Coleridge, about the same time as he married, published a volume of poems. But as this did not bring him wealth he then tried various other ways of making a living. He began a weekly paper which ceased after a few numbers, he lectured on history, and preached in various Unitarian chapels. Then after a time he settled at Nether Stowey, where he was living when he met Wordsworth.
The two poets, as has been said, at once became friends, Coleridge having a deep and whole-hearted admiration for Wordworth's genius. "I speak with heartfelt sincerity," he says, "and I think unblinded judgment, when I tell you that I feel a little man by his side."
The two friends had many walks and talks together, shaping their ideas of what poetry should be. They at length decided to publish a book together to be called Lyrical Ballads.
In this book there was published the poem which of all that Coleridge write is the best known, The Ancient Mariner. It tells how this old old sailor stops a guest who is going to a wedding, and bids him hear a tale. The wedding guest does not wish to stay, but the old man holds him with his skinny hand—
"He holds him with his glittering eye— The Wedding Guest stood still, And listens like three years' child: The Mariner hath his will."
He hath his will, and tells how the ship sailed forth gayly, and how it met after a time with storms, and cold, and fog, until at last it was all beset with ice. Then when to the sailors all hope seemed lost, an albatross came sailing through the fog. With joy they hailed it, the only living thing in that wilderness of ice. They fed it with delight—
"It ate the food it ne'er had eat, And round and round it flew: The ice did split with a thunder-fit; The helmsman steered us through!"
Then on they gladly sailed, the albatross following, until one day the Ancient Mariner, in a mad moment, shot the beautiful bird. In punishment for this deed terrible disasters fell upon that ship and its crew. Under a blazing sun, in a hot and slimy sea filled with creeping, crawling things, they were becalmed—
"Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean."
Then plague and death came, and every man died except the guilty Mariner—
"Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide, wide sea; And never a saint took pity on My soul in agony. . . . . .
"I looked to heaven, and tried to pray; But or ever a prayer had gush'd, A wicked whisper came, and made My heart as dry as dust."
But one day as the Mariner watched the water snakes, the only living things in all that dreadful waste, he blessed them unaware, merely because they were alive. That self-same moment, he found that he could pray, and the albatross, which his fellows in their anger had hung about his neck, dropped from it, and fell like lead into the sea. Then, relieved from his terrible agony of soul, the Mariner slept, and when he woke he found that the dreadful drought was over, and that it was raining. Oh, blessed relief! But more terrors still he had to endure until at last the ship drifted homeward—
"Oh, dream of joy! is this indeed The lighthouse top I see? Is this the hill? is this the kirk? Is this mine own countree?
"We drifted o'er the Harbour-bar, And I with sobs did pray— 'O let me be awake, my God! Or let me sleep alway.'"
The shop had indeed reached home, but in the harbor it suddenly sank like lead. Only the Mariner was saved.
When once more he came to land, he told his tale to a holy hermit and was shriven, but ever and anon afterward an agony comes upon him and forces him to tell the tale again, even as he has just done to the wedding guest. And thus he ends his story—
"He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God, who loveth us, He made and loveth all."
Then he goes, leaving the wondering wedding guest alone.
"The Mariner, whose eye is bright, Whose beard with age is hoar, Is gone; and now the Wedding Guest Turned from the Bridegroom's door.
"He went, like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man He rose the morrow morn."
Among the poems which Wordsworth wrote for the book of Lyrical Ballads, was one which every one knows, We are Seven. In another, called Lines written in Early Spring, he gives as it were the text of all his nature poems, and his creed, for here he tells us that he believes that all things in Nature, bird and flower alike, feel.
"I heard a thousand blended notes, While in a grove I sate reclined, In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
"In her fair works did Nature link The human soul that through me ran; And much it griev'd my heart to think What man has made of man.
"Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower, The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; And 'tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes.
"The birds around me hopp'd and play'd, Their thoughts I cannot measure:— But the least motion that they made, It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
"The budding twigs spread out their fan, To catch the breezy air; And I must think, do all I can, That there was pleasure there.
"If this belief from heaven be sent, If such be Nature's holy plan, Have I not reason to lament What man has made of man?"
The book was not a success. People did not understand The Ancient Mariner, and they laughed at Wordsworth's simple lyrics, although the last poem in the book, Tintern Abbey, has since become famous, and is acknowledged as one of the treasures of our literature.
And now, as this new book was not a success, and as he did not seem able to make enough money as a poet, Coleridge seriously began to think of becoming a Unitarian preacher altogether. But, the Wedgwoods, the famous potters, wealthy men with cultured minds and kindly hearts, offered him one hundred and fifty pounds a year if he would give himself up to poetry and philosophy. After some hesitation, Coleridge consented, and that winter he set off for a visit to Germany with the Wordsworths.
It was on their return from this visit that Wordsworth again changed his home and went to live at Dove Cottage, near Grasmere, in the Lake District, which as a boy he had known and loved. And here, among the hills, he made his home for the rest of his life.
The days at Grasmere flowed along peacefully and almost without an event. Wordsworth published a second volume of lyrical ballads, and then went on writing and working steadily at his long poem The Prelude, in which he told the story of his early life.
Coleridge soon followed his friend, and settled at Greta Hall, Keswick, and there was much coming and going between Dove Cottage and Greta Hall. At Greta Hall there were two houses under one roof, and soon Southey took the second house and came to live beside his brother-in-law, Coleridge. And so these three poets, having thus drifted together, came to be called the Lake Poets, although Southey's poetry had little in common with that of either Wordsworth or Coleridge.
It seemed hardly to break the peaceful flow of life at Dove Cottage, when, in 1802, Wordsworth married his old playmate and schoolfellow, Mary Hutchinson. They had known each other all their lives, and marriage was a natural and lovely ending to their friendship. Of her Wordsworth wrote—
"She was a Phantom of delight When first she gleamed upon my sight; A lovely Apparition, sent To be a moment's ornament; Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair; Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair; But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful Dawn; A dancing Shape, an Image gay, to haunt, to startle, and waylay.
"I saw her upon nearer view, A Spirit, yet a woman too! Her household motions light and free, And steps of virgin-liberty; A countenance in which did meet Sweet records, promises as sweet; A Creature not too bright and good For human nature's daily food; For transient sorrows, simple wiles, Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
"And now I see with eye serene The very pulse of the machine; A Being breathing thoughtful breath, A Traveller between life and death; The reason firm, the temperate will, Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill; A perfect Woman, nobly planned, To warn, to comfort, and command; And yet a Spirit still, and bright With something of angelic light."
The years passed in quiet fashion, with friendly coming and goings, with journeys here and there, now to Scotland, now to the Continent.
Children were born, friends died, and once or twice the Wordsworths changed their house until they finally settled at Rydal Mount, and there the poet remained for the rest of his long life. And all the time, for more than fifty years, Wordsworth steadily wrote, but it is not too much to say that all his best work was done in the twenty years between 1798 and 1818.
Besides The Prelude, of which we have already spoken, Wordsworth's other long poems are The Excursion and The White Doe of Rylstone. The White Doe is a story of the days of Queen Elizabeth, of the days when England was still in the midst of religious struggle. There was a rebellion in Yorkshire, in which the old lord of Rylstone fought vainly if gallantly for the Old Religion, and he and his sons died the death of rebels. Of all the family only the gentle Emily remained "doomed to be the last leaf on a blasted tree." About the country-side she wandered alone accompanied only by a white doe. In time she, too, died, then for many years the doe was seen alone. It was often to be seen in the churchyard during service, and after service it would go away with the rest of the congregation.
The Excursion, though a long poem, is only part of what Wordsworth meant to write. He meant in three books to give his opinions on Man, Nature, and Society, and the whole was to be called The Recluse. To this great work The Prelude was to be the introduction, hence its name. But Wordsworth never finished his great design and The Excursion remains a fragment. Much of The Excursion cannot be called poetry at all. Yet, as one of Wordsworth's great admirers has said: "In deserts of preaching we find delightful oases of poetry."* There is little action in The Excursion, and much of it is merely dull descriptions and conversations. So I would not advise you to read it for a long time to come. But to try rather to understand some of Wordworth's shorter poems, although at times their names may seem less inviting.
One of the most beautiful of all his poems Wordsworth calls by the cumbrous name of Intimations of Immorality from recollections of Early Childhood. This is his way of saying that when we are small we are nearer the wonder-world than when we grow up, and that when we first open our eyes on this world they have not quite forgotten the wonderful sights they saw in that eternity whence we came, for the soul has no beginning, therefore no ending. I will give you here one verse of this poem:—
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily further from the east Must travel , still is Nature's Priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day."
Wordsworth, for the times in which he lived, traveled a good deal, and in his comings and goings he made many new friends and met all the great literary men of his day. And by slow degrees his poetry won its way, and the younger men looked up to him as to a master. The great, too, came to see in him a power. Since 1813 Southey had been Laureate, and when in 1843 he died, the honor was given to Wordsworth. He was now an old man of seventy- three, and although he still wrote a few poems, he wrote nothing as Laureate, except an ode in honor of the Prince Consort when he became Chancellor of Cambridge University. Now, as he grew old, one by one death bade his friends to leave him—
"Like clouds that rake the mountain summits, Or waves that own no curbing hand, How fast has brother followed brother, From sunshine to the sunless land!
"Yet I whose lids from infant slumber Were earlier raised, remain to hear A timid voice, that asks in whispers 'Who next will drop and disappear?'"*
*Upon the Death of James Hogg.
At length in 1850, at the age of eighty, he too closed his eyes, and went "From sunshine to the sunless land."
"But where will Europe's latter hour Again find Wordsworth's healing power? Others will teach us how to dare, And against fear our breast to steel; Others will strengthen us to bear— But who, ah! who, will make us feel?"*
BOOKS TO READ
Poems of Wordsworth, selected by C. L. Thomson. Selections, by Matthew Arnold.
Chapter LXXVI COLERIDGE AND SOUTHEY—SUNSHINE AND SHADOW
LONG before Wordsworth closed his eyes on this world, Coleridge, in some ways a greater poet than his friend, had gone to his last rest. Wordsworth had a happy, loving understanding of the little things of real life. He had an "exquisite regard for common things," but his words have seldom the glamour, the something which we cannot put into words which makes us see beyond things seen. This Coleridge had. It is not only his magic of words, it is this trembling touch upon the unknown, the unearthly beauty and sadness of which he makes us conscious in his poems that marks him as great.
And yet all that Coleridge has left us which reaches the very highest is very little. But as has been said, "No English poet can be put above Coleridge when only quality and not quantity is demanded."* Of The Ancient Mariner I have already told you, although perhaps it is too full of fearsomeness for you to read yet. Next to it stands Christabel, which is unfinished. It is too full of mysterious glamour to translate into mere prose, so I will not try to tell the story, but here are a few lines which are very often quoted—
"Alas! they had been friends in youth; But whispering tongues can poison truth; And Constancy lives in realms above; And Life is thorny; and Youth is vain; And to be wroth with one we love, Doth work like madness in the brain. And thus it chanced, as I divine, With Roland and Sir Leoline. Each spake words of high disdain And insult to his heart's best brother: They parted—ne'er to meet again! But never either found another To free the hollow heart from paining; They stood aloof, the scars remaining, Like cliff's which had been rent asunder; A dreary sea now flows between;— But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder, Shall wholly do away, I ween, The marks of that which once had been."
Coleridge's singing time was short. All his best poetry had been written before he went to live at Keswick. There his health, which had never been good, gave way. Unhappy in his home, and racked with bodily pain, he at length began to use opium in order to find relief. The habit to which he soon became a slave made shipwreck of his life. He had always been unstable of purpose and weak of will, never keeping to one course long. He had tried journalism, he tried lecturing, he planned books which were never written. His life was a record of beginnings. As each new plan failed he yielded easily to the temptation of living on his friends. He had always been restless in mind. He left his home, and after wanderings now here now there, he at length found a home in London with kind, understanding friends. Of him here we have a pathetic picture drawn by another great man.* "The good man—he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps, and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration, confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute, expressive of weakness under possibility of strength . . . a heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much suffering man."
And yet to this broken-down giant men crowded eagerly to hear him talk. Never, perhaps, since the great Sam had held his court had such a talker been heard. And although there was no Boswell near to make these conversations live again, the poet's nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, gathered some of his sayings together into a book which he called Table Talk. With his good friends Coleridge spent all his remaining life from 1816 till 1834, when he died.
Meanwhile his children and his home were left to the care of others. And when Coleridge threw off his home ties and duties it was upon Southey that the burden chiefly fell. And Southey, kindly and generous, loving his own children fondly, loved and cared for his nephews and nieces too. We cannot regard Southey as one of our great poets, but when we read his letters, we must love him as a man. He wrote several long poems, the two best known perhaps are The Curse of Kehama and Thalaba, the one a Hindoo, the other a Mahometan story, but he is better remembered by his short poems, such as The Battle of Blenheim and The Inchcape Rock.
For forty years Southey lived at Greta Hall, and from his letters we get the pleasantest picture of the home-loving, nonsense- loving "comical papa" who had kept the heart of a boy, even when his hair grew gray—
"A man he is by nature merry, Somewhat Tom-foolish, and comical very; Who has gone through the world, not mindful of self, Upon easy terms, thank Heaven, with himself."
He loved his books and he loved the little curly-headed children that gathered about him with pattering feet and chattering tongues, and never wished to be absent from them. "Oh dear, oh dear," he says, "there is such a comfort in one's old coat and old shoes, one's armchair and own fireside, one's own writing- desk and own library—with a little girl climbing up my neck, and saying, 'Don't go to London, papa—you must stay with Edith'; and a little boy, whom I have taught to speak the language of cats, dogs, cuckoos, and jackasses, etc., before he can articulate a word of his own; there is such a comfort in all these things, the transportation to London for four or five weeks seems a heavier punishment than any sins of mine deserve."
And so we see him spending long hours, long years, among his books, hoping for lasting fame from his poems, and meantime earning with his prose food for hungry little mouths, shoes for nimble little feet, with just a trifle over for books, and still more books. For Southey loved books, and his big library was lined with them. There were thousands there, many in beautiful bindings, glowing in soft coloring, gleaming with pale gold, for he loved to clothe his treasures in fitting garments. When a new box of books comes he rejoices. "I shall be happier," he says, "than if his Majesty King George IV were to give orders that I should be clothed in purple, and sleep upon gold, and have a chain about my neck, and sit next him because of my wisdom and be called his cousin."
We think of Southey first as a poet, but it is perhaps as a prose writer that his fame will last longest, and above all as a biographer, that is a writer of people's lives. During the busy years at Greta Hall he wrote about a hundred books, several of them biographies—among them a life of Nelson, which is one of the best short lives ever written. Some day I hope you will read it, both for the sake of Southey's clear, simple style, and for the sake of the brave man of whom he writes. You might also, I think, like his lives of Bunyan and Cowper, both of whom you have heard of in this book.
Another book which Southey wrote is called The Doctor. This is a whimsical, rambling jumble, which can hardly be called a story; a mixture of quotations and original work, of nonsense and earnest. And in the middle of it what do you think you come upon? Why our old nursery friend, The Three Bears. Southey trusts that this book will suit every one, "that the lamb may wade in it, though the elephant may swim, and also that it will be found 'very entertaining to the ladies.'" Indeed he flatters himself that it will be found profitable for "old and young, for men and for women, the married and the single, the idle and the studious, the merry and the sad; and that it may sometimes inspire the thoughtless with thought, and sometimes beguile the careful of their cares." But if it is to be quite perfect it must have a chapter for children—
"Prick up your ears then, My good little women and men;
And ye who are neither so little nor no good, favete linguis,* for here follows the story of the Three Bears." So there it is. "One of them was a Little, Small, Wee Bear; and one was a Middle- sized Bear, and the other was a Great, Huge Bear"—and from the way it is told, I think we may be sure that Uncle Robert or comical papa often told stories with a circle of eager, bright faces round him. For he says—
"And 'twas in my vocation For their recreation That so I should sing; Because I was Laureate To them and the King."
As the years went on Southey received other honors besides the Laureateship. He was offered a baronetcy which he refused. He wall "ell-ell-deed" by Oxford, as he quaintly puts it in his letters to his children. And when he tells them about it he says, "Little girls, you know it might be proper for me now to wear a large wig, and to be called Doctor Southey and to become very severe, and leave off being a comical papa . . . . However, I shall not come home in my wig, neither shall I wear my robes at home."
It is sad to think that this kindly heard had to bear the buffetings of ill fortune. Two of his dearly loved children died, then he was parted from his wife by worse than death, for she became insane and remained so until she died. Eight years later Robert Southey was laid beside her in the churchyard under the shadow of Skiddaw. "I hope his life will not be forgotten," says Macaulay, "for it is sublime in its simplicity, its energy, its honour, its affection. . . . His letter are worth piles of epics, and are sure to last among us, as long as kind hearts like to sympathise with goodness and purity and love and upright life."
BOOKS TO READ
Southey: Poems, chosen by E. Dowden. Life of Nelson (Everyman's Library). Coleridge: Lyrical Poems, Chosen by A. T. Quiller-Couch.
Chapter LXXVII SCOTT—THE AWAKENING OF ROMANCE
THE 15th of August 1771 was a lucky day for all the boys and girls and grown-up people too of the English-speaking race, for on that day Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh. Literature had already begun to shake off its fetters of art. Romance had begun to stir in her long sleep, for six years before sturdy baby Walter was born, Bishop Percy had published a book called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. In this book he had gathered together many old ballads and songs, such as those of Robin Hood and Patrick Spens. They had almost been forgotten, and yet they are poems which stir the heart with their plaintive notes, telling as they do—
"Of old, unhappy, far-off things, And battles long ago; Or is it some more humble lay, Familiar matter of to-day? Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain, That has been, and may be again!"*
Bishop Percy, like a knight of old, laid his lance in rest and tilted against the prickly briar hedge that had grown up around the Sleeping Beauty, Romance. But he could not win through and wake the princess. And although Burns and Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, all knowing it or not, fought on his side, it was left for another knight to break through the hedge and make us free of the Enchanted Land. And that knight's name was Walter— Sir Walter, too—for, like a true knight, he won his title in the service of his lady.
Little Walter's father was a kindly Scots lawyer, but he came of a good old Border family, "A hardy race who never shrunk from war."* Among his forbears had been wild moss-troopers and cattle-reivers, lairds of their own lands, as powerful as kings in their own countryside. There were stories enough of their bold and daring deeds to fill many books, so that we feel that Walter had been born into a heritage of Romance.
Walter was a strong, healthy child, but when he was about eighteen months old he had an illness which left him lame in his right leg. Everything was done that could be done to restore the lost power, and although it was partly regained, Scott walked with a limp to the end of his days. Meanwhile he had a by no means unhappy childhood. He spent a great deal of time at the farm belonging to his grandfather. Little Wat was a winsome laddie, and the whole household loved him. On fine days he was carried out and laid down among the crags and rocks, beside an old shepherd who tended his sheep and little Walter too, telling him strange tales the while—
"Of forayers, who, with headlong force, Down from that strength had spurr'd their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew, Far in the distant Cheviots blue, And, home returning, fill'd the hall With revel, wassel-rout, and brawl."*
At other times Walter listened to the stories of his grandmother, hearing all about the wild doings of his forbears, or the brave deeds of Bruce and Wallace. He was taken to the seaside, to Bath, and to London, and at length, grown into a sturdy little boy, though still lame, he went back to his father's house in Edinburgh. Here he says he soon felt the change from being a single indulged brat, to becoming the member of a large family.
He now went to school, but did not show himself to be very clever. He was not a dunce, but an "incorrigibly idle imp," and in spite of his lameness he was better at games than at lessons. In some ways, owing to his idleness, he was behind his fellows, on the other hand he had read far more than they. And now he read everything he could, in season and out of season. Pope's Homer, Shakespeare, Ossian, and especially Spenser were among his favorites. Then one happy day he came upon a volume of Percy's Reliques. All one summer day he read and read, forgetting the world, forgetting even to be hungry. After that he was for ever entertaining his schoolfellows with scraps of tragic ballads, and as soon as he could scrape enough money together, he bought a copy of the book for himself.
So the years passed, Walter left school, went to Edinburgh University, and began to study law. It was at this time, as a boy of sixteen, that for the first and only time he met Robert Burns, who had just come to Edinburgh, and was delighted at receiving a kind word and look from the poet. He still found time to read a great deal, to ride, and to take long, rambling walks, for, in spite of his limp, he was a great walker and could go twenty or thirty miles. Indeed he used to tramp the countryside so far and so long that his father would say he feared his son was born to be nothing better than a wandering peddler.
After a time it was decided that Walter should be a barrister, or, as it is called in Scotland, an advocate, and in 1792 he was called to the Bar. His work as an advocate was at first not very constant, and it left him plenty of time for long, rambling excursions or raids, as he used to call them, in different parts of Scotland and in the north of England. He traveled about, listening to the ballads of the country folk, gathering tales, storing his mind with memories of people and places. "He was making himself a' the time," said a friend who went with him, "but he didna ken maybe what he was about till years had passed. At first he thought o' little, I daresay, but the queerness and the fun."
It was in an expedition to the English Lakes with his brother and a friend that Scott met his wife. One day while out riding he saw a lady also riding. She had raven black hair and deep brown eyes, which found a way at once to the poet's heart. In true poet fashion he loved her. That night there was a ball, and though Walter Scott could not dance, he went to the ball and met his lady love. She was Charlotte Margaret Carpenter, the daughter of a Frenchman who had taken refuge in England from the fury of the Revolution. Walter was able to win his lady's heart, and before the end of the year had married her and carried her off to Scotland.
Two or three years after his marriage, Scott published a book of Border Ballads. It was the outcome of his wanderings in the Border country. In it Scott had gathered together many ballads which he heard from the country folk, but he altered and bettered them as he thought fit, and among them were new ballads by himself and some of his friends.
The book was only a moderate success, but in it we may find the germ of all Scott's later triumphs. For it was the spirit of these ballads with which his mind was so full which made it possible for him to write the Metrical Romances that made him famous.
It is now many chapters since we spoke of Metrical Romances. They were, you remember, the chief literature from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, which time was also the time of the early ballads. And now that people had begun again to see the beauty of ballads, they were ready also to turn again to the simplicity of Metrical Romances. These rime stories which Scott now began to write, burst on our Island with the splendor of something new, and yet it was simply the old-time spirit in which Scott had steeped himself, which found a new birth—a Renascence. Scott was a stalwart Border chieftain born out of time. But as another writer says, instead of harrying cattle and cracking crowns, this Border chief was appointed to be the song-singer and pleasant tale-teller to Britain and to Europe. "It was the time for such a new literature; and this Walter Scott was the man for it."*
"The mightiest chiefs of British song Scorn'd not such legends to prolong: They gleam through Spenser's elfin dream, And mix in Milton's heavenly theme."*
The first of Scott's song stories was called The Lay of the Last Minstrel. In it he pictures an old minstrel, the last of all his race, wandering neglected and despised about the countryside. But at Newark Castle, the seat of the Duchess of Buccleuch, he receives kindly entertainment.
"When kindness had his wants supplied, And the old man was gratified, Began to rise his minstrel pride: And he began to talk anon, Of good Earl Francis, dead and gone, And of Earl Walter, rest him, God! A braver ne'er to battle rode; And how full many a tale he knew, Of the old warriors of Buccleuch; And, would the noble Duchess deign To listen to an old man's strain, Though stiff his hand, his voice though weak, He though even yet, the sooth to speak,
That, if she loved the harp to hear, He could make music to her ear."
This humble boon was granted. The minstrel was led to the room of state where sat the noble-hearted Duchess with her ladies, and there began his lay. You must read The Lay itself to learn about William of Deloraine, the Goblin Page, the Lady Margaret, and Lord Canstoun, and all the rest. The meter in which Scott wrote was taken from Coleridge's Christabel. For, though it was not yet published, it had long been in manuscript, and Scott had heard part of it repeated by a friend.
The Lay of the Last Minstrel was a success. From henceforth Scott was an author. But he had no need to write for money, as money came to him in other ways. So none of the struggles of a rising author fell to his lot. His career was simply a triumphant march. And good-natured, courteous, happy-hearted Scott took his triumphs joyously.
Other poems followed The Lay, the best being Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. Scott's son-in-law says, "The Lay is, I should say, generally considered as the most natural and original, Marmion as the most powerful and splendid, The Lady of the Lake as the most interesting, romantic, picturesque, and graceful of his great poems." Fame and money poured in upon Scott, and not upon him only, but upon Scotland. For the new poet had sung the beauties of the rugged country so well that hundreds of English flocked to see it for themselves. Scotland became the fashion, and has remained so ever since.
In 1799 Scott had been appointed Sheriff-deputy of Selkirkshire, and as this obliged him to live part of the year at least in the district, he rented a house not far from Selkirk. But now that he saw himself becoming wealthy, he bought an estate in his beloved Border country and began to build the house of Abbotsford. To this house he and his family removed in May 1812. Here, amid the noise of carpenters and masons, with only one room fit to sit in, and that shared by chattering children, he went on with his work. To a friend he writes, "As for the house and the poem, there are twelve masons hammering at the one, and one poor noddle at the other—so they are both in progress."
It was at Abbotsford that Scott made his home for the rest of his life. Here he put off the gown and wig of a barrister, and played the part of a country gentleman. He rode about accompanied by his children and his friends, and followed by his dogs. He fished, and walked, and learned to know every one around, high and low. He was beloved by all the countryside, for he was kindly and courteous to all, and was "aye the gentleman." He would sit and talk with a poor man in his cottage, listening to his tales of long ago, with the same ease and friendliness as he would entertain the great in his own beautiful house. And that house was always thronged with visitors, invited and uninvited, with friends who came out of love of the genial host, with strangers who came out of curiosity to see the great novelist. For great as Scott's fame as a poet, it was nothing to the fame he earned as a story-teller.
The first story he published was called Waverley, or 'Tis Sixty Years Since. He had begun to write this tale years before, but had put it aside as some of his friends did not think well of it. One day he came upon the manuscript by accident, thought himself that the story was worth something, and resolved to publish it. Finishing the writing in three weeks he published the novel without putting his name upon the title-page. He did this, he said, because he thought it was not quite dignified for a grave advocate and Sheriff of the county to write novels. The book was a wild success, everybody read it, everybody was eager to know who the author was. Many people guessed that it was Scott, but, for more than ten years, he would not own it. At public dinners when the health of the author of Waverley was drunk, people would look meaningly at Scott, but he would appear quite unconcerned, and drink the health and cheer with the rest. To keep the mystery up he even reviewed his own books. And so curiosity grew. Who was this Great Unknown, this Wizard of the North?
Waverley is a story of the Jacobite times, of the rebellion of '45. The hero, Edward Waverley, who is no such great hero either, his author calling him indeed "a sneaking piece of imbecility," gives his name to the book. He meets Bonnie Prince Charlie, is present at the famous ball at Holyrood, fights at the battle of Prestonpans, and marches with the rebel army into England.
Thus we have the beginning of the historical novel. Scott takes real people, and real incidents, and with them he interweaves the story of the fortunes of make-believe people and make-believe incidents. Scott does not always keep quite strictly to fact. He is of the same mind as the old poet Davenant who thought it folly to take away the liberty of a poet and fetter his feet in the shackles of an historian. Why, he asked, should a poet not make and mend a story and frame it more delightfully, merely because austere historians have entered into a bond to truth. So Scott takes liberties with history, but he always gives us the spirit of the times of which he writes. Thus in one sense he is true to history. And perhaps from Waverley we get the better idea of the state of Scotland, at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, than from any number of histories. In the next chapter Scott himself shall give you an account of the battle of Prestonpans.
Chapter LXXVIII SCOTT—"THE WIZARD OF THE NORTH"
"THE army, moving by its right from off the ground on which they had rested, soon entered the path through the morass, conducting their march with astonishing silence and great rapidity. The mist had not risen to the higher grounds, so that for some time they had the advantage of starlight. But this was lost as the stars faded before approaching day, and the head of the marching column, continuing its descent, plunged as it were into the heavy ocean of fog, which rolled its white waves over the whole plain, and over the sea by which it was bounded. Some difficulties were now to be encountered, inseparable from darkness, a narrow, broken, and marshy path, and the necessity of preserving union in the march. These, however, were less inconvenient to Highlanders, from their habits of life, than they would have been to any other troops, and they continued a steady and swift movement. . . . . . . . . . . . . "The clan of Fergus had now gained the firm plain, which had lately borne a large crop of corn. But the harvest was gathered in, and the expanse was unbroken by trees, bush, or interruption of any kind. The rest of the army were following fast, when they heard the drums of the enemy beat the general. Surprise, however, had made no part of their plan, so they were not disconcerted by this intimation that the foe was upon his guard and prepared to receive them. It only hastened their dispositions for the combat, which were very simple. . . . . . . . . . . . . "'Down with your plaid, Waverley,' cried Fergus, throwing off his own; 'we'll win silks for our tartans before the sun is above the sea.'
"The clansmen on every side stripped their plaids, prepared their arms, and there was an awful pause of about three minutes, during which the men, pulling off their bonnets, raised their faces to heaven, and uttered a short prayer; then pulled their bonnets over their brows and began to move forward at first slowly. Waverley felt his heart at that moment throb as it would have burst his bosom. It was not fear, it was not ardour—it was a compound of both, a new and deeply energetic impulse, that with its first emotion chilled and astounded, then fevered and maddened his mind. The sounds around him combined to exalt his enthusiasm; the pipes played, and the clans rushed forward, each in its own dark column. As they advanced they mended their pace, and the muttering sounds of the men to each other began to swell into a wild cry. At this moment, the sun, which was not risen above the horizon, dispelled the mist. The vapours rose like a curtain, and showed the two armies in the act of closing. The line of the regulars was formed directly fronting the attack of the Highlanders; it glittered with the appointments of a complete army, and was flanked by cavalry and artillery. But the sight impressed no terror on the assailants.
"'Forward, sons of Ivor,' cried their chief, 'or the Camerons will draw the first blood!' They rushed on with a tremendous yell.
"The rest is well known. The horses, who were commanded to charge the advancing Highlanders in the flank, received an irregular fire from their fusees as they ran on, and, seized with a disgraceful panic, wavered, halted, disbanded, and galloped from the field. The artillerymen, deserted by the cavalry, fled after discharging their pieces, and the Highlanders, who dropped their guns when fired, and drew their broadswords, rushed with headlong fury against the infantry. . . . . . . . . . . . . "The English infantry, trained in the wars in Flanders, stood their ground with great courage. But their extended files were pierced and broken in many places by the close masses of the clans; and in the personal struggle which ensued, the nature of the Highlanders' weapons, and their extraordinary fierceness and activity, gave them a decided superiority over those who had been accustomed to trust much to their array and discipline, and felt that the one was broken and the other useless. . . . . . . . . . . . . "Loud shouts now echoed over the whole field. The battle was fought and won, and the whole baggage, artillery, and military stores of the regular army remained a possession of the victors. Never was a victory more complete."
Such is Scott's picture of the battle of Prestonpans. And throughout the whole book we have wonderful pictures of Scottish life as it then was—pictures of robbers' caves, and chieftains' halls, of the chiefs themselves, and their followers, of mountain, loch, and glen, all drawn with such a true and living touch that we cannot forget them.
After Waverley other novels followed fast, each one adding to the reputation of the unknown author, and now, from the name of the first, we call them all the Waverley Novels.
Scott's was one of the most wonderful successes—perhaps the most wonderful—that has ever been known in our literature. "As long as Sir Walter Scott wrote poetry," said a friend, "there was neither man nor woman ever thought of either reading or writing anything but poetry. But the instant that he gave over writing poetry, there was neither man nor woman ever read it more! All turned to tales and novels."*
Everybody read The Novels, from the King to the shepherd. Friends, money, and fame came tumbling in upon the author. He had refused to be made Poet Laureate, and passed the honor on to Southey, but he accepted a baronetcy. He added wing after wing to his beautiful house, and acre after acre to his land, and rejoiced in being laird of Abbotsford.
The speed with which Scott wrote was marvelous. His house was always full of visitors, yet he always had time to entertain them. He was never known to refuse to see a friend, gentle or simple, and was courteous even to the bores who daily invaded his home. He had unbounded energy. He rose early in the morning, and before the rest of the family was astir had finished more than half of his daily task of writing. Thus by twelve o'clock he was free to entertain his guests.
If ever man was happy and successful, Scott seemed to be that man. But suddenly all his fair prospects were darkened over. Sir Walter was in some degree a partner in the business both of his publisher and his printer. Now both publisher and printer failed, and Scott found himself ruined with them. At fifty-five he was not only a ruined man, but loaded with a terrible debt of 117,000 pounds.
It was a staggering blow, and most men would have been utterly crushed by it. Not so Scott. He was proud, proud of his old name and of his new-founded baronial hall. He was stout of heart too. At fifty-five he began life again, determined with his pen to wipe out the debt. Many were the hands stretched out to help him; rich men offered their thousands, poor men their scanty savings, but Scott refused help from both rich and poor. His own hand must wipe out the debt, he said. Time was all he asked. So with splendid courage and determination, the like of which has perhaps never been known, he set to work.
But evil days had begun for Sir Walter. Scarcely four months after the crash, his wife died, and so he lost a companion of nearly thirty years. "I think my heart will break," he cries in the first bitterness of sorrow. "Lonely, aged, deprived of my family, an impoverished, an embarrassed man." But dogged courage comes to him again. "Well, that is over, and if it cannot be forgotten must be remembered with patience." So day after day he bent to his work. Every morning saw his appointed task done. Besides novels and articles he wrote a History of Napoleon, a marvelous book, considering it was written in eighteen months.
Then Scott began the book which will be the first of all his books to interest you, The Tales of a Grandfather. This is a history of Scotland, and it was written for his grandson John Hugh Lockhard, or Hugh Littlejohn as he is called in The Tales. "I will make," said Scott, "if possible, a book that a child shall understand, yet a man shall feel some temptation to peruse should he chance to take it up."
Hugh Littlejohn was a delicate boy, indeed he had not long to live, but many a happy day he spent, this summer (1827), riding about the woods of Abbotsford with his kind grandfather, listening to the tales he told. For Scott, too, the rides were a joy, and helped to make him forget his troubles. When he had told his tale in such a simple way that Littlejohn understood, he returned home and wrote it down.
In the December of the same year the first part of The Tales was published, and at once was a tremendous success, a success as great almost as any of the novels. Hugh Littlejohn liked The Tales too. "Dear Grandpapa," he writes, "I thank you for the books. I like my own picture and the Scottish chief: I am going to read them as fast as I can."
Two more volumes of Tales followed. Then there was no need to write more for the dearly loved grandson, as a year or two later, when he was only eleven, poor Littlejohn died. But already the kind grandfather was near his end also, the tremendous effort which he made to force himself to work beyond his strength could not be kept up. His health broke down under it. Still he struggled on, but at last, yielding to his friends' entreaties, he went to Italy in search of health and strength. It gives us some idea of the high place Sir Walter had won for himself in the hearts of the people, when we learn that his health seemed a national concern, and that a warship was sent to take him on his journey. But the journey was of no avail. Among the great hills and blue lakes of Italy Scott longed for the lesser hills and grayer lochs of Scotland. So he turned homewards. And at home, in his beloved Abbotsford, in the still splendor of an autumn day, with the meadow-scented air he loved fanning his face, and the sound of rippling Tweed in his ears, he closed his eyes for ever. In the grass-grown ruin of Dryburgh Abbey, not far from his home, he was laid to rest, while the whole countryside mourned Sir Walter.
Before he died Scott had paid 70,000 pounds of his debt, an enormous sum for one man to make by his pen in six years. He died in the happy belief that all was paid, as indeed it all was. For after the author's death, his books still brought in a great deal of money, so that in fifteen years the debt was wiped out.
I have not told you any of Scott's stories here, because, unlike many of the books we have spoken of, they are easily to be had. And the time will soon come, if it has not come already, when you can read Sir Walter's books, just as he wrote them. It is best, I think, that you should read them so, for Sir Walter Scott is perhaps the first of all our great writers nearly the whole of whose books a child can read without help. You will find many long descriptions in them, but do not let them frighten you. You need not read them all the first time, and very likely you will want to read them the second time.
But perhaps before you read his novels you will like to read his Metrical Romances. For when we are children—big children perhaps, but still children—is the time to read them. Long ago in the twelfth century, when the people of England were simple and unlearned, they loved Metrical Romances, and we when we are simple and unlearned may love them too. Many of these old romances, however, are hard to get, and they are written in a language hard for many of us to understand. But Sir Walter Scott, in the nineteenth century, has recreated for us all the charm of those old tales. For this then, let us thank and remember him.
"His legendary song could tell Of ancient deeds, so long forgot; Of feuds, whose memory was not; Of forests, now laid waste and bare; Of towers, which harbour now the hare; Of manners, long since chang'd and gone; Of chiefs, who under their grey stone So long had slept, that fickle Fame Had blotted from her rolls their name, And twin'd round some new minion's head The fading wreath for which they bled."*
*Lay of the Last Minstrel.
Chapter LXXIX BYRON—"CHILDE HAROLD'S PILGRIMAGE"
WHEN Sir Walter Scott ceased to write Metrical Romances, he said it was because Byron had beaten him. But the metrical romances of these two poets are widely different. With Sir Walter we are up among the hills, out on the wide moorland. With him we tramp the heather, and ford the rushing streams; his poems are full of healthy, generous life. With Byron we seem rather to be in the close air of a theater. His poems do not tell of a rough and vigorous life, but of luxury and softness; of tyrants and slaves, of beautiful houris and dreadful villains. And in the villains we always seem to see Byron himself, who tries to impress us with the fact that he is indeed a very "bold, bad man." In his poetry there is something artificial, which takes us backward to the time of Pope, rather than forward with the nature poets.
The boyhood of George Gordon Byron was a sad one. He came of an ancient and noble family, but one which in its later generations had become feeble almost to madness. His father, who was called Mad Jack, was wild and worthless, his mother was a wealthy woman, but weak and passionate, and in a short time after her marriage her husband spent nearly all her money. Mrs. Byron then took her little baby and went to live quietly in Aberdeen on what was left of her fortune.
She was a weak and passionate woman, and sometimes she petted and spoiled her little boy, sometimes she treated him cruelly, calling him "a lame brat," than which nothing could hurt him more, for poor little George was born lame, and all his life long he felt sore and angry about it. To him too had been given the passionate temper of both father and mother, and when he was angry he would fall into "silent rages," bite pieces out of saucers, or tear his pinafores to bits.
Meanwhile, while in Aberdeen Mrs. Byron struggled to live on 130 pounds a year, in Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham, there lived a queer, half-mad, old grand-uncle, who had earned for himself the name of "the wicked lord." He knew well enough that when he died the little boy in Aberdeen, with the pretty face and lame foot, would become Lord Byron. He might have taken some interest in his nephew, and seen at least that he was sent to school, and given an education to fit him for his future place in the world. But that was not "the wicked lord's" way. He paid no attention to the little boy in Aberdeen. Indeed, it is said that he hated him, and that he cut down his trees and despoiled Newstead as much as he could, in order to leave his heir as poor a heritage as possible.
But when George was ten this old uncle died. Then mother and son said good-by to Aberdeen, and at length traveled southwards to take possession of their great house and broad lands. But the heritage was not so great as at first sight would appear, for the house was so ruinous that it was scarcely fit to live in, and the wicked lord had sold some of the land. However, as the sale was unlawful, after much trouble the land was recovered.
Byron had now to take his place among boys of his own class, and when he was thirteen he was sent to school at Harrow. But he hated school. He was shy as "a wild mountain colt" and somewhat snobbish, and at first was most unpopular.
As he says himself, however, he "fought his way very fairly" and he formed some friendships, passionately, as he did everything. In spite of his lameness, he was good at sports, especially at swimming. He was brave, and even if his snobbishness earned for him the nickname of the "Old English Baron," his comrades admired his spirit, and in the end, instead of being unpopular, he led— often to mischief. "I was," he says, "always cricketing— rebelling—fighting, rowing (from row, not boat-rowing, a different practice), and in all manner of mischiefs." Yet, wild though he was, of his headmaster he ever kept a kindly remembrance. "Dr. Drury," he says, "whom I plagued sufficiently too, was the best, the kindest friend I ever had."
Byron hated Harrow until his last year and a half there; then he liked it. And when he knew he must leave and go to Cambridge, he was so unhappy that he counted the days that remained, not with joy at the thought of leaving, but with sorrow.
At Cambridge he felt himself lonely and miserable at first, as he had at school. But there too he soon made friends. He found plenty of time for games, he rode and shot, rejoiced in feats of swimming and diving. He wrote poetry also, which he afterwards published under the name of Hours of Idleness. It was a good name for the book, for indeed he was so idle in his proper studies, that the wonder is that he was able to take his degree.
It was in 1807, at the age of nineteen, that Lord Byron published his Hours of Idleness, with a rather pompous preface. The poems were not great, some of them indeed were nothing less than mawkish, but perhaps they did not deserve the slashing review which appeared in the Edinburgh Review. The Edinburgh Review was a magazine given at this time to criticising authors very severely, and Byron had to suffer no more than other and greater poets. But he trembled with indignation, and his anger called forth his first really good poem, called English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It is a satire after the style of Pope, and in it Byron lashes not only his reviewers, but also other writers of his day. His criticisms are, many of them, quite wrong, and in after years when he came to know the men he now decried, he regretted this poem, and declared it should never be printed again. But it is still included in his works. Perhaps having just read about Sir Walter Scott, it may amuse you to read what Byron has to say of him.
"Thus Lays of Minstrels—may they be the last!— On half-strung harps whine mournful to the blast. While mountain spirits prate to river sprites, That dames may listen to the sound at nights; . . . . . . Next view in state, proud prancing on his roan, The golden-crested haughty Marmion, Now forging scrolls, now foremost in the fight, Not quite a felon, yet but half a knight, The gibbet or the field prepared to grace; A mighty mixture of the great and base. And think'st thou, Scott! by vain conceit perchance, On public taste to foist thy stale romance."
Then after a sneer at Scott for making money by his poems, Byron concludes with this passage:— "These are the themes that claim our plaudits now; These are the bards to whom the muse must bow; While Milton, Dryden, Pope, alike forgot, Resign their hallowed bays to Walter Scott."
When people read this satire, they realized that a new poet had appeared. But it was not until Byron published his first long poem, called Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, that he became famous. Then his success was sudden and amazing. "I woke up one morning and found myself famous," he says. "His fame," says another poet and friend who wrote his life,* "seemed to spring up like the palace of a fairy tale, in a night." He was praised and lauded by high and low. Every one was eager to known him, and for a time he became the spoiled darling of society.
Childe Harold is a long poem of four cantos, but now only two cantos were published. The third was added in 1816, the fourth in 1818. It is written in the Spenserian stanza, with here and there songs and ballads in other meters, and in the first few verses there is even an affectation of Spenserian wording. But the poet soon grew tired of that, and returned to his own English. Childe is used in the ancient sense of knight, and the poem tells of the wanderings of a gloomy, vicious, world-worn man.
There is very little story in Childe Harold. The poem is more a series of descriptions and a record of the thoughts that are called forth by the places through which the traveler passes. It is indeed a poetic diary. The pilgrim visits many famous spots, among them the field of Waterloo, where but a few months before the fate of Europe had been decided. To us the battle of Waterloo is a long way off. To Byron it was still a deed of yesterday. As he approaches the field he feels that he is on sacred ground.
"Stop!—for thy tread is on an Empire's dust! An Earthquake's spoil is sepulchred below! Is the spot marked with no colossal bust? Nor column trophied for triumphal show? None; but the moral's truth tells simpler so, As the ground was before, thus let is be;— How that red rain hath made the harvest grow! And is this all the world has gain'd by thee, Thou first and last of field! kingmaking victory?"
Then in thought Byron goes over all that took place that fateful day.
"There was a sound of revelry by night, And Belgium's capital had gather'd then Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men; A thousand hearts beat happily; and when Music arose with its voluptuous swell, Soft eyes look'd love to eyes which spake again, And all went merry as a marriage bell; But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it?—No; 'twas but the wind, Or the car rattling o'er the stony street; On with the dance! let joy be unconfined; No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet To chase the glowing hours with flying feet. But hark!—that heavy sound breaks in once more, As if the clouds its echo would repeat; And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before! Arm! arm! it is—it is—the cannon's opening roar! . . . . . . "Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro, And gathering tears and tremblings of distress, And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago Blush'd at the praise of their own loveliness; And there were sudden parting, such as press The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs Which ne'er might be repeated; who could guess If ever more should meet those mutual eyes, Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!
"And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed, The mustering squadron, and the clattering car, Went pouring forward with impetuous speed, And swiftly forming in the ranks of war; And the deep thunder peal on peal afar; And near, the beat of the alarming drum Roused up the soldier ere the morning star; While throng'd the citizens with terror dumb, Or whispering, with white lips—'The foe! they come! they come!'"
And then thinking of the battle lost by the great conqueror of Europe, the poet mourns for him—
"Conqueror and captive of the earth art thou! She trembles at thee still, and thy wild name Was ne'er more bruited in men's minds than now That thou are nothing, save the jest of Fame, Who woo'd thee once, thy vassal, and became The flatterer of thy fierceness, till thou wert A god unto thyself; nor less the same To thee astounded kingdoms all inert, Who deem'd thee for a time whate'er thou didst assert.
"Oh, more or less than man—in high or low, Battling with nations, flying from the field; Now making monarchs' necks thy footstool, now More than thy meanest soldier taught to yield; An empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild, But govern not thy pettiest passion, nor, However deeply in men's spirits skill'd, Look through thine own, nor curb the lust of war, Nor learn that tempted Fate will eave the loftiest Star."
These are a few verses from one of the best known parts of Childe Harold. There are many other verses equally well known. They have become the possession of almost every schoolboy. Some of them you will read in school books, and when you are grown up and able to distinguish between what is vulgar and what is good and beautiful in it, I hope you will read the whole poem.
For two years Byron was as popular as man might be. Then came a change. From the time that he was a child he had always been in love, first with one and then with another. His heart was tinder, ever ready to take fire. Now he married. At first all went well. One little baby girl was born. Then troubles came, troubles which have never been explained, and for which we need not seek an explanation now, and one day Lady Byron left her husband never to return.
The world which had petted and spoiled the poet now turned from the man. He was abused and decried; instead of being courted he was shunned. So in anger and disgust, Byron left the country where he found no sympathy. He never returned to it, the rest of his life being spent as a wanderer upon the Continent.
It was to a great extent a misspent life, and yet, while Byron wasted himself in unworthy ways, he wrote constantly and rapidly, pouring out volumes of poetry at a speed equaled only by Scott. He wrote tragedies, metrical romances, lyrics, and everything that he wrote was read—not only at home, but on the Continent. And one thing that we must remember Byron for is that he made English literature Continental. "Before he came," says an Italian patriot and writer,* "all that was known of English literature was the French translation of Shakespeare. It is since Byron that we Continentalists have learned to study Shakespeare and other English writers. From him dates the sympathy of all the true-hearted amongst us for this land of liberty. He led the genius of Britain on a pilgrimage throughout all Europe."
Much that Byron wrote was almost worthless. He has none of the haunting sense of the beauty of words in perfect order that marks the greatest poets. He has no passion for the correct use of words, and often his song seems tuneless and sometimes vulgar. For in Byron's undisciplined, turgid soul there is a strain of coarseness and vulgarity which not seldom shows itself in his poetry, spoiling some of his most beautiful lines. His poetry is egotistical too, that is, it is full of himself. And again and again it has been said that Byron was always his own hero. "He never had more than a singe subject—himself. No man has ever pushed egotism further than he."* In all his dark and gloomy heroes we see Lord Byron, and it is not only himself which he gives to the world's gaze, but his wrongs and his sorrows. Yet in spite of all its faults, there is enough that is purely beautiful in his work to give Byron rank as a poet. He has been placed on a level with Wordsworth. One cultured writer whose judgment on literature we listen to with respect has said: "Wordsworth and Byron stand out by themselves. When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories of the century which has then just ended, the first names with her will be these."** But there are many who will deny him this high rank. "He can only claim to be acknowledged as a poet of the third class," says another great poet,*** "who now and then rises into the second, but speedily relapses into the lower element where he was born." And yet another has said that his poetry fills the great space through which our literature has moved from the time of Johnson to the time of Wordsworth. "It touches the Essay of Man**** at the one extremity, and The Excursion at the other."***** So you see Byron's place in our literature is hardly settled yet.
*Scherer. **Arnold. ***Swinburne. ****By Pope. *****Macaulay.
When Byron left England he fled from the contempt of his fellows. His life on the Continent did little to lessen that contempt. But before he died he redeemed his name from the scorner.
Long ago, you remember, at the time of the Renaissance, Greece had been conquered by the Turks. Hundreds of years passed, and Greece remained in a state of slavery. But by degrees new life began to stir among the people, and in 1821 a war of independence broke out. At first the other countries of Europe stood aloof, but gradually their sympathies were drawn to the little nation making so gallant a fight for freedom.
And this struggle woke all that was generous in the heart of Byron, the worn man of the world. Like his own Childe Harold, "With pleasure drugg'd he almost long'd for woe." So to Greece he went, and the last nine months of his life were spent to such good purpose that when he died the whole Greek nation mourned. He had hoped to die sword in hand, but that was not to be. His body was worn with reckless living, and could ill bear any strain. One day, when out for a long ride, he became heated, and then soaked by a shower of rain. Rheumatic fever followed, and ten days later he lay dead. He was only thirty-six.
All Greece mourned for the loss of such a generous friend. Cities vied with each other for the honor of his tomb. And when his friends decided that his body should be carried home to England, homage as to a prince was paid to it as it passed through the streets on its last journey.
"The sword, the banner, and the field, Glory and Greece, around me see! The Spartan, borne upon his shield, Was not more free.
"Awake! (not Greece—she is awake!) Awake! my spirit! Think through whom Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake, And then strike home!
"Tread those reviving passions down, Unworthy manhood! unto thee Indifferent should the smile or frown Of Beauty be.
"If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live? The land of honourable death Is here:—up to the field, and give Away thy breath!
"Seek out—less often sought than found— A soldier's grave, for thee the best; Then look around, and choose thy ground And take thy rest."
These lines are from Byron's last poem, written on his thirty- sixth birthday.
Chapter LXXX SHELLEY—THE POET OF LOVE
WHEN Byron wandered upon the Continent he met and made friends with another poet, a greater than himself. This poet was called Percy Bysshe Shelley, and of him I am going to tell you something in this chapter.
On the 4th of August, 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, near the village of Warnham, in Sussex. His father, "a well-meaning, ill-doing, wrong-headed man," was of a good family, and heir to a baronetcy. His mother was a beautiful woman.
Of the early childhood of Bysshe we know nothing, except that at the age of six he was daily taught Latin by a clergyman.
When we next hear of him he is a big boy, the hero of the nursery with four little sisters, and a wee, toddling, baby brother, to all of whom he loved to play big brother. His sisters would often sit on his knee and listen to the wonderful tales he told. There were stories of the Great Tortoise which lived in a pond near. True, the Great Tortoise was never seen, but that made it all the more mysterious and wonderful, and any unusual noise was put down to the Great Tortoise. There were other stories about the Great Old Snake which lived in the garden. This really was seen, and perhaps it was the same serpent which two hundred years before had been known to lurk about the countryside. "He could jut out his neck an ell," it was said, "and cast his venom about four rods; a serpent of countenance very proud, at the sight or hearing of men or cattle, raising his head seeming to listen and look about with great arrogancy." But if it was this same serpent it had lost its venom, and in the days when Bysshe and his sisters played about the garden, they looked upon it as a friend. One day, however, a gardener killed it by mistake, when he was cutting the grass with a scythe. So there was an end of the Great Old Snake. But the Tortoise and the Snake were not the only wonderful things about Field Place. There was a big garret which was never used, with beneath it a secret room, the only entrance to which was through a plank in the garret floor. This, according to the big brother, was the dwelling-place of an alchemist "old and grey with a long beard." Here with his lamp and magic books he wrought his wonders, and "Some day" the eager children were promised a visit to him. Meanwhile Bysshe himself played the alchemist, and with his sisters dressed up in strange costumes to represent fiends or spirits he ran about with liquid fire until this dangerous play was stopped. Then he made an electric battery and amused himself by giving his sisters "shocks" to the secret terror of at least one of them whose heart would sink with fear when she saw her brother appear with a roll of brown paper, a bit of wire, and a bottle. But one day she could not hide her terror any longer, and after that the kind big brother never worried her any more to have shocks.
Sometimes, too, their games took them further afield, and led by Bysshe the children went on long rambles through woods and meadows, climbing walls and scrambling through hedges, and coming home tired and muddy. Bysshe was so happy with his sisters and little brother that he decided to buy a little girl and bring her up as his own. One day a little gypsy girl came to the back door, and he though she would do very well. His father and mother, however, thought otherwise, so the little girl was not bought.
But the boy who was so lively with his sisters, at times was quiet and thoughtful. Sometimes he would slip out of the house on moonlight nights. His anxious parents would then send an old servant after him, who would return to say that "Master Bysshe only took a walk, and came back again." A very strange form of amusement it must have seemed to his plain matter-of-fact father.
But now these careless happy days came to an end, or only returned during holiday times, for when Bysshe was ten years old he was sent to school.
Shelley went first to a private school, and after a year or two to Eton, but at neither was he happy. And although he had been so merry at home, at school he was looked upon as a strange unsociable creature. He refused to fag for the bigger boys. He never joined in the ordinary school games, and would wander about by himself reading, or watching the clouds and the birds. He read all kinds of books, liking best those which told of haunted castles, robbers, giants, murderers, and other eerie subjects. He liked chemistry too, and was more than once brought into trouble by the daring experiments he made. Shelley was very brave and never afraid of anything except what was base and low. To the few who loved him he was gentle, but most of his schoolfellows took delight in tormenting him. And when goaded into wrath he showed that he could be fierce.
Shelley soon began to write, and while still at school, at the age of sixteen, he published a novel for which he received 40 pounds. A little later he and one of his sisters published a book of poems together.
From Eton Shelley went to Oxford. Here he remained for a few months reading hard. "He was to be found, book in hand, at all hours; reading in season and out of season; at table, in bed, and especially during a walk." But he read more what pleased himself than what pleased the college authorities. He wrote too, and among the things he wrote was a little leaflet of a few pages which seemed to the fellows of his college a dangerous attack upon religion. They summoned Shelley to appear before them, and as he refused to answer their questions he was expelled. Shelley had given himself the name of Atheist. It is a very ugly name, meaning one who denies the existence of God. Looking back now we can see that it was too harsh and ugly a name for Shelley. The paper for which he was expelled, even if it was wicked, was the work of a rash, impetuous boy, not the reasoned wickedness of a grown man. But the deed was done, and Shelley was thrown out into the world, for his father, sorely vexed and troubled, not knowing how to control his wild colt of a son, refused to allow him to return home. So Shelley remained in London. Here he went often to visit his sisters at school, and came to known one of their school friends, Harriet Westbrook. She was a pretty, good- tempered girl of sixteen with "hair like a poet's dream."* Shelley thought that she too was oppressed and ill-used as he had been. She loved him, he liked her, so they decided to get married, and ran away to Scotland and were married in Edinburgh. Shelley was nineteen and his little bride sixteen.
This boy and girl marriage was a terrible mistake, and three years later husband and wife separated.
I can tell you very little more of Shelley's life, some of it was wrong, much of it was sad, as it could hardly fail to be following on this wrong beginning. When you grow older you will be able to read it with charity and understanding. Meantime keep the picture of the kindly big brother, and imagine him growing into a lovable and brave man, into a poet who wins our hearts almost unawares by the beauty of his poetry, his poetry which has been called "a beautiful dream of the future." Of some of it I shall now tell you a little.
Very early Shelley began to publish poetry, but most of it was not worthy of a truly great poet. His first really fine poem is Alastor. It is written in blank verse, and represents a poet seeking in vain for his ideal of what is truly lovely and beautiful. Being unable to find that which he seeks, he dies. The poem is full of beautiful description, but it is sad, and in the picture of the poet we seem to see Shelley himself. Other long poems followed, poems which are both terrible and beautiful, but many years must pass before you try to read them. For Shelley's poetry is more vague, his meaning more elusive, than that of almost any other poet of whom we have spoken. It is rather for Shelley's shorter poems, his lyrics, that I would try to gain your love at present, for although he wrote The Cenci, the best tragedy of his time, a tragedy which by its terror and pain links him with Shakespeare, it is as a lyric poet that we love Shelley. "Here," says another poet,* "Shelley forgets that he is anything but a poet, forgets sometimes that he is anything but a child. . . . He plays truant from earth, slips through the wicket of fancy into heaven's meadow, and goes gathering stars." And of all our poets, Shelley is the least earthly, the most spiritual. But he loved the beautiful world, the sea and sky, and when we have heard him sing of the clouds and the skylark, of the wind and the waves of—
"The fresh Earth in new leaves drest, And the starry night; Autumn evening, and the morn When the golden mists are born,"*
when we have heard him sing of these, and have understood with our heart, they have an added meaning for us. We love and understand the song of the skylark better for having heard Shelley sing of it.
"Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert, That from heaven, or near it, Pourest thy full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
"Higher still and higher, From the earth thou springest Like a cloud of fire; The deep blue thou wingest, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
"In the golden lightening Of the sunken sun, O'er which clouds are brightening, Thou dost float and run; Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
"The pale purple even Melts around thy flight; Like a star of heaven, In the broad daylight, Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight. . . . . . . . "All the earth and air With thy voice is loud, As, when night is bare, From one lonely cloud The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.
"What thou art we know not; What is most like thee? From rainbow clouds there flow not Drops so bright to see, As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
"Like a poet hidden In the light of thought, Singing hymns unbidden, Till the world is wrought In sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
"Like a high-born maiden In a palace tower, Soothing her love-laden Soul a secret hour With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower. . . . . . . . "Teach us, sprite or bird, What sweet thoughts are thine; I have never heard Praise of love or wine That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine. . . . . . . . "We look before and after, And pine for what is not: Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught; The sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
"Yet if we could scorn Hate, and pride, and fear; If we were things born Not to shed a tear, I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
"Better than all measures Of delightful sound, Better than all treasures That in books are found, Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
"Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know; Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow, The world would listen then, as I am listening now!"
As we listen to the lark singing we look upward and see the light summer clouds driving over the blue sky. They, too, have a song which once the listening poet heard.
"I bring fresh showers for the thirsty flowers, From the seas and the streams; I bear light shades for the leaves when laid In their noonday dreams. From my wings are shaken the dews that waken The sweet buds every one, When rocked to rest on their mother's breast, As she dances about the sun. I wield the flail of the lashing hail, And whiten the green plains under, And then again I dissolve it in rain, And laugh as I pass in thunder.
I sift the snow on the mountains below, And their great pines groan aghast, And all the night 'tis my pillow white, While asleep in the arms of the blast. Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers, Lightning my pilot sits, In a cavern under is fettered the thunder, It struggles and howls at fits; Over earth and ocean with gentle motion This pilot is guiding me, Lured by the love of the genii that move In the depths of the purple sea; Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills, Over the lakes and the plains, Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream, The spirit he love remains; And I all the while bask in heaven's blue smile, Whilst he is dissolving in rains. . . . . . . . "I bind the sun's throne with the burning zone, And the moon's with a girdle of pearl: The volcanoes are dim, and the starts reel and swim When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape, Over a torrent sea, Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof, The mountains its columns be. The triumphal arch through which I march, With hurricane, fire, and snow, When the powers of the air are chained to my chair, In the million-coloured bow; The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove, While the moist earth was laughing below.
"I am the daughter of earth and water, And the nursling of the sky: I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores; I change, but I cannot die. For after the rain, when with never a stain, The pavilion of heaven is bare, And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams, Build up the blue dome of air, I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, And out of the caverns of rain, Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, I arise and unbuild it again."
That is one of Shelley's happiest poems. For most of his poems have at least a tone of sadness, even the joyous song of the skylark leaves us with a sigh on our lips, "our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught." But The Cloud is full only of joy and movement, and of the laughter of innocent mischief. It is as if we saw the boy Shelley again.
We find his sadness, too, in his Ode to the West Wind, but it ends on a note of hope. Here are the last verses—
"Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: What if my leaves are falling like its own! The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
"Will take from both a deep autumnal tone, Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
"Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth; And by the incantation of this verse,
"Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawakened earth
"The trumpet of a prophecy! O wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
Shelley sang of Love as well as of the beauty of all things. Here is a little poem, some lines of which are often quoted—
"One word is too often profaned For me to profane it, One feeling too falsely disdained For thee to disdain it, One hope is too like despair For prudence to smother, And Pity from thee more dear Than that from another.
"I can give not what men call love, But wilt thou accept not The worship the heart lifts above And the Heavens reject not. The desire of the moth for the star, Of the night for the morrow, The devotion of something afar From the sphere of our sorrow?"
And when his heart was crushed with the knowledge of the wrong and cruelty in the world, it was through love alone that he saw the way to better and lovelier things. "To purify life of its misery and evil was the ruling passion of his soul,"* said one who loved him and knew him perhaps better than any living being. And it was through love and the beauty of love that he hoped for the triumph of human weal.
The ideas of the Revolution touched him as they had touched Byron and Wordsworth, and although Wordsworth turned away from them disappointed, Shelley held on hopefully.
"To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; To forgive wrongs darker than death or night; To defy Power, which seems omnipotent; To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates From its own wreck the thing it contemplates: Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent; This, like thy glory, Titan! is to be Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free; This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!"*
One of Shelley's last poems was an elegy called Adonais. Under the name of Adonais, he mourns for the death of another poet, John Keats, who died at twenty-six. Shelley believed when he wrote the poem that Keats had been done to death by the cruel criticisms of his poems, that he had died of a broken heart, because the world neither understood nor sympathized with his poetry. Shelley himself knew what it was to suffer from unkind criticisms, and so he understood the feelings of another poet. But although Keats did suffer something from neglect and cruelty, he died of consumption, not of a broken heart.
Adonais ranks with Lycidas as one of the most beautiful elegies in our language. In it, Shelley calls upon everything, upon every thought and feeling, upon all poets, to weep for the loss of Adonais.
"All he had loved, and moulded into thought From shape, and hue, and odour, and sweet sound, Lamented Adonais. Morning sought Her eastern watch-tower, and her hair unbound, Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground, Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day; Afar the melancholy thunder moaned, Pale ocean in unquiet slumber lay, And the wild winds flew around, sobbing in their dismay. . . . . . . . "The mountain shepherds came, Their garlands sere, their magic mantles rent; The Pilgrims of Eternity,* whose fame Over his living head like Heaven is bent, An early but enduring monument, Came, veiling all the lightnings of his song In sorrow; from her wilds Ierne** sent The sweetest lyrist of her saddest wrong, And love taught grief to fall like music from his tongue."
*Lord Byron. **Ierne=Ireland sends Thomas Moore to mourn.
He pictures himself, too, among the mourners—
"'Midst others of less note, came one frail Form, A phantom among men, companionless As the last cloud of an expiring storm, Whose thunder is its knell."
Shelley mourned for Keats, little knowing that soon others would mourn for himself. Little more than a year after writing this poem he too lay dead.
Shelley had passed much of his time on the Continent, and in 1822 he was living in a lonely spot on the shores of the Bay of Spezia. He always loved the sea, and he here spent many happy hours sailing about the bay in his boat the Don Juan. Hearing that a friend had arrived from England he sailed to Leghorn to welcome him.
Shelley met his friend, and after a week spent with him and with Lord Byron, he set out for home. The little boat never reached its port, for on the journey it was wrecked, we shall never know how. A few days later Shelley's body was thrown by the waves upon the sandy shore. In his pocket was found a copy of Keats's poems doubled back, as if he had been reading to the last moment and hastily thrust the book into his pocket. The body was cremated upon the shore, and the ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, not far from the grave of Keats. "It is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." So Shelley himself had written in the preface to Adonais.
Over his grave was placed a simple stone with the date of his birth and death and the words "Cor Cordium"—heart of hearts. Beneath these words are some lines from the Tempest which Shelley had loved—
"Nothing of him doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange."
BOOKS TO READ
Poems of Shelley, selected and arranged for use in schools, by E. E. Speight.
Chapter LXXXI KEATS—THE POET OF BEAUTY
JOHN KEATS, the poet whose death Shelley mourned in Adonais, was by a few years the younger, having been born in 1795. He was born, too, in very different circumstances, for whereas Shelley was the eldest son of a country gentleman, John Keats, was the eldest son of a stableman.
As a boy Thomas Keats had come to London and found a situation as ostler in some livery stable. He was clever and steady, and before he was twenty had risen to be head ostler and married his master's daughter. Keats then became manager of the stables, and his father-in-law, who was comfortably off, went away to live in the country. John's parents were not poor, nor were they common people. In all they had four children, two boys besides John, and a little girl, and they determined to give their children a good education. They would have liked to send their boys to Harrow, but finding that would cost too much they sent them to a smaller school at Enfield. It was a good school, with a large playground, and John seems to have had a happy time there. He was a little chap for his years, but a manly little fellow, broad shouldered and strong. He was full of spirits and fond of fun, and in spite of his passionate temper, every one liked him. He was not particularly fond of lessons, but he did them easily and then turned to other things. What he liked best was fighting. "He would fight any one," says one of his old schoolfellows,* "Morning, noon, and night, his brothers among the rest. It was meat and drink to him." "Yet," says another, "no one ever had an angry word to say of him, and they loved him not only for his terrier-like courage, but for his generosity, his high- mindedness, and his utter ignorance of what was mean or base." But although John was so much loved, and although he was generally so bright and merry, he had miserable times too. He had fits of melancholy, but when these came he would go to his brothers and pour out all his grief to them. This made him feel better, and he troubled no one else with his moods.
Very soon after John went to school his father was killed by a fall from his horse, his grandfather died too, and his mother married again. But the marriage was not happy and she soon left her new husband and went to live with her own mother at Edmonton. So for five years John's life was spent between school and his grandmother's house. They were a happy family. The brothers loved each other though they jangled and fought, and they loved their mother and little sister too.
So the years went on, and John showed not the lightest sign of being a poet. Some doggerel rimes he wrote to his sister show the boy he was, not very unlike other boys.
"There was a naughty boy, And a naughty boy was he: He kept little fishes In washing-tubs three, In spite Of the might Of the maid, Nor afraid Of his granny good. He often would Hurly-burly Get up early And go By hook or crook To the brook, And bring home Miller's Thumb, Tittlebat Not over fat, Minnows small As the stall Of a glove, Not above The size Of a nice Little baby's Little fingers."
After John had been at school some time he suddenly began to care for books. He began to read and read greedily, he won all the literature prizes, and even on half-holidays he could hardly be driven out to join in the games of his comrades, preferring rather to sit in the quiet schoolroom translating from Latin or French, and even when he was driven forth he went book in hand.
It was while John was still at school that his mother died and all her children were placed under the care of a guardian. As John was now fifteen, their guardian took him from school, and it was decided to make him a doctor. He was apprenticed, in the fashion of the day, to a surgeon at Edmonton, for five years. Keats seems to have been quite pleased with this arrangement. His new studies still left him time to read. He was within walking distance of his old school, and many a summer afternoon he spent reading in the garden with Cowden Clarke, the son of his old schoolmaster, in whom Keats had found a friend. From this friend he borrowed Spenser's Faery Queen, and having read it a new wonder-world seemed opened to him. "He ramped through the scenes of the romance like a young horse turned into a spring meadow,"* and all through Keats's poetry we find the love of beautiful coloring and of gorgeous detail that we also find in Spenser. It was Spenser that awakened in Keats his sleeping gift of song, and the first verses which he wrote were in imitation of the Elizabethan poet.
From Spenser Keats learned how poetry might be gemmed, how it might glow with color. But there was another source from which he was to learn what pure and severe beauty might mean. This source was the poetry of Homer. Keats knew nothing of Greek, yet all his poetry shows the influence of Greece. At school he had loved the Greek myths and had read them in English. Now among the books he read with his friend Cowden Clarke was a translation of Homer. It was not Pope's translation but an earlier one by Chapman. The two friends began to read it one evening, and so keen was Keats's delight that at times he shouted aloud in joy; the morning light put out their candles. In the dawning of the day the young poet went home quivering with delight. It was for him truly the dawning of a new day. For him still another new world had opened, and his spirit exulted. The voice of this great master poet awoke in him an answering voice, and before many hours had passed Cowden Clarke had in his hands Keats's sonnet On first looking into Chapman's Homer. The lines that Spenser had called forth were a mere imitation; Homer called forth Keats's first really great poem.
"Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many Western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told, That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne: Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— Silent, upon a peak in Darien."