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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Ad Astra"

"Ad Astra"
The Speaker, January 5, 1901

Ad Astra. By Charles Whitworth Wynne. London: Grant Richards

"Let not his arrogance go unreproved."- Ad Astra. 

Of the novel methods by which this work has been brought to the public notice we will say little. Suffice it to say that until lately we have been under the impression that "Ad Astra" was a kind of soap. It is, however, a poem, though soap would probably be more poetical. With every allowance for difference of taste and the strongest natural leaning towards lenience in criticism, we cannot understand why this work should have gone into several editions. It is a long, rambling poem which starts from the subject of natural landscape, wanders through love, theology, and Imperial politics, and seems unable to fix itself firmly even upon a prejudice, not to speak of an idea. A poem may be written about everything, but not about things in general. To a poet who sings of the universe, the universe must be for the moment one thing- as much one thing as a daisy or a butterfly. Thus Lucretius had a vision of the universe; Dante had a vision of the universe. Mr. Wynne simply has a stroll through the universe, picking up odds and ends for no conceivable reason. If we ourselves wrote a poem which opened with a discussion on tobacco, went on to describe the death of Julius Caesar, and ended with a comparison between fighting duels and learning Hindustani the whole work would be something like Ad Astra. Mr. Wynne should either write on some detail that interests him or wait till he has the vision of everything. We may warn him, however, that the vision of everything is a rather curious thing, and a man who has it generally either dies of terror or is happy for the rest of his days.

Chaos in the scheme, however, could be easily forgiven if there were merit in the parts. But we must confess that reading these long metrical meditations reminds us of nothing so much as drinking innumerable gallons of luke-warm water. The cold water of reason is good and the boiling water of religious passion is good; but this is not fully and sincerely either logical or religious. It is made up of the reflections of one of those gentlemen who occupy their very numerous spare hours by having spiritual doubts with which no reasonable person ought to be troubled and crushing them with replies with which no reasonable person ought to be satisfied.

Of the diction very few examples will suffice. Mr. Wynne in the opening verses discusses in his vague way the question of Nature and her sympathetic or unsympathetic attitude towards man. He describes what happens when "we look behind her lustrous eyes," which would seem a delicate surgical proceeding:-
"But when we look behind her lustrous eyes
We find scant echo to our deepening sighs."
It would surely be a little unreasonable of us to expect to find echoes behind a person's eyes. We have heard of "cavernous eyes," but not so cavernous as all that.

Later on, he writes:-
"Though factory smoke and noise of whirring looms
Obscure his perfect vision for a while."
We do not quite understand why noise should obscure his vision, but we can understand it, of course, if the echoes get into his eyes. He is evidently constructed on the same physiological principle as Bottom the Weaver, who went to see a noise that he heard.

This extraordinary confusion of mind runs riot in the diction. In a simple-minded passage about British Imperialism being the refuge of the Jews, which we fear may "produce in the sinful a smile," Mr. Wynne says-
"For if we be not of the lost Ten Tribes
At least we have procured them harbourage"
If the "Tribes" are still lost it is a little difficult to tell whether we have procured them harbourage or not.

Lastly, to complete our examples in technique, we should be pleased to offer the customary sewing-machine for the explanation of the following:-
"O Father give me back my childhood's Faith,
That faith that saw Thee in the brightening cloud
And deemed it but the mirror of thy breath."
This would certainly seem to be faith of a very high and difficult order.

If these were mere verbal errors or mixed metaphors, they would matter little. The trouble is that they are produced not by a number of images jostling each other, but by the entire absence of any image at all. What picture in the mind either of writer or reader can possibly be made up of echoes behind eyes, of clouds that are like mirrors, of mirrors that reflect breath? If we spoke of finding an echo in a bag of flour or a cloud that was like a single eyeglass, the image would not be more shapeless and devoid of suggestion.

The truth is that we should have the greatest respect for Mr. Wynne's work, with all its crudities, if it bore the impress even of the vulgarest fanaticism. If he had one thing which could be called an opinion we could forgive him everything. But he seems to dawdle round all sides of a question, like a drunkard going continually round a house because he cannot find the door. For example, he enunciates, as we have said, a rather innocently complimentary view of the Jews, and declares that "God still loveth them," because "whate'er they touch turns golden in their hands"- a somewhat poor and snobbish reason for doing justice to the countrymen of Isaiah. But while in this passage he seems as Semitic as a South African Imperialist, we find him a few verses back offering in a confused way an insult to Israel of which M. Drumont would be ashamed. He says they have a "shifty trace" in their eyes and that they are-
"Wanderers upon the face of God's fair earth,
And cursed, like Cain, with murder from their birth."
Whether this means that a Jew is from his birth continually murdering, or continually being murdered, we cannot tell; but in either case it seems a trifle indecent.

This is only one instance, but it is typical of Mr. Wynne's attitude on all subjects. It is not that he does not say anything, but that he does not think anything- that is the outrage.

It would be difficult to say which is the most unpoetical line in the poem. In a work which contains such lines as "We judge from our own standpoint- that of sin," "Consider too, the progress man has made I" and "The atheist argues that the Christian Creed," the difficulty will be easily understood. But, upon the whole, we think the palm must be given to the couplet:-
"The natural order of development
Is from the unit to the family."
There are some lines, indeed, which might lay Mr. Wynne open to a severer charge than that of being prosaic. We do not believe him to be guilty of deliberate plagiarism. But certainly a great deal of carelessness and vagueness of mind is required to excuse such lines as "The paths of pleasure flower but to the grave"- "For God reveals himself in many ways" and the almost precise repetition of one of Mr. William Watson's phrases in the line "lights to the lily, reddens to the rose."

We wish to say as little as possible on the subject of the long, loose, and wearisome argument on the subject of religion which takes up so many pages of Ad Astra. We will only remark that we sincerely hope that the time will come when preachers, hymn-writers, and pious poets will realise that there is a very deep and menacing truth at the bottom of the commandment, "Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." That a man shall not use the strongest words so as to make them weak is emphatically one of the ten commandments of literature. The law against taking the Name in vain is, for some strange reason, generally understood as dealing with jokes upon serious subjects. But a joke is not necessarily vain, it is generally highly significant. Job and Elijah jest constantly on serious subjects. But to use the greatest names in our language, the words that are, as it were, too great for the mouth, again and again like a worn-out stamp, in trivial arguments, in cocksure explanations, in mere rhetorical padding; this, which resounds from hundreds of pulpits and sacred lyres, is indeed, to our minds, the sin against the Name, and it is this that Mr. Wynne never ceases from committing.

Since the appearance, or appearances, of Ad Astra, Mr. Wynne has published a volume of lyrics. Of these we will quite only one poem, and that a short one:-
"Home returning in a shower
Found that I was smiling,
Just the very time and hour
Most men would be riling.
Thus, though Nature prove unkind,
Only a poetic mind
Can laugh without reviling."
That is all. It will be noticed that Mr. Wynne is not ill satisfied with himself, despite the strange modesty which leads him to deprive the second line of a nominative personal pronoun. It is, indeed, this astonishing haughtiness of his which has led us to consider his claims at such length. Posters and sky-signs are, we are told, to be seen all over London stating that Ad Astra is the "Book of the Year," and even, as one dark humourist (perhaps Mr. Max Beerbohm) is reported to have said "the finest religious poem of the century." To permit this gentleman to dance upon the graves of Browning and Tennyson was a feat beyond our tolerably tough clemency. Nevertheless, we do not wish to take the matter too solemnly, and we have endeavoured to prove that we possess a "poetic mind" by a fixed endeavour to "laugh without reviling."

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