The Modern Mind
July 6, 1918. A Symphony in Verse has just come to me from America, The picture on its wrapper shows a man in green tights, and whose hair is blue, veiling his eyes before a lady in a flame-coloured robe who stares from a distance in a tessellated solitude. As London two days ago celebrated Independence Day like an American city, and displayed the Stars and Stripes so deliriously that the fact that George III was ever a British king was lost in a common acknowledgment that he was only another violent fool, this Boston book invited attention. For ladies in gowns of flame, with arms raised in appeal, may be supposed to want more than the vote; and American poets wearing emerald tights who find themselves in abandoned temples alone with such ladies, must clearly have left Whittier with the nursery biscuits. Longfellow could never grow blue locks. Even Whitman dressed in flannel and ate oranges in public. Nor did Poe at his best rise to assure us:This is the night for murder: give us knives:
We have long sought for this.
Well, not all of us. The truth is some of us have not sought for knives with any zest, being paltry and early Victorian in our murders. Yet in this symphony in verse, The Jig of Forslin, by Mr. Conrad Aiken, there are such lines as these:When the skies are pale and stars are cold,
Dew should rise from the grass in little bubbles,
And tinkle in music amid green leaves.
Something immortal lives in such air--
We breathe, we change.
Our bodies become as cold and bright as starlight.
Our hearts grow young and strange.
Let us extend ourselves as evening shadows,
And learn the nocturnal secrets of these meadows.
It is not all knives and murder. The Jig, in fact, dances us through a world of ice lighted by star gleams and Arctic streamers, where sometimes our chill loneliness is interrupted by a woman whose "mouth is a sly carnivorous flower"; where we escape the greenish light of a vampire's eyes to enter a tavern where men strike each other with bottles. Mermaids are there, and Peter and Paul, and when at last Mr. Aiken feels the reader may be released, it is as though we groped in the dark, bewildered and alarmed, for assurance that this was nothing but art.
One cannot help feeling while reading this product of the modern mind that we are all a little mad, and that the cleverest of us know it, and indulge the vagaries and instability of insanity. In an advertisement to Mr. Aiken's poetry we are told that it is based on the Freudian psychology. We are not seldom reminded to-day of that base to the New Art. We are even beginning to look on each other's simplest acts with a new and grave suspicion. It causes a man to wonder what obscure motive, probably hellish, prompted his wife to brush his clothes, though when he caught her at it she was doing it in apparent kindness. Instead of the truth making us free, its dread countenance, when we glimpse it, only startles us into a pallid mimicry of its sinister aspect. It is like the sardonic grin I have seen on the face of an intelligent soldier as he strode over filth and corpses towards shell-fire. Soldiers, when they are home again, delight in watching the faces and the ways of children. They want to play with the youngsters, eat buns in the street, and join the haymakers. They do not want the truth. Without knowing anything of Freud, they can add to their new and dreadful knowledge of this world all they want of the subconscious by reading the warlike speeches of the aged, one of the most obscene and shocking features of the War. The soldiers who are home on leave turn in revolt from that to hop-scotch. Yes, the truth about our own day will hardly bear looking at, whether it is reflected from common speech, or from the minds of artists like Mr. Conrad Aiken.