“We owe our gratitude to the men of letters who deliberately undertake to be gay: for nobody expects unconscious and spontaneous gayety in books nowadays. The modern spirit has seen to that.”
An obnoxiously necessary clarification: gay in this context does not mean homosexual. Rather: “light-hearted, carefree; manifesting, characterized by, or disposed to joy and mirth; exuberantly cheerful, merry; sportive [OED].” Let’s get to what Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) has to say in her sportive little essay “Wilful Sadness in Literature” (Patrins, 1892). She begins by applauding Matthew Arnold’s decision to leave “Empedocles on Etna” out of his collected poems because he deemed it “too mournful, too introspective, too unfruitful of the cheer and courage which it is the business of poets to give to the world.” Guiney endorses what she calls “the helping word” and dismisses “whatever is uselessly doleful, and spread abroad the right idea of what is fit to be uttered in this valley of tears.”
Your average adolescent knows the world is a terrible place where the innocent are defiled, the guilty flourish and justice is seldom served. It takes an adult to appreciate a good joke, perform a gratuitous kindness and see enduring beauty in a muddled world.
“The play which leaves us miserable and bewildered,” Guiney writes, “the harrowing social lesson leading nowhere, the transcript from commonplace life in which nothing is admirable but the faithful skill of the author— these are bad morals because they are bad art.” By “wilful sadness,” Guiney means something like self-pity. “It is inconvenient,” she writes, “to have the large old fundamental feelings: to be energetic, or scornful, or believing. The fashionable poetic utterance is dejected, and of consummate refinement . . .”
Let’s return to gay. Guiney might concur with Yeats in “Lapis Lazuli”: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay; / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” She concludes her essay with these words: “Change is at hand. The Maypole is up in Bookland.” She couldn’t know what the twentieth century was to hold.