All I Survey/Essay VII

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Essay VI All I Survey
Essay VII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay VIII



Essay VII: On Vachel Lindsay

M. PAUL CLAUDEL'S play, _The Satin Slipper,_ translated with admirable subtlety and flexibility by the Rev. John O'Connor, is a work of rich and almost bewildering fantasy, and has any number of aspects that could not adequately be treated here. But it has one particular aspect, in which it is related to recent events in other fields, and rather specially calls for a particular comment just now. Though nobody could be more French than M. Claudel, and nothing could be more French than the particular kind of wit and fighting logic that pursues this theme or thesis to its end, yet the whole background of the drama is the background of the Spanish civilization. Even at this moment the Spanish civilization is something very much larger than the civilization of Spain. It was infinitely more so in the days of the external glory of Spain, the days of the alliance with Austria and the conquest of America. About all that culture there was a character which runs through this drama like a decorative pattern, and will be found more and more, I think, to be a pattern for the art of today.

Thus, no two poets could possibly be more different in every tradition or test of historical type than Paul Claudel and Vachel Lindsay, the spirited American singer. In external and formal attachment, they would seem utterly foreign to each other. Vachel Lindsay was a Puritan in the personal sense; one might almost say in the political sense. He was even a Prohibitionist, and it is only fair to say that his orgiastic verse does demonstrate how very drunk a man can be without wine when he drinks the American air. Occasionally, even, a critic might be tempted to call it the American hot-air. For though Vachel Lindsay was a natural artist, and went right by the clue of the imagination, there are passages of his finest writing which would have been finer still if he had not lived in the land of the megaphone rather than the ivory horn; or if his traditions had not given him the choice of two trumpets-- the brazen trumpet of publicity as well as the golden trumpet of poetry. He was himself a wholly simple, sincere, and therefore humble man; but the people around him did not believe in humility; no, not even when they practised it. But they did believe in go and gusto and the big noise; and to a certain extent Vachel Lindsay even at his best did practise that. I have myself a huge sympathy with his special gift for describing men banging their gongs to the glory of their gods; but it were vain to deny that in some ways their gods were not our gods. Most certainly, anyhow, they were not M. Claudel's gods. M. Claudel is not only a Catholic, but a French Catholic; with the particular French dislike of orgiastic religion and the fads that invade domesticity. I should imagine that there are no two things that M. Claudel would be more completely puzzled to comprehend than (1) a free man being a Prohibitionist, and (2) a fine poet selecting from all human history the subject of "General Booth Enters Heaven."

And yet both poets, the Frenchman and the American, illustrate this third element that is neither American nor French. For truly Vachel Lindsay was something more than an American; he was (wildly as the term would be misunderstood) a Spanish-American. He was, spiritually speaking, a Californian. He did not get drunk only on the American air; he drank the air of a strange paradise, which is in some way set apart and unlike anything in the New World or the Old; a fairy sea, calmed as by a spell, that stretches far away into fantastical China and of which even the nearer coast is ruled by ghosts rather than by its modern rulers. For there is spread all along that Pacific Coast, in some fashion too vivid for definition, the presence and the pressure and the splendour of Spain. It was something in this rich sunset air that got into the verse of a Puritan like Vachel Lindsay, and made it so much more instinctively ornate and gorgeous than that of a mere Pagan like Walt Whitman. Whitman was a great man; but he was a man of the Eastern States and of the Northern sun, and therefore his passion was colourless even when it was not cold. The Puritanism of Lindsay was more glowing than the Paganism of Whitman. And the reason was, I think, this unconscious influence which possesses all the West of America, as the old Celtic romance possesses all the West of England. The poetry of Vachel Lindsay proves, in every sort of broken and unconscious fashion, how much he was haunted by this presence; how much he felt under his feet this Spanish subsoil of American States. It was, to quote the words of his own vision, the Wrecks of the Galleons of Spain that towered and swelled above him in a sort of glowing monstrosity, and gave their real symbolic outline to the Golden Whales of California.

In other words, it is worth while to realize that there is spread over great spaces of the earth a sort of Spanish magic. The Spanish settlements are not what is called dead-alive places, in the sense of places in which the living are dead; they are places in which the dead are alive. But the dead are alive, even where nobody else is alive. Even the deserted parts of that coast are not a desert; and even the dead parts of that empire cannot die. And it is the vast vitality of that dead empire that attracts a French northerner like M. Claudel, just as it unconsciously attracted an American like Mr. Lindsay. The dramatic narrative of M. Claudel, as I have said, covers a vast field of universal ideas and individual problems. It is full of what is found in the very name of The Golden Whales of California, and it is a whale of a book. But it is also golden, in the sense of being full of things that are truly as good as gold. It even rather excels in the description of things shapeless or of incalculable shape, like such gigantic monsters; indeed, as it happens, there is a typically grotesque description of the actual animals called whales. "Their head, which is like a whole mountain full of liquid sperm, shows in the corner of the jaw a little eye no bigger than a waistcoat-button." There is the same sort of imaginative sense of the shape of something shapeless in this fine phrase about the amorphous Germanies of Central Europe. "To know it you must look at its heart, for it has got no face."

All that dark and yet exuberant imagery belongs to a tradition that can be seen in the art and ornament of Spain. It can be seen in the special Spanish love of black; the black which is not the negation of colour, but rather the accumulation of colour. It can be seen in the rich darkness of Spanish churches, fretted with the golden fire of countless candles. But it can be seen fully and completely only in the world-wide spreading of the Spanish culture in the sixteenth century, when it met on its borders monsters stranger than whales; red men and golden mountains and a new world. It had many crimes, which are not hidden in Claudel's poem, but it had this very enviable greatness: that strange stars and new sciences were then opened to a Christian world that was still full of chivalry. Then wicked men colonized for greed, but good men did not colonize only for commerce; when the white man was as romantic a figure as the red man, and trade had not destroyed the Red Indian to replace him by the Regular Guy.