Arthur Symons: The Two Illusions
by Paul Elmer More
And if you wish to see the power of poetic illusion exemplified in a more general form than the pretty deceptions of Arcadia, turn to any of the greater plays of Shakespeare, to Hamlet, which will make you believe for the space of a few hours that human life really revolves about such mystic musings and expresses itself in such rapt language as the mad Dane's, or to The Tempest, in which the poet has symbolised his own powers of enchantment in the wizard Prospero. And yet, side by side with this illusion, there must always in the greater poets run a note of disillusion,--a note subdued for the most part so as scarcely to be heard, but rising to the surface now and again with a strange quivering of mingled sadness and joy, of sadness for the fair enchantment it dispels, of joy for the glimpse it affords into something divine and very high. You may hear this note of disillusion many times in Shakespeare, clearest of all in The Tempest, where with a word Prospero puts an end to his fairy drama in the woods, and all the insubstantial pageant fades away.
For one acquainted with Oriental literature it is impossible to reflect on this illusion of art without recurring to the Hindu doctrine of Maya, who is supposed to be the creative force of all this wonderful web of appearances that enwrap the spirit in their mesh and charm the spirit's attention by their mystery of beauty and seeming benevolence. To the Oriental, as often to the man of the West who considers the character of this illusion, Maya assumes the form of the eternal-feminine unfolding her allurements before the masculine looker-on. So in the book of one of the two great philosophies of India the story of illusion and disillusion is told in this metaphor of the stage:
Like as a dancing-girl to sound of lyresAnd when the play is seen, the illusion dispelled, and the dancing has disappeared, for a while the watcher waits in quiet, seeming to live the old life, as a potter's wheel revolves a little space after the potter's hand is still; but in reality the desire of this world is ended and in his time he withdraws into the untroubled peace of his nature. It is called Death; it is also called the Awakening. It is a consummation of philosophy not unmixed with joy, though it may seem empty to most Western minds. It is even in another way the consummation of poetry, for ever and anon, as we have seen, the true poet lifts for a moment the very veil of illusion he is weaving and shows us glimpses of what is beyond. And that is well. But suppose, when the play is ended, there is no wisdom of self-knowledge attained, no spiritual joy to take the place of the old lust of the eyes, no royal watcher sitting serenely apart, but only some poor outcast of the street, a brother in life to the painted dancer on the stage--what then?
Now the story of such an illusion and such an awakening is the theme of the poems which Mr. Arthur Symons has recently collected and published in two volumes. In one group of these poems the parallel to the Oriental conception of the dancing-girl is so marked that the author would almost seem to have had the impressing of this moral in his mind when he wrote them. I refer to The Dance of the Seven Sins, The Lover of the Queen of Sheba, and The Dance of the Daughters of Herodias, in each of which the poet imagines the allurements of the world as dancing before the eyes of some tempted watcher.
Is it the petals falling from the rose?That is the illusion of the world and of the desires of the world, daughters of Herodias dancing before the grey face of Herod. And as they dance they sing--
"For are not we," they say, "the end of all?But the watcher grows weary of the long monotony of the scene:
Have I now seen you as you areIt is the beginning of wisdom, you say, the cry of the Hindu watcher, "Lo, I have seen it all!" and yet--
Wisdom is weariness to me.And that is the outcome--"Wisdom is weariness!"
O bondslave, bondslave unto death,It was, you see, a false illusion that could lead only to a false awakening; it is utterly different from the true illusion such as hovers over the pastoral world of Lycidas and works through the magic of Prospero, and the awakening from it is equally different from the disillusion of Shakespeare or of the Hindu philosopher. The true illusion does not confuse the things of the spirit with the things of the world. It knows that for a while the way of the spirit must lie through this ates leimona, this meadowland of calamity, and its office is by a deliberate effort of the will to throw the glamour of light and joy and freedom on the objects by the roadside, so that the spirit may journey swiftly and pleasantly to its own upland home. And when its task is completed it leaves the spirit at rest with itself, without regret or further craving, filled with the consummation of peace that springs from experience and self-knowledge, while the world of the senses remains in memory only so far as this world shadows the spirit's own high desires. But the false illusion is an inner blindness and confusion; it is false because there enters into it no faith in the joy of things unseen, no knowledge even that such things exist; it is false because for the voice of the spirit it hears only the clamorous outcry of a man's lower personality springing from the desires of the body and the perceptions of the body, and is in the end one with what is desired and perceived. At the first this false illusion is sweet, but soon it is troubled with the bitterness of satiety; and the awakening from it leaves only the emptiness of endless regret and self-tormenting. The false disillusion is a discovery that the looker-on who masqueraded as the spirit is merely a phantom of the body; it is a perception of the hollowness of the old illusion without the power of escaping therefrom. The watcher of the Oriental philosophers is one perfectly distinct from this "self" that cries out to death for deliverance from its own eternity. The disillusion of the flesh is perhaps the saddest chapter in human experience.
Now the composition of Mr. Symons's two volumes is such that we are able to trace the progress of his poetic mood from the first illusion to its consummation in a false disillusion; and this regular gradation we can follow with a precision which is at least a striking proof of the author's sincerity. As stated in the prefatory note, these volumes are made up of selections from five previously published works, viz.: Days and Nights, in 1889; Silhouettes, in 1892; London Nights, in 1895; Amoris Victima, in 1897; and Images of Good and Evil, in 1899; to which is added a sheaf of new poems, The Loom of Dreams. In one respect the substance of these successive books is the same; from beginning to end we are in a land of dreams--dreams always, whether fair or gloomy, or the haunting remembrance of dreams. The introductory poem of the first book is a sonnet that describes the delicious sense of drowning in the gulf of opium, and in like manner the last poem of all doses with these words in the mouth of Faustus:
When Helen lived, men loved, and Helen was:But if the substance of all these poems is woven on the same loom of dreams, there is still, as I have said, a profound change in their colour and texture as we proceed. Passing over the first book, from which only a few disconnected poems have been chosen, and these evidently written before the author had arrived at maturity of self-consciousness, we come to the collection entitled Silhouettes, which will probably appeal to the largest circle of readers although they can hardly be called the strongest specimens of Mr. Symons's work. Yet even these poems can never attain to any wide popularity, nor can they ever have much weight with practical intelligences that shun the evanescent world of revery where the real and the unreal meet and blend together in indistinguishable twilight. For this atmosphere is one of indulgent brooding; their warp and woof are of the stuff of dreams woven by a mind that turns from the actual issues of life as a naked body cowers from the wind. The world is seen through a haze of abstraction, glimmeringly, as a landscape looms misty and vague through the falling, fluttering veil of the rain. Indeed it is noteworthy, how many of the poems descriptive of nature or of the London streets are drenched with rains and blown by gusty winds:
The wind is rising on the sea,And human nature is viewed through a like mist, a mist of tears over laughter, as it may look to one who dreams deliberately while the heart is young and the haunting terror of the awakening seems still something that can be held aloof at his own sweet will. Love is the constant theme, not the great passion of strong men that smites and burns through the world, but the lighter play of emotions that dally and wanton over their own flowering beauty. And these women, to whom the poet's love goes out, girls of the dancing hall and the street, still young and very fair, are only a Western reading of that symbol of nature that dances before the watching soul of the Orient. Their faces steal into the heart with the witchery and insubstantiality of music:
Across the tides of music, in the night,They are not moral and they are not immoral, for they bear no relation to the claims of the soul; they are the figures of a fleeting illusion, a mere blossoming of the flesh yet undefiled:
White girl, your flesh is liliesSo new is the illusion as yet, so fresh this vision of dreams under the spell of white loveliness, that it passes unscathed through the fires of lust:
There with the women, haggard, painted, and old,The illusion is fair and wonderful; it revels in sweet fragrances and the unforgettable odours of shaken hair; even the artificiality of this desired beauty, its falsities of rouge and pearl-powder, seem but a touch of added spice to make its allurement more pungent. What though he who observes and translates this beauty into rhymes knows that it is only illusion? and what though he who reads and for a while surrenders himself to its sweet intoxication knows it is only illusion? Because the watcher in his real heart penetrates this illusion and knows that it must so soon slip back into the hideous reality, into the painted and haggard ugliness of the flesh that is only flesh and grows old, therefore he feels a greater tenderness for this "frail duration of a flower," and a wistfulness deeper than comes to one who has something of his own spiritual hope to throw over the vanishing loveliness. He is touched by the foreboding of "the little plaintive smile"--
And those pathetic eyes of hers;And joined with this tenderness for what must pass away, there is an undercurrent of regret for his own joys that endure so little a space; there is even now, while dreams are the only reality to him, a troublous suspicion rising at intervals that the substance is slipping from his grasp, and this suspicion deepens his regret for the actual past into regret for the evanescent present shadow of things,--
We are two ghosts that had their chance to live,The poignancy of this tenderness and regret is something a little different from the sigh that runs through so much poetry for passing things; it is the result of a foreboding, half welcome, half dreaded, that the illusion of this beauty is a treachery, a snare set by some unseen tempter to hold a man from his true happiness. More than once Mr. Symons compares this illusion to the smile of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, whose haunted meaning no man, unless it be perhaps Walter Pater, has ever interpreted:
Your smile is like a treachery,The shadow of water, indeed, and nothing more. There lies the pity of it all. Suppose the thirsty watcher of the play suddenly becomes aware that the pageant is insubstantial shadows, and that the cup of this world's delight which he longs to raise to his lips is empty and holds only the shadow of water --what then? And suppose that the watcher has no desire in his heart save this one desire of the world's delight--what then? That is the terrible disillusion of the flesh, a cruel mock-cry of the true awakening; and for the man on whom it falls --as it must some day fall on every man of insight, either the false disillusion or the true awakening--there is nothing left but the endless rage of endeavour to hold fast an illusion which no longer deceives, or the sullen apathy of despair, or the unthinking submission to his ever coarsening appetites. You will hear the first note of this coming disillusion in the inevitable cry of satiety:
For us the roses are scarce sweet,With this word of weariness we pass from the book of Silhouettes to the London Nights, published only three years later, and the change is as marked as it is significant. On the light illusion, the shimmering web of dreams that spun themselves almost of their own accord, begins to fall the lengthening shadows of the actual world. The transient note of satiety becomes more persistent, and an ever greater effort of the will is required lest the fluttering curtain of illusion be blown away and so discover the naked reality which the watcher dreads to behold. The watcher begins to grow conscious that he is himself a part of that nature, weary a little and saddened by the satiety which must continue--for how long?--its dance of forced gayety.
My life is like a music-hall,What we have to observe now is this "impotence of rage" spending itself in the effort to preserve the fading illusion, or at least to save some part of that illusion's pleasure. To accomplish this all the colours must be heightened and all the emotions sharpened, though by doing so the very daintiness and subtlety of impressions which formed the fascination of the illusion are stript away and the deprecated end is hastened.
Ah! no oblivion, for I feelYet even here we are far from the simple passion of the flesh, the passion, for example, of Catullus for his Lesbia, in which there is no talk of souls that turn into bodies but only the natural cry of a man of strong animal appetites and strong unperverted intellect. The morbidness and decadence of Mr. Symons's verse are shown, indeed, in this very hankering after food which to suit a jaded appetite must be unwholesomely spiced with appeals to what is called the soul. He shrinks instinctively from the outright passion of a Catullus, and chooses instead--what?
"Love is a raging fire,In this same way he cannot pause to find comfort in the homely associations of a love that is less a passion than a quiet haven from the vexations of life. You will find in these volumes nothing corresponding, for example, to the gentle verses of Tibullus counting up the treasures of his love and pastoral content while the morning rain washes on the roof. On the contrary you will find an artificial passion which requires every conceivable stimulus to preserve it from passing into sheer disgust:
Pallid out of the darkness, adorably white,The morbid unrest that troubles this pallid hot-house flower is the attraction most of all sought by the watcher--anything to break the monotony of the awakening which to him is death. Even the sense of shame is welcomed if only it will lend a little poignancy to this desire that grows chill, if only it will for a moment continue the illusion that something in the watcher stands apart from the play and is above it:
I too have sought on many a breastAnd shame at least is ready at hand. Out of this ecstasy of unrest, this morbid curiosity, this terror of satiety, there does spring at last a love that is genuine in its way, a pale amorphous passion, for one whom he calls Bianca. It is a love the telling of which haunts the imagination (so, indeed, it was meant to do) as something not of this world or the other, a thing unclean not with the taint of the untroubled body, but of the body that tortures itself maddeningly to escape from its own insufficiency and masquerade as the soul.
So the simplicity of fleshAnd the conclusion of the tale is this--"So Bianca satisfies my soul!" It is better to draw the veil of silence over this scene of painfully-won illusion. There are things it were good for a man, even for a decadent poet, not to have written, and these poems to Bianca, with their tortuous effort to find the soul in the ambiguities and unclean curiosities of a swaying will are of them. They are a waste of shame.
The outcome of such an "ecstasy of unrest" is not difficult to foresee, and is the theme of the two following books of the collection, Amoris Victima and Images of Good and Evil. When the illusion is dispelled, when the ambiguity is found to be merely a deception of the flesh and the curiosity has spent itself in a vain endeavour to discern what does not exist, what can remain but the desolation of emptiness?
Was not our love fatal to you and me?And so the first poems in this book which he calls Amoris Victima are filled with regrets that at least come nearer than any others in the collection to showing the agony of a genuine passion broken and defeated by some infirmity of the lover's will:
I am weary of living, and I long to be at restBut this sigh of passionate regret for what seems the loss of a real happiness is but a transient note of honest self-deception. What follows is the bitter cry of the long struggle, resumed half-heartedly, between illusion and disillusion. I do not wish to dwell at length on this struggle, for it is not entirely pleasant reading, however great its psychological interest may be. Through it all runs the memory of the past, but a memory of shame and not of simple regret:
O rapture of lost days, all that remainsThe thoughts that follow such memories are to the poet like hideous Harpyes, beaked and taloned, that gather about him in the darkness of his soul. And the desires that torture him are the cruel voice of the flesh from which all illusion has been torn away, save the persistent denial of relief that makes of their disillusion a mere mockery of the true awakening:
Ah! in those shell-curved, purple eyelids bentIn the ocean of these degrading memories, haunting thoughts, and impuissant desires, the poor soul (let us call it soul) of the poet is tossed alternately from the exaltation of terror to the depths of indifferent despair. He learns at last that "to have fallen through dreams is to have touched hell!" As with King Richard dreaming on Bosworth Field, shadowy images rising from what has been and clamorous of what is to be, torment him with a power greater than any reality of life. The body and substance of this terror is a vision of emptiness, of the dark void, that must swallow up the watcher when the growing disillusion is made complete:
And something, in the old and little voice,It is not strange that this outcast self should make the whole world of God to be a shadow of its own mood, and that this mood should assume the likeness of insomnia:
Who said the world is but a moodThere, I think, is the last word to distinguish this false awakening from the true. From such an agony of insomnia there can be but one relief, the repose of utter oblivion and the escape from self in perfect death. Such in the end and nothing else is the pleading cry of the disillusioned watcher.
But again this paroxysm of rebellion spends itself in a little time, and in its place comes the sigh of lonely indifference and impotence. And ! know not which of these alternating moods should remain as the last impression of this tragic history. "There are grey hours when I drink of indifference," he says; and "all things fade Into the grey of a twilight that covers my soul with its sky." And again: "The loneliness of the sea is in my heart, And the wind is not more lonely than this grey mind." All the wonted rapture of the world fades into the grey of this impotent listlessness:
The clamours of spring are the same old delicate noises,Always while reading these poems, which are the first full and sincere expression of decadence in English, with their light and fair illusion passing gradually into the terror of disillusion, I have heard running through my memory three lines of old John Ford which contain the very essence of the right illusion of art (for art, as we have seen, has its true and necessary illusion of joy as well as this false illusion of sadness); and involuntarily these lines would sound out as an echo or coun-ter-tone to the painfulness of Mr. Symons's lament. They are like a breath of fresh air let into a murky chamber:
Since my coming home I've foundThere would be a world of significance in comparing this "coming home" with the wandering of that "flickering selF' in the void places of despair.
And yet I would not leave the word despair as the last comment on these poems, which, no matter what their sadness and morbidness may be, stand quite apart from the ordinary versifying of the day. They have, whatever may be said, a great psychological interest for one who is curious to study the currents of modern thought. Mr. Symons impresses us as being absolutely sincere, as being the only genuine and adequate representative in English of that widespread condition which we call decadence. And sincerity in verse is a quality of inestimable value. But more than that: these poems are now and again so instinct with original perception of beauty and so lilted with cadences of sweetness, as to be remarkable in themselves apart from their psychological interest. Toward the end of the second volume, and in the little book of recent poems that close the collection, there forces its way at times, through the turbulent cries of dull desires and stinging regrets, a recurrent note of the first simple delight in nature,--a note which one would gladly accept as prophetic of a new life to arise out of the tragedy of despair. The repose for which the poet sighs in this last poem I would quote, is at least a better and more wholesome thing than the impious oblivion of his earlier craving: