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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948

Causerie on Romance

page 14

Causerie on Romance

The Notes here following owe their source to my continuing habit of thinking that the whole world, but especially all human beings behave as in a fairy tale. It is a hypothesis which does not work. Yet the fairy explanation remains to me the true explanation; when I try to obtain a really profound view of a situation, I identify women with legendary princesses. As I am not blind to die fact that this identification is not correct and that the mechanism at work is quite a different one, I have, apart from the fairy hypothesis, a far soberer ' working ' hypothesis. This consists of a very cold deduction from a number of clear facts observed. It almost invariably accounts for everything that happens. It considers the nobler characteristics of those observed and is no more cynical than the situation makes necessary. I have not been able to find a reconciliation of these two ways of thinking. I can hardly glamourize the fairy technique and say with a smile that it accounts for everything if one only looks deeply enough because I have never seen that it does. On the other hand it would be ridiculous to side with ' modern man ', advocating to cast off the emotional encumbrances,—they seem to be basic patterns which my thoughts always desire to assume. When faced with a perfectly reasonable set of circumstances, such as a smooth love affair of work averagely progressing. I try to convert it into an easy and obvious fairy situation, thus distorting a number of solid factors. After a while these Factors take revenge and force one back to the original reasonable view.

In the pages which follow I have tried to describe some instances of people who view events in the world as fairy tales. I know that this is a sterile pursuit and that it would be better if I could make up my mind about fairy stories. Yet, in looking into these various mirrors. I learn at least what this opposition between Romance and Truth amounts to. It is the conflict between the kindly maintainers of the past who live in suburbs and the effective sharp-eyed cock-hatted travellers in hotels; the conflict between those who happily repeat to each other the world's memories and those who perspicaciously utilize them for their purposes. To the second group belong those who prefer achievement to happiness. It is the well known contrast between the fat and the lean. It then becomes unequivocally clear that my fairy element ought to be suppressed, and I must as much as possible seek for what is tangible.

* * *

I shall begin by reminding of a frequent habit of novelists of not straightforwardly telling their tale, but first designing some favourite setting in which somebody will, as it were accidentally, begin to unfold it. I met it recently in a novel of Henry James' where some old world figures are seated in a delicately furnished room, a blazing fire in the hearth; most of them are inane but one or two are sensitive, and one begins a story. Henry James obviously did not wish it told as if in the ordinary world, but in a world of Romance. He was conscious that it followed other laws, fairy-tale laws, and the peculiar environment is necessary to prevent the conflict from disturbing the credibility of the tale.

That seems the method of many poets. The setting is placed in a mythological world or at any rate far away and long ago, or among people obviously different from the ordinary. The reader accepts the fairy tale laws.

Romance is unthinkable without its many stereotyped images: the frightening forest, the treacherous sea, the shaggy rocks; Orpheus always striking his lyre and Heracles always swilling meat and liquor. In poetry pure Romance is of the type of the following lines (from the end of the First Book of William Morris" Life and Death of Jason '):

'Meantime, within a pleasant lighted place. Stretched upon warm skins, did the Centaur lie

And nigh him Jason, listening eagerly.

The tales he told him, asking, now and then, Strange questions of the race of vanished men:

Nor were the wine-cups idle; till at last
Desire of sleep over their bodies passed.
page 15 And in their dreamless rest the wind in vain.
Howled round about, with washing of the rain.'

How very different is this from the more usual kind of poetry that has to fix a vision. It loves to dwell on the well-known incidental detail of the fairy tale. It does not do more than remind of a very familiar world, so familiar that it would be preposterous to look for striking phrases in its description; in this great intimacy between writer and reader the simpler words are sufficient for communication.

For Romance means the pleasure of hearing the same things again and again. It means a total lack of interest in newfangled imagery, and delight in the ancient phrases we only dare to use in jest: 'the gnarled oak'. Perhaps it lives most in lovers, soldiers and the old but especially in children. We notice how they work out the same jigsaw puzzle until they know every fragment by heart, and ask us to tell again a story of which they remember every word; they don't mind if one repeats it verbally, although small variations are even more delightful. The modern adult borrows his stories and jigsaw puzzles from the shop and never uses twice the same; in this way every book, every puzzle is a new adventure, thrilling because the end is unknown. But it denies the delight of living in a familiar world which gives us pleasure in itself and in which recognition and remembering are pleasant. These are the feelings to which William Morris appeals when he speaks of the ' warm skins' on which the Centaur reclines; we know that the Centaur's habits are like that, and we like hearing all these things told to us again.

This kind of Romance is not even entirely absent from scholarship. I do not mean of course the most enlightened, the most adventurous and energetic scholarship, but the more sedate and traditional kind. I mean the erudition displayed by the not too anthropological, not too philosophical editor of classical texts, especially where on the surface he appears most aridly learned, and begins a brief note on Achilles, for instance, with the apposition 'son of Peleus'.

The pupil learns the name by heart, merely because it seems reasonable to give particulars about a great hero, but in fact that is not the explanation at all. No information could be more pointless than the name of a non-existent man's father. If the hero's exploits are worth recounting any other particular would be more illuminating. In fact the short note is the condensation of much delicate phantasy that would take too much space and trouble to write down: how Peleus fought Thetis who took many shapes and he finally conquered her, because she was so powerful a nymph that the gods were afraid of her offspring, if a god engendered it. So Peleus married her and at his wedding all the Gods were present and the fatal apple of Eros was thrown. And so it goes on: Thetis' desperate attemps to make Achilles immortal, Peleus' terror, her anger and departure. And so it does matter that Achilles' father was Peleus. It would be a pity to forget about that. So the scholar experiences that childish delight of hearing a ear name mentioned, a pleasure poetic rather than erudite, and if it is merely erudite, then that is a point where erudition and poetry touch one another. It is the whim of chance that it is the scholar, and not the supposedly far more playful 'man in the street' who experiences such simple pleasures.

Like the puppet theatre which from a religious ritual sank to the level of a Punch and Judy show, only looked at by children and the fringe of society, so Romance seems to be confining itself more and more to the not quite serious, to those who are indifferent to the push and occasional hasty homage of society, and if a respectable scholar delights in it, he must do so secretly. Romance, this homely sense of recognition, in which there is not the slightest thrill of the new, is not even considered real Art—it is perhaps graded even lower than pornography, because it is plainly childish and insipid.

Yet it would not be honest to side with the fools and against the knaves. There has to be achievement, swift efficient action and a prudent use of time. The images of Romance cannot usefully be always repeated, although without repetition there is no Romance. They must be placed in the service of the snappy decisions in hotels, by which the world advances.

The attempt to write modern poetry containing real Romance has occasionally been made. I am particularly fond of the methods of Nicholas Moore, who would be a remarkable poet, even if not a single one of his lines were memorable. His foremost charm lies in page 16 this very characteristic, that his ideas are at last as good as those of all the other magazine poets, but that he does not bother to bestow the same meticulous care upon his little lyrics such as makes many of his confreres unreadable through their very accuracy. The poems are written down without much care of form. He knows that ultimately poetry is carefree singing, that it originates in abundance. His other delightful quality is his utter seriousness in using the age-old themes of Romance. It may seem strange to say ' seriousness' because the joke element in Nicholas Moore is so striking. Yet his smile is an apologetic one and the theme of father and son, the dreams of girls, Helen of Troy, are quite fundamental and static, and the unchangeable units from which his soul is composed. There is no doubting Helen of Troy; the many questions that are asked concern the selection of one or the other of the old themes. His world consists of pieces of Romance; which fact he expressed in one of his deepest poems, when he says 'You look like History'. He views his beloved as a composition of the familiar tales of the past.

So the kinship I feel with Nicholas Moore is that he explains every situation by Romance. He writes what seem to be psychological sketches, but the psychological laws are anything but Freudian—they could rather be called mythological analysis.

When the fairy tale mind trespasses into Science, it has a disgust of facts. The fewer the facts, the more the Romantic will be at ease. He likes to write a history of the world out of anecdotes and some shrewd observations. His literary criticism at its best will resemble Coleridge. It consists of tenets the writer loves to hold, argued by more or less relevant observations the writer loves to dwell on. If one is a great critic like Coleridge both the tenets and the observations will be profound and valuable, but of course they do not compose a system. The tenet of Romance is the aphorism; the observation is like a beautiful item in a notebook. And the unity of the whole is a poem or a symphony.

The philosophy of Romance will look like Paul Valery's dialogues, a pure intelligence playing upon very few themes and those very distant and inseparable from myth.

Like all these, the fairy tale mind feels quite helpless if suddenly presented by some perverted Muse with a systematic body of facts arranged in correct order of importance. Each of their observations would then appear like corollaries of side issues, or even more insignificantly than that. Indeed, they would know they do not know. Both Valery and Coleridge were of immense erudition, but both the science of the Hellenistic age and that of the Middle Ages are a doubtful clue to the factual evaluation of phenomena.

* * *

The conclusion is, that the facts destroying Romance are ever more irresistible, the more one thinks of them. The existing organization cannot deal with them and in every difficult case I have to resort to the wellknown emergency procedure. Yet it would clearly be treasonable to legalize it.