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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Authorship
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

The essay which stands next in this volume, "Herb Moly and Heartsease," was the subject of a curious and interesting experiment. It seemed to me, when I first thought of it, to be a suggestive subject, a substantial idea. One ought not to write a commentary on one's own work, but the underlying theme is this: I have been haunted all my life, at intervals, sometimes very insistently, by the sense of a quest; and I have often seemed to myself to be searching for something which I have somehow lost; to be engaged in trying to rediscover some emotion or thought which I had once certainly possessed and as certainly have forgotten or mislaid. At times I felt on the track of it, as if it had passed that way not long before; at times I have felt as if I were close upon it, and as if it were only hidden from me by the thinnest of veils. I have reason to know that other people have the same feeling; and, indeed, it is that which constitutes the singular and moving charm of Newman's poem, "Lead, kindly Light," where all is summed up in those exquisite lines, often so strangely misinterpreted and misunderstood, which end the poem:

"And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile."

I wish that he had not written "those angel faces," because it seems to limit the quest to ecclesiastical lines, as, indeed, I expect Newman did limit it. But we must not be so blind as to be unable to see behind the texture of prepossessions that decorate, as with a tapestry, the chambers of a man's inner thought; and I have no doubt whatever that Newman meant the same thing that I mean, though he used different symbols. Again, we find the same idea in Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality," the thought that life is not circumscribed by birth and death, but that one's experience is a much larger and older thing than the experience which mere memory records. It is that which one has lost; and one of the greatest mysteries of art lies in the fact that a picture, or a sudden music, or a page in a book, will sometimes startle one into the consciousness of having heard, seen, known, felt the emotion before, elsewhere, beyond the visible horizon.

Well, I tried to put that idea into words in "Herb Moly and Heartsease"; and because it was a deep and dim idea, and also partly because it fascinated me greatly, I spent far more time and trouble on the little piece than I generally spend.

Then it occurred to me, in a whimsical moment, that I would try an experiment. I would send out the thing as a ballon d'essai, to see if anyone would read it for itself, or would detect me underneath the disguise. Through the kind offices of a friend, I had it published secretly and anonymously. I chose the most beautiful type and paper I could find; it cost me far more than the sale of the whole edition could possibly recoup. I had it sent to papers for review, and I even had some copies sent to literary friends of my own.

The result was a quite enchanting humiliation. One paper reviewed it kindly, in a little paragraph, and said it was useful; another said that the writer used the word "one" much too frequently; while only one of my friends even acknowledged it. It is pleasant to begin at the bottom again, and find that no one will listen, even to a very careful bit of writing by one who has at all events had a good deal of practice, and who did his very best!

This set me thinking over my literary adventures, and I think they may be interesting to other authors or would-be authors; and then I wish to go a little further, and try to say, if I can, what I believe the writing of books really to be, why one writes, and what one is aiming at. I have a very clear idea about it all, and it can do no harm to state it.

I was brought up much among books and talk about books. Indeed, I have always believed that my father, though he had great practical gifts of organisation and administration, which came out in his work as a schoolmaster and a bishop, was very much of an artist at heart, and would have liked to be a poet. Indeed, the practice of authorship has run in my family to a quite extraordinary degree. In four generations, I believe that some twenty of my blood-relations have written and published books, from my cousin Adelaide Anne Procter to my uncle Henry Sidgwick. When we were children we produced little magazines of prose and poetry, and read them in the family circle. I wrote poetry as a boy at Eton, and at Cambridge as an undergraduate; and at the end of my time at Cambridge I produced a novel, which I sent to Macmillan's Magazine, of which Lord Morley was then editor, who sent it back to me with a kind letter to say that it was sauce without meat, and that I should not be proud of the book in later life if it were published.

Then as an undergraduate I began an odd little book called Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton, a morbid affair, which was published anonymously, and, though severely handled by reviewers, had a certain measure of success. But then I became a busy schoolmaster, and all I did was to write laboured little essays, which appeared in various magazines, and were afterwards collected. Then I took up poetry, and worked very hard at it indeed for some years, producing five volumes, which very few people ever read. It was a great delight, writing poetry, and I have masses of unpublished poems. But I do not grudge the time spent on it, because I think it taught me the use of words. Then came two volumes of stories, mostly told or read to the boys in my house, with a medieval sort of flavour-- The Hill of Trouble and The Isles of Sunset.

I also put together a little book on Tennyson, which has, I believe, the merit of containing all the most interesting anecdotes about him, and I also wrote the Rossetti in the Men of Letters Series, a painstaking book, rather rhetorical; though the truth about Rossetti cannot be told, even if it could be known.

All this work was done in the middle of hard professional work, with a boarding-house and many pupils. I will dare to say that I was an active and diligent schoolmaster, and writing was only a recreation. I could only get a few hours a week at it, and it never interfered with my main work.

My father died in 1896, and I wrote his life in two big volumes, a very solid piece of work; but it was after that, I think, that my real writing began. I believe it was in 1899 that I slowly composed The House of Quiet, but I could not satisfy myself about the ending, and it was laid aside.

Then I was offered the task of editing Queen Victoria's letters. I resigned my mastership with a mixture of sorrow and relief. The work was interesting and absorbing, but I did not like our system of education, nor did I believe in it. But I put my beliefs into a little book called The Schoolmaster, which made its way.

I left my work as a teacher in 1903, when I was forty-one. The House of Quiet appeared in that year anonymously, and began to sell. I lived on at Eton with an old friend; went daily up to Windsor Castle, and toiled through volumes of papers. But I found that it was not possible to work more than a few hours a day at the task of selection, because one's judgment got fatigued and blurred.

The sudden cessation of heavy professional work made itself felt in an extreme zest and lightness of spirit. It was a very happy and delightful time. I was living among friends who were all very hard at work, and the very contrast of my freedom with their servitude was enlivening. I was able, too, to think over my schoolmastering experience; and the result was The Upton Letters, an inconsequent but I think lively book, also published anonymously and rather disregarded by reviewers. But the book was talked about and read; and for the next year or two I worked with indefatigable zest at writing. I brought out monographs on Edward FitzGerald and Walter Pater; I wrote The Thread of Gold, which also succeeded; and in the next year I settled at Cambridge, and wrote From a College Window as a serial in the Cornhill, and The Gate of Death, both anonymously; and in the following year Beside Still Waters and The Altar Fire. All this time the Queen's letters were going quietly on in the background.

I have written half-a-dozen books since then. But that is how I began my work; and the one point which is worth noticing is that the four books which have sold most widely, The House of Quiet, The Upton Letters, The Thread of Gold, and the College Window, were all of them issued anonymously, and the authorship was for a considerable time undetected. So that it is fair to conclude that the public is on the look-out for books which interest it, and will find out what it wants; because none of those books owed anything whatever to my parentage or my position or my friends--or indeed to the reviewers either; and it proves the truth of what a publisher said to me the other day, that neither reviews nor advertisements will really do much for a book; but that if readers begin to talk about a book and to recommend it, it is apt to go ahead. And, further, I conclude from the fact that none of my subsequent books have been as popular as these, though I have no cause to complain, that a new voice and new ideas are what prove attractive--and perhaps not so much new ideas as familiar ideas which have not been clearly expressed and put into words. There was a little mystery about the writer then, and there is no mystery now; everyone knows exactly what to expect; and the new generation wants a fresh voice and a different way of putting things.

As to the motive force, whatever it may be, that lies behind writing, we may disengage from it all subsidiary motives, such as the desire for money, philanthropy, professional occupation; but the main force is, I think, threefold--the motive of art pure and simple, the desire for communication with one's fellows, and the motive of ambition, which may almost be called the desire for applause.

The ultimate instinct of art is the expression of the sense of beauty. A scene, or a character, or an idea, or an emotion, strikes the mind as being salient, beautiful, strange, wonderful, and the mind desires to record it, to depict it, to isolate it, to emphasize it. The process becomes gradually, as the life of the world continues, more and more complex. It seemed enough at first just to record; but then there follows the desire to contrast, to heighten effects, to construct elaborate backgrounds; then the process grows still more refined, and it becomes essential to lay out materials in due proportion, and to clear away all that is otiose or confusing, so that the central idea, whatever it is, shall stand out in absolute clarity and distinctness. Gradually a great deal of art becomes traditional and conventional; certain forms stereotype themselves, and it becomes more and more difficult to invent a new form of any kind. When art is very much bound by tradition, it becomes what is called classical, and makes its appeal to a cultured circle; and then there is a revolutionary outburst of what is called a romantic type, which means on the one hand a weariness of the old traditions and longing for freedom, and on the other hand a corresponding desire, on the part of an extended and less cultured circle, for art of a more elastic kind. Literature has this cyclic ebb and flow; but what is romantic in one age tends to become classical in the next, as the new departure becomes in its turn traditional. These variations are no doubt the result of definite, psychological laws, at present little understood. The renaissance of a nation, when from some unascertained cause there is a fresh outburst of interest in ideas, is quite unaccounted for by logical or mathematical laws of development. The French Revolution and the corresponding romantic revival in England are instances of this. A writer like Rousseau does not germinate interest in social and emotional ideas, but merely puts into attractive form a number of ideas vaguely floating in numberless minds. A writer like Scott indicates a sudden repulsion in many minds against a classical tradition grown sterile, and a widespread desire to extract romantic emotions from a forgotten medieval life. Of course a romantic writer like Scott read into the Middle Ages a number of emotions which were not historically there; and the romantic writer, generally speaking, tends to treat of life in its more sublime and glowing moments, and to amass brilliant experience and absorbing emotion in an unscientific way. Just now we are beginning to revolt against this over-emotionalised treatment of life, and realism is a deliberate attempt to present life as it is--not to improve upon it or to select it, but to give an impression of its complexity as well as of its bleakness. The romanticist typifies and stereotypes character, the realist recognises the inconsistency and the changeableness of personality. The romanticist presents qualities and moods personified, the realist depicts the flux and variableness of mood, and the effects exerted by characters upon each other. But the motive is ultimately the same, only the romanticist is interested in the passion and inspiration of life, the realist more in the facts and actual stuff of life. But in both cases the motive is the same: to depict and to record a personal impression of what seems wonderful and strange.

The second motive in art is the desire to share and communicate experience. Every one must know how intolerable to a perceptive person loneliness is apt to be, and how instinctive is the need of some companion with whom to participate in the beauty or impressiveness or absurdity of a scene. The enjoyment of experience is diminished or even obliterated if one has to taste it in solitude. Of course there are people so constituted as to be able to enjoy, let us say, a good dinner, or a concert of music, or a play, in solitude; but if such a person has the instinct of expression, he enjoys it all half-consciously as an amassing of material for artistic use; and it is almost inconceivable that an artist should exist who would be prepared to continue writing books or painting pictures or making statues, quite content to put them aside when completed, with no desire to submit them to the judgment of the world. My own experience is that the thought of sharing one's enjoyment with other people is not a very conscious feeling while one is actually engaged in writing. At the moment the thought of expression is paramount, and the delight lies simply in depicting and recording. Yet the impulse to hand it all on is subconsciously there, to such an extent that if I knew that what I wrote could never pass under another human eye, I have little doubt that I should very soon desist from writing altogether. The social and gregarious instinct is really very dominant in all art; and all writers who have a public at all must become aware of this fact, by the number of manuscripts which are submitted to them by would-be authors, who ask for advice and criticism and introductions to publishers. It would be quite easy for me, if I complied fully with all such requests, to spend the greater part of my time in the labour of commenting on these manuscripts. It is indeed the nearest that many amateurs can get to publication. As Ruskin, I think, once said, it is a curious irony of authorship that if a writer once makes a success the world does its best, by inundating him with every sort of request, to prevent his ever repeating it. I suppose that painters and sculptors do not suffer so much in this way, because it is not easy to send about canvases or statues by parcels post. But nothing is easier than to slip a manuscript into an envelope and to require an opinion from an author. I will confess that I very seldom refuse these requests. At the moment at which I write I have three printed novels and a printed book of travel, a poem, and two volumes of essays in manuscript upon my table, and I shall make shift to say something in reply, though except for the satisfaction of the authors in question, I believe that my pains will be wholly thrown away, for the simple reason that it is a very lengthy business to teach any one how to write, and also partly because what these authors desire is not criticism but sympathy and admiration.

The third motive which underlies the practice of art is undoubtedly the sense of performance and the desire for applause. It is easy from a pose of dignity and high-mindedness to undervalue and overlook this. But it may safely be said that when a man challenges the attention of the public, he does not do it that he may give pleasure, but that he may receive praise. As Elihu the Buzite said with such exquisite frankness in the book of Job, "I will speak, that I may be refreshed!" The amateurs who send their work for inspection cannot as a rule bear to face this fact. They constantly say that they wish to do good, or to communicate enjoyment and pleasure. To be honest, I do not much believe that the motive of the artist is altruistic. He writes for his own enjoyment, perhaps, but he publishes that his skill and power of presentment may be recognised and applauded. In FitzGerald's Letters there is a delightful story of a parrot who had one accomplishment--that of ruffling up his feathers and rolling his eyes so that he looked like an owl. When the other domestic pets were doing their tricks, the owner of the parrot, to prevent its feelings being hurt, used carefully to request it "to do its little owl." And the truth is that we most of us want to do our little owl. Stevenson said candidly that applause was the breath of life to an artist. Many, indeed, find the money they make by their work delightful as a symbol of applause in the sense of Shelley's fine dictum, "Fame is love disguised." It is not a wholly mean motive, because many of us are beset by an idea that the shortest way to be loved is to be admired. It is a great misapprehension, because admiration breeds jealousy quite as often as it breeds affection--indeed oftener! But from the child that plays its little piece, or the itinerant musician that blows a flat cornet in the street, to the great dramatist or musician, the same desire to produce a favourable impression holds good.

I once dined alone with a celebrated critic, who indicated, as we sat smoking in his study, a great pile of typewritten sheets upon his table. "That is the next novel of So-and-so," he said, mentioning a well-known novelist; "he asks me for a candid criticism; but unfortunately the only language he now understands is the language of adulation!"

That is a true if melancholy fact, plainly stated; that to many an artist to be said to have done well is almost more important than to know that the thing has been well done. It is not a wholesome frame of mind, perhaps; but it cannot be overlooked or gainsaid.

Even the greatest of authors are susceptible to it. Robert Browning, who, except for an occasional outburst of fury against his critics, was far more tolerant of and patient under misunderstanding than most poets, said in a moment of elated frankness, when he received an ovation from the students of a university, that he had been waiting for that all his life; Tennyson managed to combine a hatred of publicity with a thirst for fame. Wordsworth, as Carlyle pungently said, used to pay an annual visit to London in later life "to collect his little bits of tribute." And even though Keats could say that his own criticism of his own works had given him far more pain than the opinions of any outside critics, yet the possibility of recognition and applause must inevitably continue to be one of the chief raisons d'etre of art.

But the main motive of writing lies in the creative instinct, pure and simple; and the success of all literary art must depend upon the personality of the writer, his vitality and perception, his combination of exuberance and control. The reason why there are comparatively so few great writers is that authorship, to be wholly successful, needs so rich an outfit of gifts, creative thought, emotion, style, clearness, charm, emphasis, vocabulary, perseverance. Many writers have some of these gifts; and the essential difference of amateur writing from professional writing is that the amateur has, as a rule, little power of rejection and selection, or of producing a due proportion and an even surface; amateur poetry is characterised by good lines strung together by weak and patchy rigmaroles--like a block of unworked ore, in which the precious particles glitter confusedly; while the artistic poem is a piece of chased jewel-work. It is true that great poets have often written hurriedly and swiftly; but probably there is an intense selectiveness at work in the background all the time, produced by instinctive taste as well as by careful practice.

Amateur prose, again, has an unevenness of texture and arrangement, good ideas and salient thoughts floundering in a vapid and inferior substance; it is often not appreciated by amateurs how much depends on craftsmanship. I have known brilliant and accomplished conversationalists who have been persuaded, perhaps in mature life, to attempt a more definite piece of writing; when it is pathetic to see suggestive and even brilliant thought hopelessly befogged by unemphatic and disorderly statement. Still more difficult is it to make people of fine emotions and swift perceptions understand that such qualities are only the basis of authorship, and that the vital necessity for self-expression is to have a knowledge, acquired or instinctive, of the extremely symbolical and even traditional methods and processes of representation. Vivid life is not the same thing as vivid art; art is a sort of recondite and narrow symbolism, by which the word, the phrase, the salient touch, represents, suggests, hints the larger vision. It is in the reducing of broad effects to minute effects that the mastery of art lies.

Good work has often been done for the sake of money; I could name some effective living writers who never willingly put pen to paper, and would be quite content to express themselves in familiar talk, or even to live in vivid reflection, if they were not compelled to earn their living. Ambition will do something to mould an artist; the philanthropic motive may put some wind into his sails, but by itself it has little artistic value. Speaking for myself, in so far as it is possible to disentangle complex motives, the originating impulse has never been with me pecuniary, or ambitious, or philanthropic, or even communicative. It has been simply and solely the intense pleasure of putting as emphatically and beautifully and appropriately as possible into words, an idea of a definite kind. The creative impulse is not like any other that I know; some thought, scene, picture, darts spontaneously into the mind. The intelligence instantly sets to work arranging, subdividing, foreseeing, extending, amplifying. Much is done by some unconscious cerebration; for I have often planned the development of a thought in a few minutes, and then dropped it; yet an hour or two later the whole thing seems ready to be written.

Moreover, the actual start is a pleasure so keen and delightful as to have an almost physical and sensuous joy about it. The very act of writing has become so mechanical that there is nothing in the least fatiguing about it, though I have heard some writers say otherwise; while the process is actually going on, one loses all count of time and place; the clock on the mantelpiece seems to leap miraculously forward; while the mind knows exactly when to desist, so that the leaving off is like the turning of a tap, the stream being instantaneously cut off. I do not recollect having ever forced myself to write, except under the stress of illness, nor do I ever recollect its being anything but the purest pleasure from beginning to end.

In saying this I know that I am confessing myself to be a frank improvisatore, and where such art fails, as mine often fails, is in a lack of the power of concentration and revision, which is the last and greatest necessity of high art. But I owe to it the happiest and brightest experiences of life, to which no other pleasure is even dimly comparable. Easy writing, it is said, makes hard reading; but is it true that hard writing ever makes easy reading?

The end of the matter would seem to be that if the creative impulse is very strong in a man, it will probably find its way out. If ordinary routine-work destroys it, it is probably not very robust; yet authorship is not to be recommended as a profession, because the prizes are few, the way hard, the disappointments poignant and numerous; and though there are perhaps few greater benefactors to the human race than beautiful and noble writers, yet there are many natures both noble and beautiful who would like to approach life that way, but who, from lack of the complete artistic equipment, from technical deficiencies, from failure in craftsmanship, must find some other way of enriching the blood of the world.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Authorship