Early Work

It is, practically speaking, with Sharp’s entrance into the Rossetti circle that we begin in any way to be provided with details concerning his development and the influences upon it. It is also at this point that Sharp’s development can be said to assume anything like the independence of character that he and his wife required for their reading of him. He had failed to make anything respectable out of his trip to Australia in 1876-77, and was still paying sufficient lip service to those same old "prospects for his future" to come to London in 1878 in order to attach himself to the bank business. But it is evident that the remission of parental pressure was making it less and less difficult for him to eschew the Philistines, who came to want him as little as he wanted them. His wife takes characteristic delight in telling how William’s casual attitude toward working hours, and his penchant for slipping out to the country to hear the cuckoo on pleasant spring days, caused him to be fired from the London Branch of the Melbourne Bank.1 The sirens of springtime were not, however, his only distraction. By late 1879 he had been introduced to Dante Rossetti through the good offices of his friend Noel Paton. From the moment of their meeting the young poet spent many hours with his literary idol, some of them, owing to Rossetti’s nocturnal habits, cutting well into the time a good prospective banker would have spent in bed.

Perhaps no circle was more calculated to satisfy Sharp’s young craving for nonconformity than that which gathered about the declining Rossetti. The glamour had not completely departed from his presence, and, still seeking occasion to bask in it, or certainly aware of it, were many celebrated late Victorians. Through Rossetti Sharp came to know almost every important literary figure of the time, including Swinburne, Morris, Pater, Meredith, and Browning, and was gradually admitted to their circles and to those of artists like William Bell Scott, Ford Madox Brown, and Holman Hunt. He was joined by other aspiring poets and writers like Philip Marston and Hall Caine, who were among Rosette’s young protègés. Sharp’s successful admission to this group would have been heady enough potion in itself. But ever since Robert Buchanan, the eminent Scot and infamous rebuffer of poets, had dealt Sharp the terrible blow of advising him to leave the writing profession altogether, Rossetti’s encouragement had acquired a special lure.

Under this bohemian influence, Sharp’s tendency to the life-style of protest flourished. In the flush of his new-found freedom from the inhibitions of home, his earlier appetite for privacy and brooding seclusion was all but forgotten and the changeling garb laid aside. For the moment he could fulfill two equally strong, but opposing desires: to belong to a significant literary and artistic movement, and to indulge his craving for uniqueness, convinced that the members of the group to which he belonged were themselves outsiders with regard to the establishment. Having little perspective and no cynicism, be was able to direct his wholehearted enthusiasm toward what he understood to be the principles of the Pre-Raphaelites, and he made himself their spokesman. Thus, the biography Sharp hastily scribbled after Rossetti’s death in 1882 was as much an apology for the movement as the man. Making free use of Ruskin’s insights and misapprehensions, Sharp justified the boldness (if not capriciousness) of Pre-Raphaelitism on the basis of its dispensing with imitation and derivativeness, and urged the increased application of its principle of "native inspiration." This made him observe with special emphasis in his biography that Rossetti "seemed always to me an unmistakable Englishman."2 His initial reaction to Rossetti, documented in a letter to Elizabeth, had perhaps been more sound. "I was not in London," he had then mused rhapsodically. "The blood of the South burned in my veins, the sky was a semi-tropical one. The river rushing past was not the Thames but the Tiber."3 It would not be the last instance of Sharp’s altering the memory of an actual experience in the passion of new insight. Yet regardless of which reaction was valid, it is apparent that this attachment to the Pre-Raphaelite movement gave him the first opportunity for seriously applying a theory that equated creative inspiration with nationality or the national best self.

The theory itself he had stated somewhat earlier. Geographical determinism had in fact been the theme of one of Sharp’s earliest articles, "A Note on Climate and Art" (1881), the very title of which would become a kind of subtitle for all his future work. In that essay, Sharp spoke of the "determinate law" that rules the productions of science (a branch of learning he had not yet relegated to the limbo of things not to be achieved in one lifetime), literature, music, and art. Each poet, he asserted, was not "an individual aberration from the lower levels of the commonplace, but . . . literally the product of his time."4

Nature knows no such things as wholly separate links: she is made of an infinite multitude of connexions, that form one chain . . . An enquiry into the influences which art, or music, or belles lettres, or philosophy, exercise upon the community of nations, must be based upon an understanding of the actual surroundings and material agencies existing in and operating upon each race and country.5

This concept is entitled to exclusive place as the central philosophy of his life’s work. Whether directly derived from Ruskin’s notions of the organic relationship between great art and the time and place of its creation, or from the Darwinism that had filtered its way down into intellectual commonplace, this concept merely reflected an intellectual "climate" that had been forming for at least a century, and in which many a nationalistic storm had gathered. Drawing a distinction long familiar to Europeans between the sense experiences of northern and southern peoples, Sharp suggested that the "artificialism" in the work of many English and Dutch artists was due primarily to fabricated experience or imitation of the work of others, to the expression, in other words, of a false identity. Whatever success these artists have achieved, he said, is in landscape, and that success is in direct proportion to the sincerity with which they have tried to catch the nervous, fluctuating variety of their own climate. But northern art, he concluded, "Will find its true self---and has already done so in the Pre-Raphaelites in the study of man, "not so much historically as emotionally . . . [in] the portrayal of all the human passions."6

Because Sharp felt the Pre-Raphaelites so cogently illustrated this doctrine of cultural relativism and truth to experience, the London circle influenced his future development; and it is worth evaluating his first volume of poetry, The Human Inheritance, The New Hope, Motherhood and Other Poems (1882), dating almost entirely from the early London period, for its prefigurations of his later, more important work. The great diversity of theme and form and the unevenness of conception evident in these poems might seem to indicate many false starts. Yet Sharp’s seemingly very diversified poetic motives are really only different aspects of certain central premises of contemporary esthetic though and thus possess a fundamental unity.

One of these central premises is a focus on perception itself, a concern with the relativity of experience. It expresses the convergence of scientific and artistic attitudes found, for example, in the painting of the French impressionists. These painters, although highly subjective in their vision, worked nevertheless from the axiom that the self is a quasi-scientific medium of experience through which data can be gathered for the expression of relative truth. Autobiography and autobiographical forms of writing represent in literature a similar kind of applied scientific sensibility. Such genres, so characteristic of the nineteenth century, were capable of appearing brooding and evocative in tone at the hands of certain writers. But they were gradually inclining more and more to a studious, half-clinical scrutiny of subjective emotional experience. It was Sharp’s sympathy with this movement that led to his admiration for George Meredith’s "Modern Love" and Rossetti’s "House of Life," both of which revolutionized the sonnet-sequence tradition by submitting the poets’ own erotic and conjugal experiences, happy and unhappy, to a ruthless poetic analysis.7

There is psychological coherence, then, to the heavy autobiographic emphasis of this first volume of poems. Seven of them are in the form of the conventional sonnet, traditionally a subjective lyric, and a form in which Sharp had such a passionate interest that he later wrote three critical essays on the sonnet’s history and function as companion studies to his three sonnet anthologies. "Twenty-six other poems in The Human Inheritance, together entitled "Transcripts from Nature," are written in a form called the "rispetto" that has distinct affinities with the sonnet, and that Sharp, borrowing from John Addington Symonds, considered its forerunner."8 But the current of autobiography, or "autopsychic" poetry, prevails even outside of the sonnet and related forms. Though Sharp occasionally borrowed Shelley’s practice of using the third person instead of the first to camouflage the personal strategy, he was clearly fictionalizing his own experience. This is equally true of both the long, serialized narrative "The Human Inheritance" and the poetic essay of symphonic proportions called "The New Hope," a work that attempts to come to terms with a large and puzzling variety of past and present religious philosophies and beliefs.9

There are, of course, marks of obvious derivativeness. Indeed Sharp seems to have modeled his own image of poetic self on Shelley. Wordsworth’s presence is identifiable too, especially in the first part of "The Human Inheritance," with its theme of the happy child, and its tone of narrative recollection in tranquillity. That spasmodic, poetic bildungsroman Festus was undoubtedly effective in providing a model for Sharp’s panoramic historical purview in "The New Hope."10 And in both these poems, almost overwhelmed by all the heavy formal machinery of English romanticism, was a transcendental vision of the natural world, part of the residue of his favorite readings in Emerson. Finally Walt Whitman, whose vitalism Sharp shared throughout this work and in all his serious poetry thereafter, provided the ebullient epigraph for the entire volume, a fragment from "Starting from Paumonok" beginning "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems."

But the fundamental, unifying principle of these poems can be seen as characteristically Sharp’s, the fascination with the variety and relativity of subjective experience. Thus "The Human Inheritance," divided into four parts or "cycles," one for each of the ages of man, may be classed as a series of case studies in human emotional development. The first cycle, "Childhood’s Inheritance," is of peculiar interest as background: it is set in Scotland and discloses a child growing almost wildly on the moors, in union and communion with his natural surroundings, and developing in spirit through the beneficent agency of nature and clean living. He is in some ways like the later "Peterkin" of Fiona Macleod without his visions, and both pieces show the same tendency to romanticize childhood, though in the earlier work Sharp has not yet developed the wistful vocabulary of wonder so idiomatic in Fiona Macleod. Not surprisingly, the child of "Childhood’s Inheritance" manages to be "sunny" in spite of being motherless, and almost in spite of being fatherless, for his father, his only surviving guardian, is really only a functional link with the adult world, and appears vaguely and fleetingly just outside the undefined boundary of the child’s immediate consciousness.

But one fact related to Sharp’s development as a poet of environment must be made clear. Though we are told the child is a Scottish child, and the landscape he gambols in a Scottish landscape, such knowledge is not sustained through any evocative power of the description itself. The scenery used as background is generic natural scenery, and has little, if any, of the distinctive quality of Fiona Macleod’s later Scottish landscapes. But there is already evident the poet’s ability, exercised through his child-surrogate, to identify with and project himself into his natural surroundings. This has great significance for the direction of Sharp’s future growth, and suggests one way that contemporary esthetic thought was beginning to be incorporated into his imaginative equipment. Henri Frédèric Amiel, whose Journal intime was enjoying great popularity in these years, entered in that journal a statement that might have been the title to a study of nineteenth-century painting: "un paysage est un état d’ame." It might also have been the working hypothesis behind much nineteenth-century poetry. Certainly it sanctioned a great deal of Sharp’s own literary practice. Some of Baudelaire’s esthetic utterances were of an equally congenial kind. "What is pure art according to the modern conception?" asked the French poet in "L’art philosophique." "It is to create a suggestive magic that can hold both object and subject, the exterior world to the artist, and the artist himself."11

Sharp is highly representative of the British mode of assimilating and expressing this outlook. His trip to Australia and back again through the South Pacific, abortive though it may have been as a family investment, bore fruit of this imaginative kind. The Australian landscape was eventually to find its way into "Old Age’s Inheritance," the fourth cycle of the "Inheritance" series, and again into "Australian Sketches," part of Sharp’s second volume of poems, published in 1884.12 But the Pacific Islands provided the background for the second cycle of "The Human Inheritance," on youth. The young hero of this cycle has gone to sea in a merchant ship. His foreshortened odyssey consists of enjoying a romantic adventure with a Haidée-like native maiden when his ship is forced to make a short stopover on a Pacific island. The actual experience of visiting the islands seemed to have awakened in the poet, already receptive to natural scenery in an extraordinary way, a response to the great variations in landscape and climate which nature is capable. Nature here is shown in its raw, tropical force, and the hero responds to it by dint of a special faculty for seeing beyond and deeper-every clod

Of earth that holds a flow’r root is to him
The casement of a miracle.13

The youth’s love affair with the primitive girl is passionate, brief, and fatal. Her grassy hut is struck by lightning during a violent tropical storm, and she and her family are discovered as charred bodies. The poet is making a clear attempt to draw a symbolic correspondence between the inexorably self-destructive force of the fatal passion, and the natural phenomena themselves. This particular correspondence, though in one sense merely illustrative of a pattern of correspondences ("correspondances’---a key concept for the French symbolist), is interesting as one which Sharp was to exploit again in a later novel, The Children of To-morrow (1889). In that story, a pair of lovers divided by religion and social convention, and nothing else, is struck by lightning while engaged in a furiously passionate embrace which they have had the temerity to attempt in a wooded grove, at the edge of the sea, during an electrical storm.

It is not really a digression here to point out that Sharp’s fascination with love in its extremes, either of violent passion or overwhelming tenderness, is something he shares with his contemporaries by virtue of the fundamental semi-scientific curiosity about human nature of which something has already been said. In the area of human sexual behavior, it was by the examination of extremes, of unconventional behavior, even of aberrations, that many later Victorians saw the possibility of negotiating the entire range of the emotional life of "the human animal." The interest in feminism and in sexual inversion expressed by men like Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and J. A. Symonds, is representative.

Still, in exploring these extremes, Sharp made an effort to rely as far as possible on his own experience. Thus, the love that is expressed as, overwhelming tenderness in the "Manhood" cycle of the "Inheritance" series has in many details close points of contact with Sharp’s real romance with Elizabeth; one instance is the name of the woman herself, Lillian, "Lill" being the familiar nickname Sharp used for his wife. The Memoir offers no factual basis for the veiled allusion to a love triangle in "Manhood," but it does provide the data behind other inclusions---the London background, the meetings in public parks (in actual life necessitated by the clandestine nature of Lill’s romance with a ne’er-do-well first cousin), and the sense of singular mental and spiritual affinity to which Mrs. Sharp often discreetly alluded and which undoubtedly helped them to survive the many vicissitudes of their lengthy engagement and frequent separations of time and distance during their marriage. Sharp’s attempt, however unsuccessful, to reproduce the experience of absolute soul-harmony in love, is something he persisted in, and for which as Fiona Macleod he finally found the proper medium-myth. In this fairly realistic early effort, however, he is dependent upon effusions of eternal devotion, and unconvincingly glorifies the woman as a medium of heavenly exaltation. The result is the creation of a kind of divine troubadour ideal, distinctly misplaced in nineteenth-century London. Stopford Brooke, writing to Sharp about his newly published work, prophetically observed that Sharp possessed too much faculty for reporting nature, and too little "humanity": "The poem in the midst of The Human Inheritance, Cycle III," he wrote, "is nearest to the human heart and yet the least well-written of all the cycles"14 But Sharp was not to give up trying.

The poem then leaps many years to the most hypothetical (for the young poet) of the ages of man, and an Australian wilderness is the desolate setting for another "autopsychic" narrative, this time the obverse of the first. Here an old man is living out his last days in devoted contemplation of his wife, now dead, and the sons, now grown, that she bore him. His salutary meditations on his own impending death consist in his being

not glad to leave the earth,
Yet wishing not to shun the soul’s rebirth
Through the dark womb of death.15

The piece is really no more than a concoction which permits Sharp to express some of the eschatological opinions that had emerged from a deep concern with death and immortality during the period of his alienation from his family religion.16 He had set out to explore the human inheritance with dogged dedication of purpose, and produced a dogged and unsatisfying exploration.

Once again, the underlying unity of impulse behind Sharp’s early work is illustrated by "Motherhood," the most striking, as it was certainly the most controversial, of Sharp’s poetic attempts in this first volume.17 Three kinds of mothers are portrayed, in Sharp’s own words, "the brute, the savage, and the civilized woman."18 The poem is another instance, in a different area, of the poeticized sociological data-gathering of some of "The Human Inheritance." It comes as no surprise that at about this time Olive Schreiner, author of Story of an African Farm, and an active feminist as well as close London friend of the Sharps, was making a study of the social laws behind female subjection that included precise parallels of Sharp’s three categories. Sharp was clearly as fascinated with the moral implications of the birth experience as he was with the moral implications of man’s outlook on death. Manifest in this poem is his interest in the physical and physiological components of the birth process itself, and how these were related to its significance as a spiritual and moral event. The union of science and poetry is inherent in the sequential documentary structure of the poem, which is on the one hand dramatic, and on the other an invitation to spatial and chronological comparison or contrast. It sets up, objectively and without commentary, a confrontation of different states or attitudes that suggests both the unity and the relativity of experience. The point is clear: in essentials, the experience of motherhood is the same for all forms of life. It supplies a unifying principle for all the phenomena of creation, despite wide variations of sensibility and culture. But another note is struck here that will tend to become permanent with Sharp: at all three levels of increasingly sensible and conscious experience, a moment of crisis is suffered in which, dimly but perceptibly, the suffering female recalls the past experience of her predecessors in the line of evolution. Sharp is asserting the persistence of racial or animal memory throughout the evolutionary process---a subliminal knowledge of generic past experience in each individual creature at her particular level of developed consciousness.

This concept was not new with Sharp, for a similar kind of unconscious or race memory had been one of the resources of Alton Locke in Charles Kingsley’s novel of the same name published in 1850. In greatly varying degrees of explicitness, in fact, it was to be found in many Victorian writers, shadowily in Meredith’s Egoist, more solidly in Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, and quite directly in Butler’s treatise Unconscious Memory. Butler’s work, appearing as it did in 1880, may have had a direct effect on Sharp. For Lafcadio Hearn, in this as in so many other respects parallel to Sharp, it was the core idea of his literary philosophy.19 The theory lay squarely behind much of the mythmaking of the Celtic movement, and had a strong formative influence on the imagination of Fiona Macleod.

Increased consciousness, as the feature that distinguished one higher form from its lower predecessor, was one of the axioms of those theorists who looked upon evolution as convincing illustration of natural progress. Sharp seems to have adopted this principle too, one which would receive strong support a few years later from the redoubtable mathematician---philosopher W. K. Clifford, in his Cosmic Emotion,20 ‘a work that influenced the young revolutionary writers of the late eighties'.   But Sharp had been assisted also, as surely the theorizers themselves had not been, by a sense, derived from his studies of spiritualism and folklore, that spirits of the past could and did dwell in men of the present, with the cumulative effect of giving some men, of sufficiently high sensibility to perceive their presence, a more complicated spiritual life than others.

"The New Hope" is a longer and more outright first-person disquisition on the same theme of increased consciousness, and of racial memory progressing through evolution. Here the basis of man’s link with the past, and with other men of varying cultures and ideologies is religion and not maternity. "The New Hope" is too palpably an essay on religious philosophy to be a very good poem, and somewhat too rapt in its tone to be very good philosophy. Reconstructed, however, the essential message is fairly clear---that centuries of religious institutionalizing have blinded man to "the glory of life," and have turned his attention to the rewards or punishments due him in the hereafter rather than to his compatibility with nature in the here-and-now. Though the philosophy is a rather patent compound of pagan wisdom, Stoic and Epicurean, Sharp emphasizes its modernity. The greatest of nature’s laws being death, modern religious thought has shown its superiority to the teachings of the past (presumably, the Christian past) precisely in its assertion, as Sharp sees it, that death must be faced with hope instead of fear. Once again, as in "Motherhood," Sharp proposes that the recrudescence in history of similar religious forms and myths is evidence of a racial or generic consciousness, along with an inexorable religious need. But modern man, besides recognizing the instinctual basis of religion, has also come to recognize the basis of true religion as the acceptance of change, both in the experience of the individual and in that of the race. Thus within his own lifetime a man may undergo a series of moral deaths and regenerations, finding in these reason for the acceptance of the process of flux, and realizing thereby the "new hope." On these same grounds he may also find the "new charity," so to speak, for the underlying unity of all creation in its manifest diversity is the most prominent feature of this entire philosophy; when acceptance and joy replace reluctance, resistance, and fear, the result ought to be a general love of all creation. The man who recognizes the beneficent purpose of death may thus see

A vision of life in some divine new birth . . .
Beyond himself, beyond the human soul . . .
[Which] blooms into the flower of praise
. . . for . . . that mighty love, whose breath,
Whose gift to life is never-lying death,---
Eternal change.21

Sharp was unaware at the time that around this same philosophy would grow the essential, distinguishing form of Fiona Macleod’s Celtic art. The source of all the thrust she gave to the Celtic movement lay in her conviction that the very passing of the Celtic races would be evidence of a "spiritual rebirth" that could move the world.

Again, the link between science and poetry, even in this species of esthetic fatalism, cannot be overemphasized. A limited scientific education might well have assisted Sharp in the very phrasing of notions that so absorbed into intelligible harmony death, love, and beauty. One contemporary biological treatise had it that admitting the theory of evolution we are not only entitled to the hope, but logically compelled to the assurance that . . . [the] rare fruits of an apparently more than earthly paradise of love, which only the forerunners of the race have been privileged to gather, or---it may be to see from distant heights, are yet the realities of a daily life towards which we and ours may journey.22

The treatise quoted here was published some years after Sharp’s poem, and is not therefore being cited as a source. Curiously, however, its authors, Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thompson, were to become close partners of Sharp later on as founders of the Scottish branch of the Celtic movement, and their similarity of views must have played its part in sealing their association. Their community of mind is one of the most interesting and characteristic phenomena of this period. Scientific thinkers moving empirically, and literary thinkers moving intuitively, were able, for possibly the last time in history, to travel simultaneously the same lines. Butler’s theories (and indeed his quarrel with Darwin over getting credit for them) are another pertinent illustration of this phenomenon. Perhaps Geddes and Thompson’s book, The Evolution of Sex, was, to their fellow empiricists, a dramatic thesis on the development of sexual differentiation in living organisms. But to nonscientists it could only have served as useful confirmation of what they had for some time imagined. Certainly it worked in beautifully with their views, and is striking evidence, ignored by casual critics of "decadence," that the union of love and death was not a mere contrivance of morbid minds but the scientifically documented conclusion of respected biological evolutionists. Geddes and Thompson based their work entirely on the thesis that reproduction is a function of "katabolic crisis’---a crisis of decline---and is an expression of the consequent and contrary desire for vicarious immortality. Still almost untouched by the divisive force of specialization, they were not averse to drawing the same metaphysical conclusions as the poets, that love and death were thus inextricably associated.23 An exuberant optimism, then, a romantic "wonder," and not a decadent impulse at all---a profound social, scientific, and artistic curiosity, finding itself upon an opening frontier---is the key to all of Sharp’s responses to his world. That same exuberance provided one of the several reasons for his choice of the traditional romantic child as correlative of the proper attitude toward life. Undoubtedly the Victorian Blake revival, so much advanced through Rossetti, had a great deal to do with the quantity of brief childlike lyrics in Sharp’s early poetry. But the Blake tradition seems only to provide literary sanction for what is essentially Sharp’s personal psychological need to justify his rebellious resistance to any authoritarian pressures, and to restore himself to an imaginative state of freshness, independent of ties to people, dependent only on nature itself.

Thus a passion for the primitive, the vital, the unconventional, the unspoiled, the unsophisticated, and the untrammeled is characteristic of these early poems. Sharp, rests his sympathy in the "natural" man, as well as in the natural landscape, as pure and raw as possible. The Scottish moor in cycle I of "The Human Inheritance," the Pacific Island of the "Youth" cycle, with its brown maidens swimming naked in the sea, the Australian wilderness of "Old Age’s Inheritance" all these are of a piece with the simple, bold nature-sketches of the "Transcripts from Nature" and the glorification of the child. They all form part of a view of life which consistently favors innocence, and which is already more than half-way toward damning experience. It is a thoroughly conventional romantic attitude, yet one with ramifications of a special kind for Sharp as an incipient form of a dual view of life. For the moment, nature and civilization are merely juxtaposed. An invidious contrast may be implied, as in "Motherhood," or in the "Manhood" cycle of the "Inheritance" series, but it is not spelled out. In the latter poem, no invidious criticism of the city is offered beyond the cliché that cities are the "busy haunts of men," but even there Sharp does not seem to take much pleasure in describing civilized human relations, nor, as Stopford Brooke pointed out, does he do it especially well. Though present here only in embryonic form, the polarity of the civilized and the primitive will later come to be an intrinsic part of Sharp’s vision, partially defining his artistic personalities as he conceives them. There are represented here other devices in the craft of the mind that opposes itself---sudden contrast, interior dialogue, ironic comparison---but these are present to no greater extent than they would probably be in many, if not most, young writers with a limited range for interpreting experience.

When all is considered, at any rate, Sharp reveals himself as an exponent from the start of a highly functional, nonpathological narcissism. He is fascinated with himself, with his own personality, as a trustworthy and fundamentally interesting medium of experience, whose vision Ought not to be violated by fiction. He is, of course, predisposed to thinking of that "self" as a natural, unprejudiced, and unconventional man. Precisely how this conviction was to be set forth in artistic form is a problem. One special use he makes of nature as a moral and emotional equivalent for his internal experience is his characteristic strategy for groping after that wished-for self. The following extracts from, "Transcripts from Nature" are good examples.

The furtive lights that herald dawn
Are shimmering mid the steel-blue firs;
A slow awakening wind half stirs
And the long branches breathe upon;
The east grows clearer-clearer-lo,
The day is born! a refluent flow
Of silver waves along each tree
For one brief moment dazzlingly.

. . .

Between the salt sea-send before
And all the flowing gulfs behind,
Half lifted by the rising wind,
Half eager for the ungain’d shore,
A great green wave of shining light
Sweeps onward crowned with dazzling white:
Above, the east wind shreds the sky
With plumes from the grey clouds that fly.24

Not great poetry by any means, but observant to a high degree, and bearing a suggestive resemblance to impressionistic painting in its focus on sheer visual experience and on light. Yet there is here, and even more in later poetry of similar form, an attempt also to define and isolate such visual experience by a fine process of selection, to the point that it becomes no mere neutral description of matter, but evokes a precise, self-contained emotion. In this, a primitive form of expressionism, and in his total reliance on a sensitive, almost scientific response to natural phenomena, Sharp largely departs from the manner of some of the literary influences of his early career, alleged by his critics to have been so overwhelming. He widely misses the prevailing hothouse quality of Rossetti, Swinburne, and Pater, to whose esthetics he was otherwise so susceptible. The Rossetti who described nature with the eye of the painter, of whom Sharp himself ruefully observed that only one of his poems "was composed in the open air,"25 the Swinburne whose descriptions were woven into a tapestry of human emotional experience, the Pater whose stained-glass faculties hardly seemed designed to invite clear and unimpeded perception---none of these could have instructed Sharp in his perceptual strategy. A professor at Glasgow University named John Veitch, under whom Sharp studied the logical methods of science, could have done so, for he published a work entitled "The Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry."26 It is rather probable, however, that in devising this strategy Sharp was responding to new esthetic movements superseding these older influences, and to which he was highly attuned by his early vagabondage.

Indeed, those same great men of Sharp’s London experience appear to have received their private translation through Sharp’s eyes. It was the man Rossetti who, from the evidence of Sharp’s critical and biographical essays on him, certainly touched him most deeply, and who, as Sharp saw him, showed even in his decline a deep receptivity to the natural world. Swinburne’s childlike pleasure in the sea was the source of Sharp’s greatest delight in him.27 He characteristically worshipped Pater’s Renaissance as "a gospel of joy"; yet it was Pater the man, and not merely the appreciator, who left his most profound mark on him. Within that strangely elusive human being, Sharp was able to perceive a student and observer of natural phenomena, whose response indeed carried a height of feeling amounting nearly to mysticism, but who could also dispel self sufficiently to say to Sharp on their first meeting in 1881 how delighted he was at the prospect of hearing the adventures of a man "who had traveled much and far, and experienced not a few strange vicissitudes"28 Whether or not the Pater of Sharp’s perception was the true Pater, the Sharp of Pater’s perception was certainly an insight into the true Sharp. His own confession that one of the happiest moments of his life was the discovery that Rossetti "liked" him, is another29 An ebullient and rosy "Viking in build," eager in proportion to his social naiveté, vain of himself in proportion to his hunger for the affection of men, overflowing with an abundance of experiences he had so far only enjoyed alone and was impatient to relate to others, yet clearly no glib courtier ready for the casual barter of such experiences, Sharp was bound, amid the highly unstable artistic life of the London eighties, to make enough social and literary mistakes to require the construction, eventually, of a strategy for protecting the sacred sphere of his imaginative life from violation by the profane.

Indeed, from the point of view of Sharp’s development, the only fault with the London intellectual and artistic circle in which he moved was that it was breaking if not already broken. It was owing partly to a habit of isolation acquired early, but also partly to the fact of finding himself in an artistic atmosphere decidedly in flux, that he was compelled to grope as frantically as he did for an artistic modus operandi. New circles were opening and closing around him everywhere and every day. But they would prove either too tight to include him, or too loose to provide a real basis for shared artistic feeling and experience. By the time the Celtic movement captured him in the nineties, Sharp had so systematized his loneliness that he could not absorb from that movement the kind of inspiration provided by mutuality of artistic life. Actually, that movement, particularly its Edinburgh phase (as Sharp himself saw with such penetration later on), did not possess the vital stuff on such mutuality. Had even such sympathies as later generated by shared Celtism existed earlier, however, he might have developed quite a different-and stronger-artistic voice. But so too would many another artist of his generation. From the standpoint of art, for those who have not the stamp of inexorable genius, there is not only safety but vitality in numbers. The sense of artistic community was lacking for others as it was for him, and be may for this very reason be more typical than isolated and autonomous luminaries of the doubtfilled, floundering quest for identity that characterized his generation.

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