least as much as by truth. What we look for so wistfully in each other is the raw material of poetry. We can make the finished article for ourselves, given enough matter; and indeed the poetry which is imagined in contemplation is apt to be much finer than that which has passed through the claws of prosody and syntax. The fact, to be short with it, is that literature has an eye upon the consumer. Whether it is marketable or not, it is intended for the public. Now no man will undress in public with design. It may be a pity, but so it is. Undesignedly, I don't say. It would be possible, I think, by analysis, to track the successive waves of mental process in In Memoriam. Again, The Angel in the House brought Patmore as near to self-explication as a poet can go. Shakespeare's Sonnets offer a more doubtful field of experiment.
What then? Shall we go to the letter-writers - to Madame de Sévigné, to Gray, to Walpole and Cowper, Byron and Lamb? A letter-writer implies a letter-reader, and just that inadequacy of spoken communication will smother up our written words. Madame de Sévigné must placate her high-sniffing daughter; Gray must please himself; Walpole must at any cost be lively; Cowper must be urbane to Lady Hesketh or deprecate the judgment of the Reverend Mr. Newton. Byron was always before the looking-glass as he wrote; and as for Charles Lamb, do not suppose that he did anything but hide in his clouds of ink. Sir Sidney Colvin thinks that Keats revealed himself in his letters, but I cannot agree with him. Keats is one of the best letter-writers we have; he can be merry, fanciful, witty, thoughtful, even profound. He has a sardonic turn of language hardly to be equalled outside Shakespeare. "Were it in my choice, I would reject a Petrarchal coronation - on account of my dying day, and because woman have cancers." Where will you match that but from Hamlet? But Keats knew himself. "It is a wretched thing to confess, but it is a very fact, that not one word I can utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical Nature." So I find him in his letters, swayed rather by his fancies than his states of soul, until indeed that soul of his was wrung by agony of mind and disease of body. Revelation, then, like gouts of blood, did issue, but of that I do not now write. No man is sane at such a crisis.
Parva componere magnis, there is a letter contained in "The Early Diary of Frances Burney" (ed. Mrs. A.R. Ellis, 1899), more completely apocalyptic than anything else of the kind accessible to me. Its writer was Maria Allen, daughter of Dr. Burney's second wife, therefore half-sister to the charming Burney girls. She was a young lady who could not let herself go, in act as well as on paper, and withal, as Fanny judged her, "flighty, ridiculous, uncommon, lively, comical, entertaining, frank, and undisguised" - or because of it - she did contrive to unfold her panting and abounding young self more thoroughly than the many times more expert. You have her here in the pangs of a love- affair, of how long standing I don't know, but now evidently in a bad state of miss-fire. It was to end in elopement, post-chaise, clandestine marriage, in right eighteenth-century. Here it is in an earlier state, all mortification, pouting and hunching of the shoulder. I reproduce it with Maria's punctuation, which shows it to have proceeded, as no doubt she did herself, in gasps:
"I was at the Assembly, forced to go entirely against my own Inclination. But I always have sacrificed my own Inclinations to the will of other people - could not resist the pressing Importunity of - Bet Dickens - to go - tho' it proved Horribly stupid. I drank tea at the - told old Turner - I was determined not to dance - he would not believe me - a wager ensued - half a crown provided I followed my own Inclinations - agreed - Mr. Audley asked me. I refused - sat still - yet followed my own Inclinations. But four couple began - Martin (c'etait Lui) was there - yet stupid - n'importe - quite Indifferent - on both sides - who had I - to converse with the whole Evening - not a female friend - none there - not an acquaintance - All Dancing - who then - I've forgot - n'importe - I broke my earring - how - heaven knows - foolishly enough - one can't always keep on the Mask of Wisdom - well n'importe I danced a Minuet a quatre the latter end of the Eve - with a stupid Wretch - need I name him - They danced cotillions almost the whole Night - two sets - yet I did not join them - Miss Jenny Hawkins danced - with who- can't you guess - well - n'importe -"
There is more, but my pen is out of breath. Nobody but Mr. Jingle ever wrote like that; and in so far as Maria Allen may be said to have had a soul, there in its little spasms is the soul of Maria Allen, with all the malentendus of the ballroom and all the surgings of a love-affair at cross-purposes thrown in.
As for Fanny Burney's early diary, its careful and admirable editor claims that you have in it "the only published, perhaps the only existing record of the life of an English girl, written of herself in the eighteenth century." I believe that to be true. It is a record, and a faithful and very charming record of the externals of such a life. As such, it is, to me, at least, a valuable thing. If it does not unfold the amiable, brisk, and happy Fanny herself, there are two simple reasons why it could not. First, she was writing her journal for the entertainment of old Mr. Crisp of Chessington, the "Daddy Crisp" of her best pages; secondly, it is not at all likely that she knew of anything to unfold. Nor, for that matter, was Fanny herself of the kind that can unfold to another person. Yet there is a charm all over the book, which some may place here, some there, but which all will confess. For me it is not so much that Fanny herself is a charming girl, and a girl of shrewd observation, of a pointed pen, and an admirable gift of mimicry. She has all that, and more - she has a good heart. Her sister Susan is as good as she, and there are many of Susan's letters. But the real charm of the book, I think, is in the series of faithful pictures it contains of the everyday round of an everyday family. Dutch pictures all - passers-by, a knock at the front door, callers - Mr. Young, "in light blue embroidered with silver, a bag and sword, and walking in the rain"; a jaunt to Greenwich, a concert at home - the Agujari in one of her humours; a masquerade - "a very private one, at the house of Mr. Laluze. ...Hetty had for three months thought of nothing else... she went as a Savoyard with a hurdy-gurdy fastened round her waist. Nothing could look more simple, innocent and pretty. My dress was a close pink Persian vest covered with a gauze in loose pleats..." What else? Oh, a visit to Teignmouth - Maria Allen now Mrs. Ruston; another to Worcester; quiet days at King's Lynn, where "I have just finished Henry and Frances... the greatest part of the last volume is wrote by Henry, and on the gravest of grave subjects, and that which is most dreadful to our thoughts, Eternal Misery..." Terrific novel: but need I go on? There may be some to whom a description of the nothings of our life will be as flat as the nothings themselves - but I am not of that party. The things themselves interest me, and I confess the charm. It is the charm of innocence and freshness, a morning dew upon the words.
The Burneys, however, can do no more for us than shed that auroral dew. They cannot reassure us of our normal humanity, since they needed reassurance themselves.
Where, then, shall we turn? So far as I am aware, to two only, except for two others whom I leave out of account. Rousseau is one, for it is long since I read him, but my recollection is that the Confessions is a kind of novel, pre-meditated, selective, done with great art. Marie Bashkirtseff is another I have not read her at all. Of the two who remain I leave Pepys also out of account, because, though it may be good for us to read Pepys, it is better to have read him and be through with it. There, under the grace of God, go a many besides Pepys, and among them every boy who has ever befouled a wall with a stump of pencil. We are left then with one whom it is ill to name in the same fill of the inkpot, "Wordsworth's exquisite sister," as Keats, who saw her once, at once knew her to be.
In Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, you may have the delight of daily intercourse - famigliarmente discorrendo - with one of the purest and noblest souls ever housed in flesh; to that you may add the reassurance to be got from word and implication beyond doubt. She tells us much, but implies more. We may see deeply into ourselves, but she sees deeply into a deeper self than most of us can discern. It is not only that, knowing her, we are grounded in the rudiments of honour and lovely living; it is to learn that human life can be so lived, and to conclude that of that at least is the Kingdom of Heaven.
These journals are for fragments only of the years which they cover, and as such exist for Jan.-May, 1798 (Alfoxden); May-Dec., 1800, Oct.-Dec., 1801, Jan.-July, 1802: all these at Grasmere. They have been printed by Professor Knight, and I have the assurance of Mr. Gordon Wordsworth that what little has been omitted is unimportant. Nothing is unimportant to me, and I wish the whole had been given us; but what we have is enough whereby to trace the development of her extraordinary mind and of her power of self-expression. The latter, undoubtedly, grew out of emotion, which gradually culminated until the day of William Wordsworth's marriage. There it broke, and with it, as if by a determination of the will, there the revelation ceased. A new life began with the coming of Mary Wordsworth to Dove Cottage, a life of which Dorothy records the surface only.
The Alfoxden fragment (20 Jan.-22 May, 1798), written when she was twenty-seven, is chiefly notable for its power of interpreting landscape. That was a power which Wordsworth himself possessed in a high degree. There can be no doubt, I think, that they egged each other on, but I myself should find it hard to say which was egger-on and which the egged. This is the first sentence of it:
"20 Jan. - The green paths down the hillsides are channels for streams. The young wheat is streaked by silver lines of water running between the ridges, the sheep are gathered together on the slopes. After the wet dark days, the country seems more populous. It peoples itself in the sunbeams."
Here is one a few days later:
"23rd. - Bright sunshine; went out at 3 o'cl. The sea perfectly calm blue, streaked with deeper colour by the clouds, and tongues or points of sand; on our return of a gloomy red. The sun gone down. The crescent moon, Jupiter and Venus. The sound of the sea distinctly heard on the tops of the hills, which we would never hear in summer. We attribute this partly to the bareness of the trees, but chiefly to the absence of the singing birds, the hum of insects, that noiseless noise which lives in the summer air. The villages marked out by beautiful beds of smoke. The turf fading into the mountain road."
She handles words, phrases, like notes or chords of music, and never gets her landscape by direct description. One more picture and I must leave it:
"26. - ...Walked to the top of a high hill to see a fortification. Again sat down to feed upon the prospect; a magnificent scene, curiously spread out for even minute inspection though so extensive that the mind is afraid to calculate its bounds..."
Coleridge was with them most days, or they with him. Here is a curious point to note. Dorothy records:
"March 7th. - William and I drank tea at Coleridge's. Observed nothing particularly interesting... One only leaf upon the top of a tree - the sole remaining leaf - danced round and round like a rag blown by the wind."
And Coleridge has in Christabel:
"William and John set off into Yorkshire after dinner at half-past two o'clock, cold pork in their pockets. I left them at the turning of the Low-Wood bay under the trees. My heart was so full I could hardly speak to W., when I gave him a farewell kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked to me, I know not why, dull and melancholy, and the weltering on the shore seemed a heavy sound... I resolved to write a journal of the time till W. and J. return, and I set about keeping my resolve, because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give William pleasure by it when he comes again..."
"Because I will not quarrel with myself!" She is full of such illuminations. Here is another:
"Sunday, June 1st. - After tea went to Ambleside round the lakes. A very fine warm evening. Upon the side of Loughrigg my heart dissolved in what I saw."
Now here is her account of a country funeral which she reads into, or out of, the countryside:
"Wednesday, 3rd Sept. - ...a funeral at John Dawson's... I was affected to tears while we stood in the house, the coffin lying before me. There were no near kindred, no children. When we got out of the dark house the sun was shining, and the prospect looked as divinely beautiful as I ever saw it. It seemed more sacred that I had ever seen it, and yet more allied to human life. I thought she was going to a quiet spot, and I could not help weeping very much..."
The italics are mind. William was pleased to call her weeping "nervous blubbering."
And then we come to 1802, the great last year of a twin life; the last year of the five in which those two had lived as one soul and one heart. They were at Dove cottage, on something under £150 a year. Poems were thronging thick about them; they were living intensely. John was alive. Mary Hutchinson was at Sockburn. Coleridge was still Coleridge, not the bemused and futile mystic he was to become. As for Dorothy, she lives a thing enskied, floating from ecstasy to ecstasy. It is the third of March, and William is to go to London. "Before we had quite finished breakfast Calvert's man brought the horses for Wm. We had a deal to do, pens to make, poems to be put in order for writing, to settle for the press, pack up... Since he left me at half-past eleven (it is now two) I have been putting the drawers in order, laid by his clothes, which he had thrown here and there and everywhere, filed two months' newspapers, and got my dinner, two boiled eggs and two apple tarts... The robins are singing sweetly. Now for my walk. I will be busy. I will look well, and be well when he comes back to me. O the Darling! Here is one of his bitter apples. I can hardly find it in my heart to throw it into the fire... I walked round the two lakes, crossed the stepping-stones at Rydalefoot. Sate down where we always sit. I was full of thought of my darling. Blessings on him." Where else in our literature will you find mood so tender, so intimately, so delicately related?
A week later, and William returned. With him, it seems, her descriptive powers. "Monday morning - a soft rain and mist. We walked to Rydale for letters. The vale looked very beautiful in excessive simplicity, yet at the same time, uncommon obscurity. The church stood alone, mountains behind. The meadows looked calm and rich, bordering on the still lake. Nothing else to be seen but lake and island." Exquisite landscape. For its like we must go to Japan. Here is another. An interior. It is the 23rdof March, "about ten o'clock, a quiet night. The fire flickers, and the watch ticks. I hear nothing save the breathing of my beloved as he now and then pushes his book forward, and turns over a leaf..." No more, but the peace of it is profound, the art incomparable.
In April, between the 5th and 12th, William went into Yorkshire upon an errand which she knew and dreaded. Her trouble makes the words throb.
"Monday, 12th... The ground covered with snow. Walked to T. Winkinson's and sent for letters. The woman brought me one from William and Mary. It was a sharp windy night. Thomas Wilkinson came with me to Barton and questioned me like a catechiser all the way. Every question was like the snapping of a little thread about my heart. I was so full of thought of my half-read letter and other things. I was glad when he left me. Then I had time to look at the moon while I was thinking of my own thoughts. The moon travelled through the clouds, tinging them yellow as she passed along, with two stars near her, one larger than the other... At this time Williams, as I found the next day, was riding by himself between Middleham and Barnard Castle."
I don't know where else to find the vague torment of thought, its way of enhancing colour and form in nature, more intensely observed. Next day: "When I returned William was come. The surprise shot through me." This woman was not so much poet as crystal vase. You can see the though cloud and take shape.
The twin life was resumed for yet a little while. In the same month came her descriptions of the daffodils in Gowbarrow Park, and of the scene by Brothers Water, which prove to anybody in need of proof that she was William's well-spring of poesy. Not that the journal is necessarily involved. No need to suppose that he even read it. But that she could make him see, and be moved by, what she had seen is proved by this: "17th. - ...I saw a robin chasing a scarlet butterfly this morning;" and "Sunday, 18th. - ...William wrote the poem on The Robin and the Butterfly." No, beautiful beyond praise as the journals are, it is certain that she was more beautiful than they. And what a discerning, illuminative eye she had! "As I lay down on the grass, I observed the glittering silver line on the ridge of the backs of the sheep, owning to their situation respecting the sun, which made them look beautiful, but with something of strangeness, like animals of another kind, as if belonging to a more splendid world..." What a woman to go a-gypsying through the world with!
Then comes the end... "Thursday, 8th July. - ...In the afternoon, after we had talked a little, William fell asleep. I read The Winter's Tale; then I went to bed but did not sleep. The swallows stole in and out of their nest, and sat there, whiles quite still, whiles they sung low for two minutes or more at a time, just like a muffled robin. William was looking at The Pedlar when I got up. He arranged it, and after tea I wrote it out - 280 lines... The moon was behind... We walked first to the top of the hill to see Rydale. It was dark and dull, but our own vale was very solemn - the shape of Helm Crag was quite distinct though black. We walked backwards and forwards on the White Moss path; there was a sky like white brightness on the lake. ...O beautiful place! Dear May, William. The hour is come... I must prepare to go. The swallows, I must leave them, the wall, the garden, the roses, all. Dear creatures, they sang last night after I was in bed; seemed to be singing to one another, just before they settled to rest for the night. Well, I must go. Farewell."
Next day she set out with William to meet her secret dread, knowing that life in Rydale could never be the same again. Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson on the 4th October, 1802. The secret is no secret now, for Dorothy was a crystal vase.
Hewlett, we see from Chambers Biographical Dictionary was born in London. He was the "keeper of land revenue records" (1896-1900). One of historical romances was The Forest Lovers (1898); his poem, Chambers says, "The Song of the Plow" (1916) "is perhaps his best work."
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