A Neglected Principle

IN writing a friendly puff for Vere Hutchinson’s recently published volume of short stories, entitled “The Other Gate” (Knopf), Shelia Kaye-Smith raises the question as to the relative literary power of the sexes. Very sensibly, she concludes that men and women are different and that to compare them is as foolish as to compare “a soprano and a baritone.” It might be reasonable to object that the difference is far more profound than the chosen analogy indicates, but the point need not be labored.

“It is true,” continues the laudatory preface, “that men and women do not respond to inspiration in quite the same way. A woman is by nature both spiritual and more concrete than a man. Hence we find that poetry, which is almost entirely an emotional self-expression, has throughout the ages been chiefly in the hands of men, and that men have given it the most illustrious names.”

It seems that there may be something wrong about this statement. The very inadequate conception of poetry here betrayed is held almost universally in these days, when the feminine influence is overwhelmingly evident in literature. “Poetry, which is almost entirely an emotional self-expression!” Surely this is a distinctly feminine conception of poetry applying in no way to the great poetry that “has throughout the ages been chiefly in the hands of men.” Is it possible to regard any of the greatest masterpieces of poetry as “almost entirely emotional self-expression?” What of the Iliad and Odyssey, the Agamemnon and Prometheus of Aeschylus, the Oedipus of Sophocles, the Trojan Women of Euripides, the Aeneid of Vergil, Goethe’s Faust, Shakespeare’s plays? The list may be extended, to the same effect, by anyone who has any acquaintance whatever with world literature.

“But when we come to the novel,” the argument continues, “—a comparatively recent form of literature, occupying itself chiefly with the facts of life and theories concerning them — we find women playing as big a part in its development as men, and giving to its roll of honor, from the first names which, if not more illustrious, are at least equal in glory.”

That is, no doubt, a true statement, as far as it goes; but might not something very pertinent be said about the type of novel that has become most fashionable in an age of feminized literature — an age in which such a concepttion of poetry may be held as that which Sheila Kaye-Smith betrays? Can it be said that this type is notable for its architectural quality? Is it conspicuously concerned with the creation of self-completing wholes? Does it reveal demiurgic power, or is it characterized rather by a painstaking accumulation of details — a sort of emotionally heightened gossip on a large scale? And if there be any meaning in these questions, does it not apply to as many fashionable men writers of the day as women writers? And, if this also be true, may it not be explained by the fact that the book-reading public today is largely feminine? And if the great poetry of the world has been distinctly a masculine product, was it not so because it was characterized by that creative, integrating vision that is generally lacking in the typical modern novel — and in typical modern poetry?

As an example of the demiurgic type of novel, “The Tree of the Folkungs” by Verner von Heidenstam may be named. This writer is aware that there are notable exceptions to the general idea suggested in the foregoing, but the point raised by Sheila Kaye-Smith is concerned, not with exceptions, but with a generality. In dealing with that generality she has overlooked a fundamental principle in the criticism of any art. This is not strange, for that principle is now very commonly overlooked by critics. It is the principle involved in the theory of emergent evolution, and may be stated thus: As a result of the creative combination of fragments into a self-completing organism, whether in the physical or mental realm, new values of a higher sort emerge — values that were not to be found in the previously unrelated fragments.

Art of any sort is concerned with the creation of such organisms with newly emergent values. All art is poetic in the original Greek sense of the word, the only sense that justifies poetry at all. Collection is not creation, nor is the greatest art of a personal nature.