Gossamer Wings

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2013)

There are moods and times of day when one wants to read something intelligent but undemanding, and for this purpose there is nothing better than the literary essays and biographies of Sir Edmund Gosse. Once regarded as a colossus of literature, or at least of literary criticism and scholarship, he is now almost forgotten except for his memoir of his relationship with his father, Father and Son, which is indeed one of the most touching evocations of a highly unusual childhood known to me.

In a mood recently to read intelligently yet without undue effort, I picked up one of Gosse’s many books of essays, Critical Kit-Kats (a Kit-Kat, Gosse informs us in his preface, is a ‘modest form of portraiture, which emphasises the head, yet does not quite exclude the hand of the sitter’). And indeed, the essays in the book are modest portraits of various writers, in which sketches of the life are interspersed with critical judgments of their achievements.

The first of the essays is about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and in particular her Sonnets from the Portuguese. In this essay, Gosse made himself party to the fraud carried out by his friend Thomas J. Wise, whose career the first line of the Dictionary of National Biography summarises as having been that of a ‘book-collector, bibliographer, editor, and forger.’ Wise made a speciality of producing spurious first editions, privately-printed in very small numbers to raise their desirability and hence their price among bibliomaniacs, using his renown as a bibliographer to authenticate them. His most successful forgery was a supposed early and privately-printed edition of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which ironically would now command a very high price indeed. (There is no doubt, alas, that the two words ‘and forger’ in the DNB’s description of him add immeasurably to his interest as a man. Who would not rather read about a book-collector, bibliographer, editor, and forger than about a mere book-collector, bibliographer, and editor? One begins to see that the sociologist, Durkheim, was not entirely wrong in believing what at first seems to be counter-intuitive, namely that societies need criminals, who do indeed serve an important social function. Whether we need quite as many criminals as we actually have is, of course, another matter entirely.)

Anyway, in his essay about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gosse relays a false story about the origin of the supposed early private printing of the sonnets, which was actually produced by Wise about forty years after the date inscribed on the title page. Gosse calls it ‘a very pretty episode of literary history,’ though in fact it is more like an amusing episode in the history of fraud. Gosse says that Elizabeth’s husband, Robert Browning, told a friend the story that he, Gosse, is about to relay to the world for the first time, with the injunction that it should not be published before his, Robert’s, death. The friend to whom Browning vouchsafed the story was almost certainly none other than Thomas J. Wise, who was not a friend of Browning at all but rather a very slight acquaintance of his. Even this degree of intimacy was the result of Wise’s pushiness rather than any desire on Browning’s part for contact with him; but by the time Wise told Gosse the story, there was no one still alive who could contradict him. The editor of Wise’s letters to John Henry Wrann, the Chicago businessman to whom Wise sold most of his forgeries at very high prices, believes that Gosse was Wise’s accomplice rather than his dupe; but this is most unlikely. Gosse, I think, would simply not have thought it possible that Wise, a learned and respectable man of business, was lying to him or making use of him.

Be this as it may, when Gosse turns from spurious biographical detail to literary criticism, he begins, somewhat ironically in the circumstances, by saying:

Sincerity, indeed, is the first gift in literature, and perhaps the most uncommon.

By one of those strange associations of ideas that to me is delightful (I cannot speak for other people) I was taken back more than quarter of a century to a conversation I had in Guatemala, around which I was driving at the time in a white pick-up truck. I gave a lift to an American hitch-hiker who told me that he had just been visiting an artist friend of his in Guatemala whose work, he said, was great because it was so sincere.

In those days I was somewhat more combative in conversation than I am now, and to illustrate the point that while sincerity might be a necessary condition of great art it was certainly not a sufficient condition, I replied (or in words to this effect), ‘There are many sincere artists, but there is only one Mozart.’

The proper part of sincerity in life, and perhaps in art, is a complex one; hard and fast rules are easy to come by but difficult to justify. Certain kinds of brutes believe that sincerity is always saying what they truly think; but if this is sincerity, then clearly it is not always a desirable quality (at least if the contents of my thoughts are anything to go by). When we disguise from someone a truth that can only be painful and not at all useful to him, we may sincerely wish him well, but still our words are not sincere; while to tell him that truth on the grounds that sincerity is a virtue is merely a manifestation of sadism.   

I suppose by insincerity, then, we mean the quality of saying or doing something that corresponds at no level of analysis to one’s true beliefs, feelings or desires. But then the problem arises as to what are a person’s true beliefs, feelings or desires. Not only may people (including, dare I say it, ourselves) harbour contradictory beliefs, feelings and desires, but there is no decisive test as to what constitutes true or real in this context. If you say that you want to give up smoking and I point out that you never make the slightest effort in that direction, you can perfectly well retort, ‘Yes, but I still want to.’ Actual conduct is not an infallible guide to inner states of mind – one might add Thank goodness, for if it were such an infallible guide human intercourse would lose all possible interest and mystery.

If the sincerity of others and even of ourselves in the ordinary business of life is not easy to assess or to prove, then, a fortiori, it is even more difficult to assess the sincerity of art. And yet we do so regularly, relying largely on our instinct to do so. Who, for example, could believe that Jeff Koons is sincere in anything except a desire for fame and fortune? We should suspect those themselves of insincerity who claimed to believe him to be sincere. (The very verbiage of so much art criticism causes us to suspect that it is writing by frauds of frauds for frauds.)

In his essay Gosse makes the point clearly that while sincerity is the first quality in literature, it is certainly not the last:

It is not granted to more than a few to express in precise and direct language their most powerful emotional experiences.

He continues:

The attempt to render passion by artistic speech is commonly void of success to a pathetic degree. Those who have desired, enjoyed, and suffered to the very edge of human capacity, put the musical instrument to their lips to try and tell us what they felt, and the result is all discord and falsetto.

Sincerity, then, is no guarantee of accomplishment; nor is failure a sign of insincerity, for with true humanity Gosse insists that:

There is no question that many of the coldest and most affected verses, such as we are apt to scorn for their tasteless weakness, must hide underneath the white ash of their linguistic poverty a core of red hot passion.

This is so not only in poetry, but in all fields of artistic and even of intellectual endeavour, particularly of a philosophical nature. Many of us must have been blinded by what we considered or hoped was an original insight, only to discover later that someone had thought precisely the same in 395 BC or AD 17. Our belief in our own originality, then, which was sincere at the time, turns out to have been a manifestation of our ignorance of all that has been said and thought before us, and the cause of initial exhilaration more properly a cause of lamentation and regret.

There is nothing of the sneer in what Gosse writes, however; rather of humane understanding. And this is only appropriate, because his own volumes of verses, On Viol and Flute, Firdani in Exile, and other Poems, King Erik and In Russet and Silver, are now as forgotten as any in the language. When he praises the work of others, though, I think there is no mistaking (as likewise there is no proving) his sincerity. Of EBB’s sonnets he says:

Many of the thoughts that enrich mankind and many of the purest flowers of the imagination had their roots, if the secrets of experience were made known, in actions, in desires, which could not bear the light of day… But this cycle of admirable sonnets, one of the acknowledged glories of our literature, is built patiently and unquestionable on the union in stainless harmony of two of the most distinguished spirits which our century has produced.

In the subsequent essay in Critical Kit-Kats Gosse praises Keats in a similarly sincere way. The essay is actually a speech he made in 1894 at the dedication of a monument to Keats donated by American admirers of the poet.

[His reputation] rests upon no privilege of birth, no “stake in the country,” as we say; it is fostered by no alliance of powerful friends, or wide circle of influences; no one living today has seen Keats, or preserves his memory for any private purpose. In all but verse his name was, as he said, “writ in water.” He is identified with no progression of ideas, no religious, or political, or social propaganda… We honour, in the lad who passed so long unobserved…, a poet, and nothing but a poet, but one of the very greatest poets that the modern world has seen… Shall I say what will startle you if I confess that I sometimes fancy that we lost in the author of the five great odes the most masterful capacity for poetic expression which the world has ever seen?

This is fulsome but not ridiculous in view the now obvious greatness of Keats as a poet (it was not always obvious, of course, as Gosse points out); what Gosse says is simultaneously heartfelt and restrained, restrained by the preamble ‘Shall I say what will startle you if I confess that I sometimes fancy…’

Gosse asks ‘To what does he owe his [Keats’] pre-eminence… he who had ceased to sing at an age when most were still practising their prosodical scales?’ Most interestingly he discounts originality:

Originality of poetic style was not, it seems to me, the predominant characteristic of Keats… There is hardly any excellent feature in the poetry of Keats which is not superficially the feature of some well-recognised master of an age precedent to his own… But, if he makes use of modes which are already familiar to us… as the modes invented by earlier masters, it is mainly because his temperament was one which imperatively led him to select the best of all possible forms of expression.

Compared with learning from the past, from taking what was best in it and using it to the greatest advantage to create the new, originality is a cheap and pointless goal:

 [Originality] has come to poets… infinitely the inferior of Keats. Those who strive after direct originality forget that to be unlike those who have preceded us, in all the forms and methods of expression, is not by any means certainly to be either felicitous or distinguished.

Is that a lesson that one could say has been marked, learned and inwardly digested, as my teachers used to demand of me, by today’s artists, architects, writers and others? I hardly think so; and therefore it is a consolation that there is some value, other than the pure pleasure it gives, to reading matter that is both intelligent and undemanding.    


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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