The models whom this young poet has followed have been, it would appear, predominantly, if not exclusively, the writers of his own immediate time, plus Shakspeare. The antecedents of the ‘Life-Drama,’ the one long poem which occupies almost the whole of his volume, are to be found in the ‘Princess,’ in parts of Mrs. Browning, in the love of Keats, and the habit of Shakspeare. There is no Pope, or Dryden,1 or even Milton; no Wordsworth, Scott, or even Byron to speak of. We have before us, we may say, the latest disciple of the school of Keats, who was indeed no well of English undefiled, though doubtless the fountain-head of a true poetic stream. Alexander Smith is young enough to free himself from his present manner, which does not seem his simple and natural own. He has given us, so to say, his Endymion; it is certainly as imperfect, and as mere a promise of something wholly different, as was that of the master he has followed.
We are not sorry, in the meantime, that this Endymion is not upon Mount Latmos. The natural man does pant within us after flumina silvasque; yet really, and truth to tell, is it not, upon the whole, an easy matter to sit under a green tree by a purling brook, and indite pleasing stanzas on the beauties of Nature and fresh air? Or is it, we incline to ask, so very great an exploit to wander out into the pleasant field of Greek or Latin mythology, and reproduce, with more or less of modern adaptation—
Faded and pale, yet immortal, of Faunus, the Nymphs, and the Graces?
Studies of the literature of any distant age or country; all the imitations and quasi-translations which help to bring together into a single focus the scattered rays of human intelligence; poems after classical models, poems from Oriental sources, and the like, have undoubtedly a great literary value. Yet there is no question, it is plain and patent enough, that people much prefer ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Bleak House.’ Why so? Is it simply because we have grown prudent and prosaic, and should not welcome, as our fathers did, the Marmions and the Rokebys, the Childe Harolds and the Corsairs? Or is it, that to be widely popular, to gain the ear of multitudes, to shake the hearts of men, poetry should deal, more than at present it usually does, with general wants, ordinary feelings, the obvious rather than the rare facts of human nature? Could it not attempt to convert into beauty and thankfulness, or at least into some form and shape, some feeling, at any rate, of content—the actual, palpable things with which our every-day life is concerned; introduce into business and weary task-work a character and a soul of purpose and reality; intimate to us relations which, in our unchosen, peremptorily-appointed posts, in our grievously narrow and limited spheres of action, we still, in and through all, retain to some central, celestial fact? Could it not console us with a sense of significance, if not of dignity, in that often dirty, or at least dingy, work which it is the lot of so many of us to have to do, and which some one or other, after all, must do? Might it not divinely condescend to all infirmities; be in all points tempted as we are; exclude nothing, least of all guilt and distress, from its wide fraternization; not content itself merely with talking of what may be better elsewhere, but seek also to deal with what is here? We could each one of us, alas, be so much that somehow we find we are not; we have all of us fallen away from so much that we still long to call ours. Cannot the Divine Song in some way indicate to us our unity, though from a great way off, with those happier things; inform us, and prove to us, that though we are what we are, we may yet, in some way, even in our abasement, even by and through our daily work, be related to the purer existence.
The modem novel is preferred to the modem poem, because we do here feel an attempt to include these indispensable latest addenda—these phenomena which, if we forget on Sunday, we must remember on Monday—these positive matters of fact, which people, who are not verse-writers, are obliged to have to do with.
Et fortasse cupressum|
Scis simulare; quid hoc, si fractis enatat expes
Navibus, ære dato qui pingitur?
The novelist does try to build us a real house to be lived in; and this common builder, with no notion of the orders, is more to our purpose than the student of ancient art who proposes to lodge us under an Ionic portico. We are, unhappily, not gods, nor even marble statues. While the poets, like the architects, are—a good thing enough in its way—studying ancient art, comparing, thinking, theorising, the common novelist tells a plain tale, often trivial enough, about this, that, and the other, and obtains one reading at any rate; is thrown away indeed to-morrow, but is devoured to-day.
We do not at all mean to prepare the reader for finding the great poetic desideratum in this present Life-Drama. But it has at least the advantage, such as it is, of not showing much of the littérateur or connoisseur, or indeed the student; nor is it, as we have said, mere pastoral sweet piping from the country. These poems were not written among books and busts, nor yet
By shallow rivers, to whose falls|
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
They have something substantive and lifelike, immediate and first-hand, about them. There is a charm, for example, in finding, as we do, continual images drawn from the busy seats of industry; it seems to satisfy a want that we have long been conscious of, when we see the black streams that welter out of factories, the dreary lengths of urban and suburban dustiness,
The squares and streets,|
And the faces that one meets,
irradiated with a gleam of divine purity.
There are moods when one is prone to believe that, in these last days, no longer by ‘clear spring or shady grove,’ no more upon any Pindus or Parnassus, or by the side of any Castaly, are the true and lawful haunts of the poetic powers; but, we could believe it, if anywhere, in the blank and desolate streets, and upon the solitary bridges of the midnight city, where Guilt is, and wild Temptation, and the dire Compulsion of what has once been done—there, with these tragic sisters around him, and with Pity also, and pure Compassion, and pale Hope, that looks like Despair, and Faith in the garb of Doubt, there walks the discrowned Apollo, with unstrung lyre; nay, and could he sound it, those mournful Muses would scarcely be able, as of old, to respond and ‘sing in turn with their beautiful voices.’
To such moods, and in such states of feeling, this ‘Life-Drama’ will be an acceptable poem. Under the guise of a different story, a story unskilful enough in its construction, we have seemed continually to recognise the ingenuous, yet passionate, youthful spirit, struggling after something like right and purity amidst the unnumbered difficulties, contradictions, and corruptions of the heated and crowded, busy, vicious, and inhuman, town. Eager for action, incapable of action without somesupport, yet knowing not on what arm to dare to lean; not untainted; hard-pressed; in some sort, at times, overcome—still we seem to see the young combatant, half combatant, half martyr, resolute to fight it out, and not to quit this for some easier field of battle—one way or other to make some thing of it.
The story, such as we have it, is inartificial enough. Walter, a boy of poetic temperament and endowment, has, it appears, in the society of a poet friend now deceased, grown up with the ambition of achieving something great in the highest form of human speech. Unable to find or make a way, he is diverted from his lofty purposes by a romantic love-adventure, obscurely told, with a ‘Lady’ who finds him asleep, Endymion-like, under a tree. The fervour and force of youth wastes itself here in vain; a quick disappointment—for the lady is betrothed to another—sends him back enfeebled, exhausted, and embittered, to essay once again his task. Disappointed affections, and baffled ambition, contending henceforward in unequal strife with the temptations of scepticism, indifference, apathetic submission, base indulgence, and the like; the sickened and defeated, yet only too strong, too powerful man, turning desperately off, and recklessly at last plunging in mid-unbelief into joys to which only belief and moral purpose can give reality; out of horror-stricken guilt, the new birth of clearer and surer, though humbler, conviction, trust, resolution; these happy changes met, perhaps a little prematurely. and almost more than half-way, by success in the aims of a purified ambition, and crowned too, at last, by the blessings of a regenerate affection—such is the argument of the latter half of the poem; and there is something of a current and tide, so to say, of poetic intention in it, which carries on the reader (after the first few scenes), perforce, in spite of criticism and himself, through faulty imagery, turgid periods, occasional bad versification and even grammar, to the close. Certainly, there is something of a real flesh-and-blood heart and soul in the case, or this could not be so.
Of the first four or five scenes, perhaps the less said the better. There are frequent fine lines, occasional beautiful passages; but the tenor of the narrative is impeded and obstructed to the last degree, not only by accumulations of imagery, but by episode, and episode within episode, of the most embarrassing form. It is really discouraging to turn page upon page, while Walter is quoting the poems of his lost friend, and wooing the unknown lady of the wood with a story of another lady and an Indian page. We could almost recommend the reader to begin with the close of scene IV., where the hero’s first love-disappointment is decided, and the lady quits her young poet.
The ensuing scene between Walter and a Peasant is also obscurely and indecisively given; and before Part VI., it would have been well, we think, to place some mark of the lapse of time. The second division of the poem here commences. We are re-introduced to the hero in a room in London, reading a poetical manuscript. Edward, a friend, enters and two scenes of conversation are given between Walter and this friend, cold, clear-sighted, a little cynical, but patient, calm, resigned, and moral. . Edward, as it happens, is going on the morrow to Bedfordshire, to visit
Old Mr. Wilmott, nothing in himself,|
But rich as ocean.
Thither Walter accompanies him. In a dialogue between him and the ‘one child,’ in whom, more than in all his land, old Mr. Wilmott was blest, Walter describes his own story under the name of another person.
The issue and catastrophe of a new love-adventure here, in this unhappy and distempered period of baffled and disappointed ambition, and power struggling vainly for a vent, may be conjectured from the commencement of a scene, which perhaps might be more distinctly marked as the opening of the third part:—
Adam lost Paradise—eternal tale,|
Repeated in the lives of all his sons.
I had a shining orb of happiness,—
God gave it me, but sin passed over it
As smallpox passes o’er a lovely face,
Leaving it hideous. I have lost for ever
The paradise of young and happy thoughts,
And now stand in the middle of my life
Looking back through my tears, ne’er to return.
I’ve a stem tryst with death, and must go on,
Though with slow steps and oft reverted eyes.
’Tis a thick, rich-hazed, sumptuous autumn night;
The moon grows like a white flower in the sky;
The stars are dim. The tired year rests content
Among her sheaves, as a fond mother rests
Among her children—all her work is done,
There is a weight of peace upon the world;
It sleeps; God’s blessing on it. Not on me.
. . . . .
That sometimes God leaves sinners to their sin,—
He has left me to mine, and I am changed;
My worst part is insurgent, and my will
Is weak and powerless as a trembling king
When millions rise up hungry. Woe is me!
My soul breeds sins as a dead body worms,—
They swarm and feed upon me.
Three years appear to have gone by, when Walter, like a stag sore hunted, returns to the home of his childhood:—
’Twas here I spent my youth, as far removed|
From the great heavings, hopes, and fears of man.
As unknown isle asleep in unknown seas.
Gone my pure heart, and with it happy days;
No manna falls around me from on high,
Barely from off the desert of my life
I gather patience and severe content.
God is a worker. He has thickly strewn
Infinity with grandeur. God is Love;
He yet shall wipe away creation’s tears,
And all the worlds shall summer in his smile.
Why work I not. The veriest mote that sports
Its one-day life within the sunny beam
Has its stern duties. Wherefore have I none?
I will throw off this dead and useless past,
As a strong runner, straining for his life,
Unclasps a mantle to the hungry winds.
A mighty purpose rises large and slow
From out the fluctuations of my soul,
As ghostlike from the dim and trembling sea
Starts the completed moon.
Here, in this determination, he writes his poem—attains in this spirit the object which had formerly been his ambition. And here, in the last scene, we find him happy, or peaceful at least, with Violet:—
Thou noble soul,|
Teach me, if thou art nearer God than I!
My life was one long dream; when I awoke,
Duty stood like an angel in my path,
And seemed so terrible, I could have turned
Into my yesterdays, and wandered back
To distant childhood, and gone out to God
By the gate of birth, not death. Lift, lift me up
By thy sweet inspiration, as the tide
Lifts up a stranded boat upon the beach.
I will go forth ’mong men, not mailed in scorn,
But in the armour of a pure intent.
Great duties are before me, and great songs,
And whether crowned or crownless, when I fall,
It matters not, so as God’s work is done.
I’ve learned to prize the quiet lightning deed,
Not the applauding thunder at its heels,
Which men call Fame. Our night is past;
We stand in precious sunrise; and beyond,
A long day stretches to the very end.
So be it, O young Poet; Poet, perhaps it is early to affirm; but so be it, at any rate, O young man. While you go forth in that ‘armour of pure intent,’ the hearts of some readers, be assured, will go with you.
‘Empedocles on Etna, and other Poems,’ with its earlier companion volume, ‘The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems,’ are, it would seem, the productions (as is, or was, the English phrase) of a scholar and a gentleman; a man who has received a refined education, seen refined ‘society,’ and been more, we dare say, in the world, which is called the world, than in all likelihood has a Glasgow mechanic. More refined, therefore, and more highly educated sensibilities—too delicate, are they, for common service?—a calmer judgment also, a more poised and steady intellect, the siccum lumen of the soul; a finer and rarer aim, perhaps, and certainly a keener sense of difficulty, in life—these are the characteristics of him whom we are to call ‘A.’ Empedocles, the sublime Sicilian philosopher, the fragments of whose moral and philosophic poems testify to his genius and character—Empedocles, in the poem before us, weary of misdirected effort, weary of imperfect thought, impatient of a life which appears to him a miserable failure, and incapable, as he conceives, of doing anything that shall be true to that proper interior self—
|Being one with which we are one with the whole world,|
wandering forth, with no determined purpose, into the mountain solitudes, followed for a while by Pausanias, the eager and laborious physician, and at a distance by Callicles, the boy-musician, flings himself at last, upon a sudden impulse and apparent inspiration of the intellect, into the boiling crater of Etna; rejoins there the elements. The music of the boy Callicles, to which he chants his happy mythic stories, somewhat frigidly perhaps, relieves, as it sounds in the distance, the gloomy catastrophe.
Tristram and Iseult (these names form the title of the next and only other considerable poem) are, in the old romantic cycle of North-France and Germany, the hero and the heroine of a mournful tale. Tristram of Lyonness, the famed companion of King Arthur, received in youth a commission to bring from across the sea the Princess Iseult of Ireland, the destined bride of the King of Cornwall. The mother of the beautiful princess gave her, as a parting gift, a cup of a magic wine, which she and her royal husband should drink together on their marriage-day in their palace at Tyntagil; so they should love each other perfectly and for ever.
On the dreamy seas it so befell, that Iseult and Tristram drank together of the golden cup. Tristram, therefore, and Iseult should love each other perfectly and for ever. Yet nothing the less for this must Iseult be wedded to the King of Cornwall; and Tristram, vainly lingering, fly and go forth upon his way.
But it so chanced that, after long and weary years of passion vainly contended with, years of travel and hard fighting, Tristram, lying wounded in Brittany, was tended by another, a youthful, innocent Iseult, in whose face he seemed to see the look of that Iseult of the past, that was, and yet could not be, his. Weary, and in his sad despondency, Tristram wedded. Iseult of Brittany, whose heart, in his stately deep distress, he had moved to a sweet and tender affection. The modem poem opens with the wedded knight come home again, after other long years, and other wars, in which he had fought at King Arthur’s side with the Roman emperor, and subdued the heathen Saxons on the Rhine, lying once more sick and sad at heart, upon what ere long he feels shall be his death-bed. Ere he die, he would see, once yet again, her with whom in his youth he drank of that fatal cup:—
Tristram. Is she not come? the messenger was sure.|
Prop me upon the pillows once again
Raise me, my page: this cannot long endure.
Christ! what a night! how the sleet whips the pane!
What lights will those out to the northward be?
The Page. The lanterns of the fishing-boats at sea.
And so through the whole of Part I. of our poem lies the sick and weary knight upon his bed, reviewing sadly, while sadly near him stands his timid and loving younger Iseult, reviewing, half sleeping, half awake, those old times, that hapless voyage, and all that thence ensued; and still in all his thought recurring to the proud Cornish Queen, who, it seems, will let him die unsolaced. He speaks again, now broad awake:—
Is my page here? Come, turn me to the fire.|
Upon the window panes the moon shines bright;
The wind is down; but she’ll not come to-night.
Ah no,—she is asleep in Tyntagil——
. . . . .
To bed and sleep; my fever is gone by;
To-night my page shall keep me company.
Where do the children sleep? Kiss them for me.
Poor child, thou art almost as pale as I;
This comes of nursing long and watching late.
To bed—good night.
And so (our poet passing without notice from Tristram’s semidramatic musings and talkings, to his own not more coherent narrative)—
She left the gleam-lit fireplace,|
She came to the bed-side;
She took his hands in hers; her tears
Down on her slender fingers rained.
She raised her eyes upon his face—
Not with a look of wounded pride—
A look as if the heart complained;—
Her look was like a sad embrace;
The gaze of one who can divine
A grief, and sympathize.
Sweet flower, thy children’s eyes
Are not more innocent than thine.
Sleeping with her little ones, and, it may be, dreaming too, though less happily than they, lies Iseult of Brittany. And now—
What voices are those on the clear night air?|
What lights in the courts? what steps on the stair?
PART II.Tristram. Raise the light, my page, that I may see her.
—Thou art come at last, then, haughty Queen!
Long I’ve waited, long have fought my fever,
Late thou comest, cruel thou hast been.
Iseult. Blame me not, poor sufferer, that I tarried.
I was bound; I could not break the band.
Chide not with the past, but feel the present;
I am here—we meet—I hold thy hand.
Yes, the Queen Iseult of Cornwall, Iseult that was of Ireland, Iseult of the ship upon the dreamy seas long since, has crossed these stormy seas to-night, is here, holds his hand. And so proceeds, through some six or seven pages of Part II., the fine colloquy of the two sad, world-worn, late-reunited lovers. When we open upon Part III.,
A year had flown, and in the chapel old|
Lay Tristram and Queen Iseult dead and cold.
Beautiful, simple, old mediæval story! We have followed it, led on as much by its own intrinsic charm as by the form and colouring—beautiful too, but indistinct—which our modern poet has given it. He is obscure at times, and hesitates and falters in it; the knights and dames, we fear, of old North-France and Western Germany would have been grievously put to it to make him out. Only upon a fourth re-reading, and by the grace of a happy moment, did we satisfy our critical conscience that, when the two lovers have sunk together in death, the knight on his pillows, and Queen Iseult kneeling at his side, the poet, after passing to the Cornish court where she was yesternight, returns to address himself to a hunter with his dogs, worked in the tapestry of the chamber here, whom he conceives to be pausing in the pictured chase, and staring, with eyes of wonder, on the real scene of the pale knight on the pillows and the kneeling lady fair. But
Cheer, cheer thy dogs into the brake,|
0 hunter! and without a fear
Thy golden-tasselled bugle blow,
And through the glade thy pastime take!
For thou wilt rouse no sleepers here,
For these thou seest are unmoved;
Cold, cold as those who lived and loved
A thousand years ago.
Fortunately, indeed, with the commencement of Part III., the most matter-of-fact quarterly conscience may feel itself pretty well set at ease by the unusually explicit statements that
A year had fled; and in the chapel old|
Lay Tristram and Queen Iseult dead and cold.
The young surviving Iseult, one bright day
Had wandered forth; her children were at play
In a green circular hollow in the heath
Which borders the sea shore; a country path
Creeps over it from the tilled fields behind.
Yet anon, again and thicker now perhaps than ever, the mist of more than poetic dubiousness closes over and around us. And as he sings to us about the widowed lady Iseult, sitting upon the sea-banks of Brittany, watching her bright-eyed children, talking with them and telling them old Breton stories, while still, in all her talk and her story, her own dreamy memories of the past, and perplexed thought of the present, mournfully mingle, it is really all but impossible to ascertain her, or rather his, real meanings. We listen, indeed, not quite unpleased, to a sort of faint musical mumble, conveying at times a kind of subdued half-sense, or intimating, perhaps, a three-quarters-implied question; Is anything real?—is love anything?—what is anything?—is there substance enough even in sorrow to mark the lapse of time?—is not passion a diseased unrest?—did not the fairy Vivian, when the wise Merlin forgot his craft to fall in love with her, wave her wimple over her sleeping adorer?
Nine times she waved the fluttering wimple round,|
And made a little plot of magic ground;
And in that daisied circle, as men say,
Is Merlin prisoner to the judgment day,
But she herself whither she will can rove,
For she was passing weary of his love.
Why or wherefore, or with what purport, who will venture exactly to say?—but such, however, was the tale which, while Tristram and his first Iseult lay in their graves, the second Iseult, on the sea-banks of Brittany, told her little ones.
And yet, dim and faint as is the sound of it, we still prefer this dreamy patience, the soft submissive endurance of the Breton lady, and the human passions and sorrows of the Knight and the Queen, to the high, and shall we say, pseudo-Greek inflation of the philosopher musing above the crater, and the boy Callicles singing myths upon the mountain.
Does the reader require morals and meanings to these stories? What shall they be, then?—the deceitfulness of knowledge and the illusiveness of the affections, the hardness and roughness and contrariousness of the world, the difficulty of living at all, the impossibility of doing anything—voilà tout? A charitable and patient reader, we believe (such as is the present reviewer), will find in the minor poems that accompany these pieces, intimations—what more can reader or reviewer ask?—of some better and further thing than these; some approximations to a kind, of confidence; some incipiences of a degree of hope; some roots, retaining some vitality, of conviction and moral purpose:—
And though we wear out life, alas,|
Distracted as a homeless wind,
In beating where we must not pass,
And seeking what we shall not find,
Yet shall we one day gain, life past,
We shall not then deny a course
In the future, it seems, there is something for us; and for the present also, which is more germane to our matter, we have discovered some precepts about ‘hope, light, and persistence,’ which we intend to make the most of. Meantime, it is one promising point in our author of the initial, that his second is certainly on the whole an improvement upon his first volume. There is less obvious study of effect; upon the whole, a plainer and simpler and less factitious manner and method of treatment. This, he may be sure, is the only safe course. Not by turning and twisting his eyes, in the hope of seeing things as Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, or Milton saw them; but by seeing them, by accepting them as he sees them, and faithfully depicting accordingly, will he attain the object he desires.
In the earlier volume, one of the most generally admired pieces was ‘The Forsaken Merman.’
Come, dear children, let us away|
Down, and away below,
says the Merman, standing upon the sea-shore, whither he and his children came up to call back the human Margaret, their mother, who had left them to go, for one day—for Easter-day—to say her prayers with her kinsfolk in the little gray church on the shore:—
’T will be Easter-time in the world—ah me,|
And I lose my poor soul, Merman, here with thee.
And when she stayed, and stayed on, and it seemed a long while, and the little ones began to moan, at last, up went the Merman with the little ones to the shore, and so on into the town, and to the little gray church, and there looked in through the small leaded panes of the window. There she sits in the aisle; but she does not look up, her eyes are fixed upon the holy page; it is in vain we try to catch her attention:—
Come away, children, call no more,|
Come away, come down, call no more.
Down, down to the depths of the sea. She will live up there and be happy, among the things she had known before. Yet sometimes a thought will come across her; there will be times when she will
Steal to the window and look at the sand;|
And over the sand at the sea;
And anon there breaks a sigh,
And anon there drops a tear,
From a sorrow-clouded eye,
And a heart sorrow-laden,
A long, long sigh,
For the cold strange eyes of a little mermaiden,
And the gleam of her golden hair.
Come away, children, come down. We will be happy in our bright home under the sea—happy, though the cruel one leaves us lonely for ever. Yet we too, sometimes at midnight, when winds blow softly, and the moonlight falls clear,
Up the still glistening beaches,|
Up the creeks we will hie,
Over banks of bright sea-weed
The ebb-tide leaves dry.
We will gaze from the sand hills
At the white sleeping town,
At the church on the hill-side;
And then come back down,—
Singing, ‘there dwells a loved one,
But cruel is she,
She left lonely for ever
The Kings of the Sea.’
It is a beautiful poem, certainly; and deserves to have been given at full length. ‘The Strayed Reveller’ itself is more ambitious, perhaps a little strained. It is a pleasing and significant imagination, however, to present to us Circe and Ulysses in colloquy with a stray youth from the train of Bacchus, who drinks eagerly the cup of the enchantress, not as did the sailors of the Ithacan king, for gross pleasure, but for the sake of the glorious and superhuman vision and knowledge it imparts:—
But I, Ulysses,|
Sitting on the warm steps,
Looking over the valley,
All day long have seen,
Without pain, without labour,
Sometimes a wild-haired mænad,
Sometimes a Faun with torches.
But now, we are fain to ask, where are we, and whither are we unconsciously come? Were we not going forth to battle in the armour of a righteous purpose, with our first friend, with Alexander Smith? How is it we find ourselves here, reflecting, pondering, hesitating, musing, complaining, with ‘A?’ As the wanderer at night, standing under a stormy sky, listening to the wild harmonies of winds, and watching the wild movements of the clouds, the tree-tops, or possibly the waves, may, with a few steps, very likely, pass into a lighted sitting-room, and a family circle, with pictures and books, and literary leisure, and ornaments, and elegant small employments—a scene how dissimilar to that other, and yet how entirely natural also—so it often happens too with books. You have been reading Burns, and you take up Cowper. You feel at home, how strangely! in both of them. Can both be the true thing? and if so, in what new form can we express the relation, the harmony, between them? Such a discrepancy there certainly does exist between the two books that have been before us here. We close the one and open the other, and feel ourselves moving to and fro between two totally different, repugnant, and hostile theories of life. Are we to try and reconcile them, or judge between them?
May we escape from all the difficulty by a mere quotation, and pronounce with the shepherd of Virgil,
|Non nostrum inter vos tantas componere lites Et vitulâ to dignus, et hic.|
Or will the reader be content to bow down with us in this place, and acknowledge the presence of that highest object of worship among the modern Germans, an antinomy. (That is, O unlearned reader, ignorant, not impossibly, of Kant and the modem German religion—in brief, a contradiction in terms, the ordinary phenomenal form of a noumenal Verity; as, for example, the world must have had a beginning, and, the world cannot have had a beginning, in the transcendental fusion or confusion of which consists the Intelligible or unintelligible truth.) Will you be content, O reader, to plod in German manner over miles of a straight road, that seems to lead somewhere, with the prospect of arriving at last at some point where it will divide at equal angles, and lead equally in two opposite directions, where you may therefore safely pause, and thankfully set up your rest, and adore in sacred doubt the Supreme Bifurcation? Or do you hold, with Voltaire, who said (apropos of the question then debated among the French wits, whether there were or were not a God) that ‘after all, one must take a side’?
With all respect for the Antinomies and Germans, and ‘most distinguished consideration’ for Voltaire and Parisian persiflage, still, it may not be quite necessary for us, on the present occasion, either to stand still in transcendental doubt, or toss up, as it were, for our side. Individuals differ in character, capacity, and positions; and, according to their circumstances, will combine, in every possible variety of degree, the two elements of thoughtful discriminating selection and rejection, and frank and bold acceptance of what lies around them. Between the extremes of ascetic and timid self-culture, and of unquestioning, unhesitating confidence, we may consent to see and tolerate every kind and gradation of intermixture. Nevertheless, upon the whole, for the present age, the lessons of reflectiveness and the maxims of caution do not appear to be more needful or more appropriate than exhortations to steady courage and calls to action. There is something certainly of an over-educated weakness of purpose in Western Europe—not in Germany only, or France, but also in more busy England. There is a disposition to press too far the finer and subtler intellectual and moral susceptibilities; to insist upon following out, as they say, to their logical consequences, the notices of some single organ of the spiritual nature; a proceeding which perhaps is hardly more sensible in the grown man than it would be in the infant to refuse to correct the sensations of sight by those of the touch. Upon the whole, we are disposed to follow out, if we must follow out at all, the analogy of the bodily senses; we are inclined to accept rather than investigate; and to put our confidence less in arithmetic and antinomies than in
|A few strong instincts and a few plain rules.|
Let us remark also in the minor Poems, which accompany ‘ Empedocles,’ a disposition, perhaps, to assign too high a place to what is called Nature. It may indeed be true, as the astronomers say, though after all it is no very great piece of knowledge, that the heavenly bodies describe ellipses; and go on, from and to all the ages, performing that self-repeating, unattaining curve. But does it, therefore, of necessity follow that human souls do something analogous in the spiritual spaces? Number is a wonderful thing, and the laws of Nature sublime; nevertheless, have we not a sort of intuition of the existence, even in our own poor human selves, of something akin to a Power superior to, and transcending, all manifestations of Nature, all intelligible forms of Number and Law? We quote one set of verses, entitled ‘Morality,’ in which our author does appear to have escaped for once from the dismal cycle of his rehabilitated Hindoo-Greek theosophy:—
We cannot kindle when we will
With aching hands and bleeding feet
Then when the clouds are off the soul,
And she, whose censure thou dost dread,
There is no effort on my brow—
I knew not yet the gauge of Time,
It is wonderful what stores of really valuable thought may lie neglected in a book, simply because they are not put in that form which serves our present occasions. But if we have been inclined to yield to a preference for the picture of simple, strong, and certain, rather than of subtle, shifting, and dubious feelings, and in point of tone and matter to go along with the young mechanic, in point of diction and manner, we must certainly assign the palm to ‘ A,’ in spite of a straining after the rounded Greek form, such as, to some extent, vitiates even the style of Milton. Alexander Smith lies open to much graver critical carping. He writes, it would almost seem, under the impression that the one business of the poet is to coin metaphors and similes. He tells them out as a clerk might sovereigns at the Bank of England. So many comparisons, so much poetry; it is the sterling currency of the realm. Yet he is most pleased, perhaps, when he can double or treble a similitude; speaking of A, he will call it a B, which is, as it were, the C of a D. By some maturer effort we may expect to be thus conducted even to Z. But simile within simile, after the manner of Chinese boxes, are more curious than beautiful; nor is it the taste aim of the poet, as of the Italian boy in the street, to poise upon his head, for public exhibition, a board crowded as thick as they can stand with images, big and little, black and white, of anybody and everybody, in any possible order of disorder, as they happen to pack. Tanquam scopulum, insolens verbum, says the precept of ancient taste, which our author seems to accept freely, with the modem comment of—
In youth from rock to rock I went|
With pleasure high and turbulent,—
Most pleased when most uneasy.
The movement of his poem is indeed rapid enough; there is a sufficient impetus to carry us over a good deal of rough and ‘rocky’ ground; there is a real continuity of poetic purpose;—but it is so perpetually presumed upon; the attention, which the reader desires to devote to the pursuit of the main drift of what calls itself a single poem, simplex et unum, is so incessantly called off to look at this and look at that; when, for example, we would fain follow the thought and feeling of Violet and of Walter, we are with such peremptory and frequent eagerness summoned to observe how like the sky is to x and the stars are to y, that on the whole, though there is a real continuity of purpose, we cannot be surprised that the critic of the ‘London Examiner’ failed to detect it. Keats and Shelley, and Coleridge, perhaps, before them, with their extravagant love for Elizabethan phraseology, have led to this mischief. Has not Tennyson followed a little too much in their train? Coleridge, we suppose, would have maintained it to be an excellence in the ‘myriad-minded’ dramatist, that he so often diverts us from the natural course of thought, feeling, and narrative, to see how curiously two trifles resemble each other, or that, in a passage of deep pathos, he still finds time to apprise us of a paronomasia. But faults which disfigure Shakspeare are not beauties in a modem volume.
I rot upon the waters when my prow|
Should grate the golden isles,
may be a very Elizabethan, but is certainly rather a vicious expression. Force and condensation are good, but it is possible to combine them with purity of phrase. One of the most successful delineations in the whole poem is contained in the following passage, which introduces Scene VII.:—
[A balcony overlooking the sea.]The lark is singing in the blinding sky,—
Hedges are white with May. The bridegroom sea
Is toying with the shore, his wedded bride,
And in the fulness of his marriage joy,
He decorates her tawny front with shells—
Retires a space to see how fair she looks,
Then proud, runs up to kiss her. All is fair,—
All glad, from grass to sun. Yet more I love
Than this, the shrinking day that sometimes comes
In winter’s front, so fair ’mongst its dark peers,
It seems a straggler from the files of June,
Which in its wanderings had lost its wits,
And half its beauty, and when it returned,
Finding its old companions gone away,
It joined November’s troop, then marching past;
And so the frail thing comes, and greets the world
With a thin crazy smile, then bursts in tears—
And all the while it holds within its hand
A few half-withered flowers;—I love and pity it.
It maybe the fault of our point of view; but certainly we do not find even here that happy, unimpeded sequence which is the charm of really good writers. Is there not something incongruous in the effect of the immediate juxtaposition of these two images? We have lost, it may be, that impetuosity, that élan, which lifts the young reader over hedge and ditch at flying leaps, across country, or we should not perhaps entertain any offence, or even surprise, at being transferred per saltum from the one field to the other. But we could almost ask, was the passage, so beautiful, though perhaps a little prolonged, about the June day in November, written consecutively, and in one flow, with the previous, and also beautiful, one about ocean and his bride. We dare say it was; but it does not read, somehow, in the same straight line with it—
|Tantum series juncturaque pollet.|
We venture, too, to record a perhaps hypercritical objection to ‘the blinding sky’ in this particular collocation. Perhaps in the first line of a scene, while the reader has not yet warmed to his duty, simplicity should be especially observed—a single image, without any repeated reflection, so to speak, in a second mirror, should suffice. The following, which open Scene XI., are better:—
Summer hath murmured with her leafy lips|
Around my home, and I have heard her not;
I’ve missed the process of three several years
From shaking wind flowers to the tarnished gold
That rustles sere on Autumn’s aged limbs.
Except the two last lines. Our author will not keep his eye steady upon the thing before him; he goes off, and distracts us, and breaks the impression he had begun to succeed in giving, by bidding us look now at something else. Some simpler epithets than shaking, and some plainer language than tarnished gold or aged limbs, would have done the work better. We are quite prepared to believe that these faults and these disagreeables have personally been necessities to the writer, are awkwardnesses of growth, of which the full stature may show no trace. He should be assured, however, that though the rude vigour of the style of his Life-Drama may attract upon the first reading, yet in any case, it is not the sort of writing which people recur to with pleasure and fall back upon with satisfaction. It may be a groundless fancy, yet we do fancy, that there is a whole hemisphere, so to say, of the English language which he has left unvisited. His diction feels to us as if between Milton and Burns he had not read, and between Shakspeare and Keats had seldom admired. Certainly there is but little inspiration in the compositions of the last century; yet English was really best and most naturally written when there was, perhaps, least to write about. To obtain a real command of the language, some familiarity with the prose writers, at any rate, of that period, is almost essential; and to write out, as a mere daily task, passages, for example, of Goldsmith, would do a verse-composer of the nineteenth century as much good, we believe, as the study of Beaumont and Fletcher.
|1. The word spoom, which Dryden uses as the verb of the substantive spume, occurs also in ‘Beaumont and Fletcher.’ Has Keats employed it? It seems hardly to deserve re-impatriation. [back]|