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From The Spectator: “The Yellow Book”

THE third volume of The Yellow Book is the first that has
been issued by Mr. John Lane at his new sign of ‘The
Bodley Head.’ When a publication of this kind reaches its
third number and can no longer be looked on as a novelty or
a “sport” of the literary genus, it is time to ask seriously
what place it takes among contemporary literature, and of
what value it has as an exponent of art. It is difficult to take
the “Art” in the present number any more seriously than in
its predecessors. Mr. Aubrey Beardsley displays four of his
caricatures; Mr. Walter Sickert and Mr. P. Wilson Steer are
the best-known of the other contributors. There is a curious
air of unreality, an artificial, theatrical, music-hall atmo-
sphere about their productions, the work apparently of the left
wing of the English impressionist school. Mr. Sickert’s “Lion
Comique” and his sketch of Mr. Penley, as “Charley’s Aunt,”
are clever, but we are left in doubt as to whether the figures
represented have hands or not; and Mr. P. Wilson Steer’s
“Skirt Dancing” is a marvel of dislocation. We accept the
boundary-lines that cut off half the girl’s head and leave one
hand and one foot out of the picture, as the artist’s protest
against the laws that have hitherto directed our sense of pro-
portion; but we cannot accept the position in which he has left
the remainder of his danseuse. Her back is turned to the
spectator, but the foot supporting the badly drawn leg is
pointed towards him in an impossible manner. The poetry in
The Yellow Book is, with a few exceptions, poor in quality,
and sickly or artificial in manner. M. de Hérédia’s
French sonnet and its English translation are both
good, though a little heavy. Mr. William Watson con-
tributes a lyric, in which he does not quite do him-
self justice. In fact, we are inclined to think that the
lyrical style suits him far less well than the elegiac or
descriptively critical style. Mr. John Davidson‘s “Ballad
of a Nun” is decidedly forcible and clever. It is a new
version of “The Legend of Provence,” familiar to all readers
of Miss A. A. Procter’s poems; but Mr. Davidson’s work has
always the stamp of originality, and though his style bears
traces of the influence of Coleridge, and still more of
Tennyson, his version of the old legend touches a more dis-
tinctly human, though possibly a more modern, note than we
find in the earlier poem. Angela, in “The Legend of Pro-
vence,” having fled with her knightly 1over from the sheltering
convent in which all her childhood bad been spent, comes
back after years of disillusion and regret to find her place
kept for her by a figure whose face stirs strange memories:—

    “She saw—she seemed to know—
A face that came from long, long years ago;
Herself; yet not as when she fled away,
The young and blooming novice, fair and grey,
But a grave woman, gentle and serene:
The outcast knew it,—what she might have been.”

The seeming nun was no other than the Blessed Virgin her-
self who had taken Angela’s place, and the poem ends with
ponderings over the ideal that once, at least in every lifetime,
seems possible:—

    “And yet,
We lost it in this daily jar and fret,
And now live idle in a vague regret.
But still our place is kept and it will wait,
Ready for us to fill it, soon or late;
No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.”

Mr. John Davidson’s “Nun” on the contrary, is not tempted
by the whisper of a lover to forsake her vows. We gather that
she had been the bride of Christ for ten years; and having—

“Conquered every earthly lust;
    The Abbess loved her more and more;
And, as a mark of perfect trust,
    Made her the keeper of the door.”

But the nun had mistaken her vocation. She fretted at her
“convent’s narrow room,” and watched from her hill the
“sounding cities rich and warm,” that “smouldered and
glittered in the plain”:—

“Sometimes it was a wandering wind,
    Sometimes the fragrance of the pine,
Sometimes the thought how others sinned,
    That turned, her sweet blood into wine.

Sometimes she heard a serenade
    Complaining sweetly far away:
She said, ‘A young man woos a maid;’
    And dreamt of love till break of day.”

At last the magnetism of the unknown life that laughs and
loves and keeps carnival in the nearest city, draws her. She
unbolts the door of which she is wardress, and flies into the
frosty night:—

“‘Life’s dearest meaning I shall probe,
    Lo! I shall taste of love at last!
Away!’ She doffed her outer robe,
    And sent it sailing down the blast.

Her body seemed to warm the wind,
    With bleeding feet o’or ice she ran:
‘I leave the righteous God behind;
    I go to worship sinful man.’ “

Once having regained the outer world, she drinks deeply of
what Mr. Arthur Symons calls the “joys of sin,” until she
discovers the bitterness of the cup. Then comes the inevitable
end, and “weary of earth'” she stumbles back to seek for
death from those whose laws she has violated. The wardress
at whose feet she falls,—

    “Raised her tenderly;
She touched her wet and fast-shut eyes;
    ‘Look, sister; sister, look at me;
Look; can you see through my disguise?'”

As in Miss Procter’s poem, it is the Blessed Virgin herself
that looks at the wanderer in her own semblance, and
welcomes her back. There is a touch of modem realism in
this later version of the legend, and an echo of the modern
revolt against restraint and discipline; but there is a strength
and a reality in Mr. Davidson’s work that is lacking in most
of the other poems in The Yellow Book. There is not much
originality or distinction in the prose contributions. Mr.
Max Beerbohm tries once more to stir up his critics—this
time it is by a mock panegyric on George IV.—but they will
know better than to take him seriously again. Mr. Beerbohm’s
description of, politics is a good example of his peculiar vein
of humour:—

“There are many things,” he says, “that I regret in the career
of George IV., and what I most of all regret is the part that he
played in the politics of the period. Englishmen to-day have at
length decided that Royalty shall not set foot in the political
arena. I do not despair that some day we shall place politics
upon a sound commercial basis; as they have already done in
America and France, or leave them entirely in the hands of the
police, as they doing in Russia. It is horrible to think that under
our existing régime all the men of noblest blood and highest
intellect should waste their time in the sordid atmosphere of the
House of Commons, listening for hours to nonentities talking
nonsense, or searching enormous volumes to prove that somebody
said something some years ago that does not quite tally with
something he said the other day, or standing tremulous before
the whips in the lobbies and the scorpions in the constituencies.”

Readers of Helen’s Babies will remember Todd’s joy in
stories that were “bluggy as everything,” and we feel sure
that he would have appreciated Miss Nora Hopper’s Irish tale.
Mr. Kenneth Grahame is a follower of Mr. W. S. Gilbert; the
whimsicality of “The Headswoman” is essentially “Gilber-
tian.” We have a feeling that we have read most of the other
stories, or something very much like them, in other magazines.
Mr. Crackanthorpe‘s long “Study in Sentimentality” is a
marvel of careful dissection, but the subjects dissected—the
invertebrate clergyman and the weak faithless woman with
her shallow taste for intrigue—are uninteresting. We come
back to the original proposition,—namely, what place does
The Yellow Book take among contemporary literature? and
we imagine it can only be placed among the ephemeral maga-
zines and periodicals of the day. It is, of course, futile to
expect productions such as The Tatlers and Spectators of last
century,—those were the days of the aristocracy of letters;
now it is the turn of democracy, and nearly every man and
woman thinks it as necessary to be heard in the world of
literature as he or she thinks it necessary to have a voice in
the government of the country; and it consequently becomes
more difficult for authors to rise above the level of mediocre

MLA citation:

“The Yellow Book.” Review of The Yellow Book, vol. 3, October 1894, The Spectator 17 November 1894, p. 700. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.