ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
OTHER ESSAYS (4)
The Ballad-Book: a Selection of the Choicest British Ballads. By William Allingham. Golden Treasury Series. (Macmillan & Co.)
THE series of which this volume forms a portion began with Mr. Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury” of English poems and lyrics,—emphatically a. good book, fitted for men of taste, as distinguished from the clever selections so frequently put forward by men of ability. Now comes ‘The Ballad-Book,’ “which,” says the Preface, “is intended to present, for the delight of the lovers of poetry, some fourscore of the best Old Ballads, in at once the best and most authentic attainable form.” Under the circumstances, it must be admitted that Mr. Allingham has made his selections fairly well; his space was limited; and the many beautiful and familiar faces that we miss could only have been included in a volume of greater size. So far well; and we regret that Mr. Allingham went any further. Had he stopped short when he had done his garnering, and arranged his materials in the decent order in which we find them, we should have had no reason to complain, and sensitive lovers of the early ballads might have read his book with safety. As it is, he has chosen to present himself to us as a compound of the loving critic, the lazy editor, and the original poet. As loving critic, he shows a commendable appreciation, a subdued enthusiasm for whatever is good and beautiful; as lazy editor, he deals somewhat harshly with the memories of such men as Percy, Ritson and Ellis. “The ballads which we give,” writes Mr. Allingham, “have, one and all, no connexion of the slightest importance with history. Things that did really happen are, no doubt, shadowed forth in many of them, but with such a careless confusion of names, places and times, now thrice and thirty times confounded by alterations in course of oral transmission, various versions, personal and local adaptations, not to speak of editorial adaptations, that it is mere waste of time and patience to read (if any one ever does read) those grave disquisitions, historical and antiquarian, wherewith it has been the fashion to encumber many of these rudely picturesque and pathetic poems.” Certainly, the historical and antiquarian disquisitions here so summarily dealt with, would have been out of place in a little volume like the present; but to deny their value and interest is quite another thing. It is too much the fashion to write books lollingly (if we may be allowed the expression),—to get one’s information at second-hand, in small doses coated with sugar,—to look with smiles of elegant pity on the labours of the antiquary. Do not let us forget, however, the vast debt we owe to Percy, but for whose learned explorations the rich mines of English metrical romance might have been hidden to this day, and to his indefatigable successors. At a time when it was the habit to look upon such work as laborious trifling, they discovered riches which would certainly have been unappreciated had no editorial light been thrown upon them. The cumbrous antiquarianism itself lends a solemnity to things which might otherwise have appeared but idle; and even a learned squabble over a doubtful text served to show the public that the subjects of discussion were interesting to men of high acquirements and culture. Further, to read the “grave disquisitions” is far from being “a mere waste of time and trouble”; in such works as Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ the explanatory matter is not the least attractive. We shall not, however, quarrel with Mr. Allingham on this head. It is in his character of original poet that we have most fault to find with him. He is fond of spoiling rough but honest originals with his own love for smoothness and grace, forgetting that it is quite as difficult a task to “touch up” the thistle as to paint the lily and adorn the rose. He is too fastidious,—is as angry with an ill rhyme as with a. breach of decorum,—slices out whatever is not up to the standard of his modern taste,—sucks the pith out of strong verses, and blows in odour of roses,—mutilates with his delicate pen even the grand old ballad of ‘Sir Patrick Spens.’ It is rather too bad to talk sneeringly of editorial adaptations, and then to set to work with paste and scissors. True, there have been sinners in this respect before Mr. Allingham—sinners of a much more reckless and original tendency, who occasionally hit on something with the genuine ring in it: Jamieson, for instance. But we shall show that Mr. Allingham alters what is unobjectionable; and that very often, when he operates on what is bad, he merely succeeds in changing bad into worse. We waive the conviction that to doctor our old ballads, unless in cases where some connecting link is wanting to the narrative, is objectionable and unprofitable, generally resulting as fatally as the famous operation on the healthy athlete with bandy legs. We merely
Childe Rowland to the dark tower came.
Again, what is there in ‘The Frolicksome Duke, or the Tinker’s Good Fortune,’ that it should appear in a collection of the choicest ballads? Its only merit is that it reminds us of Christopher Sly. If a humorous piece was wanted, would not the first part of ‘The King and the Miller of Mansfield’ have been preferable? That is a question of taste. No one, however, will question the super-excellent music and brisk humour of the ‘Gaberlunzie Man,’ sometimes attributed to the pen of King James the Fifth of Scotland, and first printed in Ramsay’s ‘Tea-Table Miscellany.’ This piece, however, finds no place in ‘The Ballad-Book.’ Another bit of genuine humour—scarcely suitable, however, for Mr. Allingham’s purpose—is so little known that we transcribe it here. It was taken down from the recitation of a gentleman in Riddesdale, and was first printed in Blackie & Son’s ‘Scottish Ballads.’ We print the first verse literally, but in others suppress the iteration:
THE KEACH I’ THE CREEL.
A fair young May went up the street,
“O where live ye, my bonnie lass,
“O my father he aye locks the door,
But the clerk he had ae true brother,
He has made a cleek but and a creel—
The auld wife, being not asleep,
The old man he gat owre the bed,
“O where are ye gaun now, father,” she says,
“O ill betide ye, silly auld wife,
The auld wife she got owre the bed,
The man that was at the chimley-top,
“O help, O help, O hinny, now help;
“O if the foul thief’s gotten ye,
He’s towed her up, he’s towed her down,
O the blue, the bonnie, bonnie blue;
There will be little question that this ‘Keach i’ the Creel,’ strong as is the resemblance it bears to stories by both Boccaccio and Chaucer, is as unobjectionable as most of the old ballads in their genuine state. The ‘Gaberlunzie Man,’ with the exception of two lines, however, is quite innocent, and we wonder at its absence from this collection. In spite of certain remarks in the preface, it seems to us that the greater number of the selections in ‘The Ballad-Book’ belong, in strict justice, to the North; and undoubtedly those of avowedly Scottish origin surpass all the rest in poetic merit. Mr. Allingham seems to have had considerable difficulty with his English specimens, and almost apologizes for inserting the ‘Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood’—a rhyme which many will like.
The first word that Sir Patrick read,
lines full, we think, of dramatic force and effect. But midway occur suppressions and alterations of the most capricious description; to show which fully we must give the final portions of the ballad in the two versions of Scott and Allingham. We begin with the return
They hadna sail’d a league, a league,
The ankers brak, and the topmasts lap,
“O where will I get a gude sailor,
“O here am I, a sailor gude,
He hadna gane a step, a step,
“Gae, fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
They fetch’d a web o’ the silken claith,
O laith, laith, were our gude Scots lords
And mony was the feather bed
The ladyes wrang their fingers white,
O lang, lang may the ladyes sit,
And lang, lang, may the maidens sit,
Half owre, half owre to Aberdour,
They hadna sail’d upon the sea
“O where will I get a gude sailor
“O here am I, a sailor gude,
He hadna gane a step, a step,
“Gae fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
They fetched a web o’ the silken claith,
O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
O lang, lang may the ladies sit
And lang, lang may the maidens sit
Half ower, half ower to Aberdour,
We have italicized only those portions which Mr. Allingham has either altered or suppressed; and we appeal to our readers if any one of the alterations or suppressions is an improvement. “Loud and boisterous grew the wind,” is a poor apology for the strong line in Scott’s version; though possibly one is as genuine as the other. The seventh verse of the second version printed above is original, we presume, and is given to us instead of the lines—
And mony was the feather bed
which add to the description, while Mr. Allingham’s are tautological. In other cases Mr. Allingham is not nearly so gentle. His version of ‘Young Beichan’ is full of alterations, many of them for the better, but in one or two cases it is sadly at fault. It was a great mistake to slice out the last verse, which is full of stir and brilliance and bustle, and winds up the story merrily, as with a peal of music:—
Fy! gar a’ our cooks mak’ ready !
But Mr. Allingham’s treatment is still more apparent in ‘Sweet William’s Ghost.’ The editor cuts in two the ballad published by Ramsay, and does the same with Motherwell’s ‘William and Marjorie,’ and then patches the two fragments together. In doing this, he entirely loses the fine iteration of such verses as—
O sweet Marg’ret! O dear Marg’ret!
and regales us instead with the following:—
O Marjorie sweet! O Marjorie dear!
the last three lines of which are from Motherwell, and the first by Allingham.
The Athenæum (18 February, 1865 - No. 1947, p.242)
Old Ballads.—On “the Debatable Ground” sprung up many of our Old Ballads; and on a literary Debatable Ground these wild flowers of our poesy must still chiefly be gathered. It is dangerous business to edit Old Ballads, and dangerous also to answer a Reviewer. On questions of taste or opinion I should not dream of replying; but when a suspicion of dishonesty is publicly thrown out, one ought perhaps to say a few words. Brief let me be. The only definite charges against me by the writer of the notice of ‘The Ballad-Book’ in the Athenæum of the 21st of January are founded on the version therein given of ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ which he compares with that given in Scott’s ‘Border Minstrelsy.’ By-the-by, your reviewer’s quotation of the verse, “And many was the feather-bed,” &c. (upon which he specially remarks) is incorrect; the ‘Minstrelsy’ having it “flattered on the faem,” not “floated.” 1 do not object to anybody’s preferring Scott’s version of this “grand old ballad,” but why must it needs be considered as the authorized version? There are four principal versions of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ (or Spence)—Percy’s, Scott’s, Jamieson’s, Buchan’s—each of
Till loud and boisterous grew the wind,
seems to me simpler and better than
When the lift grew dark, and the wind grew loud;
and the stanza, which your reviewer “presumes” is original, but which is from the same source,
O laith laith were our gude Scots lords
pleases me much; but these are matters of taste. I have not added a line or a word to the ballad. Of the four versions of ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ Scott’s (whether or not the best poetically) is, I can have no doubt, judging both from external and internal evidence, the least trustworthy as authority. On the general charges of “laziness” and lack of information, I do not feel at all guilty. The easy or lazy method of editing would surely have been to tick off here and there a ballad in certain familiar books and hand them over to the printer for reproduction. On this plan, ‘The Ballad-Book’ would have been a week’s work, and escaped all censure. Naturally fond of ballads, I have not only read but studied every attainable version of every ballad that interested me; have made a pretty large collection of ballads in volumes, in broad-sheets and in flying slips; have searched in the British Museum for curiosities in that kind; have visited some of the chief ballad printing-offices of our day, and have also obtained original oral versions of several famous ballads. This, of my own bent, during a good many years; in addition whereto I have given care and study to the special task of editing the little volume in question. If I have failed, it is not from laziness. If I have spoken slightingly of certain dissertations, it is not because I have not studied them, but because I have, and have found them astonishingly incoherent and unsatisfactory. To any one who will give me a new available fact or suggestion in regard to the ballads contained in my book, I shall be really thankful. One sentence in the volume (along with a few misprints) I have corrected, relating to the word “applegray.” Motherwell was doubtless right in printing it thus, as it came from his old woman’s mouth, considering the principles on which his volume was composed; though at the same time, in a volume edited on other principles, it would be equally right to put the word “dapplegray” in its place. Our Old Ballads is an interesting little subject, and far from exhausted; as it seems to me, we are only beginning the study of it.
EDITOR OF ‘THE BALLAD-BOOK.’
Burd.—In ‘The Ballad-Book,’ edited by Mr. Allingham, and recently reviewed in your columns, the word “burd,” which appears in ‘Burd Ellen’ and ‘Helen of Kirkconnell,’ is, in a note to the latter, explained as being an old form of our “bird.” It should have been explained as being an old form of our “bride.” The same word appears in the description of the Flood, among those poems of the fourteenth century which have been edited by Mr. Richard Morris (Trübner & Co.), and are conjectured by him to have been written in Lancashire. The word is there spelt “burde.”
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New Poems. By Matthew Arnold. (Macmillan & Co.)
To a sensitive and sympathetic mind there is something very painful in the writings of Mr. Matthew Arnold. They are so clever, yet so dissatisfying,—so full of culture, yet so narrow,—so much invested with a reverence for master-souls and masterpieces, yet so deficient themselves in vitality. We see the calm, cold eye surveying mankind; and while we feel the clearness of its vision, we are repelled by its feeble and icy glitter. The voice sounds by turns sweet and harsh and insincere. Again and again we seem to behold the writer’s face—a face how piteous, not old, yet full of exhaustion! Who does not feel that the system of early forcing has done its work, and that Mr. Arnold is aged before his time—a grave and not happy critic, when he might have been a bright-eyed and hopeful singer? It is clear that we have lost a poet—not a burning and a shining luminary, but a sweet lesser light, which would have helped many a straggler through the darkness. Mr. Arnold would never have quite escaped the critical tendency, even had his training and later life been different; but poetic emotion might have coerced criticism as to have resulted in some really excellent melody. What have we got instead?—an essay-writer, faithful, sincere, yet repellent in his tone of satisfied authority; a contributor of letters concerning classes which the writer does not even understand, and occasional productions called, for distinction’s sake, “poems”—that is to say, pieces in which verse is chosen for its fine and elegant effects, not as the necessary embodiment of certain phases of thought. It is clear from many expressions that Mr. Arnold quite perceives and somewhat regrets the unfortunate exchange that he has made.
What makes thee struggle and rave?
And why is it, that still
Couldst thou, Pausanias, learn
Then thou wouldst look less mazed
For, from the first faint morn
Nor is the thirst to blame!
After this, we shall have Mr. Mill publishing a poetic version of his Logic, and Mr. Grote writing a rhymed translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. Here, on the other hand, Empedocles rises into poetry:—
And lie thou there,
I am weary of thee!
Take thy bough; set me free from my solitude!
Where shall thy votary fly then? back to men?—
In other passages there is greater straining after colour, as a device to hide the want of intensity; and the colour at times is achieved in passages showing really amazing artistic workmanship.
’Twas August, and the fierce sun overhead
I met a preacher there I knew, and said:
O human soul! as long as thou canst so
To cheer thee, and to right thee if thou roam,
Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
We live no more, when we have done our span.
So answerest thou; but why not rather say:
More strictly, then, the inward judge obey!
Enough of the sonnets! Turn we to the lyrical poems. What is this?—
The sea is calm tonight,
Sophocles long ago
The sea of faith
Mr. Arnold is really very far gone. He cannot stand on the beach at Dover, and hear the solemn music of the sea, but the fatal weakness seizes him, and he must begin twaddling about Sophocles and the “sea of faith.” Here is the penalty of his culture,—to see, to hear, to feel nothing without making it the vehicle of intellectual self-consciousness,—to carry the shadow of Oxford everywhere, and find no deeper pleasure in ocean than a suggestion of the ‘Essays and Reviews.’ If this be the poet’s mood, the sooner we get rid of all our poets the better. Out of the shadow of Oxford surely he would never see poetry in the following:—
“Man is blind because of sin;
Nay, look closer into man!
“No, I nothing can perceive;
Our quotations, however, must cease here. The book must be read as a whole before its anti-poetic tone can be fully appreciated. There can no longer be any doubt as to Mr. Arnold’s position. He hovers no more between poetry and criticism. The poet is dead; but there still remains to us an essayist of high calibre, who may be of use to his generation if he does not fight too fiercely against the tendencies of his time.
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Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry. By John T. Nettleship. (Macmillan & Co.)
THERE is little reason now for the plaint which reached us from all quarters some years ago, to the effect that ours was a generation barren of true poetic literature. The genius of Mr. Tennyson has met with all but universal recognition:—Mr. Browning has emerged from comparative obscurity into the bright blaze of at least six editions. The merit of these writers is undisputed, however differently it may be calculated. Then we have the younger brotherhood of singers,—Arnold, Morris, Buchanan, Swinburne,—each attempting, in his own peculiar way, to get undisputed ground of ’vantage. If we have had no “great poems,” we have had some great poetry,—much that will assuredly not perish with this generation. It is to be regretted, perhaps, that some of the finest recent work, like that of Mr. Morris, is rather reproductive than creative, or smacks little of the soil from which it grows. Of all contemporary poets, up to the present point, only Tennyson and Browning can be said to have actually introduced new lines of meaning and fresh philosophical suggestions into modern thought. The time of the others is not yet ripe; but it may be said of Mr. Morris that, with all his exquisite narrative power and mastery over Saxon idiom, the somewhat archaic and retrograde character of his sympathy must, more or less, exclude him from the hierarchy of leaders in thought or poetry.
“Possessing an intimate knowledge of nature, Tennyson puts his knowledge to a distinctive use. He does not make it the subject of his poetry. Everywhere, his poetry is about man. Yet everywhere, nature enters largely into his poetry. It enters, too, in a close and peculiar connexion with the human characters which form the subjects of the poetry. He does not draw the man, and then draw the nature around him; but he enters into the man, and sees nature through his eyes—nature, at the same time, so adapting herself to the mood of the man, that her spirit and his seem one. This relation I have expressed by the name sensuo-sympathetic. There is nothing like it in the poetry of Wordsworth, or of Shelley, or of Keats. In each of these, nature, after one manner or another, masters the man. In Keats, she subdues him; in Shelley, she transfigures him; in Wordsworth, she is his teacher. But in Tennyson, she is one with him. As she presents herself to his senses, she is in absolute sympathy with him. His pain and fear, his hopes and questionings, are hers. All through ‘In Memoriam’ one feels this.”
Wise-looking nonsense such as the above might be manufactured by the yard, and it is a fair specimen of Mr. Tainsh’s scholastic and profound manner. Hearken, in the next place, to Mr. Nettleship:—
“The piece called ‘Respectability,’ though very short, is very significant:—
Dear, had the world in its caprice
The idea expressed is that the independence of thought and action which forms the necessary groundwork for the making of a character, is incomplete unless it is itself founded upon the love of a woman for the man, of a man for the woman, begun and carried through in perfect indifference to, and if need be defiance of, the laws of society.
How much of priceless life were spent
Had their love been first recognized by the world, they, becoming by that recognition the world’s debtors, would have been compelled to conform to its rules, all the while wearying their strength by chafing under the restraint. But now that the two have dared to do without that recognition, instead of passing many years of fruitless striving against those fetters of conventionality which, through their obligation to society and their ignorance of its weak points, they could not have broken save at the expense of years of toil, which would have wasted their powers, the two have had all the priceless years of their youth to spend in developing their true instincts, their pure and unchecked sympathies.”
The above is not Mr. Nettleship’s best, but it shows his style of working. Now, will it be seriously maintained by anybody that the fine little poem called ‘Respectability’ is one whit the clearer or better for the comment—a comment quite sensible and natural, but entirely supererogatory in this instance? Indeed, poetry which needs to be so paraphrased would have to be placed in the fatal catalogue of total failures; for verse which does not explain itself clearly, and better represent itself than any paraphrase, however subtle, is more contemptible than the vilest prose. Browning is generally quite lucid to one competent to follow thought so subtle. He eludes common readers, not because he fails in speech, but because they fail in apprehension. Will such readers be a bit wiser for the following?—
“Take the cloak from his face, and at first
How he lies in his rights of a man!
Ha! what avails death to erase
I stand here now, he lies in his place;
After the fight, all the impulses which God gave to man to blind his tenderness when right must be done, ebb and still; and in the great mercy of that God, the memory of the tendernesses of a loving past, of the innocence and youth of their past companionship, comes surging up to choke and overwhelm the champion who a moment ago was so terrible. For God keeps Himself veiled for a purpose; He will not let it be known by clear manifestation what He thinks right, what He thinks wrong, lest thereby men lose all sense of responsibility, and become mere vegetables. Still He keeps a veil of doubt hanging over them, and will not let the clear light be seen, lest men be blinded and lose their sight, lest they die in the swooning splendour of a perfect day. Thus it is that what seemed right on the other side of a deed seems wrong on this: thus it is that before the mystic uncertain face of death the proudest courage quails. Shall we say that this man’s death was of no use? Had he lived, where would have been the yearning backward thoughts of the time when, indeed, he was innocent and pure? Where would have been that very tenderness of life, that rising of an inexpressible sympathy? But now, the lesson God has taught is this: you shall find out what is right and what is wrong for yourselves; you shall strive blindly for the right, and shall in striving to get it buffet many men, and suffer much yourself. But do not despair. Every unworthy buffet given to others shall remind you in its consequences that you are not infallible; that you might perhaps have looked deeper, and seen clearer. Thus you will have learned one lesson: thus you will gain in courage, in sympathy, in experience, in all that makes a man.”
Here, again, the explanation is tedious and offensive. There is more excuse for the comment on ‘Sordello,’ but the subject was hardly worth so much trouble. ‘Sordello’ is in every sense
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The Athenæum (26 December, 1868 - Issue 2148, pp. 875-876)
The Ring and the Book. By Robert Browning, M.A. Vol. I. (Smith, Elder & Co.)
‘The Ring and the Book,’ if completed as successfully as it is begun, will certainly be an extraordinary achievement—a poem of some 20,000 lines on a great human subject, darkened too often by subtleties and wilful obscurities, but filled with the flashes of Mr. Browning’s genius. We know nothing in the writer’s former poems which so completely represents his peculiarities as this instalment of ‘The Ring and the Book,’ which is so marked by picture and characterization, so rich in pleading and debating, so full of those verbal touches in which Browning has no equal, and of those verbal involutions in which he has fortunately no rival. Everything Browningish is found here,—the legal jauntiness, the knitted argumentation, the cunning prying into detail, the suppressed tenderness, the humanity,—the salt intellectual humour,—a humour not open and social, like that of Dickens, but with a similar tendency to caricature, differing from the Dickens tendency just in so far as the intellectual differs from the emotional, with the additional distinction of the secretive habit of all purely intellectual faculties. Secretiveness, indeed, must be at once admitted as a prominent quality of Mr. Browning’s power. Indeed, it is this quality which so fascinates the few and so repels the many. It tempts the possessor, magpie-like, to play a constant game at hiding away precious and glittering things in obscure and mysterious corners, and—still magpie-like—to search for bright and glittering things in all sorts of unpleasant and unlikely places. It involves the secretive chuckle and the secretive leer. Mr. Browning’s manner reminds us of the magpie’s manner, when, having secretly stolen a spoon or swallowed a jewel, the bird swaggers jauntily up and down, peering rakishly up, and chuckling to itself over its last successful feat of knowingness and diablerie. However, let us not mislead our readers. We are not speaking now of Mr. Browning’s style, but of his intellectual habit. The mere style of the volume before us is singularly free from the well-known faults—obscurity, involution, faulty construction; with certain exceptions, it flows on with perfect clearness and ease; and any occasional darkness is traceable less to faulty diction than to mental super-refining or reticent humour. The work as a whole is not obscure.
—— A Roman murder-case:
The bare facts of the case were very simple. Count Guido Franceschini, a poor nobleman fifty years of age, married Pompilia Comparini, a maiden of fourteen,—led a miserable life with her in his country-house at Arezzo,—until at last she fled to Rome in the company of Giuseppe Caponsacchi, a priest of noble birth; and on Christmas Eve, 1698, Guido, aided by four accomplices, tracked his wife to a Roman villa, the home of her putative parents, and there mercilessly slew all three—Pompilia and her aged father and mother. Taken almost red-handed, Guido pleaded justification,—that his wife had dishonoured him, and been abetted in so doing by her relatives. A lengthy law-case ensued—conducted, not in open court, but by private and written pleading. The prosecutor insisted on the purity of Pompilia, on the goodness of old Pietro and Violante, her parents,—the defending counsel retaliated,—proof rebutted proof,—Pompilia lived to give her deposition, Guido, put to the torture, lied and prevaricated,—the priest defended his own conduct—for a month; at the end of which time the old Pope, Innocent XII., gave final judgment in the matter, and ordered Guido’s execution. Such is the merest outline of the story, given in the introduction. But Mr. Browning has conceived the gigantic idea of showing, by a masterpiece, the essentially relative nature of all human truth,—the impossibility of perfect human judgment, even where the facts of the case are as simple as the above. After the prologue, comes the book called ‘Half Rome.’ A contemporary citizen, in his monologue, comprehends all the arguments of half Rome, the half which—believed thoroughly in Guido’s justification. Then another contemporary, a somewhat superior person, gives us the view of ‘The Other Half Rome,’—the half which believes in Pompilia’s martyrdom, and clamours for Guido’s doom. This ends the first volume. We are promised, in the future volumes, all the other points of view of the great case. First, in ‘Tertium Quid,’ the elaborated or super-critical view, the “finer sense o’ the city”; next, Guido’s own voice will be heard, pleading in a small chamber that adjoins the court; then Caponsacchi speaks, the priest,—a “courtly spiritual Cupid,”—in explanation of his own part in the affair. Afterwards break in the low dying tones of Pompilia, telling the story of her life; then the trial, with the legal pleadings and counter-pleadings; following that again, the Pope’s private judgment, the workings of his mind on the day of deliverance; after the Pope Guido’s second speech, a despairing cry, a new statement of the truth, wrung forth in the hope of mercy; and last of all, Mr. Browning’s own epilogue, or final summary of the case and its bearing on the relative nature of human truth. Here, surely, is matter for a poem,—perhaps too much matter. The chief difficulty will of course be,—to avoid wearying the intellect by the constant reiteration of the same circumstances,—so to preserve the dramatic disguise as to lend a totally distinct colouring to each circumstance at each time of narration. So far as the work has gone, it is perfectly successful, within the limitations of Mr. Browning’s genius. Though Mr. Browning’s prologue, and ‘Half Rome’s’ monologue, and ‘Other Half Rome’s’ monologue, are somewhat similar in style,—in the sharp logic, in the keen ratiocination, in the strangely involved diction,—yet they are radically different. The distinction is subtle rather than broad. Yet nothing could well be finer than the graduation between the sharp, personally anxious, suspicious manner of the first Roman speaker, who is a married man, and the bright, disinterested emotion, excited mainly by the personal beauty of Pompilia, of the second speaker, who is a bachelor. With a fussy preamble, the first seizes the buttonhole of a friend,—whose cousin, he knows, has designs upon his (the speaker’s) wife. How he rolls his eyes about, pushing through the crowd! How he revels in the spectacle of the corpses laid out in the church for public view, delighting in the long rows of wax candles, and the great taper at the head of each corpse! You recognize the fear of “horns” in every line of his talk. Vulgar, conceited, suspicious, voluble, he tells his tale, gloating over every detail that relates in any degree to his own fear of cuckoldage. He is every inch for Guido;—father and mother deserved their fate,—having lured the Count into a vile match, and afterwards plotted for his dishonour; and as for Pompilia,—what was she but the daughter of a common prostitute, palmed off on old Pietro as her own by a vile and aged wife? Exquisite is the gossip’s description of the Count’s domestic ménage,—his strife with father-in-law and mother-in-law,—his treatment of the childish bride. Some of the most delicious touches occur after the description of how the old couple, wild and wrathful, fly from their son-in-law’s house, and leave their miserable daughter behind. Take the following:—
Pompilia, left alone now, found herself;
All the rest is as good. The speaker, with the savage sense of his own danger, and a subtle enjoyment of the poison he fears, dilates on every circumstance of the seduction. He has no sympathy for the wife, still less for the priest,—how should he have? He does not disguise his contempt even for the husband,—up to the point of the murder, as it is finely put,—much too finely for the speaker.
Sir, what’s the good of law
The line in italics is a whole revelation,—both as regards the point of view and the peculiar character of the speaker.
Truth lies between: there’s anyhow a child
He goes on to narrate, from his own point of view, the whole train of circumstances which led to the murder. Guido was a devil,—Pompilia an angel,—Caponsacchi a human being, sent in the nick of time to snatch Pompilia from perdition. He rather dislikes the priest, having a popular distrust of priests, especially the full-fed, nobly-born ones. Blows of terrible invective relieve his elaborate account of Guido’s cruelties and Pompilia’s sorrows,—his emphatic argument that, from first to last, Pompilia was a simple child, surrounded by plotting parents, brutal men, an abominable world.
The Athenæum (20 March, 1869 - Issue 2160, pp. 399-400)
The Ring and the Book. By Robert Browning. Vols. IL, III. and IV. (Smith, Elder & Co.)
AT last, the opus magnum of our generation lies before the world—the “ring is rounded”; and we are left in doubt which to admire most, the supremely precious gold of the material or the wondrous beauty of the workmanship. The fascination of the work is still so strong upon us, our eyes are still so spell-bound by the immortal features of Pompilia (which shine through the troubled mists of the story with almost insufferable beauty), that we feel it difficult to write calmly and without exaggeration; yet we must record at once our conviction, not merely that ‘The Ring and the Book’ is beyond all parallel the supremest poetical achievement of our time, but that it is the most precious and profound spiritual treasure that England has produced since the days of Shakspeare. Its intellectual greatness is as nothing compared with its transcendent spiritual teaching. Day after day it grows into the soul of the reader, until all the outlines of thought are brightened and every mystery of the world becomes more and more softened into human emotion. Once and for ever must critics dismiss the old stale charge that Browning is a mere intellectual giant, difficult of comprehension, hard of assimilation. This great book is difficult of comprehension, is hard of assimilation; not because it is obscure—every fibre of the thought is clear as day; not because it is intellectual,—and it is intellectual in the highest sense,—but because the capacity to comprehend such a book must be spiritual; because, although a child’s brain might grasp the general features of the picture, only a purified nature could absorb and feel its profoundest meanings. The man who tosses it aside because it is “difficult” is simply adopting a subterfuge to hide his moral littleness, not his mental incapacity. It would be unsafe to predict anything concerning a production so many-sided; but we quite believe that its true public lies outside the literary circle, that men of inferior capacity will grow by the aid of it, and that feeble women, once fairly initiated into the mystery, will cling to it as a succour passing all succour save that which is purely religious. Is it not here that we find the supremacy of Shakspeare’s greatness? Shakspeare, so far as we have been able to observe, places the basis of his strange power on his appeal to the draff of humanity. He is the delight of men and women by no means brilliant, by no means subtle; while he holds with equal sway the sympathies of the most endowed. A small intellect may reach to the heart of Shakspearean power; not so a small nature. The key to the mystery is spiritual. Since Shakspeare we have had many poets—poets, we mean, offering a distinct addition to the fabric of human thought and language. We have had Milton, with his stately and crystal speech, his special disposition to spiritualize polemics, his profound and silent contemplation of heavenly processions. We have had Dryden, with his nervous filterings of English diction; and we have had the so-called Puritan singers, with their sweetly English fancies touched with formal charity, like wild flowers sprinkled with holy water. In latter days, we have been wealthy indeed. Wordsworth has consecrated Nature, given the hills a new silence, shown in simple lines the solemnity of deep woods and the sweetness of running brooks. Keats and Shelley caught up the solemn consecration, and uttered it with a human passion and an ecstatic emotion that were themselves a revelation. Byron has made his Epimethean and somewhat discordant moan. Numberless minor men, moreover, have brightened old outlines of thought and made clear what before was dim with the mystery of the original prophet. In our own time, Carlyle—a poet in his savage way—has driven some new and splendid truths (and as many errors) into the heart of the people. But it is doubtful, very doubtful, if any of the writers we have named—still less any of the writers we have not named—stands on so distinct and perfect a ground of vantage as to be altogether safe as a human guide and helper. The student of Wordsworth, for example, is in danger of being hopelessly narrowed and dwarfed, unless he turns elsewhere for qualities quite un-Wordsworthian; and the same is true of the students of Milton and of Shelley. Of Shakspeare alone (but perhaps, to a certain extent, of Burns) would it be safe to say, “Communion with his soul is ample in itself; his thought must freshen, can never cramp, is ever many-sided and full of the free air of the world.” This, then, is supremely significant, that Shakspeare—unlike the Greek dramatists, unlike the Biblical poets, unlike all English singers save Chaucer only—had no special teaching whatever. He was too human for special teaching. He touched all the chords of human life; and life, so far from containing any universal lesson, is only a special teaching for each individual—a sibylline riddle, by which each man may educate himself after his own fashion.
Little Pompilia, with the patient brow
to the moment when the good old Pope, revolving the whole history in his mind, calls her tenderly
My rose, I gather for the gaze of God!
—from the first to the last, Pompilia haunts the poem with a look of ever-deepening light. Her wretched birth, her miserable life, her cruel murder, gather around her like clouds, only to disperse vapour-like, and reveal again the heavenly whiteness. There is not the slightest attempt to picture her as saintly; she is a poor child, whose saintliness comes of her suffering. So subtle is the spell she has upon us, that we quite forget the horrible pain of her story. Instead of suffering, we are full of exquisite pleasure—boundless in its amount, ineffable in its quality. When, on her sorry death-bed, she is prattling about her child, we weep indeed; not for sorrow—how should sorrow demand such tears?—but for “the pity of it, the pity of it, Iago!”—
Oh how good God is that my babe was born,
How happy those are who know how to write!
Extracts can do little for Pompilia: as well chip a hand or foot off a Greek statue. Very noticeable, in her monologue, is the way she touches on the most delicate subjects, fearlessly laying bare the strangest secrecies of matrimonial life, and with so perfect an unconsciousness, so delicate a purity, that these passages are among the sweetest in the poem. But we must leave her to her immortality. She is perfect every way; not a tint of the flesh, not a tone of the soul, escapes us as we read and see.
O lover of my life, O soldier-saint!
And our hearts are with him too. He lives before us, with that strong face of his, noticeable for the proud upper lip and brilliant eyes, softened into grave melancholy and listening awe. What a man had he been, shining at ladies’ feasts, and composing sonnets and “pieces for music,” all in the pale of the Church! In him, as we see him, the animal is somewhat strong, and, prisoned in, pricks the intellect with gall. Little recks he of Madonna until that night at the theatre,
When I saw enter, stand, and seat herself,
Slowly and strangely the sad face grows upon his heart, until that moment when it turns to him appealingly for succour, and when, fearless of any criticism save that of God, he devotes his soul to its service.
There at the window stood,
The whole monologue of Caponsacchi is a piece of supreme poetry, steeped in lyrical light. The writer’s emotion quite overpowers him, and here, as elsewhere, he must sing. In all literature, perhaps, there is nothing finer than the priest’s description of his journey towards Rome with Pompilia, that night she flies from the horror of Guido’s house. Every incident lives before us: the first part of the journey, when Pompilia sits spell-bound, and the priest’s eyes are fascinated upon her,—
At times she drew a soft sigh—music seemed
the breaking dawn,—her first words,—then her sudden query—
“Have you a mother?” “She died, I was born.”
—every look, thought, is conjured up out of the great heart of the lover, until that dark moment when the cat-eyed Guido overtakes them. What we miss in the psychology Pompilia herself supplies. It is saying little to say that we have read nothing finer. We know nothing whatever of like quality.
thus investing her at the last moment with almost God-like power and pity, in spite of the hatred which overcomes him,—hatred similar in kind, but different in degree, to that which Iscariot may be supposed to have felt for the Master. Nor let us forget to record that the poet, in his bright beneficence, has the lyric note even for Guido. We are made to feel that the “damnable blot” on his soul is only temporary, that the sharp axe will be a rod of mercy, and that the poor, petulant, vicious little Count will brighten betimes, and be saved through the purification of the very passions which have doomed him on earth. No writer that we know, except Shakspeare, could, without clumsy art and sentimental psychology, have made us feel so subtly the divine light issuing at last out of the selfish and utterly ignoble nature of Guido Franceschini.
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Graffiti d’Italia. By W. W. Story. (Blackwood & Sons.)
IN the noble epilogue to ‘Men and Women,’ addressed to his wife, Mr. Browning touches with his own peculiar subtlety and force on a subject which, has interested most thinkers—hinting how, in certain supreme moments, a man’s own natural speech becomes inadequate, and the soul demands special expression in some unusual and perhaps less perfect form. Raphael, he says, once wrote a century of sonnets, Dante once essayed to paint a picture—the desire in each case being to glorify a beautiful mistress; and as for those lesser beings who can only employ one art, all they can do is to sigh and to “stand on their attainment.” Doubtless, most great artists, triumphant in some one direction, have longed to reach out their hands further. The poet has yearned to compose music, the painter has wished to carve in marble, not for mere fame’s sake, but because the arts are actually so intimate that one and the same soul pants melodiously through them all, and is never altogether peaceful when limited to poem, picture or sonata. But for evermore, the awful Technicalities, inexorable as the Fates, intervene with warning forefinger. Each art has her technical δαιμων, only to be conciliated by long service and constant sacrifice. Perhaps the δαιμων of verse is the easiest of all to be appeased; but her acquiescence is often very fickle, and too often leads the rash intruder to a pitiful doom. Mindful of all this, it was with no hopeful anticipations that we took up 'Graffiti d’Italia.’ No one who has seen the ‘Cleopatra’ or the ‘Sibyl' can doubt that Mr. Story’s natural speech is in marble—that he is a great sculptor. The special gift is there, the precise limitation, the power to catch thought and image at the moment when they naturally crystallize into mental form. This power is quite distinct from the painter’s sensitiveness to colour and the musician’s command over emotional sounds; but, not content with its triumphant manifestation, Mr. Story has been quietly and studiously working at a little set of cabinet sketches in verse, the technical δαιμων of which he has certainly conquered completely. Not altogether forgetful of his peculiar power, which has nothing to do with colour, he executes his little poems, as it were, in neutral tint; trusting for his effects to a certain fine freedom of handling and a striking force in the shades. It would be gross flattery to say that he is a master of poetry in the same sense that he is a master of sculpture. Far from that, he must still “stand on his attainment”; but he actually exhibits in verse a power and melodiousness much above the average of minor poets, and a far-reaching thought which a great artist, either painter or sculptor, is certainly not called upon to possess. What he is as mere artist we gather from his stone achievements. It is the mission of this volume to exhibit, in a less perfect and more intellectual way, what tastes, studies and sympathies he possesses merely as a reflective human being. We suppose that Raphael’s sonnets were very inferior as poems, although invaluable as a clue to the mighty master's character in a moment of supreme passion.
Fling down that lute—I hate it!
Altogether, this poem, this “translation” from one art into another, is disappointing, in spite of its sinewy force. There are much finer things in the book. The art-critical poems are very limpid and interesting; the stories clever, and full of human knowledge. ‘Zia Nica’ is something more—fresh, concentrated and profound. The poems, as a whole, have certain statuesque qualities which do not improve them as verse—a tendency to exaggerate single moods, an absence of vivid emotion, a certain coldness of diction. As a sculptor's sketches in a sort of poetic neutral tint, they are of great value, quite apart from their intrinsic value as poems.
Oh, what a sky! in yonder hazy blue
Then, with an almost morbid sensitiveness, he broods over every detail of the little image, until the sense of the reader becomes painfully overstrained in striving to follow. Not a tint is missed, not a loose wreath of film escapes; so the picture is overloaded; until, as if overburdened with the intensity of sight, the writer seeks relief in exclamation—adjective on adjective melodiously piled!—
How prodigal of lovely wayward change
Light of a stilly summer afternoon,
But suddenly, the vision changes:—
Now in the lower reflected gulf of blue
We have italicized two wonderful bits, but the whole passage should be italicized. The slenderness of subject conceded, writing more exquisite it would not be easy to find in contemporary poetry. For a companion picture, nearly as delicious, and perhaps more compressed, we should have to go back to Coleridge.
Thou fated slayer. slay not like a beast,
‘Pan’ contains more original passages than this; but it is a poem to be read from beginning to end, not cut up into extracts. As mere blank verse it is very striking,—resonant, grandiose, and full of motion,—merits somewhat uncommon in Mr. Noel’s poems. Still more perfect than ‘Pan’ is ‘Ganymede,’ an idyl thoroughly and tremendously Greek, a bit of work which reads like Theocritus in the original; too Greek, too worthy of Theocritus, some will say, but artistically a finished gem. It remains in the eye like a small Turner,—the youth in the green dale, the “imperial eagle amorous” miraculously descending, a golden haze of dreamy sunlight irradiating all into a picture not to be forgotten.
Now the soft warm gleam uncertain
Down below the shadow resteth,
From our dusk her hands are lifting,
These love-tears may cloud my vision;
So bathe her feet our earth’s chill sorrow,
Her, life’s darkling pilgrim haileth;
Spirit music, souls of flowers,
In moods like these,—in a softly-tinted sentiment closely akin to his delicately sensuous feeling for natural colour,—Mr. Noel has no rival. He sings with fairy-like and subtle power.
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