OTHER ESSAYS (2)
1. Poems about Babies
2. Bridal Poetry
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.”
Back to Essays
From The St. James’s Magazine - December, 1863 - Vol. 9, pp. 55-69.
——“Hominum divumque voluptas
LUCRETIUS, “DE RERUM NATURA.”
SCARCELY had Mrs. Blank and I annihilated, to our own satisfaction, the cynical and sophisticated Haggatt, and demonstrated beyond contradiction that Baby was an institution worthy to be upheld and sung about, * when our pretty Danish Princess alighted in flowers at Gravesend, and was greeted by blood royal with a smack which resounded all over the United Kingdom. Of course I went out into London streets, determined, if possible, to catch a glimpse of the pretty bride. Of course Mrs. Blank was detained at home by tiddlepops, and of course I returned home indescribably crushed and stupefied. Then ensued a conversation, part of which may be entertaining to unmarried readers.
“Well! well! well!” Three exclamations, accompanied by three eager looks of flushed inquiry, and repeated at short intervals. “Is she pretty? Is she as pretty as they say she is?”
“You allude to the Princess?”
“Of course,” replied Curiosity, with a pout.
“In that case, my dear,” I replied, “I cannot do better than tell you what I saw, interlarding my narration by a running comment on what I felt. On pushing my way Cityward I found myself in the midst of a crowd, which gradually increased in density, until, in the Strand, I was struggling in the midst of a tempestuous ocean of human beings of all grades, from the snob down to the unsnobisticated costermonger. It was a scramble, a squeeze, a squash! With a tall gentleman’s elbow in my neck, a short gentleman’s elbow in my ribs, a hob-nailed party’s boot on my tenderest toe, I was beaten eastward slowly, painfully, but progressively. Gradually, Emily, I lost consciousness of time, of space, of self-identity. I resembled the most infinitesimal claw of an enormous centipede. See? hear? I could not; I could only feel. This seemed to last for ages. Then I suddenly became conscious that the great crowd was shouting vociferously, and that I was shouting with the rest. The crowd eddied to and fro; horsemen and carriages swept past; I heard loud expressions of applause and admiration; I saw the tip of the Prince of Wales’s nose; and I felt tortures akin to that of being crunched by the monster Ugulino jaws described in Dante.”
“Then you did not see the Princess at all?” cried Emily, with a disappointed look.
* “Poems about Babies,” vol. viii., p. 441.
56 I laughed derisively, pointed out the damaged state of my apparel, and threw myself back with a shrug of intense fatigue.
“By the way,” I observed, presently, “whom do you think I saw battling like myself in the crowd?—whom but the cynic Haggatt. His hat was crushed, his shirt-front was disordered, his whole appearance was lamentable; but I distinctly heard him laying down the law to a companion. ‘What did I say?’ gasped the tyrant. ‘Was I right or wrong? Why, O why did you tempt me hither? In low life and in high life a wedding is a nuisance to everybody but the chief parties concerned. ’Tis the beginning of a long term of sorrow. The minor actors feel miserable, the chief actors look ridiculous.’”
It is needless to say that Emily disdained to comment verbally on such language as this; but had Haggatt been present, her Medusa look would have petrified him to stone. For my own part, my sufferings during the day had almost converted me to Haggattism; but I was much too wise a man to avow the imminent heresy. By-and-bye, when my inner man was refreshed, and the cherub simplex munditiis was fast asleep, we again approached the topic of the day.
“After all,” I observed, in my dictatorial mood—“after all, matrimony is, under any circumstances, a very solemn, serious affair; and this marriage is especially solemn, because not only the happiness of two individuals, but that of a whole people, is involved in the result. How much do we all owe to that union which was so bitterly rent asunder when Albert the Good breathed his last!”
“Not wholly rent asunder,” observed Faith, with serious eyes, “if, as we all believe, there is something beyond the clouds of this tempestuous life of ours. But I was going to ask you, What have your friends the poets had to say on this subject of the marriage? Have you seen Mr. Tennyson’s ‘Welcome’?”
“I have seen the ‘Welcome.’ Like all the Laureate’s recent productions, it is cautious, short, and timid. It is, however, to the point. Luckily, Mr. Tennyson has not attempted to write an epithalamium. The spirit of business enters nowadays into so poetical a ceremony as a bridal, and it would require a bold man to scatter upon the path of a newly-married couple such flowers as the old minstrels liberally plucked and distributed. Tempora mutantur, my dear. I should be sorry to think, however, that the marriage ceremony is unworthy to be sung about, or that those concerned in it do not develop a state of emotion poetical in a high degree. I won’t ask you how you felt on a certain interesting occasion; I know you cried a good deal!”
Emily blushed, and requested me to abstain from personalities.
“Marriage, my dear Emily, is a sacred ceremony. I will not go so far as to say that all marriages are made in heaven; but I will boldly assert that marriage, theoretically speaking, is a noble ordination. The wedding day is the dawn of a new, a second being. The bridegroom 57 looks eagerly forward with a flushed, hopeful face; the bride, more timid, clings to the stronger arm, and looks backward on the peace she has resigned. Joy rises golden in the distance, but it sparkles upon tears. Bride and bridegroom stand hesitating on the brink of a path leading into tangled woods; but so far as the eye can see, the path is one of flowers. They tremble, they delay. To encourage them the glad bells ring out, the people shout, the path sparkles in the sun. ‘Come,’ whispers the bridegroom, and they step in. The sun shines, the birds sing, the flowers sprinkle perfumes. Onward wander bride and bridegroom, followed by friendly eyes, until they pass round a flowery curve, and are hidden from sight. The path seems to darken behind them; eyes strain in vain to catch a glimpse of them. What path have they turned into? Whither are they wandering? We can only conjecture. Perhaps they are lost among the mazes; perhaps they have stumbled into the pitfalls. Perhaps, on the other hand, they have found, far in the secret depths of the wood, a cherub sleeping silently. They have approached breathlessly, clinging to one another, and have peeped into the sleeper’s face; and they have learned, to their joy, that, for their sakes, to bind them the more closely to one another, Jesus has once more made Himself into the image of a little child!”
“I am afraid,” she said, “that your wedding picture is too high-coloured to hit the general truth. How many unhappy weddings do we see! how many marriages of convenience! There was Nelly Mansel, who, poor silly thing, married the middle-aged broker from Mincing Lane. She walked to the altar as pale as a lily; and when Tomlins put the ring on her finger, she looked into his eyes with a shudder!”
“Perish the picture!” I exclaimed. “Theirs was not a wedding, but a sale by auction. If marriage be not sacred, if it be not the union of pure minds, it is not marriage at all. It is a mockery, a bubble! Ideally speaking—and the ideal is the true measure of the divine plan,—there is no such empty falsehood as you describe. Marriage, to be marriage, must be pure, lofty, hopeful, noble. Even Mrs. Grundy takes this point of view; for she pretends, with her glitter, her parade, to believe that her ceremonies, however basely bargained for, are the beginning of a long career of happiness. Modern satirists have delighted to paint your picture in all the artist’s elaborate colours; but satire, to say the best of it, is a very oblique development of the perceptive faculty. It perceives truth—pure truth, but lacks the power of idealizing it. The old poets, however, caught the right point of vantage. All their glorious tints, those elaborate compliments, those joyful ejaculations, are true to the ideal aspect of the bridal ceremony; and I hold that the ideal aspect is the only true one, simply because it is the highest,—the one which harmonizes best with God’s conception. One of the noblest bridal poems in any language opens thus:—
‘Collis O Heliconei 58
Cultor, Uraniæ genus,
Qui rapis teneram ad virum
Virginem, O Hymenæe Hymen,
Hymen, O Hymenæe!
‘Cinge tempora floribus
Flammeum cape: lætus huc,
Huc veni, niveo gerens
Luteum pede soccum:
‘Excitusque hilari die,
Voce carmina tinnulâ,
Pelle humum pedibus, manu
Pineam quate tædam!’ *
“In an English caput mortuum;—
‘O thou, Urania’s heaven-born son,
Whose loved abode is Helicon,
Whose power bestows the virgin’s charms
To bless the youthful bridegroom’s arms,
O Hymen! friend to faithful pairs,
O Hymen! hear our fervent prayers!
‘Around thy brow the chaplet bind,
Of fragrant marjoram entwined;
And bring the veil with crimson dyed,
The refuge of the blushing bride.
Come, joyous, while thy feet of snow
With yellow sandals brightly glow.
‘Arouse thee on this happy day,
Carol the hymeneal lay,
Raise in the strain thy silver voice,
And in the festal dance rejoice;
And brandish high the blissful sign,
The guiding torch of flaming pine.’
“The above rendering, my dear, is by Mr. Lamb—the Honourable—not the Lamb who was so fond of roast pig. It is, as I have said, a caput mortuum; but as I have not yet invested in Mr. Theodore Martin’s ‘Catullus,’ I know no other. The nuptials of Manlius and Julia is a gem in a gorgeous setting, and would have well rewarded the labours of such excellent jewellers as Shelley or Leigh Hunt. The translation of Redi’s ‘Bacchus in Tuscany,’ by the latter, is one of the best things in our language. In this poem of ‘Catullus,’ the whole atmosphere is one of joy, the measure having a ring about it which places it far above all other Latin efforts of the same kind. The ‘Stella and Violantella’ of Statius
* Catullus, “In Nnptias Juliæ et Manlii.”
59 has many fine qualities; and there is power in the epithalamium of Jason and Creusa, sung in Seneca’s tragedy of ‘Medea.’ Neither of these efforts, however, surpasses another nuptial song by Catullus,—a chant of youths and maidens, on the occasion, some suppose, of the same marriage.—But there, I am tiring you, and will descend to poets with whom you are more familiar. What do you think of our Spenser’s epithalamium on his own marriage?”
“It is so long since I read it,” replied Emily, “that I hardly like to venture upon an opinion.”
“Being tolerably familiar with my estimate of Spenser’s rank among poets, you will not be surprised to hear me say that I think it one of the noblest compositions I have ever read. In melody and in luxuriance of appropriate imagery it surpasses even the ‘Carmen’ of Catullus. Nothing more specially beautiful has been penned on any given theme. Here, too, all is joyful, though the hymn opens in an address of graceful solemnity:—
‘Ye learned Sisters! which have oftentimes
Been to me aiding, others to adorn,
Whom ye thought worthy of your graceful rimes,
That ev’n the greatest did not greatly scorn
To hear their names sung in your simple layes,
But joyèd in their praise; . . . .
Having all your heads with garlands crown’d,
Help me mine own love’s praises to resound,
Ne let the fame of any be envide:
So Orpheus did for his own bride;
So I unto myself alone will sing,
The words shall to me answer, and my eccho ring!’
“But the glad day has dawned, and the bridegroom bids the learned sisters, with all the nymphtry of land and sea, go to the bower of his ‘beloved love,’ and ‘bid her awake, for Hymen is awake.’ Immediately we hear in the music the gay gatherings of the nymphs, carrying fresh garlands, and the bachelors that wait on Hymen. The sun rises golden, and the glad tumult increases. Louder and louder the woods answer, and the echoes ring; the sunshine flashes, the birds sing. ‘Awake,’ cries the bridegroom, ‘and hearken to the birds’ love-learned song the dewy leaves among.’ The bride wakes. Come now, ye damsels, and ‘ye three handmaids of the Cyprian queen, help her to attire herself.’ At last she is ready to come forth. The tumult grows louder and merrier; the pipe and tabor strike up; the damsels smite their timbrels, dancing the while; boys run up and down the street, crying, ‘Hymen io Hymen!’ Then follows a long and exquisitely beautiful description of the bride. The vein is one of wild hyperbole, but the occasion is hyperbolical. The lover, distracted with his joy, heaps flower upon flower, pearl upon pearl. So the glad procession 60 moves on to the altar. All is an odour of happiness. The roaring organs loudly play the praises of the Lord, and the hollow-throated choristers sing anthems. The very hands of the clergyman are blest!
‘Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speaks,
And blesses her with his too happy hands,
How the red roses flush up in her cheeks.’
The music seems to pause gently while the service proceeds. The eyes of the bride are fixed in modest sadness on the ground, till ‘all is done.’ Then the shouting and pealing ring out again, and the reckless bridegroom becomes prodigally liberal:—
——‘Bring home the bride again,
Bring home the triumph of our victory:
Bring home with you the glory of her gain,
With joyance bring her, and with jollity.
Never had man more joyful day than this,
Whom Heaven would heap with bliss!
Make feast, therefore, now all this livelong day;
This day for ever to me holy is;
Pour out the wine without restraint or stay,
Pour not by cups, but by the belly-full.
Pour out to all that will,
And sprinkle all the posts and walls with wine,
That they may sweat and drunken be withal:
Crown ye god Bacchus with a coronal,
And Hymen also crown with wreaths of vine,
And let the Graces dance unto the rest,
For they can do it best;
The whiles the maidens do their carols sing,
To which the woods shall answer, and their eccho ring!’
Bonfires are lit, the young men of the town ring the bells; meanwhile the happy pair haste homeward, while the bright evening star comes out in the east. Then night comes down, and all is silence. Witches, hobgoblins, screech-owls, night- ravens, and damned ghosts disturb not the calm. Silence keeps night-watches, Peace in assurance reigns, and Sleep, ‘when it is time to sleep,’ pours out his dainty limbs. But the bridegroom looks forth from the dark chamber, and behold!—
‘Whose is the light that at my window peeps?
Or whose is that fair face which shines so bright?
Is it not Cynthia,—she that never sleeps,
But walks about high heaven all the night?’
Yes; it is Cynthia, whose horn is full of fair promise. The poem ends with this noble invocation:—
‘And ye, high heavens! the temple of the gods, 61
In which a thousand torches, flaming bright,
Do burn, that to us wretched earthly clods,
In dreadful darkness, lend desirèd light;
And all ye powers which in the same remain,
More than we men can feign,
Pour out your blessing on us plenteonsly,
And happy influence upon us rain,
That we may raise a large posterity,
Which from the earth, which they may long possess
With lasting happiness,
Up to your haughty palaces may mount,
And for the guerdon of their glorious merit
May heavenly tabernacles there inherit,
Of blessed saints for to increase the count:
So let us rest, sweet Love! in hope of this,
And cease till then our timely joys to sing,
The woods no more us answer, nor our eccho ring!’
“There! I think you will agree with me, my dear, that this song, made ‘in lieu of ornaments’ to bedeck a genuine bride, was a very splendid bridal present?”
“Very splendid indeed,” observed Emily, with a sigh. “Perhaps a little too splendid. I have seen a great many weddings, but never such a one as Spenser describes. Perhaps they managed these matters differently when he lived?”
“They did; but the epithalamium would be just as appropriate if applied to the marriage of a modern Tennyson. In reading it, you must not for a moment lose sight of the fact that it is written from the point of view of the bridegroom himself. In that consists its poetical excellence. Spenser’s ‘Prothalamium,’ or Spousal Verse, is also very fine.”
“Shakspere, I suppose, has attempted nothing of the sort?”
“No; nor could he, if he had done so, have excelled Spenser. I question, indeed, whether his union with Miss Hathaway threw him into the necessary delirium. But I will show you a composition very different of its kind, written by one of the younger generation of wits, the friend of Ben Jonson, Carew, and Davenant. It opens thus:—
‘I tell thee, Dick, where I have been,
Where I the rarest things have seen,
Oh, things beyond compare!
Such sights again cannot be found
In any place on English ground,
Be it at wake or fair.
‘At Charing Cross, hard by the way,
Where we (thou know’st) do sell our hay,
There is a house with stairs;
And there did I see coming down
Such folks as are not in our town,
Vorty at least, in pairs.’
62 It is, you see, a countryman’s description of a City wedding. The finery dazzles him; he is lost in admiration. First he describes the bridegroom, whose finical, effeminate air and fine clothes are rather contemptuously regarded by brawny Mr. Countryman. But the bride! passion o’ me! a paragon:—
‘Her finger was so small, the ring
Would not stay on which they did bring,
It was too wide a peck:
And to say truth, for out it must,
It look’d like the great collar [just]
About our young colt’s neck.
‘Her feet beneath her petticoat,
Like little mice, stole in and out,
As if they fear’d the light:
But oh! she dances such a way!
No sun upon an Easter day
Is half so fine a sight.
‘Her cheeks so rare a white was on,
No daisy makes comparison
(Who sees them is undone);
But streaks of red were mingled there,
Such as are on a Catherine-pear,
The side that’s next the sun.
‘Her lips were red, and one was thin
Compared to that was next her chin,
Some bee had stung it newly.
But (Dick) her eyes so guard her face,
I dare not more upon them gaze
Than on the sun in July.
‘Her mouth so small when she does speak
Thou’dst swear her teeth her words did break,
That they might passage get;
But she so handled still the matter,
They came as good as ours, or better,
And are not spent a whit.
‘If wishing should be any sin,
The parson himself had guilty been,
She look’d that day so purely!’
A charming little Miss, you will confess; but something else has to be described,—the wedding feast; a grand set out:—
‘Just in the nick the cook knock’d thrice,
And all the waiters in a trice
His summons did obey.
Each serving-man, with dish in hand,
March’d boldly up, like our train’d band,
Presented, and away.
‘When all the meat was on the table, 63
What man of knife or teeth was able
To stay to be entreated. . . .
‘Now hats fly off, and youths carouse;
Healths first go round, and then the house;
The bride’s fell fast and thick.
And when ’twas named another’s health,
Perhaps he made it hers by stealth,—
And who could help it, Dick?’
Such is the famous ‘Ballad on a Wedding’ of Sir John Suckling, whom Winstanley calls ‘the Delight of the Court, and the Darling of the Muses.’ Sir John was a gay, gentlemanly fellow, cut off prematurely in his twenty-eighth year. It is to be regretted that, in his other poems, he sought the Court vein of poetry. His ‘Session of the Poets,’ however, though rather rugged as a whole, contains some admirable lines. His masterpiece is the ‘Ballad.’ It is infinitely better than his friend Ben Jonson’s epithalamiums, one of which appears in Underwoods, the other is chanted in a masque on Lord Haddington’s marriage. In both cases Ben wrote as an humble client, and his panegyrics, at the best, are stiff and formal. In the midst of his high-flown description of the bride he breaks out thus absurdly:—
‘See how she paceth forth in virgin white,
Like what she is, the daughter of a duke,
which reminds one of Waller’s famous couplet:—
‘And thou, Dallhousy, the great god of war,
Lieutenant-Colonel to the Earl of Mar!’
“Ben had seven children, but we know nothing about his wife, whom he did not take the trouble to celebrate as a divinity. In the days of the Apollo chamber in the ‘Devil Tavern,’ poets were beginning to grow mercenary in their praises of great people; and those who composed epithalamiums for titled people generally became stilted. Parson Herrick, however, was, perhaps, pretty sincere when he wrote his ‘Epithalamie to Sir Robert Southwell and his Ladie,’ *—a poem very unworthy of the writer of the ‘Night Song to Julia.’ Herrick was much too good-natured and jolly to feel at home upon stilts; besides, he was a bachelor. Like the merry Archdeacon Walter de Mapes,—
* The reader who takes the trouble to compare this epithalamium with the song, “In Nuptias Juliæ et Manlii,” will find that Herrick followed Catullus very closely,—even to the description of the flammeum, or flame-coloured veil, and the nuces.
‘Mysterious and prophetic truths, 64
He never could unfold ’em
Without a flagon of good wine,
And a slice of cold ham!’
“Honest John Donne, immortalized by Izaak Walton, wrote several epithalamiums, which belong to the metaphysical, not the classical school. You, my dear, might make something out of them; I am sure I cannot. Besides being very involved and laboured, they are full of coarse allusions; and they all mention that ill-used bird, the phœnix. The best is the one beginning with an invocation to Bishop Valentine.—But I’m boring you.”
“Oh no; I always like to hear your opinions about poetry, and the—the subject—is interesting. But tell me, don’t you think it a pity that Milton has not attempted anything of the sort? The author of ‘Comus’ would have surpassed even your pet Spenser on such a theme. He would have been more dignified.”
“Question, question! Milton, my dear, was unhappy in his domestic relations, and——But what am I talking about? Milton has written a bridal poem, nobler than that of Spenser, because the subject is nobler.”
“Ah, Emily! Must I include you among those good people who talk of Milton, yet, in strict truth, know next to nothing of his grandest effort?”
“The ‘Paradise Lost’?” murmured Emily; “I am sure I have read it through two or three times.”
“I have read it through twenty times, and hope to read it through twenty times more. I have learned more from it than from all the ‘lofty brow flourishers, vainglory-osophers philosophers.’ But what bridal was ever more divine than that of our first father and mother? and what can be nobler than Milton’s description thereof? Do you remember?—
‘To the nuptial bower
I led her blushing like the morn: all heaven
And happy constellations on that hour
Shed their selectest influence; the earth
Gave sign of gratulation, and each hill;
Joyous the birds; fresh gales and gentle airs
Whisper’d it to the woods, and from their wings
Flung rose, flung odours from the spicy shrub,
Disporting till the amorous bird of night
Sung spousal, and bid haste the evening star
On his hill-top, to light the bridal lamp.’
“But I am wronging my original by quoting a single passage. Up till the entrance of the serpent, the description of Adam and Eve in the garden is a continued hymn of spousal. I cannot refrain, however, from repeating 65 the passage in which Adam describes his emotions in the society of his bride:—
‘Well I understand in the prime end
Of nature her th’ inferior, in the mind
And inward faculties which most excel;
In outward also her resembling less
His image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that dominion given
O’er other creatures; yet when I approach
Iler loveliness, so absolute she seems,
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say
Seems wisest, virtuest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded. Wisdom, in discourse with her,
Rises discountenanced, and like Folly shows.
Authority and Reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made
Occasionally; and to consummate all,
Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat
Bnild in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic placed!’
You’ll grant that this is very beautiful?”
“Yes,” answered Emily,—rather doubtfully, however.
“You rather demur to Adam’s premises? You would be still less pleased with the answer of Raphael the archangel, who rebukes Adam for forgetting that, as the old song says, ‘man is the tap o’ the tree.’ Milton, you know, was an avowed believer in the inferiority of your sex; and I must say that he advocates his theory sometimes—as in the pamphlet on ‘Divorce’—with very considerable force. Ah, my dear, you live in the time when unmarried ladies write metaphysical poetry and pamphlets, and are actually permitted to print them! If you were a widow, now, you would set up a printing establishment!”
“I understand your vile allusion,” retorted Emily, with indignation; “but I bless the stars that women have begun to protect themselves, and are no longer wholly dependent on the caprice of wicked men. The—the—”
“Pray be calm,” I said, soothingly. “I was only joking; and ‘a plague upon’t,’ as Catullus has it, ‘that you will not permit me to be careless.’ Have you read ‘Hudibras’?”
“What has ‘Hudibras’ to do with the matter?” asked my better and smaller half, tartly.
“Well, not much. Only worthy Samuel Butler, the writer thereof, has written a little satire, which may amuse you, and which will serve as a nice contrast to the passages I have quoted from Milton. Here are a few tit-bits:—
‘Sure marriages were never so well fitted 66
As when to matrimony men were committed,
Like thieves by justices, and to a wife
Bound, like to good behaviour, during life!
For then ’twas but a civil contract made
Between two partners that set up a trade;
And if both fail’d, there was no conscience,
Nor faith invaded, in the strictest sense.
No canon of the church, nor vow, was broke
When men did free their gall’d necks from the yoke;
But when they tried, like other hornèd beasts,
Might have it taken off, and take their rests,
Without being bound in duty to show cause,
Or reckon with divine or human laws!’”
Patient as Emily was, she found this blasphemy unendurable. With kindling eye, quivering lip, she inveighed bitterly against the writer thereof. I rather repented having been wicked enough to make the quotation.
“It was only a joke,” I suggested.
Emily’s reply was to the effect that the subject was much too serious a one to be joked about; that to talk of sacred things in a flippant tone was to commit unpardonable sacrilege; and that I would be averring next—horribile dictu—that Baby was a joke. You see, Emily is a great admirer of Miss Martineau, and of other ladies who assert a masculine prerogative. At last she was calm; finally she laughed good-humouredly.
“In order to complete your good humour,” I observed, “let me try and recollect any other really good epithalaminm. No, I cannot—at least, no English one. Honest Mat Prior, to whom you have been introduced by the ‘Nut-brown Mayde,’ composed, when at college, a set of Latin verses, which are extraordinarily good, as emanating from a mere freshman. The subject was ‘The Marriage of George, Prince of Denmark, and the Lady Anne.’ As these verses would have applied admirably to the recent marriage of the Prince of Wales, I may quote to you a pretty literal rendering which I once made for my amusement:—
‘Now, while the learned crew in lofty numbers
Of Mars with Venus join’d in bridal slumbers,
And Denmark wedded unto England, sing;
In lieu of learned song I breathe a blessing,
And weave a simple song, less wit possessing
Than heartfelt love, an humble offering.
‘Long may the happy couple cling together,
Long may they live in pleasant sunny weather,
Still cherish’d each by each in passion bright!
Oh, bind them, Hymen, in the chain years break not!
Keep them, O Juno, till they sleep to wake not!
And, gentle Venus, guard them in the night!
‘May children like themselves, in joy caressing them, 67
Spring,—to give leaders to the world now blessing them!
And when, grown old, they would together die,
May death not even then asunder tear them,
But such immortal angel hands upbear them
As charioted Elijah to the sky!’ *
“Altogether, on casting a bird’s-eye view over my previous reading, I can call to mind no bridal poem written in that vein of genuine feeling which distinguishes the epithalamium of Spenser. It is ever so, Emily. To get our Hippocrene undefiled, it is necessary to go near to the fountainhead. I, at least, like Hazzlitt, cannot write of modern poets with the same respect as I write of early poets, because I do not feel it. Poetry is the earliest born of society, and—unlike her younger sister, Science—she springs at once into blooming maturity. We can never have an epic nobler than the ‘Iliad,’ never have idylls better than those of Theocritus, never have lyric fragments sweeter than those of Sappho. In England here, it seems that possible perfection culminated in Milton. The realms of enchantment are for ever usurped by the ‘Fairy Queen;’ Shakspere, the dramatist, towers pre-eminently over all possible successors; and in Milton, lyric harmony and epic power reach development as perfect as consists with human faculties of creation or conception. After Milton, who climbed to that mountain-top where he saw the archangels, the poets seem gradually to have been going down-hill. Even John Dryden, in spite of his mighty lines, was a comparative underling; and ‘tuneful Alexis,’ as Aaron Hill † calls Pope, compared to either of his great predecessors, was as an elegantly attired satyr to unclad Hyperion.”
* The original appeared in the “Hymenæus Cantabrigiensis” (Cambridge, 1683), and the name subscribed to it was printed, by mistake, A. Prior. Some lines arc particularly good, and the whole may interest some readers, if quoted here:—
“Conjunctum Veneri Martem, Danosque Britannis
Dum canit altisonis docta caterva modis,
Affero sincerum, culto pro carmine votum,
Quod minus ingenii, plus pietatis habet.
Vivant Ambo diu, vivant felicitur, opto;
Diligat hic Sponsam, diligat illa Virum.
Junctos perpetua teneas, Hymenæe, catenâ;
Junctos, Juno, die protege; nocte, Venus!
Exultent simili felices prole Parentes,
Ut petat hinc multos natio bina duces!
Cumque senes pariter cupiant valedicerc terris,
Nè mors augustum dividat atra jugum!
Sed qualis raptum transvexit curris Elijam,
Transvehat ad superas talis utrumque domos.”
It will be seen that my rendering is somewhat free, and misses the antithesis of “die” and “nocte” " in the eighth line.
† “The Progress of Wit,” a Caveat.
68 “They say,” observed Emily, shily, “that only disappointed men rail against the times!”
“I am not railing against the times; far from it. I have reason to thank my stars that I live under a modern planet. I am simply stating a truth which most readers feel in their hearts, but which many of them do not care to avow. Who, that has read Milton, can tolerate Pollok or Tupper? Who, that is acquainted with Anacreon, can tolerate Longfellow or Mackay? No, my dear! Depend upon it, the light of the old luminaries can never be rivalled.”
“You forget your favourite, Wordsworth?”
“So I do; and I forget Coleridge! Wordsworth and Coleridge made a grand effort to reach the old immortal stature; and the former, partly through the grandeur of his quiet life, succeeded.—But we are running away from the topic of conversation. I was commenting upon the solitary glory of Spenser’s song. Now for a contrast! The last man in the world who ought to have said anything about marriage was the Dean of St. Patrick’s. Jonathan, however, makes use of the theme for a dirty revel. In a poem called ‘Strephon and Chloe’—which I hope no woman will ever read—he ridicules in the most wanton manner the very point of view which was taken by Spenser the bridegroom. There is some wisdom in what he says; but it is the wisdom of Diogenes, preaching amid the stench of his tub. I will find an extract or two, which will amuse you:—
‘Imprimis, at the temple porch
Stood Hymen with a flaming torch;
The smiling Cyprian goddess brings
Her wanton doves with purple wings.
The Muses next in order follow,
Conducted by their squire, Apollo;
Then Mercury, with silver tongue,
And Hebe, goddess ever young.
Behold, the bridegroom and his bride
Walk hand in hand, and side by side;
She by the tender Graces drest,
And he by Mars in scarlet vest.
The nymph was cover’d with her flammeum,
And Phœbus sung th’ epithalamium.
And last, to make the matter sure,
Dame Juno brought a priest demure.
Luna was absent, on pretence;
Her time was not till nine months hence.’
“This, you will perceive, is very humorous mock-heroic. I repeat that what follows is not at all quotable; it should have been written in the language of the Yahoos. The wind-up, however, is judicious:—
‘A prudent builder should forecast
How long the stuff is like to last;
And carefully observe the ground,
To build on some foundation sound.
What house, when its materials crumble, 69
Must not inevitably tumble?
What edifice can long endure,
Raised on a basis insecure?
Rash mortals, ere you take a wife,
Contrive your pile to last for life,
Since beauty scarce endures a day,
And youth so swiftly flies away.
Why will you make yourself a bubble,
To build on sand with hay and stubble ?
On sense and wit your passion found,
By decency cemented round:
Let prudence with good nature strive
To keep esteem and love alive.
Then come old age whene’er it will,
Your friendship shall continue still;
And thus a gentle, mutual fire
Shall never but with life expire.’
“Shades of Varina, Stella, and Vanessa! Don’t you think it a pity, Emily, that the Dean, instead of indulging in learned flirtation, and breaking at least two gentle hearts, did not proceed to carry out the above philosophy by marrying Miss Johnson? Had he done so, much bitterness would have been spared; and perhaps even that terrible last scene must have been softened by the light of gentle, unrebuking eyes.”
Emily did not answer, but seemed plunged in reverie. A moment afterwards she betrayed herself by the very tiniest yawn; and almost at the same time we hear a voice from the neighbouring chamber:
’Tis the voice of the cherub, we hear him complain;
There’s a deuce of a noise till he slumbers again!
Yet that same cry, which broke up our conversation, might have sweetened the later days of the misanthrope Jonathan Swift!
R. W. BUCHANAN.
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