A Poem on Early Christianity
The Speaker, September 29, 1900
Attempts in Verse. By Charles H. Hoole. London: Rivington
It is a very dangerous thing for the most intelligent man to write a long poem in blank verse; or, for the matter of that, a long poem in any verse. Indeed, it is a dangerous and possibly criminal thing to write a poem at all. We do not think Mr. Hoole especially to blame if his extensive monologue on the early Christians, by one of themselves, becomes slightly tiresome. Any man who writes a long blank verse narrative sings a lullaby to his own wits. Gradually, insensibly, with insidious advance, the task becomes easier and easier, the standard lower and lower. He finds it convenient, indeed necessary, to narrate much that is explanatory and unpoetic, and the watery fluency of his medium makes it easy to do so:-
"At Rome, one April, Nicholas and Iand so on. There is nothing silly or offensive about this style; its fatal defect is that anything could be written in it. We could write our own critique in blank verse of this kind and very much in the manner of Mr. Hoole:-
Had planned a visit to the catacombs.
He a law student of the Scottish Bar"-
"Before us lies a book sent for reviewIt is a style that lends a sort of loathsome facility to a man's poorest and paltriest thoughts. The ablest of men under its influence, losing all discipline of restraint and opportunity, would gradually turn into the horrible vision of an omnipotent idiot with a continent of paper and eternity before him. It is extraordinary to notice how Mr. Hoole- who, whatever else he is, is obviously a man of taste and learning- is gradually more and more drugged with this degrading security until he writes lines like
Titled Attempts in Verse, by Charles H. Hoole,
Student of Christ Church, Oxford. (Rivington.)
We read it with contentment, not with rapture,
And amid much that we could do without
Find frequently a line that isn't bad,
And still more frequently a line that is."
"Set like some gem or topaz in the gold."This carelessness is positively below the level of a man's common conversation. We do not believe that Mr. Hoole in private life would ever say: "If any man or grocer calls, show him up"; or "Let us plant some flowers or some pansies in the garden." But Mr. Hoole has taught his mind the detestable tune that is easier than speech itself.
The subject of the poem which occupies the greater part of this book is, as we have remarked, the condition of the early Christians. We are sorry that Mr. Hoole has done nothing towards rending that veil of pious and dehumanising unreality that has been lowered between us and the most absorbing and romantic of all the revolutions of the world. Martyrology in all its forms will, we venture to say, yet be found to be the highest of social sciences, and whatever may be rationally and even humanely urged on behalf of easier philosophies, we all of us know at root that mankind will die on the day that the martyrs elect to live. But devout poets like Mr. Hoole have done a far worse thing to the martyrs than was done by the tyrants who made their torments bitter. They have made them easy. To read Mr. Hoole, one would fancy that being eaten by a lion was quite a moral picnic, a natural enjoyment. His heroes, like the lady in The Sign of the Cross (a typical case of the same error), go to their tortures with a kind of graceful weariness, like a jilted Duchess going to a ball. That men have been burnt alive willingly is a fact of no little interest to any one who has ever put his hand in the flame of a candle, but surely it is clear that no person could do so unless he were in a state of blazing excitement dearer than the desire of life and passing the love of woman. Red-hot pincers might infuse agony or defiance, but that they could infuse a spirit of contemplative boredom is not a thing we can believe. The fact of the matter is that the early Christians were probably what are called fanatics, and will be so called until we want some more. Mr. Hoole's conventional version of them exhibits them as people so pompously harmless, so vapidly genteel, that it is perfectly ridiculous to suppose that any civilisation could have thought such prigs were cannibals. The real Christian, ignorant, concentrated, boorish, obsessed with many monstrous myths, but full of the fire that was to burn and renew the world, probably gave far more superficial probability to the slander. The deepest evil of Mr. Hoole's class of work on this subject is that it has driven numbers of thoughtless people with a smattering of knowledge and full of the ancient human love of upsetting a hypocrite, into another extreme. That narrowest of religious sectarians, the Secularist, supposes that the suggestion that the early Christians were neither so wise nor so good as they are represented, is in some way a diminution from their great work. But suppose that after the French Revolution the pious optimism of Robespierre in his views of the democracy had obtained the same universal control that was gained by the pious optimism of the early Church. Suppose that all traces of the follies of the Jacobins had been lost, with all traces of the follies of the Galilaeans. Suppose that generations had been taught to adore the meek and loving Marat depicted in an aureole, with the knife, his instrument of martyrdom, and the blessed and humble Robespierre with the guillotine, his instrument of martyrdom. And suppose that some Gibbon arose and began to pull these fictions to pieces. In the eyes of those who think, of course, he would not have gone near to touching the sanctity that must for ever cling round those figures in history, great as may be their faults, by whose stripes we are healed. But for whatever disgust and mental confusion might arise among the thoughtless, Mr. Hoole might claim a share in the responsibility. It is such poems as "Caecilius," written in the most reverent tone and with the best intentions, which take away from the great Christian romance all those elements of the human, the chivalrous and the unexpected which give the glory to all the other romances of history. Mr. Hoole's hero, a young Roman who, of course, starts life as a Pagan, remains, as far as we are concerned, a Pagan to the end. If Mr. Hoole wishes for polished manners, for artistic surroundings, for broad opinions, he will find them among the Pagans of that age. But times come in history, of which Christianity was one and the French Revolution the other, when the chariot of opportunity thunders past and men must run after salvation. And a man running after salvation can no more be dignified than a man running after his hat. In quiet and careless times men may be like Mr. Hoole's Christians, but in the presence of any better and bracing hope, life, in its unconsciousness, must become sprawling and fantastic, blown out of shape like those grotesque and twisted trees which are the first signals of the sea.