After the fierce midsummer all ablaze
Has burned itself to ashes, and expires
In the intensity of its own fires,
Then come the mellow, mild, St. Martin days
Crowned with the calm of peace, but sad with haze.
So after Love has led us, till he tires
Of his own throes and torments, and desires,
Comes large-eyed Friendship: with a restful gaze
He beckons us to follow, and across
Cool, verdant vales we wander free from care.
Is it a touch of frost lies in the air?
Why are we haunted with a sense of loss?
We do not wish the pain back, or the heat;
And yet, and yet, these days are incomplete.
As to the success of the communication there can be no question. Both the popularity of the author, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, of whose work this is a favourable specimen, and records of the response made by well-educated persons, who read it without being aware of the authorship, leave this beyond doubt. It reproduces the state of mind of the writer very exactly. With a very numerous class of readers pleasure and admiration ensue. The explanation is, probably, in the soothing effect of aligning the very active Love-Friendship groups of impulses with so settled yet rich a group as the Summer-Autumn simile brings in. The mind finds for a moment an attitude in which to contemplate a pair of situations (Love and Friendship) together, situations which are for many minds particularly difficult to see together. The heavy regular rhythm, the dead stamp of the rimes, the obviousness of the descriptions ('mellow, mild, St. Martin'; 'cool verdant vales') their alliteration, the triteness of the close, all these accentuate the impression of conclusiveness. The restless spirit is appeased, one of its chief problems is made to seem as if, regarded from a lofty, all-embracing standpoint, it is no problem but a process of nature.
This reconcilliation, this appeasement, is common to much good and to much bad poetry alike. But the value of it depends upon the level of organization at which it takes place, upon whether the reconciled impulses are adequate or inadequate. In this case those who have adequate impulses as regards any of the four main systems involved, Summer, Autumn, Love, Friendship, are not appeased. Only for those who make certain conventional, stereotyped maladjustments instead, does the magic work.
The nature and source of these stock conventional attitudes is of great interest. Suggestion is very largely responsible for them. The normal child under the age of ten is probably free from them, or at least with him they have no fixity or privileged standing. But as general reflection develops the place of the free direct play of experience is taken by the deliberate organisation of attitudes, a clumsy and crude substitute. 'Ideas', as they are commonly called, arise. A boy's 'Idea' of Friendship or of Summer or of his Country is not, though the name would seem to imply it, primarily an intellectual affair. It is rather an attitude, or set of attitudes, of tendencies to act in certain fashions rather than others. Now reflection, unless very prolonged and very arduous, tends to fix the attitude by making us dwell in it, by removing us from experience. In the development of any attitude there are stages, points of rest, of relatively greater stability. These, as we dwell in them, become more and more difficult to pass, and it is not surprising that most people remain all their lives in various halfway houses.
The strongest objection to, let us say, the sonnet we have quoted, is that a person who enjoys it, through the very organisation of his responses which enables him to enjoy it, is debarred from appreciating many things which, if he could appreciate them, he would prefer. We must not, of course, forget those variations in psychological efficiency discussed in Chapter XXII as degrees of vigilence. Even a good critic at a sufficiently low ebb of neural potency might mistake such a sonner for one of Shakespeare's or with more ease for one of Rossetti's. But when vigilance was restored he would see, or at least feel, the differences. The point is that a reader who, at a high degree of vigilance, thoroughly enters into and enjoys this class of verse, is necessarily so organised that he will fail to respond to poetry. Time and much varied experience might change him sufficiently, but by then he would no longer be able to enjoy such verse, he would no longer be the same person.
A general statement such as this about the incompatibility of inexpressibly complex adjustments must naturally be incapable of strict proof. Individuals with alternating personalities and subject to fugues would have to be considered. So would the phenomena of 'mutations of regime' unaccompanied by change of vigilance if such occur. None the less very much evidence substantiates the statement. The experience of all those who have passed through the stages in the development of attitudes presupposed by great poetry is probably conclusive.
Even though the intricacies of the nervous system should be capable of getting round this objection, there remain sufficient other reasons why indulgence in verse of this character should be condemned. There can be no doubt whatever that the value of the experience which results from it is small. On a pleasure theory of value there might well be doubt, since those who do enjoy it certainly appear to enjoy it in a high degree. But on the theory here maintained, the fact that those who have passed through the stage of enjoying the Poems of Passion to that of enjoying the bulk of the contents of the Golden Treasury, for example, do not return, settles the matter. We must bear in mind, of course, the conditions which have to be satisfied before this test is conclusive. That a man who has passed through the stage of drinking nothing but beer to the stage of drinking nothing but brandy rarely returns, does not prove that brandy is the better drink. It merely proves that it is the more efficient intoxicant. We have to ask in applying the test what the responses in question are, and in the case of poetry they are so varied, so representative of all the activities of life, that actual universal preference on the part of those who have tried both kinds fairly is the same (on our view) as superiority in the value of one over the other. Keats, by universal qualified opinion, is a more efficient poet than Wilcox, and that is the same thing as saying that his works are more valuable.
The influence is also exerted in more indirect ways. There need be, we must remember, no discernible connection or resemblance whatever between the experience due to the work of art and the alter behaviour and experience which is modified through it. Without such resemblance the influence may easily be overlooked or denied, but not by anyone who has sufficient conception of the ways in which attitudes develop. No one who has repeatedly lived through experiences at the level of discrimination and co-ordination presupposed by the greater writers, can ever, when fully 'vigilant', be contented with ordinary crudities, though a touch of liver may of course suspend these superior responses. and conversely, keen and vigilant enjoyment of Miss Dell, Mr Burroughs, Mrs Wilcox or Mr Hutchinson, when untouched by doubts or the joys of ironic contemplation, is likely to have as a consequence not only an acceptance of the mediocre in ordinary life, but a blurring and confusion of impulses and a very widespread loss of value.
These remarks apply even more evidently to the Cinema. People do not much imitate what they see upon the screen or what they read of in best-sellers. It would matter little if they did. Such effects would show themselves clearly and the evil would be of a manageable kind.