Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Innocence and Experience

I shall not ask the commentators whether Blake used these two words in union or in antithesis. They assuredly have an inseverable union in the art of literature. The songs of Innocence and Experience are for each poet the songs of his own separate heart and life; but to take the cumulative experiences of other men, and to use these in place of the virginal fruit of thought–whereas one would hardly consent to take them for ordering even the most habitual of daily affairs–is to forgo Innocence and Experience at once and together. Obviously, Experience can be nothing except personal and separate; and Innocence of a singularly solitary quality is his who does not dip his hands into other men’s histories, and does not give to his own word the common sanction of other men’s summaries and conclusions. Therefore I bind Innocence and Experience in one, and take them as a sign of the necessary and noble isolation of man from man–of his uniqueness. But if I had a mind to forgo that manner of personal separateness, and to use the things of others, I think I would rather appropriate their future than their past. Let me put on their hopes, and the colours of their confidence, if I must borrow. Not that I would burden my prophetic soul with unjustified ambitions; but even this would be more tolerable than to load my memory with an unjustifiable history.

And yet how differently do the writers of a certain kind of love- poetry consider this matter. These are the love-poets who have no reluctance in adopting the past of a multitude of people to whom they have not even been introduced. Their verse is full of ready- made memories, various, numerous, and cruel. No single life– supposing it to be a liberal life concerned with something besides sex–could quite suffice for so much experience, so much disillusion, so much deception. To achieve that tone in its fullness it is necessary to take for one’s own the praeterita (say) of Alfred de Musset and of the men who helped him–not to live but– to have lived; it is necessary to have lived much more than any man lives, and to make a common hoard of erotic remembrances with all kinds of poets.

As the Franciscans wear each other’s old habits, and one friar goes about darned because of another’s rending, so the poet of a certain order grows cynical for the sake of many poets’ old loves. Not otherwise will the resultant verse succeed in implying so much–or rather so many, in the feminine plural. The man of very sensitive individuality might hesitate at the adoption. The Franciscan is understood to have a fastidiousness and to overcome it. And yet, if choice were, one might wish rather to make use of one’s fellow men’s old shoes than put their old secrets to use, and dress one’s art in a motley of past passions. Moreover, to utilize the mental experience of many is inevitably to use their verse and phrase. For the rest, all the traits of this love-poetry are familiar enough. One of them is the absence of the word of promise and pledge, the loss of the earliest and simplest of the impulses of love: which is the vow. “Till death!” “For ever!” are cries too simple and too natural to be commonplace, and in their denial there is the least tolerable of banalities–that of other men’s disillusions.

Perfect personal distinctness of Experience would be in literature a delicate Innocence. Not a passage of cheapness, of greed, of assumption, of sloth, or of any such sins in the work of him whose love-poetry were thus true, and whose pudeur of personality thus simple and inviolate. This is the private man, in other words the gentleman, who will neither love nor remember in common.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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The Essays of Alice Meynell (Centenary Edition)
By Sir Francis Meynell
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