OTHER ESSAYS (1)
1. Donne the Metaphysician
2. Society’s Looking-glass
3. Poems about Babies
From Temple Bar - August, 1861 - Vol. 3, pp. 78-91.
Donne the Metaphysician.
FOR the sake of the gushing young Minerva who has written to me on the subject of my Temple Bar articles, I almost regret that I am united in tender bonds of wedlock to Daphne. The little odoriferous pink rose-blossom, delicately embroidered with elfin caligraphy, which flutters before me as I write, can only have emanated from the taper fingers of youthful loveliness; and (as Dryden said, when the exercise of constantly turning his coat had made him corpulent)—
“Old as I am, for ladies’ love unfit,
The power of beauty I remember yet.”
Of course I am ineligible; but I hope, for the sake of the youngest contributor to these pages, that Minerva is a spinster; and that, moreover, she has not yet taken to blue stockings, which ruin the ancles, or to spectacles, which distort the vision. Tasso, Spenser, and Herrick have all told us, and in identical language, to gather the rosebuds early in life, because Time flies; and I hope that my fair correspondent will look elsewhere for a congenial partner. Nulla retro via. At the same time, I thank Minerva for writing to me, because she has kindly suggested an introduction to my paper on Dr. Donne the Poet. She finds fault with me, she says, because I sound the praises of Bishop Corbet, who was a “tippler,” in much the same way as I sound the praises of Mr. Herbert, who was almost a saint. She considers me in error for recording Richard Norwich’s drinking-bouts; and she emphatically affirms that the Bishop had better have been left in oblivion.
You see, I feel the greatest possible relish for literary antiquities of all kinds; while for poetical antiquities I feel an absolute enthusiasm. As a boy, I ate Parnassian fruit with Erato, just as Buonaparte ate Corsican cherries with Madame Colombier. I like to scramble over those dry lingual moats which environ the old castle of Antiquarianism; and I am happier than Mr. Gigadibs when I gain the pleasant sober-coloured chambers within. It is the rarest treat in the world to rummage in those strange corners and dusty crannies; to study the venerable portraits, and to listen to the low Memnonian music which stirs so mysteriously about the shadowy rooms; and ultimately, to make my way to the still older watch-towers above, where the Spirit of the Past stands always, like the watchman in the Agamemnon, and casts her long moveless shadow over the wide plantains of literature lying underneath. In the course of my peregrinations, I have stumbled over such relics as John Ford’s melancholy hat, the goblet in which Thomas the Rhymer pledged convivial Dunbar, and the golden scroll with Withers’ “nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo” blazoned on it. Do you mean to tell me, Miss Minerva, that these little relics do not help me to comprehend the men who wore them, and the times in which those men lived and breathed? Is it nothing to know 79 how certain things were viewed once upon a time, and what members of the literary clergy have cut their cloth after the prettiest pattern? Do not the monuments of man, which survive the hands that reared them, lead men to ruminate on the strength or weakness of those hands, and to ascertain, from the amount of heroism put into the life and work, what sort of stuff the old heroes were made of? Am I not walking on glorious ground?—campos ubi Troja fuit,—and may I not by chance stumble on some weapon, which may explain the method of warfare which was used on this battlefield, or on some old suit of armour, whereby I may guess at the height and girth of the literary soldiers who fought here long ago?
And to my fancy, Minerva, my puss, modern criticism is a little too bilious. There was Gifford, now, the brave, courageous, but bitter gentleman, who was whipped by Dr. Wolcot, and who endeavoured to kill off John Keats by one critique. There was Jeffrey, who was juster than the tarterly Quarterly; he wrote a sound healthy criticism on Keats, but look what a savage attack he made on the virtuous Christabel. There was Hazlitt, a generous fellow in some respects, but too opinionated. There is our friend the critic in the ——, who fills foolscap pages with attempts to prove (what we all know already) that a spondee is not a dactyl. We fail to recognise the personal qualifications of our poets; and our poets in private life go to church, pay the tax-gatherer, rock the cradle, and desiderate respectability. Confess, my dear Minerva, that you would have these shopkeepers, who write verses, a little more poetical in real life, and that you cannot help going back to the past to search for your heroes? And, by the way, don’t you think that the young rhymesters might become a little more chivalrous if the fair sex would try to be a little more romantic? We should have more heroes if we had a little more hero-worship; and we should have more poets if the ladies were a little more romantic, if the critics were a little more appreciative.
Be that as it may, I like a lay figure to work upon; and it is my delight to clothe it with graceful drapery. Here is Dr. Donne, some time Dean of St. Paul’s. I am glad to be able to say that John Donne was, like Sterne’s poor Yorick, “as heteroclite a creature in all his declensions, with as much life and whim and gaîté de cœur about him, as the kindest climate could have engendered and put together.” He was born in London, as early as the year 1573. His father was an eminent merchant, descended from a distinguished Welsh family; his mother was descended from Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, and from the eminent lawyer Judge Rastrall. His grandfather on the mother’s side was (as I learn from Jonson, in his Conversation with Drummond) no less a person than witty John Heywood, the epigrammist, who wrote that funny interlude called the Four P.’s, and whose merry conversation was the delight of the old age of Henry VIII. In his eleventh year, Donne was sent to Hart Hall, Oxford, where he soon distinguished himself as “another Picus Mirandula,” being “rather born than made wise by study.” He was prevented from taking his first degree by his relations, who, being of the 80 Roman-Catholic persuasion, objected to the usual oath. When fourteen years old, he went to Cambridge, where he greatly distinguished himself; and before he was eighteen, he was admitted into Lincoln’s Inn, where he began studying law. His father, however, died shortly after his son’s initiation into the mysteries of law, and left him three thousand pounds as a marriage portion. Left to the pious care of a good mother, the boy found himself diligently beset by the theological arguments of Roman-Catholic tutors. It was partly to avoid these gentry, I think, that he went with the Earl of Essex to Cales, passed the island voyages, spent some years in Italy, sauntered for a time in sunny Spain, and finally returned to England, well stocked with that wisdom which sharp-sighted travellers find waiting for them in every corner of the globe. On his return to fatherland, he was made chief secretary to the Chancellor of England, Lord Ellesmere, by whom he was regarded with deep esteem, and who went so far as to say that Donne “was fitter to serve a king than a subject.” In this capacity, he spent five long and industrious years, stocking his fertile mind with political and legal knowledge. His employer was the same “Lord Elsmere” to whom Ben Jonson addressed two highly complimentary epigrams.
Early in life, Donne’s metaphysical mind began to busy itself in religious speculations, and to weigh the Protestant faith against the faith in which he had been brought up. It was, of course, some time before he arrived at any definite conclusion; but he studied the question with a sagacity and a vigour which would make a lad’s fortune in this conventional age, when people go to church because their neighbours do so likewise, and say their prayers, as they insure their lives, in the event of an accident. In the midst of his difficulty, however, he met Cupid at a time when, as Drayton saith,
“Cupid’s wings were not then cut,
His bow broken, or his arrows
Given to boys to shoot at sparrows.”
Cupid solved the problem for the time being, by making him the devout and orthodox worshiper of a young gentlewoman, daughter of Sir George Moore, Chancellor of the Garter, and Lieutenant of the Tower. Pretty Mistress Anne encouraged the advances of the young lawyer.
“No grape that’s kindly ripe could be
So round, so plump, so soft as she,
Nor half so full of juice;”
and finding John good-looking and clever, for his sake she was tempted to be naughty. “He was of stature moderately tall, of a straight and equally proportioned body, to which all his words and actions gave an unexpressible addition of comeliness.” They were in a hurry to kiss lips lawfully; but festinatio tarda est. Ah, Daphne, dear, how much more domesticity there would be if the old people would let the young people alone! “Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love?” asks pert country Phœbe in the play, and “’Tis to be all made up of sighs and 81 tears,” groans the lost Silvius, while his big brown hand presses down his overflowing heart. Fathers have flinty hearts. Sir George Moore had. He heard of his daughter’s love-making, and, threatening the poet with vengeance if he continued his attentions, bore Anne away to his country house at Lothesley, in Surrey. Cupid has been sick since Venus, his own mother, began fingering in the counting-house the guineas of her fat Adonis of fifty. But when Venus has read a few of my articles, and puts away her crinoline, we shall have more poor poetical John Donne’s running away to some new Gretna Green with the daughters of irate Chancellors of the Garter. Yes, that was the course poor Donne adopted. Instead of strangling Cupid with Sir George’s garter, he invocated despair in several copies of metaphysical verses. Then, finding no consolation in metaphysics, he bought a little golden ring, which he put on Lady Anne’s white finger; and away they went one fine morning to be married on the sly. This was very wicked and disobedient; but I confess that I sympathise with the young people.
The newly-married couple did not long enjoy their golden dream. Love, in the opinion of Papa, was “a scribbled form drawn with a pen upon a parchment.” Sir George, on hearing of the marriage, never rested until he had procured his son- in-law’s dismissal from the office of Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. Donne wrote a letter on the subject to his wife, who was still at Lothesley, subscribing it with the anagram, “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” But Sir George was not yet pacified. He set to work vigorously further to punish the poor poet. So successful were his endeavours, that Donne, Samuel Brooke (the clergyman who performed the marriage ceremony), and Christopher Brooke (who gave the bride away and witnessed the marriage) were thrown into three several prisons. Why won’t proud people read Chaucer’s prose treatise, De Septem Peccatis Mortalibus? “Certes the herte of man,” says Geoffrey, De Ira, “by enchausing and meving of his blood waxeth so troubled that it is out of all maner jugement of reson;” and he goes on to prove, very beautifully, that malice is an offence against God and man. (By the way, who reads Chaucer’s prose now? It contains gorgeous writing;—witness the defence of women, put into the mouth of the wife of Melibœus. To return.) Donne was no sooner set at liberty (and the authorities could not detain him long), than he procured the liberation of his two friends, and involved himself in a laborious lawsuit, whereby he sought to regain possession of his wife, who was still detained as a prisoner in her father’s house. “There was never yet philosopher,” observes Shakespeare’s Leonato, “that could endure the toothache patiently;” but Donne was more tolerant under his grievances than might have been anticipated. The greater part of his portion had been spent in travel, and he was out of all employment. When at last Fortune, the “bountiful blind woman,” made his father-in-law relent, the poet’s position was not much bettered. Sir George endeavoured in vain to procure Donne’s readmission to the lost secretaryship, but steadily refused to 82 assist the young couple with money. Travel and the lawsuit had reduced their means to a very low ebb. They were thrown upon the wide waters of life to sink or swim, as fate might will it.
But Donne had already distinguished himself as a wit who wrote excellent verses, and his genius found a liberal patron in Sir Francis Wooley, a distant kinsman. I am afraid that Master Donne toadied at this time about the crowded ante- chambers of the rich, in the common but vain expectation of Court preferment. Literature was a hired jester, not a lady, in those days. She jingled a cap and bells, and received chance halfpence. Patronage, and the instinctive recognition on the other side of the position of moneyed men, was fast degenerating into pot-house patronage. Once, the literary man could receive honourable favours at the hands of the rich man. Thomas the Rhymer tippled strong wine with the wine- loving lords of Dunbar; Spenser wrote sincerely when he sang the praises of Burleigh and Northumberland; Caxton had tasted the fleshpots of Margaret of Burgundy; Chaucer had been well treated at the hands of John of Gaunt; Buchanan had been assisted by Lord Cassilis; and Shakespeare had been helped on by Southampton. But Ben Johnson's merry begging-letters to the King of England and his nobles were to furnish a bad precedent; and things came to such a pass at last, that Ben—was denied a buck! “I asked a lord a buck, and he denied me.” So soon as the poets became beggars, the noble lords ceased to open their purses; but it was not until Dryden was born that beggary was elevated by genius to the rank of a poetical religion. Donne, therefore, was lucky in his friend Sir Francis, who for several years entertained him and his family at Pilford, in Surrey. During this time, having finally gone over to the Reformed Church, he was again and again advised to enter into holy orders; and Morton, Bishop of Durham, went so far as to offer him a benefice. “Sir,” he said, in refusing Morton’s offer, “some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with Him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of His grace banished them my affections; yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to men as to free me from their censures, and, it may be, that sacred calling from a dishonour.” Soon after this Sir Francis Wooley died, and with him died Donne’s means of subsistence. But at last he was fortunate enough to complete the reconciliation with his father-in-law, who promised to give him 800l. as his wife’s portion, and to let him have 20l. quarterly until the whole amount was paid. He thereupon hired a house for his wife and children at Mitcham, in Surrey, and took apartments for himself in the neighbourhood of Whitehall. To the lodging at Whitehall came the nobility and gentry, and even the foreign ambassadors, to hear the excellent discourse of Mr. John Donne, who knew about half a dozen languages, besides Latin and Greek. He was courted and flattered; for his wonderful attainments dazzled even Ben Jonson, who prided himself on his scholarship. Ben, not then laureate,— for well-languaged Daniel still survived,—waddled 83 down from the Devil Tavern to pay his respects to him, and present him with a copy of verses. “Who shall doubt,” said Ben,
“Who shall doubt, Donne, whe’r I a poet be,
When I dare send my epigrams to thee?”
Ben was still keeping his grand Symposia, in the Apollo Chamber, in the tavern near Temple Bar, while Inigo Jones was adorning his dramas with fine scenery and appointments. “He would many times excel in drink,” says old Aubrey. “Canary was his beloved liquor. Then he would tumble home to bed, and when he had thoroughly perspired, then to study.” I fear that Donne once or twice made one in those convivial gatherings at which Jonson presided, and at which Camden and Selden drank moderately, with old Simon Wadloe to wait upon them.
“Welcome, all that lead or follow,
To the oracle of Apollo—
Here he speaks of his pottle,
Or his tripos, his tower-bottle:
All his answers are divine,
Truth itself doth flow in wine.”
Jonson, who had been but scurvily treated by Cambridge, his Alma Mater, was desirous of propitiating all Oxford men, having some anticipations of the honour which was afterwards conferred upon him, when he was invited to Oxford by Corbet, and made, in full convocation, a Master of Arts of the University. So pleasant did London society become to Donne, that he removed with his family to the house of Sir Robert Drury, in Drury Lane. In 1610 he became a Master of Arts of Oxford, having previously taken the same degree at Cambridge.
The great secret of the merits and demerits of Donne’s poetry is partly to be found in the insatiable desire for book- knowledge which at this period distinguished his genius, in common with that of Cowley and the other metaphysical poets. Almost unconsciously, he became pedantic. Pedantry, coming into contact with a metaphysical habit of thought, soon made his language a puzzle to vulgar comprehensions. “He dealeth so profoundly,” said Harrison of John Heywood’s Spider and Fly, “and beyond all measure of skill, that neither he himself that made it, neither any one that readeth it, can reach unto the meaning thereof.” And much the same criticism might be applied to Donne’s writings. He had always a meaning, sometimes a beautiful one, but it was too subtle to be easily detected. So with the rest of the metaphysicians,
“Wha ding their brains in college classes,
And syne expect to climb Parnassus,
By dint o’ Greek.”
Donne himself, in one of his letters, regrets for another reason his immoderate desire of learning. I embraced, he says, “the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptique immoderate desire of human learning and languages: beautiful ornaments indeed to men of great fortunes, but mine was grown so low as to need an occupation.” Add to all this, that he 84 was a wild dreamer, and saw apparitions. He had imaginary conflicts with Satan, during which he fortified himself with quotations from Scripture. Satius est supervacua discere quam nihil. A superfluity of knowledge is better than noodledom. The intense thirst for knowledge which distinguished Donne and the other metaphysical poets served at least one purpose, if it did not improve their verses. It elevated them above the follies and meannesses of the idle Court butterflies, it kept their blood cool and sober, and it taught one or two of them to meditate divinely on themes beyond the sunset. They busied their brains with book-lore, they lived exemplary lives, and they left poems which are often unintelligible.
Donne was at this time a great favourite with King James, who knew him personally. It was the custom of his Majesty to gather around him at dinner a goodly assemblage of courtiers, wits, and churchmen, and to enter with spirit into the discussion of the various topics broached by the company. To these social meetings Donne was often invited, and he made a most favourable impression by the unpretending cleverness of his conversation. The king had several conversations with Donne relative to the quæstio vexata of the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, and so pleased was he with Donne’s observations, that he requested him to answer in a book the reasons urged against those oaths. The result appeared in 1610, in the shape of the Pseudo-Martyr, a vigorous treatise against Popery. James was delighted. Donne had previously sought secular employment; but nothing would satisfy Majesty but his entrance into the Church. “I know Mr. Donne is a learned man, has the abilities of a learned divine, and will prove a powerful preacher; and my desire is to prefer him that way, and in that way I will deny you nothing for him.” Thus King James. Donne resisted the proposal for three years, during which he studied deeply in divinity, and in the dead languages. At length he was ordained by his friend King, Bishop of London. “He was now gladder to be a door-keeper in the house of God,” he said, “than he could be to enjoy the noblest of all temporal employments.” But he was modest and diffident withal. It is amusing to be told that he preached his earliest sermons privately, a few miles out of London; his first being preached at Paddington, then a village. Then his Majesty bade him preach before him at Whitehall, and he did so with extraordinary success, speeching it “like an angel from a cloud, but in none.” Honours showered thick upon him, like Oppien’s tigers, born from the breath of the wind. James made him his chaplain in ordinary. Accompanying James to Cambridge, in the usual royal “progress,” he was, on the recommendation of his royal patron, made Doctor of Divinity in that University. Shortly after his return from Cambridge, Anne, his beloved wife, died, leaving him a widower with seven children. The shock was almost too much for his intellect. It seemed hard to lose so easily one so dearly bought; and he shut himself up in his room for some days and nights, struggling with his grief, and calling on heaven for mercy. “Now his very soul was elemented 85 of nothing but sadness. Now grief took so full a possession of his heart, as to leave no place for joy.” Anne was buried in the churchyard of St. Clement’s, near Temple Bar. The first sermon he preached after her death was in St. Clement’s Church, and his text was, “Lo, I am the man that has seen affliction.” Walton went to hear this sermon; most of the congregation were moved to tears, and I am sure that the eyes of the honest old angler were not dry. From this time, Donne was an altered man. Death, “which skips none, and surprises many” (as Wollaston has it), came upon him with a suddenness which decomposed his little system of stoical philosophy. The rest of his days were distinguished by an utter abnegation of worldly cares and vanities.
He was now chosen preacher of the Society of Lincoln’s Inn. Two years afterwards, he was commanded by the king to attend the Earl of Doncaster in his embassy to Germany. This appointment was regarded with great pleasure by his near friends, who hoped that travel might dissipate the clouds with which sorrow for his wife’s death and immoderate study had enveloped his heart and mind. Fourteen months afterwards he returned, much improved in bodily health, and laboriously devoted himself to his duties as a preacher. In 1621, King James presented him with the Deanery of St. Paul’s. Shortly after he became Dean, the Earl of Kent gave him a benefice, and the Earl of Dorset presented him with the Vicarage of St. Dunstan in the West. He was totally and finally freed from pressing pecuniary cares. Several other appointments followed; and he fulfilled them all with an industry and a piety which won for him the love and admiration of the great body of the English clergy.
So Donne’s preaching, from a worldly point of view, was better than Jonson’s play-writing. Ben was always in difficulties, always in want of funds to purchase Canary. He had become laureate, with a salary of one hundred marks per annum; but his petition, requesting that the marks should be changed into pounds, was not yet granted. Nor had King Charles added to the one hundred pounds the yearly gift of a tierce of Spanish Canary out of the cellars at Whitehall. Once or twice the laureate and Donne shook hands; but Donne never believed, with the owner of the “mountain belly” and “rocky face,” that “wine it is the milk of Venus.” It seems to me, that King James had a sharp eye to recognise personal merit. His shrewd Scotch head could hardly fail to censure the follies of a man who had pinked a companion in a duel, libelled the Scots in Eastward Hoe, and who, if the story be true, said to his Majesty’s successor, when Charles sent him ten guineas: “His Majesty has sent me ten guineas, because I am poor and live in an alley; go and tell his Majesty that his soul lives in an alley.” James, however, was not only capable of perceiving Donne’s merits, but he was also shrewd enough to perceive that Donne might prove a powerful prop to him in his fight for popularity. It was now and then maliciously whispered in some of the pulpits that James still leant in secret to the Romish faith, and that he was desirous of favouring the political prospects of the Roman 86 Catholic party. On one occasion, some busy-body told the king that even honest John Donne had been circulating these whispers, and from the influential pulpit of St. Paul’s. The king was in an agony of mingled doubt and rage. He sent for the Dean, and told him of the rumour. The answer, dignified as it was, was more than satisfactory, and the king confessed, that “he was right glad he rested no longer under the suspicion.” The Dean knelt down: “I desire that I may not rise,” he said, “until, as in like cases I always have from God, I may have from your Majesty some assurance that I stand clear and fair in your opinion.” Whereupon the king raised the subject to his feet. “I believe you!” cried James with fervour; “I know that you are an honest man, and doubt not but that you love me truly.” I tell this story on the authority of worthy Mr. Isaak Walton, who adored orthodoxy, loved gossip, and had a sharp eye for the shallows in a clear stream.
In his fifty-fourth year he fell dangerously ill, and it was feared that he would die of a decline. The illness, which lasted some time, did not long interfere with his clerical duties. In his brave pursuit of holiness, nothing daunted him. In a few days he was again at work. He rose at four in the morning, and retired to rest at eleven in the evening. When he was not preaching, he was studying or performing offices of charity. He invariably committed his sermons to memory; and Saturday, I am told, was his only day of relaxation. He was not a rich man, far from it; but “Charity, that milky-bosom’d woman,” taught him how to make the most of his means. He gave liberally to poor scholars whom Fortune prevented from prosecuting their studies completely. He walked the prisons, looking after the wants of the prisoners; and he constantly freed poor debtors, by paying their debts out of his private pocket. He became the chief stay and comfort of his father-in-law, Sir George Moore, and he maintained his own mother, who died in his house only six months before him. The old lady still clung to the bosom of the Romish Church; but he was much too good a son and too liberal a clergyman to attempt her conversion. In the August of 1630, while residing in the house of Mrs. Harvey, his eldest daughter, at Abury-Hatch, in Essex, he caught a fever, from the effects of which he never wholly recovered. He was almost bedridden for several months. Being appointed to preach, according to his custom, on the first Friday in Lent, he hurried up to London some days before the appointed time. Against the advice of all his friends, who perceived his dangerous condition, he resolved to preach the Lent sermon, “professing an holy ambition to perform that sacred work.” “When, to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself, not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body and a dying face.” His text was, “To God the Lord belong the issues from death.” And “many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice, professed they thought the text prophetically chosen, and that Dr. Donne had preached his own funeral sermon.” The exertion was far 87 too much for his wasted strength. The next day he was unable to move about.
I for one cannot censure the pardonable pride which made Donne, some days before his dissolution, agree to the proposal of Dr. Fox, his physician, that he should have a monument made for him. He was ever humble and magnanimous, and his assent was given in no spirit of petty vanity. Be that as it may, Donne ordered a carver to cut for him the figure of an urn, rather higher than his body, and a board of about his own height. He then called in the aid of a painter, who was to paint his effigy on the board. Charcoal fires being lit in his study, he was carried thither. He then put off his clothes, had his winding-sheet put on him, “and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin or grave.” Thus attired, he stood against the urn, simulating death, with his eyes shut, and the sheet turned aside to reveal his worn and fleshless face. In this position he was drawn by the painter. When the picture was finished it was set by his bedside, where he kept it till death, to remind him of mortality. It was afterwards carved in one entire piece of white marble, which (Dugdale says) is still to be seen in St. Paul’s Church. He lay for fifteen days, hourly expecting death. He died on the 31st of March 1631, and was buried in St. Paul’s Church. A large assemblage of eminent persons met at his grave on that day. All that remains of his mortal features now is the statue on the monument. “It seems to breathe faintly,” said his good friend Sir Henry Wotton; “and posterity shall look upon it as a kind of artificial miracle.”
“The metaphysical poets were men of learning,” says Johnson in one of his just fits; “and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily, resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.” This is as true as any criticism Johnson ever penned; still, like all his criticisms, it is only half true. The metaphysical poets were for the most part men of genius as well as learning; and their whole endeavour was not so much to show their learning, as to gratify their love for quaint fancies. The form was in their eyes so subservient to the substance, that they neglected the form of their poems altogether; yet they now and then touch a key-note of melody which has a deeper and more lingering effect than the music of the more finished verse- writers. They were addicted to what Dryden calls “the fairy kind of writing.” They lost sight of nature while racking their learned heads for queer images. Their pictures, though essentially poetical, were proportionally false; yet they limned them with an honest desire to benefit their fellow mortals. They paint at second-hand, taking as models those vague hypothetical memories which, through a long sojourn in the domains of the fancy, have been distorted into a picturesqueness not their own. They are lavish of 88 metaphor, generally far fetched, but seldom more than pretty. All these faults were most prominent in their love-verses,—a kind of composition which ought to be peculiarly free from such affectations. But, you see, ever since Queen Elizabeth (whom Mr. Froude has, on the no-evidence of a Spanish prelate, just turned traitor to) taught her maids of honour to study Greek, in which language she herself was a proficient, —ever since Queen Elizabeth had studied Plato, and grown jealous of Amy Robsart,—the fine ladies had become very learned and clever. The poets, therefore, saddled their Pegasi, placed their mistresses on the crupper, and, to the astonishment of worthy burghers, who could not read Marino, galloped away into the cloudland of metaphysics. It is rather amusing to see these clever scholars cutting Cupid’s bowstring into infinitesimal conceits, and hashing the whole up into philosophical mince-meat. If a fly flew into your sweetheart’s eye, reader, what could you say on the subject? Nothing, I suppose; yet the metaphysicians were at no loss. They would tell you that the fly, after winging about in the sun for some time, was attracted by a still brighter luminary,—an eye so bright that it made the sun appear a shadow; that, flying about cheek and lip, it sucked thence such sweets as converted it into a bird of paradise; that, phaeton-like, it flew into her eye at last, was scorched in flames; and that, when it fell, a tear fell with it, which tear straightway changed into a pearl in which the poor fly was embalmed! If your sweetheart sang to you, would you swear that, listening to her voice, the wind ceased, the panther became tame, the rugged rocks were dissolved to tears; and further, that, because she frowned while singing, the melted rocks were frozen to stone again by her disdain? This was rather conceit than metaphysics; but it is impossible to illustrate the more characteristic writing, save by quotation. Only let me state here, that under all this affectation, all this false ornament, and all this absurdity, there lay in the verses of these poets a vein of deeper and profounder meaning than many give them credit for. Once make yourself master of their involved diction, once crack the kernel of their quaint inverted style, and you will arrive at a clearer perception of their real merits. One has to grope about some time before he finds the silken clue which leads the true lover to their Rosamond’s bower; but when he has caught the clue, and followed it boldly, ten to one he will be brought face to face with a blushing beauty, powerful to soften the heart of the sternest critical Eleanor that ever raised dagger and poisoned bowl. The best of the poets I speak of erred almost unconsciously. You must approach them with no timorous and mincing tread, if you desire to touch their depths. Don’t stand shivering on the brink of beauty. There is Hippocrene; no shallow and noisy stream in which you can see the pebbles glistening, but a deep quiet pool,—so deep as to be almost without music,—so deep that you cannot catch a glimpse of the bottom. What then?—what then? Off with your straight laces, and plunge in head foremost. You will not only find the good old English bath refreshing, but if you are an expert diver in such waters, you may bring up 89 some of the jewels good men left there for your benefit two or three hundred years ago. To pursue the metaphor, you may, if you please, place the jewels in your own setting, sell them as your own at modern value, and very few (with the exception of such ancient jewellers as myself) will be able to detect you in the theft.
You must not confound Donne and his imitators with that other metaphysical school of which Sir John Davies was the author. Davies was an eminent lawyer in the time of King James, who admired him much; besides being successively solicitor and attorney-general, he sat for some years in the House of Commons as the representative of Corse Castle, in Dorsetshire. He not only wrote twenty-six acrostics on the name of Elizabeth, which were published under the title of Hymns to Astrea, and which, according to Ellis, “are probably the best acrostics ever written,” but he was also the author of Orchestra, a poem on dancing. His great work, however, was the Nosce Teipsum, a philosophical poem in ten-syllable verses, disposed in quatrains, similar in form to Sir Thomas Overbury’s Wife and Will Davenant’s Gondifert. Nosce Teipsum is the earliest poem of the kind in the language. It treats of human knowledge, of the soul of man, and the immortality thereof. The quatrains resemble the Maxims of Rochefoucault. Davies expressed nice simple philosophy in melodious and elegant language. He is never deep, but he is always readable, and his style is wonderfully well sustained. His great poem is rather superior to that portion of the Mirror for Magistrates which the vigorous pen of Thomas Sackville did not endeavour to immortalise.
Dryden, who went deep into the Elizabethan gold-mines, styles Donne “the greatest wit, but not the greatest poet, in our language,”—praise which would hold truer in Dryden’s time than it possibly can in the present day. At all events, Donne is the first of his class in point of merit, as well as in point of time. He is deeper, profounder, and more original than any of his imitators. He is never shallow, as Cowley often is; and he has more common sense than Cowley. Besides his poems, he wrote the Pseudo Martyr, to which I have already alluded, a folio volume of sermons, and a quaint performance entitled Biathanatos, which is a refutation of the common notion that suicide is necessarily sinful.
Donne’s prose is fully as involved and metaphysical as his poetry. There is some powerful argumentative writing in his book against Popery; and in his sermons, amid much that is finical and pedantic, we come upon ideas and expressions which have the brilliance of the genuine gold. We have it on excellent authority, that Donne was a successful preacher; but such a preacher would be unintelligible nowadays. In those times, the best intellects not only flocked into the Church, but they almost invariably did so; and such a galaxy of gifted divines as ornamented the reigns of Elizabeth and James, has not been seen since Laud promulgated his great system of Thorough. To the bosom 90 of the orthodox English Church, clung clusters of gifted poets and philosophers. So the Church prospered, and the gifted gentleman got fat capons, in the shape of livings, spiced with tasty little benefices.
Donne was the second man to write English satire proper. Bishop Hall made the first attempt in his Virgilemiarum, or bundle of rods, which was published in 1597:
“I first adventure, follow me who list,
And be the second English satirist.”
The French had already given birth to Regnier, the Italians to Ariosto; but Hall’s chief models were the Roman satirists, Juvenal and Persius in particular. Donne followed with verses less musical, but far more vigorous and fuller of good character-painting. He lashed the vices of society and the Court, and literary charlatans. It is difficult to select from the satires passages which are both good and unobjectionable; for Donne fell into the common vice of his time, and sometimes wrote indecently. Here is part of the summing-up of the third satire, in which he has satirised the Roman Catholic, the Genevese, the non-believer, and even the English churchman, in their search for true religion; and it will presently be seen what meaning he had in so doing.
“Though Truth and Falsehood be
Near twins, yet Truth a little older is:
Be busie to seeke her; believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
T’ adore or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad. Doubt wisely. In strange way
To stand enquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep or run wrong is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands.”
I am very glad indeed that Donne wrote satires, and am sorry that he did not abstain from writing epigrams. The epigram should have the flash of the sunstroke, and strike its subject down at a blow. His mind had not sufficient velocity for this species of composition. But his best things are his shorter poems. In them, I find genuine poetry, real inspiration. The following conceit is better (to my thinking) than all the epigrams that were ever penned, save those of Theocritus, which I like because, instead of being adders with stings, they are cabinets of pastoral sweets:
For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love,
Or chide my palsy or my gout,
My five gray hairs or ruined fortunes flout;
With wealth your state, your minds with art improve.
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour or his Grace,
Or the King's real or his stamped face
Contemplate. What you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
We can die by it, if not live by Love.
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms. 91
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes as half-acre tombs;
And by those hymns all shall approve
Us canonized for love.”
As for the epigrams, they are as bad as one might have expected them to be. Here is one of the best of them, “On a Lame Beggar:”
“‘I am unable,’ yonder beggar cries,
‘To stand or move;’ if he says true, he lies.”
And now, Minerva, my critic, I must wish you good-by; and when you next write to me, I know you will be in a better temper. I forgot to notice your sly hint that the ends of poetry were frivolous. Ah, you will grow wiser! Does not the example of these good men, of whom I love to discourse to you, prove that poesy is a holy of holies in which sage men may delight, and that it may make sages and heroes of us? As for you, hero-worshiping and appreciative reader, you must excuse me if I myself come often before my literary curtain. Well, I am the Prologue, the Epilogue, and the Choragus of Choragi. I do not talk to you in propriâ persone without an object. Lecteur, je suis moy mesme la matière de mon livre. That is to say, I am part of it; and I hope, by the introduction of my poor modern personality, to make you understand my lay figures better. I think the present Paper ought to send you to the works of Dr. Donne. You will find them much better than any extracts I have given; for the whole mental habits of the poet must be mastered before the beauty of the poems can be perceived or comprehended.
R. W. B.
Back to Essays
From Temple Bar - August, 1862 - Vol. 6, pp. 129-137.
IN the programme put out by the Commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1862, there was a clause which caused considerable annoyance to a number of well-meaning but ungraceful gentlemen, and which elicited some rather savage skirmishing among the members of the newspaper press. The objectionable clause alluded to stipulated, on behalf of the Commissioners, that no civilian should be permitted to take part in the opening procession unless clad in court-attire. No wonder that Society grumbled; no wonder that the poet-laureate chose to shroud himself from the gaze of the giggling crowd. The result of the arrangement was the one anticipated by most Englishmen with any sense of humour: it made a great number of husbands and fathers look ridiculous. Her Majesty’s Ministers were not privileged to escape the requirements of the clause; and it is notable that almost every official commoner in the procession, with the exception of Mr. Disraeli, looked exceedingly awkward about the lower limbs. Apart from the question of comfort or common sense, the whole affair was objectionable in a social sense, and exhibited a rancid bad taste, very unfitting so national an occasion. It was an attempt on the part of the Commissioners to individualise a class, and to give a conservative bearing to the part they themselves took in the ceremony. The Commissioners conquered; but, in conquering, they were compelled to submit to the contemptuous jeers of the general public. Further, many practical men, who had previously been active in the great movement, refused to put in an appearance at the opening. Their absence was a tacit condemnation of the absurdity, and an expression of their opinion that the Commissioners had mistaken the liberal spirit in which the Exhibition had been first suggested and conceived.
Tyranny such as this is not at all displeasing to Mrs. Grundy. Society of late years has grown impersonal to a degree which Coleridge and Wordsworth, when they beheld the first throes of the Revolution, never contemplated; and the standard of all excellence nowadays appears to be, not individuality, but mediocrity. This is a hard truth; recognised in England by Mr. Mill, and in Germany by the late Chevalier Bunsen. Originality, in the eyes of the modern Minerva, is a rather offensive form of vagabondism; but to be mediocre is to be highly respectable. This mediocrity may consist in marrying and giving in marriage, child-bearing, tax-paying; in short, in an eminently practical view of life, seasoned with a wholesome respect for the law. With all this, Society still remains a Tory at heart. She has, it is true, in the words of Volney, “dignified with the name of virtue the observation of certain postures;” but she has still the old personal or class pride,—the sort of pride which Jonson terms a “schism,” that of “incivility.” Again and again does she make spasmodic dying efforts to establish the old régime. Liberal to an excess, she nevertheless cultivates the morbid mania for spirit- rapping. Commercial to the backbone, she goes into ecstasies, for five minutes, at the vagaries of a brood of subjective poetasters—“that come like shadows, so depart.” Prim and proper in the highest degree, she thinks fit to recognise the vagabond gipsy spirit in the exploits of a Du Chaillu. All this time the mob goes on buying and selling, marrying and intermarrying, tax-paying. We are all equal; provided we respect the law, we may look upon ourselves as our own lawgivers. But the great equal brotherhood of nations meet to inaugurate an Exhibition, and Society complacently approves that her votaries should make themselves exclusively ridiculous in court-dresses.
One of the recent successful efforts of Society was to establish a republic of letters. The decree went forth that individuality, even in authorship, was scarcely tolerable; and forthwith there burst upon the world the compact sun of periodical literature. The literary man, as a type, died a lingering death in the persons of such “ancient living memories” as Leigh Hunt; but the real power, the active literary principle as operating upon politics and manners, lay in the fourth estate. The revolution has been going on ever since Johnson wrote the “Letter to Chesterfield”—that noble protest of the individual, as the representative of a class, against the tyranny of a convention rooted in money and pedigree. Slowly and surely since then has the revolution been operating. Finally, in our own day, the profession of literature has itself become impersonal—subject to all the laws, big and little, that convention chooses to place upon its shoulders.
A practical turn of thinking being the order of the time, men no longer write for posterity. The community in which we dwell being in reality a commercial one, men estimate their work at trade-value and sell it to the bookseller. This is respectable, and, so far as a superficial independence goes, independent. The case is contained in a nutshell. Society demands that the man-of-letters should put on a common black coat, and appear respectable. After the buying and selling fashion of the time, he sells his book; and the money so procured enables him to dress, think, act, like a highly respectable member of an impersonal society. He thus compromises between the shop and the parlour; as a commercial character he is impersonal, and, being impersonal, he is of necessity respectable.
To individualise himself at all, he would have to break some law—criminal, social, or religious. He prefers the compromise.
Now and then, the wild erratic spirit breaks out wildly, morbidly, unhealthily. Among artists, indeed,—I mean “persons who paint,”—a vagabond gipsy exclusiveness still prevails to a considerable extent; but Mr. Ruskin preaches pre-Raphaelitism, and they are fast losing their distinctive features. Society chose to turn up her nose at professional painters—as, indeed, she had done ever since Balsac’s time; but she accepted a fair compromise in the respectable pettifogging commercial spirit of a Turner.
As literature had so compromised with Society, it became an act of courtesy on Society’s part to be civil to men-of- letters. At a certain stage, when idealism was distasteful to her, she invented the modern novel; a form of writing in which convention has of late years chosen to express itself. The literature of fiction is the literature of Society; and there were not wanting many clever people able to regale us with inoffensive and agreeable social pictures. At this stage, literary men adopted another compromise with conscience. Instead of holding the mirror up to nature, they consulted their pockets, and held the LOOKING-GLASS up to Society.
On taking a very brief survey of the literature of fiction, one ascertains that its tone is transient, and that it has very little passion or purity in it. It is permeated by the atmosphere of the counting-house, and it bears about the same relation to true ethics as the squabbles of a vestry do to the struggles of a nation. Indeed, the literature of fiction is transient, because it is the literature of Society, which is transient in most of its phases. It is, as has been said, Society’s Looking- glass.
It is only the broad outlines of character which survive for all time. Tom Jones is a very ordinary scamp, one to be found in every city in every age; just as Romeo, apart from his attire and his blank verse, is the fair type of a young lover. But the social life which enabled Tom to play his pranks with some impunity had nearly passed away by the time when Fielding became a judge. Vanity Fair has its significance for all time,—although, in its narrow integrity, it is simply a photograph, from a cynical point of view, of the Vanity Fair of the nineteenth century. Ivanhoe is still radically true to the internals of life; and, in some branches of modern Society, Front-de-Bœuf might be found in the Horse Guards, Cedric the Saxon in the grocer’s shop, and Isaac, the Hebrew gentleman, among the old-clothes shops in Holywell Street. It is, after all, unquestionable that true pictures of extinct social life have their historical value; and in the close attention to detail which renders them commonplace to the Society they image, should be their meaning and beauty as seen by the inquiring intellects of after generations. It would appear, therefore, that Society’s Looking-glass must mirror innumerable commonplaces. The images pass and change: what is convention to-day, becomes precedent to-morrow, and tradition the day after. Society, or Mrs. Grundy, is a very changeable crotchety lady; sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous; often delicate, oftener in bad taste; variable as the pageant of the clouds. Her costume changes like her temper; her manners alter like her opinions.
Scott, great in all things, is unquestionably the greatest modern author who ever held up the looking-glass of fiction. He is true both to human types and to Society. His imagination, although healthy, was not lofty enough to induce self- absorption, and he was able to clothe the bare outline of history with a sympathy which had its root in a soil compound of common sense and poetry. Writing at a time when individualism was at its height in England, ere Whig and Tory had merged into one vacuous nonentity entitled Liberal-Conservatism, he could not fail to shadow forth those higher aspirations which are the exclusive property of individual men of genius. Yet no man ever laboured to detail trifles with a more lofty devotion to general truth. There was no finicism in the Author of Waverley. He depicted the manners and customs of ordinary or extraordinary men and women; he was a faithful aesthetic photographer. But over all his creations lies the brilliant dazzling radiance of the poetic sympathies, giving to what might have been simply a colourless photograph the marvellous beauty of a grand literary painting. His was no common looking-glass; but a magical mirror which, if it flattered sometimes, was capable of giving distinctive features to human faces—of suggesting the soul at work within, triumphant over all the vagaries of convention, and aspiring to a heaven infinitely higher than that seen by respectable people through the roof of Exeter Hall.
When Scott wrote, Society was not averse to discriminate flattery, and the magical rose-coloured mirror pleased her. Nowadays, however, she is determined to have the looking-glass of fiction simply a looking-glass, in which she can secretly examine her own follies, flaws, beauties. She is content, therefore, with the reflection of her superficial features— the externals and “realities” of daily life. Consequently few, if any, of our novelists see farther than the domestic parlour and the drawing-room window. The cant about being practical eats into authorship like a cancer, and no Hippocrates or black doctor can lance it out. The novelists simply follow the system of Society, who sleekens the boy into a machine well-oiled, and superfinishes the girl—for sale. Theirs being an eminently respectable creed, one of the first principles of which is to make money, they sacrifice originality, and write to please the whim of Society. In the natural course of things, they find that the ideal and metaphysical element is unmarketable, and they consequently hold the looking-glass in such a manner as to catch the most trivial domestic pictures. Society does not want to see a reflection of her internal organism— in which, of course, an active ideal principle is secretly working. She chooses to interest herself in trifles light as air,—not in great social problems. She prefers millinery to metaphysics, photography to poetry, crochet to astronomy. She believes romantic affections, grand passions, to be out of date; but she will go into ecstasies in following the details of a little love-affair. She is bored by abstract doctrine, but she can appreciate the sweet lisping sermon of a pet pastor. Thus encouraged, the novelists set to work to study the minutiæ of character and incident; and the outcry they make in order to please the publisher has been characterised, falsely however, as Realism.
The novel-consuming public has, however unconsciously, proceeded on the gratuitous assumption that whatever is poetical, or ideal in a high degree, must be false, and that whatever is mediocre must be true. Perfect heroes and heroines, idealised in an element where Cupid grows sickly and writes maudlin verses, have been very properly done away with. To so great an extent has the thing been carried, that handsome people, in books, are barely interesting. Not only is it suggested that Strephon piping as if he would never grow old, and Amaryllis singing among her flock of snowy sheep, are barely endurable; but it has been ascertained that Strephon is often an idle ill-conditioned lout, who lounges at the ale-house, and Amaryllis a broadspoken redhanded young woman with soiled stockings. On the same assumption, we must separate mind from millinery,—well-dressed women who read Greek and quote Aristotle being exceptions to ordinary experience. Muscular Christianity having been promulgated from a pulpit at Eversley, we must disbelieve in consumptive curates. To continue the catalogue of illustrations were superfluous. The fact in brief is, that Society has come to a conclusion that it is possible to depict real life agreeably and truly without idealising it; that to idealise the facts and personages of real life is to produce false social pictures, to seriously misinterpret the functions of art in general; and that, to be capable of the finest interpretation at the hands of Society, Art should be rather photographic than pictorial. While Realism, in literature, has produced a whole generation of earnest novelists, it has, in technical art, produced pre- Raphaelitism. Whatever else may be said of Realism, pro or contra, it must be acknowledged that it has recently been the guiding star of many admirable writers, and that it has encouraged many respectable people to print experiences which have proved useful to the great mass of the public.
The novelist of a recent generation was complained of justly. Wielding a delicate and fragile quill, and attempting to be intensely pure and feminine, he succeeded in writing like an insipid spinster of fifty. There was no flesh and blood in his men and women. They were simply colourless puppets shivering on the brink of moral evangelism. Scott, and Scott only, succeeded in sounding depths which no common talent can reach; and this, as I have said, not by means of the photographic apparatus now in vogue, but by means of the poetic intuition. But the realists have put commonplace experience into language intelligible to a large portion of the general community; and, studious of that minute detail which characterises the pre-Raphaelites in Art, and which has enabled those gentlemen to become a power in the Academy, they have effected a revolution in modern literature. Society being impersonal, the novel contains no longer a hero and a heroine, but a cluster of heroes and heroines, painted from nature with attention even to the slightest peculiarity in an eyebrow.
A careful eye to the elaboration of trifles is absolutely essential to perfection in a work of Art. The mispainting of a few leaves may mar the effect of a whole tree. It would be as well, however, if pre-Raphaelitism in literature did not affect our broader first conceptions, and if we did not illustrate Butler’s doggrel about the mouse in the telescope. Constant star-gazing is a grand mistake, but it is much more commendable than constant earth-gazing.
It was years ago, when Society possessed a sense of the ludicrous, that a young author first essayed to hold up the looking-glass to his mistress. What magic spell was there in his method? Society came to the glass in a jocund mood, her face radiant with fun and humour; and, behold, the glass gleamed back her smiles—lending delicacy and brightness to every dimple in the happy face. This is a figurative way of saying that Charles Dickens was a master of his craft. Our most original, and by far our greatest, living novelist is not a realist in the ordinary acceptation of the term. He exhibits quaint faces, which are so unlike any made by respectable people save when at the looking-glass, that they must live for all time in strange mosaic. So admirable and lovable are these faces, that they will survive to remote generations. But of late years Dickens has suffered more or less in the estimation of a public which was accustomed to make him its idol. The realists won’t or can’t believe in him, and they have made a great outcry against him. Notwithstanding all this, he is a man of genius, a humorist of the heart—twin brother to Rabelais and Cervantes. The impersonal nature of the time has given him a host of imitators. Feeble copies of Dickens have been as common as poor imitations of Tennyson; little men have been encouraged by Society, who tolerates no individuality, to borrow or copy the quaint robe in which our Prospero of fiction weaves his spells. The result has been a tendency among critics, the applauders of mediocrity, to undervalue the sort of art in which Dickens excels. Our author has borne these slights good-humouredly, in the certainty that posterity will approve the extinct faith. A slight reaction in his favour took place on the publication of Great Expectations. In this case it was not the surpassing genius of the book which set the critical puppets dallying, and made even the obtuse Saturday Reviewer bow gracefully to the potent wand. Society was sick for a moment of realism, surfeited with the trash of some realists, and for a moment it wavered back to humour—an idealistic element in its loftier phases. Still, however, she continues to quarrel with the great master because he does not manœuvre with respectable automata. Is it nothing that Dickens is always consistent as an artist; that he lives in a world of his own, in which the atmosphere and landscape are in perfect keeping with the beings who live and breathe there, who eat, drink, live, and die there? A humorist and a poet perceives character where Goodman Dull sees only a face of skin and bone. If Dickens is true to the affections and the sympathies, let him clothe his figures in whatever quaint drapery he chooses. We can pardon him much; for he is master of that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.
Realism has served at least one admirable purpose—that of bringing women prominently before the public as bookwriters. The lady-novelists are the most truthful of all æsthetic photographers. Narrow as their range necessarily is, they have been encouraged to describe thoughts and emotions with which men are of necessity unfamiliar; and their style is free from the incongruities of previous authors. Disciplined in a school of sorrow, closely observant of detail, and painfully dependent on the caprice of the male sex, they essay to paint in works of art the every-day emotions of commonplace or imaginative women, and the domestic experience of sensible daughters, wives, and mothers. Greatest by far of all female novelists, and greatest by virtue of the poetic inspiration, is George Sand; after her, Miss Austin. The author of Pride and Prejudice was an artist; she depicted concisely, albeit narrowly, and her pictures were artistically true to a narrow circle. But George Sand is a woman of genius; while Miss Austin was without imagination, and full of the spirit of English parochialism. In the novels of Miss Muloch, one meets with many of those emotional views of life in which girls delight; but the record here is untrue to the male sex, because the author’s experience of men is necessarily imperfect. The author of Adam Bede was, in her last work, true to the best interests of Art. The great secret of Miss Evans’s success is her power of localisation, her capacity of presenting great social truths in a manner concisely intelligible to the narrowest experience. In Silas Marner she improved upon her previous efforts. The book, considered as a complete work of art, totus teres atque rotundus, was more fragmentary than were either Adam Bede or the Mill on the Floss; but it contained deep poetical truths, and was full of ideal character-painting. The plot was in itself sufficiently old and simple; turning on the gradual softening, by means of a little child, of a heart made morbid and bitter by an early misconception. Silas, the miserly weaver, the victim of an unjust implication and an early passion, seeks consolation in the slow accumulation of money, and is ultimately reclaimed by means of a high and holy affection. It is impossible to furnish any idea of the skill with which such comparatively slight materials were wrought into a form which, in its integrity, touches the tenderest chords of our human nature. The local atmosphere was perfect. All was in keeping with the homeliest knowledge, but the whole was tinged by a tender meaning which was almost poetry. The book belonged to a class of novels which are intensely realistic in form, expressing, however, the ideal aspect of human nature. The spirit which pervades these novels, and which gives them value, is that of the healthy feminine mind depending for its relaxation on reminiscences synonymous with a narrow and painful domestic life. The genius of the author of Silas Marner seems to have been chastened by trial, and hallowed afterwards by the pitying hand of Patience. It is noble and useful genius; but its aspirations are not lofty, and it is only ideal when dealing with commonplace emotions.
It is seldom that a really talented woman puts forth a book with the sole view of attaining literary position; and perhaps the author of Silas Marner could explain what women in bookwriting seek besides the bubble reputation. The birth of the novel has given speech to many ladies who must otherwise have been silent. At least two-thirds of all the novels published nowadays—of all the good, bad, or indifferent stories vended to the circulating-libraries—are by feminine hands. There have been Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Jewsbury, Mrs. Henry Wood, Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Gaskell, Miss Muloch, Mrs. Stowe, Miss Sinclair, Miss Young, and a host of others; all whose works are in the highest degree feminine, and good of their kind. All these ladies had to relate experiences which would have remained unuttered had not fiction, and realism in fiction, been clamoured for at the libraries. At first, this innovation was looked upon as an encroachment, but Society soon ascertained that it would not infringe her laws of impersonality. The tone of the lady-novelists was at first Della Cruscan, and morbidly coloured by an affected sentimentality. Nowadays, however, it is quite harmless. But there are still some men who grudge to their wives and daughters a voice in literature; deluded men these, so unfortunate as to have had to deal only with strong-minded women given to spectacles. Few will deny that the lady-novelists have caught certain novel lights and shades in Society’s Looking-glass. They have revealed to us hidden chords of the female heart, together with strange suggestions relative to woman’s influence on modern society and manners; and they have given practical men some idea of the point of view from which women regard the ethics of the sterner sex. What grumbler will deny that there was sound knowledge in Miss Austin, and dangerous wisdom in Mrs. Gore? Let it be noted, also, that the lady-novelists have taught the gentlemen-novelists to look more accurately into the position of women; to pay them the high respect of perceiving the correlation of their social and intellectual positions. It having been determined, luckily for ladies who are much confined indoors, that the soft sex shall have a voice in art as well as in the household, it is hoped that no husband will be brute enough to grudge his wife permission to prove herself as competent to hold up the Looking-glass as her neighbours.
One must observe that Realism, improperly so-called, appears under other and varied phases; but Society is continually reacting against the cant. The latest reaction against realism—one now actively exhausting itself, however—has been called “sensation.” For examples of the “sensation” novel, we have only to refer to Mr. Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer’s Strange Story. The tone of the first is morbid and realistic; the tone of the second is morbid and idealistic. It is noticeable, however, that the interpretation of the plot of the latter as given by the author himself, is that of practical philosophy. On the stage, “sensation” asserts itself in dramas like the Colleen Bawn and the Peep o’ Day. In private life, it is to be found under the guise of mesmerism and spirit-rapping. “Sensation,” it is obvious, is intensely impersonal. It merges the individual in the incident, as in the sensation novel; or it gains its object by the effective grouping of a mass, as in the sensation drama. Its object is an intensely commercial one. It appeals not to the sympathies of the educated few, but to those of the general public; and the definite purpose of its followers is to make money: quite a practical purpose this, sufficiently agreeable, and from all points of view respectable. It entails no originality. It is influential also in Art; and it has been appropriately observed, by a contributor to the Athenæum, that “we hear constantly that such-and-such a picture cost so many thousands of pounds,—a clap-trap invention, which appeals to the same order of taste that appraises the Koh-i-noor, not for its rarity and purity, but for the mere gold it cost, or is said to have cost.” Mr. Frith’s paintings are, it seems to me, at once realistic and sensational; a curious enough mixture of opposite qualities. They are true to the outward types of life; they are full of excellent photography and grouping. But they are painted on a sensational scale, and depend for their effect on the judicious arrangement of a mass of figures.
Society’s Looking-glass is the comparatively truthful reflection of Society herself, and its present flaws and imperfections lie less in itself than in the character of the thing imaged. Let it be hoped, however, that Love, Sympathy, and Poetry still lurk in some secret corner of the great fair of vanities. Realism, properly so called, is truth, and truth is always beautiful; and Art is a copy of nature, drawn by the human hand, and coloured with the aspirations of that human soul without whose light the great face of the world would be devoid of expression. Without the lofty ideal life, the external life would be meaningless and unintelligible; they are woven together by the fine threads of poetry and religion, and each is so inextricably linked with each, that only the scythe of death can cut them asunder. What a miserable world would this be, were there no spiritual interpretation to its darkest problems!
This is not carping at Society. Generally, her literature resolves itself into false fun, cynicism, and psychology. The philosopher is a respectable cynic, with an eye to social evils. The poet is a psychologist, navigating the storm in a tea- cup. Among novelists, particularly, there is a finicism which paralyses bold conception. Let us hope that a few bold individuals will arise, in the very teeth of convention, and assert the more than superficial power of reflection possessed, in literature, by Society’s Looking- glass.
R. W. B.
Back to Essays
From The St. James’s Magazine - November, 1863 - Vol. 8, pp. 441-455.
POEMS ABOUT BABIES.
“AND pray, my dear Blank, what is a baby?”
It was Haggatt, the ferocious editor of the Monday Manipulator, who spoke thus; Haggatt, into whose benighted soul the sweet light of household love has never penetrated; Haggatt, who, because he missed five thousand a year when he was twenty-five, has never married; Haggatt, whose lares and penates are the punch-bowl, the letter-basket, the charwoman, and the spittoon; Haggatt, whose frightfully sarcastic articles on the marriages of elder and younger sons have thrown Belgravia into a ferment, and who has been known to suggest that Heliogabalus, when he pined in vain for a new luxury, should have ordered one, not of leverets, but of women’s tongues, garnished with the calves’ brains of complimentary sonnet writers; Haggatt, who loves to quote Swift in that passage where the Dean advises the starving Irish to eat their offspring. To this irreclaimable being, this Haggatt of the little body and the big voice, I had blindly flown, shortly after the happy occasion which had made me the father of a strapping boy. In the torrent of my emotion, the gushing joy of the hour, I myself had been safely delivered of a self-congratulatory poem—the first verse that I had written for years; and with this effusion in my hand I had rushed to Haggatt; forgetting, alas! the character of the man with whom I had to deal. With triumph on my brow, with exultation stamped on every feature, I stood in the editorial presence-chamber; and after a brief but proud allusion to my inspiration, I produced my poem, and expressed my desire that he would insert it immediately in the Manipulator. Imagine, then, my horror and dismay when, with an expression he meant to appear puzzled, but succeeded in making sarcastic, the terrible man inquired,—
“And pray, my dear Blank, what is a baby?”
I staggered back aghast. Was it possible that—
“Pray do not take the trouble to answer me,” proceeded Haggatt, calmly. “You, like the rest of them, are unable to reply to that question.”
“Not at all,” I cried, quickly. “A baby, Mr. Haggatt, is a—is a—blossom on the tree of life; a glorious earnest; a tender promise. It is the flowery link that unites hearts together for the second time; it is—a—the healer of all wounds, the wiper away of all tears. It is—”
“That will do,” observed Haggatt, in a tone of tender commiseration. “Blank, I pity you; I had hopes of you; I thought you a man of parts. I was mistaken. Well, sir, I will tell you what a baby is. A baby, Blank, is an anomaly. It is neither man, woman, nor boy; and, if the eyes are to be trusted, neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. Shall I compare it to a roll of red flannel, or to a boiled lobster? Shall I liken its eyes to saucers? 442 —its mouth to the mouth of a voracious tittlebat? Shall I tell you that it is more helpless than the offspring of any animal that walks, or any bird that flies? Shall I affirm that it makes more mess than a monkey, and more noise than a hurdy-gurdy? Shall I, finally, observe that a baby represents matrimony; matrimony, small debts and poor relations; small debts and poor relations, bankruptcy; bankruptcy, despair; despair, suicide and the yawning tomb?”
“Monster!” I murmured.
“Precisely; you describe the anomaly in one word—Monster! But I will not be hard upon you. Though you have wantonly insulted my common sense, though you have deliberately outraged this bosom by the mention of a creature at which my manhood boils, I will not be hard upon you. You are young; your moon is yet of honey; the wasps have not yet taken possession of the hive. . . . No, Blank,” he added, as if hurt, “I will not print your poem; I will not even read that poem. You shall not expose yourself if I can help it. To be natural, you would have to be idiotic. You would have to talk about his little tootsicums, and his pretty little bootsicums, and his beautiful pink footsicums. No, sir! You have not the discretion of Dogberry, but you shall not be ‘written down an ass.’ No man of real ability would lend himself to the folly of celebrating in song such incarnated vacuity as a baby; and your intelligence must be of a very infantine character indeed, if you imagine that sensible readers would view the absurd attempt with anything short of that scorn which it deserves.”
To have deigned to answer such base language as this would have been to step from that enviable height to which paternity had lifted me. I crushed the viper with a look, and strode from the place. “Never,” I said to myself, “will I again break bread with one who, like Haggatt, is without a soul!” Boiling over with indignation, I hastened home, and told to my wife the whole story of my interview with the editor. Beautiful was the scornful curl of Emily’s lip, beautiful was the anger in her eye. She did not scream, she did not make a fuss; she simply pointed to the treasure that she held in her lap.
“He would give his head off his shoulders,” she said, “to be the father of such an angel as that!”
Thereupon ensued a series of those endearments to which young mothers treat their offspring; thereupon followed fragments of that baby-language which Haggatt laughed to scorn, but which, to my ears, sounded like the music of the spheres.
“And the idea,” exclaimed Emily, looking up after a minute—“the idea of that man having the audacity to assert that no man of real ability would write about—cherubs! I am sure you are a great deal cleverer than he is; and—and—what can be more poetic than such a picture as this?. . . Did um naughty manum say it was um monkey! . . Can anything be more beautiful, more divine? Why, since you have been 443 away, baby and I have been reading the volume of poems you bought yesterday, and we have been delighted. They are very pretty, and whoever the author is, he is a man of genius, worth a dozen Haggatts.”
“I suppose you mean Mr. W. C. Bennett?”
“I am not at all astonished to find that you admire him. Any one but a Haggatt would agree that his infant poems are excellent. But suppose we have it out with Haggatt?” I exclaimed, recklessly, warming at the thought of his atrocious assertion. “Suppose I assert that Haggatt talked like an ignorant donkey, and that much greater Englishmen than Mr. Bennett have loved babies, and mourned them, and not been ashamed to sing about them?”
“Of course they have,” interposed Emily, with an encouraging look.
“More, much more, might be said on this subject than I, a young husband, am able to say off-hand; and I don’t want to bore you, Emily. However, let the first nail we put in the coffin of Haggatt’s assertion be this:—
“Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence,
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen (whose name she bears),
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed among her virgin train;
Where, while that sever’d doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshy birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth.’ *
That, you will confess, is exceedingly pretty.”
“And who is the writer? One who, when alive, could never be charged with namby-pambyism; who waged for years a dogged war against the vile popular taste of London, crying, Odi profanum vulgus et arceo; whose fierce, bold spirit no repulses could subdue; and who, finally, when he was aged and rotund, sat in the ‘Devil Tavern’ and distributed leges conviviales to all the bright spirits of London. He was not a strictly moral man, Emily. He would many times excel in drink. Canary was his beloved liquor. Then he would tumble home to bed; and when he had thoroughly perspired, then to study.† But if you will read his ‘Timber Trees,’ you will find that in some things practical he possessed a beautiful wisdom. I am speaking of Ben Jonson.”
“Ben Jonson! Then he was a married man? Somehow or other I have always had a notion that he was an old bachelor.”
* Epigrams, Book i., 22. † Aubrey.
444 “He was married, Emily, and had seven children. Do not mistake the character of the man so much as to dream that he was a Haggatt. There is a world of rich sweetness in Ben’s well of English. Not yet is he appreciated at his value as a lyric poet. The gentle eye in that ‘rocky’ face could melt with tenderness over the beauty of innocent infancy. More than once he felt the agony of a father’s pain; and it was on the occasions of his bereavement that he wrote of the little ones. Here is a beautiful epitaph from Underwood:—
‘What beauty would have lovely styled,
What manners lovely, nature mild,
What wonder perfect,—all were filed
Upon record in this blest child.
And till the coming of the soul
To fetch the flesh, we keep the roll!’
A fit flower to blossom on so innocent a tomb! Hard-headed Ben, when he pleased, could write with a luxuriousness not surpassed even by Shakspere. There is nothing in literature more exquisite than the opening of the ‘Sad Shepherd:’—
‘Here she was wont to go! and here! and here!
Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow:
The world may find the spring by following her,
For other print her airy steps ne’er left;
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk;
But like the soft west wind she shot along,
And where she went the flowers took thickest root,
As she had sow’d them with her odorous foot.’
But in praising Ben Jonson I am forgetting the baby. It is a very singular fact, my dear Emily, that our earlier poets chose to sing rather of the dead infant than of the living. Perhaps they thought infancy too common-place to be sung about until its poetry was solemnized in the shadow of death. They were wrong, I know, but perhaps they thought so. I could cull you many choice fragments about living babies, but to find complete poems—big or tiny—on that theme is not so easy. As a fragment, now, what do you think of the following? The baby is no less a one than Moses, and the poet is one I believe in—Michael Drayton. Listen! The edict against the male children has gone forth, and here are mother and child:—
‘Her pretty infant, lying on her lap,
With his sweet eyes her threatening rage beguiles;
For yet he plays and dallies with his pap,
To mock her sorrows with his amorous smiles,
And laugh’d, and chuck’d, and sprean the pretty hands,
When her full heart was at the point to break
(This woeful creature yet not understands 445
The woeful language mother’s tears do speak).
Wherewith, surprised, and with a parent’s love,
From his fair eyes she doth fresh courage take,
And, nature’s laws allowing, doth reprove
The frail edicts that mortal princes make.
It shall not die!’ *
And now the baby is lying among the bulrushes, and the mother—
‘Departs, oft stays, oft turneth back.
Yet all this while full quietly it slept,
Poor little brat, incapable of care.’
I will not ask you if you think these quotations beautiful: there art tears in your eyes.”
She drew her hand across her eyelids, and then, looking; at our treasure, showered bright love down upon its face— like sunshine flashing through rain. Then she laughed, and observed that it was foolish to be so affected by mere poetry.
“Mere poetry, my love!”
“There is nothing worth living for,” I exclaimed, “nothing, save poetry. Love, hope, and—and—the baby, are the poetry of human life; wedded to glorious music, they become immortal. Depend upon it, Emily, when we once begin to think poetry idle and namby-pamby, we are fast losing human love, which is the soul of poetry. Sentiment,—‘all that sort of thing,’ as Haggatt calls it,—puts round that little fellow’s head a halo, a holy of holies; and when you talk about mere poetry, you are undervaluing the baby.”
“Heaven forbid!” cried my wife, devoutly. (Kisses.)
“True poetry, Emily, is that yearning to some glorious and unattained perfection which makes us climb upward; it is the expression of our sympathy with a region beyond this narrow life, and our yearning to raise our human thought to immortal heights. It is power struggling with incompletion. What, therefore, so fit a subject for song as the child, whose beauty is that of beauty incompleted, and whose joy is the bright joy of golden promise?”
“Very true,” murmured Emily: “I am afraid you are exciting yourself.”
“Armed with the talisman of that beautiful gift—armed with that child, I could demolish a thousand Haggatts! But to return to Michael Drayton and his noble English verse. I want to show how admirably the old gentleman expresses, in another passage, a loving but stern father’s manner towards his offspring:—
* Drayton’s “Moses’ Birth and Miracles.”
‘This dear present back to him she brought, 446
Making the time short, telling each event
In all shapes joy presented to her thought.
Yet still his manly modesty was such
(That his affections strongly so controll’d)
As if joy seem’d his manly heart to touch,
It was her joy and gladness to behold;
When all rejoiced, unmoved thereat the whiles,
On his grave face such constancy appears,
As now scarce showing comfort in his smiles,
Nor then revealing sorrow in Ins tears:
Yet oft beheld it with that, steadfast eye,
Which, though it ’sdain’d the pleasedness to confess,
More in his looks in fulness there did lie
Than all their words could any way express!’
In quoting these fragments from Michael Drayton, I have forgotten to mention Ben Jonson’s ‘epigram’ on the death of his first son. These four lines are very touching:—
‘Rest in soft peace, and ask’d, say here doth lie
Ben Johnson his best piece of poetry!
For whose sake, henceforth, all his verse be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.’
It pleases me to think that Drayton and Jonson frequently drank Canary together. These two strong thinkers both loved babies, as all true men have done—down from Homer, who delights us in the ‘Odyssey’ with the picture of the babe on Andromache’s arm, shrinking from the warlike plume of Hector, and then losing all fear when the helmet is laid aside.”
“And the idea,” began Emily, “of such a man as Haggatt—”
“Haggatt be exterminated! Haggatt me no Haggatts! Come, Michael and Ben have not thought babies too insignificant to be sung about. Let us next see what a greater poet than either has to say on the subject. I mean Milton. Unfortunately, his verses have death again for a theme; but the tone is solemnly beautiful,—that of religious faith administering tender consolation to human sorrow, and, better to beguile the mourner, sprinkling the tiny grave with sweet conceits. The poem ends thus:—
‘But oh! why didst thou not stay here below,
To bless us with thy heaven-born innocence,
To slake his wrath whom sin has made our foe,
To turn swift-rushing black perdition hence,
Or drive away the slaughtering pestilence,
To stand ’twixt us and our deservèd smart?
But thou canst best perform that office where thou art!
‘Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,
Her false, imagined loss cease to lament,
And wisely learn to curb thy sorrows wild:
Think what a present thou to God hast sent, 447
And render Him with patience what He lent!
This if thou do, He will an offspring give,
That till the world’s last end shall make thy name to live.’ *
But of all the old poets who have written about babies, you will like Robert Herrick best. Herrick knew both Ben and Drayton long before he settled down at Dean Prior, in Devonshire, of which place he was vicar. A jovial, open-hearted fellow, and a master of lyrical melody. He has been called ‘the most gladsome of the bards,’† and he is also one of the most pathetic and musical. For grace, tenderness, and music, his lyrics are unrivalled. Now Herrick loved babies with a poet’s love, as he loved specially all beautiful and gentle things. If you like, I will take down his works [pointing to the bookcase], and read you some of his verses about infants.”
I walked to the bookcase, took down the “Hesperides” and “Noble Numbers,” and, after glancing a moment at the dear, well-thumbed pages, read the subjoined:—
“UPON A CHILD.
“But borne, and like a short delight,
I glided by my parents’ sight.
That done, the harder fates deny’d
My longer stay, and so I dy’d.
If pittying my sad parents’ teares,
You’l spil a tear or two with theirs,
And with some flowers my grave bestrew,
Love and they’l thank you for’t. Adieu.”
“UPON A CHILD THAT DYED.
“Here she lies, a pretty bud,
Lately made of flesh and blood;
Who as soone fell fast asleep
As her little eyes did peep.
Give her strewings, but not stir
The earth, that lightly covers her!”
“UPON A CHILD.
“Here a pretty baby lies,
Sung asleep with lullabies;
Pray be silent, but not stirre
Th’ easie earth that covers her.”
* “On the Death of a Fair Infant—dying of a Cough.”
† “Retrospective Review.”
“A GRACE FOR A CHILD.
“Here a little child I stand,
Heaving up my either hand;
Cold as paddocks though they be,
Here 1 lift them up to Thee,
For a benison to fall
On our meat, and on us all. Amen.”
“What I am now going to read is more than pretty,—it is exquisitely beautiful!
‘Go, pretty child, and beare this flower
Unto thy little Saviour;
And tell him, by that bud now blown,
He is the Rose of Sharon known.
When thou hast said so, stick it there
Upon his bibb and stomacher;
And tell him, for good handsell too,
That thou hast brought a whistle new,
Made of a clean, strait oaten reed,
To charme his cries at time of need;
Tell him, for coral thou hast none,
But if thou hadst, he should have one:
But poore thou art, and knowne to be
Even as moniless as he.
Lastly, if thou canst win a kiss
From those mellifluous lips of his,
Then never take a second on
To spoil the first impression.’”
“I am more pleased with Herrick’s verses,” said my wife, “than any you have read to me. I don’t know why it is they seem so charming; but the heart of the writer seems so full of sweetness, that it can merely throb, throb, with sounds that have meaning only to itself and—hearts as tender. You know what I mean. Fine, grand thought and lofty imagery seem out of place on such a subject; the tender beauty of the theme is more lovely than all thought; feeling, dumb, sweet feeling, seems to make perfect expression impossible. Oh, what a happy woman Herrick’s wife must have been, and how much she must have loved him!”
“Humph!” I muttered, somewhat staggered. “I have not the slightest doubt that Mrs. Herrick would have been a very happy person, only, you see, Herrick lived and died—a bachelor.”
“A bachelor!” cried Emily, in a tone of deep disappointment.
“Even so. If we are to accept the Hesperides as evidence, he was a very general lover. Julia, Corinna, Dianeme, Electra, Anthea, are the names of some of his lady-loves; but stop, I see you are going to say something severe. In real life Herrick was an exceedingly good man and worthy clergyman; his greatest fault, perhaps, being a certain liking for 449 sack,—a fault which he shared with most of the bons vivants of those days. It was the custom in his time to pay musical devotion to imaginary fair ones; to love, hope, despair, as the Scotch would say, metapheesically. Our vicar followed the fashion—as you do, Emily, when you persist in wearing a coal-scuttle on your head. Well, about Herrick and the babies. It is disappointing, I own, to find that the writer of such sweet things should be a bachelor,—mop-eyed, too, as he tells us in his verses; but it is a great mistake to think any the less of the verses on that account. If the true poet has any power at all, it is the dramatic power of losing his self-identity in the emotions of other persons and things; for in the poet’s eyes, mere things, such as flowers and streams, have animate emotions. This power of thinking with the minds and feeling with the hearts of other people is peculiarly the property of the singer. Herrick could not have written better if he had been the father of a family; you must own that. Well, for the rest, he had a sparkling lyric faculty. He loved everything which possessed the pathos, or the music, or the prettiness of the lyric; from Julia’s earrings to the country life, from the country life to infant beauty, and from infant beauty to that spirit-child whose baby-smile is wiser than all the boasted reason of our ignorant and incomplete humanity.”
I don’t think Emily had been paying particular attention to me for some minutes. She now said, “Hush!” rose from her chair, informed me in a breathless whisper that the cherub was fast asleep, and carrying her burthen over to the sofa, placed him softly down on his shawl, tucked him up, cast upon him one long look of intense admiration, and then came and sat by my side.
“If we come down to more recent times,” I observed, “and search among the greater poets, we shall not find many poems on our pet subject. From the time of Milton to the time of Thomson, always excepting the two names by which I measure the period, the greater amount of poetry was written on artificial themes. Dryden was too much of a turncoat, and Pope was too much of a fine gentleman, to write about babies. Honest Mat Prior, sometime gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, was pathetic in ‘Henry and Emma,’ and comic in the ‘City Mouse and Country Mouse;’ * but when he was tempted to write a copy of verses about a child of quality, the only feeling he could express was a regret that baby was too young to be susceptible of the tender passion.
‘For, as our different ages move,
’Tis so ordain’d (would fate but mend it!)
That I shall be past making love
When she begins to comprehend it.’
* Written, in connection with Henry Montague, to ridicule Dryden’s “The Hind and the Panther.”
450 “Let us put these fine gentlemen aside, and take down poor, much-abused Ambrose Phillips. What do you think of this?—
‘TO MISS CHARLOTTE PULTENEY,
IN HER MOTHER’S ARMS.
‘Timely blossom, infant fair,
Fondling of a happy pair,
Ev’ry morn and ev’ry night
Their solicitous delight;
Sleeping, waking, still at ease,
Pleasing without skill to please;
Little gossip, blithe and hale,
Tattling many a broken tale,
Singing many a tuneless song,
Lavish of a heedless tongue;
Simple maiden, void of art,
Babbling out the very heart.
Yet abandon’d to thy will,
Yet imagining no ill,
Yet too innocent to blush;
Like the linnet in the bush,
To the mother linnet’s note
Modelling her slender throat.
Chirping forth the petty joys,
Wanton in the change of toys,
Like the linnet green in May,
Flitting to each blooming spray;
Wearied then and glad of rest,
Like the linnet in the nest.
This, thy present happy lot,
This, in time, will be forgot;
Other pleasures, other cares,
Ever busy time prepares;
And thou shalt in thy daughter see
This picture once resembled thee.’
There! What do you think, of it?”
“Very pretty indeed. Certainly, it is not very profound, but, perhaps, I like it all the better on that account.”
“Humph! Dr. Johnson said a little in favour of that poem; but you are, perhaps, not aware that Phillips, through such effusions, earned for himself the name of ‘Namby-pamby’?”
Emily tossed her head, and smiled.
“From the Haggatts of those days, perhaps?”
“Well, not exactly. I am not disposed to call Pope a Haggatt, or John Gay; Swift, perhaps,—but the less said about the Dean the better. My own impression, Emily, is, that Phillips wrote like a muff and a toady. Phillips on babies seems to me like treacle on bread-and-butter; sweet, especially to very infantine palates, but sickly and cheap. Come, we don’t often differ, so don’t look hurt. I said just now that Dr. 451 Johnson was rather favourable to Phillips. Now what has the burly oracle himself to say on the subject of babies? Only this:—
‘The tender infant meek and mild
Fell down upon the stone;
The nurse took up the squealing child,
But still the child squeal’d on;’
which he delivered as an impromptu, as a burlesque on the contemporary versifications of ancient legendary tales.”
“It is very absurd!”
“Decidedly so; but the good doctor, though he begot a school of grown-up people, knew nothing about real infants. By the way, as we are talking of Dr. Johnson’s time, I am reminded that Whitehead, sometime poet-laureate, and best known as a voluminous playwright, has six capital lines, which are addressed to a child:—
‘May every charm which now appears
Increase and brighten with her years,
And may that same old creeping Time
Go on till she has reach’d her prime;
Then, like a master of his trade,
Stand still, nor hurt the work he made,’—
which you will acknowledge to be a very graceful wish indeed. Plump John Gay, too, has among his fables a very excellent one, called ‘The Mother, the Nurse, and the Fairy.’ I can only remember a portion of it literally, but the story is simple. A married couple pray for a son. Their wish is granted, and they esteem baby a paragon; but in the morning the mother finds the nurse wringing her hands. ‘What is the matter?’ cries mamma. The nurse answers that the fairies have put a changeling in place of the real child, and to support her assertion observes,—
‘Where are his father’s mouth and nose?
The mother’s eyes, as black as sloes?
See here a shocking, awkward creature,
That speaks a fool in every feature.’
Mamma, however, sees nothing of the sort, but affirms that baby is a beauty. While they are discussing the point, up starts a pigmy, who, perching on the cradle-top, thus reprimands them:—
‘Whence sprung this vain, conceited lie
That we the world with fools supply?
What! give our sprightly race away
For the dull, helpless sons of clay!
Besides, by partial fondness shown,
Like yon, we dote upon our own.
Where yet was ever found a mother
Who’d give her booby for another?
And should we change with human breed,
Well might we pass for fools indeed!’”
452 “That is capital!” cried Emily. “But—hush! baby is waking.”
Baby was waking, and was taking good care to let us know it. A year ago I should have stopped my ears to that dulcet sound, but now I sat benignantly smiling, and drinking every echo; while Emily, catching up the treasure, commenced walking to and fro in the apartment, and murmuring as she did so the following extemporaneous composition:—
“By, by, ba-by!
By, by, ba-by!
By, by, ba-by!
Bo, bo, bo!
Bee, bee, bee-by!
Bee, bee, bo!”
The above, though admirable as the sounds by which Aristophanes, in the “Clouds,” mimics the songs of birds, is not Greek; but it is a language which, when spoken by a tongue native to the accents, overruns with fluidity and sweet expression. Poetically speaking, it is fully equal to Mr. Ambrose Phillips’ sublimest baby efforts. Unintelligible? No! Baby, at any rate, understood it thoroughly, and evidently thought it pretty; for he became quite silent, and listened intently, and finally dropped off smiling into a sweet sleep. By this time the bassinet was brought in, and baby, tucked snugly therein, was made comfortable for the night. Not till the “materials” were brought out, and I had mixed my habitual “night-cap” of whiskey and water, did I finish the dissection of Haggatt.
“I think our assertive friend is very nearly done for,” I observed, with a self-satisfied smile. “If I have sinned, I flatter myself that I have sinned in rather respectable company. Even Ambrose Phillips was no mere contemptible poetaster. The man who could write ‘The Winter Piece,’ could do nobly. Before we come down to more modern times, let us take a run across the Tweed into Ayrshire. I know you admire Burns, Emily; I know you think he was a grand fellow, in spite of his little failings. Well, he, too, wrote tenderly and pathetically of babies. His verses on the death of his infant daughter are neither very touching nor very brilliant; but what can surpass in pathos some of his verses ‘On the Birth of a Posthumous Child’?—
‘Sweet flowret, pledge o’ meikle love,
And ward o’ mony a prayer,
What heart o’ stone would thou na move,
Sae helpless, sweet, and fair!
‘November hirples o’er the lea,
Chill, on thy lovely form;
And gane, alas! the sheltering tree
Should shield thee frae the storm.
‘May He who gives the rain to pour,
And wings the blast to blaw,
Protect thee frae the driving shower,
The drifting frost and snaw!’
453 “While we are in Scotland, Emily, we must pay our meed of praise to the many admirable songs about babies contained in the Scottish literature. James Ballantine, of Edinburgh, has distinguished himself on the pet theme; and there is still living in Glasgow a poor working man named William Miller, whose nursery songs are capital. Another Glasgow ‘callant’—a good fellow and an excellent poet,—one William Freeland, has addressed some bonny lyrics to his infant daughter; but, unfortunately, I have none of his compositions to show you. Haggatt, I know, would sneer at these last examples, so let us make an end of the fellow at once, and demolish him with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Let us commence with Coleridge, than whom no choicer thinker has ever, in modern times, essayed the journey up Parnassus. Metaphysical dreamer though he was, incapable as he seemed of conducting the most ordinary affairs of life, he possessed a heart in tune with all innocent loveliness, from the baby blossom on the mother’s breast to the full-blown flower of Christabel’s timid purity. Neither unfrequent nor namby-pamby were his allusions to little ones; and more than one fine lyric he has dedicated to them, ennobling and being ennobled by his theme. His ‘Infant’s Epitaph’ * I shall not quote, nor the very fine lines, ‘To an Infant,’ contained among his ‘Juvenile Poems.’ My first task shall be to cull for your enjoyment some verses from a poem entitled, ‘On the Christening of a Friend’s Child.’ The lines I am going to quote form the beautiful prayer of a noble mind, clothed in language so rich that every simile is a gem:—
‘This day among the faithful placed,
And fed with fruitful manna;
Oh, with maternal title graced,
Dear Anna’s dearest Anna!
‘While others wish thee wise and fair,
A maid of spotless fame,
I’ll breathe this more compendious prayer,—
Mayst thou deserve thy name!
‘Thy mother’s name, a potent spell
That bids the Virtues hie
From mystic grove and living cell,
Confess’d to fancy’s eye:
‘Meek Quietness without offence,
Content in homespun kirtle,
True Love, and True-Love’s Innocence—
White blossom of the myrtle!
‘Associates of thy name, sweet child,
These Virtues mayst thou win,
With face as eloquently mild—
To say they lodge within!’
* Compare with one of Herrick’s epitaphs, quoted above, the following lines from the “Infant’s Epitaph” of Coleridge:—
“Here the pretty babe doth lie,
Death sang to sleep with lullaby.”
454 The lips that had framed the lofty Hymn of Chamouni could pray thus tenderly for a little child. Surely this builder of the lofty rhyme is not known at his value,—as, perhaps, with one exception, the noblest singer of his time. Moreover, there is scarcely a reminiscence connected with his private life which does not represent Coleridge as thoroughly gentle, amiable, and lovable. Well, time adjusts all things. Let us now see how beautifully Coleridge, in two of his best sonnets, expresses two states of feeling in which you, as a partial advocate on the baby question, will be deeply interested.
COMPOSED ON A JOURNEY HOMEWARD, THE AUTHOR HAVING
RECEIVED INTELLIGENCE OF THE BIRTH OF A SON.
‘Oft o’er my brain does that strange fancy roll,
Which makes the present (while the flash doth last)
Seem a resemblance of some unknown past,
Mix’d with such feelings as perplex the soul
Self-question’d in her sleep; and some have said
We lived ere yet this robe of flesh we wore.
O my sweet baby, when I reach my door,
If heavy looks should tell me thou art dead
(As sometimes, through excess of hope, I fear),
I think that I should struggle to believe
Thou wert a spirit, to this nether sphere
Sentenced for some more venial crime to grieve,
Did scream, then spring to meet heaven’s quick reprieve,
While we wept idly o’er thy little bier!’
‘TO A FRIEND
WHO ASKED HOW I FELT WHEN THE NURSE FIRST PRESENTED
MY INFANT TO ME.
‘Charles! my slow heart was only sad when first
I scann’d that face of feeble infancy;
For dimly on my thoughtful spirit burst
All I had been—and all my child might be.
But when I saw it in its mother’s arm,
And hanging at her bosom (she the while
Bent o’er his features with a tearful smile),
Then I was thrill’d and melted, and most warm
Impress’d a father’s kiss; and, all beguiled
Of dark remembrance and presageful fear,
I seem to see an angel-form appear;
’Twas even thine, beloved woman mild;
So for the mother’s sake the child was dear,
And dearer was the mother for the child!’”
My wife’s face absolutely kindled with delight..
455 “It would be impertinence to praise such poetry as that,” she said “but I have never admired Coleridge—whom you have always idolized so—never admired him so heartily as to-night.”
“Not till our more human feelings become spiritualized by some special emotion,—till, I mean, the absolute spiritualization of a noble experience exalts us for the moment to the atmosphere in which the poets, whose souls contain the powers of all experience, live and breathe,—not till then do we recognize the glory of our immortal singers. The joyful inspiration comes, in some shape or other, and we see, and know, and almost worship; and thus, you see, your special knowledge, in the shape of baby there, enables you—however imperfectly—to comprehend Coleridge. . . . Well, it is getting late. I was going to cull some choice fragments from Wordsworth, arch-priest of the English mountains; but as our last illustration has not left Haggatt the ghost of a leg to stand on, I will content myself with a single quotation,—and then to bed! Fix your eyes on the tiny sleeper yonder, and, if you can, imagine that the poet is addressing your baby.”
Little one was fast asleep, his small face smiling sweetly, his little hand lying outside the shawl which covered him; and turning our eyes upon his slumbering beauty, we felt to the depths of our soul the truth of that wondrous “Ode,” * from which—in a low voice, like that of an awed worshipper at a shrine—I quoted the noble lines,—
“Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul’s immensity!
Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage! thou eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind!—
Mighty prophet! seer blest!
On whom these truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost—the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy immortality
Broods like the day, a master o’er a slave—
A presence which is not to be put by!”
I suppose Haggatt would have considered us very egotistical and namby-pamby, but as I spoke the above there were tears in our eyes; and before we went to bed I produced and read aloud my poem, and was assured, for the hundredth time, that I was the profoundest genius (always excepting the BABY) in all Christendom!
R. W. BUCHANAN.
* “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
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