This is an age of weak conviction and strong pretence. Christianity is perishing of intellectual atrophy. Its scriptures and its dogmas are falling into more and more discredit. Mr. Gladstone may defend the Bible with passionate devotion and lofty ignorance, but better informed Christians see that the Old Testament is doomed. They say it must be read in a new light. Its science and history must be regarded as merely human; nay, its very morality savors of the barbarism of the Jews. Only its best ethical teaching, and its upward aspirations, are to be regarded as the workings or God in the Jewish mind. Nor is this all. There is a revolt against the supernaturalism of the New Testament. Christians like Dr. Abbott explain away the Resurrection as no physical fact, but a spiritual conception. The creed of Christendom is gradually melting away like a northern iceberg floating into southern seas. Pinnacle after pinnacle of glittering dogma, loosens, falls, and sinks for ever. Only the central block remains intact, and we are assured it will never change. The storms of controversy will never rend it; the rays of the sun of science will never make an impression on its marble firmness. But Freethinkers smile at this cheap boast. They know the thaw will continue until the last fragment has melted into the infinite ocean.
The central, indissoluble part of Christianity is Jesus Christ. He will never fade, we are told. He is not for an age, but for all time. When all the dogmas of the Churches have perished, the divine figure of Christ will survive, and flourish in immortal beauty. All the world will yet worship him. "Christ" will be the universal passport in the depths of China, in the wilds of Africa, on the Tartar steppes, and among the haunted ruins of old Asia, as well as in the present Christendom of Europe and America.
This prophecy is very pretty, but it lacks precision. The prophets forget to tell us whether the divine figure of Christ is to be human or supernatural; the grandest of men or the smallest of gods. If he be indeed a god, they are playing strange tricks with his works and sayings; while, if he be indeed a mere man, they forget to explain how it is likely that the human race will ever look back to a single dead Jew as the moral microcosm, the consummate spiritual flower of humanity, the beacon of ideal life to every generation of voyagers on the sea of time.
Logic, however, must not be expected of Christians, at least in an age of dissolving views like the present. They will go on quoting Kenan's prize-essay panegyric on Christ, without any reference to the rest of his Vie de Jesus. They will persist in quoting Mill's farfetched eulogy, without referring to other passages in the essay On Liberty. But this is not all, nor even the worst. The sentimentalism of "popular" and "advanced" Christianity is turning Jesus Christ into a hero of romance. He is taking the place of King Arthur, of blameless memory; and we shall soon see the Apostles take the place of the Knights of the Round Table. Rancid orators and flatulent poets are gathering to the festival Jesus Christ will make a fine speech for the one set, and fine copy for the other. The professional biographers will cut in for a share in the spoil, and the brains of impudence will be ransacked to eke out the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Lives of Christ are becoming quite fashionable. Fleetwood's honest but prosaic book had fallen into-neglect. The very maulers of old bookstalls thrust out their tongues at at. The still older book of Jeremy Taylor—a work of real genius and golden eloquence—was too stiff reading for an idle generation. Just in the nick of time the English translation of Kenan appeared. The first edition was less scientific than the thirteenth. Kenan had only just broken away from the Catholic Church; he was also under the influence of his visit to Palestine; his Vie de Jesus was therefore a sentimental Parisian romance; the smell of patchouli was on every page. Yet here and there the quick reader caught the laugh of Voltaire.
Kenan's book set a new vogue. The severe, critical Strauss was laid aside in England, and "the Savior's" life was "cultivated on new principles." By and bye the writers and publishers found there was "money in it." Jesus Christ could be made to pay. Dr. Farrar made thousands out of his trashy volumes, and his publishers netted a fortune. Mr. Haweis has done the same trick with four volumes. Ward Beecher spent his last days on a Life of Christ. Talmage is occupied on the same labor of love—and profit. Even the Catholic Church is not behindhand. Pere Didon has put forth his Life of Christ in two fat volumes as an antidote to the poison of Kenan. And the end is not yet. Nevertheless we see the beginning of the end. It was bound to come. After the prose writers prance the versifiers, and Sir Edward Arnold is first in the motley procession.
Sir Edward Arnold's Light of Asia was a fairly good piece of work. He had caught the trick of Tennysonian blank-verse, and he put some of the best features of Buddhism before the English public in a manner that commanded attention. Standing aloof from Buddhism himself, though sympathising with it, he was able to keep an impartial attitude. Further, he stuck to the Buddhist stories as he found them. All the license he took was that of selection and versification. But his recent Light of the World is another matter. He dishes up Jesus Christ in it, and Pontius Pilate and Mary Magdalene and the Wise Men of the East, as freely as Tennyson dishes up Arthur and Launcelot and Guinevere and the rest of that famous company. His style, too, is Tennysonian, to a certain degree. It is something like the Master's on its general level, but we miss the flashing felicities, the exquisite sentence or image that makes us breathless with sudden pleasure. Sir Edward's style has always a smack of the Daily Telegraph. He is high-flown in expressing even small ideas, or in describing trivialities.
Like a true Christian and courtier, Sir Edwin Arnold dedicates his book to "the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty." Those who fear God must also honor the king; and did not Jesus himself tell us to render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar's, as well as unto God the things that be God's? We presume Sir Edwin's dedication is "with permission." We also presume it will help the sale and promote his chance of the poet-laureateship.
After the dedication comes the "Proeme" of eight couplets, occupying a separate page, faced and backed with virgin paper.
The sovereign voice spake, once more, in mine ear: "Write, now, a song unstained by any tear!"
"What shall I write?" I said: the voice replied: "Write what we tell thee of the crucified!"
"How shall I write," I said, "who am not meet One word of that sweet speaking to repeat?"
"It shall be given unto thee! Do this thing!" Answered the voice: "Wash thy lips clean, and sing!"
This "proeme" is, to say the least of it, peculiar. The "sovereign voice" can hardly be the Queen's. It must be God Almighty's. Sir Edwin Arnold is therefore inspired. He writes as it is "given unto" him. And before he begins, by divine direction, he washes his lips clean; though he omits to tell us how he did it, whether with a flannel or a pocket-handkerchief.
It is well to know that Sir Edwin is inspired. Carnal criticism is thus disarmed and questions become blasphemous. But if Sir Edwin had not been inspired we should have offered certain remarks and put certain queries. For instance, how does he know that the star of the Nativity was "a strange white star"? May it not have been red, yellow, blue, or green—especially green? How did he discover that the Magi, or priests of the Zoroastrian religion, were really Buddhists and came from India? Had Sir Edwin less communication with the "sovereign voice," we should have imagined that the Magi were transformed into Buddhists for the sake of convenience; Sir Edwin knowing comparatively little of the Persic faith, but a good deal of the Indian, and possessing a natural itch to display his own learning. Further we should have asked him how he discovered that by three years after the Crucifixion the Christian faith had spread to Athens and Rome. According to all previous records the statement is simply preposterous. But the "sovereign voice" has spoken through Sir Edwin Arnold, and thrown quite a fresh light on the earliest history of Christianity. Then, again, we should have been curious to know why Sir Edwin accepted the legend of Mary Magdalene being the tenant of Magdal Tower, a place that never existed (as we thought) but in the geography of faith. Humanly speaking, it seemed probable that the lady's name had relation to head-dressing. But we live and learn, and in the course of time the "sovereign voice" settles all these things.
There is no clear record in the gospels of Jesus Christ's visit to Tyre, but Sir Edwin assures us he spent a few hours there—perhaps on an excursion—and we bow to the "sovereign voice." Nor is there a scholar in Christendom who regards the pretended letter from Publius Lentulus to the Roman Senate as anything but a puerile forgery. Yet Sir Edwin mentions it in a footnote, apparently with respect; indeed, he founds upon it his personal description of Jesus. Once again, scholarship must bow to the "sovereign voice." By the way, however, the Lentulus epistle describes the hair of Jesus as "wine-color." This is adopted by Sir Edwin, who construes is as "hazel," though—barring inspiration and the "sovereign voice"—it might have meant the color which is sometimes politely, if not accurately, called auburn. Anyhow, the ancients were acquainted with various colored wines, and it is satisfactory to know the precise hue intended by the gentleman who wrote the epistle of Lentulus.
Sir Edwin represents Jesus as a Nazarite. Now, the Nazarites eschewed scissors and razors, but Sir Edwin says they parted their hair in the middle, which is another tip from the "sovereign voice." Sir Edwin flashes his inspiration on another point. Critics are satisfied that the Emperor Julian, the last of the Pagans, did not cry, Vicisti Galilae! Mr. Swinburne, however, as a merely carnal poet, employed the legend in his splendid "Proserpina," using it with superb effect in the young Pagan's retort, "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean!—thy dead shall go down to thee dead." But now the "sovereign voice" speaks through Sir Edwin Arnold, and the legend must stand as history.
Under the guidance of the "sovereign voice" Sir Edwin is able to enlighten us on the physiology of angels. These creatures are usually painted with wings. But this is a mistake. They are wingless; for where these live there blows no wind, Nor aught spreads, gross as air, nor any kind Of substance, whereby spirits' march is stopped.
Sir Edwin knows all about them. Angels do not need wings, and have none, moving apparently in vacuo. But what havoc this truth would make in the picture galleries of Europe. Raphael himself was mistaken. He took angels to be a species of fowl, whereas they are—well, Sir Edwin does not tell us. He tells us what they are not. What they are is, as usual, left to the fancy of the reader, who pays his money and takes his choice. Only he must beware of wings.
Positively the most gratifying thing in Sir Edwin's book is this. Under the influence of the "sovereign voice" he is able to tell us how God Almighty likes to be designated. Perhaps it is better not to name him at all, but if we must name him—and it seems hard to refrain from some term or other—we should call him Eloi. That is what Jesus called him, and we see no reason why it should not become fashionable.
Sir Edwin Arnold's method of dishing up Jesus Christ is certainly artful. It does credit to his Daily Telegraph training. Everybody knows that one of the chief difficulties of novelists is to make their wonderful heroes act and talk. Sir Edwin does not jump this difficulty. He shirks it. He takes up the story of Jesus after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Three years are allowed to elapse, to give the risen Nazarene time to get clean away, and then Sir Edwin begins business. After a preliminary section, in, which the three Magi are brought upon the scene, the body of the poem opens with Mary Magdalene, who does nearly all the talking to the very end. Indeed the poem should have been called after her, for it is really "Mary Magdalene on Jesus Christ." The lady gives her reminiscences—that is, Sir Edwin gives them for her. By this method he is able to omit all mention of the cruder features of the Gospel story. When Jesus played the devil with the pigs, for instance, Mary Magdalene was absent, and the incident forms no part of her narrative. Apparently, too, she was absent, or deaf, or thinking of something else, when he preached hell-fire and "believe or be damned." And as this pretty method of Mary-Arnold selection is pursued throughout, it will easily be seen that the poem is an arbitrary piece of highly-colored fiction, in which Jesus Christ is made to serve the author's purposes. In short it is "Christ Up to Date."
Sir Edwin's second piece of strategy is still more transparent. Mary Magdalene is represented as several ladies rolled into one, and her house is a perfect museum of relics. She is Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, the woman who anointed Christ's feet, and the Mary who helped to embalm him. She keeps the famous alabaster box in her cabinet; she boards and lodges the young woman that Jesus raised from the dead; and her brother Lazarus is also on show when required. Lazarus, too, is many single gentlemen rolled into one. He is the resurrected man, the young man who was told to sell his property and give the proceeds to the poor, and the young man who fled stark naked at the arrest of Jesus, leaving his clothes in the hands of his pursuers. This is a very convenient plan. It is history made easy, or the art of poetical bam-boozling.
Mary Magdalene has a long talk with Pontius Pilate, who is haunted by the memory of the pale Galilean. Afterwards she has several days' talk with an old Indian, who turns out to be the sole survivor of those three wise men from the East, come to find out all about the King of the Jews. His two colleagues had died without satisfying their curiosity. He himself did without news for thirty-six years, and only went back to Palestine after the King of the Jews had ended his career; the visit, of course, being timed to suit Sir Edwin Arnold's convenience.
Throughout the poem Mary Magdalene talks. Arnoldese. Here is a typical passage.
"It may be there shall come in after days—When this Good Spell is spread—some later scribes, Some far-off Pharisees, will take His law,—Written with Love's light fingers on the heart, Not stamped on stone 'mid glare of lightning-fork—Will take, and make its code incorporate; And from its grace write grim phylacteries To deck the head of dressed Authority; And from its golden mysteries forge keys To jingle in the belt of pious pride."
Can anyone imagine the seven-devilled Mary Magdalene conversing in this way?
Considered in the light of its title this poem is a mistake and a monstrous failure. It is also labored and full of "fine writing." Not only are the Gospel story and the teachings of Jesus played fast and loose with, but the simplest things are narrated in grandiose language, with a perfect glut of fanciful imagery, fetched in not to illustrate but to adorn. Here and there, however, the language of Jesus is paraphrased and damnably spoiled. What reader of the Gospes does not remember the exquisite English in which our translators have rendered the lament over Jerusalem? Sir Edwin parodies it as follows:—
How oft I would have gathered all thy children in As a hen clucks her chickens to her wings.
Surely this is perfectly ridiculous. The collecting and sheltering are put into the background by that dreadful "cluck," and the reader is forced to imagine Jesus as a clucking hen. On the whole, the Gospel writers were better artists than Sir Edwin Arnold.
To conclude. The poem contains plenty of "fine writing" and some good lines. But as a whole it is "neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring." As a picture of Jesus Christ it is a laborious absurdity; as a marketable volume it may be successful; and as a sample of Sir Edwin Arnold's powers and accomplishments it will perhaps impose on half-educated sentimentalists.