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“PASTELS IN PROSE.”*

    Notwithstanding the fact that, as Mr. W. D. Howells
has stated in the charming and too brief note which
stands as preface to this volume of prose poems, modern
invention has found a way of fixing the chalks so that
the graceful and beautiful crayon-drawings known as
pastels need no longer be perilollsly iragile possessions,
the” pastel” will no doubt always remain the type of
the most delicate form of art. It has a charm all its
own. The oil-painting may have a depth and solidity far
beyond it, the drawing in water-colours a lucid brilliancy
which it cannot match, the etching a subtlety of tone un-
surpassable; but the pastel can combine something of the
special qualities of the etching, the water-colour drawing,
and the painting, and has at the same time a wayward
fascination,a kind of virginal beauty, all its own. No better
name than “Pastels,” therefore, could be given to those
short studies of poetic impression expressed in prose, which
are already a new “form” in contemporary literature.
One must not examine a pastel too closely, nor must one
look to it for more than a swift and fortunate impression-
istic portrayal; for the artist who knows his medium
will not attempt to do with it what Lucas Cranach or
Van Eyck, for instance, did with their medium, what in
in our own day the “Preraphaelites” professed to do as
a matter of principle. Suggestion, not imitation, is the
aim of the pastel-artist, who must, in any hazard, be what
is somewhat too vaguely called an impressionist. He is
not to be a novelist or an essayist in paint, but to be
content to reproduce as truly as he can by suggestion a
poignant artistic emotion, leaving to others to educe
from it any story, lesson, or meaning they choose to find
in it. The thrush flinging his music joyously upon the
eddies of the spring-wind, without thought of who may
⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼⎼

* Pastels in Prose. From the French, by Stuart Merrill. (Harpers.)

PASTELS IN PROSE                             55

hear or how it may be judged, is a true artist-type. It
is when the painter or writer, like the needy street-
musician who increases or moderates the tone of his
barrel-organ according to the supposed taste of his
audience, produces for the sake of others, and in accord-
ance with their and not his own standards, that he
disproves himself an artist and becomes the mere manu-
facturer. The cant of altruism in art is at once ludicrous
and mischievous. The artist must produce for himself;
not for others. The others benefit—as those do who
listen to the thrush’s song, though the singer may be
unconscions of or indifferent to their presence, his song
being not the less sweet though there be none to applaud.
In France, the prose-poem, which, it is perhaps neces-
sary to say, is quite distinct from what is ordinarily
known as poetical prose, is now a literary species as
definable and recognisable as the sonnet, or the rondeau,
or the villanelle. It existed in a haphazard, vagrant
sort till Baudelaire, whose example inspired many of the
writers who came after him, though it is probable that
to the incomparable “Prose-Poems” of Turgenieff is due
the fulness and variety of the tide of this new poetry
which has advanced so rapidly of late. No doubt we may
find herein the fundamental reason of the present vogue
of Walt Whitman among the Parisian writers and cul-
tured public. He is translated in part only, and what
with wise selection and thoroughly artistic rendering,
much of his work takes on a refined and delicate beauty
which is apt to surprise even the most thorough admirers
of “the good grey poet.” No one has surpassed the
greatest of the Russian novelists in the production of
the prose-poem. The very essence of this species is, so
to say, its irresponsibility. Its significance may be pro-
found, but must not be obtruded. To “adorn” a poem-
in-prose with a “moral” would be as barbaric as the act
of the individual who painted gaudy hues and immense
spots on the superb flawless tail of a white peacock. It
must be brief: otherwise the impression is apt to be
confused. It must be complete in itself: for the quoted
specimen of poetic-prose is seldom a prose-poem, though
examples could be culled from Ruskin, De Quincey, and
other writers, of course. But the true prose-poem is not

56                          THE PAGAN REVIEW

merely a happy passage in an environment of unemo-
tional prose: it is a consciously-conceived and definitely-
executed poetic form. There may even be in it, there
are often, in fact, variations and repetitions of effect,
multiplications of identical lines, corresponding to the
repetitive effects in the villanelle and all poems of the
rondeau-kind: as, for instance, in the following “Noc-
turne”:—

    “I stood on a lonely promontory when the dusk had dreamed itself
into a starless gloom: and as gazed the moonshine stole across the sea.
From under a dark cloud it wavered, and then passed stealthily away
into the deeper darkness beyond the headland. The moonlight that
stole out of the dark into the dark was as a smile apon the face of a
beautiful daughter of Egypt asleep by the lotus-covered shallows of
Nilus. And as I watched the moonshine steal across the sea, I heard
the voice of the unseen tide crying faintly afar off, wave to wave, though
the crests lapsed into the moving hollows with as little sound as the
breathing of a dusky maid adream by the lotus-covered shallows of Nilus.

    “In my dreams I see oftentimes that beautiful daughter of Egypt
asleep by the lotus-covered shallows of Nilus; and the sound of her
breathing is faint as when the wave-crests lapse into the moving hollows
beneath them, far out on the solitary seas covered with the darkness.
Sometimes a faint cry passes like a wounded bird from the shadow of her
lips: is it a faint cry from her shadowy lips, or the voice of the unseen
tide, thin and shrill, afar off? And sometimes she smiles. Then once
more I stand on a lonely promontory when the dusk has dreamed itself
into a starless gloom, and the moonshine steals dimly athwart remote
gulfs of darkness. From under vast glooms it wavers slow, and then
passes stealthily away, as I—as she—shall pass: Whither?”

    To select a still shorter example, this time from
“Pastels in Prose;” one of Mlle. Judith Gauthier’s
Chinese renderings:—

                               THE SAGES’ DANCE
                                   (After Li-Tai.Pe.)

    “On my flute, tipped with jade, I sang a song to mortals; but the
mortals did not understand.

    “Then I lifted my flute to the heavens, and I sang my song to the
Sages. The Sages rejoiced together, they danced on the glistening
clouds. And now mortals understand me, when I sing to the accom-
paniment of my flute tipped with jade.”

    But, of course, as ill all poetry, the first essential is the
faculty of rarified expression. The motive may or may
not be romantic or picturesque ill itself: the expression
of it will be a poem if the author’s impression be keen
to poignancy, and if hiR faculty of utterauce correspond
to his sensitiveness. Thus, the life of the streets, of
crowds, the common-places of our ordinary existence,
afford motives as well as do Vales of Tempe or Ronces-

PASTELS IN PROSE                             57

valles. To the artist, it is not what he sees, but how he
sees, how he feels, how he expresses his sudden wayward
fancy or new thought borne upward on strange spiritual
or mental tides. There may even be no “picture” of
any kind: all may depend upon the charm of words,
surrounding, like the Doves of Venus, a beautiful thing
in their midst. I may give two instances of this rare
and most difficult prose-poem, though the space at my
command prevents either from being quoted in full.
Both are by the late Emile Hennequin:—

                                             WORDS.

    “In our crazed brains words are visions, ideals rather than images,
desires rather than reminiscences. How distant these ideals, how painful
these desires!

    “There is no woman who gives us the radiant dream that lurks behind
the word Woman; there is no wine that realises the intoxication imagined
in the word Wine; there is no gold, pale gold or dusky gold, that gives
out the tawny fulguration of the word Gold; there is no perfume that
our deceived nostrils find equal to the word Perfume; no blue, no red
that figures the tints with which our imaginations are coloured; all is
too little for the word All; and no nothingness is an empty enough
vacuity as to be that arch-terrorist word, Nothing.

    “What is to be done, O my mind, with these diminished realities,
reduced and dim images of our thonghts, sticks of which we have made
thyrses, banjos of which we have made citherns, aquarelles that we have
anilinized, dreams opiated by us?”

    From the strange and powerful poem, “The Earth,”
the first portion may be quoted, though the remainder
is in some respects even finer:—

                                         THE EARTH.

    “Eddying through the blue or black heavens of nights and of days, full
in her deep hollows of the tumultuous water of the seas, turgid and flat,
the earth curves, sinuates and rises, dry under the fresh air, firm and
mobile, jutting forth in mountains, falling away in plains, brown and
all woven with the silver woof of rivers and lakes, green and all bristling
with trees, with plants, with grass.”

    But, after all, perhaps these are the exceptions that
prove the rule: the rule that a complete vision, a com-
plete emotion, however momentary and even uncertain,
be definitely conveyed in suggestion. As Mr. Howells
says in the charming little preface already alluded to,
“the poet fashions his pretty fancy on his lonely inspira-
tion; sets it well on the ground, poises it, goes and
leaves it. The thing cannot have been easy to learn,
and it must always be most difficult to do; for it implies
the most courageous faith in art, the finest respect for
others, the wisest self-denial.”

58                          THE PAGAN REVIEW

    The selection in this volume is made from the writings
of Louis Bertrand, Paul Leclercq, Theodore de Banville,
Alphonse Daudet, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, George Auriol,
Judith Gauthier, J. K. Huysmans, Ephraim Mikhael,
Pierre Quillard, Rodolphe Darzens, Beaudelaire, Achille
Delaroche, Stephane Mallarmé, Emile Hennequin, Adrien
Rémacle, Maurice de Guérin, Paul Masy, Catulle Mendès,
Henri de Regnner, and one or two others. Several of
the poems were written specially for this book: those
of MM. Catulle Mendès and Stephane Malarmé are
versions from the final proof sheets of new volumes by
the two poets: and the six by Emile Hennequin were
specially selected for the translators by Madame Henne-
quin from among hitherto unpublished MSS. by that
most brilliant and remarkable poet and critic. A word
of emphatic praise must be given to the translator, Mr.
Stuart Merrill—himself (he is a Franco-American) a
French poet of standing, having won high regard by his
first volume of poetry, “Les Gammes.” Needless to say,
none but a thorough artist could have rendered these
prose-poems adequately. His translations are works of
rare and delicate art; the work of a poet inspired by
poets.

    One word more from Mr. Howells. The prose-poem,
as written in France. has, he says, come to stay. “It is
a form which other languages must naturalise: and we
can only hope that criticisms will carefully guard the
process, and see that it is not vulgarised or coarsened
in it. The very life of the form is its aerial delicacy: its
soul is that perfume of thought, of emotion, which these
masters here have never suffered to become an argu-
ment. They must be approached with sympathy by
whoever would get all their lovely grace, their charm
that comes and goes like the light in beautiful eyes.”

                                                                        S.

MLA citation:

S. [William Sharp]. “Pastels in Prose.” The Pagan Review, vol. 1, August 1892, pp. 54-58. The Pagan Review Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010. Yellow Nineties 2.0,Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021. https://1890s.ca/tpr-s-pastels/