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The Vision of Sir Launfal

Brownson's Quarterly Review, April, 1849
Art. VIII.- The Vision of Sir Launfal. By J. R. Low­ell,. Cambridge: George Nichols. 1848. l6mo. pp. 27.
Those of our readers who have not read this beautiful little volume from the University Press, Cambridge, will be able to form some idea of its general purpose and character from the author's "Note," which we copy, as its most appropriate in­troduction.
" Note. - According to the mythology of the Romancers, the San Greal, or Holy Grail, was the cup out of which Jesus partook of the last supper with his disciples. It was brought into England by Joseph of Arimathca, and remained there, an object of pilgrim­age and adoration, for many years, in the keeping of his lineal de­scendants. It was incumbent upon those who had charge of it to be chaste in thought, word, and deed ; but one of the keepers having broken this condition, the Holy Grail disappeared. From that time it was a favorite enterprise of the knights of Arthur's court to go in search of it. Sir Galahad was at last successful in finding it, as may be read in the seventeenth book of the Romance of King Ar­thur. Tennyson has made Sir Galahad the subject of one of the most exquisite of his poems.
" The plot (if I may give that name to any thing so slight) of the following poem is my own, and, to serve its purposes, I have en­larged the circle of competition in search of the miraculous cup in such a manner as to include, not only other persons than the heroes of the Round Table, but also a period of time subsequent to the date of King Arthur's reign."
Mr. Lowell may be right in calling the Holy Grail the cup from which our Lord communicated his disciples at the last supper, but, properly speaking, the Holy Grail, or San Greal, was not the cup, but the blood, Sanguis realis> from the side of our Lord, when on the cross, which the legend asserts was received into the cup, and preserved in it. The name is a corruption of the Latin Sanguis realis, or of the French Sang reel. Mr. Lowell has materially changed the character of the old legend. In the original legend, the knight, after perform­ing his devotions and preparing himself for the search, went forth in pursuit of the Holy Grail, and the poet simply narrated his adventures, and his success or his failure. Mr. Lowell dispenses with the devotions, with the actual pursuit and ad-i ventures, and contents himself with making his knight see a vision. This alteration is characteristic of the difference be-(tween the early Romantic Age and our own. The old knights 1 of romance, whatever the defects of their lives, - and they were rarely perfect models, - were always devout, always retained and loved the faith, and, if they sinned, were ready to do penance, - the next best thing to not sinning; and they really did go abroad, were active, ready, and able to encounter danger and to endure fatigue. They lived and acted in the open world, out of doors, among real objects. But the moderns stay for the most part in-doors, repose on soft couches, and dream. Their adventures all pass in their sentimental reveries ; their heroic deeds, and knightly conduct, are visions.
Mr. Lowell has not only modernized the external character of the old legend, but he has entirely changed its internal char­acter. The moral of the old legend was the merit of chastity, in thought, word, and deed ; and chastity, not merely in rela­tion to one passion, but in relation to all the passions, - chasti­ty of the entire body and soul. Mr. Lowell dispenses with this as with the devotion, as foreign to the ideas and habits of the moderns, and more likely to offend than to interest. He makes the moral turn, not on the motives from which, but on the feelings with which, one acts.    Thus he sings,-
" As Sir Launfal made morn through the davlcsome gate,
He was ware of a leper, crouched by the same, Who begged with his hand and moaned as he sate ; And a loathing over Sir Launfal came,
The sunshine went out of his soul with a thrill, The flesh 'neath his armour did shrink and crawl,
And midway its leap his heart stood still Like a frozen waterfall;
For this man, so foul and hent of stature,
Rasped harshly against his dainty nature,
And seemed the one blot on the summer morn,-
So he tossed him a piece of gold in scorn.
" The leper raised not the gold from the dust: ' Better to me the poor man's crust, Better the blessing of the poor, Though I turn me empty from his door ; That is no true alms which the hand can hold ; He gives nothing but worthless gold Who gives from a sense of duty ; But he who gives a slender mite, And gives to that which is out of sight,
That thread of the all-sustaining Beauty Which runs through all and doth all unite,- The hand cannot clasp the whole of his alms, The heart outstretches its eager palms, For a god goes with it and makes it store To the soul that was starving in darkness before.11"
- pp. 12, 13.
This giving of alms from a sense of duty will not do.    The vision continues.
" ' For Christ's sweet sake, I beg an alms'; - The happy camels may reach the spring, But Sir Launfal sees nought save the grewsome thing, The leper, lank as the vain-blanched bone, That cowered beside him, a thing as lone And white as the ice-isles of Northern seas In the desolate horror of his disease.
" And Sir Launfal said, -' I behold in thee An image of Him who died on the tree ; Thou also bast had thy crown of thorns, - Thou also hast had the world's buffets and scorns, - And to thy life were not denied The wounds in the hands and feet and side : Mild Mary's Son, acknowledge me •, Behold, through him, I give to thee !'
" Then the soul of the leper stood up in his eyes And looked at Sir Launfal, and straightway he licinembered in what a haughtier guise
He had flung an alms to leprosie, When he caged his young life up in gilded mail And set forth in search of the Holy Grail. The heart within him was ashes and dust; He parted in twain his single crust, He broke the ice on the streamlet's brink, And gave the leper to eat and drink ; 'T was a mouldy crust of coarse brown bread,
'T was water out of a wooden bowl,- Yet with fine wheaten bread was the leper fed,
And 'twas red wine he drank with his thirsty soul.
" As Sir Launfal mused with a downcast face, A light shone round about the place ; The leper no longer crouched at his side, But stood before him glorified, Shining and tall and fair and straight As the pillar that stood by the Beautiful Gate,-• Himself the Gate whereby men can Enter the temple of God in Man.
" His words were shed softer than leaves from the pine, And they fell on Sir Launfal as snows on the brine, Which mingle their softness and quiet in one With the shaggy unrest they float down upon ; And the voice that was calmer than silence said, 4 Lo, it is I, be not afraid ! In many climes, without avail, Thou has spent thy life for the Holy Grail; Behold, it is here, - this cup which thou Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now ; This crust is my body broken for thee, This water His blood that died on the tree ; The Holy Supper is kept, indeed, In whatso we share with another's need,- Not that which we give, but what we share, - For the gift without the giver is bare ; Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three,- Himself, his hungering neighbour, and me.'
" Sir Launfal awoke, as from a swound : - 4 The Grail in my castle here is found ! Hang my idle armour up on the wall, Let it be the spider's banquet-hall ; He must be fenced with stronger mail Who would seek and find the Holy Grail.' "
- pp. 23 - 26.
Here is the moral: no matter what we give, if we give from a sense of duty, we merit nothing ; we are truly charitable and meritorious in our alms only when we give with them our feel­ings, or rather when we give them without motive, from the sim­ple impulse of love. Mr. Lowell is either a bad psychologist or a bad moralist. Love, as distinguished from the sense of duty, is an affection of the sensible instead of the rational nature. He who acts from a sense of duty acts from the highest and no­blest love of which man is capable ; he who acts only from what we may term sensible love acts from his lower nature, - that which he possesses in common with many animal tribes. For our own convenience and pleasure in acting, it is always desirable that our emotions should harmonize with our sense of duty ; but for the meritoriousness of our actions, it is not at all necessary. He who performs a duty which is repugnant to his nature, and which demands great self-denial and self-command, is far more meritorious than he who performs an act, in itself considered, of equal worth, to which he feels no repugnance. To throw an alms in scorn to a beggar is, indeed, not meritorious, because there is no virtuous intention, and because scorn of a brother man, however low, or however loathsome his appearance, is al­ways wrong. But it is clear, from the author's comment, that the "scorn" he charges upon Sir Launfal, was simply giving from a sense of duty, and therefore no scorn at all.
" He gives nothing but worthless gold Who gives from a sense of duty."
In fact, the author shows through his whole poem, that he has never made his philosophy, and is ignorant of the first principles of ethical science. This detracts from his merit as a poet no less than from his merit as a moralist. The poet aims, and should aim, at the expression of the beautiful ; but the beautiful is the form of the true, and cannot be found where the true is want­ing. We are not so unreasonable as to ask of the poet a sys­tem of metaphysics or a code of ethics ; we do not ask the art­ist to leavenis ciwn proper department, and to enter that of sci­ence ; we understand the distinct sphere of art, and highly ap­preciate it, - more highly, perhaps, than we get credit for ; but we do contend that no man can be a true poet, or artist, who has in his mind a false speculative system. His mind must be in­formed with ideal truth, or he can never apprehend or express true beauty of form ; and all ideal truth pertains to the depart­ment of speculative science. The poet must know as well as feel, and know principles, the eternal verities of things, in their normal order and relations, or his expression will be broken, confused, the ebullition of lawless passion, the extravagances of a wild and inconstant fancy, or the incoherent ravings of folly and madness.
Here is a point on which, in these times, there are many erroneous and mischievous opinions afloat. Every body knows that the great poets, the great artists, have never flourished, save in epochs and countries marked by severe discipline, and enno­bled by serious and solid studies. The flourishing period of true art is always immediately preceded or accompanied by a flourishing period of philosophy, of moral science, and of relig­ious truth ; and just in proportion as men lose sight of the great and eternal truths of religion, of the discoveries and teachings of a sound philosophy, -that is, of the ideal truth in the super­natural order and in the natural, - their artistic productions be­come mean and contemptible. It is not that art must dogmatize, speculate, or indulge in didactic teaching, but that the truths of religion and philosophy must be received into and form the mind of the artist. In ages that are serious, earnest, enlightened, when men do not scorn the ideal truth and fritter away their powers on merely external and sensible objects, these truths are generally recognized, form the basis of all moral and intellec­tual culture, and are taken in with ordinary speech or language, in which they are embodied, - so to speak, incarnated. The man endowed with artistic genius - that is, one who has received from nature the gift, when they are presented to his mind, of apprehending and distinguishing these truths under the form of the beautiful - is furnished with the requisite conditions of art, and can give birth to expressions which all men shall admire ; for then he has present to his mind and soul ideal truth, which is always universal and eternal.
But in other epochs, when religion and philosophy, which supply the artist with his materials, are lost sight of or obscured,- when the truths of revelation and speculative science no longer preside over education, and form the basis of moral and intel­lectual culture, - when the mind and the heart are1 turned to the external, and become intent only on sensible and material ob­jects, - there can be no genuine art ; for the ideal truth is no longer distinctly apprehended, and, when no longer so appre­hended, it can no more be expressed under the form of the beau­tiful than under the form of science itself. Hence it is, -though, for the last two hundred years, there has been no lack of aspi­rants to artistic creation, - there has been no art.    The Divine idea, supernatural truth, was obscured by the Reformers, and has been pretty much lost sight of by their descendants ; and there has appeared no philosopher, and there has been no phi­losophy, since the middle of the seventeenth century.    The ideal truth, which was embodied by our Creator in language, has remained undistinguished ; serious studies, unless in some of the physical sciences, have been despised ; the mind has been turn­ed outward to sensible objects, and the heart and soul have been wasted on the material, the ephemeral, and the frivolous!    Art has therefore languished, and its cultivators have been able to copy only imperfectly the old masters.    If we except, and we are hardly willing to except, Alfieri, there has been no poet since Milton.    Goethe and Schiller had poetical genius of a high or­der, but the former was ruined by sensualism and pantheism,- both equally opposed to ideal truth, -and the latter by his lack of religious faith, and his Kantian philosophy, which even in the practical reason obscures and enfeebles the truth which the poet must seize and express.    Byron had the subjective power of a great poet, but had present to his mind, as the material of art, far less of ideal truth than either Goethe or Schiller.    France has never excelled in art, for her genius is not philosophical, does not aspire to the higher order of truth, is turned to objects of sense, to the outward world, and seldom rises above second­ary ideas.    The first American poet is probably not yet born. -
Mr. Lowell has a lively fancy, a quick eye for material beau­ty, or, as we say, the beauties of nature, and considerable facility of expression.    He can see and express the beauty of a daisy, of the bee collecting honey, of cows feeding in the pasture, of the cock clapping his wings and crowing, and even something of the life of a spring morning, the sultriness of a summer noon, and of the golden hues of an autumnal sunset; but beyond or above he does not appear able to go. When he aspires, he falls ; and when he seeks to express the beauty of moral truth, he only proves that he has never clearly and distinctly beheld it.    Bis glory is, that he believes in moral truth, - that he believes that there is the Divine and eternal idea back of the ever-changing appearances which flit past his vision ; but his misfortune is, that he has never beheld it,-that he has, at best, caught only a partial and transient glimpse of it, as one catches a partial glimpse of the objects around him, in the night, when a sudden flash of lightning for an instant furrows the darkness which envelops them.    With solid training under the direction of religion and sound philosophy, which should have given elevation to his soul, clearness to his view, firmness to his will, and sanctity to his aims, he would have been a poet. He has no complaint to bring against nature. He has, if we may so speak, genius enough potentially, and artistic genius ; but he has neither been subjected to the discipline, nor has he submitted himself to the serious and patient labor of thought, necessary to reduce the po­tentiality of his nature to act. Alas ! we must say this, not alone of Mr. Lowell, but of nearly all our contemporaries, in this superficial and frivolous age.
We have touched cursorily on several points in these brief remarks, which we regret that we have neither the time nor the space at present to develop. We love art, and, of the various species of art, we love poetry the best. But we have too high an appreciation of its character and office, to receive with favor the light and frivolous productions of our modern race of poetasters and versifiers, however beautiful their print and paper, or rich and tasteful their binding. Puerile conceits, flimsy sen­timents, false philosophy, bad morality, even delicate and truth­ful descriptions of merely material objects, though expressed in flowing numbers and harmonious verse, we cannot honor with the name of poetry. We have no wish to treat harshly our young aspirants to poetic fame, to wound their feelings, or to damp their courage ; but, for the honor of our age, and the inter­ests of modern civilization, we feel that it is necessary to raise our voice, feeble though it is, against the miserable trash which, under the name of literature, is inundating Europe and America, and threatening the extinction of what little virtue and manliness may yet remain. Would that there were amongst us a strong masculine voice, that could make itself heard amid the din and chatter of the age, and, with mingled kindness and severity, recall our youth to the antique depth of thought, greatness of soul, and energy of will, and impress upon their yet ductile minds the solemn truth that they must aim higher, submit to longer and more rigid discipline, and devote themselves for years to those solid studies which task all their faculties, and call forth all the potentialities of their souls, before venturing to appear before the public, either to instruct or to delight it. No one who would deserve well of his countrymen, leave his mark on his age, or live in the memory of his race, should entertain for a moment that silly doctrine now prevalent, that the great and enduring in art must be a spontaneous production, and that a work is worth­less in proportion to the labor of intellect and will that its crea­tion has cost.    Poetry is not the instinctive and unpremeditated utterance of the spontaneous emotions and conceits of the poet. It might do to say,
Ich singe wie der Vogel singt Der in dem Zwcigon wohnet,
if man were a blackbird ; but it will not do, unless we are care­ful to understand it in Goethe's sense, now since man is man, and must find his glory in the cultivation and exercise, under the will and by the aid of his Maker, of his proper humanity.
We do not ask the poet to encroach upon the province of the theologian, or of the philosopher. We do not ask him to make his poem a sermon, a didactic lecture, nor do we wish him to be careful to tack a formal moral on to its end, as is done in iKsop's fables ; but we do ask that he feed his mind and his soul with the highest order of religious and speculative truth, and that he discipline himself to express this truth under the form of the beautiful. We would have him eminently religious, because eminently true, and eminently moral, because eminently religious ; we would have him serious, earnest, great, sublime, by virtue of the universal and eternal verities of things with which he holds intercourse ; but we have no disposition to re­strict his sphere, to trammel the freedom of his mind, or to forge shackles for his genius. Nay, what we desire for him is free­dom, elevation, greatness, manliness, a clear and lofty intelli­gence, and a robust virtue, which are absolutely impossible in the nature of things without a severe and thorough discipline, and the possession of the highest order of truth, both natural and supernatural.
Our readers will understand from these remarks why it is we have been so severe on the light literature of the day, and why we have treated with so much harshness the young brood of re­ligious novels with which we were threatened. We condemn not art in any of its forms ; we condemn not poetry ; we oppose not even works of fiction ; we object not to the cultivation of man's whole nature, to the employment of any of his faculties, or to pressing into the service of religion even sentiment and imagination : on the contrary, we approve and call for them all; only let the mind that writes be fed, and the heart that admires be filled, with the truths of religion and philosophy. The man who has been rightly nurtured, whose faculties have been right­ly disciplined, and whose mind has been enlightened, will strengthened, and soul elevated by profound study of ideal truth, and possession of the eternal verities of things, may appeal to all nature and express himself in what forms he pleases. His expressions will be true and beautiful, his influence will be moral, will favor a robust civilization, and manly virtue, which in the saint will rise to heroic sanctity and command the vene­ration of all good men.