Reticence in Literature

Reticence in Literature

By

Arthur Waugh

HE never spoke out. Upon these four words, gathered by
chance from a private letter, Matthew Arnold, with that
super-subtle ingenuity which loved to take the word and play upon
it and make it of innumerable colours, has constructed, as one may
conjecture some antediluvian wonder from its smallest fragment, a
full, complete, and intimate picture of the poet Thomas Gray. He
never spoke out. Here, we are told, lies the secret of Gray's limita-
tion as much in life as in literature : so sensitive was he in private
life, so modest in public, that the thoughts that arose in him never
got full utterance, the possibilities of his genius were never ful-
filled ; and we, in our turn, are left the poorer for that nervous
delicacy which has proved the bane of the poet, living and dead
alike. It is a singularly characteristic essay—this paper on Gray,
showing the writer's logical talent at once in its strongest and
its weakest capacities, and a complete study of Arnold's method
might well, I think, be founded upon its thirty pages. But in the
present instance I have recurred to that recurring phrase, He never
spoke out, not to discuss Matthew Arnold's estimate of Gray, nor,
indeed, to consider Gray's relation to his age ; but merely to point
out, what the turn of Arnold's argument did not require him to
consider, namely, the extraordinarily un-English aspect of this

reticence

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reticence in Gray, a reticence alien without doubt to the English
character, but still more alien to English literature. Reticence is
not a national characteristic—far otherwise. The phrase " national
characteristic" is, I know well, a cant phrase, and, as such, full of
the dangers of abuse. Historical and ethnographical criticism,
proceeding on popular lines, has tried from time to time to fix
certain tendencies to certain races, and to argue from individuals
to generalities with a freedom that every law of induction belies.
And so we have come to endow the Frenchman, universally and
without exception, with politeness, the Indian, equally univer-
sally, with cunning, the American with the commercial talent, the
German with the educational, and so forth. Generalisations of
this kind must, of course, be accepted with limitations. But it is
not too much, perhaps, to say that the Englishman has always
prided himself upon his frankness. He is always for speaking out ;
and it is this faculty of outspokenness that he is anxious to
attribute to those characters which he sets up in the market-places
of his religion and his literature, as those whom he chiefly delights
to honour. The demigods of our national verse, the heroes of our
national fiction, are brow-bound, above all other laurels, with this
glorious freedom of free speech and open manners, and we have
come to regard this broad, untrammelled virtue of ours, as all
individual virtues will be regarded with the revolution of the cycle
of provinciality, as a guerdon above question or control. We have
become inclined to forget that every good thing has, as Aristotle
pointed out so long ago, its corresponding evil, and that the cor
ruption of the best is always worst of all. Frankness is so great a
boon, we say : we can forgive anything to the man who has the
courage of his convictions, the feailessness of freedom—the man,
in a word, who speaks out.

But we have to distinguish, I think, at the outset between a

national

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national virtue in the rough and the artificial or acquired fashion
in which we put that virtue into use. It is obvious that, though
many things are possible to us, which are good in themselves,
many things are inexpedient, when considered relatively to our
environment. Count Tolstoi may preach his gospel of non-
resistance till the beauty of his holiness seems almost Christ-like ;
but every man who goes forth to his work and to his labour
knows that the habitual turning of the right cheek to the smiter
of the left, the universal gift of the cloak to the beggar of our coat,
is subversive of all political economy, and no slight incentive to
immorality as well. In the same way, it will be clear, that this
national virtue of ours, this wholesome, sincere outspokenness, is
only possible within certain limits, set by custom and expediency,
and it is probably a fact that there was nevera truly wise man yet
but tempered his natural freedom of speech by an acquired habit
of reticence. The man who never speaks out may be morose ;
the man who is always speaking out is a most undesirable
acquaintance.

Now, I suppose every one is prepared to admit with Matthew
Arnold that the literature of an age (we are not now speaking of
poetry alone, be it understood, but of literature as a whole), that
this literature must, in so far as it is truly representative of,
and therefore truly valuable to, the time in which it is produced,
reflect and criticise the manners, tastes, development, the life, in
fact, of the age for whose service it was devised. We have, of
course, critical literature probing the past : we have philosophical
literature prophesying the future ; but the truly representative
literature of every age is the creative, which shows its people its
natural face in a glass, and leaves to posterity the record of the
manner of man it found. In one sense, indeed, creative literature
must inevitably be critical as well, critical in that it employs the

double

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double methods of analysis and synthesis, dissecting motives and
tendencies first, and then from this examination building up a
type, a sample of the representative man and woman of its epoch.
The truest fiction of any given century, yes, and the truest poetry,
too (though the impressionist may deny it), must be a criticism
of life, must reflect its surroundings. Men pass, and fashions
change ; but in the literature of their day their characters, their
tendencies, remain crystallised for all time : and what we know of
the England of Chaucer and Shakespeare, we know wholly and
absolutely in the truly representative, truly creative, because truly
critical literature which they have left to those that come after.

It is, then, the privilege, it is more, it is the duty of the man of
letters to speak out, to be fearless, to be frank, to give no ear to
the puritans of his hour, to have no care for the objections of
prudery ; the life that he lives is the life he must depict, if his work
is to be of any lasting value. He must be frank, but he must be
something more. He must remember—hourly and momently he
must remember—that his virtue, step by step, inch by inch, im-
perceptibly melts into the vice which stands at its pole ; and that
(to employ Aristotelian phraseology for the moment) there is a
sort of middle point, a centre of equilibrium, to pass which is to
disturb and overset the entire fabric of his labours. Midway
between liberty and license, in literature as in morals, stands the
pivot of good taste, the centre-point of art. The natural inclina-
tion of frankness, the inclination of the virtue in the rough, is to
blunder on resolutely with an indomitable and damning sincerity,
till all is said that can be said, and art is lost in photography.
The inclination of frankness, restrained by and tutored to the
limitations of art and beauty, is to speak so much as is in accord
ance with the moral idea : and then, at the point where ideas melt
into mere report, mere journalistic detail, to feel intuitively the

restraining,

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205
restraining, the saving influence of reticence. In every age there
has been some point fits exact position has varied, it is true, but
the point has always been there) at which speech stopped short ;
and the literature which has most faithfully reflected the manners
of that age, the literature, in fine, which has survived its little
hour of popularity, and has lived and is still living, has inevitably,
invariably, and without exception been the literature which stayed
its hand and voice at the point at which the taste of the age, the
age s conception of art, set up its statue of reticence, with her
finger to her lips, and the inscription about her feet : " So far shall
thou go, and no further."

We have now, it seems, arrived at one consideration, which
must always limit the liberty of frankness, namely, the standard of
contemporary taste. The modesty that hesitates to allign itself
with that standard is a shortcoming, the audacity that rushes
beyond is a violence to the unchanging law of literature. But
the single consideration is insufficient. If we are content with
the criterion of contemporary taste alone, our standard of judg-
ment becomes purely historical : we are left, so to speak, with a
sliding scale which readjusts itself to every new epoch : we have
no permanent and universal test to apply to the literature of
different ages : in a word, comparative criticism is impossible.
We feel at once that we need, besides the shifting standard of
contemporary taste, some fixed unit of judgment that never
varies, some foot-rule that applies with equal infallibility to the
literature of early Greece and to the literature of later France ;
and such an unit, such a foot-rule, can only be found in the final
test of all art, the necessity of the moral idea. We must, in
distinguishing the thing that may be said fairly and artistically
from the thing whose utterance is inadmissible, we must in such
a decision control our judgment by two standards—the one, the

shifting

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shifting standard of contemporary taste : the other, the permanent
standard of artistic justification, the presence of the moral idea,
With these two elements in action, we ought, I think, to be able
to estimate with tolerable fairness the amount of reticence in any
age which ceases to be a shortcoming, the amount of frankness
which begins to be a violence in the literature of the period. We
ought, with these two elements in motion, to be able to employ a
scheme of comparative criticism which will prevent us from
encouraging that retarding and dangerous doctrine that what was
expedient and justifiable, for instance, in the dramatists of the
Restoration is expedient and justifiable in the playwrights of our
own Victorian era ; we ought, too, to be able to arrive in
stinctively at a sense of the limits of art, and to appreciate the
point at which frankness becomes a violence, in that it has de-
generated into mere brawling, animated neither by purpose nor
idea. Let us, then, consider these two standards of taste and art
separately : and first, let us give a brief attention to the contem-
porary standard.

We may, I think, take it as a rough working axiom that
the point of reticence in literature, judged by a contemporary
standard, should be settled by the point of reticence in the
conversation of the taste and culture of the age. Literature is,
after all, simply the ordered, careful exposition of the thought
of its period, seeking the best matter of the time, and setting it
forth in the best possible manner ; and it is surely clear that what
is written in excess of what is spoken (in excess I mean on the
side of license) is a violence to, a misrepresentation of, the period
to whose service the literature is devoted. The course of the
highest thought of the time should be the course of its literature,
the limit of the most delicate taste of the time the limit of literary
expression : whatever falls below that standard is a shortcoming,

whatever

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whatever exceeds it a violence. Obviously the standard varies
immensely with the period. It would be tedious, nor is it
necessary to our purpose, to make a long historical research into the
development of taste ; but a few striking examples may help us to
appreciate its variations.

To begin with a very early stage of literature, we find among
the Heracleidae of Herodotus a stage of contemporary taste which
is the result of pure brutality. It is clear that literature adjusted
to the frankness of the uxorious pleasantries of Candaules and
Gyges would justifiably assume a degree of license which, reason
able enough in its environment, would be absolutely impossible,
directly the influences of civilisation began to make themselves
felt. The age is one of unrestrained brutality, and the literature
which represented it would, without violence to the contemporary
taste, be brutal too. To pass at a bound to the Rome of Juvenal
is again to be transported to an age of national sensuality : the
escapades of Messalina are the inevitable outcome of a national
taste that is swamped and left putrescent by limitless self-
indulgence ; and the literature which represented this taste would,
without violence, be lascivious and polluted to its depth. In con-
tinuing, with a still wider sweep, to the England of Shakespeare,
we find a new development of taste altogether. Brutality is
softened, licentiousness is restrained, immorality no longer stalks
abroad shouting its coarse phrases at every wayfarer who passes
the Mermaid or the Globe. But, even among types of purity,
reticence is little known. The innuendoes are whispered under
the breath, but when once the voice is lowered, it matters little
what is said. Rosalind and Celia enjoy their little doubles entendres
together. Hero's wedding morning is an occasion for delicate
hints of experiences to come. Hamlet plies the coarsest sugges-
tions upon Ophelia in the intervals of a theatrical performance.

The

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The language reflects the taste : we feel no violence here. To
take but one more instance, let us end with Sheridan. By his
time speech had been refined by sentiment, and the most graceful
compliments glide, without effort, from the lips of the adept
courtier. But even still, in the drawing-rooms of fashion, delicate
morsels of scandal are discussed by his fine ladies with a freedom
which is absolutely unknown to the Mayfair of the last half-
century, where innuendo might be conveyed by the eye and
suggested by the smile, but would never, so reticent has taste
become, find the frank emphatic utterance which brought no
blush to the cheek of Mrs. Candour and Lady Sneerwell. In the
passage of time reticence has become more and more pronounced ;
and literature, moving, as it must, with the age, has assumed in its
normal and wholesome form the degree of silence which it finds
about it.

The standard of taste in literature, then, so far as it responds to
contemporary judgment, should be regulated by the normal taste of
the hale and cultured man of its age : it should steer a middle
course between the prudery of the manse, which is for hiding
everything vital, and the effrontery of the pot-house, which makes
for ribaldry and bawdry ; and the more it approximates to the
exact equilibrium of its period, the more thoroughly does it become
representative of the best taste of its time, the more certain is it of
permanent recognition. The literature of shortcoming and the
literature of violence have their reward :

" They have their day, and cease to be " ;

the literature which reflects the hale and wholesome frankness of
its age can be read, with pleasure and profit, long after its openness
of speech and outlook has ceased to reproduce the surrounding life.

The

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209
The environment is ephemeral, but the literature is immortal.
But why is the literature immortal ? Why is it that a play like
Pericles, for instance, full as it is of scenes which revolt the moral
taste, has lived and is a classic forever, while innumerable con-
temporary pieces of no less genius (for Pericles is no masterpiece)
have passed into oblivion ? Why is it that the impurity of
Pericles strikes the reader scarcely at all, while the memory dwells
upon its beauties and forgets its foulness in recollection of its
refinement ? The reason is not far to seek. Pericles is not only
free of offence when judged by the taste of its age, it is no less
blameless when we subject it to the test by which all literature is
judged at last ; it conforms to the standard of artit is permeated
by the moral idea. The standard of art—the presence of the
idea—the two expressions are, I believe, synonymous. It is easy
enough to babble of the beauty of things considered apart from
their meaning, it is easy enough to dilate on the satisfaction of art
in itself, but all these phrases are merely collocations of terms,
empty and meaningless. A thing can only be artistic by virtue of
the idea it suggests to us ; when the idea is coarse, ungainly
, unspeakable, the object that suggests it is coarse, ungainly,
unspeakable ; art and ethics must always be allied in that the
merit of the art is dependent on the merit of the idea it
prompts.

Perhaps I shall show my meaning more clearly by an example
from the more tangible art of painting ; and let me take as an
instance an artist who has produced pictures at once the most
revolting and most moral of any in the history of English art.
I mean Hogarth. We are all familiar with his coarsenesses ; all
these have we known from our youth up. But it is only the
schoolboy who searches the Bible for its indecent passages ; when
we are become men, we put away such childish satisfactions.

Then

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Then we begin to appreciate the idea which underlies the subject :
we feel that Hogarth—
" Whose pictured morals charm the mind,
And through the eye correct the heart"—
was, even in his grossest moments, profoundly moral, entirely
sane, because he never dallied lasciviously with his subject,
because he did not put forth vice with the pleasing semblance of
virtue, because, like all hale and wholesome critics of life, he
condemned excess, and pictured it merely to portray the worth-
lessness, the weariness, the dissatisfaction of lust and license.
Art, we say, claims every subject for her own ; life is open to her
ken ; she may fairly gather her subjects where she will. Most
true. But there is all the difference in the world between
drawing life as we find it, sternly and relentlessly, surveying it all
the while from outside with the calm, unflinching gaze of
criticism, and, on the other hand, yielding ourselves to the warmth
and colour of its excesses, losing our judgment in the ecstasies of
the joy of life, becoming, in a word, effeminate.

The man lives by ideas ; the woman by sensations ; and while
the man remains an artist so long as he holds true to his own view
of life, the woman becomes one as soon as she throws off the
habit of her sex, and learns to rely upon her judgment, and not
upon her senses. It is only when we regard life with the un-
trammelled view of the impartial spectator, when we pierce below
the substance for its animating idea, that we approximate to the
artistic temperament. It is unmanly, it is effeminate, it is in
artistic to gloat over pleasure, to revel in immoderation, to become
passion's slave ; and literature demands as much calmness of
judgment, as much reticence, as life itself. The man who loses

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reticence loses self-respect, and the man who has no respect for
himself will scarcely find others to venerate him. After all, the
world generally takes us at our own valuation.

We have now, I trust, arrived (though, it may be, by a rather
circuitous journey) at something like a definite and reasonable law
for the exercise of reticence ; it only remains to consider by what
test we shall most easily discover the presence or absence of the
animating moral idea which we have found indispensable to art.
It seems to me that three questions will generally suffice. Does
the work, we should ask ourselves, make for that standard of taste
which is normal to wholesomeness and sanity of judgment ?
Does it, or does it not, encourage us to such a line of life as is
recommended, all question of tenet and creed apart, by the
experience of the age, as the life best calculated to promote
individual and general good ? And does it encourage to this life
in language and by example so chosen as not to offend the
susceptibilities of that ordinarily strong and unaffected taste which,
after all, varies very little with the changes of the period and
development ? When creative literature satisfies these three
requirements—when it is sane, equable, and well spoken, then it
is safe to say it conforms to the moral idea, and is consonant with
art. By its sanity it eludes the risk of effeminate demonstration ;
by its choice of language it avoids brutality ; and between these
two poles, it may be affirmed without fear of question, true taste
will and must be found to lie.

These general considerations, already too far prolonged, become
of immediate interest to us as soon as we attempt to apply them to
theliterature of our own half-century, and I propose concluding what
I wished to say on the necessity of reticence by considering, briefly
and without mention of names, that realistic movement in English
literature which, under different titles, and protected by the aegis of

variou

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various schools, has proved, without doubt, the most interesting and
suggestive development in the poetry and fiction of our time.
During the last quarter of a century, more particularly, the
English man-of-letters has been indulging, with an entirely new
freedom, his national birthright of outspokenness, and during the
last twelve months there have been no uncertain indications that
this freedom of speech is degenerating into license which some of
us cannot but view with regret and apprehension. The writers
and the critics of contemporary literature have, it would seem,
alike lost their heads ; they have gone out into the byways and
hedges in search of the new thing, and have brought into the
study and subjected to the microscope mean objects of the road
side, whose analysis may be of value to science but is absolutely
foreign to art. The age of brutality, pure and simple, is dead
with us, it is true ; but the age of effeminacy appears, if one is to
judge by recent evidence, to be growing to its dawn. The day
that follows will, if it fulfils the promise of its morning, be very
serious and very detrimental to our future literature.

Every great productive period of literature has been the result of
some internal or external revulsion of feeling, some current of
ideas. This is a commonplace. The greatest periods of produc-
tion have been those when the national mind has been directed
to some vast movement of emancipation the discovery of new
countries, the defeat of old enemies, the opening of fresh possi-
bilities. Literature is best stimulated by stirrings like these. Now,
the last quarter of a century in English history has been singularly
sterile of important improvements. There has been no very inspiring
acquisition to territory or to knowledge : there has been, in con-
sequence, no marked influx of new ideas. The mind has been
thrown back upon itself ; lacking stimulus without, it has sought
inspiration within, and the most characteristic literature of the

time

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time has been introspective. Following one course, it has
betaken itself to that intimately analytical fiction which we
associate primarily with America ; it has sifted motives and probed
psychology, with the result that it has proved an exceedingly
clever, exact, and scientific, but scarcely stimulating, or progressive
school of literature. Following another course, it has sought for
subject-matter in the discussion of passions and sensations, common,
doubtless, to every age of mankind, interesting and necessary, too,
in their way, but passions and sensations hitherto dissociated with
literature, hitherto, perhaps, scarcely realised to their depth and
intensity. It is in this development that the new school of realism
has gone furthest ; and it is in this direction that the literature of
the future seems likely to follow. It is, therefore, not without
value to consider for a moment whither this new frankness is
leading us, and how far its freedom is reconciled to that standard
of necessary reticence which I have tried to indicate in these pages.
This present tendency to literary frankness had its origin, I
think, no less than twenty-eight years ago. It was then that the
dovecotes of English taste were tremulously fluttered by the
coming of a new poet, whose naked outspokenness startled his
readers into indignation. Literature, which had retrograded into
a melancholy sameness, found itself convulsed by a sudden access
of passion, which was probably without parallel since the age of
the silver poets of Rome. This new singer scrupled not to revel
in sensations which for years had remained unmentioned upon the
printed page ; he even chose for his subjects refinements of lust,
which the commonly healthy Englishman believed to have become
extinct with the time of Juvenal. Here was an innovation which
was absolutely alien to the standard of contemporary taste—an
innovation, I believe, that was equally opposed to that final
moderation without which literature is lifeless.

Let

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Let us listen for one moment:

" By the ravenous teeth that have smitten
    Through the kisses that blossom and bud,
By the lips intertwisted and bitten
    Till the foam has a savour of blood,
By the pulse as it rises and falters,
    By the hands as they slacken and strain,
I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,
    Our Lady of Pain.

As of old when the world's heart was lighter,
    Through thy garments the grace of thee glows,
The white wealth of thy body made whiter
    By the blushes of amorous blows,
And seamed with sharp lips and fierce fingers,
    And branded by kisses that bruise ;
When all shall be gone that now lingers,
    Ah, what shall we lose I

Thou wert fair in thy fearless old fashion,
    And thy limbs are as melodies yet,
And move to the music of passion
    With lithe and lascivious regret.
What ailed us, O gods, to desert you
    For creeds that refuse and restrain ?
Come down and redeem us from virtue,
    Our Lady of Pain."

This was twenty-eight years ago ; and still the poetry lives. At
first sight it would seem asthough the desirable reticence, upon which
we have been insisting, were as yet unnecessary to immortality.
A quarter of a century has passed, it might be argued, and the

verse

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215
verse is as fresh to-day and as widely recognised as it was in its
morning : is not this a proof that art asks for no moderation ? I
believe not. It is true that the poetry lives, that we all recognise,
at some period of our lives, the grasp and tenacity of its influence;
that, even when the days come in which we say we have no
pleasure in it, we still turn to it at times for something we do not
find elsewhere. But the thing we seek is not the matter, but the
manner. The poetry is living, not by reason of its unrestrained
frankness, but in spite of it, for the sake of something else. That
sweet singer who charmed and shocked the audiences of 1866,
charms us, if he shocks us not now, by virtue of the one new
thing that he imported into English poetry, the unique and as yet
imperishable faculty of musical possibilities hitherto unattained.
There is no such music in all the range of English verse, seek
where you will, as there is in him. But the perfection of the one
talent, its care, its elaboration, have resulted in a corresponding
decay of those other faculties by which alone, in the long run,
poetry can live. Open him where you will, there is in his poetry
neither construction nor proportion ; no development, no sustained
dramatic power. Open him where you will, you acquire as much
sense of his meaning and purpose from any two isolated stanzas
as from the study of a whole poem. There remains in your ears,
when you have ceased from reading, the echo only of a beautiful
voice, chanting, as it were, the melodies of some outland tongue.

Is this the sort of poetry that will survive the trouble of the
ages ? It cannot survive. The time will come (it must) when
some newer singer discovers melodies as yet unknown, melodies
which surpass in their modulations and varieties those poems
and ballads of twenty-eight years ago ; and, when we have found
the new note, what will be left of the earlier singer, to which we
shall of necessity return ? A message ? No. Philosophy ? No,

The Yellow Book Vol.—I. N

A new

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A new vision of life ? No. A criticism of contemporary existence ?
Assuredly not. There remains the melody alone ; and this, when
once it is surpassed, will charm us little enough. We shall forget
it then. Art brings in her revenges, and this will be of them.

But the new movement did not stop here. If, in the poet we
have been discussing, we have found the voice among us that
corresponds to the decadent voices of the failing Roman Republic,
there has reached us from France another utterance, which I
should be inclined to liken to the outspoken brutality of Restora-
tion drama. Taste no longer fails on the ground of a delicate,
weakly dalliance, it begins to see its own limitations, and springs
to the opposite pole. It will now be virile, full of the sap of life,
strong, robust, and muscular. It will hurry us out into the fields,
will show us the coarser passions of the common farm-hand ; at
any expense it will paint the life it finds around it ; it will at least
be consonant with that standard of want of taste which it falsely
believes to be contemporary. We get a realistic fiction abroad,
and we begin to copy it at home. We will trace the life of the
travelling actor, follow him into the vulgar, sordid surroundings
which he chooses for the palace of his love, be it a pottery-shed or
the ill-furnished lodging-room with its black horsehair sofa—we
will draw them all, and be faithful to the lives we live. Is that
the sort of literature that will survive the trouble of the ages ? It
cannot survive. We are no longer untrue to our time, perhaps, if
we are to seek for the heart of that time in the lowest and meanest
of its representatives ; but we are untrue to art, untrue to the
record of our literary past, when we are content to turn for our own
inspiration to anything but the best line of thought, the highest
school of life, through which we are moving. This grosser
realism is no more representative of its time than were the
elaborate pastiches of classical degradation ; it is as though one

should

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217
should repeople Eden with creatures imagined from a study of the
serpent's head. In the history of literature this movement, too,
will with the lapse of time pass unrecognised ; it has mourned
unceasingly to an age which did not lack for innocent piping and
dancing in its market-places.

The two developments of realism of which we have been
speaking seem to me to typify the two excesses into which frank
ness is inclined to fall ; on the one hand, the excess prompted by
effeminacy—that is to say, by the want of restraints which starts
from enervated sensation ; and on the other, the excess which
results from a certain brutal virility, which proceeds from coarse
familiarity with indulgence. The one whispers, the other shouts ;
the one is the language of the courtesan, the other of the bargee.
What we miss in both alike is that true frankness which springs
from the artistic and moral temperament ; the episodes are no part
of a whole in unity with itself; the impression they leave upon
the reader is not the impression of Hogarth's pictures ; in one
form they employ all their art to render vice attractive, in the
other, with absolutely no art at all, they merely reproduce, with
the fidelity of the kodak, scenes and situations the existence of
which we all acknowledge, while taste prefers to forget them.

But the latest development of literary frankness is, I think, the
most insidious and fraught with the greatest danger to art. A
new school has arisen which combines the characteristics of
effeminacy and brutality. In its effeminate aspect it plays with
the subtler emotions of sensual pleasure, on its brutal side it has
developed into that class of fiction which for want of a better word
I must call chirurgical. In poetry it deals with very much the
same passions as those which we have traced in the verse to which
allusion has been made above ; but, instead of leaving these refine
ments of lust to the haunts to which they are fitted, it has intro-

duced

218

Reticence in Literature

duced them into the domestic chamber, and permeated marriage
with the ardours of promiscuous intercourse. In fiction it infects
its heroines with acquired diseases of names unmentionable, and
has debased the beauty of maternity by analysis of the process
of gestation. Surely the inartistic temperament can scarcely
abuse literature further. I own I can conceive nothing less
beautiful.

It was said of a great poet by a little critic that he wheeled his
nuptial couch into the area ; but these small poets and smaller
novelists bring out their sick into the thoroughfare, and stop the
traffic while they give us a clinical lecture upon their sufferings.
We are told that this is a part of the revolt of woman, and certainly
our women-writers are chiefly to blame. It is out of date, no
doubt, to clamour for modesty ; but the woman who describes
the sensations of childbirth does so, it is to be presumed—not as the
writer of advice to a wife—but as an artist producing literature for
art's sake. And so one may fairly ask her : How is art served by
all this ? What has she told us that we did not all know, or could
not learn from medical manuals ? and what impression has she left
us over and above the memory of her unpalatable details ? And
our poets, who know no rhyme for "rest" but that "breast"
whose snowinesses and softnesses they are for ever describing with
every accent of indulgence, whose eyes are all for frills, if not for
garters, what have they sung that was not sung with far greater
beauty and sincerity in the days when frills and garters were
alluded to with the open frankness that cried shame on him who
evil thought. The one extremity, it seems to me, offends against
the standard of contemporary taste ; (" people," as Hedda Gabler
said, " do not say such things now ") ; the other extremity rebels
against that universal standard of good taste that has from the days
of Milo distinguished between the naked and the nude. We are

lose

By Arthur Waugh

219
losing the distinction now ; the cry for realism, naked and un-
ashamed, is borne in upon us from every side :

"Rip your brother's vices open, strip your own foul passions bare ;
Down with Reticence, down with Reverence—forward—naked—
let them stare."

But there was an Emperor once (we know the story) who went
forth among his people naked. It was said that he wore fairy
clothes, and that only the unwise could fail to see them. At last
a little child raised its voice from the crowd ! " Why, he has
nothing on," it said. And so these writers of ours go out from
day to day, girded on, they would have us believe, with the
garments of art ; and fashion has lacked the courage to cry out
with the little child : "They have nothing on." No robe of art,
no texture of skill, they whirl before us in a bacchanalian dance
naked and unashamed. But the time will come, it must, when
the voices of the multitude will take up the cry of the child, and
the revellers will hurry to their houses in dismay. Without
dignity, without self-restraint, without the morality of art, literature
has never survived ; they are the few who rose superior to the
baser levels of their time, who stand unimpugned among the
immortals now. And that mortal who would put on immortality
must first assume that habit of reticence, that garb of humility by
which true greatness is best known. To endure restraint—that
is to be strong.





MLA citation: Waugh, Arthur. "Reticence in Literature." The Yellow Book 1 (Apr. 1894): 201-19. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV1_waugh_reticence.html