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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edward Carpenter (1844–1929)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Dorothy Brewster (1883–1979)
 
EDWARD CARPENTER was born at Brighton, England, in 1844. His grandfather was an admiral in the navy, his father, a lawyer and magistrate. Up to the age of twenty, Carpenter lived at Brighton, embedded in a would-be fashionable world which he hated, unhappy in spite of the ease and comfort of his home.
          “At the age of sixteen,” he writes on his seventieth birthday, “I found myself—and without knowing where I was—in the middle of that strange period of human evolution, the Victorian Age, which in some respects, one now thinks, marked the lowest ebb of modern civilized society: a period in which not only commercialism in public life, but cant in religion, pure materialism in science, futility in social conventions, the worship of stocks and shares, the starving of the human heart, the denial of the human body and its needs, the huddling concealment of the body in clothes, the ‘impure hush’ on matters of sex, class-division, contempt of manual labor, and the cruel barring of women from every natural and useful expression of their lives, were carried to an extremity of folly difficult for us now to realize.”
There could be no better summing-up than this of all the conditions he later revolted against. The sea and the downs were his consolation and his escape from “the pent life of custom and brick perspective.” Nature was more to him than any human attachment. His poetry, later, is rich in simple, direct, truthful rendering of Nature; in pictures of the sea; of “the winter woods, every bough laden with snow, the faint purple waters rushing on in the hollows, with steam on the soft still air”; of the ploughed fields on an October morning, when “the flanks of the clods are creeping with thin vapor, and the little copse alongside the field is full of white trailing veils of it”; of the “old earth breathing deep and rhythmically, night and day, summer and winter, giving and concealing herself.”
  1
  After Brighton came ten years at Cambridge, first as student, then as Fellow, at Trinity Hall. He took orders and for several years held the position of curate to Frederic Denison Maurice. But gradually he began to feel a sense of “falsity and dislocation” in all his professional work. The atmosphere of the university also grew uncongenial, and he tired of the “intellectual discussions, where every subject in Heaven and Earth was discussed, with the university man’s perfect freedom of thought and utterance, but also with his perfect absence of practical knowledge or of intention to apply his theories to any practical issue.” Walt Whitman had begun to influence him about 1868, so profoundly that he says that it would be difficult to imagine what his life would have been without ‘Leaves of Grass.’ This influence was strengthened by two visits to Whitman in the United States (in 1877 and 1884); Mr. Carpenter has recorded his impressions of the poet in his ‘Days with Walt Whitman’ (1906).  2
  In 1874, abandoning his orders and his fellowship, he began to lecture on natural science, in connection with University Extension work. “It had come on me with great force that I would go and throw in my lot with the mass-people and the manual workers.” But these lectures made him acquainted rather with the commercial classes in the great manufacturing centers of the north. During these years—years “inwardly full of tension and suffering”—the idea persisted of writing some sort of book that would address itself very personally and closely to anyone who cared to read it.
          “At last early in 1881, no doubt as the culmination and result of struggles and experiences that had been going on, I became conscious that a mass of material was forming within me, imperatively demanding expression … I became for the time overwhelmingly conscious of the disclosure within of a region transcending in some sense the ordinary bounds of personality, in the light of which region my own idiosyncracies of character … appeared of no importance whatever—an absolute freedom from mortality, accompanied by an indescribable calm and joy. I also immediately saw, or rather felt, that this region of Self existing in me existed equally (though not always equally consciously) in others. In regard to it, the mere diversities of temperament which ordinarily distinguish and divide people dropped away and became indifferent, and a field was opened in which all might meet, in which all were truly equal. Thus I found the common ground which I wanted.”
He threw up his lecturing, built a little shelter in the garden of the cottage on a farm where he had been doing farm-work at intervals, and there, or in the fields, in sunlight and rain, he wrote the first long poem in ‘Towards Democracy.’ Thus he wrote, like a true disciple of Whitman, in the open: “I think heroic deeds were all conceived in the open air, and all free poems also.” The poem was published in 1883. From time to time it was republished with many additions; and did not take its definite and permanent form in print until 1905.
  3
  As to the Whitmanesque free verse of the poems, Carpenter records that he fought against the “drift out of the more classic forms of verse into a looser and freer rhythm” for seven years, and that he did not adopt it because it was an approximation to the form of ‘Leaves of Grass.’ Whatever resemblance there is in rhythm, style, and thoughts, he believes due to similarity of emotional atmosphere and intention. He rightly characterizes his own poetry as less masculine, less massive, more tender and meditative, than Whitman’s. He resembles Whitman in love of freedom, impatience of conventional restraint, intense sympathy with all forms of life. At its best, his style, like Whitman’s, possesses the power “which marshals and holds in leash whole battalions of phrases, to hurl them finally on the reader with irresistible effect.” Like Whitman, Carpenter enumerates sights and sounds of the whole world—“lists and processions of earth dwellers”—and piles up his appeals to “you, whoever you are,” in strange surging and swelling reiteration. At times, his diction is that of the scientist, not the poet; and at times his catalogues of earth-dwellers may seem a queer jumble, instead of a thrilling roll-call of humanity. But in spite of defects, in spite of the fragmentary nature of some of the poems, the book does achieve an effect of spiritual and emotional unity. It is his most original and inspired work; and though it has made its way very slowly, it has won for itself an audience both in England and abroad.  4
  Carpenter continued to feel the need of physical labor and an open-air life. He experimented in market-gardening, on land at Millthorpe, near Sheffield. But he did not (as he says in answer to an address from his friends on his seventieth birthday) take to a “rather plain and Bohemian kind of life, of associating with manual workers, of speaking at street corners, of growing fruit, making sandals,” with any artificial purpose of reforming the world. He did it for the joy of doing it, of expressing his own real and deeply rooted feelings. And that there was joy in it all no reader of his interesting autobiography, ‘My Days and Dreams’ (1916) can doubt. He became associated with the growing Socialist movement of the ’80s. Though he has never looked on the Socialist program or doctrines as final, he sympathizes with its challenge to the old order, and its belief in a new ideal of fraternity, “which, however crude and inexperienced it may at times appear, is surely destined to conquer and rule the world at last.”  5
  The pamphlets and essays that Carpenter has published all deal with
        “theories or views which flow … perfectly logically from the central idea of ‘Towards Democracy.’… ‘Towards Democracy’ came first, as a Vision, so to speak, and a revelation—as a great body of feeling and intuition which I had to put into words as best I could. It carried with it … all sorts of assumptions and conclusions. Afterwards—for my own satisfaction as much as for the sake of others—I had to examine and define these assumptions and conclusions.”
And so he wrote ‘England’s Ideal,’ ‘Civilization, Its Cause and Cure,’ ‘The Art of Creation,’ ‘Love’s Coming-of-Age,’ ‘Angels’ Wings,’ ‘The Intermediate Sex,’ ‘The Drama of Love and Death,’ ‘The Healing of Nations,’ and other less important works; they are either vigorous statements of social problems—problems of sex, of war, of industry,—or suggestive speculations as to the ultimate meaning of life.
  6
  After the ‘Bhagavat Gita’ fell into his hands, he became intensely interested in the thought of the East, and in 1890 he visited Ceylon and India, coming into direct touch with Hindu teaching. His own experience had prepared him to understand the Eastern quest for the universal consciousness. The existence of this universal consciousness, the possibility of sharing it, form the basic assumption of ‘Towards Democracy.’ There are (according to the analysis in ‘The Art of Creation’) three stages or degrees of consciousness. There is the stage of simple consciousness,—that of the animal or of primitive man—in which the knower, the knowledge, and the thing known are still undifferentiated. The second stage is that in which humanity at present is—the self-consciousness of the civilized or intellectual man. It is marked by the increasing sense of individuality, which springs from mental progress. The sense of community with Nature fades away. The subject and the object of knowledge drift further apart; the importance of the self increases; self-consciousness is almost a disease. When the illusion of separation is complete and the depths of pain and grief have been sounded, comes the third stage—mass or cosmic consciousness. The object is suddenly seen and felt to be one with the self—“I am the hounded slave”—or at least the subject and object are felt to be parts of the same being. Reintegration takes place. The often puzzling “I” then, in ‘Towards Democracy,’ means, says Carpenter, myself; but “what that Self is and what its limits may be, I cannot tell…. If I have said ‘I, Nature,’ it was because I felt ‘I, Nature’; if I have said ‘I am equal with the lowest,’ it was because I could not express what I felt more directly than by those words.” Sometimes the “I” is the same as Nature—“I am the ground”; sometimes it is the world-soul—Democracy—becoming articulate.  7
  And what is “Democracy”? Not, of course, a definite form of social organization. “Democracy is conceived after the fashion of one of the Platonic Ideas,” as one of Carpenter’s critics, Mr. Edward Lewis, explains it, “and the word is used chiefly in a mystical, idealistic, religious sense. It is the mood of the world-soul which, in the eternal process of self-utterance and self-realization, creates, fulfils, and destroys organized forms, and remains identical and equal with the forms it creates.” It is the body within the body; the imago (or perfect insect) that is being formed within the larva. The protective sac bursts in time, the insect is liberated. Something of this sort is happening in the structure of our society. Carpenter sees the wrong and evil, the disease and suffering, the greed and selfishness,—the larval covering. But underneath he sees, “in dim prefigurement, the draft and outline of a new creature, the forming of the wings of man beneath the outer husk.”  8
  “Inevitable in time for man and all creation is the realization: the husks one behind another keep shelling and peeling off.”  9
  Carpenter does not underrate the difficulty of breaking through the crust of the old order. He has the most vivid perception of the obstacles: the self-deceit of organized society, the respectability, the cowardice, the mutual distrust, the alienation from nature, and all those spiritually stifling ideas of “exclusiveness, and of being in the swim; of the drivel of aristocratic connections; of drawing rooms and levees and the theory of animated clothes pegs generally; of belonging to clubs and of giving pence to crossing-sweepers without apparently seeing them;… of being intellectual; of prancing about and talking glibly on all subjects on the theory of setting things right—and leaving others to do the dirty work of the world.” Yet in spite of it all, he dreams “the dream of the soul’s slow disentanglement.” The travail of the soul of man is from bondage to freedom. The emphasis is on inward growth: “When a new desire has declared itself within the human heart, when a fresh plexus is forming among the nerves, then the revolutions of nations are already decided.” He is inspired by a fine optimism that blinks none of the ugly facts. He can see all the hideousness of a factory city, with its “wriggling poverty”; and yet in a little ragged boy’s begrimed, wistful face, disengaging itself from the background of dirt, he can perceive dormant forces powerful enough to shrivel up the falsehood of a gorged and satiated society.  10
  Mr. Carpenter is not constructive—he does not point out definite remedies, although he has done much in support of practical social reforms. Rather is he the prophet, the one who, seeing the vision himself, opens the door to others. Both in his life and his writings he is among those who are working hardest to break through the crust of the old order, to make the dream of the soul’s slow disentanglement come true.  11
 
 
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