“EMOTION recollected in tranquillity,” perfectly defines the work of
Mr. George Santayana. He is a musing philosopher environed by himself.
‘shuts himself in with his soul
And the shapes come eddying forth,’
shapes that have no being in the world of sense, but are rather
phantasms materialized in the ether of dreams. There is no evidence in
Mr. Santayana’s work that he is living in America in the twentieth
century—and upon his own testimony he is not; he has withdrawn from
the importunity of things:
Within my nature’s shell I slumber curled,
Unmindful of the changing outer skies,—
and in this inviolate seclusion he enamels the pearl with the nacre of
his own spirit.
Mr. Santayana’s poet-kinsmen are not to be found in contemporary
literature; he is alone in the midst of the singers as regards
temperament and attitude toward life. His school is that of beauty;
his time that of the gods; his faith the sanctity of loveliness; and
his creed the restoration of the fair. He would shut out all the
obtrusive shows of nature and life, and dwell in the Nirvana of his
A wall, a wall around my garden rear,
And hedge me in from the disconsolate hills;
Give me but one of all the mountain rills,
Enough of ocean in its voice I hear.
Come no profane insatiate mortal near
With the contagion of his passionate ills;
The smoke of battle all the valleys fills,
Let the eternal sunlight greet me here.—
and once enshrined in this Nirvanic close, where the strife of living
had merged into the poise of being, he would repeople the desolated
earth and air with the forms of his imagination:
A thousand beauties that have never been
Haunt me with hope and tempt me to pursue;
The gods, methink, dwell just behind the blue;
The satyrs at my coming fled the green.
The flitting shadows of the grove between
The dryads’ eyes were winking, and I knew
The wings of sacred Eros as he flew,
And left me to the love of things not seen.
’Tis a sad love, like an eternal prayer,
And knows no keen delight, no faint surcease,
Yet from the seasons hath the earth increase,
And heaven shines as if the gods were there.
Had Dian passed, there could no deeper peace
Embalm the purple stretches of the air.
It is no exaggeration to say that were Mr. Santayana in a cloister, or
upon a mid-sea island with his books and dreams, he could scarcely be
less in touch with the passing world than he is in the midst of the
clamor and insistence of modern life, where he keeps the tranquillity
of the inner silence as if there were no voices dinning in his ears.
He is subjective to the degree of transfusing himself with another’s
consciousness, and looking upon his own nature from an impersonal
There we live o’er, amid angelic powers,
Our lives without remorse, as if not ours,
And others’ lives with love, as if our own,—
says one of the sonnets, imaging the passion-stilled world of
There is a subtlety in Mr. Santayana’s processes of thought that
demands intuitive divination on the part of the reader; there is so
little objectivity to the idea that its essence may almost escape him.
His illustrative symbolism is almost never drawn from nature or the
world of men and events, but from the treasure of beauty at the depth
of his spirit, where, by some mystic chemistry, he has separated all
the elements not in harmony with him. There must at some time have
been reaction and repulsion, ferment and explosion, in the laboratory
of Mr. Santayana’s mind; but he awaited the subsidence of the action;
awaited the period when emotion, thought, and learning had distilled
and crystallized before he shaped them forth before the world.
This gives to his work a certain fixity both of mood and form; his
thoughts are as gems that flash without heat, not the ruby-hearted,
passion-dyed gems, but the pale topaz or the amber, holding the
imprisoned glow of reflection. If this may seem to limit Mr.
Santayana’s achievement, it is not so intended, but rather to reveal
his distinction. He is not only a true poet, but one of rare
accomplishment; his work, however, is for those who are deeply
subjective, who trance themselves with the beautiful as an anodyne for
pain; those who subordinate to-day to the storied charm of yesterday,
and look backward to the twilight of the gods, rather than forward to
the renewing sunrise. It is not for those whose creed of poetry is
that it should be all things to all men; that life, in travail to
deliver truth, should utter its cries through the poet. It is for
those who know that poetry can no more be adapted to all than could
the spoken words of a great teacher reach equally the diverse minds of
a multitude whom he might address; and that while it may be the office
of one poet to interpret the struggles, the activities, the aims of
life, it may be equally the part of another to penetrate to that calm
at the depth of the soul where throes have brought forth peace. Not
only are there various natures to whom poetry speaks, but natures
within natures, so that all poets speak to different phases of our
consciousness: some to the mind,—and here the range is infinite,—some
to the heart, and some to the soul, and of the last is Mr. Santayana.
He is for the meditative hours when we are sounding the depths of
ourselves and come back to the surface of things, bringing with us the
unsatisfied pain of being. Hours when we turn instinctively to a
sonnet like this to find our mood expressed:
I would I might forget that I am I,
And break the heavy chain that binds me fast,
Whose links about myself my deeds have cast.
What in the body’s tomb doth buried lie
Is boundless; ’tis the spirit of the sky,
Lord of the future, guardian of the past,
And soon must forth to know his own at last.
In his large life to live, I fain would die.
Happy the dumb beast, hungering for food,
But calling not his suffering his own;
Blesséd the angel, gazing on all good,
But knowing not he sits upon a throne;
Wretched the mortal, pondering his mood,
And doomed to know his aching heart alone.
The much-mooted, but vaguely understood, sub-conscious mind, speaks in
this sonnet in terms of the conscious. It is a subtle bit of
philosophy, but not more so than several others in the same sequence
which show the evolution of Mr. Santayana’s attitude toward life. One
may not in a brief space follow out the clews to this development,
whose beginning was in religious emotion:
* * * * *
My sad youth worshipped at the piteous height
Where God vouchsafed the death of man to share;
His love made mortal sorrow light to bear,
But his deep wounds put joy to shaméd flight,
And though his arms outstretched upon the tree,
Were beautiful, and pleaded my embrace,
My sins were loth to look upon his face.
So came I down from Golgotha to thee,
Eternal Mother; let the sun and sea
Heal me, and keep me in thy dwelling-place.
The succeeding sonnet traces the winding of the new way, the
… many farewell pious looks behind,
And dumb misgivings where the path might wind,
And questionings of nature, as I went,—
which every life duplicates as it leaves its well-guarded walls of
belief and ventures out upon undiscovered ways. The pain of letting go
the old, the loneliness of the new, the alien look of all the heights
that encompass one, and the psychology of that impulse by which one is
both impelled to retrace his way and withheld from it,—are suggested
by the sonnet. In the next occurs one of Mr. Santayana’s finest lines,
To trust the soul’s invincible surmise.
It would be difficult to define intuition more succinctly than this.
It is not, as less subtle poets would have put it, the soul’s
assurance that one is to trust; this would be to assume, for what
assurance have we but that which Mr. Santayana has so subtly termed
the “invincible surmise”?
Lines which lead one out into speculative thought are frequent in Mr.
Santayana’s sonnets. His philosophy is constructive only in so far as
it unifies a succession of moods and experiences; but it is pregnant
with suggestion to a psychological mind. One of the sonnets which
Of my two lives, which should I call the dream?
Which action vanity? which vision sight?—
after declaring that
Some greater waking must pronounce aright
and blend the two visions to one seeing, continues:
Even such a dream I dream, and know full well
My waking passeth like a midnight spell,
But know not if my dreaming breaketh through
Into the deeps of heaven and of hell.
I know but this of all I would I knew:
Truth is a dream, unless my dream is true.
The thought in this passage is elusive, but it is more than a play
upon words. It is another way of putting the question, which shall be
trusted, which shall become the reality, the objective or the
subjective world? One knows that his “waking,” his sense perception,
is transitory, that it apprehends but the present, which “passeth like
a midnight spell,” but how far does the other and finer sight penetrate
Into the deeps of heaven and of hell?
No answer from the void to this query, but by the mystical conclusion
Truth is a dream, unless my dream is true.
In simpler phrase, unless the vision and conviction are to be trusted,
unless, to revert to Mr. Santayana’s former words, the soul’s
“invincible surmise” be taken as truth, that which we know as truth is
but a phantasm.
The sonnet sequence is the intimate record of an individual soul in
its evolving spiritual life, and has the significance belonging only
to art which interprets a personality, an experience, in whose
development one finds some clew to his own labyrinth. It reveals the
many phases of speculation, reflection, questioning, through which one
passes in the transition from beliefs indoctrinated in the mind at its
earliest consciousness, to convictions which follow thought liberated
by life, by intimacy with nature, and by recognition of its own
spiritual authority. It is the winning of this conviction, with its
attendant seeking and unrest, allayed by draughts from the wayside
springs of beauty, memory, and imagination,—which comprises the record
of the first sonnet sequence, whose conclusions, as “strewn thoughts”
springing along the way, are gathered into a final chaplet for the
brows of the “Eternal Mother,” Nature, whose peace he sought when he
came down from Golgotha, and whose larger meaning, synonymous with the
primal freedom of the soul, is conveyed in the sonnet:
These strewn thoughts, by the mountain pathway sprung,
I conned for comfort, till I ceased to grieve,
And with these flowering thorns I dare to weave
The crown, great Mother, on thine altar hung.
Teach thou a larger speech to my loosed tongue,
And to mine opened eyes thy secrets give,
That in thy perfect love I learn to live,
And in thine immortality be young.
The soul is not on earth an alien thing
That hath her life’s rich sources otherwhere;
She is a parcel of the sacred air.
She takes her being from the breath of Spring,
The glance of Phœbus is her fount of light,
And her long sleep a draught of primal night.
Aside from Mr. Santayana’s philosophical sonnets he has a second
sequence, upon love, which, too, is philosophically tinged. In the
matter of beauty this is perhaps the more finished and artistic work;
but I have chosen rather to dwell upon the subtlety of his
speculations in those phases of thought less universally treated of by
poets than is love. It has not been possible, however, to follow the
sequence in its order, or to present more than certain individual
notes of its philosophy.
Thus far it has been the matter, rather than the manner, of Mr.
Santayana’s verse that has been considered; but before glancing at the
later sonnet sequence, what of his touch upon the strings of his
instrument? One can scarcely have followed the extracts quoted without
noting the mellow suavity, the ease, the poise of his work. There is
everywhere assurance of expression, nothing tentative, nothing
halting. His lines are disposed by the laws of counter-point into
well-ordered cadences where nothing jars; his words are rich and
mellifluous, in short, he has, as a sonneteer, a finish, a classical
command of the vehicle reminiscent of Petrarch and Camoens. The sonnet
is, by the nature of the case, a somewhat inadaptable instrument, and
yet it is susceptible of great individuality, as one may note by
recalling an intricate sonnet by Rossetti and a sweeping, sonorous one
by Milton. The criticism which is, perhaps, most apposite to Mr.
Santayana’s sonnets is that they are “faultily faultless;” they are so
finished that one would welcome a false note now and then, that
suggested a choke in the voice, or a heart-beat out of time.
There is an atmosphere about all of Mr. Santayana’s work that conveys
a sense of wandering in the moonlight; it is tempered, softened,
stilled; it is like an Isis-veil cast over the eyes; but at times one
becomes oppressed with the consciousness of himself, and of the
impalpable visions glimpsed in the wan light, and longs to snatch the
veil away and flee to the garish world again. One may seek Mr.
Santayana’s poetry when his mood demands it, and it will be as a
cooling hand in fever; but when the pulse of being is low, and one
needs the touch to vitalize, he must turn to others, for Mr.
Santayana’s work is not charged with the electricity that thrills.
Because he is not inventive in metre nor sufficiently light in touch,
Mr. Santayana is not a lyrist. He has scarcely any purely lyrical
verse in his collections, and what is contained in them is too lacking
in spontaneity to be classed with his best work. It is not wanting in
lines of beauty and in English undefiled; but the sense of tone and
rhythm, except of the smoothly conventional sort, is absent. There are
no innovations in form and the impulse is too subdued for a true
lyric. That called “Midnight” has more warmth than the others. Several
of his odes in the Sapphic metre have great charm, especially the
first. His elegiac verse has often rare elevation of thought; but it,
also, has too set a measure, too much of the “formed style” to be
vital. It brings well-conceived, well-imaged thought, as in this
How should the vision stay to guide the hand,
How should the holy thought and ardour stay,
When the false deeps of all the soul are sand,
And the loose rivets of the spirit, clay?
but it rarely shocks one into thinking for himself.
In relation to diction, there are few American writers who use English
of such purity and finish as does Mr. Santayana; but it is the
scholar’s English, the English drawn from familiarity with the great
masters and models, and hence lacks the creative flexibility, the
quick, warm, ductile adaptability, that a much less accomplished poet
may give to his words. It keeps to the accepted canons, the highest,
the purest, and uses the consecrated words of literature with an
artist’s touch; but the racy idiom, the word which some daring poet
coined yesterday in an exigent moment—with these it has naught to do.
Mr. Santayana has several dramatic poems, “The Hermit of Carmel,” “The
Knight’s Return,” and a dialogue between Hermes and Lucifer, in which
the latter relates the details of his banishment from heaven for his
daring arraignment and interrogation of God. The dialogue has little
dramatic coloring; one hearing it read aloud would have difficulty in
determining from the outward change of expression and personality
where Lucifer leaves off speaking and Hermes begins, but it puts into
the mouth of Lucifer some words full of the challenge of thought, and
speaks through both some beautiful fantasies, such as this reply of
Lucifer to Hermes’ question as to the state of bliss in which the
A doubtful thing
Is blessedness like that….
Their raptured souls, like lilies in a stream
That from their fluid pillow never rise,
Float on the lazy current of a dream.
Mr. Santayana has not written “The Hermit of Carmel” or “The Knight’s
Return” with a theatrical manager in view. They are stories told in
verse, tales of gentle melancholy, pleasant to the ear; but when all
is said, one returns to his sonnets as the true expression of his
nature and the consummation of his gifts. He is a sonneteer, by every
phase of his temperament and every canon of his art. His work in all
other forms is cultivated, philosophical, finely finished, but
pervaded by an atmosphere of cultured conventionality; whereas in the
sonnet he finds a medium whose classic distinction and subtlety are so
harmonized to his nature and his characteristic mode of thought, that
it becomes to him the predestined expression. A glance, then, in
closing, at the flexile phrases, the psychological analyses of the
later sonnet sequence, turning chiefly upon love.
But, first, let me cite from one of the earlier sonnets, an image
drawn from this theme, a jewel-like flash of beauty, not to be
overlooked. The first line of the metaphor is commonplace; but note
the succeeding ones:
Love but the formless and eternal Whole
From whose effulgence one unheeded ray
Breaks on this prism of dissolving clay
Into the flickering colors of thy soul.
This is defining the individual spirit in exquisite terms.
The second sequence teems with beautiful passages, now and again with
a note of the _trovatore_, as in the sestett of this sonnet:
Yet why, of one who loved thee not, command
Thy counterfeit, for other men to see,
When God himself did on my heart for me
Thy face, like Christ’s upon the napkin, brand?
O how much subtler than a painter’s hand
Is love to render back the truth of thee!
My soul should be thy glass in time to be,
And in my thought thine effigy should stand.
Yet, lest the churlish critics of that age
Should flout my praise, and deem a lover’s rage
Could gild a virtue and a grace exceed,
I bid thine image here confront my page,
That men may look upon thee as they read,
And cry: “Such eyes a better poet need!”
This has art and charm, but in contrast note the impassioned nobility
of utterance which imbues the one that follows. Here are lines of pure
emotion and beauty:
We needs must be divided in the tomb,
For I would die among the hills of Spain,
And o’er the treeless, melancholy plain
Await the coming of the final gloom.
But thou—O pitiful!—wilt find scant room
Among thy kindred by the northern main,
And fade into the drifting mist again,
The hemlocks’ shadow, or the pines’ perfume.
Let gallants lie beside their ladies’ dust
In one cold grave, with mortal love inurned;
Let the sea part our ashes, if it must,
The souls fled thence which love immortal burned,
For they were wedded without bond of lust,
And nothing of our heart to earth returned.
Such sonnets as this mark Mr. Santayana as a master of this form, and
while his other work has value, it is as a sonneteer that he has made
his really individual contribution to literature.