Review of The Souls of the Streets and Other Little PapersThis is, as far as I can discover, the first 'serious' review of a work by Arthur Ransome. It appeared, unsigned, on August 20 1904, in The Week's Survey, p. 558. The author was probably the paper's editor, S.B. Neumann (see Ransome Autobiography, p. 101).
A NEW ESSAYIST
The essay, in spite of Bacon and Lamb and Hazlitt, is often said to be something of an exotic in English Literature. At any rate it stands by itself, midway between prose and verse. Its form, of course, and most of its rhythms belong to the one, its subject matter and mode of treatment to the other. This explains perhaps the rarity of good essays. Writers of really good prose are not common, and still less common are writers of really good verse, but to find a poet who deliberately chooses to express himself in prose is the rarest of all.
Mr. Ransome, the author of the dainty little volume now before us, is no stranger to readers of the WEEK'S SURVEY, and those who enjoyed "The Souls of the Streets,", "Two Tramps," and "Spring," will be glad to possess them in a permanent form, accompanied as they are by four new essays.
For Mr. Ransome has many of the gifts that go to the making of the perfect essay. He has the fine and delicate imagination that invests the seen and known with the shining garments of the unseen, and shows us common things exalted and transfigured into mysteries and miracles. Take, for instance, such a passage as this:–
What memories would be lost if the ancient streets had no souls fit for dreaming. They have, and the lonely passer-by knows that they dream their stories to themsselves, thrilling with their horror, throbbing softly with their tenderness. The tramping myriads on the Roman roads have left a legacy of tales behind them. Thousands of whisperings of elves and pigmies cling about the woodland paths. The memories of unsung songs, sparkling like fountains from the white mists, haunt the mountain tracks. The "serious sweet talk" of children ages past must still delight the footways in the meadows. The rumbling of a thousand years still rolls in the deserted streets of dying cities.
"A Tuscan Melody," in which is told the birth of a song that lived on in many lands after its maker was dead, is the longest, the most elaborate, and perhaps, on the whole, the most successful of these essays. The song was written by a Tuscan poet for the Lady Valeria, whom he loved.
She sang it for him again and again. He knew as she sang that he loved her. Shortly they were married. This is the end of the story of Valeria and her poet, but the tale of the song is not finished yet, not ever will be while men love to hear their women singing.
For the little wild thing that was born to the poet in that mad, happy night in the house above the orange grove has been sung through all the world so long and so often that the name of the poet has been forgotten. The peasants in the valley. . . . loved the music and the words, and passed them on from mouth to mouth long after the poet and Valeria lay together under the grass with the olive trees blossoming above their grave. The poem was sung nightly in the hot Italian summers when the peasants sat together, after sunset, watching the reds and greens of the sky darken to purple and dark blue. Petrarch heard it sung in his Tuscan childhood, and he wrote other words to fit the music, but the old words clung on, and may still be heard in the valley where they were written.
These extracts, brief as they are, will give some idea of Mr. Ransome's style, a style with a very distinct charm of its own, slightly marred here and there by an apparent striving after effect. We do not think he is fortunate with his personal names. "Valeria" somehow suggests the incongruous figure of Miss Blimber, and "Merlin" removes "a man who knew himself" a little further from the reader. Sometimes he is very happy with his adjectives, sometimes he misses the effect for which he strives a little too obviously. The mystery of velvet darkness in country byways is not suggested to us by "the eerie thing, half bird, half-beast, that slips with shuddering whirr through the brittle silences." The epithets seem to us violent, but unconvincing.
These, however, are small matters, and matters of taste not easily arguable. One the whole we are grateful to Mr. Ransome for a most charming little volume which we have read and re-read with pleasure.
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