Books and Characters, by Lytton Strachey

Racine

When Ingres painted his vast ‘Apotheosis of Homer,’ he represented, grouped round the central throne, all the great poets of the ancient and modern worlds, with a single exception — Shakespeare. After some persuasion, he relented so far as to introduce into his picture a part of that offensive personage; and English visitors at the Louvre can now see, to their disgust or their amusement, the truncated image of rather less than half of the author of King Lear just appearing at the extreme edge of the enormous canvas. French taste, let us hope, has changed since the days of Ingres; Shakespeare would doubtless now be advanced — though perhaps chiefly from a sense of duty — to the very steps of the central throne. But if an English painter were to choose a similar subject, how would he treat the master who stands acknowledged as the most characteristic representative of the literature of France? Would Racine find a place in the picture at all? Or, if he did, would more of him be visible than the last curl of his full-bottomed wig, whisking away into the outer darkness?

There is something inexplicable about the intensity of national tastes and the violence of national differences. If, as in the good old days, I could boldly believe a Frenchman to be an inferior creature, while he, as simply, wrote me down a savage, there would be an easy end of the matter. But alas! nous avons changé tout cela. Now we are each of us obliged to recognise that the other has a full share of intelligence, ability, and taste; that the accident of our having been born on different sides of the Channel is no ground for supposing either that I am a brute or that he is a ninny. But, in that case, how does it happen that while on one side of that ‘span of waters’ Racine is despised and Shakespeare is worshipped, on the other, Shakespeare is tolerated and Racine is adored? The perplexing question was recently emphasised and illustrated in a singular way. Mr. John Bailey, in a volume of essays entitled ‘The Claims of French Poetry,’ discussed the qualities of Racine at some length, placed him, not without contumely, among the second rank of writers, and drew the conclusion that, though indeed the merits of French poetry are many and great, it is not among the pages of Racine that they are to be found. Within a few months of the appearance of Mr. Bailey’s book, the distinguished French writer and brilliant critic, M. Lemaître, published a series of lectures on Racine, in which the highest note of unqualified panegyric sounded uninterruptedly from beginning to end. The contrast is remarkable, and the conflicting criticisms seem to represent, on the whole, the views of the cultivated classes in the two countries. And it is worthy of note that neither of these critics pays any heed, either explicitly or by implication, to the opinions of the other. They are totally at variance, but they argue along lines so different and so remote that they never come into collision. Mr. Bailey, with the utmost sang-froid, sweeps on one side the whole of the literary tradition of France. It is as if a French critic were to assert that Shakespeare, the Elizabethans, and the romantic poets of the nineteenth century were all negligible, and that England’s really valuable contribution to the poetry of the world was to be found among the writings of Dryden and Pope. M. Lemaître, on the other hand, seems sublimely unconscious that any such views as Mr. Bailey’s could possibly exist. Nothing shows more clearly Racine’s supreme dominion over his countrymen than the fact that M. Lemaître never questions it for a moment, and tacitly assumes on every page of his book that his only duty is to illustrate and amplify a greatness already recognised by all. Indeed, after reading M. Lemaître’s book, one begins to understand more clearly why it is that English critics find it difficult to appreciate to the full the literature of France. It is no paradox to say that that country is as insular as our own. When we find so eminent a critic as M. Lemaître observing that Racine ‘a vraiment “achevé” et porté à son point suprême de perfection la tragédie, cette étonnante forme d’art, et qui est bien de chez nous: car on la trouve peu chez les Anglais,’ is it surprising that we should hastily jump to the conclusion that the canons and the principles of a criticism of this kind will not repay, and perhaps do not deserve, any careful consideration? Certainly they are not calculated to spare the susceptibilities of Englishmen. And, after all, this is only natural; a French critic addresses a French audience; like a Rabbi in a synagogue, he has no need to argue and no wish to convert. Perhaps, too, whether he willed or no, he could do very little to the purpose; for the difficulties which beset an Englishman in his endeavours to appreciate a writer such as Racine are precisely of the kind which a Frenchman is least able either to dispel or even to understand. The object of this essay is, first, to face these difficulties, with the aid of Mr. Bailey’s paper, which sums up in an able and interesting way the average English view of the matter; and, in the second place, to communicate to the English reader a sense of the true significance and the immense value of Racine’s work. Whether the attempt succeed or fail, some important general questions of literary doctrine will have been discussed; and, in addition, at least an effort will have been made to vindicate a great reputation. For, to a lover of Racine, the fact that English critics of Mr. Bailey’s calibre can write of him as they do, brings a feeling not only of entire disagreement, but of almost personal distress. Strange as it may seem to those who have been accustomed to think of that great artist merely as a type of the frigid pomposity of an antiquated age, his music, to ears that are attuned to hear it, comes fraught with a poignancy of loveliness whose peculiar quality is shared by no other poetry in the world. To have grown familiar with the voice of Racine, to have realised once and for all its intensity, its beauty, and its depth, is to have learnt a new happiness, to have discovered something exquisite and splendid, to have enlarged the glorious boundaries of art. For such benefits as these who would not be grateful? Who would not seek to make them known to others, that they too may enjoy, and render thanks?

M. Lemaître, starting out, like a native of the mountains, from a point which can only be reached by English explorers after a long journey and a severe climb, devotes by far the greater part of his book to a series of brilliant psychological studies of Racine’s characters. He leaves on one side almost altogether the questions connected both with Racine’s dramatic construction, and with his style; and these are the very questions by which English readers are most perplexed, and which they are most anxious to discuss. His style in particular — using the word in its widest sense — forms the subject of the principal part of Mr. Bailey’s essay; it is upon this count that the real force of Mr. Bailey’s impeachment depends; and, indeed, it is obvious that no poet can be admired or understood by those who quarrel with the whole fabric of his writing and condemn the very principles of his art. Before, however, discussing this, the true crux of the question, it may be well to consider briefly another matter which deserves attention, because the English reader is apt to find in it a stumbling-block at the very outset of his inquiry. Coming to Racine with Shakespeare and the rest of the Elizabethans warm in his memory, it is only to be expected that he should be struck with a chilling sense of emptiness and unreality. After the colour, the moving multiplicity, the imaginative luxury of our early tragedies, which seem to have been moulded out of the very stuff of life and to have been built up with the varied and generous structure of Nature herself, the Frenchman’s dramas, with their rigid uniformity of setting, their endless duologues, their immense harangues, their spectral confidants, their strict exclusion of all visible action, give one at first the same sort of impression as a pretentious pseudo-classical summer-house appearing suddenly at the end of a vista, after one has been rambling through an open forest. ‘La scène est à Buthrote, ville d’Epire, dans une salle du palais de Pyrrhus’— could anything be more discouraging than such an announcement? Here is nothing for the imagination to feed on, nothing to raise expectation, no wondrous vision of ‘blasted heaths,’ or the ‘seaboard of Bohemia’; here is only a hypothetical drawing-room conjured out of the void for five acts, simply in order that the persons of the drama may have a place to meet in and make their speeches. The ‘three unities’ and the rest of the ‘rules’ are a burden which the English reader finds himself quite unaccustomed to carry; he grows impatient of them; and, if he is a critic, he points out the futility and the unreasonableness of those antiquated conventions. Even Mr. Bailey, who, curiously enough, believes that Racine ‘stumbled, as it were, half by accident into great advantages’ by using them, speaks of the ‘discredit’ into which ‘the once famous unities’ have now fallen, and declares that ‘the unities of time and place are of no importance in themselves.’ So far as critics are concerned this may be true; but critics are apt to forget that plays can exist somewhere else than in books, and a very small acquaintance with contemporary drama is enough to show that, upon the stage at any rate, the unities, so far from having fallen into discredit, are now in effect triumphant. For what is the principle which underlies and justifies the unities of time and place? Surely it is not, as Mr. Bailey would have us believe, that of the ‘unity of action or interest,’ for it is clear that every good drama, whatever its plan of construction, must possess a single dominating interest, and that it may happen — as in Antony and Cleopatra, for instance — that the very essence of this interest lies in the accumulation of an immense variety of local activities and the representation of long epochs of time. The true justification for the unities of time and place is to be found in the conception of drama as the history of a spiritual crisis — the vision, thrown up, as it were, by a bull’s-eye lantern, of the final catastrophic phases of a long series of events. Very different were the views of the Elizabethan tragedians, who aimed at representing not only the catastrophe, but the whole development of circumstances of which it was the effect; they traced, with elaborate and abounding detail, the rise, the growth, the decline, and the ruin of great causes and great persons; and the result was a series of masterpieces unparalleled in the literature of the world. But, for good or evil, these methods have become obsolete, and to-day our drama seems to be developing along totally different lines. It is playing the part, more and more consistently, of the bull’s-eye lantern; it is concerned with the crisis, and nothing but the crisis; and, in proportion as its field is narrowed and its vision intensified, the unities of time and place come more and more completely into play. Thus, from the point of view of form, it is true to say that it has been the drama of Racine rather than that of Shakespeare that has survived. Plays of the type of Macbeth have been superseded by plays of the type of Britannicus. Britannicus, no less than Macbeth, is the tragedy of a criminal; but it shows us, instead of the gradual history of the temptation and the fall, followed by the fatal march of consequences, nothing but the precise psychological moment in which the first irrevocable step is taken, and the criminal is made. The method of Macbeth has been, as it were, absorbed by that of the modern novel; the method of Britannicus still rules the stage. But Racine carried out his ideals more rigorously and more boldly than any of his successors. He fixed the whole of his attention upon the spiritual crisis; to him that alone was of importance; and the conventional classicism so disheartening to the English reader — the ‘unities,’ the harangues, the confidences, the absence of local colour, and the concealment of the action — was no more than the machinery for enhancing the effect of the inner tragedy, and for doing away with every side issue and every chance of distraction. His dramas must be read as one looks at an airy, delicate statue, supported by artificial props, whose only importance lies in the fact that without them the statue itself would break in pieces and fall to the ground. Approached in this light, even the ‘salle du palais de Pyrrhus’ begins to have a meaning. We come to realise that, if it is nothing else, it is at least the meeting-ground of great passions, the invisible framework for one of those noble conflicts which ‘make one little room an everywhere.’ It will show us no views, no spectacles, it will give us no sense of atmosphere or of imaginative romance; but it will allow us to be present at the climax of a tragedy, to follow the closing struggle of high destinies, and to witness the final agony of human hearts.

It is remarkable that Mr. Bailey, while seeming to approve of the classicism of Racine’s dramatic form, nevertheless finds fault with him for his lack of a quality with which, by its very nature, the classical form is incompatible. Racine’s vision, he complains, does not ‘take in the whole of life’; we do not find in his plays ‘the whole pell-mell of human existence’; and this is true, because the particular effects which Racine wished to produce necessarily involved this limitation of the range of his interests. His object was to depict the tragic interaction of a small group of persons at the culminating height of its intensity; and it is as irrational to complain of his failure to introduce into his compositions ‘the whole pell-mell of human existence’ as it would be to find fault with a Mozart quartet for not containing the orchestration of Wagner. But it is a little difficult to make certain of the precise nature of Mr. Bailey’s criticism. When he speaks of Racine’s vision not including ‘the whole of life,’ when he declares that Racine cannot be reckoned as one of the ‘world-poets,’ he seems to be taking somewhat different ground and discussing a more general question. All truly great poets, he asserts, have ‘a wide view of humanity,’ ‘a large view of life’— a profound sense, in short, of the relations between man and the universe; and, since Racine is without this quality, his claim to true poetic greatness must be denied. But, even upon the supposition that this view of Racine’s philosophical outlook is the true one — and, in its most important sense, I believe that it is not — does Mr. Bailey’s conclusion really follow? Is it possible to test a poet’s greatness by the largeness of his ‘view of life’? How wide, one would like to know, was Milton’s ‘view of humanity’? And, though Wordsworth’s sense of the position of man in the universe was far more profound than Dante’s, who will venture to assert that he was the greater poet? The truth is that we have struck here upon a principle which lies at the root, not only of Mr. Bailey’s criticism of Racine, but of an entire critical method — the method which attempts to define the essential elements of poetry in general, and then proceeds to ask of any particular poem whether it possesses these elements, and to judge it accordingly. How often this method has been employed, and how often it has proved disastrously fallacious! For, after all, art is not a superior kind of chemistry, amenable to the rules of scientific induction. Its component parts cannot be classified and tested, and there is a spark within it which defies foreknowledge. When Matthew Arnold declared that the value of a new poem might be gauged by comparing it with the greatest passages in the acknowledged masterpieces of literature, he was falling into this very error; for who could tell that the poem in question was not itself a masterpiece, living by the light of an unknown beauty, and a law unto itself? It is the business of the poet to break rules and to baffle expectation; and all the masterpieces in the world cannot make a precedent. Thus Mr. Bailey’s attempts to discover, by quotations from Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Goethe, the qualities without which no poet can be great, and his condemnation of Racine because he is without them, is a fallacy in criticism. There is only one way to judge a poet, as Wordsworth, with that paradoxical sobriety so characteristic of him, has pointed out — and that is, by loving him. But Mr. Bailey, with regard to Racine at any rate, has not followed the advice of Wordsworth. Let us look a little more closely into the nature of his attack.

‘L’épithète rare,’ said the De Goncourts,‘voilà la marque de l’écrivain.’ Mr. Bailey quotes the sentence with approval, observing that if, with Sainte–Beuve, we extend the phrase to ‘le mot rare,’ we have at once one of those invaluable touch-stones with which we may test the merit of poetry. And doubtless most English readers would be inclined to agree with Mr. Bailey, for it so happens that our own literature is one in which rarity of style, pushed often to the verge of extravagance, reigns supreme. Owing mainly, no doubt, to the double origin of our language, with its strange and violent contrasts between the highly-coloured crudity of the Saxon words and the ambiguous splendour of the Latin vocabulary; owing partly, perhaps, to a national taste for the intensely imaginative, and partly, too, to the vast and penetrating influence of those grand masters of bizarrerie — the Hebrew Prophets — our poetry, our prose, and our whole conception of the art of writing have fallen under the dominion of the emphatic, the extraordinary, and the bold. No one in his senses would regret this, for it has given our literature all its most characteristic glories, and, of course, in Shakespeare, with whom expression is stretched to the bursting point, the national style finds at once its consummate example and its final justification. But the result is that we have grown so unused to other kinds of poetical beauty, that we have now come to believe, with Mr. Bailey, that poetry apart from ‘le mot rare’ is an impossibility. The beauties of restraint, of clarity, of refinement, and of precision we pass by unheeding; we can see nothing there but coldness and uniformity; and we go back with eagerness to the fling and the bravado that we love so well. It is as if we had become so accustomed to looking at boxers, wrestlers, and gladiators that the sight of an exquisite minuet produced no effect on us; the ordered dance strikes us as a monotony, for we are blind to the subtle delicacies of the dancers, which are fraught with such significance to the practised eye. But let us be patient, and let us look again.

Ariane ma soeur, de quel amour blessée,

Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée.

Here, certainly, are no ‘mots rares’; here is nothing to catch the mind or dazzle the understanding; here is only the most ordinary vocabulary, plainly set forth. But is there not an enchantment? Is there not a vision? Is there not a flow of lovely sound whose beauty grows upon the ear, and dwells exquisitely within the memory? Racine’s triumph is precisely this — that he brings about, by what are apparently the simplest means, effects which other poets must strain every nerve to produce. The narrowness of his vocabulary is in fact nothing but a proof of his amazing art. In the following passage, for instance, what a sense of dignity and melancholy and power is conveyed by the commonest words!

Enfin j’ouvre les yeux, et je me fais justice:

C’est faire à vos beautés un triste sacrifice

Que de vous présenter, madame, avec ma foi,

Tout l’âge et le malheur que je traîne avec moi.

Jusqu’ici la fortune et la victoire mêmes

Cachaient mes cheveux blancs sous trente diadèmes.

Mais ce temps-là n’est plus: je régnais; et je fuis:

Mes ans se sont accrus; mes honneurs sont detruits.

Is that wonderful ‘trente’ an ‘épithète rare’? Never, surely, before or since, was a simple numeral put to such a use — to conjure up so triumphantly such mysterious grandeurs! But these are subtleties which pass unnoticed by those who have been accustomed to the violent appeals of the great romantic poets. As Sainte–Beuve says, in a fine comparison between Racine and Shakespeare, to come to the one after the other is like passing to a portrait by Ingres from a decoration by Rubens. At first, ‘comme on a l’oeil rempli de l’éclatante vérité pittoresque du grand maître flamand, on ne voit dans l’artiste français qu’un ton assez uniforme, une teinte diffuse de pâle et douce lumière. Mais qu’on approche de plus près et qu’on observe avec soin: mille nuances fines vont éclore sous le regard; mille intentions savantes vont sortir de ce tissu profond et serré; on ne peut plus en détacher ses yeux.’

Similarly when Mr. Bailey, turning from the vocabulary to more general questions of style, declares that there is no ‘element of fine surprise’ in Racine, no trace of the ‘daring metaphors and similes of Pindar and the Greek choruses — the reply is that he would find what he wants if he only knew where to look for it. ‘Who will forget,’ he says, ‘the comparison of the Atreidae to the eagles wheeling over their empty nest, of war to the money-changer whose gold dust is that of human bodies, of Helen to the lion’s whelps? . . . Everyone knows these. Who will match them among the formal elegances of Racine?’ And it is true that when Racine wished to create a great effect he did not adopt the romantic method; he did not chase his ideas through the four quarters of the universe to catch them at last upon the verge of the inane; and anyone who hopes to come upon ‘fine surprises’ of this kind in his pages will be disappointed. His daring is of a different kind; it is not the daring of adventure but of intensity; his fine surprises are seized out of the very heart of his subject, and seized in a single stroke. Thus many of his most astonishing phrases burn with an inward concentration of energy, which, difficult at first to realise to the full, comes in the end to impress itself ineffaceably upon the mind.

C’était pendant l’horreur d’une profonde nuit.

The sentence is like a cavern whose mouth a careless traveller might pass by, but which opens out, to the true explorer, into vista after vista of strange recesses rich with inexhaustible gold. But, sometimes, the phrase, compact as dynamite, explodes upon one with an immediate and terrific force —

C’est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée!

A few ‘formal elegances’ of this kind are surely worth having.

But what is it that makes the English reader fail to recognise the beauty and the power of such passages as these? Besides Racine’s lack of extravagance and bravura, besides his dislike of exaggerated emphasis and far-fetched or fantastic imagery, there is another characteristic of his style to which we are perhaps even more antipathetic — its suppression of detail. The great majority of poets — and especially of English poets — produce their most potent effects by the accumulation of details — details which in themselves fascinate us either by their beauty or their curiosity or their supreme appropriateness. But with details Racine will have nothing to do; he builds up his poetry out of words which are not only absolutely simple but extremely general, so that our minds, failing to find in it the peculiar delights to which we have been accustomed, fall into the error of rejecting it altogether as devoid of significance. And the error is a grave one, for in truth nothing is more marvellous than the magic with which Racine can conjure up out of a few expressions of the vaguest import a sense of complete and intimate reality. When Shakespeare wishes to describe a silent night he does so with a single stroke of detail —‘not a mouse stirring’! And Virgil adds touch upon touch of exquisite minutiae:

Cum tacet omnis ager, pecudes, pictaeque volucres,

Quaeque lacus late liquidos, quaeque aspera dumis

Rura tenent, etc.

Racine’s way is different, but is it less masterly?

Mais tout dort, et l’armée, et les vents, et Neptune.

What a flat and feeble set of expressions! is the Englishman’s first thought — with the conventional ‘Neptune,’ and the vague ‘armée,’ and the commonplace ‘vents.’ And he forgets to notice the total impression which these words produce — the atmosphere of darkness and emptiness and vastness and ominous hush.

It is particularly in regard to Racine’s treatment of nature that this generalised style creates misunderstandings. ‘Is he so much as aware,’ exclaims Mr. Bailey, ‘that the sun rises and sets in a glory of colour, that the wind plays deliciously on human cheeks, that the human ear will never have enough of the music of the sea? He might have written every page of his work without so much as looking out of the window of his study.’ The accusation gains support from the fact that Racine rarely describes the processes of nature by means of pictorial detail; that, we know, was not his plan. But he is constantly, with his subtle art, suggesting them. In this line, for instance, he calls up, without a word of definite description, the vision of a sudden and brilliant sunrise:

Déjà le jour plus grand nous frappe et nous éclaire.

And how varied and beautiful are his impressions of the sea! He can give us the desolation of a calm:

                    La rame inutile

Fatigua vainement une mer immobile;

or the agitated movements of a great fleet of galleys:

Voyez tout l’Hellespont blanchissant sous nos rames;

or he can fill his verses with the disorder and the fury of a storm:

Quoi! pour noyer les Grecs et leurs mille vaisseaux,

Mer, tu n’ouvriras pas des abymes nouveaux!

Quoi! lorsque les chassant du port qui les recèle,

L’Aulide aura vomi leur flotte criminelle,

Les vents, les mêmes vents, si longtemps accusés,

Ne te couvriront pas de ses vaisseaux brisés!

And then, in a single line, he can evoke the radiant spectacle of a triumphant flotilla riding the dancing waves:

Prêts à vous recevoir mes vaisseaux vous attendent;

Et du pied de l’autel vous y pouvez monter,

Souveraine des mers qui vous doivent porter.

The art of subtle suggestion could hardly go further than in this line, where the alliterating v’s, the mute e’s, and the placing of the long syllables combine so wonderfully to produce the required effect.

But it is not only suggestions of nature that readers like Mr. Bailey are unable to find in Racine — they miss in him no less suggestions of the mysterious and the infinite. No doubt this is partly due to our English habit of associating these qualities with expressions which are complex and unfamiliar. When we come across the mysterious accent of fatality and remote terror in a single perfectly simple phrase —

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé

we are apt not to hear that it is there. But there is another reason — the craving, which has seized upon our poetry and our criticism ever since the triumph of Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the last century, for metaphysical stimulants. It would be easy to prolong the discussion of this matter far beyond the boundaries of ‘sublunary debate,’ but it is sufficient to point out that Mr. Bailey’s criticism of Racine affords an excellent example of the fatal effects of this obsession. His pages are full of references to ‘infinity’ and ‘the unseen’ and ‘eternity’ and ‘a mystery brooding over a mystery’ and ‘the key to the secret of life’; and it is only natural that he should find in these watchwords one of those tests of poetic greatness of which he is so fond. The fallaciousness of such views as these becomes obvious when we remember the plain fact that there is not a trace of this kind of mystery or of these ‘feelings after the key to the secret of life,’ in Paradise Lost, and that Paradise Lost is one of the greatest poems in the world. But Milton is sacrosanct in England; no theory, however mistaken, can shake that stupendous name, and the damage which may be wrought by a vicious system of criticism only becomes evident in its treatment of writers like Racine, whom it can attack with impunity and apparent success. There is no ‘mystery’ in Racine — that is to say, there are no metaphysical speculations in him, no suggestions of the transcendental, no hints as to the ultimate nature of reality and the constitution of the world; and so away with him, a creature of mere rhetoric and ingenuities, to the outer limbo! But if, instead of asking what a writer is without, we try to discover simply what he is, will not our results be more worthy of our trouble? And in fact, if we once put out of our heads our longings for the mystery of metaphysical suggestion, the more we examine Racine, the more clearly we shall discern in him another kind of mystery, whose presence may eventually console us for the loss of the first — the mystery of the mind of man. This indeed is the framework of his poetry, and to speak of it adequately would demand a wider scope than that of an essay; for how much might be written of that strange and moving background, dark with the profundity of passion and glowing with the beauty of the sublime, wherefrom the great personages of his tragedies — Hermione and Mithridate, Roxane and Agrippine, Athalie and Phèdre — seem to emerge for a moment towards us, whereon they breathe and suffer, and among whose depths they vanish for ever from our sight! Look where we will, we shall find among his pages the traces of an inward mystery and the obscure infinities of the heart.

Nous avons su toujours nous aimer et nous taire.

The line is a summary of the romance and the anguish of two lives. That is all affection; and this all desire —

J’aimais jusqu’à ses pleurs que je faisais couler.

Or let us listen to the voice of Phèdre, when she learns that Hippolyte and Aricie love one another:

Les a-t-on vus souvent se parler, se chercher?

Dans le fond des forêts alloient-ils se cacher?

Hélas! ils se voyaient avec pleine licence;

Le ciel de leurs soupirs approuvait l’innocence;

Ils suivaient sans remords leur penchant amoureux;

Tous les jours se levaient clairs et sereins pour eux.

This last line — written, let us remember, by a frigidly ingenious rhetorician, who had never looked out of his study-window — does it not seem to mingle, in a trance of absolute simplicity, the peerless beauty of a Claude with the misery and ruin of a great soul?

It is, perhaps, as a psychologist that Racine has achieved his most remarkable triumphs; and the fact that so subtle and penetrating a critic as M. Lemaître has chosen to devote the greater part of a volume to the discussion of his characters shows clearly enough that Racine’s portrayal of human nature has lost nothing of its freshness and vitality with the passage of time. On the contrary, his admirers are now tending more and more to lay stress upon the brilliance of his portraits, the combined vigour and intimacy of his painting, his amazing knowledge, and his unerring fidelity to truth. M. Lemaître, in fact, goes so far as to describe Racine as a supreme realist, while other writers have found in him the essence of the modern spirit. These are vague phrases, no doubt, but they imply a very definite point of view; and it is curious to compare with it our English conception of Racine as a stiff and pompous kind of dancing-master, utterly out of date and infinitely cold. And there is a similar disagreement over his style. Mr. Bailey is never tired of asserting that Racine’s style is rhetorical, artificial, and monotonous; while M. Lemaître speaks of it as ‘nu et familier,’ and Sainte–Beuve says ‘il rase la prose, mais avec des ailes,’ The explanation of these contradictions is to be found in the fact that the two critics are considering different parts of the poet’s work. When Racine is most himself, when he is seizing upon a state of mind and depicting it with all its twistings and vibrations, he writes with a directness which is indeed naked, and his sentences, refined to the utmost point of significance, flash out like swords, stroke upon stroke, swift, certain, irresistible. This is how Agrippine, in the fury of her tottering ambition, bursts out to Burrhus, the tutor of her son:

Prétendez-vous longtemps me cacher l’empereur?

Ne le verrai-je plus qu’à titre d’importune?

Ai-je donc élevé si haut votre fortune

Pour mettre une barrière entre mon fils et moi?

Ne l’osez-vous laisser un moment sur sa foi?

Entre Sénèque et vous disputez-vous la gloire

A qui m’effacera plus tôt de sa mémoire?

Vous l’ai-je confié pour en faire un ingrat,

Pour être, sous son nom, les maîtres de l’état?

Certes, plus je médite, et moins je me figure

Que vous m’osiez compter pour votre créature;

Vous, dont j’ai pu laisser vieillir l’ambition

Dans les honneurs obscurs de quelque légion;

Et moi, qui sur le trône ai suivi mes ancêtres,

Moi, fille, femme, soeur, et mère de vos maîtres!

When we come upon a passage like this we know, so to speak, that the hunt is up and the whole field tearing after the quarry. But Racine, on other occasions, has another way of writing. He can be roundabout, artificial, and vague; he can involve a simple statement in a mist of high-sounding words and elaborate inversions.

Jamais l’aimable soeur des cruels Pallantides

Trempa-t-elle aux complots de ses frères perfides.

That is Racine’s way of saying that Aricie did not join in her brothers’ conspiracy. He will describe an incriminating letter as ‘De sa trahison ce gage trop sincère.’ It is obvious that this kind of expression has within it the germs of the ‘noble’ style of the eighteenth-century tragedians, one of whom, finding himself obliged to mention a dog, got out of the difficulty by referring to —‘De la fidélité le respectable appui.’ This is the side of Racine’s writing that puzzles and disgusts Mr. Bailey. But there is a meaning in it, after all. Every art is based upon a selection, and the art of Racine selected the things of the spirit for the material of its work. The things of sense — physical objects and details, and all the necessary but insignificant facts that go to make up the machinery of existence — these must be kept out of the picture at all hazards. To have called a spade a spade would have ruined the whole effect; spades must never be mentioned, or, at the worst, they must be dimly referred to as agricultural implements, so that the entire attention may be fixed upon the central and dominating features of the composition — the spiritual states of the characters — which, laid bare with uncompromising force and supreme precision, may thus indelibly imprint themselves upon the mind. To condemn Racine on the score of his ambiguities and his pomposities is to complain of the hastily dashed-in column and curtain in the background of a portrait, and not to mention the face. Sometimes indeed his art seems to rise superior to its own conditions, endowing even the dross and refuse of what it works in with a wonderful significance. Thus when the Sultana, Roxane, discovers her lover’s treachery, her mind flies immediately to thoughts of revenge and death, and she exclaims —

Ah! je respire enfin, et ma joie est extrême

Que le traître une fois se soit trahi lui-même.

Libre des soins cruels où j’allais m’engager,

Ma tranquille fureur n’a plus qu’à se venger.

Qu’il meure. Vengeons-nous. Courez. Qu’on le saisisse!

Que la main des muets s’arme pour son supplice;

Qu’ils viennent préparer ces noeuds infortunés

Par qui de ses pareils les jours sont terminés.

To have called a bowstring a bowstring was out of the question; and Racine, with triumphant art, has managed to introduce the periphrasis in such a way that it exactly expresses the state of mind of the Sultana. She begins with revenge and rage, until she reaches the extremity of virulent resolution; and then her mind begins to waver, and she finally orders the execution of the man she loves, in a contorted agony of speech.

But, as a rule, Racine’s characters speak out most clearly when they are most moved, so that their words, at the height of passion, have an intensity of directness unknown in actual life. In such moments, the phrases that leap to their lips quiver and glow with the compressed significance of character and situation; the ‘Qui te l’a dit?’ of Hermione, the ‘Sortez’ of Roxane, the ‘Je vais à Rome’ of Mithridate, the ‘Dieu des Juifs, tu l’emportes!’ of Athalie — who can forget these things, these wondrous microcosms of tragedy? Very different is the Shakespearean method. There, as passion rises, expression becomes more and more poetical and vague. Image flows into image, thought into thought, until at last the state of mind is revealed, inform and molten, driving darkly through a vast storm of words. Such revelations, no doubt, come closer to reality than the poignant epigrams of Racine. In life, men’s minds are not sharpened, they are diffused, by emotion; and the utterance which best represents them is fluctuating and agglomerated rather than compact and defined. But Racine’s aim was less to reflect the actual current of the human spirit than to seize upon its inmost being and to give expression to that. One might be tempted to say that his art represents the sublimed essence of reality, save that, after all, reality has no degrees. Who can affirm that the wild ambiguities of our hearts and the gross impediments of our physical existence are less real than the most pointed of our feelings and ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’?

It would be nearer the truth to rank Racine among the idealists. The world of his creation is not a copy of our own; it is a heightened and rarefied extension of it; moving, in triumph and in beauty, through ‘an ampler ether, a diviner air.’ It is a world where the hesitations and the pettinesses and the squalors of this earth have been fired out; a world where ugliness is a forgotten name, and lust itself has grown ethereal; where anguish has become a grace and death a glory, and love the beginning and the end of all. It is, too, the world of a poet, so that we reach it, not through melody nor through vision, but through the poet’s sweet articulation — through verse. Upon English ears the rhymed couplets of Racine sound strangely; and how many besides Mr. Bailey have dubbed his alexandrines ‘monotonous’! But to his lovers, to those who have found their way into the secret places of his art, his lines are impregnated with a peculiar beauty, and the last perfection of style. Over them, the most insignificant of his verses can throw a deep enchantment, like the faintest wavings of a magician’s wand. ‘A-t-on vu de ma part le roi de Comagène?’— How is it that words of such slight import should hold such thrilling music? Oh! they are Racine’s words. And, as to his rhymes, they seem perhaps, to the true worshipper, the final crown of his art. Mr. Bailey tells us that the couplet is only fit for satire. Has he forgotten Lamia? And he asks, ‘How is it that we read Pope’s Satires and Dryden’s, and Johnson’s with enthusiasm still, while we never touch Irene, and rarely the Conquest of Granada?’ Perhaps the answer is that if we cannot get rid of our a priori theories, even the fiery art of Dryden’s drama may remain dead to us, and that, if we touched Irene even once, we should find it was in blank verse. But Dryden himself has spoken memorably upon rhyme. Discussing the imputed unnaturalness of the rhymed ‘repartee’ he says: ‘Suppose we acknowledge it: how comes this confederacy to be more displeasing to you than in a dance which is well contrived? You see there the united design of many persons to make up one figure; . . . the confederacy is plain amongst them, for chance could never produce anything so beautiful; and yet there is nothing in it that shocks your sight . . . ’Tis an art which appears; but it appears only like the shadowings of painture, which, being to cause the rounding of it, cannot be absent; but while that is considered, they are lost: so while we attend to the other beauties of the matter, the care and labour of the rhyme is carried from us, or at least drowned in its own sweetness, as bees are sometimes buried in their honey.’ In this exquisite passage Dryden seems to have come near, though not quite to have hit, the central argument for rhyme — its power of creating a beautiful atmosphere, in which what is expressed may be caught away from the associations of common life and harmoniously enshrined. For Racine, with his prepossessions of sublimity and perfection, some such barrier between his universe and reality was involved in the very nature of his art. His rhyme is like the still clear water of a lake, through which we can see, mysteriously separated from us and changed and beautified, the forms of his imagination, ‘quivering within the wave’s intenser day.’ And truly not seldom are they ‘so sweet, the sense faints picturing them’!

Oui, prince, je languis, je brûle pour Thésée . . .

Il avait votre port, vos yeux, votre langage,

Cette noble pudeur colorait son visage,

Lorsque de notre Crète il traversa les flots,

Digne sujet des voeux des filles de Minos.

Que faisiez-vous alors? Pourquoi, sans Hippolyte,

Des héros de la Grèce assembla-t-il l’élite?

Pourquoi, trop jeune encor, ne pûtes-vous alors

Entrer dans le vaisseau qui le mit sur nos bords?

Par vous aurait péri le monstre de la Crète,

Malgré tous les détours de sa vaste retraite:

Pour en développer l’embarras incertain

Ma soeur du fil fatal eût armé votre main.

Mais non: dans ce dessein je l’aurais devancée;

L’amour m’en eût d’abord inspiré la pensée;

C’est moi, prince, c’est moi dont l’utile secours

Vous eût du labyrinthe enseigné les détours.

Que de soins m’eût coûtés cette tête charmante!

It is difficult to ‘place’ Racine among the poets. He has affinities with many; but likenesses to few. To balance him rigorously against any other — to ask whether he is better or worse than Shelley or than Virgil — is to attempt impossibilities; but there is one fact which is too often forgotten in comparing his work with that of other poets — with Virgil’s for instance — Racine wrote for the stage. Virgil’s poetry is intended to be read, Racine’s to be declaimed; and it is only in the theatre that one can experience to the full the potency of his art. In a sense we can know him in our library, just as we can hear the music of Mozart with silent eyes. But, when the strings begin, when the whole volume of that divine harmony engulfs us, how differently then we understand and feel! And so, at the theatre, before one of those high tragedies, whose interpretation has taxed to the utmost ten generations of the greatest actresses of France, we realise, with the shock of a new emotion, what we had but half-felt before. To hear the words of Phèdre spoken by the mouth of Bernhardt, to watch, in the culminating horror of crime and of remorse, of jealousy, of rage, of desire, and of despair, all the dark forces of destiny crowd down upon that great spirit, when the heavens and the earth reject her, and Hell opens, and the terriffic urn of Minos thunders and crashes to the ground — that indeed is to come close to immortality, to plunge shuddering through infinite abysses, and to look, if only for a moment, upon eternal light.

1908.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/strachey/lytton/books_and_characters/chapter1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31