The form of literary expression which has found its chief exponent in Walt Whitman has received an important adherent in Mr. Edward Carpenter, whose Towards Democracy, published two years ago, has just been re-published with many additions. Whether, as some enthusiasts loudly assert, this new form of art is to supersede the stricter metrical forms—a very unlikely result —or not, it has fully established its right to exist as a flexible and harmonious vehicle for imaginative conceptions which scarcely admit of adequate expression in the more orthodox forms. It is not, however, really correct to speak of this as a new form; it is one of the first in which the human imagination found voice, and it formed the medium for the relatively ancient Hebrew psalms and prophecies:—
"Come on, therefore: let us enjoy the good things that are present, and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth.
"Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments, and let no flower of the spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they be withered.
"Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness; let us leave tokens of our joyfulness in every place. For this is our portion and our lot is this."
One might almost mistake these words of The Wisdom of Solomon for a passage from Leaves of Grass, and many parts of Isaiah and Ezekiel reach a much higher rhythmical level.
Let us, however, turn from the form to the substance of Mr. Carpenter's book. It must be said at once that the democracy towards which we are advancing, according to Mr. Carpenter (as it is needless to tell those who are acquainted with the admirable little tracts he has published from time to time, such as Desirable Mansions and England's Ideal), is far from having much resemblance to that huge beast whose advent Renan, Scherer and Maine contemplate with doleful emotions. "A black and horned Ethiopian," indeed, he calls it, but the freedom and equality he announces is that of the soul, "for which the heroes and lovers of all ages have laid down their lives," and of which political freedom and institutions are only the outward but necessary shadows. Democracy, he finely says, is that "which first expresses itself in the flower of the eye or the appearance of the skin."
"I conceive a millennium on earth—a millennium not of riches, nor of mechanical facilities, nor of intellectual facilities, nor absolutely of immunity from disease, nor absolutely of immunity from pain; but a time when men and women all over the earth shall ascend and enter into relation with their bodies—shall attain freedom and joy.
It need scarcely be said that Mr. Carpenter is keenly sensitive to the contrast between such a millennium and the England of to-day. It is, indeed, as frequently happens, through his perception of the wrongness of our modern life that he rises to a perception of a coming righteousness; the optimism springs out of pessimism.
“O England, do I not know thee?—as in a nightmare strangled, tied and bound. Thy poverty, when through thy filthy courts, from tangles of matted hair, gaunt women with venomous faces look upon me;
"When I turn from this and consider throughout the length and breadth of the land, not less but more hateful, the insane greed of wealth—of which poverty and its evils are but the necessary obverse and counterpart;
“When I see deadly respectability sitting at its dinner-table, quaffing its wine, and discussing the rise and fall of stocks;
"When I see the struggle, the fear, the envy, the profound infidelity (so profound that it is almost unconscious of itself) in which the moneyed classes live;
"When I see avenues of young girls and women, with sideway flopping heads, debarred from work, debarred from natural sexuality, weary to death with nothing to do (and this thy triumph, O deadly respectability discussing stocks!);
"When I look for help from the guides and see only a dead waste of aimless, abject, close-shaven, shabby, simpering, flat, pompous, pecked, punctilious faces:
"O England, whither—strangled, tied and bound—whither, whither art thou come?"
But from the contemplation of the England of to-day we are gradually led up to a vision of the higher Democracy, and the poem ends in a paean of joy that grows almost delirious :—
"O kisses of sun and wind, tall fir trees and moss-covered rocks! O boundless joy of Nature on the mountain tops, coming back at last to you!
"See! the Divine Mother goes forth with her babe (all creation circles round). God dwells once more in a woman's womb, friend goes with friend, flesh cleaves to flesh, the path that rounds the Universe.
"O every day sweet and delicious food! Kisses to the lips of sweet smelling fruit and bread, milk and green herbs. Strong, well-knit muscles, quick healing, glossy skin, body for kisses all over!
"Radiant health! to breathe, O joy! to sleep, ah! never enough to be expressed!
"For the taste of fruit ripening warm in the sun, for the distant sight of the deep liquid sea; for the touch of the air on my face, or creeping over my unclothed body, for the rustling sound of it in the trees, and the sight of thin tall stems springing so lightly from the earth.
"Joy, joy, and thanks for ever!"
Like Walt Whitman, Mr. Carpenter has a profound sense of the mystery and significance of the body: he cannot see any salvation for man till he is able to enter into pure and frank relation with his own body, the latest and best gift of nature, so long concealed; it is by his body, he insists, that man ascends and knows himself and he cannot treat it too reverently. "The body is the root of the soul."
"Recurved and close lie the little feet and hands, close as in the attitude of sleep folds the head, the little lips are not yet parted ;
"The living mother-flesh folds round in darkness, the mother's life is an unspoken prayer, her body a temple of the Holy One.
"I am amazed and troubled, my child, she whispers—at the thought of you; I hardly dare to speak of it, you are so sacred;
"When I feel you leap I do not know myself any more—I am filled with wonder and joy—Ah! if any injury should happen to you!
"I will keep my body pure, very pure; the sweet air will I breathe and pure water drink; I will stay out in the open, hours together, that my flesh may become pure and fragrant for your sake;
"Holy thoughts will I think; I will brood in the thought of mother-love. I will fill myself with beauty: trees and running brooks shall be my companions;
"And I will pray that I may become transparent —that the sun may shine and the moon, my beloved, upon you.
"Even before you are born."
Our first thought on opening this volume for the first time is that we have come across a weak imitation of Leaves of Grass; but on growing familiar with Towards Democracy we find that we have here a distinct individuality, with, indeed, points of contact with Whitman, and using the same mode of expression, but a new and genuine voice nevertheless, not a mere echo. Even the form is not quite the same; it is flowing and eloquent rather than with the massive weight of Whitman's interrupted elephantine steps. There is a strenuous vitality in Whitman; his voice is like a trumpet; he radiates life and energy from a vast centre of vital heat; he is the expression of an immense dilatation of the individual personality. But in this volume the bounds of personality are, as it were, loosened; and we have instead the soothing voice of an almost impersonal return to joy. Mr. Carpenter on the whole does not strive nor cry; he lifts up, rather, a tender voice of love and healing. It is the note of consolation rather than the stimulating "barbaric yawp" that we hear.
"As long as you harbour motives, so long are you giving hostages to the enemy—while you are a slave (to this and that) you can only obey. It is not you who are acting at all.
"Brush it all aside.
"Pass disembodied out of yourself. Leave the husk, leave the long, long prepared and perfected envelope.
"Enter into the life which is eternal. Pass through the gate of indifference into the palace of mastery, through the door of love into the house of deliciousness.
"Give away all that you have, become poor and without possessions—and behold! you shall become lord and sovereign of all things." For this messenger of the new Democracy is a mystic; it is the bold and gentle spirit of St. Francis that we hear anew; and the modern man, too, as he looks at the horse and the cat, and the ant on the grass by the barn door asks: "Do you not know your mother and your sister and your brother are among them?" The human heart still cries out for consolation and the old oracles with ever new voices still utter their responses.
We have been looking rather at the democratic and religious aspects of Towards Democracy than at its artistic or poetic aspects. There are, however, many passages full of poetic charm, of large and gracious imagery, of tender and delicate observation of nature. Of the shorter poems which form the larger part of the book, "York Minster," "In the Drawing Room," "After Long Ages," are among the best. "High in my Chamber," and passages in "After Long Ages," reveal Mr. Carpenter's command of his form; there is a swift and sustained melody in them which is unlike anything that Whitman has done. "Squinancy Wort" is a brightly expressed fancy. "Have Faith" is a brief and pregnant compendium of mystical philosophy, such as found in Eckart one of its chief exponents; and like Eckart, Mr. Carpenter asserts the perilous doctrine that "whoever dwells among thoughts dwells in the region of delusion and disease." "On an Atlantic Steamship" is a true and vivid fragment of observation. This book—with its revolt against the overweighted civilisation of our lives, with its frank reverence for the human body, with the clinging tenderness of its view of religious emotion—must not be accepted, however startling its thesis may sometimes appear, as an isolated fact. On the one hand it represents in a modern dress one of the most ancient modes of human thought and feeling. On the other hand it is allied to some of the most characteristic features of the modern world. In America Emerson long since upheld in his own lofty and austere fashion a like conception of life and the soul. Walt Whitman has sought to represent such an ideal in action in the living world. Thoreau, the finest flower of the school of Antisthenes, felt an irresistible impulse to reduce life to its lowest terms, and he did so with a practical wisdom which saved him from approaching the tub of Diogenes. "Our life," he has well said, "is but the soul made known by its fruits the body. The whole duty of men may be expressed in one line: make to yourself a perfect body." In England, from many various and indeed opposite directions, the same cry is raised in the presence of the heavy burden of modern civilisation. Mr. William Morris, who has identified himself with the cause of Socialism, is never weary of proclaiming that for life's sake we have lost the reasons for living. Dr. Richardson, a vigorous opponent of Socialism, tells us the same thing, that health of body and mind is "the only standard of wealth, that the extreme wealth of the rich and the extreme poverty of the poor ultimately reduce richest and poorest to the same level—leaving them alike in physical and mental weakness, in selfish indifference to the suffering of others. And now Mr. Carpenter would have us consider whether men do well "to condemn themselves to pick oakum of the strands of real life for ever." Probably his chief distinguishing characteristic is that element of mystic religion to which reference has more than once been already made, and which is most distinctly marked in his latest work. The mystic element in Whitman is kept in check by his strong sense of external reality and multiplicity. Tired of the hopeless wretchedness of life, the mystic finds a door of deliverance within his own heart. It is idle to rebel, as some would have us do, against this impulse towards freedom and joy, although it has led to superstition, to unbridled licence, to long arrests of human progress. We are compelled to regard it—after the sexual passion which is the very life of the race itself—as man's strongest and most persistent instinct. So long as it is saved from fanaticism by a strenuous devotion to science, by a perpetual reference to the moral structure of society, it will always remain an integral portion of the whole man in his finest developments.
This review is reprinted from; Views and Reviews: A Selection of Uncollected Articles, 1884-1932 by Havelock Ellis, First Series: 1884-1919, London, Desmond Harmsworth, 1932.
The introductory note is by Ellis.