- Author: James Branch Cabell
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CHIVALRY: Dizain des Reines JAMES BRANCH CABELL 1921
“AINSI A VOUS, MADAME, A MA TRÈS HAULTE ET TRÈS NOBLE DAME, A QUI J’AYME A DEVOIR ATTACHEMENT ET OBÉISSANCE, J’ENVOYE CE LIVRET.”
Few of the more astute critics who have appraised the work of James Branch Cabell have failed to call attention to that extraordinary cohesion which makes his very latest novel a further flowering of the seed of his very earliest literary work. Especially among his later books does the scheme of each seem to dovetail into the scheme of the other and the whole of his writing take on the character of an uninterrupted discourse. To this phenomenon, which is at once a fact and an illusion of continuity, Mr. Cabell himself has consciously contributed, not only by a subtly elaborate use of conjunctions, by repetition, and by reintroducing characters from his other books, but by actually setting his expertness in genealogy to the genial task of devising a family tree for his figures of fiction.
If this were an actual continuity, more tangible than that fluid abstraction we call the life force; if it were merely a tireless reiteration and recasting of characters, Mr. Cabell’s work would have an unbearable monotony. But at bottom this apparent continuity has no more material existence than has the thread of lineal descent. To insist upon its importance is to obscure, as has been obscured, the epic range of Mr. Cabell’s creative genius. It is to fail to observe that he has treated in his many books every mainspring of human action and that his themes have been the cardinal dreams and impulses which have in them heroic qualities. Each separate volume has a unity and harmony of a complete and separate life, for the excellent reason that with the consummate skill of an artist he is concerned exclusively in each book with one definite heroic impulse and its frustrations.
It is true, of course, that like the fruit of the tree of life, Mr. Cabell’s artistic progeny sprang from a first conceptual germ—“In the beginning was the Word.” That animating idea is the assumption that if life may be said to have an aim it must be an aim to terminate in success and splendor. It postulates the high, fine importance of excess, the choice or discovery of an overwhelming impulse in life and a conscientious dedication to its fullest realization. It is the quality and intensity of the dream only which raises men above the biological norm; and it is fidelity to the dream which differentiates the exceptional figure, the man of heroic stature, from the muddling, aimless mediocrities about him. What the dream is, matters not at all—it may be a dream of sainthood, kingship, love, art, asceticism or sensual pleasure—so long as it is fully expressed with all the resources of self. It is this sort of completion which Mr. Cabell has elected to depict in all his work: the complete sensualist in Demetrios, the complete phrase-maker in Felix Kennaston, the complete poet in Marlowe, the complete lover in Perion. In each he has shown that this complete self-expression is achieved at the expense of all other possible selves, and that herein lies the tragedy of the ideal. Perfection is a costly flower and is cultured only by an uncompromising, strict husbandry.
All this is, we see, the ideational gonfalon under which surge the romanticists; but from the evidence at hand it is the banner to which life also bears allegiance. It is in humanity’s records that it has reserved its honors for its romantic figures. It remembers its Caesars, its saints, its sinners. It applauds, with a complete suspension of moral judgment, its heroines and its heroes who achieve the greatest self-realization. And from the splendid triumphs and tragic defeats of humanity’s individual strivings have come our heritage of wisdom and of poetry.
Once we understand the fundamentals of Mr. Cabell’s artistic aims, it is not easy to escape the fact that in Figures of Earth he undertook the staggering and almost unsuspected task of rewriting humanity’s sacred books, just as in Jurgen he gave us a stupendous analogue of the ceaseless quest for beauty. For we must accept the truth that Mr. Cabell is not a novelist at all in the common acceptance of the term, but a historian of the human soul. His books are neither documentary nor representational; his characters are symbols of human desires and motives. By the not at all simple process of recording faithfully the projections of his rich and varied imagination, he has written thirteen books, which he accurately terms biography, wherein is the bitter-sweet truth about human life.
Among the scant certainties vouchsafed us is that every age lives by its special catchwords. Whether from rebellion against the irking monotony of its inherited creeds or from compulsions generated by its own complexities, each age develops its code of convenient illusions which minimize cerebration in dilemmas of conduct by postulating an unequivocal cleavage between the current right and the current wrong. It works until men tire of it or challenge the cleavage, or until conditions render the code obsolete. It has in it, happily, a certain poetic merit always; it presents an ideal to be lived up to; it gives direction to the uncertain, stray impulses of life.
The Chivalric code is no worse than most and certainly it is prettier than some. It is a code peculiar to an age, or at least it flourishes best in an age wherein sentiment and the stuff of dreams are easily translatable into action. Its requirements are less of the intellect than of the heart. It puts God, honor, and mistress above all else, and stipulates that a knight shall serve these three without any reservation. It requires of its secular practitioners the holy virtues of an active piety, a modified chastity, and an unqualified obedience, at all events, to the categorical imperative. The obligation of poverty it omits, for the code arose at a time when the spiritual snobbery of the meek and lowly was not pressing the simile about the camel and the eye of the needle. It leads to charming manners and to delicate amenities. It is the opposite of the code of Gallantry, for while the code of Chivalry takes everything with a becoming seriousness, the code of Gallantry takes everything with a wink. If one should stoop to pick flaws with the Chivalric ideal, it would be to point out a certain priggishness and intolerance. For, while it is all very well for one to cherish the delusion that he is God’s vicar on earth and to go about his Father’s business armed with a shining rectitude, yet the unhallowed may be moved to deprecate the enterprise when they recall, with discomfort, the zealous vicarship of, say, the late Anthony J. Comstock.
But here I blunder into Mr. Cabell’s province. For he has joined many graceful words in delectable and poignant proof of just that lamentable tendency of man to make a mess of even his most immaculate conceivings. When he wrote Chivalry, Mr. Cabell was yet young enough to view the code less with the appraising eye of a pawnbroker than with the ardent eye of an amateur. He knew its value, but he did not know its price. So he made of it the thesis for a dizain of beautiful happenings that are almost flawless in their verbal beauty.
It is perhaps of historical interest here to record the esteem in which Mark Twain held the genius of Mr. Cabell as it was manifested as early as a dozen years ago. Mr. Cabell wrote The Soul of Melicent, or, as it was rechristened on revision, Domnei, at the great humorist’s request, and during the long days and nights of his last illness it was Mr. Cabell’s books which gave Mark Twain his greatest joy. This knowledge mitigates the pleasure, no doubt, of those who still, after his fifteen years of writing, encounter him intermittently with a feeling of having made a great literary discovery. The truth is that Mr. Cabell has been discovered over and over with each succeeding book from that first fine enthusiasm with which Percival Pollard reviewed The Eagle’s Shadow to that generous acknowledgment by Hugh Walpole that no one in England, save perhaps Conrad and Hardy, was so sure of literary permanence as James Branch Cabell.
With The Cream of the Jest, Beyond Life, and Figures of Earth before him, it is not easy for the perceptive critic to doubt this permanence. One might as sensibly deny a future to Ecclesiastes, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, and the works of Rabelais as to predict oblivion for such a thesaurus of ironic wit and fine fantasy, mellow wisdom and strange beauty as Jurgen. But to appreciate the tales of Chivalry is, it seems, a gift more frequently reserved for the general reader than for the professional literary evaluator. Certainly years before discussion of Cabell was artificially augmented by the suppression of Jurgen there were many genuine lovers of romance who had read these tales with pure enjoyment. That they did not analyse and articulate their enjoyment for the edification of others does not lessen the quality of their appreciation. Even in those years they found in Cabell’s early tales what we find who have since been directed to them by the curiosity engendered by his later work, namely, a superb craftsmanship in recreating a vanished age, an atmosphere in keeping with the themes, a fluid, graceful, personal style, a poetic ecstasy, a fine sense of drama, and a unity and symmetry which are the hall-marks of literary genius.
BURTON RASCOE. New York City, September, 1921.
CONTENTS PRECAUTIONAL THE PROLOGUE I THE STORY OF THE SESTINA II THE STORY OF THE TENSON III THE STORY OF THE RAT-TRAP IV THE STORY OF THE CHOICES V THE STORY OF THE HOUSEWIFE VI THE STORY OF THE SATRAPS VII THE STORY OF THE HERITAGE VIII THE STORY OF THE SCABBARD IX THE STORY OF THE NAVARRESE X THE STORY OF THE FOX-BRUSH THE EPILOGUE
Imprimis, as concerns the authenticity of these tales perhaps the less debate may be the higher wisdom, if only because this Nicolas de Caen, by common report, was never a Gradgrindian. And in this volume in particular, writing it (as Nicolas is supposed to have done) in 1470, as a dependant on the Duke of Burgundy, it were but human nature should he, in dealing with the putative descendants of Dom Manuel and Alianora of Provence, be niggardly in his ascription of praiseworthy traits to any member of the house of Lancaster or of Valois. Rather must one in common reason accept old Nicolas as confessedly a partisan writer, who upon occasion will recolor an event with such nuances as will be least inconvenient to a Yorkist and Burgundian bias.
The reteller of these stories needs in addition to plead guilty of having abridged the tales with a free hand. Item, these tales have been a trifle pulled about, most notably in “The Story of the Satraps,” where it seemed advantageous, on reflection, to put into Gloucester’s mouth a history which in the original version was related ab ovo, and as a sort of bungling prologue to the story proper.
Item, the re-teller of these stories desires hereby to tender appropriate acknowledgment to Mr. R. E. Townsend for his assistance in making an English version of the lyrics included hereinafter; and to avoid discussion as to how freely, in these lyrics, Nicolas has plagiarized from Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and other elder poets.1
And—“sixth and lastly”—should confession be made that in the present rendering a purely arbitrary title has been assigned this little book; chiefly for commercial reasons, since the word “dizain” has been adjudged both untranslatable and, in its pristine form, repellantly outré.
You are to give my titular makeshift, then, a wide interpretation; and are always to remember that in the bleak, florid age these tales commemorate this Chivalry was much the rarelier significant of any personal trait than of a world-wide code in consonance with which all estimable people lived and died. Its root was the assumption (uncontested then) that a gentleman will always serve his God, his honor and his lady without any reservation; nor did the many emanating by-laws ever deal with special cases as concerns this triple,