A ROOM WITHOUT A VIEW
By William Lyon Phelps
What is the worst poem ever written by a man of genius? It is certain that if an anthology should be made of the most terrible verses of the English bards the results would be both surprising and appalling. I cannot at this moment think of any worse pair of lines in English literature than those offered in all seriousness by the seventeenth-century poet, Richard Crashaw. They occur in a poem containing many lovely passages. In comparing the tearful eyes of Mary Magdalene to many different things he perpetrated a couplet more remarkable for ingenuity than for beauty. Her eyes are
Two walking baths, two
Portable and compendious oceans.
Alfred Tennyson, in his second volume of poems, bearing the date 1833, included the following, though it is only fair to say that he afterward suppressed it. It aroused the mirth of the critics and still is often resurrected as a specimen of what Tennyson could do when he was deserted by both inspiration and taste.
O DARLING ROOM
0 darling room, my heart's delight,
room, the apple of my sight,
With thy two couches soft and white,
There is no room so exquisite,
No little room so warm and
Wherein to read, wherein to write.
For I the Nonnenwerth have
And Oberwinter's vineyards green,
Musical Lurlei; and between
The hills to Bingen have I been,
Bingen in Darmstadt,
where the Rhene Curves toward Mentz, a woody scene.
Yet never did there meet my sight,
In any town, to left or right,
A little room so exquisite,
With two such couches soft and white;
Not any room so warm and bright,
Wherein to read, wherein to write.
Imagine the profanity and laughter this piffle must have aroused among the book reviewers; some of his severer critics called him "Miss Alfred," not knowing that he was a six-footer, with a voice like a sea captain in a fog.
I have no mind to defend the poem. Apart from the fact that the reading of it ought to teach Americans the correct accent on the word "exquisite," it must be admitted that when Tenny son wrote this stuff he not only nodded but snored.
But, although it is difficult for me to understand how he could have written it, have read it in proof and then published it, I perfectly understand and sympathise with his enthusiasm for the room.
It is often said that polygamous gentlemen are-at any rate, for a considerable periodmonogamous; the Turk may have a long list of wives, but he will cleave to one, either because he wants to or because she compels him to. Thus, even in a house that has a variety of sitting rooms, or living rooms or whatever you choose to call them, the family will use only one. After the evening meal they will instinctively move toward this one favourite room.
There is no doubt that even as dogs and cats have their favourite corner or chair, or favourite cushion of nightly repose, men and women have favourite rooms. And if this is true of a family in general, it is especially true of a man or a woman whose professional occupation is writing; and he becomes so attached to his room that Tennyson's sentiments, no matter how silly in expression, accurately represent his emotion.
Twice a year, once in June and once in September, circumstances force me to leave a room
where I have for a long time spent the larger part of my waking hours; I always feel the pain of parting, look around the walls and at the desk and wish the place an affectionate farewell, hoping to see it again, either in the autumn or in the next summer, as the case may be.I love that room, as Tennyson loved his room. I love it not because of the view from the windows, for a working room should not have too good a view, but for the visions that have there appeared to the eyes of the mind.It is the place where I have sat in thought, where such ideas as are possible to my limited range have appeared to me and where I have endeavoured to express them in words.
And if I can have so strong a passion for a room, with what tremendous intensity must an inspired poet or novelist love the secluded chamber where his imagination has found free play!
We know that Hawthorne, after his graduation from college, spent twelve years in one room in Salem. When he revisited that room as a famous writer he looked at it with unspeakable affection and declared that if ever he had a biographer great mention must be made in his memoir of this chamber, for here his mind and character had been formed and here the immortal children of his fancy had played around him. He was alone and not alone. As far as a mortal man may understand the feelings of a man of genius, I understand the emotion of Hawthorne.
I think nearly every one, if he were able to afford it, would like to have a room all his own. I believe it to be an important factor in the development of the average boy or girl if in the family house each child could have one room sacred to its own personality. When I was a small boy, although I loved to be with family and friends, I also loved to escape to my own room and read and meditate in solitude.
The age of machinery is not so adverse to spiritual development as the age of hotels and apartment houses; there is no opportunity for solitude, and a certain amount of solitude, serene and secure from interruption, is almost essential for the growth of the mind. A great many girls and women could be saved from the curse of "nerves" if there were a place somewhere in the building where they could be for a time alone. One of the worst evils of poverty is that there is no solitude; eating, sleeping, living, all without privacy.
When I was a graduate student in the university I was fortunate enough to possess for one year exactly the right kind of room. The young philosopher, George Santayana, came to see me and exclaimed, "What a perfect room for a scholar! The windows high up, as they should be." For if one is to have clear mental vision it is not well that the room should have a view.