Edward Carpenter's Writings
by H. S. Salt
Unless the signs of the times are strangely deceptive, we are now approaching a new and distinct epoch in our literature—the close of a dynasty of eminent writers, who are destined, as far as we can see, to leave behind them no direct succession of competent followers. The present accepted forms of literary workmanship have been carried well-nigh to perfection, in their several departments, by the great masters who have employed them, and the social movements of the past half-century have therein found full and trustworthy expression; little henceforth of permanent value is likely to be added, except when new ideals take shape in the development of new literature. This being so, it seems an error, on the part of many critics, to turn so expectantly to an old and exhausted quarter for the production of original writings; for not only will they fail there to find what they are in search of, but furthermore must run the risk of missing or ignoring the appearance elsewhere of fresh and unexpected genius. The professed reviewer is for ever on the look out for the new writer; but when he meets the new writer he is too prejudiced or pre-occupied to study him—as if some obstinate-minded coast-guardsman, oblivious of his responsibilities, should refuse to signal the arrival of an unfamiliar vessel. It is my purpose to remedy this omission by saying a few words about some recently-published writings of whose significance even the professed reviewer will ultimately be forced to take account.
Edward Carpenter's books are already well known and dearly valued by a not inconsiderable section of the reading public. With little aid from reviews and advertisements, but depending wholly on their own originality and vigour, these remarkable volumes have unobtrusively but surely worked their way into many thoughtful households, where by the magnetism of their quickening suggestiveness and sympathetic insight they have proved themselves to belong to that "literature of power" whose function, as De Quincey insisted, is not merely to teach but to move. The secret of this success lies partly in the strong distinctive personality by which these writings are inspired—that indispensable accompaniment of literary genius which has been graphically described by an American essayist as "the man behind the book"; still more, perhaps, in the fact that the reader here finds himself in the presence of a man who has a genuine message to deliver, and has grasped the great truth—so unpalatable in some circles—that literature, however high its vocation, must ever be secondary and subservient to the higher and more real interests of life.
For the benefit of such students as may hereafter make trial of Mr. Carpenter's volumes in the light and assistance of that great guide-book of literature, the British Museum Catalogue, it is worth mentioning that the enumeration of two Edward Carpenters, one a "Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge," the other a "Social Reformer," must be classed among those vexatious heresies into which even the most piously-disposed bibliographers are liable to fall, and for the extirpation of which there seems to be need of the damnatory energies of a literary Athanasius. The origin of the error is not difficult to discover. In 1873 Mr. Carpenter, late a Fellow of Trinity Hall, published a volume of verse, Narcissus and other Poems, and two years afterwards a drama entitled Moses, both of which, being written in accordance with the usual poetic canons and containing little that need be disquieting to the academic mind, were duly catalogued as the work of the reputable Fellow aforesaid, and honoured by the critical notice of the Athenaeum. But then Mr. Carpenter, instead of profiting by the strictures of his reviewers, took it into his head to vanish altogether for a season, reappearing after eight years as the author of Towards Democracy, a poem of anarchist propensities and Whitmanese style. Obviously this eccentric person could not be identical with the quondam Fellow of Trinity Hall; so he was ignominiously registered as "Social Reformer," and the Atenæum has never mentioned him again—an awful warning to those writers who would lightly quit the paths of literary respectability.
But though truth compels us to re-establish this broken link of identity, it may be admitted that there was an unintentional touch of humour, and even of propriety, in the distinction indicated by the catalogue. We may surmise that the strong, self-contained, yet withal tender and sympathetic idealist, who came before the world as social reformer in 1883, was in one sense a wholly different person from the College Fellow of ten years before—it is impossible, certainly, to compare his earlier with his later writings and fail to perceive the depth and force of the spiritual revelation of that intervening period, which had given new assurance to the thought and new expressiveness to the language. Here, as in other cases that might be cited, we see how a man by relinquishing all may gain all, and how the sacrifice of what the world calls success may free the way for the fuller development of a rare and singularly genuine personality.
For idealism—mysticism some will call it, but it is mysticism only in the best meaning of the term—is beyond question the dominant quality of Mr. Carpenter's writings. "There is a kind of knowledge or consciousness in us," he says, "as of our bodily parts, or affections, or deep-seated mental beliefs, which forms the base of our more obvious and self-conscious thought;" and he shows how the several senses, rightly developed, minister directly to this inner illumination, which is itself cosmical, absolute, and universal in its scope. He sees everywhere likeness, interfusion, brotherhood, the soul of man linked in sympathy with the soul of nature—a pantheistic faith which finds worthy expression in the following lines.
And a voice came to me saying:
"In every creature, in forest and ocean, in leaf and tree and bird and
beast and man, there moves a spirit other than its mortal own,
Pure, fluid as air—intense as fire,
Which looks abroad and passes along the spirits of all other creatures,
drawing them close to itself,
Nor dreams of other low than that of perfect equality;
And this is the spirit of immortality and peace."
It is on this intuitive conception of unity with fate that the author of Towards Democracy bases the optimistic creed of which that poem is an enthusiastic and passionate expression—an optimism which transcends even that of Whitman in the confidence, even to exulting joy, with which every fact of life is recognised and welcomed, sorrow itself being included as mysteriously contributive to the final sum of happiness. This is, of course, a subject for feeling rather than for argument; but then the chief facts of human existence, as Mr. Carpenter repeatedly points out, are just those which thus lie deep down in the inner realm of personal consciousness.
Humanity may perhaps be fairly taken as the watch-word of Mr. Carpenter's doctrines. Adopting Lamarck's theory of evolution in preference to the Darwinian, he regards man as no chance product, but the crown and consummation of all existence, the sole clue to the unravelling of the labyrinthine secret of life. "It is then finally in man," he says, "in our own deepest and most vital experience, that we have to look for the key and explanation of the changes that we see going on around us in external nature, as we call it; and our understanding of the latter, and of History, must ever depend from point to point on the exfoliation of new facts in the individual consciousness. Round the ultimate disclosure of the ideal man, all creation (hitherto groaning and travelling towards that perfect birth) ranges itself, as it were like some vast flower, in concentric circles, rank beyond rank; first all social life and history, then the animal kingdom, then the vegetable and mineral world." He views everything from this human standpoint, recognising and revering humanity, not in man only, but also, as Thoreau did, in the so-called "lower animals" and in nature which is sometimes termed "inanimate." Love is the one ultimate law, equality the one ultimate condition.
An idealist who thus holds man to be "the measure of all things," and seeks to discover the true purpose of mankind by a study not of external environments but of inner impulse, must necessarily give full weight to the importance of individual aspiration. The attitude of the individual towards society is treated in Mr. Carpenter's essays with a happy union of sympathetic imagination and scientific insight. Law, custom, conventionality, and the innumerable bonds of social tradition, are regarded as standing towards individual freedom in the position of the natural sheath protecting, or at times strangulating, the young bud, and destined at the due season to be overpowered and cast aside. "If Society," he says, "moves by an ordered and irresistible march of its own, so also—as a part of Society, and beyond that as a part of nature—does the individual. In his right place the individual is also irresistible. Huge as the institutions of Society are, vast as is the sweep of its traditions and customs, yet in the face of it all, the word 'I will' is not out of place." On the other hand the just obligations of the individual to Society are set forth by Mr. Carpenter with equal insistence; he sees, and teaches, that a real individuality can only then be developed when each man is in an honest relation towards his neighbour and the community, and that a real equality will then, and not till then, follow as a matter of course. "To build up this Supreme Life in a people—the life of Equality—in which each individual passes out of himself along the lives of his fellows, and in return receives their life into himself with such force that he becomes far greater as an individual than ever before—partaker of the supreme power and well-nigh irresistible—to build up this life in a people may well be a task worthy of the combined efforts of poets, philosophers, and statesmen. The whole of history and all the age-long struggles of the nations point to this realisation."
Mr. Carpenter, it will be seen, while by no means depreciating the value of scientific and economic knowledge, asserts the necessary precedence and superiority of the emotional and moral element. "There is no such thing," he remarks, "as intellectual truth—that is, a truth which can be stated as existing apart from feeling." Scientific "facts" are no more than imperfect generalisations, serviceable but temporary, which each age puts together for its own practical use and convenience. "No mere scientific adjustments will bring about the millennium. Granted that the problem is Happiness, there must be certain moral elements in the mass of mankind before they will even desire that kind of happiness which is attainable, let alone their capacity of reaching it—when these moral elements are present, the intellectual or scientific solution of the problem will soon be found, without them there will not really be any serious attempt made to find it. That is, science and the intellect are not, and never can be, the sources of social progress and change. It is the moral births and outgrowths that originate; the intellect stands in a secondary place as the tool and instrument of the moral faculty." Applied to the social question of to-day, these principles naturally suggest the paramount need of inculcating a sympathetic sense of equality and brotherhood, and this is the object to which the larger portion of Mr. Carpenter's work is devoted; though he nowhere disparages the value of such political action as may expedite the desired end, by emancipating and quickening the moral feeling. "The true nature of man," he tells us, "is to give like the sun." "Wealth, in order really to be wealth, must be humanised."
The essay which gives a title to Mr. Carpenter's latest volume, "Civilisation, its Cause and Cure," is one of the most able and characteristic of his writings, but at the same time on that is likely to call forth the most determined dissent; though I think it can be shown that a good deal of this dissent arises from a pure misunderstanding of his position. In the first place it should be noted that by "civilisation" he means not the ideal goal of intellectual enlightenment in general, but that particular historical stage through which, or into which, all nations pass at a certain point in their development. In this period the mind of man, which in the early primitive tribes, as in the uncivilised races of to-day, was innocent and undistracted, is compelled to face the terrible problem of introspection and self-consciousness; hence doubt, unrest, sin, disease, and the various mental and physical disorders to which the civilised man, whatever his advantages in other respects, is peculiarly liable. Civilisation, if this theory be correct, is a loss of unity—a breaking up of the primitive integrity of man's nature; but it is distinctly stated by Mr. Carpenter that he regards this phase as a necessary and inevitable one in the course of human progress. It is not contended by him any more than it was by Thoreau (on whom the notion was fathered by critics who had misread him), that savagery is better than civilisation; but simply that the latter, as we know it, has certain defects from which the former was free. It must be our ideal to unite, in a future condition, the nobler elements both of the civilised life and the uncivilised.
The "return to nature," then, which Mr. Carpenter advocates as the cure for our present distraction, does not imply anything so foolish as a return to mere barbarism. It is a plea for a simple unencumbered life—for less luxury, less worldliness, less respectability, less "mummydom" in general; for more freedom, more courage, more fresh air, more careless enjoyment of existence. His doctrine of Simplicity is in many important respects almost identical with that preached by Thoreau, but it is set forth with even greater deliberation and clearness of detail, and with far more tenderness for the prejudices of those readers who are likely to be startled at its strangeness. The charge of "asceticism," which has sometimes been made against this simplifying tendency, is due to a complete misconception of what its advocates desire; it is distinctly stated both by Thoreau and Edward Carpenter that they do not wish to lay down any hard-and-fast system of living, but rather to draw attention to certain indubitable but too often forgotten facts, to assert the exercise of individual taste, as opposed to the tyranny of social habit. Many of the supposed "comforts," that pass as necessities of existence among the wealthier classes, will be found on trial to be quite superfluous and harmful—harmful not only to the person (whoever that may be) who labours to produce them, but also to those for whose imaginary enjoyment they are produced. To point out the fallacy of prolonged indulgence in these "comforts"—in over-dressing, over-eating, over-building, and generally over-laying life with useless trappings and paraphernalia—is not asceticism but common sense. Asceticism suggests the sacrifice, for some ulterior motive, of what may in itself be good sacrifice, for some ulterior motive, of what may in itself be good and wholesome; simplicity condemns only what is actually mischievous and out of place.
The tolerant and considerate tone of Mr. Carpenter's volumes is one of their most marked features. He can, however, be righteously impatient at times, and there is one fetish which he has not scrupled to attack with all the power at his disposal. Never before has the pharisaic side of that dismal phenomenon which we call Respectability been subjected to such damaging criticism; Thoreau's shafts, fierce and effective though they were, did not overwhelm their object with so sustained a shower of mingled humour and indignation. "Before God," says Mr. Carpenter, "I would rather with pick and shovel dig a yearlong drain beneath the open sky, breathing freely, than I would live in this jungle of idiotic duties and thin-lipped respectabilities that money breeds;" and again and again in his poems and essays he pauses to note the cruel influence of this most inhuman of social juggernauts, with its ambiguous phraseology of "educated" and "well-to-do" classes, "securities" and "independence," "mortgages," "foreclosures" ("sounds like taking someone by the throat") and other significant expressions. "Respectability! Heavy-browed and hunch-backed word; once innocent and light-hearted as any other word, why now in thy middle age art thou become so gloomy and saturnine? Is it because that thou art responsible for the murder of the innocents? Respectability! Vision of clean hands and blameless dress—why dost thou now appear in the form of a ghoul before me?"
This disgust at "deadly Respectability discussing stocks" is in this case far from being a mere whimsical aversion on the part of an idealistic reformer, for Respectability, with the odious assumption of self-preference that always underlies it, is in truth the very antipodes and negative of that restful sense of perfect equality which is the inspiration of Towards Democracy and England’s Ideal. "If I am not level with the lowest" says Mr. Carpenter, "I am nothing; and if I did not know for a certainty that the craziest sot in the village is my equal, and were not proud to have him walk with me as my friend, I would not write another word—for in this is my strength." This view of natural equality is one which has unfortunately escaped the attention of those distinguished scientists who periodically demonstrate—with entire accuracy from the premisses they adopt, only these happen to be faulty—that men are not and can never be equal. So saturated are these thinkers with the prevalent notions of internecine competition as the one law of existence, that they can only conceive of equality as a debatable claim arising out of the social class-struggle—a claim urged for the aggrandisement of one party and to this detriment of another. Not such is the equality which Edward Carpenter teaches; it is a free spontaneous sentiment, founded not on rivalry but on love. "Granting" he says, "that competition has hitherto been the universal law, the last word, of nature, still if only one man should stand up and say, 'I shall be no more,' if he should say, 'It is not the last word of my nature, and my acts and life declare that it is not'—then that law would be at an end."
It is a significant indication of the faithfulness of the personality that speaks to us through Edward Carpenter's writings—of the genuineness of "the man behind the book"—that it seems almost an injustice to consider the form and style of his volumes apart from the lessons conveyed in them; so impossible is it to think of him as a mere "literary man." His works are those of a scholar and man of refinement, but they are also those of one who has faced life in its simpler rougher aspects, and by sharing the labours of country folk and mechanics has gained much invaluable experience which is necessarily beyond the reach of the ordinary student and littérateur. This experience it is that gives him a real distinction of style; his sentences have a vital freshness, an absolute sincerity, which is wholesome and invigorating as that of nature itself. Whoever has once read and assimilated these writings will find it impossible to doubt for a moment that they constitute a real and substantial addition to English literature.
Towards Democracy, being, like Whitman's poems, a venture in a new style, and deliberately modern and out-spoken to an extent which would be judged quite incompatible with the supposed laws of poetry—those "irrational laws," as Macaulay termed them, "which bad critics have framed for the government of poets"—must necessarily be the subject of widely divergent opinions among those who study it. Poetry is a more intimate and sympathetic vehicle of thought than prose—we go to the latter for understanding, to the former for feeling; and but for a sense of incongruity in applying any technical terms to a poem which by its very nature is an outburst of unfettered emotion, we should be inclined to say that Towards Democracy is the esoteric, as the prose essays are the exoteric expression of Mr. Carpenter's opinions. It is the song of the "Return to Joy"—of "the soul's slow disentanglement"—a rhapsody of the ideal innocence and happiness of that renovated world which the poet's vision anticipates; and there are passages in it which resemble in their sustained tone of confident exultation that great triumphal hymn of a freed Humanity which rings through the closing act of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. The Democracy which forms the subject of the poem is of course a purely ideal anarchism, and not a democratic form of government. It would be unbelievable, were it not a fact, that certain critics have failed to see that Mr. Carpenter was not singing of any democratic institutions as at present realised, but of a future society in which even the ballot-box and caucus will be no more.
The influence of Walt Whitman, whose magnetic personality is described in a remarkable passage of Towards Democracy, is easily discernible both in the free, open tone and the unrhymed structure of Mr. Carpenter's poem; but it is surely a sad piece of hypercriticism to complain, as some critics have done, that Towards Democracy is an "imitation" of Leaves of Grass because its sentences are framed on the same principle—it would be as sensible to object to the use of blank verse on the ground that it was invented by the Earl of Surrey. A poet's originality is in no way compromised by his availing himself of the forms which he finds ready to hand and most congenial to his taste, whether those forms have been introduced thirty years before or three hundred; it depends solely on his having something valuable to say and a worthy method of saying it. Judged by this criterion, Towards Democracy is undoubtedly an original poem; and if it has not the elements of greatness which are so conspicuous in Leaves of Grass, it has special and equally distinctive qualities of its own, tenderness, sympathy, and passionate worship of freedom, which will long preserve it from oblivion. As a sample of its quality let me now quote a suggestive passage from the piece entitled "In the Drawing Rooms," in which the poet describes the contrast between the weary affected manners of the soirées and salons, "with their circle of endlessly complaisant faces bowing you back from all reality," and the honest refreshing aspect of a "grimy and oil-besmeared stoker," whose eyes meeting his at a wayside station restored him in an instant to his wonted confidence in humanity.
"That was all, But it was enough.
The youthful face yet so experienced and calm, was enough;
The quiet look, the straight untroubled unseeking eyes,
resting upon me—giving me without any ado the thing I needed.
For in a moment I felt the sting and torrent of Reality.
The swift nights out in the rain I felt, and the great black
sky overhead, and the flashing of the red and green lights in the forward distance,
The anxious straining for a glimpse sideways into the
darkness—cap tied tightly on—the dash of cold and wet above, the heat below—
All this I felt, as it had been myself.
The weird look of hedgerows and trees in the wild glare as
we pass, the straining and leaping of the engine, and the precious
human freight madly borne behind.
The great world reeling by, the rails and the ballast ribbon-like
unreeling—out of darkness arriving—phantasmal inexorable flawless!
Stand firm, bridge of many arches, while we
pass swiftly over the tops of the trees!
Hold, ties and struts and well-braced girders, hold while
our iron feet ring resounding over the river!
Hold firm, phantasmal world, even as thou dost—inexorably firm—
whether for good or evil, hold!
O the mad play!
And the dumb sense of tension when wife or sister or friend
is one of the precious freight;
And the long hours of unremitted watchfulness, and the faithful
unremitting service of the machinery;
And the faithful responsive wheeling of the stars, fulfilling the hours,
The slow lifting of the Moon through the clouds, the
changes of light, west and east,
And the breaking of the morning."
Towards Democracy, as I have already remarked, is Edward Carpenter's most personal and characteristic production; it is the work in which he has most fervently expressed his own inner feelings and aspirations. The prose essays, however, have this minor advantage over the poem, that being cast in a form less unfamiliar to the popular taste, they commend themselves, as regards literary quality, to all competent critics who give them serious attention. It is true that there are some Americanisms, and traces of an entire indifference to the conventionalities of academic purism, scattered about their pages; but this very insouciance, resulting as it unmistakably does from a sense of mastery and not of weakness, enhances their ultimate efficiency. Few more beautiful and heart-stirring essays—humorous, too, with a quiet lambent humour of their own—have been published in recent years than those contained in England's Ideal and Civilisation, its Cause and Cure; the reader finds himself wondering what can be the secret of a style so simple yet so moving: where nothing seems to be laboured, yet everything is done; where hard matter-of-fact topics of scientific calculation or commonplace life are vitalised and ennobled by the artistic touch of the essayist. They are not pamphlets—they are pure literature, and of a quality to which very few contemporary writers are capable of attaining.
Mention has already been made of the affinity between Edward Carpenter's writings and those of Whitman and Thoreau. To the free, catholic love of humanity and brotherhood, of which Whitman is the unrivalled exponent, he adds something of Thoreau's intenser passion for simplicity and practicalness in detail, and shrewd insight into the various sophisms of modern civilisation; he is thus at once the Whitman and the Thoreau of the English democratic movement. Richard Jefferies is another author to whom he offers several interesting points of resemblance; readers of Towards Democracy and The Story of My Heart will find in both books the same frank sensuous joyousness, the same instinctive worship of sun and earth and sea, the same mystic adoration of the human form as the supreme embodiment of all natural beauty. One further quality remains to be instanced as characteristic of Edward Carpenter's writings no less than those of Thoreau or Jefferies. Thy are essentially what Thoreau calls "hypethral"—their atmosphere is that of the open air and not of the study or reading-room; and this it is, perhaps, as much as anything else, which lends them their distinctive flavour, and makes them so refreshingly welcome to the weary reader who, in the rush of mediocrity dignified with the name of "contemporary literature," feels himself in danger of intellectual asphyxia.
"Oh cry aloud over the Earth!
Great ragged clouds wild over the sky careering, pass changing
shifting through my poems!
Blow O breezes, mingle O winds with these words—whose purpose
is the same as yours!
Ye dark ploughed fields and grassy hills and gorses where the yoldring
warble—write ye your myriad parallel gossamers along my lines!
Lie out O leaves to the sun and moon, to bleach in their quiet gaze—
whirl them O winds—float them away O sea, to drift in bays with the sea-
smell and with odours of tar among the nets of fishermen!
Open O pages in all lands! Let them be free to all to pass in and out,
let them lie like the streets of a great city!
Let them listen and say what the feet of the passengers say, and what
the soughings of the fir trees say. Let them be equal—no more, no less—
writing the words which are written as long as the universe endures."
In this respect Edward Carpenter may be said to resemble the saving stoker of his own poem "In the Drawing Rooms." To open one of his books in this stifling age of respectability and competition, is to turn from the oppressive heartlessnes of some fashionable assemblage to a free casement which looks out on wholesome fields, and pure air, and scenes of honest homely labour and equal human companionship.
Published: The Pioneer, E. W. Allen, London, January 1891