No 4 - 1975
The Exemplary Failure of T. H. Green
T. H. GREEN could be said to have provided an epigraph for his own work when he wrote of Butler that ‘his value as an ethical writer is due to the same cause which makes his speculation perplexed and self-contradictory’.* Praise of Green is not infrequently accompanied by major reservation and when it is unqualified it is of dubious value, as, for instance, ‘[he] sent us out once again on the high pilgrimage towards Ideal Truth’, (1) where the symptomatic ‘high’, as in ‘high idealism’, has a fulsomeness which Green for the most part succeeded in avoiding in his own work. ‘He would not have liked high language such as this to be applied to himself’, wrote Nettleship, of the obituary tributes, though, in a significant concession, he added ‘but it is true (III, p. clxi). In so far as Nettleship’s comments demonstrate a confrontation between Green’s respect for concreteness and his immediate admirers’ zeal for abstraction, they may be taken as a marginal indication of the central issues in Green’s metaphysical and ethical debate. ‘Abstract the many relations from the one thing, and there is nothing’** he wrote in Prolegomena to Ethics, as elsewhere he argued that Burke revealed ‘true philosophic insight’ when he opposed the ‘attempt to abstract the individual from . . . the relations embodied in habitudes and institutions which make him what he is’ (III, pp. 116-17). The phrase ‘concrete experience’ is to be found in Green before it is found in I. A. Richards.
That Nettleship should find the concession necessary is indicative of the strained relations between intention and reception which prompted some of Green’s best writing and speaking but which also rendered him liable to those blurrings and evasions which detract from the power of his ethical style. He criticized Butler for being ‘content to leave the moral nature a cross of unreconciled principles (III, p. 104) while, as a corollary, he argued that ‘Man reads back into himself, so to speak, the distinctions which have issued from him, and which he finds in language’ and that, in this ‘retranslation’, he ‘changes the fluidity which belongs to them in language, where they represent ever-shifting attitudes of thought and perpetually cross each other, for the fixedness of separate things’ (ibid.). Green shares here a common ethical emphasis of his time, the recognition that while we are ‘unconditionally bound’, ‘necessarily belonging to such a world’, (2) being so bound is not necessarily the same as being in a fix and is most certainly not the same as being a fixer. In his dual application of the word ‘cross’, once as noun and once as verb, in two consecutive paragraphs, Green finds words for an essentially Kantian crux. The nature of the world is such as we are constrained to recognize, the ineluctable fact, (3) but to be content with the rich discrepancies which this offers is none the less dangerous and is sometimes treacherous. If, in making this emphasis, Green is equal to the strength of such contemporary ethical art as George Eliot’s, he also shows symptoms of contemporary weakness and rigidity. Both aspects may be examined in relation to an observation by Coleridge which stands as a paradigm for some of the most significant Romantic and post-Romantic debate on the supposed ‘formal engagement’ between literature and society. Coleridge takes a passage from one of Donne’s sermons which, he argues, ‘sways & oscillates’, in its use of the word ‘blood’, between a ‘spiritual interpretation’ and a physical sense: ‘Yea, it is most affecting’, Coleridge writes, ‘to see the struggles of so great a mind to preserve its inborn fealty to the Reason under the servitude to an accepted article of Belief . . .’ (4) There are times when it seems that Green himself is marked by some such discrepancy between ‘fealty’ and ‘servitude’. This is not to argue that he was uniquely deficient but rather to suggest how the common struggles of the time took a particular form in his work. In Prolegomena he claims that we apprehend knowledge as we ‘apprehend the import of a sentence . . . In reading the sentence we see the words successively [but] throughout that succession there must be present continuously the consciousness that the sentence has a meaning as a whole’ (P. p. 81). He further contends that we need to make ‘constant reference to the expression of that experience which is embodied, so to speak, in the habitual phraseology of men, in literature, and in the institutions of family and political life’ (P. p. 105). It could be argued that Coleridge’s objection is applicable here and that Green’s ‘so to speak’ and ‘phraseology of men’ oscillate between a literal and a metaphoric sense. Pragmatic obedience to the structure of the sentence, in order to apprehend a part of that sentence, is not the same as adherence to a metaphor of grammar, the ‘habitual phraseology’ of men, unless it is decreed that it shall seem so. ‘So to speak’ in this context, enables him to accept the decree without necessarily promulgating it. Though the cast of his ethical thought was opposed to the currently dominant forms of adherence and coercion, Green himself too often wrote in those ‘vague but insistent’ terms which Whitehead has justly categorized as ‘social symbolism’: ‘Thus the “Treatise of Human Nature” and the “Critic of Pure Reason”, taken together, form the real bridge between the old world of philosophy and the new’ (I, p. 3). Although, as Green noted elsewhere, ‘every explanation . . . involves a metaphor’, (III, p. 82) ‘real bridge here pre-empts its own verification. It lacks the resonance of those ‘hypnotizing’ terms to which Whitehead draws attention, but its tacit premiss is still the ‘response of action to symbol’ which is at the centre of that strategy. (5) And this strategy is itself crucial in certain forms of nineteenth-century Liberal bridge-building. In the words of J. S. Mill: ‘We hold that these two sorts of men [Bentham and Coleridge], who seem to be, and believe themselves to be, enemies, are in reality allies.’(6) Although ‘we hold that’ and ‘in reality’ are set obliquely to each other, Mill’s phrasing is designed to conceal the angularity of his proposition. It is ‘in reality’ which exerts the greater persuasive rhetoric and effectively overrides the proviso in ‘we hold’. Later in the century than either Mill or Green, the economist Alfred Marshall wrote that economic studies ‘call for and develop the faculty of sympathy, and especially that rare sympathy which enables people to put themselves in the place, not only of their comrades, but also of other classes’.(7) Here again it could be said that such phrasing is so much a part of innocuous common parlance that to object is a sign only of hermetic irritability. And it is true that we have no good reason to dissent from MacKinnon’s recognition of ‘the language of ethics’ as a ‘language of prescription, exhortation, persuasion, moral tradition’ with ‘its own texture and laws’. But of even greater significance is his caveat that we must ‘recognise in the authority [of the moral law] which . . . unconditionally constrains us the voice of our own nature as rational beings, and not the brusque, sheerly unintelligible dictate of a despot’. (8) Green’s ‘real bridge’, Mill’s ‘in reality’ and Marshall’s ‘in the place of’ seem attempts at an illicit bridging of ‘the chasm which the Kantian analysis of judgment left between subject and object’. (9) And there is, in this form of illicit persuasiveness, a hint of the despotic. In such instances we are not so much ‘unconditionally constrained’ as constrained to be conditioned; it is less a matter of language living in usage than of usage perching and hatching parasitically upon the surface of language. It would be unjust to argue that such devices are the product of cynicism. At the same time it would be naive to contend that sincerity confers absolution. Towards the end of his life Green sincerely anticipated a time ‘when every Oxford citizen will have open to him at least the precious companionship of the best books in his own language’ (III, p. 475). ‘At least’ betrays a desperation that the overt optimism will not concede. ‘Best’ by whose judgement, or according to what criteria? Does it mean of incontestable formal excellence, even though shocking to some susceptibilities (e.g. Les Fleurs du Mal) or does it mean incontestably good-hearted, like Mrs Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, which was dedicated to Green’s memory? There can be little doubt that his allegiance was to that ‘compound of optimism and humanism, a typically mid-Victorian variety of what William James called the religion of healthy-mindedness’ *** Green was a Liberal who objected to the more materialistic forms in which ideas of Liberal progress took shape during his lifetime. He deplored, in Prolegomena, a state of society in which so many were ‘left to sink or swim in the stream of unrelenting competition, in which we admit that the weaker has not a chance’ (P. p. 288). In the words of H. J. Laski, ‘Green and his followers emphasized not the individual over against the process of government, but the individual in the significant totality of his relations with it.’ (10)
There is a case to be made for the suggestion that one of the major discoveries of modern criticism has been the method of transferring ‘significant totality of relations’ to a contextual plane and of conferring a consequent distinction upon those authors or individual works which fulfil most completely that kind of expectation: Keats, in the Odes, George Eliot in Middlemarch, or the poems of Green’s sometime pupil Gerard Manley Hopkins. If that is indeed the case, then modern criticism is ratifying an inclination which has been present in ethical writing since at least the time of Arnold. When Arnold praised a paragraph in Burke’s ‘Thoughts on French Affairs’ as ‘one of the finest things in English Literature’ he reversed significantly an order of precedence. Burke’s concern was not with ‘literature’ in that hypostatically pure form. In Arnold’s statement the ‘literature’ is central, the politics a catalyst in the creation of the integral substance. This is not to suggest that Arnold was unconcerned with the politics but rather that he saw literature as containing politics within a sphere of more precisely adjusted anxieties. Green is both better and worse than Arnold. On the whole he refuses Arnold’s trim formulas and offers a closer reading of the patterns of relationship. But even if it is now widely customary to read a text in the way that Laski suggests that Green’s ideal state could be ‘read’, Green’s own work is not amenable to this form of approach. It could be left an open question whether on this issue he rebukes modern criticism or modern criticism rebukes him, since there is a proper reluctance to bestow on any one critical position the power of seemingly absolute arbitration. Even so there is in Green a confused thinness analogous, to, though not identical with, the superficiality of secular evangelism, from Mill to J. M. Keynes, which encouraged what the latter called ‘the civilising arts of life’ while largely disregarding their stubborn textures. In 1889 the theologian P. T. Forsyth commented that ‘the best preaching analyses its text, and even discusses points of its grammar”’ but what sometimes passed for the best preaching in the nineteenth century was in some respects deficient in that kind of analysis. Since Green and Sidgwick were celebrated for the fervency of their utterance, their own failure to meet the terms of Forsyth’s criterion merits some examination. In a letter written in 1868 Sidgwick said: ‘Oh, how I sympathise with Kant! with his passionate yearning for synthesis and condemned by his reason to criticism . . .’ (12) With its heavily plangent tone this sentence speaks more for the moodiness of mid-Victorian intellectualism than for the mood of Kant. The manner in which it yearns over the dichotomy tells us a good deal about the characteristic gestures of Sidgwick and of Green also. It is open to suggestion that in a deep sense they soften Kant’s rigour while, at a superficial level, they accommodate his rigorous tone. The difference between Kant and the Victorian students of Kant in England may well turn on a difference of emphasis concerning that which ‘points beyond the data’. In Kant this is a ‘common element’ existing as ‘a logical presupposition, a purely formal implication’; (13) in Sidgwick and Green that which points beyond the data is more often a pious wish. Pious wishes are of course wholly valid, unless they are presented as logical presuppositions and purely formal implications. It is then that they cease to be ‘that which points beyond the data’ and become the ‘vague ultimate reasons’ (14) which Whitehead has so precisely described. These slight yet massive differences oblige us to draw yet again upon the Coleridgean distinction between fealty and servitude and to say that Sidgwick and Green, while appreciating the distinction in principle, confused its obligations in practice.
It must be said again that to discuss the shortcomings of Green and Sidgwick is to be caught up with ‘“Bona fide perplexity,” as having its origin really in intellectual difficulties, not in any selfish interest’ (P. p. 403, n1). And in this sense the shortcomings of Green in particular are difficult to extricate from his virtues. At his best he is sufficiently acute as a moral analyst to encourage the suggestion that his self-thwartings and bafflings are acts of homage and abnegation to the Wordsworthian principle. Richter speaks of a ‘Wordsworthian sentiment’ to be found in him and suggests that the poet was one of the influences disposing Green to ‘a pantheistic conception of God as manifest in nature as a spiritual principle’ (R. pp. 47-8). Green described the ‘Ode to Duty’ as ‘the high-water-mark of modern poetry’ (III, p. xviii). It could be said, however, that there is something more dourly fundamental than ‘sentiment’, something more stubbornly empirical than even the most high-minded spiritual principle, in Green’s Wordsworthian strain. In his essay ‘Popular Philosophy in its Relation to Life’ (1868) Green proves himself to be a critic of insight and cogency. That quality in Wordsworth which evidently holds Green’s critical imagination is one which might be described as the capacity to go against one’s own apparent drift:
In England, it was specially Wordsworth who delivered literature from bondage to the philosophy that had naturalised man. This may at first sight seem a paradoxical statement of the relation between one known popularly as the ‘poet of nature’ and a system which had magnified ‘artifice.’ It is not so really (III, p. 118).
‘It is not so really.’ Seemingly laconic, to the verge of inelegance, this phrase offers its own rebuke to the afflatus of ‘real bridge’ and ‘best books’, gives the rebuff of imaginative scepticism to fanciful idealism. ‘It is not so really’ because as Green strongly implies, here and elsewhere, the dogmatic spasms of ‘I like’ and ‘I don’t like’ can claim no sanction from Wordsworth’s popularly misconstrued ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. ‘The natural man is the passive man’ (III, p. 119). Green’s observation is closely followed by his friend and editor, A. C. Bradley, in his own essay on Wordsworth, printed in Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909). At the heart of Bradley’s vision of Wordsworth is a sense that the poet comprehended a bi-fold authority: both an acceptance of ‘the fixed limits of our habitual view”(15) and a dogged experiential working towards what MacKinnon has called ‘the voice of our own nature’. Bradley speaks of ‘that perplexed persistence, and that helpless reiteration of a question” (16) which he sees as characteristic of Wordsworth’s ‘Resolution and Independence’. It is evident, however, that Bradley has some reservations about this ‘perplexed persistence’ and fears that it may verge on the ‘ludicrous’ in ways that Wordsworth’s ‘intimation[s] of boundlessness”  do not. We here touch upon a contradiction that affects Green as much as it affects Bradley. Keenly perceptive of the ‘data’ which form the texture of a work, each still yearns for the ‘vague ultimate reasons’ which poetry such as Wordsworth’s may seem to provide. Each is inclined to treat weakness as strength and strength as weakness and to override his own shrewdest judgements upon the work. Bradley’s words are none the less a fine description of a critical perception and a critical method which are in the poem’s own structure. It is worth noting that the line ‘Perplexed and longing to be comforted’ does not appear in the original 1807 text; we could say that the poem took time to realize the voice of its own nature in this line. The fact remains that Bradley is asking Wordsworth to de-fuse the source of the ludicrous, as being un-ideal, whereas the poet accommodates the possibility of the ludicrous into the situation and the dialogue. The narrator’s final pious couplet, though morally worthy, is certainly not the intimation of boundlessness that some readers expect; it has been considered anticlimactic and naive. In a general observation on Wordsworth, Leslie Stephen said that he ‘speaks as from inspiration, not as the builder of a logical system . . . [When] he tried to argue, he got, as he admits with his usual naïveté, “endlessly perplexed”.’(18) But Wordsworth, as the opening stanzas of ‘Resolution and Independence’ reveal, perceived the perils of ‘inspiration’; and in his poem he built a logical system to embody a meditation upon the true and false natures of that state of being. His creative gift was to transform the helpless reiterations of raw encounter into the ‘obstinate questionings’ of his meditated art without losing the sense of rawness. And Bradley is admirable in his own perplexed insight into what Wordsworth had to do: ‘Yet with all this, and by dint of all this, we read with bated breath . . .’ (19)
Green has something of this positive quality which Stephen idly termed naïveté. Hastings Rashdall, a critic who nevertheless dedicated a major work to his memory, stated that:
The ethical system of Kant (assisted in England by the influence of Butler and his followers) has produced a hopeless confusion between the question whether Morality consists in promoting an end and the question what that end is. (20)
It could be argued that as Wordsworth transformed helpless reiteration into obstinate questioning so Green, working directly from Kant and Butler and indirectly from Wordsworth and Coleridge, transformed what Rashdall calls ‘hopeless confusion’ into something more closely resembling perplexed persistence. It had the nature of a physical shock:
I had the privilege of taking a few essays to Mr. Green . . . I went to his home with my work, and he used to sit over the fire, ‘tying himself into knots’. He beat out his music with some difficulty, and the music itself was not an ordinary melody (R. p. 162).
Richter says that Green was a bad speaker (R. p. 80) and cites the opinion of one of Green’s admirers, Henry Scott Holland, that he was ‘cruelly inarticulate’ (R. p. 158). Such a view is strongly modified by testimony from those who knew him as well and admired him as much as did Holland. Nettleship wrote ‘Few, I think, can have been more successful in avoiding conversational inadvertence, and the saying of things which had better not have been said’ (III, p. lxii). J. H. Muirhead has described Green’s Lay Sermon of 1877 as conveying his ideas ‘with singular clearness and with a telling application to the intellectual difficulties of the time’. (21) If Green appeared to some as ‘cruelly inarticulate’ it can only have been through a form of vocational renunciation, an ‘almost confounding humility’, (22) a decision as personal yet as formal as that of Hopkins to burn his early poems. Another student has recalled:
I . . . followed his remarkable lectures with enthusiasm and tense strain . . . I can remember that I did not understand a single word as I wrote down the perplexing tangle of phrases furiously and at lightning-speed: then in the quiet of my rooms I brooded over them till light seemed to gleam from the written word (R. p. 14).
Among the words that figure prominently in this and the previously quoted student-memoir are ‘music’, ‘perplexing’ and ‘gleam’, three key-words in ‘Tintern Abbey’. There is a sense in which Green’s students seem to have responded to his words as Wordsworth responded to his own primary experience. It is also worth remarking that ‘music’ is a term which can be exploited both ideally and empirically. It is the ‘still, sad music of humanity’ and it is the precise detail of articulation, the ‘difficult music’ of communication. Coleridge commenced the second essay of The Friend by stating that ‘an author’s harp must be tuned in the hearing of those, who are to understand its after harmonies.’ (23) The image of the harper is apt. He is simultaneously a hireling without privacy and a master of pitch and cadence. His concern with tuning is attributable both to his own professional conscience and to his servitude to those who can call the tune. Some of Green’s own most cogent objections are to ‘the charlatanry of common sense’ (I, p. 168), and to the citing of ‘agreeable sensations and reflections’ (Ill, p. 98) as supposed criteria for determining the value of literature. He regarded ‘cultivated opinion’ as ‘confused’ (III, p. lxxiv) as well as being guilty of ‘wilfulness’ and shallowness (III, p. xliv). It could be said that the working alternative to the spasmodic ‘I like’ and ‘I don’t like’ was embodied in his own seemingly ‘inarticulate’ utterance. As a tutor to Oxford gentlemen he shared some of Mark Pattison’s doubts about the examination system and some of his suspicions that it might encourage a specious fluency. In Prolegomena he wrote of the scholar’s or artist’s ‘temptation to be showy instead of thorough’ (P. p. 168). At the same time, as an educational reformer, Green seems to have sensed that he had a duty to reveal the freedom of the word to those who were, in Wordsworth’s term, ‘shy, and unpractis’d in the strife of phrase’. It is possible to see an inevitable strain and thwarting in this dual situation: discouraging the wrong sort of fluency and self-display at one level while encouraging the right sort of fluency and self-realization at another level.
Graham Hough has suggested that ‘the oral channel was probably the one through which most of the Coleridgean influence originally worked’ (24) and he has drawn an illuminating analogy between the power and effect of the Highgate table talk and the influence, at once intimate and far-reaching, of Oxford and Cambridge tutorials conducted by such men as Newman, Jowett, Green and Hare, some of whom were Coleridgeans by direct inheritance, some of whom were not. A necessary proviso is that such access and influence testify not only to intellectual calibre — formidable though that undoubtedly was — but also to the intimate prerogatives of a social élite. At the same time such tutors, Green in particular, were fully aware that they addressed the privileged and they drew such an awareness into their forms of moral instruction. In certain ways, therefore, Green may be regarded as a protagonist in the Coleridgean ‘drama of reason’ and his speech may be understood as an extension of the original author-reader scenario sketched with much grim humour in the pages of The Friend.
In saying this one is perhaps in danger of over-stating Green’s achievement. Chenevix Trench’s On the Study of Words (1851) is as steeped in the notion of pastoral care as is Green’s fragmentary address ‘The Word is Nigh Thee’ and Trench was far more orthodox than Green in his religious belief. If we consider ‘impulse’ alone, then Trench’s book could be simply described as an attempt to provide ‘valuable warnings . . . against subtle temptations and sins’. (25) And yet the book he wrote was far more radical than anything by the ‘radical’ Green. It was Trench who learned from Coleridge, via Emerson, ‘how deep an insight into the failings of the human heart lies at the root of many words’. (26) The difference is both slight and deep. One of Green’s prime aims was to resist any tendency towards that fatalism which he saw as the dark side of utilitarian hedonism, towards a condition in which ‘there is no alternative but to let the world have its way, and my own inclinations have their way’ (P. p. 419). He could be regarded, however, as an example of how the anti-utilitarian, anti-hedonist, may yet be held in the gravitational field created by those forces. An acute critic of impulse, Green could counter it only in terms of superior impulse: ‘It may very well happen that the desire which affects a man most strongly is one which he decides on resisting’ (P. p. 117). In so doing he endorsed his opponents’ standards in the act of challenging them. The very terms he chose called the tune. As a sentence from his testimony before the 1877 Oxford University Commission suggests, he equated ‘literary skill’ with skilful superficiality: ‘Success . . . naturally falls to the man of most literary skill, who can bring his mind to bear most promptly and neatly on any subject that may be set before him’ (R. p. 150). There is therefore an air of frustration, of wasted labour, in Green’s attempts to get under the skin of verbal acceptance. Nettleship’s Memoir puts on record that ‘Those who have ever heard it will remember the peculiar smack of his utterance of the word tilth’ (III, p. xviii); and ‘“Swing” was a favourite word with him to describe the movement of native eloquence, and he would express his dissatisfaction with much contemporary English poetry by saying, with a characteristic gesture of the hand, “There is no swing in it”’ (III, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii). This is of course a seductive example because we cannot fail to be aware of the use made of the word ‘swing’ by Green’s occasional pupil Hopkins, in the early poem ‘Heaven-Haven (‘And out of the swing of the sea’). But freed from these associations we see that Green’s words are merely impulsive, verging on the kind of bluster so effectively parodied by Hopkins when he evoked a manner that ‘came in with Kingsley and the Broad Church School’, ‘the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense’. (27)
There is one other haunting fragment of unrealized possibility. Nettleship also records that Green:
had a theory in composing . . . that all superfluous words should be extirpated, the fewest and most compressed used: that, if possible, an essay should consist of one indivisible paragraph, the connected expression of a single proposition or a single syllogism (III, p. xxxviii).
But it remains an early ‘theory’. Here again it is in the work of his pupil Hopkins, a pupil with whom his relations seem to have been fairly edgy, that we find Green’s ideals realized: in the ‘indivisible . . . connected expression’ of ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’ or, perhaps more arguably, in the syntax of the final stanza of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, with its culminating line which, in Elisabeth Schneider’s words, is ‘locked together in the hook-and-eye grip of the possessive case’: (28)
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s
Miss Schneider gives a striking description, although one recalls that when Coleridge referred to ‘all the hooks-and-eyes of the memory’ he apologized for using ‘so trivial a metaphor’, (29) sensing perhaps that it might suggest something more simply and mechanistically associative than he intended. Hopkins seems rather to be stressing, against the linear process, an enfolding of possessives, in order, as Miss Schneider so rightly says, ‘to create the closest unity of all human values in Christ’. I cannot entirely agree with her suggestion that ‘the effect is arbitrary and labored’. The method, I would accept, is arbitrary and laboured but the effect is one of hard-won affirmation.
It seems to me that there is some analogy between the method and effect of Hopkins’s poem and the method and effect of Green’s lectures. Green’s method was repeatedly called ‘difficult’, but the effect of his words, as we have heard, was likened to ‘music’ or to a ‘gleam’. Admittedly, one is dealing here with subjective impressions. Many of Green’s lectures have survived and are printed in the Works. The series on ‘The English Commonwealth’ brings out the ‘earnestness’ and ‘exhilaration of energy’ (III, pp. 353-4) which Green found in the period. For him there appears to have been a ‘swing’ in it. Elsewhere, his lectures now seem heavy with the diffuseness of paraphrase rather than tense with the baffiements of communication. But the subjective evidence cannot be set aside: it exists in its own right:
Though he had great difficulty in expressing himself at that time . . . Everyone saw that there was great substantial value and originality in the work; and the very difficulty of his utterance gave one the feeling that he was working the thing out, and not repeating other people’s phrases or ideas . . . The men in fact took a sort of pride in the difficult process which he went through before he got things clear, as if it were in some way the joint action of us all (III, pp. lxiv-lxv).
Even if it is conceded that young men, chasing after charisma, will always hunt down what they seek, through these outmoded Victorian locutions there shines an act of recognition which is stronger than the commerce of mere egotisms. In part, though only in part, ‘the joint action of us all’ is the burden of the concluding lines of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, the creation of ‘the closest unity of all human values in Christ’. Rather than transaction or projection, a Green lecture appears as an act of atonement, in the arena of communication, between the ‘unconscious social insolence’ of the listener (III, p. 460) and what Coleridge termed the seeming ‘assumption of superiority’ (30) on the part of the speaker.
It has been said that, for Green, ‘the characteristic thing about human experience is that it is thinking experience.’ (31) It is a token both of his achievement and of his relative failure that so much of the ‘exhilaration of energy’, which he manifestly aroused, should be conveyed to us in the form of reminiscence. He himself wrote of the ‘weakness . . . which belongs to all ideas not actualised, to all forms not filled up’ (III, p. 91) and several reasons could be advanced for Green’s naggingly-persistent failure to actualize his own ideas. It could be attributed to the ‘hopeless confusion’ about means and ends that Rashdall saw as characteristic of English paraphrases of Kantian ethics. Or it could be traced to the overriding confusion as to the nature of the ‘formal engagement’ in public discourse, a debate in which Wordsworth and Coleridge stand as heroic protagonists. Richter detects, throughout Green’s ethics, ‘signs of the strain produced by his merger of conservative concepts with liberal and even radical values’ (R. p. 201) and he is, I think, correct in this major respect: the reasons for Green’s relative failure are not separate and distinct but manifold. Green, as much as Mill or Sidgwick, was writing to be received, and, at the same time, was conducting a running battle with the premisses of current receptivity. Newman wrote that ‘where there is no common measure of minds, there is no common measure of arguments’. (32) Of the nineteenth-century ‘Liberal’ writers it could be said that they sought a ‘common measure’ to set ‘against mere impulse and mere convention alike’, (33) but were left too often with immoderate commonplace. Sidgwick’s ‘law infinitely constraining and yet infinitely flexible’ (34) is no ‘law’ at all, but a rather shifty rationalization of a condition of servitude. The efforts of Mill, Sidgwick and Green are too easily reducible to the terms of Mill’s own assumption that it was good ‘to enlighten . . . practice by philosophical meditation’, (35) a procedure which leaves pragmatism and idealism as two separate floating entities. It may be that Mill, to use Bagehot’s chilling phrase, is feeling the minds of his readers ‘as a good rider feels the mouth of his horse’, (36) but if that is so it is revealed as a self-defeating exercise. There is some irony in the fact that Mill introduces his essay on Coleridge with such a proposal. ‘Meditation’ is here regarded as being on a par with ‘opinions’ and ‘mental tendencies’. If practice can be so ‘enlightened’ by meditation, then meditation can also be forbidden access to the pragmatic domain. What Coleridge gives, however, is a constant demonstration that meditation is central to practice, whereas ‘opinion’, ‘tendency’ and ‘enlightenment’ are peripheral and non-resistant. It has been suggested that one of the dominant philosophical tenets against which Coleridge contended was ‘the dogmatic assumption of the principle of dichotomy’ (37) If, as Richter has claimed (R. p. 47), Coleridge was one of the several exemplars upon whom Green based his own ‘faith’, it could likewise be suggested that this faith is set out in Green’s essay on Aristotle. He writes there of the ‘unfused antithesis of the “necessary” and the “contingent” ‘ as manifesting the ‘Aristotelian dualism [at its] most conspicuous’ (III, p. 88); and he ponders upon Aristotle’s theses in such a way as to bring out those elements which are susceptible to a belief in interchange rather than separation: ‘The account of the form or essence, then, as a “substance dematerialised” may be replaced by an account of it as a “potentiality actualised” (III, p. 76). There remains in Green’s discursive faith, however, a fundamental separation which no amount of theoretical application can bridge. This failure may be termed a failure of imagination because there seems to be no connection in Green’s mind between his recognition of an ‘account of form’ on the one hand and his suppositions about the workings of the poetic mind on the other. Admittedly, he is intent on warning the poet against the perils of euphoria and his words might be taken as a parody of the euphoric state. But there cannot be a parody where there has been no perception of the real condition. We receive no hint from this that Green knew what he was talking about: ‘As the poet, traversing the world of sense, which he spiritualises by the aid of forms of beauty, finds himself ever at home, yet never in the same place. . . .’ (III, p. 90).
The question ‘how the moral intelligence gets into poetry’ (38) is of course quite distinct from the question ‘how morality gets into poetry’ or ‘how moral is poetry?’ If Green so often disappoints us it is because his critical insights are too frequently dissolved, dissipated without being re-created. But even this is far from being a simple matter of mere personal vacillation. It could be said that a study of Kant, while encouraging an emphasis upon contextual relationships in general, could nevertheless inspire incompatible applications of the idea of context. ‘The new students of Kant in England’ drew from their study, among other inferences, the suggestion that ‘[one] could not, for instance, distinguish even particular items unless [one] were also aware of the context or series in which the items appear’; (39) and it is this sense of ‘context or series’ which, arguably, is of prime importance in Green’s pattern of thinking. The thesis that context distinguishes the item, significant though it might be in projecting an idea of reciprocity between the state and the individual, is nevertheless a definition more at the service of empirical application than of creative imagination. At the same time, ‘the form by which spatial and temporal data are apprehended as elements in a whole that points beyond the data’ (40) was one which made possible an indifference towards, and even a contempt for, context in anything other than a serial, spatial sense:
Not as to the sensual ear, nor necessarily through the stinted expression of verbal signs, but as a man communes with his own heart, you may speak to God . . . Prayer indeed, if of the right sort, is already incipient action; or, more properly, it is a moral action which has not yet made its outward sign (III, p. 273).
It is possible that ‘sensual ear’ is an echo from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’; if so, the phrase is not uncharacteristic of Green’s habit of demanding poetry’s support while effectively denying it the power to act. When Green directs his attention to the ‘stinted expression of verbal signs’ he stints the whole question too, by deploying gobbets of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson as simple emotional referents (e.g. III, pp. 89-90, 273-4). It could be contended, in his defence, that, in stressing a dichotomy between ‘heart’ and ‘sign’, Green is most essentially Wordsworthian and that if we praise the scruple of Wordsworth’s distinction between a ‘mechanical’ art and ‘real and substantial’ suffering we can scarcely deny our tribute to Green. It could also be pointed out that the question whether ‘feeling’, i.e. ‘faith’, is more trustworthy than the reason, was raised by Sidgwick, who wrote of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (cxxiv) that he felt there ‘the indestructible and inalienable minimum of faith which humanity cannot give up because it is necessary for life’. A pioneering study, in English, of Karl Barth’s theology states that Sidgwick’s gloss on Tennyson ‘admirably catches Barth’s tone’ and that it also anticipates Barth’s stress on ‘the intolerable crisis which is felt when life is viewed “existentially”’ (41) I would say that the comparison is too generous and that the citation of Barth makes one only too acutely aware of what is deficient in Sidgwick, and in Green also. The distinction between rigorous abnegation and easy abdication, so keenly asserted by them in principle, is not always marked in their own practice. When Wordsworth says, of the female vagrant, that:
She ceased, and weeping turned away,
As if because her tale was at an end
She wept; — because she had no more to say
Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay
he is indeed implying that words are ‘in some degree mechanical’ compared to the woman’s action and suffering. But in order to bring out the difference Wordsworth puts in a collateral weight of technical concentration that releases the sense of separateness: the drag of the long phrasing across the formalities of the verse, as if the pain would drag itself free from the constraint. In ‘as if’ and ‘because’, pedantically isolating her, we glimpse the remoteness of words from suffering and yet are made to recognize that these words are totally committed to her existence. They are her existence. Language here is not ‘the outward sign’ of a moral action; it is the moral action.
In Green’s work we may find an approximate understanding of the nature of such action, but we are indebted to his pupil, friend and biographer R. L. Nettleship for a precise formulation. Nettleship perceived that:
the consciousness which we express when we have found the ‘right word’ is not the same as our consciousness before we found it; so that it is not strictly correct to call the word the expression of what we meant before we found it. (42)
A. C. Bradley recalls that it was Green who suggested to Nettleship that he might ‘approach philosophy from the side of language’ (43) One cannot readily determine from the context whether ‘from the side of’ is a direct quotation from Green rather than Bradley’s paraphrase. It is perhaps fair to say that either Green or Bradley, or both, regarded the matter as one of optional angles rather than as a necessary belonging to such a world. Green’s comparative diffuseness on this issue is made all the more noticeable by his otherwise strong emphasis on necessary belonging, on ‘the “I” that has felt as well as thought, and has thought in its feeling’ (III, p. 104). It is in a passage concerning the ‘relation of each to the other’ that Green comes closest, if not to a realization, at least to an adumbration, of Nettleship’s perception:
As has been pointed out, the sensible ‘here’ has, while I write it, become a ‘there,’ the sensible ‘now’ a ‘then.’ We may call the sensible ‘heres’ and ‘nows’ an ‘indistinguishable succession of points or moments,’ ‘each changing place with that which goes before’; but in the very act of naming, i.e. of knowing them, we transmute them (III, p. 72).
If it were possible to isolate the final statement (‘but in the very act of naming . . .’) from the overriding context it would also be possible to argue that Green is moving towards Nettleship’s position; but such a plea cannot be entered. For Green, the transmutation is into ‘categories’ and ‘general attribute [s]’ whereby we ‘who are within the process’ experience a form of ‘placing ourselves outside the process by which our knowledge is developed’ (ibid.). Green stresses two major issues of this dualism: the knowledge so gained is ‘imperfect, and, through its imperfection, progressive’ (p. 73); it ‘implies the undivided presence of the thinking self’ (p. 72). It could be said that, while the pattern of Green’s ideas about the thinking self is centripetal, the pattern of his thinking about ideas is centrifugal. There is therefore a dualism within the texture of what he makes, and this dualism divides what he does from what his admirers say that he does.
‘[Green] gave us back the language of self-sacrifice’, (44) wrote Henry Scott Holland. That Green gave to his readers crucial ideas of self-sacrifice is beyond dispute:
He may ‘find no place for repentance’ in the sense of cancelling or getting rid of the evil which his act has caused; but in another sense the recognition of himself as the author of the evil is, in promise and potency, itself repentance (P. p. 108).
That these ideas were taken up and put into practice, to the benefit of the community is again an incontestable fact. It seems to me, however, that Holland’s words must be qualified. Green gave ideas but he did not give a ‘language’; and in failing to give a ‘language’ he closed off one dimension of moral intelligence. The importance of Nettleship’s perception is that it does not seal off the moral action from the linguistic action. Indeed it is the positive coalescence of these forms of action that is manifested in the cogency of his statement.
In the course of a valuable discussion of the traditions of moral thought, Mrs Dorothea Krook has drawn attention ‘to the significant common ground that may be seen to exist between poetry and philosophy when both are viewed as products of the creative imagination’. (45) It is in this domain that Green, who had so much to say, has so little to give. And this realization strikes with a particular irony. It was an Anglican priest, Dean Inge, who quite properly discerned that ‘From Coleridge to von Hügel . . . the deepest and the most forceful [moral and religious] teaching has come from lay writers.’ (46) He included in his list the names of Green, Sidgwick and Nettleship. If ‘deep seriousness and earnest desire to know the truth and make the world a better place’ (47) were the sum of the moral imagination, Green would be above criticism. But it is not; and, as one who, albeit unwittingly, divided morality from the moral intelligence, Green must, I think, be vulnerable to attack. His perorations are ominous, looking upwards and outwards to times ‘when the poet shall idealise life without making abstraction of any of its elements’ (III, p. 45). Yet even while warning against abstraction Green failed in one necessary act of concentration. The ‘element’ was there and he could not see it. The extent of his loss, and ours, becomes clear when we turn, not only to Nettleship’s statement, but also to a discussion which his own argument (III, pp. 104-5) seems, in some respects, to anticipate: Donald MacKinnon on ‘introspection and the language of freedom’:
‘I could have done otherwise.’ Such a phrase might express not simply a retrospective glance at what might have been, but an act of repentance which it makes concrete. When the prodigal said that he would ‘arise and go to his father’, he was no doubt, from one point of view, recording the fruit of inward communing with himself. But at the same time he was making that communing something more than a mere daydream, and he made it so by linguistic action. He said something to himself, and, by saying, he did something. (48)
We may perhaps say that, viewed in the light of this suggestion, Green’s work is both a summons to activity (including a summons to acts of sacrifice and atonement) and also the outward sign of fruitful inward communing; but not ‘at the same time’. It is not a doing-by-saying. Consequently, although he asserts the significance of the poetic act as a moral act, his assertions are ‘mere daydream’.
If Green, despite these several reservations, still attracts one’s prolonged and intensive meditation, it is chiefly because he bears witness, as in the impressively characteristic ‘An Answer to Mr Hodgson’ (I, pp. 521-41), to that central and inescapable conflict in which all who engage in public discourse become involved. The original subscribers to Coleridge’s The Friend numbered just under four hundred. (49) He was satisfied, we are told ‘to direct his remarks to the “learned class” he was later to call the “clerisy”’. (50) He required ‘the attention of my reader to become my fellow-labourer’ (51) but from the surviving comments of several self-assured readers — Josiah Wedgwood, the two Lloyds and others — it is evident that some of them considered that he asked too much. His readers, with few exceptions, rebuffed his attempts, finding him ‘abstruse and laboured’ (52) as others, later, found Green ‘cruelly inarticulate’.
As Blake said, the accuser is god of this world. It is possible to find in this recognition a necessary resilience: ‘A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’ (53) Such resilience is also present in the poetry and prose of Wordsworth, especially in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads, in the poetry and marginalia of Blake and in the flashes of grotesque comedy, the interpolated cries and groans, of Biographia Literaria and The Friend. Green’s lectures, as we know them in the expressive re-enactments of those who attended them, make their own restricted but valid discovery of the ‘formal engagement’. Green was, in a very immediate sense, requiring his audience to become his fellow-labourer. Even if we say that he does little more than demonstrate the pitch of attention at which the true (as opposed to the spectral) Coleridgean ‘clerisy’ might be expected to work, that is ample praise and makes a proper rebuke to the gods of this world. In the sacrificial nature of his perplexed persistence and in his vulnerability to the accusation which his servitude draws upon itself, Green achieves his own substantial freedom and power and remains as one of the most crucial writers in nineteenth-century Britain. There are triumphs that entrap and defeats that liberate. Green is creative in his distress. To speak of his exemplary failure is to see him in the light of a noble phrase borrowed from Forsyth; it is to say that he ‘passed through negative stages to his positive rest’. (54)
* Works of Thomas Hill Green, 3 vols., 5th impression, 1906, III, p. 104. Later references supplied in body of text.
** Prolegomena to Ethics (1883) 1929, p. 33. Hereafter cited as P in body of text.
*** Melvin Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age. 1964, p. 44. Hereafter cited as R in body of text.
1. B. M. G. Reardon, From Coleridge to Gore, 1971, p. 305, quoting Henry Scott Holland.
2. Henry Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics, 5th ed., 1902, pp. 272,
276. The phrases are from Sidgwick’s paraphrase and discussion of Kant’s philosophy.
3. I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness, here and elsewhere in this essay, to D. M. MacKinnon’s A Study in Ethical Theory, 1957.
4. R. F. Brinkley (ed.), Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century, 1955, pp. 167-8.
5. A. N. Whitehead, Symbolism, 1928. The phrases here quoted are taken from pp. 86-7.
6. F. R. Leavis (ed.), Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, (1950), 1971, p. 140.
7. Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics (1890), 1916, p. 45.
8. D. M. MacKinnon, A Study in Ethical Theory, 1957, pp. 185; 65.
9. J. H. Muirhead, Coleridge as Philosopher (1930), 1954, p. 93.
10. H. J. Laski, ‘The Decline of Liberalism’, L. T. Hobhouse Memorial Trust Lectures, no. 10 (1940), p. 11.
11. P. T. Forsyth, Religion in Recent Art, 1889, p. 231.
12. A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir, 1906, p. 177.
13. M. H. Carré, Phases of Thought in England, 1949, p. 368.
14. Whitehead, op. cit., p. 88.
15. A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909), 1965, p. 131.
16. ibid., p. 136.
17. ibid., p. 131.
18. Leslie Stephen, Studies of a Biographer (1898), 1929, I, p. 248.
19. Bradley, op. cit., pp. 136-7.
20. Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, 1907, I, pp. 216-17. The work is dedicated ‘To the memory of my teachers Thomas Hill Green and Henry Sidgwick.’
21. J. H. Muirhead, Reflections (ed. J. W. Harvey), 1942, p. 42.
23. The Collected Works of S. T. Coleridge (Bollingen Series LXXV), 4 vols. (1969), I, p. 14.
24. H. Sykes Davies and G. Watson (eds.), The English Mind, 1964, p. 183.
25. Richard Chenevix Trench, On the Study of Words (1851), 1855, p. 42.
26. ibid. I am indebted to Austin Warren, Rage for Order, 1948, pp. 61, 63; to Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 1972, pp. 102-5; and to an essay by Darcy O’Brien in New Blackfriars, Oct. 1972, pp. 466-70.
27. The Correspondence of G. M. Hopkins and R. W. Dixon, ed. C. C. Abbott, 2nd (revised) imp., 1955, p. 74.
28. Elisabeth W. Schneider, The Dragon in the Gate: Studies in the Poetry of G. M. Hopkins, 1968, p. 35. Subsequent quotations are from pp. 35-6.
29. Friend, ed. cit., I, pp. 20-1.
30. Friend, ed. cit., II, p. 277.
31. A. J. M. Milne, The Social Philosophy of English Idealism, 1962, p. 89.
32. J. H. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), 1913, p. 413.
33. Sidgwick, Memoir, p. 243.
35. Bentham and Coleridge, ed. cit., p. 99.
36. Literary Studies, 1895 edn., I, p. 85.
37. Muirhead, Coleridge, ed. cit., p. 83.
38. Allen Tate, Essays of Four Decades, 1970, p. 149, quoting and discussing a phrase of Yvor Winters.
39. Carré, op. cit., p. 367.
40. ibid., p. 368.
41. A. Birch Hoyle, The Teaching of Karl Barth, 1930, p. 226; cf. Sidgwick, Memoir, ed. cit., pp. 539-41 and D. G. James, Henry Sidgwick, 1970, pp. 39-41.
42. R. L. Nettleship, Philosophical Lectures and Remains, 1897, I, p. 130.
43. ibid., p. 1, n. 2.
44. Reardon, op. cit., p. 305, n. 2.
45. Dorothea Krook, Three Traditions of Moral Thought, 1959, p. 10.
46. W. H. Inge, The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought, 1926, p. 95.
47. ibid., p. 90.
48. MacKinnon, op. cit., p. 129.
49. Friend, ed. cit., II, p. 407.
50. J. R. de 3. Jackson, Method and Imagination in Coleridge’s Criticism, 1969, p. 32.
51. Friend, ed. cit., I, p. 21.
52. Friend, ed. cit., II, p. 442.
53. Peter Brook, The Empty Space (1968), 1972, p. 11.
54. Forsyth, op. cit., p. 189. Forsyth is not discussing Green.
AUTHOR’S NOTE. This essay is based on a lecture given to the English Society, Leeds University, in October 1973.
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