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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Eye Of The Beholder

Title:     The Eye Of The Beholder
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Other people's poetry--I don't mean their published verse, but their absurdly romantic view of unromantic objects--is terribly hard to translate. It seldom escapes being turned into prose. It must have happened to you now and again to have had the photograph of your friend's beloved produced for your inspection and opinion. It is a terrible moment. If she does happen to be a really pretty girl--heavens! what a relief. You praise her with almost hysterical gratitude. But if, as is far more likely, her beauty proves to be of that kind which exists only in the eyes of a single beholder, what a plight is yours! How you strive to look as if she were a new Helen, and how hopelessly unconvincing is your weary expression--as unconvincing as one's expression when, having weakly pretended acquaintance with a strange author, we feign ecstatic recognition of some passage or episode quoted by his ruthless admirer. There is this hope in the case of the photograph: that its amorous possessor will probably be incapable of imagining any one insensitive to such a Golconda of charms, and you have always in your power the revenge of showing him your own sacred graven image.

Is it not curious that the very follies we delight in for ourselves should seem so stupid, so absolutely vulgar, when practised by others? The last illusion to forsake a man is the absolute belief in his own refinement.

A test experience in other people's poetry is to sit in the pit of a theatre and watch 'Arry and 'Arriet making love and eating oranges simultaneously. 'Arry has a low forehead, close, black, oily hair, his eyes and nose are small, and his face is freckled. His clothes are painfully his best, he wears an irrelevant flower, and his tie has escaped from the stud and got high into his neck, eclipsing his collar. 'Arriet has thick unexpressive features, relying rather on the expressiveness of her flaunting hat, she wears a straight fringe low down on her forehead, and endeavours to disguise her heavy _ennui_ by an immovable simper. This pair loll one upon each other. Whether lights be high or low they hold each other's hands, hands hard and coarse with labour, with nails bitten down close to the quick. But, for all that, they, in their strange uncouth fashion, would seem to be loving each other. 'Not we alone have passions hymeneal,' sings an aristocratic poet. They smile at each other, an obvious animal smile, and you perhaps shudder. Or you study them for a realistic novel, or you call up that touch of nature our great poet talks of. But somehow you cannot forget how their lips will stick and smell of oranges when they kiss each other on the way home. What is the truth about this pair? Is it in the unlovely details on which, maybe, we have too much insisted--or behind these are we to imagine their souls radiant in celestial nuptials?

Mr. Chevalier may be said to answer the question in his pictures of coster love-making. But are those pictures to be taken as documents, or are they not the product of Mr. Chevalier's idealistic temperament? Does the coster actually worship his 'dona' with so fine a chivalry? Is he so sentimentally devoted to his 'old Dutch'? If you answer the question in the negative, you are in this predicament: all the love and 'the fine feelings' remain with the infinitesimal residuum of the cultured and professionally 'refined.' Does that residuum actually incarnate all the love, devotion, honour, and other noble qualities in man? One need hardly trouble to answer the absurd question. Evidently behind the oranges, and the uncouth animal manners, we should find souls much like our own refined essences, had we the seeing sympathetic eye. All depends on the eye of the beholder.

Among the majority of literary and artistic people of late that eye of the beholder has been a very cynical supercilious eye. Never was such a bitter cruel war waged against the poor _bourgeois_. The lack of humanity in recent art and literature is infinitely depressing. Doubtless, it is the outcome of a so-called 'realism,' which dares to pretend that the truth about life is to be found on its grimy pock-marked surface. Over against the many robust developments of democracy, and doubtless inspired by them, is a marked spread of the aristocratic spirit--selfish, heartless, subtle, of mere physical 'refinement'; a spirit, too, all the more inhuman because it is for the most part not tempered by any intercourse with homely dependants, as in the feudal aristocracy. It would seem to be the product of 'the higher education,' a university priggishness, poor as proud. It is the deadliest spirit abroad; but, of course, though it may poison life and especially art for a while, the great laughing democracy will in good time dispose of it as Hercules might crush a wasp.

This is the spirit that draws up its skirts and sneers to itself at poor 'old bodies' in omnibuses, because, forsooth, they are stout, and out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh. One thinks of Falstaff's plaintive 'If to be fat is to be hated!' At displays of natural feelings of any sort this comfortless evil spirit ever curls the lip. Inhabiting modern young ladies, it is especially superior to the maternal instinct, and cringes from a baby in a railway carriage as from an adder. At the dropping of an 'h' it shrinks as though the weighty letter had fallen upon its great toe, and it will forgive anything rather than a provincial accent. It lives entirely in the surfaces of things, and, as the surface of life is frequently rough and prickly, it is frequently uncomfortable. At such times it peevishly darts out its little sting, like a young snake angry with a farmer's boot. It is amusing to watch it venting its spleen in papers the _bourgeois_ never read, in pictures they don't trouble to understand. John Bull's indifference to the 'new' criticism is one of the most pleasing features of the time. Probably he has not yet heard a syllable of it, and, if he should hear, he would probably waive it aside with, 'I have something more to think of than these megrims.' And so he has. While these superior folk are wrangling about Degas and Mallarme, about 'style' and 'distinction,' he is doing the work of the world. There is nothing in life so much exaggerated as the importance of art. If it were all wiped off the surface of the earth to-morrow, the world would scarcely miss it. For what is art but a faint reflection of the beauty already sown broadcast over the face of the world? And that would remain. We should lose Leonardo and Titian, Velasquez and Rembrandt, and a great host of modern precious persons, but the stars and the great trees, the noble sculptured hills, the golden-dotted meadows, the airy sailing clouds, and all the regal pageantry of the seasons, would still be ours; and an almond-tree in flower would replace the National Gallery.

Yes, surely the true way of contemplating these undistinguished masses of humanity, this 'h'-dropping, garlic-eating, child-begetting _bourgeois_, is Shakespeare's, Dickens', Whitman's way--through the eye of a gentle sympathetic beholder--one who understands Nature's trick of hiding her most precious things beneath rough husks and in rank and bearded envelopes--and not through the eye-glass of the new critic.

For these undistinguished people are, after all, alive as their critics are not. They are, indeed, the only people who may properly be said to be alive, dreaming and building while the superior person stands by cogitating sarcasms on their swink'd and dusty appearances. More of the true spirit of romantic existence goes to the opening of a little grocer's shop in a back street in Whitechapel than to all the fine marriages at St. George's, Hanover Square, in a year. But, of course, all depends on the eye of the beholder.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Eye Of The Beholder