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1. Review of The Ballad-Book: a Selection of the Choicest British Ballads by William Allingham.

2. Review of New Poems by Matthew Arnold

3. Review of Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry by John T. Nettleship and A Study of the Works of Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet-Laureate by Edward Campbell Tainsh

4. Review of The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning

5. Review of Graffiti d’Italia by W. W. Story and Beatrice, and other Poems by the Hon. Roden Noel


From The Athenæum - 21 January, 1865 - No. 1943, pp. 83-84.


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
demand that such doctoring, if done at all, should be done well; at the same time expressing our opinion that Mr. Allingham, if he had had as complete a knowledge of his subject as his more learned predecessors, would have succeeded better.
     We have commended Mr. Allingham for the good taste evinced in his selections; but there are one or two cases in which, we think, he is in error. Why, for instance, print the abominable thing called ‘Hugh of Lincoln,’ describing the atrocious cruelty of a Jewish maiden to a Christian child? The subject is nearly the same as the story put into the mouth of Chaucer’s Prioress, whose sombre bigotry somewhat subdues the glaring ugliness of the details. Sickening, and calculated to produce bad feeling, ‘Hugh of Lincoln’ should have been suppressed; and if something dreadful was wanted instead, we might have had ‘Sir Roland,’ that marvellous ballad printed in Motherwell’s collection, and suggested as the original whence Shakspeare gave the line,—

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:


A fair young May went up the street,
     Some white fish for to buy;
And a bonnie clerk’s fa’en in love wi’ her,
     And he’s followed her by and by—by;
     And he’s followed her by and by.

“O where live ye, my bonnie lass,
     I pray thee tell to me;
For gin the nicht were ever sae mlrk,
     I wad come and visit thee—”

“O my father he aye locks the door,
     My mither keeps the key;
And gin ye were ever sic a wily wight,
     Ye canna win in to me—”

But the clerk he had ae true brother,
     And a wily wight was he;
And he has made a lang ladder,
     Was thirty steps and three—

He has made a cleek but and a creel—
     A creel but and a pin;
And he’s away to the chimley-top,
     And he’s letten the bonnie clerk in—

The auld wife, being not asleep,
     Heard something that was said;
“I’ll lay my life,” quo’ the silly auld wife,
     “There’s a man i’ our dochter’s bed—”

The old man he gat owre the bed,
     To see if the thing was true;
But she’s ta’en the bonnie clerk in her arms,
     And cover’d him owre wi’ blue—

“O where are ye gaun now, father,” she says,
     “And where are ye gaun sae late?
Ye’ve disturb’d me in my evening prayers,
     And O but they were sweet—”

“O ill betide ye, silly auld wife,
     And an ill death may ye die:
She has the mucklc buik in her arms,
     And she’s prayin’ for you and me—”

The auld wife she got owre the bed,
     To see if the thing was true;
But what the wrack took the auld wife’s fit?
     For into the creel she flew—

The man that was at the chimley-top,
     Finding the creel was fu’,
He wrappit the rape round his left shouther,
     And fast to him he drew—

“O help, O help, O hinny, now help;
     O help, O hinny, now;
For him that ye aye wished me to,
     He’s carryin’ me off just now—”

“O if the foul thief’s gotten ye,
     I wish he may keep his hand;
For a’ the lee lang winter nicht
     Ye’ll never lie in your bed—”

He’s towed her up, he’s towed her down,
     He’s gi’en her a richt down fa’,
Till every rib i’ the auld wife’s side
     Play‘d nick-nack on the wa’—

O the blue, the bonnie, bonnie blue;
     And I wish the blue may do weel:
And every auld wife that’s sae jealous o’ her dochter,
     May she get a good keach i’ the creel.

     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.
     Mr. Allingham describes the manner in which his labours have been conducted. “The set of ballads in our own volume,” he writes, “is, we believe, much nearer to what the sung and recited ballads really were, at their best, than those which we have all accepted as the Old Ballads in the collections of Percy, Jamieson, Scott, and other editors. Many modern interpolations, confessed or obvious, are now left out, greatly, if we mistake not, to the improvement of the ballads. Where re-arrangement, or selection from different copies (freely practised by preceding editors), appeared desirable, it has been done with diligent examination of a large mass of materials, and with the most punctilious caution; and where the present editor found occasion, which was rarely, to supply some link, repair some dropt stitch, he has dealt merely with things neutral, carefully avoiding to foist in any touches of pseudo-antique, whether in incident, language or costume. A very few words are altered for manners’ sake. Substantially he has added nothing to the ballads.” This has a promising and honest sound. Let us turn to the ballads themselves, and select one or two specimens for examination.
     Our first sample shall be ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ undoubtedly the finest of the old ballads, and perhaps the most ancient. The version given here is mainly that found in Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy’; but Mr. Allingham follows Buchan in describing the object of the voyage as the conveyance of the king’s daughter to Norway, there to be crowned queen. Up to the middle of the poem our editor sins but little beyond a few verbal alterations—such as printing “hoisted” instead of “hoysed,” and capriciously suppressing the capital stanza—

The first word that Sir Patrick read,
     Sae loud loud laughed he;
The next word that Sir Patrick read,
     The tear blinded his e’e—

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
from Norway:—

Scott’s Version.

They hadna sail’d a league, a league,
     A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grew the sea.

The ankers brak, and the topmasts lap,
     It was sic a deadly storm;
And the waves cam’ o’er the broken ship,
     Till a’ her sides were torn.

“O where will I get a gude sailor,
     To take my helm in hand,
Till I get up to the tall top-mast,
     To see if I can spy land?”

“O here am I, a sailor gude,
     To take the helm in hand,
Till you go up to the tall top-mast;
     But I fear you’ll ne’er spy land.”

He hadna gane a step, a step,
     A step but barely ane,
When a boult flew out of our goodly ship,
     And the salt sea it came in.

“Gae, fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
     Another o’ the twine,
And wap them into on ship’s side,
     And let nae the sea come in.”

They fetch’d a web o’ the silken claith,
     Another o’ the twine,
And they wapp’d them round that gude ship’s side,
     But still the sea came in.

O laith, laith, were our gude Scots lords
     To weet their cork-heel’d shoon!
But lang or a’ the play was play’d,
     They wat their hats aboon.

And mony was the feather bed
     That floated on the faem;
And mony was the gude lord’s son,
     That never mair came hame.

The ladyes wrang their fingers white,
     The maidens tore their hair,
A’ for the sake of their true loves—
     For them they’ll see nae mair.

O lang, lang may the ladyes sit,
     Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
     Come sailing to the strand!

And lang, lang, may the maidens sit,
     With their goud kaims in their hair,
A’ waiting for their ain dear loves!
     For them they’ll see nae mair.

Half owre, half owre to Aberdour,
     ’Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
     Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet!

Allingham’s Version.

They hadna sail’d upon the sea
     A day but barely three,
Till loud and boisterous grew the wind,
     And gurly grew the sea.

“O where will I get a gude sailor
     To tak’ my helm in hand,
Till I gae up to the tall topmast
     To see if I can spy land?”

“O here am I, a sailor gude,
     To tak’ the helm in hand,
Till you gae up to the tall topmast,—
     But I fear you’ll ne’er spy land.”

He hadna gane a step, a step,
     A step but barely ane,
When a bolt flew out o’ our goodly ship,
     And the salt sea it came in.

“Gae fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
     Anither o’ the twine,
And wap them into our ship’s side,
     And letna the sea come in.”

They fetched a web o’ the silken claith,
     Anither o’ the twine,
And they wapped them into that gude ship’s side,
     But still the sea cam’ in.

O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
     To weet their milk-white hands;
But lang ere a’ the play was owre
     They wat their gouden bands.

O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
     To weet their cork-heel’d shoon;
But lang ere a’ the play was play’d
     They wat their hats aboon.

O lang, lang may the ladies sit
     Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
     Come sailing to the land!

And lang, lang may the maidens sit
     Wi’ their goud kaims in their hair,
Awaiting for their ain dear loves,
     For them they’ll see nae mair.

Half ower, half ower to Aberdour,
     It’s fifty fathoms deep;
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
     Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet.

     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
     That floated on the faem!—

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 !
     Fy! gar a’ our pipers play!
Fy! gar trumpets gang thro’ the toun,
     That Lord Beichan is married twice in a day!

     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!
     I pray thee speak to me—
Give me my faith and troth, Marg’ret,
     As I gave it to thee!—

and regales us instead with the following:—

O Marjorie sweet! O Marjorie dear!
     For faith and charitie,
Will ye gie me back my faith and troth,
     That I gave once to thee?—

the last three lines of which are from Motherwell, and the first by Allingham.
     But to prolong these instances is useless. We do not exaggerate in the slightest degree when we say that it is impossible to read many of Mr. Allingham’s versions without either missing something that we esteem or finding something that we deem worthless. ‘Tamlane’ is spoiled by the omission of certain verses, which, though somewhat indelicate, are absolutely essential to the unity of the story; it would have been better either to have let the ballad alone or to have softened and printed the suppressed stanzas. In this, as in other cases, we do not for a moment question the difficulty of the task which Mr. Allingham has had to perform; our only regret is that he has performed it unsuccessfully. “On the general effect of his labours,” he writes, “he would be content to leave the verdict either to half-a-dozen true knowers of English poetry (if so many could be found at one time) or else to any group of ordinary listeners, men, women and children, who care to listen to the like—such a group as ballads were made to please. Let, for example, ‘Earl Mar’s Daughter’ be read as here given, or ‘Young Redin,’ or ‘The Jolly Goshawk,’ or ‘Etric,’ or ‘Binnorie,’ or ‘Little Musgrave,’ or ‘Willie’s Lady,’ and also those versions of the same which are printed in any other collection.” This challenge is fair. In the cases cited we confess that Mr. Allingham has some reason for self-congratulation. The ballads mentioned all demanded improvement of some sort, being more or less diffuse or disconnected; yet a careful perusal of the new version will lead to the detection of numerous alterations—trifling, no doubt, but significant—where alteration was quite superfluous.
     After all, perhaps, this editing of old and familiar ballads is a thankless task; and unsatisfactorily as Mr. Allingham seems to have done his work, we can point to no living person who could have done it better.



William Allingham replied to Buchanan’s review in the following issue.

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
which differs very much from all the rest; and there are also numerous minor variations in recited copies (see Motherwell’s ‘Minstrelsy,’ xliv). Percy’s Ballad (1755) is “given from two MS. copies transmitted from Scotland”; Scott’s (1802) is “taken from two MS. copies collated with several verses recited by the editor’s friend, Robert Hamilton, Esq.”; Jamieson’s (1806) is that one of the two above-mentioned MSS. which “seemed the most perfect” to Scott himself (note in ‘Border Minstrelsy’), and now printed verbatim. It differs in every verse from Scott’s previously published version. The stanza, “The first word that Sir Patrick read,” &c. (one of those stanzas, by the way, which are common property with reciters, and used in many ballads, sometimes with but little fitness), is not found in Jamieson’s version. Buchan’s version (1828), the longest and fullest, was taken down from the recitation of “a wandering minstrel, blind from his infancy, [who] has been travelling in the north as a mendicant for these last fifty years. He learned it in his youth from a very old person; and the words are exactly as recited, free from those emendations which have ruined so many of our best Scottish ballads.” The line in Buchan,

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
     To weet their milk-white hands;
But lang ere a’ the play was ower
     They wat their gouden bands,

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.”

                                                                                                                           J. HOSKYNS-ABRAHALL.
     Combe, Oxon, Feb. 13, 1865.


Buchanan mentions Allingham’s reply to his review in a letter to William Hepworth Dixon of 20th February, 1865.]

Back to Essays



From The Athenæum - 31 August, 1867 - pp. 265-266)


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.
     The many signs thrown out recently have at last culminated in the book of poems before us. Those who admire and those who do not admire Mr. Arnold will agree at last. The admirable volume of essays and the flippant Arminius papers are not more critical than these verses. If we set aside the opening poem, which was first printed and suppressed many years ago, and belongs to the period of the first poems, when poetic tendencies were predominating, we may safely aver that the volume before us does not contain two consecutive lines of absolute poetry—that is to say, thought associated and intensified by deep emotion, finding its adequate expression in perfect music. There is thought of a kind, but no emotion, and little or no music. We find, too, what astonishes us in Mr. Arnold, frequent reproductions of the moods of other moderns—echoes, for example, and not exquisite echoes, of Arthur Clough, and other men who hover on the brink of faith, and take the public into their confidence as to their reasons for not plunging into the stream. The spirit of De Musset’s ‘Espoir de Dieu’ is again and again reproduced here; but it has been put in a crucible, and appears in the shape of verses without accent.
     The first poem in the volume, ‘Empedocles on Etna,’ was, as we have hinted above, suppressed some years ago, and is now reproduced at the request of Mr. Robert Browning. It contains many true poetic flashes, but the mood is one which can scarcely be called poetical in a high sense,—fantastic phases of modern speculation are put into the mouth of the old philosopher, and there is a spasmodic discontent with simple poetic effects, and a straining after too literal a phraseology. The reader is coldly told what he should be made to feel. What is the spirit of the following verses, if not the spirit of the prose essay? Is there any intensity such as comes from true poetic meditation? Is there any music such as grows from even meditative emotion?—

         What makes thee struggle and rave?
         Why are men ill at ease?—
         'Tis that the lot they have
         Fails their own will to please;
For man would make no murmuring, were his will obey’d.

         And why is it, that still
         Man with his lot thus fights?—
         'Tis that he makes this will
         The measure of his rights,
And believes Nature outraged if his will’s gainsaid.

         Couldst thou, Pausanias, learn
         How deep a fault is this!
         Couldst thou but once discern
         Thou hast no right to bliss,
No title from the Gods to welfare and repose;

         Then thou wouldst look less mazed
         Whene’er of bliss debarr’d,
         Nor think the Gods were crazed
         When thy own lot went hard.
But we are all the same—the fools of our own woes!

         For, from the first faint morn
         Of life, the thirst for bliss
         Deep in man’s heart is born;
         And, sceptic as he is,
He fails not to judge clear if this be quench’d or no.

         Nor is the thirst to blame!
         Man errs not that he deems
         His welfare his true aim,
         He errs because he dreams
The world does but exist that welfare to bestow.

     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,
My laurel bough!
Scornful Apollo’s ensign, lie thou there!
Though thou hast been my shade in the world’s heat—
Though I have loved thee, lived in honouring thee—
Yet lie thou there,
My laurel bough!

I am weary of thee!
I am weary of the solitude
Where he who bears thee must abide!
Of the rocks of Parnassus,
Of the gorge of Delphi,
Of the moonlit peaks, and the caves.
Thou guardest them, Apollo!
Over the grave of the slain Pytho,
Though young, intolerably severe;
Thou keepest aloof the profane,
But the solitude oppresses thy votary!
The jars of men reach him not in thy valley—
But can life reach him?
Thou fencest him from the multitude—
Who will fence him from himself?
He hears nothing but the cry of the torrents,
And the beating of his own heart.
The air is thin, the veins swell—
The temples tighten and throb there—
Air! air!

Take thy bough; set me free from my solitude!
I have been enough alone!

Where shall thy votary fly then? back to men?—
But they will gladly welcome him once more,
And help him to unbend his too tense thought,
And rid him of the presence of himself,
And keep their friendly chatter at his ear,
And haunt him, till the absence from himself,
That other torment, grow unbearable;
And he will fly to solitude again,
And he will find its air too keen for him,
And so change back; and many thousand times
Be miserably bandied to and fro
Like a sea wave, betwixt the world and thee,
Thou young, implacable God! and only death
Shall cut his oscillations short, and so
Bring him to poise. There is no other way.

     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.
     ‘Thyrsis,’ an intensely cold and reproductive poem, “after” Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ follows ‘Empedocles.’ It is lengthy, but need not detain us. Then come a number of Sonnets; and such sonnets—full of criticism, and M. Sainte-Beuve, and bits of paragraphs from books. What Oxford graduate, however infatuated, will come forward and affirm that these two things are poems?—


’Twas August, and the fierce sun overhead
Smote on the squalid streets of Bethnal Green,
And the pale weaver, through his windows seen
In Spitalfields, look’d thrice dispirited;

I met a preacher there I knew, and said:
“Ill and o’erwork’d, how fare you in this scene?”
“Bravely!” said he; “for I of late have been
Much cheer’d with thoughts of Christ, the living bread.”

O human soul! as long as thou canst so
Set up a mark of everlasting light,
Above the howling senses’ ebb and flow,

To cheer thee, and to right thee if thou roam,
Not with lost toil thou labourest through the night!
Thou mak’st the heaven thou hop’st indeed thy home.



Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
How angrily thou spurn’st all simpler fare!
Christ, some one says, was human as we are;
No judge eyes us from heaven, our sin to scan;

We live no more, when we have done our span.
“Well, then, for Christ,” thou answerest, “who can care?
From sin, which heaven records not, why forbear?
Live we like brutes our life without a plan!”

So answerest thou; but why not rather say:
“Hath man no second life?—Pitch this one high!
Sits there no judge in heaven, our sin to see?—

More strictly, then, the inward judge obey!
Was Christ a man like us?—Ah! let us try
If we then, too, can be such men as he!”

     Enough of the sonnets! Turn we to the lyrical poems. What is this?—


     The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the Straits;—on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the ebb meets the moon-blanch’d sand,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves suck back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

     Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

     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;
Revelation makes him sure.
Without that, who looks within,
Looks in vain, for all’s obscure.”

Nay, look closer into man!
Tell me, can you find indeed
Nothing sure, no moral plan
Clear prescribed, without your creed?

“No, I nothing can perceive;
Without that, all’s dark for men.
That, or nothing, I believe.”—
For God’s sake, believe it then!

     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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From The Athenæum - 27 June, 1868 - No. 2122, pp. 891-892.


Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry. By John T. Nettleship. (Macmillan & Co.)
A Study of the Works of Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet-Laureate. By Edward Campbell Tainsh. (Chapman & Hall.)

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.
     Much has been said, and said invidiously, concerning the respective qualities of the two poets whose works furnish the basis of the comments by Messrs. Tainsh and Nettleship. But in this, as in most other cases, comparisons are of little avail. Browning has nothing in common with the Laureate beyond the mere habit of writing in verse. Of all living poets, he is the least explicit and most grotesque; but of all living poets, he shows certainly the profoundest passion for humanity. Great scholastic seclusion and long banishment from his native country have, to some extent, misdirected his choice of themes and embarrassed his style; but his English poetry is as perfectly English as any we possess,—witness, for example, the delicious little bits of landscape in the lyrics. His greatness is manifest in many ways,—in his subtle thought, in his generous and mighty human sympathy, in his theologic enthusiasm, in his exquisite insight into simple and complex passion. His originality is unprecedented; though it is partly explained by the fact that he has drunk at foreign, not at English fountains. He says something we never heard before, and he says it in a way no man ever adopted before. His thought may be involved and slightly Jesuitical; but it is perfect thought of its kind. His speech may be barbarous at times; but his is the barbarism of veritable power.
     The genius of the Laureate is quite different. It is almost as indisputable, if less original. The result of several generations of English poets, Tennyson has thrown upon the surface of contemporary life several lines of thought which are very much his own, but which are the direct product, partly of Wordsworth’s meditation, partly of Keats’ vivid emotion. The Tennysonian group of idyls, for example, are directly inspired from Wordsworth, and even Southey,—the common daisy transformed, by cultivation, into the garden “bachelor’s button.” The Tennysonian blank verse would have been impossible without the blank verse of Keats and Shelley. It may be said, further, that Tennyson has nowhere evinced that high dramatic faculty which sympathizes with the broad movements of national life as breaking in individuals. His ‘Northern Farmer’ is solitary. Everywhere in this consummate artist we miss what we may call (for want of better words) the large-mindedness and humanity of Browning. It may be that Tennyson is highly sympathetic; but he shows no noble heat in this direction. His sweetest mood is academic and lyrical; his largest faculty radiates self-illumination. It is by no means to be wondered at that he is more popular than his rival with average men and women. The middle-class world particularly finds its culture and temper admirably represented in Tennyson’s best poems.
     The different qualities of the two writers are well represented in their two present commentators. Mr. Tainsh is a gentleman of average intelligence,—well educated, familiar with literary forms. Mr. Nettleship is a gentleman of far more than average intelligence; not critical, but particularly acute in his sympathies. We cannot honestly say that we should have missed much if neither had put pen to paper. Mr. Tainsh tells nothing new, and a few things that are not true; while Mr. Nettleship, with all his faculty, is rather wearisome,—a cicerone who will be of no service to competent students of Browning, knowing all about the matter for themselves, and who will never persuade outsiders to trouble their heads with his mysteries. Here is an example of criticism which is no criticism,—writing showing the extraordinary fascination which the French writers have had for small authors like the present:—

     “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
     Deigned to proclaim, “I know you both,
     Have recognized your plighted troth,
Am sponsor for you: live in peace!”
How many precious months and years
     Of youth had passed, that speed so fast,
     Before we found it out at last—
The world, and what it fears?

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
     With men that every virtue decks,
     And women models of their sex—
Society’s true ornament—
Ere we dared wander, nights like this,
     Thro’ wind and rain, and watch the Seine,
     And feel the Boulevart break again
To warmth and light and bliss?

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
Let the corpse do its worst.

How he lies in his rights of a man!
Death has done all death can.
And absorbed in the new life he leads,
     He recks not, he heeds
Nor his wrong nor my vengeance—both strike
     On his senses alike,
And are lost in the solemn and strange
     Surprise of the change.

Ha! what avails death to erase
     His offence, my disgrace?
I would we were boys as of old
     In the field, by the fold;
His outrage, God’s patience, man’s scorn
     Were so easily borne.

I stand here now, he lies in his place;
     Cover the face.

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
a failure, not to be redeemed by its beautiful purpose.
     It is to be noticed that both these books of comment are explanatory, not critical. The story of Tennyson is a mixed business, but Mr. Nettleship paraphrases invariably. Mr. Tainsh is not very brilliant either in his explanations or his criticisms, and we hope he will not publish any more “studies.” But Mr. Nettleship has brains, and we hope to hear of him again. If, instead of translating the meanings of his beloved poet, he would produce a thoroughly thought-out critical study on the same subject, we are sure that the result would be very welcome.

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From The Athenæum - 26 December, 1868 and 20 March, 1869.


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.
     We are not called upon—it is scarcely our duty—to determine in what degree the inspiration and workmanship of ‘The Ring and the Book’ are poetic as distinguished from intellectual: far less to guess what place the work promises to hold in relation to the poetry of our time. We scarcely dare hope that it will ever be esteemed a great poem in the sense that ‘Paradise Lost’ is a great poem, or even in the sense that the ‘Cenci’ is a great tragedy. The subject is tragic, but the treatment is not dramatic: the “monologue,” even when perfectly done, can never rival the “scene”; and Mr. Browning’s monologues are not perfectly done, having so far, in spite of the subtle distinction in the writer’s mind, a very marked similarity in the manner of thought, even where the thought itself is most distinct. Having said so much, we may fairly pause. The rest must be only wonder and notes of admiration. In exchange for the drama, we get the monologue,—in exchange for a Shakspearean exhibition, we get Mr. Browning masquing under so many disguises, never quite hiding his identity, and generally most delicious, indeed, when the disguise is most transparent. The drama is glorious, we all know, but we want this thing as well;—we must have Browning as well as Shakspeare. Whatever else may be said of Mr. Browning and his work, by way of minor criticism, it will be admitted on all hands that nowhere in any literature can be found a man and a work more fascinating in their way. As for the man,—he was crowned long ago, and we are not of those who grumble because one king has a better seat than another—an easier cushion, a finer light—in the great Temple. A king is a king, and each will choose his place.
     The volume before us, the first of four parts, contains three books, each a monologue, spoken by a different person. The first speaker is Mr. Browning himself, who describes how on a certain memorable day in the month of June, he fished out at an old stall in Florence,—from amidst rough odds and ends, mirror-sconces, chalk drawings, studies from rude samples of precious stones, &c., a certain square old yellow book, entitled, ‘Romana Homicidiorum,’ or, as he translates it—

—— A Roman murder-case:
Position of the entire criminal cause
Of Guido Franceschini, nobleman,
With certain Four the cutthroats in his pay,
Tried, all five, and found guilty and put to death
By heading or hanging as befitted ranks,
At Rome on February Twenty Two,
Since our salvation Sixteen Ninety Eight:
Wherein it is disputed if, and when,
Husbands may kill adulterous wives, yet ’scape
The customary forfeit.

     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;
Found herself young too, sprightly, fair enough,
Matched with a husband old beyond his age
(Though that was something like four times her own)
Because of cares past, present and to come:
Found too the house dull and its inmates dead,
So, looked outside for light and life.
                                                             And lo
There in a trice did turn up life and light,
The man with the aureole, sympathy made flesh,
The all-consoling Caponsacchi, Sir!
A priest—what else should the consoler be?
With goodly shoulderblade and proper leg,
A portly make and a symmetric shape,
And curls that clustered to the tonsure quite.
This was a bishop in the bud, and now
A canon full-blown so far: priest, and priest
Nowise exorbitantly overworked,
The courtly Christian, not so much Saint Paul
As a saint of Cæsar’s household: there posed he
Sending his god-glance after his shot shaft,
Apollos turned Apollo, while the snake
Pompilia writhed transfixed through all her spires.
He, not a visitor at Guido’s house,
Scarce an acquaintance, but in prime request
With the magnates of Arezzo, was seen here,
Heard there, felt everywhere in Guido’s path
If Guido’s wife’s path be her husband's too.
Now he threw comfits at the theatre
Into her lap,—what harm in Carnival?
Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown,
His hand brushed hers,—how help on promenade?
And, ever on weighty business, found his steps
Incline to a certain haunt of doubtful fame
Which fronted Guido’s palace by mere chance;
While—how do accidents sometimes combine!
Pompilia chose to cloister up her charms
Just in a chamber that o’erlooked the street,
Sat there to pray, or peep thence at mankind.

     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.
     The last passage is perfect:—

                         Sir, what’s the good of law
In a case o’ the kind? None, as she all but says.
Call in law when a neighbour breaks your fence,
Cribs from your field, tampers with rent or lease,
Touches the purse or pocket,—but wooes your wife?
No: take the old way trod when men were men!
Guido preferred the new path,—for his pains,
Stuck in a quagmire, floundered worse and worse
Until he managed somehow scramble back
Into the safe sure rutted road once more,
Revenged his own wrong like a gentleman.
Once back ‘mid the familiar prints, no doubt
He made too rash amends for his first fault,
Vaulted too loftily over what barred him late,
And lit i’ the mire again,—the common chance,
The natural over-energy: the deed
Maladroit yields three deaths instead of one,
And one life left: for where’s the Canon’s corpse?
All which is the worse for Guido, but, be frank—
The better for you and me and all the world,
Husbands of wives, especially in Rome.
The thing is put right, in the old place,—ay,
The rod hangs on its nail behind the door,
Fresh from the brine: a matter I commend
To the notice, during Carnival that’s near,
Of a certain what’s-his-name and jackanapes
Somewhat too civil of eves with lute and song
About a house here, where I keep a wife.
(You, being his cousin, may go tell him so.)

The line in italics is a whole revelation,—both as regards the point of view and the peculiar character of the speaker.
     The next monologue, though scarcely so fine as a dramatic study, is fuller of flashes of poetic beauty. In it, there is clear scope for emotion,—the wild, nervous pity of a feeling man strongly nerved on a public subject. The intellectual subtlety, the special pleading, the savage irony, are here too, in far too strong infusion, but they are more spiritualized. This speaker is full of Pompilia, her flower-like body, her beautiful childish face, and he sees the whole story, as it were, in the light of her beautiful eyes.

Truth lies between: there’s anyhow a child
Of seventeen years, whether a flower or weed,
Ruined: who did it shall account to Christ—
Having no pity on the harmless life
And gentle face and girlish form he found,
And thus flings back: go practise if you please
With men and women: leave a child alone,
For Christ’s particular love’s sake!—so I say.

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.
     Our description and extracts can give no idea of the value of the book as a whole. It is sown throughout with beauties,—particularly with exquisite portraits, clear and sharp-cut, like those on antique gems; such as the two exquisite little pictures, of poor battered old Celestine the Confessor and aged Luca Cini, the morbid haunter of hideous public spectacles. Everywhere there is life, sense, motion—the flash of real faces, the warmth of real breath. We have glimpses of all the strange elements which went to make up Roman society in those times. We see the citizens and hear their voices,—we catch the courtly periods of the rich gentlemen, the wily whispers of the priests,—we see the dull brainless clods at Arezzo, looking up to their impoverished master as life and light,—and we hear the pleading of lawyers deep in the learning of Cicero and Ovid. So far, only a few figures have stood out from the fine groups in the background. In future volumes, one after another figure will take up the tale; and when the work is finished, we shall have, in addition to the numberless group-studies, such a collection of finished single portraits as it will not be easy to match in any language for breadth of tone and vigour of characterization.
     Anything further by way of censure would be ungracious. The great faults of the work have been Mr. Browning’s faults all along, and it is too late to alter them now. It should be added, too, that we miss altogether the lyric light which saved ‘Aurora Leigh’ from mediocrity as a work of art. The power is strictly intellectual, without one flash of ecstasy, such as the matchless flashes in Mr. Browning’s best lyrics. All this was the consequence of a gigantic and tentative subject. But if Mr. Browning impresses still more strongly on the world’s heart the danger of overbearing judgment, he will be like a messenger from heaven, sent to teach the highest of all lessons to rashly-judging men.



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.
     We should be grossly exaggerating if we were to aver that Mr. Browning is likely to take equal rank with the supreme genius of the world; only a gallery of pictures like the Shakspearean group could enable him to do that; and, moreover, his very position as an educated modern must necessarily limit his field of workmanship. What we wish to convey is, that Mr. Browning exhibits—to a great extent in all his writings, but particularly in this great work—a wealth of nature and a perfection of spiritual insight which we have been accustomed to find in the pages of Shakspeare, and in those pages only. His fantastic intellectual feats, his verbosity, his power of quaint versification, are quite other matters. The one great and patent fact is, that, with a faculty in our own time at least unparalleled, he manages to create beings of thoroughly human fibre; he is just without judgment, without pre-occupation, to every being so created; and he succeeds, without a single didactic note, in stirring the soul of the spectator with the concentrated emotion and spiritual exaltation which heighten the soul’s stature in the finest moments of life itself.
     As we have said above, the face which follows us through every path of the story is that of Pompilia, with its changeful and moon-like beauty, its intensely human pain, its heavenly purity and glamour. We have seen no such face elsewhere. It has something of Imogen, of Cordelia, of Juliet; it has something of Dante’s Beatrice; but it is unlike all of those—not dearer, but more startling, from the newness of its beauty. From the first moment when the spokesman for the “Other Half Rome” introduces her—

Little Pompilia, with the patient brow
And lamentable smile on those poor lips,
And under the white hospital array
A flower-like body—

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,
—Better than born, baptized and hid away
Before this happened, safe from being hurt!
That had been sin God could not well forgive:
He was too young to smile and save himself.
When they took, two days after he was born,
My babe away from me to be baptized
And hidden awhile, for fear his foe should find,—
The country-woman, used to nursing babes,
Said “Why take on so? where is the great loss?
These next three weeks he will but sleep and feed,
Only begin to smile at the month’s end;
He would not know you, if you kept him here,
Sooner than that; so, spend three merry weeks
Snug in the Villa, getting strong and stout,
And then I bring him back to be your own,
And both of you may steal to—we know where!”
The month—there wants of it two weeks this day!
Still, I half fancied when I heard the knock
At the Villa in the dusk, it might prove she—
Come to say “Since he smiles before the time,
Why should I cheat you out of one good hour?
Back I have brought him; speak to him and judge!”
Now I shall never see him; what is worse,
When he grows up and gets to be my age,
He will seem hardly more than a great boy;
And if he asks “What was my mother like?”
People may answer “Like girls of seventeen”—
And how can he but think of this and that,
Lucias, Marias, Sofias, who titter or blush
When he regards them as such boys may do?
Therefore I wish some one will please to say
I looked already old though I was young;
Do I not .. say, if you are by to speak ..
Look nearer twenty? No more like, at least,
Girls who look arch or redden when boys laugh,
Than the poor Virgin that I used to know
At our street-corner in a lonely niche,—
The babe, that sat upon her knees, broke off,—
Thin white glazed clay, you pitied her the more:
She, not the gay ones, always got my rose.

How happy those are who know how to write!
Such could write what their son should read in time,
Had they a whole day to live out like me.
Also my name is not a common name,
“Pompilia,” and may help to keep apart
A little the thing I am from what girls are.
But then how far away, how hard to find
Will anything about me have become,
Even if the boy bethink himself and ask!

     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.
     Only less fine—less fine because he is a man, less fine because his soul’s probation is perhaps less perfect—is the priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. “Ever with Caponsacchi!” cries Pompilia on her death-bed,

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,
A lady, young, tall, beautiful, and sad.

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,
Framed in its black square length, with lamp in hand,
Pompilia; the same great, grave, grieffull air
As stands i’ the dusk, on altar that I know,
Left alone with one moonbeam in her cell,
Our Lady of all Sorrows.

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
Always to hover just above her lips,
Not settle,—break a silence music too!—

the breaking dawn,—her first words,—then her sudden query—

“Have you a mother?” “She died, I was born.”
“A sister then?” “No sister.” ‘‘Who was it—
What woman were you used to serve this way,
Be kind to, till I called you and you came?”

—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.
     In a former review we gave a sketch of the general design of the work, explaining that, of the twelve books into which it is divided, ten were to be dramatic monologues, spoken by various persons concerned in or criticizing the Italian tragedy; and the remaining two a prologue and epilogue, spoken in the person of the poet himself. The complete work, therefore, is noticeable for variety of power and extraordinary boldness of design. All the monologues are good in their way, the only ones we could well spare being those of the two counsel, for and against Guido. These, of course, are extraordinarily clever; but cleverness is a poor quality for a man like Robert Browning to parade. The noblest portions of the book are ‘Giuseppe Caponsacchi,’ ‘Pompilia,’ and ‘The Pope.’ The last-named monologue is wonderfully grand—a fitting organ-peal to close such a book of mighty music; and it rather jars upon us, therefore, that we afterwards hear again the guilty scream of Guido. It seems to us, indeed, if we are bound to find fault at all, that we could have well dispensed with about a fourth of the whole work—the two legal speeches and Guido’s last speech. To the two former we object on artistic grounds; to the latter, we object merely on account of its extreme and discordant pain. Yet in Guido’s speech occurs one of the noblest touches in the whole work—where Guido, on the point of leaving his cell for the place of execution, exclaims—

Abate,—Cardinal,—Christ,—Maria,—God. .
Pompilia, will you let them murder me?—

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.
     Fault-finders will discover plenty to carp at in a work so colossal. For ourselves, we are too much moved to think of trifles, and are content to bow in homage, again and again, to what seems to us the highest existing product of modern thought and culture. Before concluding, we should notice one point in which this book differs from the plays of Shakspeare,—i.e. it contains, even in some of its superbest passages, a certain infusion of what Mr. Matthew Arnold once called “criticism.” So far from this “criticism” being a blot upon the book, it is one of its finest qualities as a modern product. We cannot enlarge upon this point here, though it is one that is sure to be greatly enlarged upon in publications with more space at their command; but we should not conclude without explaining that the work is the more truly worthy to take Shakspearean rank because it contains certain qualities which are quite un-Shakspearean—which, in fact, reflect beautifully the latest reflections of a critical mind on mysterious modern phenomena.

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From The Athenæum - 13 March, 1869 - No. 2159, pp. 368-369.


Graffiti d’Italia. By W. W. Story. (Blackwood & Sons.)
Beatrice, and other Poems. By the Hon. Roden Noel. (Macmillan & Co.)

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.
     It was a mistake, we think, to try to turn the stone ‘Cleopatra’ into verse. What Mr. Story meant to tell in that face he can certainly not convey in any words. It required the full, natural expression of his soul, and that was the marble statue. It is the mystic power, the indefinite and miraculous silence of a living or a marble face that fascinates the eye and troubles the mind; and when Mr. Story tries to follow his statue’s thoughts, and give us a monologue of ‘Cleopatra,’ he is trying himself by a test which is totally unfair to his conception or his art. If ‘Cleopatra’ had meant no more than this—had this only been conveyed in it, it would have troubled our thoughts little; but a great statue meant far more than any one—even the sculptor himself—can ever translate into speech. It is like putting words to a sonata by Beethoven. Yet the poem is in itself very powerful. This is force:—

Fling down that lute—I hate it!
     Take rather his buckler and sword,
And crash them and clash them together
     Till this sleeping world is stirred!

     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.
     Quite of another kind is ‘Beatrice, and other Poems.’ If Mr. Story's pieces resemble drawings in neutral tint, Mr. Noel's look like brilliant paintings in water colour. Every page is flooded with light and tint; every poem is a posy of varicoloured flowers, reminding us, in these and other respects, of the ‘Endymion’ and the delicious descriptive sketches published in Keats’s first volume. Beyond the fact that both poets use rich tints invariably, there is no resemblance between Keats and Mr. Noel. The latter, indeed, has a faculty of his own, noticeable even in these days of splendid promise and wretched fulfilment, and very fascinating in its quaint originality and its fantastic combinations of style. For a peculiar tendency to translate into verse certain lines of philosophical thought, and for a still more striking habit of recording very subtle external impressions, his volume would be noticeable at any period; and although these peculiarities are as yet too indefinitely manifested to warrant any final judgment as to the powers of the writer, it is nevertheless clear that his powers are those of genius, and, what is better, of genius specifically poetic.
     The volume is full of pictures in the modern pre-Raphaelite style; details exaggerated and painted carefully in the open air; and therefore, while bits of wonderful word-painting abound, it is difficult to find a picture which is altogether satisfactory. Take ‘Summer Clouds and a Swan,’ in many respects a most remarkable piece of sensuous painting. It is late summer, and the writer is standing by a piece of water, dreamily contemplating the sky reflected in that crystal mirror—

Oh, what a sky! in yonder hazy blue
Floats a white cloudlet shading into grey;
A drift of white, soft-outlined bright and pure,
Tranquilly floating in a blue profound!

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
In cloudland subtle, silent, unaware,
Ravelling, unravelling tissues gossamer,
Not to be prisoned in colour or in word,
Pageant regarding not if any see!

     Light of a stilly summer afternoon,
Drowsy, voluptuous and sumptuous,
Rich, honey-heavy, sheeny, breathing balm!

But suddenly, the vision changes:—

     Now in the lower reflected gulf of blue
A swan sails tranquil with a stately neck
Arched long, with orange beak, and lifted wing
Sail-like on either side, how soft and pure!
Have they not fallen these wings from yonder blue,
Out of the soft white cloud there, so akin
They seem to it? And O the tenderness
Of the blue shadow, scarcely shadow or blue,
Haunting yon dells of down behind the wing!
Surely the white cloud when it fell from heaven
Fell with the heavenly motion lingering in it,
For do but note how tranquil and how still
The cloud sails yonder and the swan sails here!

Yet lo! a sudden impulse of the bosom
Thrills all the placid water feeling it
To dimpling smiles that waft luxurious light
Into the pendulous faces of sweet flowers,
Lush grasses, harebell, eyebright, sorrel leaves
That fringe the flood whose heart enshrines them all.
While his dim double the swan floats upon
Flickers beneath him with the twin-born ripple
From his breast sloping either side away,
Melts like snow dropped in water, yet remains.
He ruffles yielding wavering images
Of church and tree, and of the sky above,
But all the fragments gather as he goes.

     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.
     Out of Coleridge, moreover, it would not be easy to find any philosophical poetry finer than certain portions of Mr. Noel’s ‘Pan,’—a poem very striking and quite original,—forming a sort of grandiose pantheistic hymn to Nature, and showing in one or two passages an invaluable faculty of turning philosophic ore into poetic gold. In this fine passage, for example, one of the commonest philosophical topics becomes original poetry by mere verbal spiritualization:—

Thou fated slayer. slay not like a beast,
In a blind panic, but remembering.
Look steadily till through the loathly crust
A soul puts forth a feeler seeking thine!
Creatures uncouth, yet these are on their way,
Blind and still distant from the goal you touch,
Yet fellow pilgrims verily with you;
Dare you affirm there live not anywhere,
Nor in the teeming infinite dark womb
Of awful Nature ever shall be born,
Beings of glory so transcending yours
As ye transcend some annulated worm?
Nay day by day the lower forms are lost,
Yield all their own and re-emerge in man:
And so the coral of our myriad lives
Accumulates the sunny reef to be—
While yet in part, a soothing dream to me,
We may remingle with the lowlier life. . .

     ‘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.
     As a rule, Mr. Noel’s blank verse is finer than his rhyme; but the rhymed couplet is managed with splendid effect in ‘To Whom shall We Go?’ and some of the lyrics—all of a very fragile intellectual beauty—are very musical indeed. Surely the following is exquisite:


 Now the soft warm gleam uncertain
     In the little chamber stays,
On the spotless falling curtain,
     By the bedside where she prays:
From the shadow round her kneeling
Slender hands are raised appealing.

Down below the shadow resteth,
     O’er blush-alabaster feet,
Simple robe of white investeth
     Up to where bows, childlike sweet,
Gentle head in hands half hidden,
Whence the shadow falls forbidden.

From our dusk her hands are lifting,
     And the light, in answer bland,
Down her sleek brown tresses drifting,
     Seems to smooth them with a hand—
Solemn hand from forth the splendour,
Where this child hath those that tend her!

These love-tears may cloud my vision;
     Yet about this humble room
Do not faces dim, Elysian,
     Yearn down o’er her through the gloom?
Even the shades are glory colder,
Warming softer as they fold her!

So bathe her feet our earth’s chill sorrow,
     Never cling more dark than this;
From her gentle spirit borrow
     Even the hues and warmth of bliss,
While her soul inhales the heaven,
Praying thus at morn and even!

Her, life’s darkling pilgrim haileth;
     Mountain forest, haunted nook,
As on high serene she saileth,
     Smile beneath her sainted look!
Only worldlings, foul in feeling,
Curse the childlike light revealing.

Spirit music, souls of flowers,
     Here luxuriate to shape,
Charming far the baleful powers:
     Blessed moment, wherefore ’scape?
Hold her young, so griefless praying,
Hold these trancèd eyes from straying!

     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.
     We have been throughout so caught by Mr. Noel’s little cabinet pictures, and his tender philosophical paraphrases, that we have left ourselves no space to speak of ‘Beatrice,’ the poem which gives the book its name. It is an interesting story, well told, in a style sufficiently ornate, and relieved with some delightful lyrics. With general readers, perhaps, it will be more popular than anything else in the volume. But loving students of poetry will turn elsewhere, to the more intensely emotional ‘Summer Clouds’ and ‘Autumn in Ireland,’ and to the powerfully-painted Egyptian poem of ‘Mencheres.’ Few people, students or otherwise, will remain long in doubt that we have among us another young writer of great originality and sweetness, whose specially poetic faculty is as unmistakable as the taste of good Falernian or the smell of a musk rose.

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