The following poem by Wells appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on 13 March, 1894:
A meeting under the greenwood tree
In a soft, leaf-filtered light;
A meeting or so, and a passion to know
If I read your eyes aright.
A parting under the greenwood tree
A delicate passion of pain
And soberly I return to my
Mature and elegant Jane.
Some comments on these lines in a moment…but first, the subject of Wells’s poetry arose in an on-line exchange with Susan Pearce, author of Acts of Love (University of Victoria Press), over her stimulating blog post, Where do ideas come from?
In the post she discusses some musings about inspiration by the literary slapstick artist, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Cheat, Pray, Love), and the strange disparity between a writer’s personal vision of the world and the vision presented by his or her art. Susan mentions an article by John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, which points to H.G. Wells as just such a case of a bifurcated personality — a man who professed a faith in the world-saving potential of science even as his art (a la The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Zireaux) spoke otherwise.
Here is our exchange:
Zireaux: I appreciate your thoughts here, Susan. This strikes me, however, as a misreading of Wells. He was a very young Herbert when he wrote his great romantic novel, The Time Machine; and a very mature Herbert when he embraced — or I would say, was embraced by — the political snake of Bolshevism. Something tells me this talk of the writing process, of the sub-conscious, of “characters coming alive on the page, telling me what to do etc” (a modern banality, let’s be honest) is something the Bolshevik writers of today would call refreshing. For a comedian like Gilbert, and for her flock, I find myself compelled to buff the gold-plated sign beneath a genius like Wells: “Please do not touch.”
Can I recommend you have a look at my comments on “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“? This is as far as I go on the topic of a “writing process,” and it’s perhaps too pseudo-scientific for my taste (in retrospect); but you may find it relevant to your post.
Susan Pearce: Your insight on Wells is interesting. Not being an expert on the man or his writings, I’ve taken John Gray at his word. Maybe he has conflated Wells’ career to make a point. Neither do I know enough about the details of Bolshevism to be able to grasp exactly why current Bolshevik writers (who are they?) would be keen on ‘talk of the writing process, of the subconscious [etc]‘. Would you enlighten me?
I gather that you don’t like ‘talk of the writing process’: it’s something I like to think about, because it hasn’t been a straightforward path for me, though is becoming more so. I use ‘sub-conscious’ pretty loosely, and mean by it ‘what we don’t know we know’. As far as the modern banality, I’d hoped to make clear in the post that like Nabokov (‘my characters are galley slaves’), I too dislike the notion that the character can take over from the writer like some external spirit.
I’m amused that you recommend I look at comments that you now find beneath you. I enjoyed your discussion of Larkin and Nabokov. ‘Pseudo-science’: the word comes in useful to describe quacks or the over-enthusiastic of any description using mock-science to try to market unproven theories. However, it’s inevitable that those of us who are fascinated by what neurology, quantum physics, cosmology etc tell us (insofar as we understand it) will try to draw some parallels with what we do know. If we’re not to become quacks ourselves, we have to be aware of the biases of the ‘science writers’ we read or listen to, and of when the scientists themselves correct us. Those conditions set in place, I think it’s misleading to call those discussions ‘pseudo-science’.Zireaux: I suppose every era has its Bolsheviks, its philistines, its Oprahs and Chopras, its creative writing schools, Red Books and Facebooks, gurus and Gilrus, Rasputins and RasPalins.
Interesting if we compare three of the English literary sensations of the fin de siècle period — Twain, Kipling, Wells. International luminaries, all three. Sought after world-wide for their views on politics, science, futurism.
Twain, bankrupt Twain, having toured the globe, comes away least scathed by such mundanities, his artistic heart still beating strong (real heart flagging). Kipling grabs politics by the horns — a mistake, no doubt, impaled as he was — but at least in my mind he chose the most honorable fight. I’d let Kipling cast my vote on just about any issue, any day.
Wells, however, Wells is a tragic case. To me the secret to John Gray’s article lies in Wells’s “flash of passion” for Gorky’s partner and Soviet spy, Moura Budberg. Wells lacked the word-love of Twain and Kipling. His verse — the few lines of it I’ve been able to locate (not including the doggerel of Ann Veronica) is badly tuned. His art, it seems to me, relies primarily on the strength of his loins. Gray calls Wells’s works “Scientific Romances.” I call them “Romances,” but anything is better than “Science Fiction,” which, although it might apply to someone like Verne, is a travesty for the genius Wells possessed.
If you enjoy the stark asphalt-and-plastic pathway from Nabokov to neuroscience, you might want to read Brian Boyd’s book — The Origin of Stories. For my part, however, I find little of interest in such works.
Susan Pearce: Zireaux, thank you for that comparison of Twain, Kipling and Wells. The example of some contemporary writers (e.g. McEwan & Amis) would reinforce your point that it is indeed dangerous for writers to venture into commentary on politics, etc: that it does result, as you say, in mundanities.
I do reflect on how to get myself sitting at the desk (no podium here) when there’s the opportunity. And I like to think about how to generate more ideas and get over that block where you just don’t know where the story’s going. Thus my posts on the writing process.
However, although I appreciate your book recommendation, I don’t think I’ll get to it. What keeps me listening to science podcasts etc is not that I want to know the scientific detail of how the ‘creative mind’ works. It’s simply that I love the weird ideas which speak to us about a possible reality we can only begin to imagine. I don’t *think* I want to write science fiction, but it seems to me that even if our narratives describe events as we know them in this mechanical world, our narrative structures must begin to reflect the strain that this new knowledge places on us. Don’t ask me what I mean by that: I’m just beginning to figure it out.
————————-And that was the end of my exchange with Ms. Pearce. Now let’s return to Wells’s leafy little poem, the revealing (yet, alas, badly tuned) “Episodes.”
Try to imagine Newt Gingrich writing (and publishing for all to see) a poem like “Episodes” — a candid, artful ditty to adultery. Unlike Gingrich, Wells, the artist, could perceive the “Lover-Shadow,” as he called it, that part of his consciousness which lived “under the greenwood tree / in a soft, leaf-filtered light.” And Wells wrote honestly, unashamedly, about these shadowy passions, an approach which many readers at the time — be it out of fear, reserve, or simply an overabundance of commonness — found difficult to digest.
Wells was never asked to write about his passions. They leaked unbidden from his aesthetic glands while he busied himself for the Gazette with what were called “single-sitting” tales of science. Perhaps he wrote so little poetry because, in his mind, passion itself — the song of the mermaids — was never subject enough for an audience. Certainly not a paying subject. For Wells there was always a mysterious door between the city and the garden, the career and the caress, the “mature and elegant Jane” (his wife) and the “leaf-filtered light,” the industrial cauldrons of science and the fires raging in his heart.
I’m inclined to think that although Wells could feel the soft light of genius which shone upon him, he couldn’t possibly perceive the unfathomable fusion behind it. The sheer immensity of this genius (and I’m not talking about his visions of the future, which are actually quite trivial) produced artistic decisions in The Time Machine which seem to me far too brilliant for the person Wells was when he wrote it.
How can this be?
One finds this with other artists — Melville, Poe, Keats, Audobon (the ornithological painter) — as if these poor souls were the victims of a parasite, an artistic genius hatched within them, forcing them to act according to its whims. An illusion, I think, but a convincing one. In fact, Wells wrote his Time Machine again and again, draft after draft, and out of the over 100 books he produced in his lifetime, the quality of each corresponds, more or less, to the number of re-writes he ministered to their creation.
The miracle of Wells is not the divergence of his futuristic visions — between a curative science and a corrupting one. Rather it’s the ability to climb so completely into the machinery of his epoch — buttoned-up, in waistcoat and patent-leather shoes — while, at the same time, letting his passions transport him wherever they pleased.