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Title: Joseph Conrad
Author: Walpole, Hugh, Sir
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Joseph Conrad" ***

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By Hugh Walpole

New York

Henry Holt And Company


[Illustration: 0001]

[Illustration: 0008]

[Illustration: 0009]





|TO any{001} reader of the books of Joseph Conrad it must be at once
plain that his immediate experiences and impressions of life have gone
very directly to the making of his art. It may happen often enough that
an author’s artistic life is of no importance to the critic and that
his dealing with it is merely a personal impertinence and curiosity, but
with the life of Joseph Conrad the critic has something to do, because,
again and again, this writer deliberately evokes the power of personal
reminiscence, charging it with the burden of his philosophy and the
creation of his characters.

With the details of his life we cannot, in any way, be concerned, but
with the three backgrounds against whose form and colour {008}his art
has been placed we have some compulsory connection.

Joseph Conrad (Teodor Josef Konrad Karzeriowski) was born on 6th
December 1857, and his birthplace was the Ukraine in the south of
Poland. In 1862 his father, who had been concerned in the last Polish
rebellion, was banished to Vologda. The boy lived with his mother
and father there until his mother died, when he was sent back to the
Ukraine. In 1870 his lather died.

Conrad was then sent to school in Cracow and there he remained until
1874, when, following an absolutely compelling impulse, he went to sea.
In the month of May, 1878, he first landed on English ground; he knew
at that time no English but learnt rapidly, and in the autumn of 1878
joined the _Duke of Sutherland_ as ordinary seaman. He became a
Master in the English Merchant Service in 1884, in which year he was
naturalised. In 1894 he left the sea, whose servant he had been for
nearly twenty years: he sent the manuscript of a novel that he had been
writing at various periods during {009}his sea life to Mr Fisher Unwin.
With that publisher’s acceptance of _Almayer’s Folly_ the third period
of his life began. Since then his history has been the history of his

Looking for an instant at the dramatic contrast and almost ironical
relationship of these three backgrounds--Poland, the Sea, the inner
security and tradition of an English country-side--one can realise what
they may make of an artist. That early Polish atmosphere, viewed through
all the deep light and high shade of a remembered childhood, may be
enough to give life and vigour to any poet’s temperament. The romantic
melancholy born of early years in such an atmosphere might well plant
deeply in any soul the ironic contemplation of an impossible freedom.

Growing into youth in a land whose farthest bounds were held by unlawful
tyranny, Conrad may well have contemplated the sea as the one unlimited
monarchy of freedom and, even although he were too young to realise what
impulses {010}those were that drove him, he may have felt that space and
size and the force of a power stronger than man were the only conditions
of possible liberty. He sought those conditions, found them and clung to
them; he found, too, an ironic pity for men who could still live slaves
and prisoners to other men when to them also such freedom was possible.
That ironic pity he never afterwards lost, and the romance that was in
him received a mighty impulse from that contrast that he was always now
to contemplate. He discovered the Sea and paid to her at once his debt
of gratitude and obedience. He thought it no hard thing to obey her when
he might, at the same time, so honestly admire her and she has remained
for him, as an artist, the only personality that he has been able
wholeheartedly to admire. He found in her something stronger than man
and he must have triumphed in the contemplation of the dominion that she
could exercise, if she would, over the tyrannies that he had known in
his childhood. {011}He found, too, in her service, the type of man
who, most strongly, appealed to him. He had known a world composed of
threats, fugitive rebellions, wild outbursts of defiance, inefficient
struggles against tyranny, he was in the company now of those who
realised so completely the relationship of themselves and their duty to
their master and their service that there was simply nothing to be said
about it. England had, perhaps, long ago called to him with her promise
of freedom, and now on an English ship he realised the practice and
performance of that freedom, indulged in, as it was, with the fewest
possible words. Moreover, with his fund of romantic imagination, he must
have been pleased by the contrast of his present company, men who, by
sheer lack of imagination, ruled and served the most imaginative force
in nature. The wonders of the sea, by day and by night, were unnoticed
by his companions, and he admired their lack of vision. Too much vision
had driven his country under the heel of Tyranny, had bred in himself a
despair of {012}any possible freedom for far-seeing men; now he was a
citizen of a world where freedom reigned because men could not perceive
how it could be otherwise; the two sides of the shield were revealed to

Then, towards the end of his twenty years’ service of the sea, the
creative impulse in him demanded an outlet. He wrote, at stray moments
of opportunity during several years, a novel, wrote it for his pleasure
and diversion, sent it finally to a publisher with all that lack of
confidence in posts and publishers that every author, who cares for
his creations, will feel to the end of his days. He has said that if
_Almayer’s Folly_ had been refused he would never have written again,
but we may well believe that, let the fate of that book be what it
might, the energy and surprise of his discovery of the sea must
have been declared to the world. _Almayer’s Folly_, however, was not
rejected; its publication caused _The Spectator_ to remark: “The name of
Mr Conrad is new to us, but it appears to us as if he might become the
Kipling of the Malay Archipelago.” He {013}had, therefore, encouragement
of the most dignified kind from the beginning. He himself, however, may
have possibly regarded that day in 1897 when Henley accepted _The Nigger
of the Narcissus_ for _The New Review_ as a more important date in his
new career. That date may serve for the commencement of the third period
of his adventure.

The quiet atmosphere of the England that he had adopted made the final,
almost inevitable contrast with the earlier periods. With such a country
behind him it was possible for him to contemplate in peace the whole
“case” of his earlier life. It was as a “case” that he saw it, a “case”
 that was to produce all those other “cases” that were his books. This
has been their history.


His books, also, find naturally a division into three parts; the first
period, beginning with _Almayer’s Folly_ in 1895, ended with _Lord
Jim_ in 1900. The second contains {014}the two volumes of _Youth_ and
_Typhoon_, the novel _Romance_ that he wrote in collaboration with Ford
Madox Hueffer, and ends with _Nostromo_, published in 1903. The third
period begins, after a long pause, in 1907 with _The Secret Agent_, and
receives its climax with the remarkable popularity of _Chance_ in 1914,
and _Victory_ (1915).

His first period was a period of struggle, struggle with a foreign
language, struggle with a technique that was always, from the point of
view of the “schools,” to remain too strong for him, struggles with the
very force and power of his reminiscences that were urging themselves
upon him, now at the moment of their contemplated freedom, like wild
beasts behind iron bars. _Almayer’s Folly_ and _The Outcast of the
Islands_ (the first of these is sequel to the second) were remarkable in
the freshness of their discovery of a new world. It was not that their
world had not been found before, but rather that Conrad, by the force of
his own individual discovery, proclaimed his find with a new voice and
a new vigour. In the {015}character of Almayer, of Aissa, of Willems, of
Bahalatchi and Abdulla there was a new psychology that gave promise of
great things. Nevertheless these early stories were overcharged with
atmosphere, were clumsy in their development and conveyed in then style
a sense of rhetoric and lack of ease. His vision of his background was
pulled out beyond its natural intensity and his own desire to make
it overwhelming was so obvious as to frighten the creature into a
determination to be, simply out of malicious perversity, anything else.

These two novels were followed by a volume of short stories, _Tales of
Unrest_, that reveal, quite nakedly, Conrad’s difficulties. One study in
this book, _The Return_, with its redundancies and overemphasis, is the
crudest parody on its author and no single tale in the volume succeeds.
It was, however, as though, with these efforts, Conrad flung himself
free, for ever, from his apprenticeship; there appeared in 1898
what remains perhaps still his most perfect work, _The Nigger of the
Narcissus_. This {015}was a story entirely of the sea, of the voyage of
a ship from port to port and of the influence upon that ship and upon
the human souls that she contained, of the approaching shadow of death,
an influence ironical, melancholy, never quite horrible, and always
tender and humorous. Conrad must himself have loved, beyond all other
vessels, the _Narcissus_. Never again, except perhaps in _The Mirror of
the Sea_, was he to be so happily at his ease with any of his subjects.
The book is a gallery of remarkably distinct and authentic portraits,
the atmosphere is held in perfect restraint, and the overhanging theme
is never, for an instant, abandoned. It is, above all, a record of
lovingly cherished reminiscence. Of cherished reminiscence also was the
book that closed the first period of his work, _Lord Jim_. This was to
remain, until the publication of _Chance_, his most popular novel. It
is the story of a young Englishman’s loss of honour in a moment of panic
and his victorious recovery. The first half of the book is a finely
sustained development of a {016}vividly remembered scene, the second
half has the inevitability of a moral idea pursued to its romantic end
rather than the inevitability of life. Here then in 1900 Conrad had
worked himself free of the underground of the jungle and was able to
choose his path. His choice was still dictated by the subjects that
he remembered most vividly, but upon these rewards of observation his
creative genius was working. James Wait, Donkin, Jim, Marlowe were men
whom he had known, but men also to whom he had given a new birth.

There appeared now in _Youth, Heart of Darkness_ and _Typhoon_ three of
the finest short stories in the English language, work of reminiscence,
but glowing at its heart with all the lyrical exultation and flame of
a passion that had been the ruling power of a life that was now to be
abandoned. That salutation of farewell is in _Youth_ and its evocation
of the East, in _The Heart of Darkness_ and its evocation of the forests
that are beyond civilisation, in _Typhoon_ and its evocation of the
sea. He was never, after {018}these tales, to write again of the sea
as though he were still sailing on it. From this time he belonged, with
regret, and with some ironic contempt, to the land.

This second period closed with the production of a work that was
deliberately created rather than reminiscent, _Nostromo_. Conrad may
have known Dr Monyngham, Decoud, Mrs Could, old Viola; but; they became
stronger than he and, in their completed personalities, owed no man
anything for their creation. There is much to be said about _Nostromo_,
in many ways the greatest of all Conrad’s works, but, for the moment,
one would only say that its appearance (it appeared first, of all
ironical births, in a journal--_T.P.’s Weekly_--and astonished and
bewildered its readers week by week, by its determination not to finish
and yield place to something simpler) caused no comment whatever, that
its critics did not understand it, and its author’s own admirers were
puzzled by its unlikeness to the earlier sea stories.

_Nostromo_ was followed by a pause--one {019}can easily imagine that
its production did, for a moment, utterly exhaust its creator. When,
however, in 1907 appeared _The Secret Agent_, a new attitude was most
plainly visible. He was suddenly detached, writing now of “cases” that
interested him as an investigator of human life, but called from his
heart no burning participation of experience. He is tender towards
Winnie Verloc and her old mother, the two women in _The Secret Agent_,
but he studies them quite dispassionately. That love that clothed Jim
so radiantly, that fierce contempt that in _An Outcast of the Islands_
accompanied Willems to his degraded death, is gone. We have the finer
artist, but we have lost something of that earlier compelling interest.
_The Secret Agent_ is a tale of secret service in London; it contains
the wonderfully created figure of Verloc and it expresses, to the full,
Conrad’s hatred of those rows and rows of bricks and mortar that are so
completely accepted by unimaginative men. In 1911 _Under Western Eyes_
spoke strongly of a Russian influence {020}Turgéniev and Dostoievsky had
too markedly their share in the creation of Razumov and the cosmopolitan
circle in Geneva. Moreover, it is a book whose heart is cold.

A volume of short stories, _A Set of Six_, illustrating still more
emphatically Conrad’s new detachment, appeared in 1908 and is remarkable
chiefly for an ironically humorous story of the Napoleonic wars--_The
Duel_--a tale too long, perhaps, but admirable for its sustained note.
In 1912 he seemed, in another volume, _‘Twixt Land and Sea_, to unite
some of his earlier glow with all his later mastery of his method. _A
Smile, of Fortune_ and _The Secret Sharer_ are amazing in the beauty of
retrospect that they leave behind them in the soul of the reader. The
sea is once more revealed to us, but it is revealed now as something
that Conrad has conquered. His contact with the land has taken from him
something of his earlier intimacy with his old mistress. Nevertheless
_The Secret Sharer_ is a most marvellous story, marvellous in its
completeness of theme and treatment, marvellous in the {021}contrast
between the confined limitations of its stage and the vast implications
of its moral idea. Finally in 1914 appeared _Chance_, by no means the
finest of his books, but catching the attention and admiration of that
wider audience who had remained indifferent to the force and beauty of
_The Nigger of the Narcissus_, of _Lord Jim_, of _Nostromo_. With the
popular success of _Chance_ the first period of his work is closed. On
the possible results of that popularity, their effect on the artist
and on the whole world of men, one must offer, here at any rate, no


To any reader who cares, seriously, to study the art of Joseph Conrad,
no better advice could be offered than that he should begin with the
reading of the two volumes that have been omitted from the preceding
list. _Some Reminiscences_ and _The Mirror of the Sea_ demand
consideration on the threshold of any survey of this author’s work,
because {022}they reveal, from a personal, wilful and completely
anarchistic angle, the individuality that can only be discovered,
afterwards, objectively, in the process of creation.

In both these books Conrad is, quite simply, himself for anyone who
cares to read. They are books dictated by no sense of precedent nor form
nor fashion. They are books of their own kind, even more than are the
novels. _Some Reminiscences_ has only _Tristram Shandy_ for its rival in
the business of getting everything done without moving a step forward.
_The Mirror of the Sea_ has no rival at all.

We may suppose that the author did really intend to write his
reminiscences when he began. He found a moment that would make, a good
starting-point, a moment in the writing of his first book, _Almayer’s
Folly_, at the conclusion or, more truly, cessation of _Some
Reminiscences_, that moment is still hanging in mid-air, the writing
of _Almayer_ has not proceeded two lines farther down the stage, the
maid-servant, is still standing in the doorway, the hands of {023}the
clock have covered five minutes of the dial. What has occurred is simply
that the fascination of the subject has been too strong. It is of the
very essence of Conrad’s art that one thing so powerfully suggests to
him another that to start him on anything at all is a tragedy, because
life is so short. His reminiscences would be easy enough to command
would they only not take on a life of their own and shout at their
unfortunate author: “Ah! yes. I’m interesting, of course, but don’t you

The whole adventure of writing his first book is crowded with incident,
not because he considers it a wonderful book or himself a marvellous
figure, but simply because any incident in the world must, in his eyes,
be crowded about with other incidents. There is the pen one wrote the
book with, that pen that belonged to poor old Captain B-------- of the
_Nonsuch_ who... or there is the window just behind the writing-table
that looked out into the river, that river that reminds one of the
year ‘88 when...

In the course of his thrilling voyage of {024}discovery we are, by a
kind of most blessed miracle, told something of Mr Nicholas B. and of
the author’s own most fascinating uncle. We even, by an extension of the
miracle, learn something of Conrad as ship’s officer (this the merest
glimpse) and as a visitor to his uncle’s house in Poland.

So by chance are these miraculous facts and glimpses that we catch at
them with eager, extended hands, praying, imploring them to stay; indeed
those glimpses may seem to us the more wonderful in that they have been,
by us, only partially realised.

Nevertheless, in spite of its eager incoherence, at the same time both
breathless, and, by the virtue of its author’s style, solemn, we do
obtain, in addition to our glimpses of Poland and the sea, one or two
revelations of Conrad himself. Our revelations come to us partly through
our impression of his own zest for life, a zest always ironical,
often sceptical, but always eager and driven by a throbbing impulse of
vitality. Partly also through certain deliberate utterances. He tells
us: {025} “Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the
temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they
must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, amongst others, on the
idea of Fidelity. At a time when nothing which is not revolutionary in
some way or other can expect to attract much attention I have not been
revolutionary in my writings.” (Page 20.)

Or again:

“All claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and anger
from which a philosophical mind should be free.” (Page 21.)

Or again:

“Even before the most seductive reveries I have remained mindful of that
sobriety of interior life, that asceticism of sentiment, in which alone
the naked form of truth, such as one conceives it, such as one feels it,
can be rendered without shame.” (Page 194.)

This simplicity, this fidelity, this hatred of self-assertion and
self-satisfaction, this sobriety--these qualities do give some
implication of the colour of the work that will {026}arise from them;
and when to these qualities we add that before-mentioned zest and
vigour we must have some true conception of the nature of the work that
he was to do.

It is for this that _Some Reminiscences_ is valuable. To read it as a
detached work, to expect from it the amiable facetiousness of a book
of modern memories or the heavy authoritative coherence of the _My
Autobiography_ or _My Life_ of some eminent scientist or theologian, is
to be most grievously disappointed.

If the beginning is bewilderment the end is an impression of crowding,
disordered life, of a tapestry richly dark, with figures woven into the
very thread of it and yet starting to life with an individuality all
their own. No book reveals more clearly the reasons both of Conrad’s
faults and of his merits. No book of his is more likely by reason of its
honesty and simplicity to win him true friends. As a work of art there
is almost everything to be said against it, except that it has that
supreme gift that remains, at the end, almost all that we ask of any
work of {027}art, overwhelming vitality. But it is formless, ragged,
incoherent, inconclusive, a fragment of eager, vivid, turbulent
reminiscence poured into a friend’s ear in a moment of sudden
confidence. That may or may not be the best way to conduct
reminiscences; the book remains a supremely intimate, engaging and
enlightening introduction to its author.

With _The Mirror of the Sea_ we are on very different ground. As I have
already said, this is Conrad’s happiest book--indeed, with the possible
exception of _The Nigger of the Narcissus_, his only happy book. He
is happy because he is able, for a moment, to forget his distrust, his
dread, his inherent ironical pessimism. He is here permitting himself
the whole range of his enthusiasm and admiration, and behind that
enthusiasm there is a quiet, sure confidence that is strangely at
variance with the distrust of his later novels.

The book seems at first sight to be a collection of almost haphazard
papers, with such titles as _Landfalls and Departures_, {028}_Overdue
and Missing, Rulers of East and West, The Nursery of the Craft_.
No reader however, can conclude it without having conveyed to him a
strangely binding impression of Unity. He has been led, it will seem to
him, mto the very heart of the company of those who know the Sea as she
really is, he has been made free of a great order.

The foundation of his intimacy springs from three sources--the majesty,
power and cruelty of the Sea herself, the homely reality of the lives of
the men who serve her, the vibrating, beautiful life of the ships that
sail upon her. This is the Trilogy that holds in its hands the whole life
and pageant of the sea; it is because Conrad holds all three elements in
exact and perfect balance that this book has its unique value, its power
both of realism, for this is the life of man, and of romance, which is
the life of the sea.

Conrad’s attitude to the Sea herself, in this book, is one of lyrical
and passionate worship. He sees, with all the vivid accuracy of his
realism, her deceits, her {029}cruelties, her inhuman disregard of the
lives of men, but, finally, her glory is enough for him. He will write
of her like this:

“The sea--this truth must be confessed--has no generosity. No display of
manly qualities--courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness--has ever
been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power. The ocean
has the conscienceless temper of a savage autocrat spoiled by much
adulation. He cannot brook the slightest appearance of defiance, and has
remained the irreconcilable enemy of ships and men ever since ships and
men had the unheard-of audacity to go afloat together in the face of
his frown... the most amazing wonder of the deep is its unfathomable

Nevertheless she holds him her most willing slave and he is that because
he believes that she alone in all the world is worthy to indulge this
cruelty. She positively “brings it off,” this assertion of her right,
and once he is assured of that, he will yield absolute obedience. In
this worship of the Sea and the winds that rouse her he allows himself
a {030}lyrical freedom that he was afterwards to check. He was never
again, not even in _Typhoon_ and _Youth_, to write with such free and
spontaneous lyricism as in his famous passage about the “West Wind.”

_The Mirror of the Sea_ forms then the best possible introduction
to Conrad’s work, because it attests, more magnificently and more
confidently than anything else that he has written, his faith and his
devotion. It presents also, however, in its treatment of the second
element of his subject, the men on the ships, many early sketches of the
characters whom he, both before and afterwards, developed so fully in
his novels. About these same men there are certain characteristics to
be noticed, characteristics that must be treated more fully in a later
analysis of Conrad’s creative power, but that nevertheless demand some
mention here as witnesses of the emotions, the humours, the passions
that he, most naturally, observes. It is, in the first place, to
be marked that almost all the men upon the sea, from “poor Captain
B--------, who used {031}to suffer from sick headaches, in his young
days, every time he was approaching a coast,” to the dramatic Dominic
(“from the slow, imperturbable gravity of that broad-chested man
you would think he had never smiled in his life”), are silent and
thoughtful. Granted this silence, Conrad in his half-mournful,
half-humorous survey, is instantly attracted by any possible contrast.
Captain B------- dying in his home, with two grave, elderly women
sitting beside him in the quiet room, “his eyes resting fondly upon the
faces in the room, upon the pictures on the wall, upon all the familiar
objects of that home whose abiding and clear image must have flashed
often on his memory in times of stress and anxiety at sea”--“poor
P--------,” with “his cheery temper, his admiration for the jokes in
_Punch_, his little oddities--like his strange passion for borrowing
looking-glasses, for instance”--that captain who “did everything with an
air which put your attention on the alert and raised your expectations,
but the result somehow was always on stereotyped {032}lines,
unsuggestive, empty of any lesson that one could lay to heart”--that
other captain in whom “through a touch of self-seeking that modest
artist of solid merit became untrue to his temperament”--here are little
sketches for those portraits that afterwards we are to know so well,
Marlowe, Captain M’Whirr, Captain Lingard, Captain Mitchell and many
others. Here we may fancy that his eye lingers as though in the mere
enumeration of little oddities and contrasted qualities he sees such
themes, such subjects, such “cases” that it is hard, almost beyond
discipline, to leave them. Nevertheless they have to be left. He has
obtained his broader contrast by his juxtaposition of the curious
muddled jumble of the human life against the broad, august power of the
Sea--that is all that his present subject demands, that is his theme and
his picture.

Not all his theme, however; there remains the third element in it, the
soul of the ship. It is, perhaps, after all, with the life of the ship
that _The Mirror of The Sea_, ultimately, has most to do. {033}As other
men write of the woman they have loved, so does Conrad write of his
ships. He sees them, in this book that is so especially dedicated
to their pride and beauty, coloured with a fine glow of romance,
but nevertheless he realises them with all the accurate detail of a
technician who describes his craft. You may learn of the raising and
letting go of an anchor, and he will tell the journalists of their
crime in speaking of “casting” an anchor when the true technicality is
“brought up”--“to an anchor” understood. In the chapter on “Yachts” he
provides as much technical detail as any book of instruction need demand
and then suddenly there come these sentences--“the art of handling
slips is finer, perhaps, than the art of handling men.”... “A ship is a
creature which we have brought into the world, as it were on purpose to
keep us up to mark.”

Indeed it is the ship that gives that final impression of unity, of
which I have already spoken, to the book. She grows, as it were, from
her birth, in no ordered sequence of {034}events, but admitting us ever
more closely into her intimacy, telling us, at first shyly, afterwards
more boldly, little things about herself, confiding to us her trials,
appealing sometimes to our admiration, indulging sometimes our humour.
Conrad is tender to her as he is to nothing human. He watches her shy,
new, in the dock, “her reputation all to make yet in the talk of the
seamen who were to share their life with her.”... “She looked modest to
me. I imagined her diffident, lying very quiet, with her side nestling
shyly against the wharf to which she was made fast with very new lines,
intimidated by the company of her tried and experienced bisters already
familiar with all the violences of the ocean and the exacting love of

Her friend stands there on the quay and bids her be of good courage; he
salutes her grace and spirit--he echoes, with all the implied irony of
contrast, his companion’s “Ships are all right....”

He explains the many kinds of ships that there are--the rogues, the
wickedly malicious, {035}the sly, the benevolent, the proud, the
adventurous, the staid, the decorous. For even the worst of these he has
indulgences that he would never offer to the soul of man. He cannot be
severe before such a world of fine spirits.

Finally, in the episode of the _Tremolino_ and her tragic end (an end
that has in it a suggestion of that later story, _Freya of the Seven
Inlands_), in that sinister adventure of Dominic and the vile Caesar, he
shows us, in miniature, what it is that he intends to do with all this
material. He gives us the soul of the _Tremolino_, the soul of Dominic,
the soul of the sea upon which they are voyaging. Without ever deserting
the realism upon which he builds his foundations he raises upon it his
house of romance.

This book remains by far the easiest, the kindest, the most friendly
of all his books. He has been troubled here by no questions of form, of
creation, of development, whether of character or of incident.

It is the best of all possible prologues to his more creative work.



|IN {036}discussing the art of any novelist as distinct from the poet
or essayist there are three special questions that we may ask--as to the
Theme, as to the Form, as to the creation of Character.

It is possible to discuss these three questions in terms that can be
applied, in no fashion whatever, to the poem or the essay, although the
novel may often more truly belong to the essay or the poem to the
novel, as, for instance, _The Ring and the Book_ and _Aurora Leigh_ bear
witness. All such questions of ultimate classes and divisions are vain,
but these three divisions of Theme, Form and Character do cover many
of the questions that are to be asked about any novelist simply in his
position as novelist {037}and nothing else. That Joseph Conrad is, in
his art, most truly poet as well as novelist no reader of his work
will deny. I wish, in this chapter, to consider him simply as a
novelist--that is, as a narrator of the histories of certain human
beings, with his attitude to those histories.

Concerning the form of the novel the English novelists, until the
seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century, worried themselves
but slightly. If they considered the matter they chuckled over their
deliberate freedom, as did Sterne and Fielding. Scott considered
story-telling a jolly business in which one was, also, happily able
to make a fine living, but he never contemplated the matter with any
respect. Jane Austen, who had as much form as any modern novelist, was
quite unaware of her happy possession. The mid-Victorians gloriously
abandoned themselves to the rich independence of shilling numbers, a
fashion which forbade Form as completely as the manners of the time
forbade frankness. A new period began at the end of the fifties;
{038}but no one in 1861 was aware that a novel called _Evan Harrington_
was of any special importance; it made no more stir than did _Almayer’s
Folly_ in the early nineties, although the wonderful _Richard Feverel_
had already preceded it.

With the coming of George Meredith and Thomas Hardy the Form of the
novel, springing straight from the shores of France, where _Madame
Bovary_ and _Une Vie_ showed what might be done by taking trouble, grew
into a question of considerable import. Robert Louis Stevenson showed
how important it was to say things agreeably, even when you had not
very much to say. Henry James showed that there was so much to say about
everything that you could not possibly get to the end of it, and Rudyard
Kipling showed that the great thing was to see things as they were. At
the beginning of the nineties everyone was immensely busied over the way
that things were done. _The Yellow Book_ sprang into a bright existence,
flamed, and died. “Art for Art’s sake” was slain by the trial of Oscar
Wilde in 1895.

{039}Mr Wells, in addition to fantastic romances, wrote stories about
shop assistants and knew something about biology. The Fabian Society
made socialism entertaining. Mr Bernard Shaw foreshadowed a new period
and the Boer War completed an old one.

Of the whole question of Conrad’s place in the history of the English
novel and his influence upon it I wish to speak in a later chapter.
I would simply say here that if he was borne in upon the wind of the
French influence he was himself, in later years, one of the chief agents
in its destruction, but, beginning to write in English as he did in the
time of _The Yellow Book_, passing through all the realistic reaction
that followed the collapse of aestheticism, seeing the old period washed
away by the storm of the Boer War, he had, especially prepared for him,
a new stage upon which to labour. The time and the season were ideal for
the work that he had to do.


{040}The form in which Conrad has chosen to develop his narratives is
the question which must always come first in any consideration of him
as a novelist; the question of his form is the ground upon which he has
been most frequently attacked.

His difficulties in this matter have all arisen, as I have already
suggested, from his absorbing interest in life. Let us imagine, for an
instant, an imaginary case. He has teen in some foreign port a quarrel
between two seamen. One has “knifed” the other, and the quarrel has been
watched, with complete indifference, by a young girl and a bibulous old
wastrel who is obviously a relation both of hers and of the stricken
seaman. The author sees here a case for his art and, wishing to give
us the matter with the greatest possible truth and accuracy, he begins,
_oratio recta_, by the narration of a little barber whose shop is just
over the spot where the quarrel took place and whose lodgers the old man
and the girl are. He {041}describes the little barber and is, at once,
amazed by the interesting facts that he discovers about the man. Seen
standing in his doorway he is the most ordinary little figure, but
once investigate his case and you find a strange contrast between his
melancholy romanticism and the flashing fanaticism of his love for the
young girl who lodges with him. That leads one back, through many years,
to the moment of his first meeting with the bibulous old man, and for
a witness of that wo must hunt out a villainous old woman who keeps
a drinking saloon in another part of the town. This old woman, now
so drink-sodden and degraded, had once a history of her own. Once she

And so the matter continues. It is not so much a deliberate evocation of
the most difficult of methods, this maimer of narration, as a poignant
witness to Conrad’s own breathless surprise at his discoveries. Mr Henry
James, speaking of this enforced collection of oratorical witnesses,
says: “It places Mr Conrad absolutely alone as a {042}votary of the way
to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing,” and his amazement
at Conrad’s patient pursuit of unneeded difficulties may seem to us the
stranger if we consider that in _What Maisie Knew_ and _The Awkward Age_
he has practised almost precisely the same form himself. Indeed beside
the intricate but masterly form of _The Awkward Age_ the duplicate
narration of _Chance_ seems child’s play. Mr Henry James makes the
mistake of speaking as though Conrad had quite deliberately chosen the
form of narration that was most difficult to him, simply for the fun
of overcoming the difficulties, the truth being that he has chosen the
easiest, the form of narration brought straight from the sea and the
ships that he adored, the form of narration used by the Ancient Mariner
and all the seamen before and alter him. Conrad must have his direct
narrator, because that is the way in which stories in the past had
generally come to him. He wishes to deny the effect of that direct and
simple honesty that had always seemed so attractive to {043}him. He must
have it by word of mouth, because it is by word of mouth that he himself
has always demanded it, and if one witness is not enough for the truth
of it then must he have two or three.

Consider for a moment the form of three of his most important novels:
_Lord Jim, Nostromo_ and _Chance_. It is possible that _Lord Jim_ was
conceived originally as a sketch of character, derived by the author
from one scene that was, in all probability, an actual reminiscence.
Certainly, when the book is finished, one scene beyond all others
remains with the reader; the scene of the inquiry into the loss of
the _Patna_, or rather the vision of Jim and his appalling companions
waiting outside for the inquiry to begin. Simply in the contemplation
of these four men Conrad has his desired contrast; the skipper of
the _Patna_: “He made me think of a trained baby elephant walking
on hind-legs. He was extravagantly gorgeous too--got up in a. soiled
sleeping-suit, bright green and deep orange vertical stripes, with a
pair of ragged straw slippers {044}on his bare feet, and somebody’s
cast-off pith hat, very dirty and two sizes too small for him, tied up
with a manilla rope-yarn on the top of his big head.” There are also two
other “no-account chaps with him”--a sallow faced mean little chap with
his arm in a sling, and a long individual in a blue flannel coat,
as dry as a chip and no stouter than a broomstick, with drooping grey
moustaches, who looked about him with an air of jaunty imbecility, and,
with these three, Jim, “clean-limbed, clean-faced, firm on his feet, as
promising a boy as the sun ever shone on.” Here are these four, in the
same box, condemned for ever by all right-thinking men. That boy in the
same box as those obscene scoundrels! At once the artist has fastened
on to his subject, it bristles with active, vital possibilities and
discoveries. We, the observers, share the artist’s thrill. We watch
our author dart upon a subject with the excitement of adventurers
discovering a gold mine. How much will it yield? How deep will it go?
We are thrilled with the suspense. {045}Conrad, having discovered his
subject, must, for the satisfaction of that honour which is his most
deeply cherished virtue, prove to us his authenticity. “I was not
there myself,” he tells us, “but I can show you someone who was.” He
introduces us to a first-hand witness, Marlowe or another. “Now tell
your story.” He has at once the atmosphere in which he is happiest,
and so, having his audience clustered about him, unlimited time at
everyone’s disposal, whiskies and cigars without stint, he lets himself
go. He is bothered now by no question but the thorough investigation of
his discovery. What had Jim done that he should be in such a case? We
must have the story of the loss of the _Patna_, that marvellous journey
across the waters, all the world of the pilgrims, the obscene captain
and Jim’s fine, chivalrous soul. Marlowe is inexhaustible. He has so
much to say and so many fine words in which to say it. At present, so
absorbed are we, so successful is he, that we are completely held. The
illusion is perfect. We come to the inquiry. {046}One of the judges is
Captain Brierley. “What! not know Captain Brierley! Ah! but I must tell
you! Most extraordinary thing!”

The world grows around us; a world that can contain the captain of the
_Patna_, Brierley and Jim at the same time! The subject before us seems
now so rich that we are expecting to see it burst, at any moment, in the
author’s hands, but so long as that first visualised scene is the centre
of the episode, so long as the experience hovers round that inquiry
and the Esplanade outside it, we are held, breathless and believing.
We believe even in the eloquent Marlowe. Then the moment passes. Every
possible probe into its heart has been made. We are satisfied.

There follows then the sequel, and here at once the weakness of the
method is apparent. The author having created his narrator must continue
with him. Marlowe is there, untired, eager, waiting to begin again.
But the trouble is that we are do longer assured now of the truth
and {047}reality of his story. He saw--we cannot for an instant doubt
it--that group on the Esplanade; all that he could tell us about that
we, breathlessly, awaited. But now we are uncertain whether he is not
inventing a romantic sequel. He must go on--that is the truly terrible
thing about Marlowe--and at the moment when we question his authenticity
we are suspicious of his very existence, ready to be irritated by his
flow of words demanding something more authentic than that voice that
is now only dimly heard. The author himself perhaps feels this; he
duplicates, he even trebles his narrators and with each fresh agent
raises a fresh crop of facts, contrasts, halts and histories. That then
is the peril of the method. Whilst we believe we are completely held,
but let the authenticity waver for a moment and the danger of disaster
is more excessive than with any other possible form of narration. Create
your authority and we have at once someone at whom we may throw
stones if we are not beguiled, Marlowe has certainly been compelled to
{048}face, at moments in his career, an angry, irritated audience.

_Nostromo_ is, for the reason that we never lose our confidence in the
narrator, a triumphant vindication of these methods. That is not to deny
that _Nostromo_ is extremely contused in places, but it is a
confusion that arises rather from Conrad’s confidence in the reader’s
fore-knowledge of the facts than in a complication of narrations. The
narrations are sometimes complicated--old Captain Mitchell does not
always achieve authenticity--but on the whole, the reader may be said to
be puzzled, simply because he is told so much about some things and so
little about others.

But this assurance of the author’s that we must have already learnt the
main facts of the case comes from his own convinced sense of the reality
of it. This time he has no Marlowe. He was there himself. “Of course,”
 he says to us, “you know all about that revolution in Sulaco, that
revolution that the Goulds were mixed up with. Well, I happened to be
there myself. I know all {049}the people concerned, and the central
figure was not Gould, nor Mitchell, nor Monyngham--no, it was a man
about whom no one outside the republic was told a syllable. I knew the
man well.... He.. and there we all are.”

The method is, in this case, as I have already said, completely
successful. There may be confusions, there may be scenes concerning
which we may be expected to be told much and are, in truth, told nothing
at all, but these confusions and omissions do, in the end, only add to
our conviction of the veracity of it. No one, after a faithful perusal
of _Nostromo_, can possibly doubt of the existence of Sulaco, of the
silver mine, of Nostromo and Decoud, of Mrs Gould, Antonio, the Viola
girls, of old Viola, Hirsch, Monyngham, Gould, Sotillo, of the death of
Viola’s wife, of the expedition at night in the painter, of Decoud alone
on the Isabels, of Hirsch’s torture, of Captain Mitchell’s watch--here
are characters the most romantic in the world, scenes that would surely,
in any other hands, be fantastic {050}melodrama, and both characters and
scenes are absolutely supported on the foundation of realistic truth.
Not for a moment from the first page to the last do we consciously doubt
the author’s word.... Here the form of narration is vindicated because
it is entirely convincing.

Not so with the third example, _Chance_. Here, as with _Lord Jim_, we
may find one, visualised moment that stands for the whole book and as
in the earlier work we look back and see the degraded officers of the
_Patna_ waiting with Jim on the Esplanade, so our glance back over
_Chance_ reveals to us that moment when the Fynes, from the security of
their comfortable home, watch Flora de Barrel flying down the steps
of her horrible Brighton house as though the Furies pursued her. That
desperate flight is the key of the book. The moment of the chivalrous
Captain Anthony’s rescue of Flora from a world too villainous for her
and too double-faced for him gives the book’s theme, and never in all
the stories that preceded Flora’s has Conrad been so {051}eager to
afford us first-hand witnesses. We have, in the first place, the
unquenchable Marlowe sitting, with fine phrases at his lips, in a
riverside inn. To him enter Powell, who once served with Captain
Anthony; to these two add the little Fynes; there surely you have enough
to secure your alliance. But it is precisely the number of witnesses
that frightens us. Marlowe, unaided, would have been enough for us,
more than enough if we are to consider the author himself as a possible
narrator. But not only does the number frighten us, it positively hides
from us the figures of Captain Anthony and Flora de Barrel. Both the
Knight and the Maiden--as the author names them--are retiring souls,
and our hearts move in sympathy fin them as we contemplate their timid
hesitancy before the voluble inquisitions of Marlowe, young Powell and
the Fynes. Moreover, the intention of this method that it should secure
realistic conviction for the most romantic episodes does not here
achieve its purpose, as we have seen that it did in the first half
of {052}_Lord Jim_ and the whole of _Nostromo_. We believe most
emphatically in that first narration of young Powell’s about his first
chance. We believe in the first narration of Marlowe, although quite
casually he talks like this: “I do not even think that there was in
what he did a conscious and lofty confidence in himself, a particularly
pronounced sense of power which leads men so often into impossible or
equivocal situations.” We believe in the horrible governess (a fiercely
drawn figure). We believe in Marlowe’s interview with Flora on the
pavement outside Anthony’s room.

We believe in the whole of the first half of the book, but even here we
are conscious that we would prefer to be closer to the whole thing, that
it would be pleasant to hear Flora and Anthony speak for themselves,
that we resent, a little, Marlowe’s intimacy which prevents, with
patronising complaisance, the intimacy that we, the readers, might have
seemed. Nevertheless we are so far held, we are captured.

But when the second half of the book {053}arrives we can be confident
no longer. Here, as in _Lord Jim_, it is possible to feel that Conrad,
having surprised, seized upon, mastered his original moment, did not
know how to continue it. The true thing in _Lord Jim_ is the affair of
the _Patna_; the true thing in _Chance_ is Captain Anthony’s rescue of
Flora after her disaster. But whereas in _Lord Jim_ the sequel to Jim’s
cowardice has its own fine qualities of beauty and imagination, the
sequel to Captain Anthony’s rescue of Flora seems to one listener at any
rate a pitiably unconvincing climax of huddled melodrama. That chapter
in _Chance_ entitled _A Moonless Night_ is, in the first half of it,
surely the worst thing that Conrad ever wrote, save only that one early
short story, _The Return_. The conclusion of _Chance_ and certain tales
in his volume, _Within the Tides_, make one wonder whether that
alliance between romance and realism that he has hitherto so wonderfully
maintained is not breaking down before the baleful strength of the
former of these two qualities.

{054}It remains only to be said that when credence so entirely fails,
as it must before the end of _Chance_, the form of narration in _Oratio
Recta_ is nothing less than maddening. Suddenly we do not believe in
Marlowe, in Powell, in the Fynes: we do not believe even in Anthony
and Flora. We are the angrier because earlier in the evening we were
so completely taken in. It is as though we had given our money to a
deserving cause and discovered a charlatan.

I have described at length the form in which the themes of these books
are developed, because it is the form that, here extensively, here quite
unobtrusively, clothes all the novels and tales. We are caught and held
by the skinny finger of the Ancient Mariner. When he has a true tale to
tell us his veritable presence is an added zest to our pleasure. But, if
his presence be not true...


If we turn to the themes that engage Joseph Conrad’s attention we shall
see that {055}in almost every case his subjects are concerned with
unequal combats--unequal to his own far-seeing vision, but never to
the human souls engaged in them, and it is this consciousness of the
blindness that renders men’s honesty and heroism of so little account
that gives occasion for his irony.

He chooses, in almost every case, the most solid and unimaginative of
human beings for his heroes, and it seems that it is these men alone
whom he can admire. “If a human soul has vision he simply gives the
thing up,” we can hear him say. “He can see at once that the odds are
too strong for him. But these simple souls, with their consciousness of
the job before them and nothing else, with their placid sense of honour
and of duty, upon them you may loosen all heaven’s bolts and lightnings
and they will not quail.” They command his pity, his reverence, his
tenderness, almost his love. But at the end, with an ironic shrug of his
shoulders, he says: “You see. I told you so. He may even think he has
won. We know better, you and I.” {056}The theme of _Almayer’s Folly_
is a struggle of a weak man against nature, of _The Nigger of the
Narcissus_ the struggle of many simple men against the presence of
death, of _Lord Jim_, again, the struggle of a simple man against
nature (here the man wins, but only, we feel, at the cost of truth).
_Nostromo_, the conquest of a child of nature by the silver mine which
stands over him, conscious of its ultimate victory, from the very first.
_Chance_, the struggle of an absolutely simple and upright soul against
the dishonesties of a world that he does not understand. _Typhoon_, the
very epitome of Conrad’s themes, is the struggle of M’Whirr against the
storm (here again it is M’Whirr who apparently wins, but we can hear,
in the very last line of the book, the storm’s confident chuckle of
ultimate victory). In _Heart of Darkness_ the victory is to the forest.
In _The End of the Tether_ Captain Whalley, one of Conrad’s finest
figures, is beaten by the very loftiness of his character. The three
tales in _‘Twixt Land, and Sea_ are all themes of this kind--the
struggle of simple, {057}unimaginative men against forces too strong
for them. In _The Secret Agent_ Winnie Verloc, another simple character,
finds life too much for her and commits suicide. In _Under Western Eyes_
Razumov, the dreamer, is destroyed by a world that laughs at the pains
and struggles of insignificant individuals.

Of Conrad’s philosophy I must speak in another place: here it is enough
to say that it is impossible to imagine him choosing as the character
of a story jolly, independent souls who take life for what it gives them
and leave defeat or victory to the stars.

Whatever Conrad’s books are or are not, it may safely be said that
they are never jolly, and his most devoted disciple would, in all
probability, resent any suggestion of a lighter hand or a gentler
affection, his art, nevertheless, is limited by this persistent brooding
over the inequality of life’s battle. His humour, often of a very
fine kind, is always sinister, because his choice of theme forbids

Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy would {058}have found Marlowe, Jim and
Captain Anthony quite impossibly solemn company--but I do not deny that
they might not have been something the better for a little of it.

I have already said that his characters are, for the most part, simple
and unimaginative men, but that does not mean that they are so simple
that there is nothing in them. The first thing of which one is sure in
meeting a number of Conrad’s characters is that they have existences
and histories entirely independent of their introducer’s kind offices.
Conrad has met them, has talked to them, has come to know them, but we
are sure not only that there is very much more that he could tell us
about them if he had time and space, but that even when he had told us
all that he knew he would only have touched on the fringe of their real

One of the distinctions between the modern English novel and the
mid-Victorian English novel is that modern characters have but little of
the robust vitality of their {059}predecessors; the figures in the novel
of to-day fade so easily from the page that endeavours to keep them.

In the novels of Mr Henry James we feel at times that the characters
fade before the motives attributed to them, in those of Mr Wells before
an idea, a curse, or a remedy, in those of Mr Bennett before a creeping
wilderness of important insignificances, in those of Mr Galsworthy
before the oppression of social inequalities, in those of Mrs Wharton
before the shadow of Mr Henry James, even in those of Mr Hardy
before the omnipotence of an inevitable God whom, in spite of his
inevitability, Mr Hardy himself is arranging in the background; it
may be claimed for the characters of Mr Conrad that they yield
their solidity to no force, no power, not even to their author’s own
determination that they are doomed, in the end, to defeat.

This is not for a moment to say that Joseph Conrad is a finer
novelist than these others, but this quality he has beyond his
contemporaries--namely, the assurance that {060}his characters have
their lives and adventures both before and after the especial cases that
he is describing to us.

The Russian Tchekov has, in his plays, this gift supremely, so that at
the close of _The Three Sisters_ or _The Cherry Orchard_ we are left
speculating deeply upon “what happened afterwards” to Gayef or Barbara,
to Masha or Epikhadov; with Conrad’s sea captains as with Tchekov’s
Russians we see at once that they are entirely independent of the
incidents that we are told about them. This independence springs partly
from the author’s eager, almost naïve curiosity. It is impossible for
him to introduce us to any officer on his ship without whispering to us
in an aside details about his life, his wife and family on shore. By so
doing he forges an extra link in his chain of circumstantial evidence,
but we do not feel that here he is deliberately serving his art--it is
only that quality already mentioned, his own astonished delight at the
things that he is discovering. We learn, for instance, about Captain
M’Whirr that he wrote long letters home, {061}beginning always with the
words, “My darling Wife,” and relating in minute detail each successive
trip of the _Nan-Shan_. Mrs M’Whirr, we learn, was “a pretentious person
with a scraggy neck and a disdainful manner, admittedly lady-like and in
the neighbourhood considered as ‘quite superior.’ The only secret of her
life was her abject terror of the time when her husband would come home
to stay for good.” Also in _Typhoon_ there is the second mate “who never
wrote any letters, did not seem to hope for news from anywhere; and
though he had been heard once to mention West Hartlepool, it was with
extreme bitterness, and only in connection with the extortionate charges
of a boarding-house.” How conscious we are of Jim’s English country
parsonage, of Captain Anthony’s loneliness, of Marlowe’s isolation. By
this simple thread of connection between the land and the ship the whole
character stands, human and convincing, before us. Of the sailors on
board the _Narcissus_ there is not one about whom, after his landing,
{062}we are not curious. There is the skipper, whose wife comes on
board, “A real lady, in a black dress and with a parasol.”... “Very soon
the captain, dressed very smartly and in a white shirt, went with her
over the side. We didn’t recognise him at all....” And Mr Baker, the
chief mate! Is not this little farewell enough to make us his friends
for life?

“No one waited for him ashore. Mother died; father and two brothers,
Yarmouth fishermen, drowned together on the Dogger Bank; sister married
and unfriendly. Quite a lady, married to the leading tailor of a little
town, and its leading politician, who did not think his sailor brother
in-law quite respectable enough for him. Quite a lady, quite a lady,
he thought, sitting down for a moment’s rest on the quarter-hatch. Time
enough to go ashore and get a bite, and sup, and a bed somewhere.
He didn’t like to part with a ship. No one to think about then. The
darkness of a misty evening fell, cold and damp, upon the deserted deck;
and Mr Baker sat smoking, thinking of all the successive ships to whom
through many {063}long years he had given the best of a seaman’s care.
And never a command in sight. Not once!”

There are others--the abominable Donkin for instance. “Donkin entered.
They discussed the account... Captain Allistoun said. ‘I give you a bad
discharge,’ he said quietly. Donkin raised his voice: ‘I don’t want your
bloomin’ discharge--keep it. I’m goin’ ter ‘ave a job hashore.’ He turned
to us. ‘No more bloomin’ sea for me,’ he said, aloud. All looked at him.
He had better clothes, had an easy air, appeared more at home than any
of us; he stared with assurance, enjoying the effect of his

In how many novels would Donkin’s life have been limited by the part
that he was required to play in the adventures of the _Narcissus?_ As it
is our interest in his progress has been satisfied by a prologue
only. Or there is Charley, the boy of the crew--“As I came up I saw a
red-faced, blowzy woman, in a grey shawl, and with dusty, {064}fluffy
hair, fall on Charley’s neck. It was his mother. She slobbered over
him:--‘Oh, my boy! my boy!’--‘Leggo me,’ said Charley, ‘leggo,
mother!’ I was passing him at the time, and over the untidy head of
the blubbering woman he gave me a humorous smile and a glance ironic,
courageous, and profound, that seemed to put all my knowledge of life
to shame. I nodded and passed on, but heard him say again,
good-naturedly:--‘If you leggo of me this minyt--ye shall ‘ave a bob for
a drink out of my pay.’”

But one passes from these men of the sea--from M’Whirr and Baker,
from Lingard and Captain Whalley, from Captain Anthony and Jim, with a
suspicion that the author will not convince us quite so readily with his
men of the land--and that suspicion is never entirely dismissed. About
such men as M’Whirr and Baker he can tell us nothing that we will not
believe. He has such sympathy and understanding for them that they will,
we are assured, deliver up to him their dearest secrets--those little
details, {065}M’Whirr’s wife, Mr Baker’s proud sister, Charley’s
mother, are their dearest secrets. But with the citizens of the other
world--with Stein, Decoud, Gould, Verloc, Razumov, the sinister Nikita,
the little Fynes, even the great Nostromo himself--we cannot be so
confident, simply because their discoverer cannot yield them that same
perfect sympathy.

His theory about these men is that they have, all of them, an
_idée fixe_, that you must search for this patiently, honestly,
unsparingly--having found it, the soul of the man is revealed to you.
But is it? Is it not possible that Decoud or Verloc, feeling the probing
finger, offer up instantly any _idée fixe_ ready to hand because
they wish to be left alone? Decoud himself, for instance--Decoud, the
imaginative journalist in _Nostromo_, speculating with his ironic mind
upon romantic features, at his heart, apparently cynical and reserved,
the burning passion for the beautiful Antonia. He has yielded enough
to suggest the truth, but the truth itself eludes us. With Verloc again
{066}we have a quite masterly presentation of the man as Conrad sees
him. That first description of him is wonderful, both in its reality
and its significance. “His eyes were naturally heavy, he had an air of
having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.”

With many novelists that would be quite enough, that we should see the
character as the author sees him, but because, in these histories, we
have the convictions of the extension of the protagonists’ lives
beyond the stated episodes, it is not enough. Because they have lives
independent of the covers of the book we feel that there can be no end
to the things that we should be told about them, and they must be true

Verloc, for instance, is attached from the first to his _idée
fixe_--namely, that he should be able to retain, at all costs, his
phlegmatic state of self-indulgence and should not be jockeyed out of
it. At the first sign of threatened change he is terrified to his very
soul. Conrad never, for an instant, allows him to leave this ground
upon which he has {067}placed him. We see the man tied to his rock of
an _idée fixe_, but he has, nevertheless, we are assured, another life,
other motives, other humours, other terrors. It is perhaps a direct
tribute to the authors reserve power that we feel, at the book’s close,
that we should have been told so much more.

Even with the great Nostromo himself we are not satisfied as we are with
Captain Whalley or Mr Kates. Nostromo is surely, as a picture, the moat
romantically satisfying figure in the English novel since Scott,
with the single exception of Thackeray’s Beatrix--and here I am not
forgetting Captain Silver, David Balfour, Catriona, nor, in our own
immediate time, young Beauchamp or the hero of that amazing and so
unjustly obscure fiction, _The Shadow of a Titan_. As a picture,
Nostromo shines with a flaming colour, shines, as the whole novel
shines, with a glow that is flung by the contrasted balance of its
romance and realism. From that first vision of him as he rides slowly
through the crowds, in his magnificent dress: “... his hat, a gay
sombrero with {068}a silver cord and tassels. The bright colours of a
Mexican scrape twisted on the mantle, the enormous silver buttons on the
embroidered leather jacket, the row of tiny silver buttons down the seam
of the trousers, the snowy linen, a silk sash with embroidered ends, the
silver plates on headstall and saddle... to that last moment when--...
in the dimly lit room Nostromo rolled his head slowly on the pillow and
opened his eyes, directing at the weird figure perched by his bedside
a glance of enigmatic and mocking scorn. Then his head rolled back, his
eyelids fell, and the Capatos of the Cargadores died without a word or
moan after an hour of immobility, broken by short shudders testifying to
the most atrocious sufferings”--we are conscious of his superb figure;
and after his death we do, indeed, believe what the last lines of the
book assure us--“In that true cry of love and grief that seemed to
ring aloud from Punta Mala to Azuera and away to the bright line of
the horizon, overhung by a big white cloud shining like a mass of
solid silver, the {069}genius of the magnificent Capatuz de Cargadores
dominated the dark gulf containing his conquests of treasure and love.”
 His genius dominates, yes--but it is the genius of a magnificent picture
standing as a frontispiece to the book of his soul. And that soul is not
given us--Nostromo, proud to the last, refuses to surrender it to us.
Why is it that the slender sketch of old Singleton in _The Nigger of
the Narcissus_ gives us the very heart of the man, so that volumes
might tell us more of him indeed, but could not surrender him to us more
truly, and all the fine summoning of Nostromo only leaves him beyond
our grasp? We believe in Nostromo, but we are told about him--we have
not met him.

Nevertheless, at another turn of the road, this criticism must seem the
basest ingratitude. When we look back and survey that crowd, so various,
so distinct whether it be they who are busied, before our eyes, with the
daily life of Sulaoo, or the Verloc family (the most poignant scene in
the whole of Conrad’s art--the drive in the {070}cab of old Mrs Verloc,
Winnie and Stevie--compels, additionally, our gratitude) or that strange
gathering, the Haldins, Nikita, Laspara, Madame de S------, Peter
Ivanovitch, Raznmov, at Geneva, or the highly coloured figures in
_Romance_ (a book fine in some places, astonishingly second-rate in
others), Falk or Amy Foster, Jacobus and his daughter, Jasper and his
lover, all those and so many, many more, what can we do but embrace the
world that is offered to us, accept it as an axiom of life that, of
all these figures, some will be near to us, some more distant? It is,
finally, a world that Conrad offers us, not a series of novels in whose
pages we find the same two or three figures returning to us--old friends
with new faces and new names--but a planet that we know, even as we know
the Meredith planet, the Hardy planet, the James planet.

Looking back, we may trace its towns and rivers, its continents and
seas, its mean streets and deep valleys, its country houses, its
sordid hovels, its vast, untamed forests, its deserts and wilderness
s. Although each {071}work, from, the vast _Nostromo_ to the minutely
perfect _Secret Share_, has its new theme, its form, its separate heart,
the swarming life that he has created knows no boundary. And in this,
surely, creation has accomplished its noblest work.


|THE {072}poet in Conrad is lyrical as well as philosophic. The lyrical
side is absent in certain of his works, as, for example, _The Secret
Agent_, and _Under Western Eyes_, or such short stories as _The
Informer_, or _Il Conde_, but the philosophic note sounded poetically,
as an instrument of music as well as a philosophy, is never absent.

Three elements in the work of Conrad the poet as distinct from Conrad
the novelist deserve consideration--style, atmosphere and philosophy. In
the matter of style the first point that must strike any constant reader
of the novels is the change that is to be marked between the earlier
works and the later. Here is a descriptive passage from {073}Conrad’s
second novel, _An Outcast of the Islands_:

“He followed her step by step till at last they both stopped, facing
each other under the big tree of the enclosure. The solitary exile of
the forests great, motionless and solemn in his abandonment, left alone
by the life of ages that had been pushed away from him by those pigmies
that crept at his foot, towered high and straight above their leader. He
seemed to look on, dispassionate and imposing in his lonely greatness,
spreading his branches wide in a gesture of lofty protection, as if to
hide them in the sombre shelter of innumerable leaves; as if moved by
the disdainful compassion of the strong, by the scornful pity of an
aged giant, to screen this struggle of two human hearts from the cold
scrutiny of glittering stars.”

And from his latest novel, _Chance_:

“The very sea, with short flashes of foam bursting out here and there
in the gloomy distances, the unchangeable, safe sea sheltering a man
from all passions, except its own anger, seemed queer to the quick
{074}glance he threw to windward when the already effaced horizon traced
no reassuring limit to the eye. In the expiring diffused twilight,
and before the clouded night dropped its mysterious veil, it was the
immensity of space made visible--almost palpable. Young Powell felt
it. He felt it in the sudden sense of his isolation; the trustworthy,
powerful ship of his first acquaintance reduced to a speck, to something
almost undistinguishable. The mere support for the soles of his two
feet before that unexpected old man becoming so suddenly articulate in a
darkening universe.”

It must be remembered that the second of these quotations is the voice
of Marlowe and that therefore it should, in necessity, be the simpler of
the two. Nevertheless, the distinction can very clearly be observed. The
first piece of prose is quite definitely lyrical: it has, it cannot be
denied, something of the “purple patch.” We feel that the prose is too
dependent upon sonorous adjectives, that it has the deliberation of work
slightly affected by the author’s {075}determination that it shall be
fine. The rhythm in it, however, is as deliberate as the rhythm of any
poem in English, the picture evoked as distinct and clear-cut as though
it were, in actual tact, a poem detached from all context and, finally,
there is the inevitable philosophical implication to give the argument
to the picture. Such passages of descriptive prose may be found again
and again in the earlier novels and tales of Conrad, in _Almayer’s
Folly, Tales of Unrest, The Nigger of the Narcissus, Typhoon, Youth,
Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim_,--prose piled high with sonorous and
slow-moving adjectives, three adjectives to a noun, prose that sounds
hike an Eastern invocation to a deity in whom, nevertheless, the
suppliant does not believe. At its worst, the strain that its sonority
places upon movements and objects of no importance is disastrous.
For instance, in the tale called _The Return_, there is the following

“He saw her shoulder touch the lintel of the door. She swayed as if
dazed. There was {076}less than a second of suspense while they both
felt as if poised on the very edge of moral annihilation, ready to fall
into some devouring nowhere. Then almost simultaneously he shouted,
‘Come back,’ and she let go the handle of the door. She turned round in
peaceful desperation like one who has deliberately thrown away the last
chance of life; and for a moment the room she faced appeared terrible,
and dark, and safe--like a grave.”

The situation here simply will not bear the weight of the words--“moral
annihilation,” “devouring nowhere,” “peaceful desperation,” “last chance
of life,” “terrible,” “like a grave.” That he shouted gives a final
touch of ludicrous exaggeration to the whole passage.

Often, in the earlier books, Conrad’s style has the awkward
over-emphasis of a writer who is still acquiring the language that he is
using, like a foreigner who shouts to us because he thinks that thus
we shall understand him more easily. But there is also, in this earlier
style, the marked effect of {077}two influences. One influence is that
of the French language and especially of the author of _Madame Bovary_.
When we recollect that Conrad hesitated at the beginning of his career
as to whether he would write in French or English, we can understand
this French inflection. Flaubert’s effect on his style is quite
unmistakable. This is a sentence of Flaubert’s: “Toutes ses velléités de
dénigrement l’envanouissaiont sous la poésie du rôle qui l’envahissait;
et entrainée vers l’homme par l’illusion du personnage elle tâcha de se
figurer sa vie, cette vie retentissante, extraordinaire, splendide...”
 and this a sentence of Conrad’s: “Her hands slipped slowly off Lingard’s
shoulders and her arms tell by her side, listless, discouraged, as if
to her--to her, the savage, violent and ignorant creature--had been
revealed clearly in that moment the tremendous fact of our isolation, of
the loneliness, impenetrable and transparent, elusive and everlasting.”

Conrad’s sentence reads like a direct translation from the French, It
is probable, {078}however, that his debt to Flaubert and the French
language can be very easily exaggerated, and it does not seem, in
any case, to have driven very deeply into the heart of his form. The
influence is mainly to be detected in the arrangement of words and
sentences as though he had in the first years of his work, used it as a
crutch before he could walk alone.

The second of the early influences upon his style is of far greater
importance--the influence of the vast, unfettered elements of nature
that he had, for so many years, so directly served. If it were not for
his remarkable creative gift that had been, from the very first, at its
full strength, his early books would stand as purely lyrical evocations
of the sea and the forest. It is the poetry of the Old Testament of
which we think in many pages of _Almayer’s Folly_ and _An Outcast of
the Island_, a poetry that has the rhythm and metre of a spontaneous
emotion. He was never again to catch quite the spirit of that first

He was under the influence of these powers {079}also in that, at that
time, they were too strong for him. We feel with him that he is impotent
to express his wonder and praise because he is still so immediately
under their sway. His style, in these earlier hooks, has the repetitions
and extended phrases of a man who is marking time before the inspired
moment comes to him--often the inspiration does not come because he
cannot detach himselt with sufficient pause and balance. But in his
middle period, in the period of _Youth, Typhoon, Heart of Darkness_ and
_Nostromo_, this lyrical impulse can be seen at its perfection, beating,
steadily, spontaneously, with the finest freedom and yet disciplined, as
it were, by its own will and desire. Compare, for a moment, this passage
from _Typhoon_ with that earlier one from _The Outcast of the Islands_
that I quoted above:

“He watched her, battered and solitary, labouring heavily in a wild
scene of mountainous black waters lit by the gleam of distant worlds.
She moved slowly, breathing into the still core of the hurricane
{080}the excess of her strength in a white cloud of steam, and the
deep-toned vibration of the escape was like the defiant trumpeting of a
living creature of the sea impatient for the renewal of the contest.
It ceased suddenly. The still air moaned. Above Jakes’ head a few stars
shone into the pit of black vapours. The inky edge of the cloud-disc
frowned upon the ship under the patch of glittering sky. The stars too
seemed to look at her intently, as if for the last time, and the cluster
of their splendour sat like a diadem on a lowering brow.”

That is poet’s work, and poet’s work at its finest. Instead of
impressing us, as the earlier piece of prose, with the fact that the
author has made the very most of a rather thin moment--feels, indeed,
himself that it is thin--we are here under the influence of something
that can have no limits to the splendours that it contains. The work is
thick, as though it had been wrought by the finest workman out of
the heart of the finest material--and yet it remains, through all its
discipline, spontaneous.

These three tales, _Typhoon, Youth_ and {081}_Heart of Darkness_, stand
by themselves as the final expression of Conrad’s lyrical gift. We
may remember such characters as M’Whirr, Kurtz, Marlowe, but they are
figures as the old seneschal in _The Eve of St Agnes_ or the Ancient
Mariner himself are figures. They are as surely complete poems, wrought
and finished in the true spirit of poetry, as Whitman’s _When Lilac
first on the Door yard bloomed_ or Keats’ _Nightingale._ Their author
was never again to succeed so completely in combining the free spirit of
his enthusiasm with the disciplined restraint of the true artist.

The third period of his style shows him cool and clear-headed as to
the things that he intends to do. He is now the slightly ironic, artist
whose business is to get things on to paper in the clearest possible
way. He is conscious that in the past he has been at the mercy of
sonorous and high-sounding adjectives. He will use them still, but
only to show them that they are at his mercy. Marlowe, his appointed
minister, is older--he must look back now on the colours of {082}_Youth_
with an indulgent smile. And when Marlowe is absent, in such novels as
_The Secret Agent_ and _Under Western Eyes_, in such a volume of
stories as _A Set of Six_, the lyrical beat in the style is utterly
abandoned--we are led forward by sentences as grave, as assured, and
sometimes as ponderous as a city policeman. Nevertheless, in that
passage from _Chance_ quoted at the beginning of the chapter, although
we may be far from the undisciplined enthusiasm of _An Outcast of
the Islands_, the lyrical impulse still remains. Yes, it is there,
but--“Young Powell felt it.” In that magical storm that was _Typhoon_
God alone can share our terror and demand our courage; in the later
experience young Powell is our companion.


The question of style devolves here directly into the question of
atmosphere. There may roughly be said to be four classes of novelists
in the matter of atmosphere. There is the novelist who, intent upon his
{083}daily bread or game of golf, has no desire to be worried by such
a perplexing business. He produces stories that might without loss play
the whole of their action in the waiting-room of an English railway
station. There is the novelist who thinks that atmosphere matters
immensely, who works hard to produce it and _does_ produce it in thick
slabs. There are the novelists whose theme, characters and background
react so admirably that the atmosphere is provided simply by that
reaction--and there, finally, it is left, put into no relation with
other atmospheres, serving no further purpose than the immediate one of
stating the facts. Of this school are the realists and, in our own
day, Mr Arnold Bennett’s Brighton background in _Hilda Lessways_ or
Mrs Wharton’s New York background in _The House of Mirth_ offer most
successful examples of such realistic work. The fourth class provides us
with the novelists who wish to place their atmosphere in relation
with the rest of life. Our imagination is awakened, insensibly, by the
contemplation of some scene and is thence {084}extended to the whole
vista, of life, from birth to death; although the scene may actually be
as remote or as conlined as space can make it, its potential limits
are boundless, its progression is extended beyond all possibilities
of definition. Such a moment is the death of Bazarov in _Fathers and
Children_, the searching of Dmitri in _The Brothers Karamazov_, the
scene at the theatre in _The Ring and the Book_, the London meeting
between Beauchamp and René in _Beauchamp’s Career_. It is not only that
these scenes are “done” to the full extent of their “doing,” it is also
that they have behind them the lyrical impulse that ignites them with
all the emotion and beauty in the history of the world; Turgeniev,
Dostoievsky, Browning, Meredith were amongst the greatest of the poets.
Conrad, at his highest moments, is also of that company.

But it is not enough to say that this potential atmosphere is simply
lyrical. Mr Chesterton, in his breathless _Victorian Age in Literature_,
has named this element Glamour. {085}In writing of the novels by George
Eliot he says: “Indeed there is almost every element of literature,
except a certain indescribable thing called _Glamour_, which was the
whole stock-in-trade of the Brontes, which we feel in Dickens when Quilp
clambers, and rotten wood by the desolate river; and even in Thackeray,
when Edmond wanders like some swarthy crow about the dismal avenues of
Castlewood.” Now’ this matter of _Glamour_ is not all, because Dickens,
for instance, is not at all potential. His pictures of Quilp or the
house of the Dedloeks or Jonas Chuzzlewit’s escape after the murder do
not put us into touch with other worlds--but we may say, at any rate,
that when, in a novel atmosphere _is_ potential it is certain also to
have glamour.

The potential qualities of Conrad’s atmosphere are amongst his very
strongest gifts and, it we investigate the matter, we see that it is
his union of Romance and Realism that gives such results. Of almost no
important scene in his novels is it possible to define the boundaries.
In _The Outcast {086}of the Islands_, when Willems is exiled by Captain
Lingard, the terror of that forest has at its heart not only the actual
terror of that immediate scene, minutely and realistically described--it
has also the terror of all our knowledge of loneliness, desolation, the
power of something stronger than ourselves. In _Lord Jim_ the contrast
of Jim with the officers of the _Patna_ is a contrast not only
immediately vital and realised to the very fringe of the captain’s
gay and soiled pyjamas, but also potential to the very limits of our
ultimate conception of the eternal contrast between good and evil,
degradation and vigour, ugliness and beauty. In _The Nigger of the
Narcissus_ the death of the negro, James Wait, immediately affects
the lives of a number of very ordinary human beings whose friends and
intimates we have become--but that shadow that traps the feet of the
negro, that alarms the souls of Donkin, of Belfast, of Singleton, of the
boy Charlie, creeps also to our sides and envelops for us far more than
that single voyage of the _Narcissus_. {087}When Winnie Verloc, her old
mother and the boy Stevie, take their journey in the cab it does not
seem ludicrous to us that the tears of “that large female in a dark,
dusty wig, and ancient silk dress festooned with dingy white cotton
lace” should move us as though Mrs Verloc were our nearest friend.
That mournful but courageous journey remains in our mind as an intimate
companion of our own mournful and courageous experiences. Such examples
might be multiplied quite indefinitely.

He has always secured his atmosphere by his own eager curiosity about
significant detail, but his detail is significant, not because he
wishes to impress his reader with the realism of his picture, but rather
because he s, like a very small boy in a strange house, pursuing the
most romantic adventures for his own pleasure and excitement only. We
may hear, with many novelists, the click of satisfaction with which they
drive another nail into the framework that supports their picture. “Now
see how firmly it stands,” they say. “That last nail settled it.”
 But {088}Conrad is utterly unconscious as to his readers’ later
credulity--he is too completely held by his own amazing discoveries.
Sometimes, as in _The Return_, when no vision is granted to him, it is
as though he were banging on a brass tray with all his strength so that
no one should perceive his own grievous disappointment at his failure.
But, in his real discoveries, how the atmosphere piles itself up, around
and about him, how we follow at his heels, penetrating the darkness,
trusting to his courage, finding ourselves suddenly blinded by the blaze
of Aladdin’s cave! If he is tracing the tragedy of Willems and Almayer,
a tragedy that has for its natural background the gorgeous, heavy
splendour of those unending forests, he sees details that belong to the
austerest and most sharply disciplined realism. We see Lakamba,
asleep under the moon, slapping himself in his dreams to keep off the
mosquitoes; a bluebottle comes buzzing into the verandah above the
dirty plates of a half-finished meal and defies Lingard and Almayer, so
{089}that they are like men disheartened by some tremendous failure; the
cards with which Lingard tries to build a house for Almayer’s baby are
“a dirty double pack” with which he used to play Chinese bézique--it
bored Almayer but the old seaman delighted in it, considering it a
remarkable product of Chinese genius. The atmosphere of the terrible
final chapters is set against this picture of a room in which Mrs
Willems is waiting for her abominable husband:

“Bits of white stuff; rags yellow, pink, blue; rags limp, brilliant and
soiled, trailed on the floor, lay on the desk amongst the sombre covers
of books soiled, greasy, but stiff-backed in virtue, perhaps, of their
European origin. The biggest set of bookshelves was partly hidden by a
petticoat, the waistband of which was caught upon the back of a
slender book pulled a little out of the row so as to make an improvised
clothes-peg. The folding canvas bedstead stood anyhow, parallel to no
wall, as if it had been, in the process of transportation to some remote
place, dropped casually there by tired bearers. And on the tumbled
blankets that {090}lay in a disordered heap on its edge, Joanna sat....
Through the half-open shutter a ray of sunlight, a ray merciless and
crude, came into the room, beat in the early morning upon the safe in
the far-off corner, then, travelling against the sun, cut at midday the
big desk in two with its solid and clean-edged brilliance; with its hot
brilliance in which a swarm of flies hovered in dancing flight over some
dirty plate forgotten there amongst yellow papers for many a day!”

And this room is set in the very heart of the forests--“the forests
unattainable, enigmatical, for ever beyond reach like the stars of
heaven--and as indifferent.” Had I space I could multiply from
every novel and tale examples of this creation of atmosphere by the
juxtaposition of the lyrical and the realistic--the lyrical pulse
beating through realistic detail ami transforming it. I will, however,
select one book, a supreme example of this effect. What I say about
_Nostromo_ may be proved from any other work of Conrad’s.

The theme of _Nostromo_ is the domination {091}of the silver of the
Sulaco mine over the bodies and souls of the human beings who live near
it. The light of the silver shines over the book. It is typified by “the
white head of Iliguerota rising majestically upon the blue.” Conrad,
then, in choosing his theme, has selected the most romantic possible,
the spirit of silver treasure luring men on desperately to adventure
and to death. His atmosphere, therefore, is, in its highest lights,
romantic, even until that last vision of all of “the bright line of
the horizon, overhung by a big white cloud shining like a mass of solid
silver.” Sulaco burns with colour. We can see, as though we had been
there yesterday, those streets with the coaches, “great family arks
swayed on high leathern springs full of pretty powdered faces in which
the eyes looked intensely alive and black,” the houses, “in the early
sunshine, delicate primrose, pale pink, pale blue,” or, after dark, from
Mrs Gould’s balcony “towards the plaza end of the street the glowing
coals in the hazeros of the market women cooking their {092}evening
meal glowed red along the edge of the pavement. A man appeared without
a sound in the light of a street lamp, showing the coloured inverted
triangle of his broidered poncho, square on his shoulders, hanging to
a point below his knees. From the harbour end of the Calle a horseman
walked his soft-stepping mount, gleaming silver-grey abreast each lamp
under the dark shape of the rider.” Later there is that sinister glimpse
of the plaza, “where a patrol of cavalry rode round and round without
penetrating into the streets which resounded with shouts and the
strumming of guitars issuing from the open doors of pulperias... and
above the roofs, next to the perpendicular lines of the cathedral towers
the snowy curve of Higuerota blocked a large space of darkening blue
sky before the windows of the Intendencia.” In its final created
beauty Sulaco is as romantic, as coloured as one of those cloud-topped,
many-towered towns under whose gates we watch Grimm’s princes and
princesses passing--but the detail of it is {093}built with careful
realism demanded by the “architecture of Manchester or Birmingham.” We
wonder, as Sulaco grows familiar to us, as we realise its cathedral,
its squares and streets and houses, its slums, its wharves, its sea, its
hills and forests, why it is that other novelists have not created towns
for us.

Anthony Trollope did, indeed, give us Barchester, but Barchester is
a shadow beside Sulaco. Mr Thomas Hardy’s Wessex map is the most
fascinating document in modern fiction, with the possible exception of
Stevenson’s chart in _Treasure Island_. Conrad, without any map at all,
gives us a familiarity with a small town on the South American coast
that far excels our knowledge of Barsetshire, Wessex and John Silver’s
treasure. If any attentive reader of _Nostromo_ were put down in Sulaco
tomorrow he would feel as though he had returned to his native town. The
detail that provides this final picture is throughout the book
incessant but never intruding. We do not look back, when the novel is
{094}finished, to any especial moment of explanation or introduction. We
have been led, quite unconsciously, forward. We are led, at moments of
the deepest drama, through rooms and passages that are only remembered,
many hours later, in retrospect. There is, for instance, the
Aristocratic Club, that “extended to strangers the large hospitality
of the cool, big rooms of its historic quarters in the front part of a
house, once a residence of a High official of the Holy Office. The
two wings, shut up, crumbled behind the nailed doors, and what may be
described as a grove of young orange-trees grown in the unpaved patio
concealed the utter ruin of the back part facing the gate. You turned in
from the street, as if entering a secluded orchard, where you came upon
the foot of a disjointed staircase, guarded by a moss-stained effigy of
some saintly bishop, mitred and stalled, and bearing the indignity of a
broken nose meekly, with his fine stone hands crossed on his breast. The
chocolate-coloured faces of servants with mops of black hair peeped
at you from above; the click of billiard balls came to your ears, and,
{095}ascending the steps, you would perhaps see in the first steps, very
stiff upon a straight-backed chair, in a good light, Don Pépé moving his
long moustaches as he spelt his way, at arm’s length, through an old
Sta Marta newspaper. His horse--a strong-hearted but persevering black
brute, with a hammer bead--you would have seen in the street dozing
motionless under an immense saddle, with its nose almost touching the
curbstone of the side-walk!”

How perfectly recollected is that passage! Can we not hear the
exclamation of some reader “Yes--those orange-trees! It was just like
that when I was there!” How convinced we are of Conrad’s unimpeachable
veracity! How like him are those remembered details, “the nailed
doors,” “the fine stone hands,” “at arm’s-length”!--and can we not sniff
something of the author’s impatience to let himself go and tell us more
about that “hammer-headed horse” of whose adventures with Don Pépé he
must remember enough to fill a volume!

He is able, therefore, upon this foundation {096}of a minute and
scrupulous réalisai to build as fantastic a building as he pleases
without fear of denying Truth. He does not, in _Nostromo_ at any rate,
choose to be fantastic, but he is romantic, and our final impression
of the silver mine and the town under its white shining shadow is
of something both as real and as beautiful as any vision of Keats or
Shelley. But with the colour we remember also the grim tragedy of the
life that has been shown to us. Near to the cathedral and the little
tinkering streets of the guitars were the last awful struggles of the
unhappy Hirsch. We remember Nostromo riding, with his silver buttons,
catching the red flower flung to him out of the crowd, but we remember
also his death and the agony of his defeated pride. Sotillo, the vainest
and most sordid of bandits, is no figure for a fairy story.

Here, then, is the secret of Conrad’s atmosphere. He is the poet,
working through realism, to the poetic vision of life. That intention is
at the heart of his work from the first line of _Almayer s Folly_ to
the last {097}line of _Victory. Nostromo_ is not simply the history of
certain lives that were concerned in a South American revolution. It
_is_ that history, but it is also a vision, a statement of beauty that
has no country, nor period, and sets no barrier of immediate history or
fable for its interpretation....

When, however, we come finally to the philosophy that lies behind this
creation of character and atmosphere we perceive, beyond question,
certain limitations.


As we have already seen, Conrad is of the firm and resolute conviction
that life is too strong, too clever and too remorseless for the sons of

It is as though, from some high window, looking down, he were able to
watch some shore, from whose security men were for ever launching little
cockle-shell boats upon a limitless and angry sea. He observes them, as
they advance with confidence, with determination, each with his own sure
{098}ambition of nailing victory to his mast; he alone can see that the
horizon is limitless; he can see farther than they--from his height he
can follow their fortunes, their brave struggles, their fortitude to the
very last. He admires that courage, the simplicity of that faith, but
his irony springs from his knowledge of the inevitable end.

There are, we may thankfully maintain, other possible views of life, and
it is, surely, Conrad’s harshest limitation that he should never be free
from this certain obsession of the vanity of human struggle. So bound
is he by this that he is driven to choose characters who will prove
his faith. We can remember many fine and courageous characters of his
creation, we can remember no single one who is not foredoomed to defeat.
Jim wins, indeed, his victory, but at the close: “And that’s the end. He
passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven,
and excessively romantic.... He goes away from a living woman to
celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct.”
 {099}Conrad’s ironical smile that has watched with tenderness the
history of Jim’s endeavours, proclaims, at the last, that that pursuit
has been vain--as vain as Stein’s butterflies.

And, for the rest, as Mr Curle in his study of Conrad has admirably
observed, every character is faced with the enemy for whom he is, by
character, least fitted. Nostromo, whose heart’s desire it is that his
merits should be acclaimed before men, is devoured by the one dragon to
whom human achievements are nothing--lust of treasure.

M’Whirr, the most unimaginative of men, is opposed by the most
tremendous of God’s splendid terrors and, although he saves his ship
from the storm, so blind is he to the meaning of the things that he has
witnessed that he might as well have never been born. Captain Brierley,
watching the degradation of a fellow-creature from a security that
nothing, it seems, can threaten, is himself caught by that very
degradation.... The Beast in the Jungle is waiting ever ready to
leap--the victim is always in his power. {100}It comes from this
philosophy of life that the qualities in the human soul that Conrad most
definitely admires are blind courage and obedience to duty. His men of
brain--Marlowe, Decoud, Stein--are melancholy and ironic: “If you see
far enough you must see how hopeless the struggle is.” The only way
to be honestly happy is to have no imagination and, because Conrad is
tender at heart and would have his characters happy, if possible, he
chooses men without imagination. Those are the men of the sea whom he
has known and loved. The men of the land see farther than the men of
the sea and must, therefore, be either fools or knaves. Towards Captain
Anthony, towards Captain Lingard he extends his love and pity. For
Verloc, for Ossipon, for old De Barral he has a disgust that is beyond
words. For the Fynes and their brethren he has contempt. For two women
of the land, Winnie Verloc and Mrs Gould, he reserves his love, and for
them alone, but they have, in their hearts, the simplicity, the honesty
of his own sea captains. {101}This then is quite simply his philosophy.
It has no variation or relief. He will not permit his characters
to escape, he will not himself try to draw the soul of a man who is
stronger than Fate. His ironic melancholy does not, tor an instant,
hamper his interest--that is as keen and acute as is the absorption of
any collector of specimens--but at the end of it all, as with his
own Stein: “He says of him that he is ‘preparing to leave all
this: preparing to leave...’ while he waves his hand sadly at his

Utterly opposed is it from the philosophy of the one English writer
whom, in all other ways, Conrad most obviously resembles--Robert
Browning. As philosophers they have no possible ground of communication,
save in the honesty that is common to both of them. As artists, both in
their subjects and their treatment of their subjects, they are, in many
ways, of an amazing resemblance, although the thorough investigation
of that resemblance would need far more space than I can give it here.
Browning’s {102}interest in life was derived, on the novelist’s side of
him, from his absorption in the affairs, spiritual and physical, of
men and women; on the poet’s side, in the question again spiritual
and physical, that arose from those affairs. Conrad has not Browning’s
clear-eyed realisation of the necessity of discovering the individual
philosophy that belongs to every individual case--he is too immediately
enveloped in his one overwhelming melancholy analysis. But he has
exactly that eager, passionate pursuit of romance, a romance to be
seized only through the most accurate and honest realism.

Browning’s realism was born of his excitement at the number and interest
of his discoveries; he chose, for instance, in _Sordello_ the most
romantic of subjects, and, having made his choice, found that there was
such a world of realistic detail in the case that, in his excitement, he
forgot that the rest of the world did not know quite as much as he did.
Is not this exactly what we may say of _Nostromo?_ Mr Chesterton has
written of {103}Browning: “He substituted the street with the green
blind for the faded garden of Watteau, and the ‘blue spirt of a lighted
match’ for the monotony of the evening star.” Conrad has substituted for
the lover serenading his mistress’ window the passion of a middle-aged,
faded woman for her idiot boy, or the elopement of the daughter of a
fraudulent speculator with an elderly, taciturn sea captain.

The characters upon whom Robert Browning lavished his affection are
precisely Conrad’s characters. Is not Waring Conrad’s man?

And for the rest, is not Mr Sludge own brother to Verloc and old De
Barrel? Bishop Blougram first cousin to the great Personage in _The
Secret Agent_, Captain Anthony brother to Caponsacchi, Mrs Gould sister
to Pompilia? It is not only that Browning and Conrad both investigate
these characters with the same determination to extract the last word
of truth from the matter, not grimly, but with a thrilling beat of the
heart, it is also that the worlds of these {104}two poets are the same.
How deeply would Nostromo, Decoud, Gould, Monyngham, the Verlocs, Flora
de Barrel, M’Whirr, Jim have interested Browning! Surely Conrad has
witnessed the revelation of Caliban, of Childe Roland, of James Lee’s
wife, of the figures in the Arezzo tragedy, even of that bishop who
ordered his tomb at St Praxed’s Church, with a strange wonder as though
he himself had assisted at these discoveries!

Finally, _The Ring and the Book_, with its multiplied witnesses, its
statement as a “case” of life, its pursuit of beauty through truth, the
simplicity of the characters of Pompilia, Caponsacchi and the Pope, the
last frantic appeal of Guido, the detail, encrusted thick in the walls
of that superb building--here we can see the highest pinnacle of that
temple that has _Chance, Lord Jim, Nostromo_ amongst its other turrets,
buttresses and towers.

Conrad is his own master--he has imitated no one, he has created, as
I have already said, his own planet, but the heights to which Browning
carried Romantic-Realism showed {105}the author of _Almayer’s Folly_ the
signs of the road that he was to follow.

If, as has often been said, Browning was as truly novelist as poet,
may we not now say with equal justice that Conrad is as truly poet as



|THE {106}terms, Romance and Realism, have been used of late years
very largely as a means of escape from this business of the creation of
character. The purely romantic novel may now be said to be, in England
at any rate, absolutely dead. Mr Frank Swinnerton, in his study
of _Robert Louis Stevenson_, said: “Stevenson, reviving the
never-very-prosperous romance of England, created a school which has
brought romance to be the sweepings of an old costume-chest;... if
romance is to be conventional in a double sense, if it spring not from a
personal vision of life, but is only a tedious virtuosity, a pretence,
a conscious toy, romance as an art is dead. The art was jaded when Reade
finished his vocifer{107}ous carpet-beating; but it was not dead. And if
it is dead, Stevenson killed it!”

We may differ very considerably from Mr Swinnerton with regard to
his estimate of Stevenson’s present and future literary value without
denying that the date of the publication of _St Ives_ was also the date
of the death of the purely romantic novel.

But, surely, here, as Mr Swinnerton himself infers, the term “Romantic”
 is used in the limited and truncated idea that has formed, lately the
popular idea of Romance. In exactly the same way the term “Realism” has,
recently, been most foolishly and uncritically handicapped. Romance, in
its modern use, covers everything that is removed from reality: “I like
romances,” we hear the modern reader say, “because they take me away
from real life, which I desire to forget.” In the same way Realism is
defined by its enemies as a photographic enumeration of unimportant
facts by an observant pessimist. “I like realism,” admirers of a certain
order of novel {108}exclaim, “because it is so like life. It tells me
just what I myself see every day--I know where I am.”

Nevertheless, impatient though we may be of these utterly false ideas
of Romance and Realism, a definition of those terms that will satisfy
everyone is almost impossible. I cannot hope to achieve so exclusive
an ambition--I can only say that to myself Realism is the study of
life with all the rational faculties of observation, reason and
reminiscence--Romance is the study of life with the faculties of
imagination. I do not mean that Realism may not be emotional,
poetic, even lyrical, but it is based always upon truth perceived and
recorded---it is the essence ol observation. In the same way Romance
may be, indeed must be, accurate and defined in its own world, but its
spirit is the spirit of imagination, working often upon observation and
sometimes simply upon inspiration. It is, at any rate, understood here
that the word Romance does not, for a moment, imply a necessary
divorce from reality, nor does {109}Realism imply a detailed and dusty
preference for morbid and unagreeable subjects. It is possible for
Romance to be as honestly and clearly perceptive as Realism, but it is
not so easy for it to be so because imagination is more difficult
of discipline than observation. It is possible for Realism to be as
eloquent and potential as Romance, although it cannot so easily achieve
eloquence because of its fear of deserting truth. Moreover, with regard
to the influence of foreign literature upon the English novel, it may
be suggested that the influence of the French novel, which was at its
strongest between the years of 1885 and 1895, was towards Realism, and
that the influence of the Russian novel, which has certainly been
very strongly marked in England during the last years, is all towards
Romantic-Realism. If we wished to know exactly what is meant by
Romantic-Realism, such a novel as _The Brothers Karamazov_, such a
play as _The Cherry Orchard_ are there before us, as the best possible
examples. We might say, in a word, that _Karamazov_ has, in the England
{110}of 1915, taken the place that was occupied, in 1890, by _Madame


It is Joseph Conrad whose influence is chiefly responsible for this
development in the English novel. Just as, in the early nineties,
Mr Henry James and Mr Rudyard Kipling, the one potential, the other
kinetic, influenced, beyond all contemporary novelists, the minds of
their younger generation, so to-day, twenty-five years later, do Mr
Joseph Conrad and Mr H. G. Wells, the one potential, the other kinetic,
hold that same position.

Joseph Conrad, from the very first, influenced though he was by the
French novel, showed that Realism alone was not enough for him. That is
to say that, in presenting the case of Almayer, it was not enough for
him merely to state as truthfully as possible the facts. Those facts,
sordid as they are, make the story of Almayer’s degradation sufficiently
realistic, when it is merely {111}recorded and perceived by any
observer. But upon these recorded facts Conrad’s imagination, without
for a moment deserting the truth, worked, beautifying, ennobling it,
giving it pity and terror, above all putting it mto relation with the
whole universe, the whole history of the cycle of life and death.

As I have said, the Romantic novel, in its simplest form, was used, very
often, by writers who wished to escape from the business of the creation
of character. It had not been used for that purpose by Sir Walter Scott,
who was, indeed, the first English Romantic-Realist, but it was so used
by his successors, who found a little optimism, a little adventure, a
little colour and a little tradition go a long way towards covering the
required ground.

Conrad had, from the first, a poet’s--that is to say, a romantic--mind,
and his determination to use that romance realistically was simply his
determination to justify the full play of his romantic mind in the eyes
of all honest men. {112}In that intention he has absolutely succeeded;
he has not abated one jot of his romance--_Nostromo, Lord Jim, Heart
of Darkness_ are amongst the most romantic things in all our
literature--but the last charge that any critic can make against him is
falsification, whether of facts, of inference or of consequences.

The whole history of his development has for its key-stone this
determination to save his romance by his reality, to extend his reality
by his romance. He found in English fiction little that could assist him
in this development; the Russian novelists were to supply him with his
clue. This whole question of Russian influence is difficult to define,
but that Conrad has been influenced by Turgéniev a little and by
Dostoievsky very considerably, cannot be denied. _Crime and Punishment,
The Idiot, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov_ are romantic realism
at the most astonishing heights that this development of the novel is
ever likely to attain. We will never see again heroes of the Prince
Myshkin, Dmitri Karamazov, {113}Nicolas Stavrogin build, men so real to
us that no change of time or place, age or sickness can take them from
us, men so beautifully lit with the romantic passion of Dostoievsky’s
love of humanity that they seem to warm the whole world, as we know it,
with the fire of their charity. That power of creating figures typical
as well as individual has been denied to Conrad. Captain Anthony,
Nostromo, Jim do not belong to the whole world, nor do they escape the
limitations and confinements that their presentation as “cases” involves
on them. Moreover, Conrad does not love humanity. He feels pity,
tenderness, admiration, but love, except for certain of his sea heroes,
never, and even with his sea heroes it is love built on his scorn of
the land. Dostoievsky scorned no one and nothing; as relentless in his
pursuit of the truth as Stendhal or Flaubert, he found humanity, as
he investigated it, beautiful because of its humanity--Conrad finds
humanity pitiable because of its humanity.

Nevertheless he has been influenced by {114}the Russian writer
continuously and sometimes obviously. In at least one novel, _Under
Western Eyes_, the influence has led to imitation. For that reason,
perhaps, that novel is the least vital of all his books, and we feel as
though Dostoievsky had given him Razumov to see what he could make of
him, and had remained too overwhelmingly curious an onlooker to allow
independent creation. What, however, Conrad has in common with the
creator of Raskolnikov is his thrilling pursuit of the lives, the
hearts, the minutest details of his characters. Conrad alone of all
English novelists shares this zest with the great Russian. Dostoievsky
found his romance in his love of his fellow-beings, Conrad finds his in
his love of beauty, his poet’s cry for colour, but their realism they
find together in the hearts of men--and they find it not as Flaubert,
that they make of it a perfect work of art, not as Turgéniev, that they
may extract from it a flower of poignant beauty, not as Tolstoi, that
they may, from it, found a gospel--simply they pursue their quest
{115}because the breathless interest of the pursuit is stronger than
they. They have, both of them, created characters simply because
characters demanded to be created. We feel that Emma Bovary was
dragged, painfully, arduously, against all the strength of her
determination, out of the shades where she was lurking. Myshkin, the
Karamazovs, and, in their own degree, Nostromo, Almayer, M’Whirr,
demanded that they should be flung upon the page.

Instead of seizing upon Romance as a means of avoiding character, he
has triumphantly forced it to aid him in the creation of the lives that,
through him, demand existence. This may be said to be the great thing
that Conrad has done for the English novel--he has brought the zest of
creation back into it; the French novelists used life to perfect their
art--the Russian novelists used art to liberate their passion for life.
That at this moment in Russia the novel has lost that zest, that the
work of Kouprin, Artzybashev, Sologub, Merejkovsky, Andreiev, shows
exhaustion and sterility {116}means nothing; the stream will soon ran
full again. Meanwhile we, in England, know once more what it is to feel,
in the novel, the power behind the novelist, to be ourselves in the grip
of a force that is not afraid of romance nor ashamed of realism, that
cares for life as life and not as a means of proving the necessity for
form, the danger of too many adjectives, the virtues of the divorce laws
or the paradise of free love.


Finally, what will be the effect of the work of Joseph Conrad upon the
English novel of the future? Does this Romantic-Realism that he has
provided for us show any signs of influencing that future? I think that
it does. In the work of all of the more interesting younger English
novelists--in the work of Mr E. M. Forster, Mr D. H. Lawrence, Mr J.
D. Beresford, Mr W. L. George, Mr Frank Swinnerton, Air Gilbert Gannan,
Miss Viola Meynell, Mr Brett Young--this influence is to be detected.
{117}Even with such avowed realists as Mr Beresford, Mr George and Mr
Swinnerton the realism is of a nature very different from the realism
of even ten years ago, as can be seen at once by comparing so recent
a novel as Mr Swinnerton’s _On the Staircase_ with Mr Arnold Bennett’s
_Sacred and Profane Love_, or Mr Galsworthy’s _Man of Property_--and Mr
E. M. Forster is a romantic-realist of most curious originality, whose
_Longest Journey_ and _Howard’s End_ may possibly provide the historian
of English literature with dates as important as the publication of
_Almayer’s Folly_ in 1895. The answer to this question does not properly
belong to this essay.

It is, at any rate, certain that neither the old romance nor the old
realism can return. We have been shown in _Nostromo_ something that has
the colour of _Treasure Island_ and the reality of _New Grub Street_.
If, on the one hand, the pessimists lament that the English novel is
dead, that everything that can be done has been done, there is, surely,
on the other hand, some justification for the optimists who believe that
at few periods in {118}English literature has the novel shown more signs
of a thrilling and original future.

For signs of the possible development of Conrad himselt one may glance
for a moment at his last novel, _Victory_.

The conclusion of _Chance_ and the last volume of short stories had
shown that there was some danger lest romance should divorce him,
ultimately, from reality. _Victory_, splendid tale though it is, does
not entirely reassure us. The theme of the book is the pursuit of
almost helpless uprightness and innocence by almost helpless evil and
malignancy; that is to say that the strength and virtue of Heyst and
Lena are as elemental and independent of human will and effort as
the villainy and slime of Mr Jones and Ricardo. Conrad has here then
returned to his old early demonstration that nature is too strong for
man and I feel as though, in this book, he had intended the whole affair
to be blown, finally, sky-high by some natural volcanic eruption. He
prepares for that eruption and when, for some reason or another,
that elemental catastrophe is pre{119}vented he consoles himself
by strewing the beach of his island with the battered corpses of his
characters. It is in such a wanton conclusion, following as it does
immediately upon the finest, strongest and most beautiful thing in the
whole of Conrad--the last conversation between Heyst and Lena--that we
see this above-mentioned divorce from reality. We see it again in the
more fantastic characteristics of Mr Jones and Ricardo, in the presence
of the Orang Outang, and in other smaller and less important effects.
At the same time his realism, when he pleases, as in the arrival of the
boat of the thirst maddened trio on the island beach, is as magnificent
in its austerity and truth as ever it was.

Will he allow his imagination to carry him wildly into fantasy and
incredibility? He has not, during these last years, exerted the
discipline and restraint that were once his law.

Nevertheless, at the last, when one looks back over twenty years,
from the _Almayer’s Folly_ of 1895 to the _Victory_ of 1915, one
{120}realises that it was, for the English novel, no mean nor
insignificant fortune that brought the author of those books to our
shores to give a fresh impetus to the progress of our literature and to
enrich our lives with a new world of character and high adventure.


[The date is given of the first edition of each hook. New edition
signifies a change of format or transference to a different publisher.]

Almayer’s Folly. A Story of an Eastern River (Unwin). 1895. New
editions. (Nash). 1904; (Unwin). 1909, 1914, 1915.

An Outcast of the Islands (Unwin). 1896, New edition, 1914.

The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: A Tale of the Sea (Heinemann). 1897. New
edition, 1910.

Tales of Unrest (Unwin). 1898. New edition, 1909.

Lord Jim: A Tale (Blackwood). 1900. New edition, 1914.

The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story. By Joseph Conrad and Ford M.
Hueffer (Heinemann). 1901.

Youth: a Narrative, and Two Other Stories (Black wood). 1902.

Typhoon and Other Stories (Heinemann). 1903. New edition, 1912.

Romance: A Novel. By Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer (Smith,
Elder). 1903. New edition (Aelson). 1909.

Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (Harder). 1904. The Mirror of the Sea:
Memories and Impressions (Methuen). 1903. New editions, 1913, 1915. The
Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Methuen). 1907.

New edition, 1914.

A Set of Six: Tales (Methuen). 1908 Under Western Eyes (Methuen). 1911.
New edition, 1915.

Some Reminiscences (Nash). 1912.

Twixt Land and Sea: Tales (Dent). 1912. New edition, 1914.

Chance: A Tale in Two Parts (Methuen). 1914. Within the Tides: Tales
(Dent). 1915.

Victory: An Island Tale (Methuen). 1915.


{123}Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (_Macmillan_). 1895.
New editions, 1912; (_Doubleday_). 1911.

An Outcast of the Islands (_Appleton_). 1896. New edition (_Doubleday_).

Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle (_Dodd, Mead_). 1897.
New edition, 1912. New edition under English title: “The Nigger of the
‘Narcissus’” (_Doubleday_). 1914.

Tales of Unrest (_Scribner_). 1898.

Lord Jim (_Doubleday_) 1900. New edition, 1914.

The Inheritors. By Joseph Conrad and Ford M. Hueffer (_McClure Co._).

Typhoon (_Putman_). 1902. New edition (_Doubleday_). 1914.

Youth, and two Other Stories (_McClure Co_. Afterwards transferred to
_Doubleday_). 1903.

Falk: Amy Foster: Tomorrow [Three Stories] (_McClure Co._). 1903. New
edition (_Doubleday_). 1914.

Romance. By Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer (_McClure Co_.
Afterwards transferred to _Doubleday_). 1904.

Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (_Harper_), 1904. {124}The Mirror of
the Sea: Memories and Impressions (_Harper_). 1906.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (_Harper_). 1907.

A Point of Honour: A Military Tale (_McClure Co_. Afterwards transferred
to _Doubleday_). 1908. Under Western Eyes: A Novel (_Harper_). 1911.

A Personal Retold (_Harper_). 1912.

‘Twist Land and Sea: Tales (_Doran_). 1912. New edition (_Doubleday_).

Chance: A Tale in Two Parts (_Doubleday_). 1914.

A Set of Six [Tales: one, “The Duel.” previously issued as “A Point of
Honour”] (_Doubleday_). 1915.

Victory: An Island Tale (_Doubleday_). 1915.

Within the Tides: Tales (_Doubleday_). 1916.

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