ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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OTHER ESSAYS (2)

 

1. Bridal Poetry

2. Love-Songs Of Horace And Catullus

3. Pythagoras And The Poets

 

From The St. James’s Magazine - December, 1863 - Vol. 9, pp. 55-69.

 

BRIDAL POETRY.

——“Hominum divumque voluptas
Alma Venus!

                         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!”
     Emily sighed.
     “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
Suaveolentis amarici.
Flammeum cape: lætus huc,
Huc veni, niveo gerens
Luteum pede soccum:

‘Excitusque hilari die,
Nuptialia concinens
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

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* 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,
And sister!

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,—

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     * 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.”
     “Indeed?”
     “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.”

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     * 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.

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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.

Back to Essays

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From The St. James’s Magazine - February, 1864 - Vol. 9, pp. 343-352.

 

LOVE-SONGS OF HORACE AND CATULLUS.

WHILE the writings of Horace are in use at every English grammar school and university, and are consequently known to every advanced schoolboy, the “Lepidum Novum Libellum” of Catullus is familiar only to those who read poetry for pure purposes of pleasure. The odes and epodes of the former have been translated, dissected, commented upon by almost every English scholar; but there is no extant edition of Catullus with English notes. The reasons of this are obvious. Chief among them is the fact that Horace loses very little when bereft of his impure passages, while an expurgated Catullus would be a caput mortuum.
     Yet the reader of Latin poetry can scarcely think of the gifted freedman without remembering his patrician predecessor. Horace’s boast that he was the first to enrich the Roman literature with translations from the
Greek lyric poets,—

“Qui sibi fidit
Dux regit examen. Parios ego primus iambos
Ostendi Latio, numeros animosqne secutus
Archilochi, non res et agentia verba Lycamben,”—

is nullified by the fact that he had been preceded by Catullus, whose works abound with Greek paraphrases, and who had translated verbatim the most delicious love-song of Sappho.* Moreover, the author of the “Epithalamium” was equal to original flights of a high description, which cannot be said of his elegant successor. Be that as it may, there is between these two poets a certain similarity, a certain bond of taste, which tempts one to regard them as Castor and Pollux in the poetical firmament. This similarity is perhaps most conspicuous in their love-songs—a species of composition in which both excelled, and which, by the sweetness of its cadence and the familiarity of its images, can never fail to afford delight to the parched literary Arab. For the tender passion is radically the same in all ages; and Romeo still goes musing under high heaven, albeit not in the toga of the Roman Manlius, or the theatrical tights of the Italian Montague.
     In order to understand the Latin love-songs, it is necessary to know something of a state of society which has been rather amusingly described by Samuel Butler in one of his shorter satires, and when gallantry was carried to an extreme shocking in the eyes of modern communities. But to describe this state of society as it was, might be to trespass over the borders of polite decorum. Perhaps the hint we have given will be sufficient to those who know nothing of the subject. When we add that

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     * Capitally rendered into English by Ambrose Phillips, in the lines beginning,

“Blest as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee.”

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344 Lesbia, whom Catullus really and ardently loved, was a married woman, the insight will be clearer. As for Horace, we question very much whether he was not too much of an epicurean to be capable of a grand passion. His verses, at all events, are so elaborately finished as to warrant the assumption that the feelings they described were learned at second hand. In the extracts we shall give from the love-songs of both these poets, we shall furnish our own renderings, save in cases where we are familiar with some first-rate existing translation, and when we shall specify the source from which our translation is derived.
     Personally speaking, Catullus possessed all those qualifications which are popularly supposed to belong to a successful lover. He was handsome, blessed with an excellent constitution, and nobly born. One can readily imagine him to have been a delightful, graceful companion; and, at any rate, we have it on good authority that he was fond of good wine and the company of the fair sex. He had scarcely assumed the toga virilis, when he plunged into all the dissipation of Rome. Polite company there, as in London during the reign of the second Charles, was the most debauched of all company; and gallantry was by no means the worst of the fashionable vices. Silo made money by catering for the pleasures of the dissolute aristocracy; and Catullus very speedily became one of his clients. His two villas—the one at Sirmio, and the other at Tibur—were doubtless the scenes of terrible excesses; and he speedily had to resort to usurers for the means of keeping up his splendid sins. Yet, amid all the dissolute influence of a dissolute age, in spite of the temptations which surrounded him and to which he yielded, he found time to foster a passion which seems to have been as genuine as it was undeserved, and which he has celebrated in poetry unrivalled for the naturalness of its transitions and the fine frenzy of its amorous appeals.
     We are neither competent nor willing to enter into the vexed controversy relative to the identity of Lesbia. The most general belief, however, appears to be that she was Clodia, sister of the Clodius killed by Milo, and addressed by her bitterest enemy, Cicero, as amica omnium. Whoever she was, she was certainly one of the most dissolute women of the time; but the extraordinary adoration with which she was regarded by Catullus must either have been exaggerated or have arisen from a voluntary blindness to her infidelities. Faithless alike to her husband and to her gallant, her iniquities gradually forced themselves on the attention of the latter. By slow degrees his eyes became opened to the fact that he had been idolizing a worthless woman; yet, even when he is fully conscious of that fact, he clings to her image with a passionate tenderness which is at once undignified and pathetic. He weeps, he upbraids, he implores; and throughout he chronicles the history of his infatuation in lyrics with the music of the waterfall, and epigrams with the swiftness of the sunflash. To understand this infatuation at all, we must forget that we live in the nineteenth century. Among the contemporaries of Catullus, it would 345 seem that women were not expected to be faithful to the men they married. It was elegant to choose one gallant, but a lady became odious when she tolerated half a dozen.
     The very first poem in the collection, if we except the Dedication to Cornelius Nepos, introduces Lesbia to the reader. It is the famous, and deservedly famous, address to the sparrow—pulcer deliciæ meæ puellæ. Here we find the lover in his tenderest yet happiest vein. All is couleur de rose; he loves, and he is beloved. With rapturous eyes he watches the fair divinity as she toys with her feathered pet, and when it flies into her bosom he cannot help envying its happiness. The sins of Lesbia are yet unknown; she is pure, perfect, beautiful,—a delicious little girl, who delights her blooming innocence by sporting merrily with a tame bird. Immediately afterwards follows the immortal lament on the sparrow’s death, one of the most exquisite morceaux in any language, and the following lines of which have always seemed to us in the highest vein of fancy:—

“Circumsiliens modo huc, modo illuc,
Ad solum dominam usque pipilabat.
Qui nunc per iter tenebricosum,
Illuc, unde negant redire quemquam!”

The sparrow does not fold up its wings, and lie down to die; it waves its little wings, leaps from Lesbia’s bosom, and goes flying away along the shades. The eyes of the lovers watch it as it wings away and becomes a mere speck in the distance; and they turn to one another, crying, O factum male, and Lesbia’s eyes are red with weeping. Centuries have passed since the lines were written, but the sparrow is still sailing on among the shades of Orcus; it is a speck above us, and it will fly on eternally to some bourne that it is destined never to reach. We watch its flight with much the same feeling as filled the heart of Catullus. This is a very poetical view of the lines; but the poetical interpretation of such delicate suggestions is the only true one. It is in soft touches like this that Catullus abounds—touches not easily perceived by minds that have nothing to confer; and that liberal applications lie in art as well as nature, we uphold on no less an authority than Mr. Tennyson. Elegance of diction, which is generally consequent on delicacy of meaning, is the main peculiarity of the love-songs of Catullus. We are never told too much; but we are ever held in chain by the true Roman art of scholarly reticence.
     But here we have our lover on the very pinnacle of amorous happiness:—

“We live, my Lesbia, and we love;
     Though hoary heads may shake reproving,
A farthing for them! Let them rail;
     What were our life without our loving?
Days may break, and days may die—
               Time will fly!
Days will die, and days will break, dear;
               But yon and I,
When once we sleep, will never wake, dear!

“Therefore, my dear, we’ll live and love—                                    346
     All hoary wrath is harsh and vain, dear.
Kiss me, sweet, a thousand times,
     Then a thousand times again, dear!
Hundreds, thousands, kisses, kisses—
               Such as this is!
Then confuse the sum we count, dear—
               Revel in blisses,
That none may envy the amount, dear !”—Carm. V.

Again, when Lesbia desires to know the precise number of kisses which would satisfy her admirer, he passionately replies,—

“Many as the stars that brightly
Look on clasping lovers nightly!
So to kiss you o’er and o’er, dear,
Is enough for him and more, dear,
Who so madly doth adore, dear !”—Carm. VII., 7—10.

The rapture of the lover, however, is seldom of long duration. Shortly after the above fine frenzy we find our poet in the dumps. There has been a quarrel, it seems. Lesbia snubs her admirer, who retaliates. He will be a man, he will be obdurate, he will seek no more favours, he will fly from the greedy altar that yet smokes with his last sacrifice, he has been miserable too long. He holds to this determination for a time; he delights himself in other amours; but one can tell that he is not quite cured, by the bitterness of his satire on several occasions. He addresses a poem to Hypsithilla; but the tone is not genuine, it lacks spontaneity. Presently the master passion conquers him; by this time, too, he has probably made it up with his mistress. Somebody has been drawing a comparison between Lesbia and the sweetheart of Formianus, and Catullus is contemptuously indignant:—

“Hail, girl with very little nose,
     No well-turn’d foot, no jet-black eyes,
No tapering fingers,* mouth of rose,
     No tongue to please us and surprise!
The province tells thee thou art fair,
     O girl whom Formian keeps in cage!
Thee with my Lesbia they compare!
     O silly, stupid, senseless age!”—Carm. XLIII.

The next poem in the collection which is specially addressed to Lesbia is the translation of Sappho’s exquisitely beautiful ode. The last lines of the translation are sadly inferior to the original.
     It is impossible to affix dates to many of these poems; but it is quite certain that they are not printed in the order in which they were written. In following the writer’s amour with Lesbia, therefore, we must jump forward to poem eighty-third, where we find some amusing badinage relative

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     * Longis digitis.

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347 to Lesbia’s husband. A little further on is a poem written certainly long after fruition, and which is delightful for its brevity and point:—

“Lesbia constantly abuses me,
Upbraids me, mocks me, and accuses me,
Reviles me, snubs me, and reproves me—
May I perish, but she loves me!

“For just as often I abuse her,
Upbraid her, mock her, and accuse her,
Revile her, snub her, and reprove her—
Yet may I perish, but I love her!”

The eighty-sixth song, however, draws a pretty comparison between Quintia and Lesbia:—

“The many swear that Quintia’s fair—
     She’s straight and tall, I will confess;
In detail, few with her compare;
But, in the aggregate, her air
     Lacks sweetness, grace, and prettiness.

“No! Lesbia, Lesbia for me;
     In her all beauties meet combined!
Faultless in every detail, she
Mingles in sweet entirety
     The stolen charms of all her kind!”—

a poem which has been very nicely imitated by Moore, in the “Irish Melodies.”
     Time enlightens the most credulous of lovers. Slowly, but surely, it forces itself upon Catullus that he has been wasting his best years on an unworthy strumpet. Very pathetic are his appeals; very touching is the fervour with which he clings to an image once esteemed divine. Thus tenderly does he exclaim:—

“Ah! never was a woman so beloved
     As thou art loved by me, dear;
Ah! never was a woman so beloved,
And ne’er was lover’s faith so truly proved
     As mine was proved to thee, dear!

“By thy unfaith I’m brought to such distress,
     So does my heart implore thee,
That I should love thee less if free from guilt;
That, sin thine utmost, do whate’er thou wilt,
     I cannot but adore thee!”

And all this tenderness was wasted upon a woman who, if we identify her with Claudia, was very appropriately named by Cicero Quadrantaria. Truly, the blind god makes man bend at extraordinary shrines. We cannot suppose for a moment that the agony of Catullus was purely poetical; every line of his fragments tends to abolish such an assumption. Never were lines fraught with deeper pathos than we find here:—

“Cæli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,                                                 348
Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
Plus quam se, atque suos amavit omnes!”—

where the very music itself seems to wail monotonously. Utterances such as this became absolutely painful in their intensity. Even when he feels convinced that his idol is a mere strumpet, he cannot resign her. He despises her, he cries, but, alas! he cannot help loving her.

               “Etsi impensius uror,
Multo mî tamen es vilior et levior!”

At last, Catullus can no longer disguise from himself the fact that Lesbia is unworthy. Such a love as his, however, must have endured till death, however disguised by the elegant abandon of the fine gentleman; and Lesbia, wretch as she was, and whoever she was, abides for ever among the immortal heroines of classic song. Indeed, the reader appears to catch the poet’s complaint; he somehow finds it impossible to think very harshly of such a pretty little creature, and one so dearly beloved by such a sweet singer. The last passionate cry of Catullus, beginning, “Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas,” rings in the ear with a deep music of solemn agony. We translate it into blank verse, with a slender hope of doing some justice to its beauty:—

“If there be comfort in the memory
Of past good deeds,—if to have acted well,
Nor broken holy promise, nor profaned
The name of the immortal gods to lure
The ears of men, be comfort,—then for thee,
Catullus, out of this thy bitter love
Shall spring a well of calmer, sadder joy.
For thou hast gentle been in word and deed,
Ay, gentle, gentle beyond gentleness,
Though thou hast spent thy choicest years in vain
On one unworthy. So lament no more,
But boldly tear from out thy breast the poor
Illusion throbbing there, in spite of pride;
Vex not the gods by loving baseness still
Though bitter be the struggle—for ’tis hard
To quite forget a love so cherishèd—
Yet conquer, conquer, for thy soul’s sake. This
Victory thou must achieve, or perish quite.

“O gods, great gods, if ever ye have help’d
Weak man to cast his blackest sorrow off,—
If pity be your heavenly attribute,—
Strengthen me; look with mercy on my woe!
If ever I have served ye virtuously,
Pluck from my bosom this infestuons plague
Polluting every fibre, from my soul
Affrighting joy! ’Tis little that I ask:
Tis not her love I wish, nor do I beg                                            349
A look ye cannot give—to make her pure.
Tis but oblivion of her face I crave!
1 would be heal’d of my disease accursed!
And, for the sake of pious service done,
Refuse me not, but heal me, gentle gods!”—Carm. LXXVI.

Few readers will question the beauty of this appeal; it possesses all the simplicity of perfect truth. The agony of the writer is too deep to admit of elaborate conceits or farfetched images. It is this simplicity, or naturalness, which places Catullus so far above all other Roman writers of love-songs, and particularly distinguishes him from Horace. He seldom strains after an effect in any of his writings; in his poems about Lesbia, never. They are as wholesomely real as flesh and blood; they are as elegantly simple as the lyrics of Burns. Their very impurities were the natural language of the time, and sprang from no love of filth for its own sake. Catullus never revels in the dirt of the pigsty, as Juvenal seems to do. He was far too delicately cultured to admire mud, though he was obliged to fling it sometimes; and he was much too sincere a lover to be a voluntary voluptuary. His defence of his coarser passages is, perhaps, questionable:—

“Nam castum esse decet pium poetam
Ipsum: versiculos nihil necesse est.”—Carm. XVI., 5, 6.

But the plea has been a common one from time immemorial, and was paraphrased by our own Herrick, for instance (whose obligations to Catullus and Horace are very numerous), in the last two lines of the “Hesperides:”—

“To this book’s end, this last line he’d have placed,—
Jocund his Muse was, but his life was chaste.”

If we are of a mind to treat such transgressions of propriety with super-excessive rigour, we had better commit the entire deliciæ poetarum Latinorum, complete or fragmentary, into one great bonfire; for the mud is so mixed up with the gold, that it is impossible to separate the one from the other in any but a crucible in which both would evaporate.
     Comparisons are odious sometimes, but a comparison between Catullus and Horace naturally suggests itself. There can be no doubt whatever that Catullus was the more original genius, and that Horace was the more finished artist. Catullus is nearly always vehement; Horace is invariably cool. The one is an easy epicurean;* the other would be an epicurean if he could, but he is too tender-hearted. Yet these poets are alike remarkable for elegance of poetical diction. In the case of Catullus, the elegance springs from the simple fervour of the thought; in the case of Horace, it is the result of elaborate art. Both poets are delightful, but Catullus

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     * That is to say, an epicurean according to that wilful misinterpretation of Epicurus prevalent among the Romans.

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350 flops down on his knees, beseeches, implores, in the fine frenzy of his passion; while Horace, when he does complain, does so in quite a dignified way, and pastes together pretty morceaux of Sappho and Alcæus, with a view to making the complaint as elegant as possible.
     But it will never do to go on asking ourselves if Horace was an original poet. We must adopt no half-measures of criticism with a man whose works have, perhaps, afforded more pleasure, and been recurred to with more delight, than all the other Latin books put together. Let us take him for what he is, without grumbling. Never was there a more perfect artist than Horace, and never were readers less conscious of the presence of a laborious artist, than the readers of Horace. All is delightfully simple; the parts harmonize beautifully. It is only when we begin to pick the lines to pieces that the skill with which the work has been done awakens our astonishment.
     Mr. Macleane, in the preface to his excellent edition of Horace (“Bibliotheca Classica,” vol. ii.), observes of the poet’s amatory verses:—
“With rare exceptions, his compositions of this class, however elegant they may be, appear frigid and passionless, bearing the stamp of imitation, with unequivocal signs of art, and none of nature. The crowd of mistresses that have been gathered for him out of his poems is beyond belief; and the laborious folly that has tried to classify his amours, and to follow chronologically the shifting of his affections, I have had occasion to notice. It proceeds upon an interpretation of the odes which is foreign to their true character. Horace was neither more nor less licentious, probably, than most of his contemporaries, though his biographer charges him with gross sensuality; but however this may be, that the women of his odes are in nearly every instance fictitious I have no doubt whatever.”
     This is the best point of view to take, not only because it is the most logically probable, but because it is the fairest to Horace. The whole tone of his love poems is that of an easy looker on, a philosophic sympathizer with the amours of wealthy friends. Now and then he makes love himself; but though he flows nectar (as in the “Ode to Pyrrha,” which
Scaliger calls “all nectar”), he evinces very little of the milk of human passion.
     Personally speaking, Horace was a decided contrast to the handsome Catullus. He was not a healthy man: he had a liver; he had weak eyes; he was prematurely gray. He was short and fat—epicuri de grege porcum, as he humorously calls himself in the epistle to Albius Tibullus. He was not over-valiant, as we learn from his exploit at Actium. Altogether, he does not seem to have been the sort of person likely to succeed with the fair sex; nor do we believe that he was the sort of person to break his heart for any woman. He was fonder of good living than the airy food of the lover; he loved a brimming cup of old Massia fully as well as the sweetest kiss of Lydia’s lips.
     Let us not fail, however, to do justice to the grace and beauty of some 351 of his love poems. One of the sweetest, perhaps, is the little song addressed to Chloe, and thus admirably translated by Mr. Conington:—

“You fly me, Chloe, as o’er trackless hills
     A young fawn runs her timorous dam to find,
               Whom empty terror thrills
                   Of woods and whispering wind.
Whether ’tis spring’s first shiver, faintly heard
     Through the light leaves, or lizard in the brake,
               The rustling thorns have stirr’d,
                   Her heart, her knees, they quake.
Yet I, who chase you, no grim lion am,
     No tiger fell to crush you in my gripe;
               Come, learn to leave your dam
                   For lover’s kisses ripe!” *—Carm. XXIII., Lib. i.

The expression “spring’s first shiver” capitally conveys the force of the original; but it is a pity that Mr. Conington sacrifices virides, green, in its connection with lacertæ, lizards. The tenth line is an improvement on the ninth line of the Latin, where tigris is made feminine by aspera, a very obvious shift to complete the measure. Mr. Conington judiciously reads “tiger” instead of “tigress,” and thereby corrects Horace in one of the many passages which betoken laziness.
     A word here on this new attempt, as Mr. Conington himself calls it, to “translate the untranslatable.” Of the author’s qualities as a scholar there can be no question; his edition of Virgil alone, so far as it has gone (“Bibliotheca Classica”), would place him very high in the ranks of learned commentators. Of his qualities as a translator we had favourable evidence years ago. He has, however, surpassed himself in the present undertaking. His translation of the odes seems to us very much the best extant, not even excepting the more flowery one of Mr. Theodore Martin. It is very faithful to the original, in general force as well as in point of detail, and it is exceedingly readable. We are struck, however, by the fact that familiar lines of English poetry frequently run into Mr. Conington’s head, and force themselves into his translations. We will give three instances. In the first ode, the line “Who breaks the too, too solid day unblamed” (“Nec partem solido demere de die spernit”) bears a close resemblance to Shakspere’s “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt!” Here, however, the resemblance is intentional. “The rain, it rains not every day, on the soaked meads”—Mr. Conington’s rendering of “Non semper imbres nubibus hispidos manant in agro” (Carm. IX., Lib. ii.)—reminds one forcibly, up to the word “day,” of the burthen of an old familiar song. And in the twenty-sixth ode of Book Third, the line “For ladies’ love I late was fit” is

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     * “The Odes and Carmen Sæculare of Horace,” translated into English verse by John Conington, M.A., Corpus Professor of Latin in the University of Oxford. Bell and Daldy, 1863.

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352 singularly like the line of Dryden, “Old as I am, for ladies’ love unfit.” It is, moreover, a rather weak reproduction of the original,—

“Vixi puellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria!”

As this poem, though in a very different strain, is addressed to the same Chloe alluded to above, we subjoin it:—

“For ladies’ love I late was fit,
     And good success my warfare bless’d;
But now my arms, my lyre I quit,
     And hang them up to rust or rest.
Here, where arising from the sea
     Stands Venus, lay the load at last,
Links, crowbars, and artillery,
     For threatening doors that dared be fast.
O goddess! Cyprus owns thy sway,
     And Memphis, far from Thracian snow:
Raise high thy lash, and deal, I pray,
     That haughty Chloe but one blow!”

                                                                                                                                             R. W. B.

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From The St. James’s Magazine - March, 1864 - Vol. 9, pp. 456-465.

 

PYTHAGORAS AND THE POETS.

AT the early age of eighteen, Pythagoras was crowned as successful wrestler in the great Olympian circus of Elis. He is said to have been a youth of remarkable comeliness as well as strength—a reputation not easily acquired among a people who devoted so much attention to physical training. To a robust habit of body, he combined a studious, contemplative disposition, and had scarcely arrived at the period of legal manhood when he had exhausted as much as was known in Greece of music, astronomy, and medicine. He then travelled to Egypt, a land famous for the profound learning of its priests, who, it was reported, held the key of many deeper mysteries than even those hid behind the awful veil of the Eleusinian secrets. The Samian was tested by the severest ordeals before the sacred science was imparted to him; but it seems not to have satisfied his longing for knowledge, as he is reported to have subsequently studied numbers in Phœnicia, astronomy from the wise shepherds of Chaldea; and his acquaintance with some principles of moral philosophy suggest his having picked up in his wanderings many of the Hebraic traditions of the East. On returning to his native country, after an absence of twenty-two years, he gave a series of lectures, expounding his peculiar doctrines, and soon gathered a large number of pupils about him. His system included a strict novitiate of silence, and an unquestioning obedience to himself as master, as well as an unwavering faith in his theories. He inculcated the virtue of self-denial, and encouraged the practice of wholesome corporal exercise. His pupils were not denied the chiefest charm of social intercourse, and ladies were permitted to become graduates in his college, though whether the rule of silence was imposed upon them does not clearly appear. At all events, the highest honours were open to them, as we find Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, succeeding her husband as president of the association after his death—a classical precedent for the rights of women, with which Miss Martineau is certainly
acquainted.
     Pythagoras seems to have gained an extraordinary ascendency over his disciples, and it is evident he did not shrink from using a low species of imposture to increase the great respect and veneration in which they held him. He spread a report that he was the son of Hermes, and that he derived godlike powers from his origin. One of his thighs was of gold. He had a spell to tame the fiercest beast, or to make the eagle drop from the sky stone dead to his feet. The tutelar deity of a river was known to converse with him, and by a mere exertion of will he could appear in two different places at the same moment of time. Retiring to a cave for some months, he would issue forth pale and thoughtful, and relate how he had been to hell, and spoken familiarly with the poor moaning spirits who flitted by the dread shores of the Styx. For his own 457 aims, he encouraged a belief in the gods amongst his followers, though such a man must have known as well as the Roman orator who came long after him, “that two oracles could not look each other in the face without laughing;” but he probably chose to accept as much of the mythology as suited his views, and such portions of it as would help to grace some of the wonderful æsthetic theories which he was the first to enunciate. What those theories were in their completeness is unfortunately unknown to us, though it is conjectured that Plato or Aristotle could have supplied the information. They would appear to have been based on the supposition of a universal rhythm and harmony regulating all the phenomena of nature, and it is suspected that Pythagoras reduced his speculations to some law of harmony and proportion applicable to the work of the sculptor, which served to produce those unapproachable models of art which the world has ever since been contented to imitate. We are only concerned with one chapter of his lucubrations at present, and it is the design of this paper to draw the reader’s attention to it. His notion of the music of the spheres has been passed from hand to hand—from one poet to another—from the grey dawn of those ancient days down even to our own time. So popular did the legend become, that if one were to select for illustration the poetical extracts concerning the music of the spheres, they would occupy every column of this journal from its birth to this present issue. I survived the gods themselves. It was a belief affording the most agreeable explanation of a feeling not otherwise easy to define. “The most elevated idea of music,” says Bishop Usher, “arises from a confused perception of ideal or visionary beauty and rapture, which is sufficiently perceivable to fire the imagination, but not clear enough to become an object of knowledge.” Supposing we had not the revelations of Christianity to help us, could we find any better way of giving expression to the solemn emotions stirred within us on the contemplation of the celestial bodies, than by ascribing to them a power which in its influence (though exerting it through a different medium) was very similar, causing sensations of longing, of calm, of awakening, of desire, and of worship, every one of which dispositions can be brought about by music? This would only be an ordinary effort of the mind, which is always endeavouring to explain that which is unknown and remote by something near at hand and familiar; and it would be no undue straining of any of the faculties to associate the “confused perception of ideal or visionary beauty and rapture” occurring at the moment of listening to good music, with the same feeling arising from the sight of the splendour and glory of the stars. When once we have begun to think that effects are analogous, we are anxious to establish an agreement of causes; and, indeed, it is by this process that every law of nature is constructed. It is not at all necessary to suppose that Pythagoras argued after this fashion, which more properly appertains to another system of thought than that with which he was accustomed to reason. The gossamer braids, glistening with dew, which hang from every bush in the 458 summer morning, and lie upon the meadow like ornaments of lace and jewels upon a bride, are not more slight and fragile than the materials which we often use to clothe and deck our most pleasant fancies, and bring them within the visible reach of our knowledge. The reader will see many illustrations of this in the latter portion of the following extracts.
     Pythagoras taught his class that the stars moved in a grand, never-ceasing march, making an eternal concert, as it were, led by two sidereal suns, who regulated the motions of this magnificent choir. He had heard this music himself, and could even mark the different variations of note as they echoed from the vaulted roof which arched a vast distance above the orchestre. Saturn boomed a deep bass note; and the moon, which was nearest to us, emitted a shrill tenor sound. The musical scale of seven notes was represented by seven planets, whose vibrations were in harmonic proportion to their respective distances. This theory of Pythagoras gained a new and nobler signification on the advent of Christianity. It was especially gratifying to consider the greatest works of God for ever hymning the praises of their Creator; and we find the music of the spheres introduced into the earliest devotional poetry. Gregory Nazianzen, a Greek Christian poet, looked upwards, and sang,—

“The. great stars treading choral measures o’er us.”

And Cynesius, of Cyrene, in a fervid burst of laudation, says,—

“And the holy stars stood breathless,
Trembling in their chorus deathless!”

Milton takes up the same theme,—

“And ye five other wandering fires, that move
In mystic dance, not without song.”

So Young, in one of his boldest figures,—

       “Thou who didst put to flight
Primeval silence, when the morning stars,
Exulting, shouted o’er the rising ball!”

     On this division of our subject, however, it is scarcely necessary to dwell, as out of Milton alone whole pages of such examples might be extracted. We will see how Messieurs the poets use the Pythagorean legend in the general exercise of their art, without any theological reference; and, first of all, hear how deliciously Shakspere turns the harmonious astronomy
to account:—

“Sir Jessica, look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim.                                    459
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

     Byron heard the spheral music in its awful sublimity:—

“Suns, moons, and earths, upon their loud-voiced spheres,
Singing in thunder round me” [Cain].

Goethe, in that trumpet-tongued prologue to “Faust,” makes Raphael say,—

“In chorus with each kindred star,
The sun sounds forth his ancient song.”

And as we have got to the fatherland, hear Schiller and Klopstock on the same theme:—

“And comes the world’s wide harmony in vain upon thine ears,
The stream of music borne aloft from yonder choral spheres?
And feel’st thou not the measure which eternal nature keeps,
The whirling dance for ever held in yonder azure deeps?”

         “The heavenly ear can list the moving spheres,
               And while Selene and Pleione roll
         In thunder, and rejoicing hears
               The sounds that swell beneath the pole.”

Uhland—melancholy, dreamy Uhland—of course does not miss the divine music:—

“Ye marvellous tones, that scarce I hear,
What longing ye breathe from above!”

     Longfellow, in the following passage, gives an exact and very elegant description of this beautiful fancy. The lines are full of just and musical expressions, every epithet felicitous and poetical. It is taken from one of his earlier pieces, the “Occultation of Orion:”—

“I saw, with its celestial keys,
Its chords of air, its frets of fire,
The Samian’s great Æolian lyre,
Rising through all its sevenfold bars,
From earth unto the fixèd stars.
And through the dewy atmosphere,
Not only could I see, but hear
Its wondrous and harmonious strings
In sweet vibration, sphere by sphere,—
From Dian’s circle, light and near,
Onward to vaster and wider rings,
Where, chanting through his beard of snows,
Majestic, mournful Saturn goes,
And down the sunless realms of space
Reverberates the thunder of his bass!”

460     Sir Isaac Newton said on one occasion, that he was inclined to believe that some general laws prevailed with regard to the agreeable affections of all our senses. Hazlitt was of opinion that there was a harmony of colours, and a harmony of sounds unquestionably, and an original harmony of forms, as the principle of beauty and the source of pleasure. Perhaps, after all, the towers and walls of Thebes, rising into glorious shape at the sound of Amphion’s harp, is but a legend hiding a deep and golden truth which may yet be brought to light. We have all heard of the blind man who compared a scarlet colour to the fanfare of a bugle, thus supplying a metaphysical derivation for the rather slangy adjective of “loud,” as applied to gaudy and obtrusive hues. Schlegel used to insist that the paintings of Correggio produced exactly the same effect upon him as a piece of elaborate music. At the next exhibition of the Royal Academy, how often will the art critics of the London press speak of the tone of a picture, the harmony of such and such tints, the discord and noisy vulgarism of others, &c., &c.! The poets, as well as painters, have plenty of sufficient excuses for taking harmony and melody as representatives of the highest manifestations of the beautiful, and they have done so with a remarkable unanimity. A landscape, a flower, the face and figure of a handsome woman,—in fact, all nature, all humanity, in the abstract and concrete, in the singular and general, share in this comparison. Byron tells us,—

“There’s music in all things, if men had ears;
This earth is but an echo of the spheres.”

Coleridge expresses the purely Pythagorean sentiment, —

                   “And if all animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought as o’er them sweeps,
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each and God of all!”

     Milton goes to a “solemn music,”—and indeed music must have had a special solemnity for the blind poet, shut out from the sight of things. He, too, sings of the harmony of nature, but his truly Christian Muse, ever consecrated to worship, turns the occasion to religious thought. Once a time was when the earth joined the seraphim and the cherubic host “in hymns devout and holy psalms,”—

                       “Till disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair music that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect diapason.”

     This music was not altogether silenced, for Wordsworth, passive to the impression of every stream, flower, mountain, grove, and lake, was able to hear it:—

“One song they sang, and it was audible;                                   461
Most audible then when the fleshy ear,
O’ercome by modest prelude of that strain,
Forgot her functions, and slept undisturb’d.”

     What think you of music in the scent of a flower?—

“And the hyacinth, purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a soft peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense” (sensitive plant).—SHELLEY.

I wished I could make my pet geranium do something of this kind. The bard of Rydal had also a concert in his flower-beds:—

“Where will they stop, those breathing powers,
Those spirits of the new-born flowers?
*          *         *          *         *          *
Up from their native ground they rise,
In mute aërial harmonies!”

     Having noticed the music of the stars, the landscape, and the flowers, there yet remains a more charming object than any of them, to be regarded under the same condition. An ingenious Scotch gentleman,* who has done more for the true advancement of æsthetic science than any other living, engages that, with certain combinations of a circle, triangle, and square, the most perfect face and figure may be constructed; and furthermore, that this combination may result in a more perfect type of beauty than has ever been witnessed in a human creature; and further again, that the thing has been done successfully more than two thousand years ago! I doubt much whether this announcement will meet with the favour of the ladies. Miss would not like to be told that the pretty face and neat shape which she contemplates with so much satisfaction in her looking-glass every morning, was a composition of triangles and squares, and other horrid things which her brother George is always poring over when “going in,” as he calls it, for the medal on mathematical science. However, there is a gallant addition to Mr. Hay’s theory, namely, that the regulation of his geometrical figures must be in accord with certain harmonic proportions existing in music; so that we pass immediately from the prosaic figures to the poetical notes, and the ladies will, we are sure, have not the least objection to our considering them fashioned according to sweet tunes and harmonies. It may assist us, in believing this beautiful notion, to recollect that the word “harmony” originally signified the just proportions of things, and that its first application to sound was metaphorical. But who cares for philosophic data when wanting to say fine compliments? Not

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     * Mr. Hay, author of “The Natural Principles of Beauty as developed in the Female Figure;” “Orthographic Beauty of the Parthenon, &c.;” “Theory of Harmony and Form.”

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402 your poet, certainly. Gentle Shakspere, who played Troubadour and Bonnibel on his own account, in spite of the many wicked satires he wrote against poor wistful lovers, thus addressed his mistress in “The Passionate Pilgrim:”—

“How oft when thou, my music, music play’st.”

Elsewhere he says, “The tune of Imogen.” A later poet speaks of—

“The music breathing from Znleika’s face;”

and Wordsworth very happily,—

Beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.”

     In the following description of “Evangeline” this fancy is deliciously expressed:—

“But a celestial brightness, a more ethereal beauty,
Shone in her face, and invested her voice, when, after confession,
Homeward serenely she walk’d with God’s benediction, upon her;
And where she had pass’d, it seem’d like the ceasing of exquisite music.”

She is gone from you, but the tones vibrate yet,—linger in your ear like the recollection of a sweet melody long after the world and its hard necessities have placed you apart. Alas! life is made up of sterner stuff and much more vulgar purposes for the most of us, than to pass any of it in the pleasant melodious dalliances our poets sing of.
     There is truly no more delicate way of expressing the warmest passion than by comparing its influence to melody. The tenderness of a kind look; the mere stirring of lips with the timid, half-spoken words of fondness fluttering about, and yet afraid to leave them; all the dear conceits of that wild and improbable dream, which go to make up the old, old tale, find their fittest utterance in music, and their meaning is best interpreted by comparison with it:—

“And we will talk until thought’s melody
Become too sweet for utterance, and it die,
To live again in looks which dart
With thrilling tones into the voiceless heart.”
                                                     SHELLEY, “Epipsychidion.”

     Even these cold-hearted wits of the days of bagwigs, ruffles, and swords, were obliged to seek their best types of womanhood in the prim landscape gardens of Arcadia (constructed so as not to offend by trop de verdure). Even they were sensible of a similitude between Chloe or Phœbe, and the charms of music. In No. 603 of the Spectator there is a specimen Pastoral (with an air of sly satire about it) which contains an example of this. Colin (who in old pictures is generally drawn with knickerbockers, industriously playing on a flageolet, and surrounded by numerous sheep, whose appearances are ridiculously suggestive of well-stuffed bolsters) has lost his Phœbe. Whether she went off with a 463 consumption, or another Colin, the text discloseth not. She leaves, however, a blank not only in his faithful breast, but in the lovely scenes by which he is surrounded. When formerly Phœbe and he, in sportful innocence, played (reader, it was in their salad days) with the young (spring) lamb, how happy that time, when spring love and beauty (and salad, and perhaps mint sauce) were all in their prime! But now in their frolics, when by him (Colin) they pass, he (reckless creature) flings at their fleeces a handful of grass! He also, I am sorry to say, further indulges his cruel propensities by beating his dog with his crook, an animal who, in another verse, discloses quite a sentimental Tray in his character,—at last our Colin hits on the graceful compliment which almost gives the semblance of poetry to his doleful plaint:—

“But now she is absent; though still they sing on,
The words are but lonely, the melody’s gone!”

Mr. Pope, in a mawkish composition not much better than that from which I have quoted, repeats the same idea:—

“Fair Daphne’s dead,—and music is no more!”

     The manner of a woman’s walk—a dignified, easy gait, regulating the natural elasticity which sound health and perfect form, is sure to give, which does not unduly disturb that engaging repose belonging to the most supreme beauty of person—has invariably been the subject of poetic admiration and enthusiasm. A goddess in mortal guise might be discovered by the unconscious dignity of her footsteps. Southey’s Kailyal, in the gorgeous Oriental epic of Kehama,—

“Moved graceful as the dark-eyed nymphs of heaven,
Such harmony to her steps was given.”

     That dear old “Talking Oak” of Alfred Tennyson’s, worth all the pastoral beech trees that ever nodded above the loose-kirtled shepherdesses of Arcady, thus gallantly describes a little favourite of his:—

“Yet, since I first could cast a shade,
     Did never creature pass
So slightly, musically made,
     So light upon the grass.”

A broken heart (who does not recollect the “Broken Heart” of the “Annuals” of forty years ago, with the guitar, the high-bodied dress, and the air of a sea-sick Lydia Languish?) shows itself on the blank, wearied face, with a sense of a dead, complete silence. Some weight of care or disappointment has stopped the vibration of all music there. Do we not meet with faces vivacious and sprightly as a gallopade, and just for a moment capable of wearing the more thoughtful cadence of a waltz? There are those also whom we can never regard without involuntarily 464 thinking of silly polkas, and other mere hop-and-turn-about tunes, seeming not to possess any power of changing to a graver mood or more serious measure. Such countenances are really dumb of themselves, but can echo dance music faithfully enough, every feature being alive and in play at the sound of the flutes and fiddles, but dropping to a dull, noiseless vacancy at the final twirl of the orchestra. Others, again, carry a tune of false sentiment (like that sort of music which the French term classique), and if your ear be defective, or your taste uncultivated, it is very likely you will be deceived into believing that the wretched trash is a real expression of pure and worthy fancies. The various clever movements, the dying falls, the startling chords, the brilliant meretricious roulades,—the whole symphony, indeed, made up of dangerous surprises, half truthful, half sensual, and completely mischievous, form the ogling stock in trade, the nods and wreathed smiles of Miss Blanche Amory and her syren companions. But they are exceptions, those Miss Sharps and Miss Amorys, or life would be a very burden, every man having to plug his ears like Ulysses. There are women of sweet, maidenly natures, growing up in the practice of kindnesses, of tender household duties, of simple, godly aims, and of genial, pleasant accomplishments,—

“Till, at the last, they set themselves to man,
Like perfect music into noble words.”

There is no guile, no sensation tricks about them. They do not wear pork-pie hats or archery leggings. What a lovable lady is this that Bulwer describes in his “Duchess of Vallière”! in musical terms, too, which is to me a sufficient excuse for making the quotation:—

                                 “In the maze
Of her harmonious beauties, Modesty,
Like some severer grace that leads the choir
Of her sweet sisters, every airy motion
Attunes to such chaste charm.”

Another dramatist, quoted with much gusto by Southey in the “Doctor,” tells how the fairer sex should be described after the manner of a song:—

“Sing of the nature of woman, and then the song
Shall be full of variety—old crotchets,
And most sweet closes. It shall be humorous,
Grave, fantastic, amorous, melancholy, sprightly,
One in all, and all in one.”—MARSTON.

     Schelling, whose curious speculations into the rather misty regions of transcendentalism have been fruitful of many strange and recondite truths, argues in what manner our mental faculties are subject to the influences of the material nature, and how again we can make the objective world itself yield to our own representations. “This could never be,” he says, “if there did not obtain, between the ideal world and the real world, a sort of 465 pre-established harmony.” The poetic effort is ever to comprehend and fully recognize this harmony, and give expression to it. It is in this endeavour that the objective world yields to the poetic representation. It is the production of Wordsworth’s definition of the inspired art,—the description of things, not as they are, but as they seem, and, it might be added, as we would wish them to be. The old philosophers, Pythagoras and Plato for instance, formed their theories in this poetical kind; for their philosophy was, after all, only poetry in disguise. Pythagoras, with his music of the spheres; Plato, with his sad recollections of a happier state of being, both exemplify the identity of feeling which formerly existed between those who loved wisdom and those who sought the beautiful; and this alliance between poetry and philosophy is not yet broken off. The points of contact where they meet are daily becoming multiplied; the workers in the field of science often find themselves almost unconsciously following a track marked with the footsteps of the poet. Both are dealing with things of which at best they can know “only in part, and prophesy in part.” The poor Greek strove to hear that music which man hath never heard, nor can ever hear while in this vesture of clay. But the inspiration of his thought was a noble one, and it was no mean legacy that Pythagoras left to the Poets.

                                                                                                                                                   W. B.

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