Thursday, July 16, 2009

Drolls From Shadowland

From The Bookman, April, 1896, pp. 13-14




MR. J. H PEARCE is, I believe, a novelist. He has published two or three Cornish novels, one of which has received Mr. Gladstone's imprimatur. I do not know his work as a novelist, though I can well believe that something of the vague, shadowy, elusive poetry which is the very breath of his short stories might escape from a long book. I ought perhaps to apologise to Mr. Pearce for calling the two books named above neglected. They must have reached the ears of the small audience which is ever alert for new voices in literature. A good many of his critics at the time of their publication were enthusiastic. But the outer public the books scarcely reached at all; and my complaint is that, instead of taking their place in the body of literature which is always in demand, they have seemed to disappear with their season, as a drop of rain in the sea, so quickly and silently. It might be easy to explain this by saying that the public adores, with a comprehensive passion, the trite and the commonplace; but it would not be an explanation. The great body of circulating-library readers who make a worthless book go for a season or two, have no power to grant fixity of tenure. There is a stronger public opinion on literature which in the end, after blunders and injustices, is always right. Nothing that is really of literature is lost and forgotten; it is acknowledged and honoured at last; and this is the thought which comforts one when one is wroth at seeing fine work pushed down and trampled out of sight by the vulgar and the obvious.

“Drolls from Shadowland” appeared in 1893, “Tales of the Masque” the following year. Their effect on my own mind was so deep and abiding that at any time since, without consulting the books, I could tell the story of “The Little Crow of Paradise, or Joanna,” or “the Calling of the Sea,” or the yet earlier “Man Who Talked With the Birds,” or “The Man Who Met Hate,” or “The Unchristened Child,” or “A Pleasant Entertainment,” or “The Man Who Wished to be a Tree.” The quality of imagination in Mr. Pearce's work is extraordinarily fine and subtle. There is no imagination in young poetry at present which can stand beside his in prose excepting that of his brother Celt, Mr. W. B. Yeats. Between the genius of these two there is a certain kinship, but Mr. Pearce sees life whole as Mr. Yeats does not. To make his glamour, Mr. Yeats uses gold, and grey, and purple, mists of fairyland and splendour of legend; to make his, Mr. Pearce takes more homely material. He is something of the sage and philosopher, and, elusive as he is, he is a student of life and his fellow-men. His is a genius at once aerial and intimate.

There is a depth of human feeling in "The Unchristened Child." The Cornish fisherman had refused baptism to his child, and it is the superstition that an unchristened child, whether he die on the land or the water, becomes a creature of that element. The little lad, when out fishing in a punt with a playfellow, falls overboard and is drowned. "His companion, leaning over, could see him sinking down slowly into the crystalline depths, with his hands stretched up and the hair on his head tapering to a point like the flame of a candle.” A few days afterwards the father is out fishing when he sees a little seal emerge from a cave and come swimming towards him.

“’Why dedn'ee ha' me christened, faather?’ asked the little seal piteously.

“’My God, are'ee Silas?’ said John, trembling violently.

“’Iss, I'm Silas,’ said the little seal.

“John stared aghast at the smooth brown head and the innocent eyes that watched him so pathetically.

“’Why, I thought thee wert drownded, Silas!’ he ejaculated.

“’I caant go to rest 'tell I'm christened,’ said the seal.

“’How can us do it, now?’ asked the father anxiously.

“’Ef anywan who's christened wed change sauls weth me,’ said the seal, ‘then I wed go to rest right away.’

“’Thee shall ha' my saul, Silas,’ said the father tenderly.

“’Will'ee put thy mouth to mine an' braythe it into me, faather?’

“’Iss, my dear, that I will,’ said the father. ‘Rest thee shust have ef I can give it to’ee, Silas. Put thy hands or paws around me neck, will'ee, soas?’

“And John leaned over the side of the boat till his face touched that of the piteous little seal.”

It has the profound simplicity and tenderness of genuine folklore. Indeed, of all the Cornishmen in love with Cornwall, Mr. Pearce seems to have come nearest to the secret of the Celtic magic which is in the haunted moorlands, and on the wild cliffs over the sea, and in the hearts of the primitive people. "The Little Crow of Paradise" might have come from the times when faith was so ardent that imagination centred about the things of faith, embroidering them with lovely accessories. The Robin, says Mr. Pearce, because of its kindness when Christ hung on the Cross, is permitted once a year to visit Hell, bearing a drop of water in its beak for some poor sinner it had loved while on earth. But the crow is the bird of the devil, because he mocked Christ on the Cross, and he has a cinder for a heart; yet one little crow for ever sits on the wall of Paradise. His friend was dead and in hell, "in the awful Pit of the Great Thirst, with the lidless eyes of Satan fixed unsleepingly upon him," and the crow had in vain implored the robin to bear him a drop of water. The robin is the only bird that can go scatheless near the fires, but the crow, moved by pity and love, took the drop of water in his beak and flew down to Hell.

"In the Black Pit of Thirst his friend moaned helplessly his throat and lips parched into horrible blackness, and the sharp brine running through his veins instead of blood. ‘Water! give me water!’ he gasped to the crow. The crow sank down, and alighting on his shoulder, poured the cherished drop of water between the black, parched lips. ‘A hundred years of agony have rolled away from me!’ gasped the man. ‘Now, caw once, that I may remember the woodlands. . . .' ‘Caw,’ cried the little black crow, ‘Caw! Caw!’ But at that moment the Ancient One, who is of stone and without a heart, thrust his huge claws forward and the crow was in his palm. Then God who seeth all things was moved to compassion, and as His thought became a deed, Satan's huge claws opened, and up flew the little crow straight to Paradise; alighting, singed and panting, on the vast, gold walls. Except the dove, no bird has ever entered heaven. The crow might not be admitted to the shining streets of pearl, but within sight of heaven he should dwell for ever, said the Merciful One. And on the great gold walls against which the Water of Life ripples musically, the Little Crow of Paradise still builds his nest.”
This is the very spirit of fantasy, but Mr. Pearce is not always so remote. Most of his allegories are indeed fraught with deep human meaning. Tragedy and pity, and cynicism and scorn, the "saeva indignatio," and wit and tenderness are in each tiny masterpiece. Elusive as they are, they are artistically satisfying, and one would no more wish anything away or anything altered than one would with “Tanglewood Tales” or "Mosses From an Old Manse."

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