Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations. IV. By R. A. Scott
AND so again, if we take a modern author of a very different type, such a one as Henry James, whose concern it is to state life, with a view to throwing into relief the finer shades, we shall observe that most of his work is characterised by a kind of intensive culture, as opposed to that extensive method which, through lack of form, was abused in Dickens, and through obedience to form was satisfactorily applied by the poet Swinburne at his best. We may safely say that when Swinburne was at his best, when he was “himself,” his world was a world of rhythmical energy, of impetuous freedom and sensuous activity which, translated into poetry, was expressed through the symbols of love and sea-foam and battle; to be true to the genius which was central to himself, he required no pregnancy or subtle suggestiveness of phrase; he needed no more than rhyme, rhythm, and onomatopœic words, and with these he gave all he had to give—the sense of energy remembered, the sensuous delight of physical activity, a world of divinely glorified sensation. Mature readers do not seek him often, for there are only a few moods which he can satisfy. A writer such as Mr. Henry James stands at the exactly opposite pole. It is the proper business of such a man as Swinburne merely to affirm sensation, and he could do it perfectly. It is the proper business of Mr. James, not to affirm sensation or any experience—he could not do it with sincerity—but to question sensation, to question emotion and sentiment; it is his proper business to examine experience with the amused, searching gaze of one who expects the unexpected. It is his business to make experience interesting, not, like Swinburne, by multiplication, but rather by division—by the method of the microscope, which reveals in a fly’s wing some unsuspected fineness of pattern and variegated brilliance of colour. He himself is fond of the word “curiosity”; it defines something that is central to his personality; this, brought into activity by the “representational impulse” (which in his opinion is the one justification for the artist), takes form in the intricate and delicately woven patterns of human temperament which are the objects of his curiosity.—From “Literature as a Fine Art,” in “The English Review” (April, 1913).