And these will ride from child and home and love, Through death and hell that day; But O, her faith, her flag, must burn above, Her soul must lead the way!
I think none the worse of the mental force exhibited in the poetry of Alfred Noyes because he is an optimist. It is a common error to suppose that cheerfulness is a sign of a superficial mind, and melancholy the mark of deep thinking. Pessimism in itself is no proof of intellectual greatness. Every honest man must report the world as he sees it, both in its external manifestations and in the equally salient fact of human emotion. Mr. Noyes has always loved life, and rejoiced in it; he loves the beauty of the world and believes that history proves progress. In an unashamed testimony to the happiness of living he is simply telling truths of his own experience. Happiness is not necessarily thoughtlessness; many men and women have gone through pessimism and come out on serener heights.
Alfred Noyes proves, as Browning proved, that it is possible to be an inspired poet and in every other respect to remain normal. He is healthy-minded, without a trace of affectation or decadence. He follows the Tennysonian tradition in seeing that "Beauty, Good, and Knowledge are three sisters." He is religious. A clear-headed, pure-hearted Englishman is Alfred Noyes.
Although A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, there is nothing of the nineteenth century in it except the date, and nothing Victorian except the allusions to the Queen. A double puzzle confronts the reader: how could a University Professor of Latin write this kind of poetry, and how, after having published it, could he refrain from writing more? Since the date of its appearance, he has published an edition of Manilius, Book I, followed nine years later by Book II; also an edition of Juvenal, and many papers representing the result of original research. Possibly
Chill Pedantry repressed his noble rage, And froze the genial current of his soul.
Alfred Edward Housman was born on the twenty-sixth of March, 1859, was graduated from Oxford, was Professor of Latin at University College, London, from 1892 to 1911, and since then has been Professor of Latin at Cambridge. Few poets have made a deeper impression on the literature of the time than he; and the sixty-three short lyrics in one small volume form a slender wedge for so powerful an impact. This poetry, except in finished workmanship, follows no English tradition; it is as unorthodox as Samuel Butler; it is thoroughly "modern" in tone, in temper, and in emphasis. Although entirely original, it reminds one in many ways of the verse of Thomas Hardy. It has his paganism, his pessimism, his human sympathy, his austere pride in the tragedy of frustration, his curt refusal to pipe a merry tune, to make one of a holiday crowd.
Therefore, since the world has still Much good, but much less good than ill, And while the sun and moon endure Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure, I'd face it as a wise man would, And train for ill and not for good. 'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale Is not so brisk a brew as ale: Out of a stem that scored the hand I wrung it in a weary land. But take it: if the smack is sour, The better for the embittered hour; It should do good to heart and head When your soul is in my soul's stead; And I will friend you, if I may, In the dark and cloudy day.
Those lines might have been written by Thomas Hardy. They express not merely his view of life, but his faith in the healing power of the bitter herb of pessimism. But we should remember that A Shropshire Lad was published before the first volume of Mr. Hardy's verse appeared, and that the lyrical element displayed is natural rather than acquired.
Though at the time of its publication the author was thirty-six years old, many of the poems must have been written in the twenties. The style is mature, but the constant dwelling on death and the grave is a mark of youth. Young poets love to write about death, because its contrast to their present condition forms a romantic tragedy, sharply dramatic and yet instinctively felt to be remote. Tennyson's first volume is full of the details of dissolution, the falling jaw, the eye-balls fixing, the sharp-headed worm. Aged poets do not usually write in this manner, because death seems more realistic than romantic. It is a fact rather than an idea. When a young poet is obsessed with the idea of death, it is a sign, not of morbidity, but of normality.
The originality in this book consists not in the contrast between love and the grave, but in the acute self-consciousness of youth, in the pagan determination to enjoy nature without waiting till life's summer is past.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten, Twenty will not come again, And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow.
The death of the body is not the greatest tragedy in this volume, for suicide, a thought that youth loves to play with, is twice glorified. The death of love is often treated with an ironical bitterness that makes one think of Time's Laughingstocks.
Is my friend hearty, Now I am thin and pine, And has he found to sleep in A better bed than mine?
Yes, lad, I lie easy, I lie as lads would choose; I cheer a dead man's sweetheart, Never ask me whose.
The point of view expressed in The Carpenter's Son is singularly detached not only from conventional religious belief, but from conventional reverence. But the originality in A Shropshire Lad, while more strikingly displayed in some poems than in others, leaves its mark on them all. It is the originality of a man who thinks his own thoughts with shy obstinacy, makes up his mind in secret meditation, quite unaffected by current opinion. It is not the poetry of a rebel; it is the poetry of an independent man, too indifferent to the crowd even to fight them. And now and then we find a lyric of flawless beauty, that lingers in the mind like the glow of a sunset.
Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went, And cannot come again.
Mr. Housman's poems are nearer to the twentieth century in spirit than the work of the late Victorians, and many of them are curiously prophetic of the dark days of the present war. What strange vision made him write such poems as The Recruit, The Street Sounds to the Soldiers' Tread, The Day of Battle, and On the Idle Hill of Summer? Change the colour of the uniforms, and these four poems would fit today's tragedy accurately. They are indeed superior to most of the war poems written by the professional poets since 1914.
Ludlow, for ever associated with. Milton's Comus, is now and will be for many years to come also significant in the minds of men as the home of a Shropshire lad.
John Masefield—new wine in old bottles—back to Chaucer—the self-conscious adventurer—early education and experiences—Dauber—Mr. Masefleld's remarks on Wordsworth—Wordsworth's famous Preface and its application to the poetry of Mr. Masefield—The Everlasting Mercy—The Widow in the Bye Street and its Chaucerian manner—his masterpiece—The Daffodil Fields—similarities to Wordsworth—the part played by the flowers—comparison of The Daffodil Fields with Enoch Arden—the war poem, August 1914—the lyrics—the sonnets—the novels—his object in writing—his contribution to the advance of poetry.
Poets are the Great Exceptions. Poets are for ever performing the impossible. "No man putteth new wine into old bottles ... new wine must be put into new bottles." But putting new wine into old bottles has been the steady professional occupation of John Masefield. While many of our contemporary vers librists and other experimentalists have been on the hunt for new bottles, sometimes, perhaps, more interested in the bottle than in the wine, John Masefield has been constantly pouring his heady drink into receptacles five hundred years old. In subject-matter and in language he is not in the least "traditional," not at all Victorian; he is wholly modern, new, contemporary. Yet while he draws his themes and his heroes from his own experience, his inspiration as a poet comes directly from Chaucer, who died in 1400. He is, indeed, the Chaucer of today; the most closely akin to Chaucer—not only in temperament, but in literary manner—of all the writers of the twentieth century. The beautiful metrical form that Chaucer invented—rime royal—ideally adapted for narrative poetry, as shown in Troilus and Criseyde, is the metre chosen by John Masefield for The Widow in the Bye Street and for Dauber; the only divergence in The Daffodil Fields consisting in the lengthening of the seventh line of the stanza, for which he had plenty of precedents. Mr. Masefield owes more to Chaucer than to any other poet.
Various are the roads to poetic achievement. Browning became a great poet at the age of twenty, with practically no experience of life outside of books. He had never travelled, he had never "seen the world," but was brought up in a library; and was so deeply read in the Greek poets and dramatists that a sunrise on the Aegean Sea was more real to him than a London fog. He never saw Greece with his natural eyes. In the last year of his life, being asked by an American if he had been much in Athens, he replied contritely, "Thou stick'st a dagger in me." He belied Goethe's famous dictum.
John Masefield was born at Ledbury, in western England, in 1874. He ran away from home, shipped as cabin boy on a sailing vessel, spent some years before the mast, tramped on foot through various countries, turned up in New York, worked in the old Columbia Hotel in Greenwich Avenue, and had plenty of opportunity to study human nature in the bar-room. Then he entered a carpet factory in the Bronx. But he was the last man in the world to become a carpet knight. He bought a copy of Chaucer's poems, stayed up till dawn reading it, and for the first time was sure of his future occupation.
John Masefield is the real man-of-war-bird imagined by Walt Whitman. He is the bird self-conscious, the wild bird plus the soul of the poet.
To cope with heaven and earth and sea and hurricane, Thou ship of air that never furl'st thy sails, Days, even weeks untired and onward, through spaces, realms gyrating, At dusk that look'st on Senegal, at morn America, That sport'st amid the lightning-flash and thunder-cloud, In them, in thy experiences, had'st thou my soul, What joys! what joys were thine!
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. They do indeed; they see them as the bird sees them, with no spiritual vision, with no self-consciousness, with no power to refer or to interpret. It is sad that so many of those who have marvellous experiences have nothing else; while those who are sensitive and imaginative live circumscribed. What does the middle watch mean to an average seaman? But occasionally the sailor is a Joseph Conrad or a John Masefield. Then the visions of splendour and the glorious voices of nature are seen and heard not only by the eye and the ear, but by the spirit.
Although Chaucer took Mr. Masefield out of the carpet factory even as Spenser released Keats it would be a mistake to suppose (as many do) that the Ledbury boy was an uncouth vagabond, who, without reading, without education, and without training, suddenly became a poet. He had a good school education before going to sea; and from earliest childhood he longed to write. Even as a little boy he felt the impulse to put his dreams on paper; he read everything he could lay his hands on, and during all the years of bodily toil, afloat and ashore, he had the mind and the aspiration of a man of letters. Never, I suppose, was there a greater contrast between an individual's outer and inner life. He mingled with rough, brutal, decivilized creatures; his ears were assaulted by obscene language, spoken as to an equal; he saw the ugliest side of humanity, and the blackest phases of savagery. Yet through it all, sharing these experiences with no trace of condescension, his soul was like a lily.
He descended into hell again and again, coming out with his inmost spirit unblurred and shining, even as the rough diver brings from the depths the perfect pearl. For every poem that he has written reveals two things: a knowledge of the harshness of life, with a nature of extraordinary purity, delicacy, and grace. To find a parallel to this, we must recall the figure of Dostoevski in the Siberian prison.
Many men of natural good taste and good breeding have succumbed to a coarse environment. What saved our poet, and made his experiences actually minister to his spiritual flame, rather than burn him up? It was perhaps that final miracle of humanity, acute self-consciousness, stronger in some men than in others, strongest of all in the creative artist. Even at the age of twenty, Browning felt it more than he felt anything else, and his words would apply to John Masefield, and explain in some measure his thirst for sensation and his control of it.
I am made up of an intensest life, Of a most clear idea of consciousness Of self, distinct from all its qualities, From all affections, passions, feelings, powers; And thus far it exists, if tracked, in all: But linked, in me, to self-supremacy, Existing as a centre to all things, Most potent to create and rule and call Upon all things to minister to it; And to a principle of restlessness Which would be all, have, see, know, taste, feel, all— This is myself.
Although the poem Dauber is a true story—for there was such a man, who suffered both horrible fear within and brutal ridicule without, who finally conquered both, and who, in the first sweets of victory, as he was about to enter upon his true career, lost his life by falling from the yardarm—cannot help thinking that Mr. Masefield put a good deal of himself into this strange hero. The adoration of beauty, which is the lodestar of the poet, lifted Dauber into a different world from the life of the ship. He had an ungovernable desire to paint the constantly changing phases of beauty in the action of the vessel and in the wonders of the sea and sky. In this passion his shy, sensitive nature was stronger than all the brute strength enjoyed by his shipmates; they could destroy his paintings, they could hurt his body, they could torture his heart. But they could not prevent him from following his ideal. Dauber died, and his pictures are lost. But in the poem describing his aims and his sufferings, Mr. Masefield has accomplished with his pen what Dauber failed to do with his brush; the beauty of the ship, the beauty of dawn and of midnight, the majesty of the storm are revealed to us in a series of unforgettable pictures. And one of Edison's ambitions is here realized. At the same moment we see the frightful white-capped ocean mountains, and we hear the roar of the gale.
Water and sky were devils' brews which boiled, Boiled, shrieked, and glowered; but the ship was saved. Snugged safely down, though fourteen sails were split. Out of the dark a fiercer fury raved. The grey-backs died and mounted, each crest lit With a white toppling gleam that hissed from it And slid, or leaped, or ran with whirls of cloud, Mad with inhuman life that shrieked aloud.
Mr. Masefield is a better poet than critic. In the New York Tribune for 23 January 1916, he spoke with modesty and candour of his own work and his own aims, and no one can read what he said without an increased admiration for him. But it is difficult to forgive him for talking as he did about Wordsworth, who "wrote six poems and then fell asleep." And among the six are not Tintern Abbey or the Intimations of Immortality. Meditative poetry is not Mr. Masefield's strongest claim to fame, and we do not go to poets for illuminating literary criticism. Swinburne was so violent in his "appreciations" that his essays in criticism are adjectival volcanoes. Every man with him was God or Devil. It is rare that a creative poet has the power of interpretation of literature possessed by William Watson. Mr. Masefield does not denounce Wordsworth, as Swinburne denounced Byron; he is simply blind to the finest qualities of the Lake poet. Yet, although he carries Wordsworth's famous theory of poetry to an extreme that would have shocked the author of it—if Mr. Masefield does not like Tintern Abbey, we can only imagine Wordsworth's horror at The Everlasting Mercy—the philosophy of poetry underlying both The Everlasting Mercy, The Widow in the Bye Street, and other works is essentially that of William Wordsworth. Keeping The Everlasting Mercy steadily in mind, it is interesting, instructive, and even amusing to read an extract from Wordsworth's famous Preface of 1800. "The principal object, then, proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature; chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature."
When Wordsworth wrote these dicta, he followed them up with some explicit reservations, and made many more implicit ones. Mr. Masefield, in the true manner of the twentieth century, makes none at all. Taking the language of Wordsworth exactly as it stands in the passage quoted above, it applies with precision to the method employed by Mr. Masefield in the poems that have given him widest recognition. And in carrying this theory of poetry to its farthest extreme in The Everlasting Mercy, not only did its author break with tradition, the tradition of nineteenth-century poetry, as Wordsworth broke with that of the eighteenth, he succeeded in shocking some of his contemporaries, who refused to grant him a place among English poets. It was in the English Review for October, 1911, that The Everlasting Mercy first appeared. It made a sensation. In 1912 the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature awarded him the Edmond de Polignac prize of five hundred dollars. This aroused the wrath of the orthodox poet Stephen Phillips, who publicly protested, not with any animosity toward the recipient, but with the conviction that true standards of literature were endangered.
It is unfortunate for an artist or critic to belong to any "school" whatsoever. Belonging to a school circumscribes a man's sympathies. It shuts him away from outside sources of enjoyment, and makes him incapable of appreciating many new works of art, because he has prejudged them even before they were written. Poetry is greater than any definition of it. There is no doubt that Marpessa is a real poem; and there is no doubt that the same description is true of The Everlasting Mercy.
In The Everlasting Mercy, the prize-fight, given in detail, by rounds, is followed by an orgy of drunkenness rising to a scale almost Homeric. The man, crazy with alcohol, runs amuck, and things begin to happen. The village is turned upside down. Two powerful contrasts are dramatically introduced, one as an interlude between violent phases of the debauch, the other as a conclusion. The first is the contrast between the insane buffoon and the calm splendour of the night.
I opened window wide and leaned Out of that pigstye of the fiend And felt a cool wind go like grace About the sleeping market-place. The clock struck three, and sweetly, slowly, The bells chimed Holy, Holy, Holy; And in a second's pause there fell The cold note of the chapel bell, And then a cock crew, flapping wings, And summat made me think of things. How long those ticking clocks had gone From church and chapel, on and on, Ticking the time out, ticking slow To men and girls who'd come and go.
These thoughts suddenly become intolerable. A second fit of madness, wilder than the first, drives the man about the town like a tornado. Finally and impressively comes the contrast between the drunkard's horrible mirth and the sudden calm in his mind when the tall pale Quakeress hypnotizes him with conviction of sin. She drives out the devils from his breast with quiet authority, and the peace of God enters into his soul.
From the first word of the poem to the last the man's own attitude toward fighting, drink, and religion is logically sustained. It is perfect drama, with never a false note. The hero is one of the "twice-born men," and the work may fairly be taken as one more footnote to the varieties of religious experience.
I have been told on good authority that of all his writings Mr. Masefield prefers Nan, The Widow in the Bye Street, and The Everlasting Mercy. I think he is right. In these productions he has no real competitors. They are his most original, most vivid, most powerful pieces. He is at his best when he has a story to tell, and can tell it freely in his own unhampered way, a combination of drama and narrative. In The Everlasting Mercy, written in octosyllabics, the metre of Christmas Eve, he is unflinchingly realistic, as Browning was in describing the chapel. The Athenaeum thought Browning ought not to write about the mysteries of the Christian faith in doggerel. But Christmas Eve is not doggerel. It is simply the application of the rules of realism to a discussion of religion. It may lack the dignity of the Essay on Man, but it is more interesting because it is more definite, more concrete, more real. In The Everlasting Mercy we have beautiful passages of description, sharply exciting narration, while the dramatic element is furnished by conversation—and what conversation! It differs from ordinary poetry as the sermons of an evangelist differ from the sermons of Bishops. Mr. Masefield is a natural-born dramatist. He is never content to describe his characters; he makes them talk, and talk their own language, and you will never go far in his longer poems without seeing the characters rise from the page, spring into life, and immediately you hear their voices raised in angry altercation. It is as though he felt the reality of his men and women so keenly that he cannot keep them down. They refuse to remain quiet. They insist on taking the poem into their own hands, and running away with it.
When we are reading The Widow in the Bye Street we realize that Mr. Masefield has studied with some profit the art of narrative verse as displayed by Chaucer. The story begins directly, and many necessary facts are revealed in the first stanza, in a manner so simple that for the moment we forget that this apparent simplicity is artistic excellence. The Nun's Priest's Tale is a model of attack.
A poure wydwe, somdel stope in age, Was whilom dwellynge in a narwe cottage, Beside a grove, stondynge in a dale. This wydwe, of which I telle yow my tale, Syn thilke day that she was last a wyf, In pacience ladde a ful symple lyf, For litel was hir catel and hir rente.
Now if I could have only one of Mr. Masefield's books, I would take The Widow in the Bye Street. Its opening lines have the much-in-little so characteristic of Chaucer.
Down Bye Street, in a little Shropshire town, There lived a widow with her only son: She had no wealth nor title to renown, Nor any joyous hours, never one. She rose from ragged mattress before sun And stitched all day until her eyes were red, And had to stitch, because her man was dead.
This is one of the best narrative poems in modern literature. It rises from calm to the fiercest and most tumultuous passions that usurp the throne of reason. Love, jealousy, hate, revenge, murder, succeed in cumulative force. Then the calm of unmitigated and hopeless woe returns, and we leave the widow in a solitude peopled only with memories. It is melodrama elevated into poetry. The mastery of the artist is shown in the skill with which he avoids the quagmire of sentimentality. We can easily imagine what form this story would take under the treatment of many popular writers. But although constantly approaching the verge, Mr. Masefield never falls in. He has known so much sentimentality, not merely in books and plays, but in human beings, that he understands how to avoid it. Furthermore, he is steadied by seeing so plainly the weaknesses of his characters, just as a great nervous specialist gains in poise by observing his patients. And perhaps our author feels the sorrows of the widow too deeply to talk about them with any conventional affectation.
I should like to find some one who, without much familiarity with the fixed stars in English literature, had read The Daffodil Fields, and then ask him to guess who wrote the following stanzas:
A gentle answer did the old Man make, In courteous speech which forth he slowly drew; And him with further words I thus bespake, "What occupation do you there pursue? This is a lonesome place for one like you." Ere he replied, a flash of mild surprise Broke from the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes.
"This will break Michael's heart," he said at length. "Poor Michael," she replied; "they wasted hours. He loved his father so. God give him strength. This is a cruel thing this life of ours." The windy woodland glimmered with shut flowers, White wood anemones that the wind blew down. The valley opened wide beyond the starry town.
And I think he would reply with some confidence, "John Masefield." He would he right concerning the second stanza; but the first is, as every one ought to know and does not, from Resolution and Independence, by William Wordsworth. It is significant that this is one of the six poems excepted by Mr. Masefield from the mass of Wordsworthian mediocrity. It is, of course, a great poem, although when it was published (1807, written in 1802), it seemed by conventional standards no poem at all. Shortly after its appearance, some one read it aloud to an intelligent woman; she sobbed unrestrainedly; then, recovering herself, said shamefacedly, "After all, it isn't poetry." The reason, I suppose, why she thought it could not be poetry was because it was so much nearer life than "art." The simplicity of the scene; the naturalness of the dialogue; the homeliness of the old leech-gatherer; these all seemed to be outside the realm of the heroic, the elevated, the sublime,—the particular business of poetry, as she mistakenly thought. The reason why John Masefield admires this poem is because of its vitality, its naturalness, its easy dialogue—main characteristics of his own work. In writing The Daffodil Fields, he consciously or unconsciously selected the same metre, introduced plenty of conversation, as he loves to do in all his narrative poetry, and set his tragedy on a rural stage.
It is important here to repeat the last few phrases already quoted from Wordsworth's famous Preface: "The manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." If Mr. Masefield had written this preface for The Daffodil Fields, he could not have more accurately expressed both the artistic aim of his poem and its natural atmosphere. "The passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." In this work, each one of the seven sections ends with the daffodils; so that no matter how base and truculent are the revealed passions of man, the final impression at the close of each stage is the unchanging loveliness of the delicate golden flowers. Indeed, the daffodils not only fill the whole poem with their fluttering beauty, they play the part of the old Greek chorus. At the end of each act in this steadily growing tragedy, they comment in their own incomparable way on the sorrows of man.
So the night passed; the noisy wind went down; The half-burnt moon her starry trackway rode. Then the first Are was lighted in the town, And the first carter stacked his early load. Upon the farm's drawn blinds the morning glowed; And down the valley, with little clucks and rills, The dancing waters danced by dancing daffodils.
But if, consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Masefield in the composition of The Daffodil Fields followed the metre and the manner of Wordsworth in Resolution and Independence, in the story itself he challenges Tennyson's Enoch Arden. Whether he meant to challenge it, I do not know; but the comparison is unescapable. Tennyson did not invent the story, and any poet has the right to use the material in his own fashion. Knowing Mr. Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy and The Widow in the Bye Street, it would have been safe to prophesy in advance that his own Enoch would not show the self-restraint practised by the Tennysonian hero. Reserve and restraint were the trump cards of the Typical Victorian, just as the annihilation of all reserve is a characteristic of the twentieth-century artist. In the Idylls of the King, the parting of Guinevere and Arthur was what interested Tennyson; the poets of today would of course centre attention on the parting of Guinevere and Lancelot, and like so many "advances," they would in truth be only going back to old Malory.
"Neither in the design nor in the telling did, or could, Enoch Arden come near the artistic truth of The Daffodil Fields," says Professor Quiller-Couch, of Cambridge. I am not entirely sure of the truth of this very positive statement. Each is a rural poem; the characters are simple; the poetic accompaniment supplied by the daffodils in one poem is supplied in the other by the sea. And yet, despite this latter fact, if one reads Enoch Arden immediately after The Daffodil Fields, it seems to be without salt. It lacks flavour, and is almost tasteless compared with the biting condiments of the other poem, prepared as it was for the sharper demands of twentieth-century palates. We like, as Browning thought Macready would like "stabbing, drabbing, et autres gentillesses," and Mr. Masefield knows how to supply them. Yet I am not sure that the self-denial of Enoch and the timid patience of Philip do not both indicate a certain strength absent in Mr. Masefield's wildly exciting tale. Of course Tennyson's trio are all "good" people, and he meant to make them so. In the other work Michael is a selfish scoundrel, Lion is a murderer, and Mary an adulteress; and we are meant to sympathize with all three, as Mr. Galsworthy wishes us to sympathize with those who follow their instincts rather than their consciences. One poem celebrates the strength of character, the other the strength of passion. But there can be no doubt that Enoch (and perhaps Philip) loved Annie more than either Michael or Lion loved Mary—which is perhaps creditable; for Mary is more attractive.
One should remember also that in these two poems—so interesting to compare in so many different ways—Tennyson tried to elevate a homely theme into "poetry"; whereas Mr. Masefield finds the truest poetry in the bare facts of life and feeling. Tennyson is at his best outside of drama, wherever he has an opportunity to adorn and embellish; Mr. Masefield is at his best in the fierce conflict of human wills. Thus Enoch Arden is not one of Tennyson's best poems, and the best parts of it are the purely descriptive passages; whereas in The Daffodil Fields Mr. Masefield has a subject made to his hand, and can let himself go with impressive power. In the introduction of conversation into a poem—a special gift with Mr. Masefield—Tennyson is usually weak, which ought to have taught him never to venture into drama. Nothing is worse in Enoch Arden than passages like these:
"Annie, this voyage by the grace of God Will bring fair weather yet to all of us. Keep a clean hearth and a clear fire for me, For I'll be back, my girl, before you know it." Then lightly rocking baby's cradle, "and he, This pretty, puny, weakly little one,— Nay—for I love him all the better for it— God bless him, he shall sit upon my knees And I will tell him tales of foreign parts, And make him merry, when I come home again. Come, Annie, come, cheer up before I go."
One of the reasons why twentieth-century readers are so impatient with Enoch Arden, is because Tennyson refused to satisfy the all but universal love of a fight. The conditions for a terrific "mix-up" were all there, and just when the spectator is looking for an explosion of wrath and blood, the poet turns away into the more heroic but less thrilling scene of self-conquest. Mr. Masefield may be trusted never to disappoint his readers in such fashion. It might be urged that whereas Tennyson gave a picture of man as he ought to be, Mr. Masefield painted him as he really is.
But The Daffodil Fields is not melodrama. It is a poem of extraordinary beauty. Every time I read it I see in it some "stray beauty-beam" that I missed before. It would be impossible to translate it into prose; it would lose half its interest, and all of its charm. It would be easier to translate Tennyson's Dora into prose than The Daffodil Fields. In fact, I have often thought that if the story of Dora were told in concise prose, in the manner of Guy de Maupassant, it would distinctly gain in force.
No poet, with any claim to the name, can be accurately labelled by an adjective or a phrase. You may think you know his "manner," and he suddenly develops a different one; this you call his "later" manner, and he disconcerts you by harking back to the "earlier," or trying something, that if you must have labels, you are forced to call his "latest," knowing now that it is subject to change without notice. Mr. Masefield published The Everlasting Mercy in 1911; The Widow in the Bye Street in 1912; Dauber in 1912; The Daffodil Fields in 1913. We had him classified. He was a writer of sustained narrative, unscrupulous in the use of language, bursting with vitality, sacrificing anything and everything that stood in the way of his effect. This was "red blood" verse raised to poetry by sheer inspiration, backed by remarkable skill in the use of rime. We looked for more of the same thing from him, knowing that in this particular field he had no rival.
Then came the war. As every soldier drew his sword, every poet drew his pen. And of all the poems published in the early days of the struggle, none equalled in high excellence August 1914, by John Masefield. And its tone was precisely the opposite of what his most famous efforts had led us to expect. It was not a lurid picture of wholesale murder, nor a bottle of vitriol thrown in the face of the Kaiser. After the thunder and the lightning, came the still small voice. It is a poem in the metre and manner of Gray, with the same silver tones of twilit peace—heartrending by contrast with the Continental scene.
How still this quiet cornfield is to-night; By an intenser glow the evening falls, Bringing, not darkness, but a deeper light; Among the stocks a partridge covey calls.
The windows glitter on the distant hill; Beyond the hedge the sheep-bells in the fold Stumble on sudden music and are still; The forlorn pinewoods droop above the wold.
An endless quiet valley reaches out Past the blue hills into the evening sky; Over the stubble, cawing, goes a rout Of rooks from harvest, flagging as they fly.
So beautiful it is I never saw So great a beauty on these English fields Touched, by the twilight's coming, into awe, Ripe to the soul and rich with summer's yields.
The fields are inhabited with the ghosts of ploughmen of old who gave themselves for England, even as the faithful farmers now leave scenes inexpressibly dear. For the aim of our poet is to magnify the lives of the humble and the obscure, whether on land or sea. In the beautiful Consecration that he prefixed to Salt-Water Ballads, he expressly turns his back on Commanders, on Rulers, on Princes and Prelates, in order to sing of the stokers and chantymen, yes, even of the dust and scum of the earth. They work, and others get the praise. They are inarticulate, but have found a spokesman and a champion in the poet. His sea-poems in this respect resemble Conrad's sea-novels. This is perhaps one of the chief functions of the man of letters, whether he be poet, novelist or dramatist—never to let us forget the anonymous army of toilers. For, as Clyde Fitch used to say, the great things do not happen to the great writers; the great things happen to the little people they describe.
Although Mr. Masefield's reputation depends mainly on his narrative poems, he has earned a high place among lyrical poets. These poems, at least many of them, are as purely subjective as The Everlasting Mercy was purely objective. Rarely does a poem unfurl with more loveliness than this:
I have seen dawn and sunset on moors and windy hills Coming in solemn beauty like slow old tunes of Spain; I have seen the lady April bringing the daffodils, Bringing the springing grass and the soft warm April rain.
In Tewkesbury Road and in Sea Fever the poet expresses the urge of his own heart. In Biography he quite properly adopts a style exactly the opposite of the biographical dictionary. Dates and events are excluded. But the various moments when life was most intense in actual experience, sights of mountains on sea and land, long walks and talks with an intimate friend, the frantically fierce endeavour in the racing cutter, quiet scenes of beauty in the peaceful countryside. "The days that make us happy make us wise."
As Mr. Masefield's narratives take us back to Chaucer, so his Sonnets (1916) take us back to the great Elizabethan sequences. Whether or not Shakespeare unlocked his heart in his sonnets is impossible to determine. Wordsworth thought he did, Browning thought quite otherwise. But these sonnets of our poet are undoubtedly subjective; no one without the necessary information would guess them to come from the author of The Everlasting Mercy. They reveal what has always been—through moving accidents by flood and field—the master passion of his mind and heart, the worship of Beauty. The entire series illustrates a tribute to Beauty expressed in the first one—"Delight in her made trouble in my mind." This mental disturbance is here the spur to composition. They are experiments in relative, meditative, speculative poetry; and while they contain some memorable lines, and heighten one's respect for the dignity and sincerity of their author's temperament, they are surely not so successful as his other work. They are not clearly articulate. Instead of the perfect expression of perfect thoughts—a gift enjoyed only by Shakespeare—they reveal the extreme difficulty of metrically voicing his "trouble." It is in a way like the music of the Liebestod. He is struggling to say what is in his mind, he approaches it, falls away comes near again, only to be finally baffled.
In 1918 Mr. Masefield returned to battle, murder and sudden death in the romantic poem Rosas. This is an exciting tale told in over a hundred stanzas, and it is safe to say that any one who reads the first six lines will read to the end without moving in his chair. Although this is the latest in publication of our poet's works, it sounds as if it were written years ago, before he had attained the mastery so evident in The Widow in the Bye Street. It will add little to the author's reputation.
I do not think Mr. Masefield has received sufficient credit for his prose fiction. In 1905 he published A Mainsail Haul, which contained a number of short stories and sketches, many of which had appeared in the Manchester Guardian. It is interesting to recall his connection with that famous journal. These are the results partly of his experiences, partly of his reading. It is plain that he has turned over hundreds of old volumes of buccaneer lore. And humour is as abundant here as it is absent from his best novels, Captain Margaret and Multitude and Solitude. These two books, recently republished in America, met with a chilling reception from the critics. For my part, I not only enjoyed reading them, I think every student of Mr. Masefield's poetry might read them with profitable pleasure. They are romances that only a poet could have written. It would be easier to turn them into verse than it would be to turn his verse-narratives into prose, and less would be lost in the transfer. In Multitude and Solitude, the author has given us more of the results of his own thinking than can be found in most of the poems. Whole pages are filled with the pith of meditative thought. In Captain Margaret, we have a remarkable combination of the love of romance and the romance of love.
In response to a question asked him by the Tribune interviewer, as to the guiding motive in his writing, Mr. Masefield replied: "I desire to interpret life both by reflecting it as it appears and by portraying its outcome. Great art must contain these two attributes. Examine any of the dramas of Shakespeare, and you will find that their action is the result of a destruction of balance in the beginning. It is like a cartful of apples which is overturned. All the apples are spilled in the street. But you will notice that Shakespeare piles them up again in his incomparable manner, many bruised, broken, and maybe a few lost." This is certainly an interesting way of putting the doctrine of analysis and synthesis as applied to art.
What has Mr. Masefield done then for the advance of poetry? One of his notable services is to have made it so interesting that thousands look forward to a new poem from him as readers look for a new story by a great novelist. He has helped to take away poetry from its conventional "elevation" and bring it everywhere poignantly in contact with throbbing life. Thus he is emphatically apart from so-called traditional poets who brilliantly follow the Tennysonian tradition, and give us another kind of enjoyment. But although Mr. Masefield is a twentieth century poet, it would be a mistake to suppose that he has originated the doctrine that the poet should speak in a natural voice about natural things, and not cultivate a "diction." Browning spent his whole life fighting for that doctrine, and went to his grave covered with honourable scars. Wordsworth successfully rebelled against the conventional garments of the Muse. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Browning are the poets who took human nature as they found it; who thought life itself was more interesting than any theory about it; who made language appropriate to the time, the place, and the man, regardless of the opinion of those who thought the Muse ought to wear a uniform. The aim of our best twentieth century poets is not really to write something new and strange, it is to get back to those poets who lived up to their conviction that the business of poetry is to chronicle the stages of all life. This is not the only kind of poetry, but it is the kind high in favour during these present years. The fountain-head of poetry is human nature, and our poets are trying to get back to it, just as many of the so-called advances in religious thought are really attempts to get back to the Founder of Christianity, before the theologians built their stockade around Him. Mr. Masefield is a mighty force in the renewal of poetry; in the art of dramatic narrative he goes back to the sincerity and catholicity of Chaucer. For his language, he has carried Wordsworth's idea of "naturalness" to its extreme limits. For his material, he finds nothing common or unclean. But all his virility, candour, and sympathy, backed by all his astonishing range of experience, would not have made him a poet, had he not possessed imagination, and the power to express his vision of life, the power, as he puts it, of getting the apples back into the cart.
GIBSON AND HODGSON
Two Northumberland poets—Wilfrid Wilson Gibson—his early failures—his studies of low life—his collected poems—his short dramas of pastoral experiences—Daily Bread—lack of melody—uncanny imagination—whimsies—poems of the Great War—their contrast to conventional sentimental ditties—the accusation—his contribution to the advance of poetry.—Ralph Hodgson—his shyness—his slender output—his fastidious self-criticism—his quiet facing of the known facts in nature and in humanity—his love of books—his humour—his respect for wild and tame animals—the high percentage of artistic excellence in his work.—Lascelles Abercrombie.
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson—a horrible mouthful—was born in Hexham, Northumberland, in 1878. Like Walt Whitman's, his early poetry was orthodox, well groomed, and uninteresting. It produced no effect on the public, but it produced upon its author a mental condition of acute discontent—the necessary conviction of sin preceding regeneration. Whether he could ever succeed in bringing his verse down to earth, he did not then know; but so far as he was concerned, he not only got down to earth, but got under it. He made subterranean expeditions with the miners, he followed his nose into slums, he talked long hours with the unclassed, and listened sympathetically to the lamentations of sea-made widows. His nature—extraordinarily delicate and sensitive—received deep wounds, the scars of which appeared in his subsequent poetry. Now he lives where John Masefield was born, and like him, speaks for the inarticulate poor.
In 1917 Mr. Gibson collected his poems in one thick volume of some five hundred and fifty pages. This is convenient for reference, but desperately hard to read, on account of the soggy weight of the book. Here we have, however, everything that he has thus far written which he thinks worth preserving. The first piece, Akra the Slave (1904), is a romantic monologue in free verse. Although rather short, it is much too long, and few persons will have the courage to read it through. It is incoherent, spineless, consistent only in dulness. Possibly it is worth keeping as a curiosity. Then comes Stonefolds (1906), a series of bitter bucolics. This is pastoral poetry of a new and refreshing kind—as unlike to the conventional shepherd-shepherdess mincing, intolerable dialogue as could well be imagined. For, among all the groups of verse, in which, for sacred order's sake, we arrange English literature, pastoral poetry easily takes first place in empty, tinkling artificiality. In Stonefolds, we have six tiny plays, never containing more than four characters, and usually less, which represent, in a rasping style, the unending daily struggle of generation after generation with the relentless forces of nature. It is surprising to see how, in four or five pages, the author gives a clear view of the monotonous life of seventy years; in this particular art, Strindberg himself has done no better. The experience of age is contrasted with the hope of youth. Perhaps the most impressive of them all is The Bridal where, in the presence of the newly wedded pair, the man's old, bed-ridden mother speaks of the chronic misery of her married life, intimates that the son is just like his dead father, and that therefore the bride has nothing ahead of her but tragedy. Then comes the conclusion, which reminds one somewhat of the close of Ibsen's Lady from the Sea. The young husband throws wide the door, and addresses his wife as follows:
The door is open; you are free to go. Why do you tarry? Are you not afraid? Go, ere I hate you. I'll not hinder you. I would not have you bound to me by fear. Don't fear to leave me; rather fear to bide With me who am my father's very son. Go, lass, while yet I love you!
ESTHER (closing the door). I shall bide. I have heard all; and yet, I would not go. Nor would I have a single word unsaid. I loved you, husband; yet, I did not know you Until your mother spoke. I know you now; And I am not afraid.
The first piece in Stonefolds represents the tragic helplessness of those newly born and those very old, a favourite theme with Maeterlinck. A lamb and a child are born on the same night, and both die before dawn. The lamb is a poetic symbol of babyhood. Nicholas, the aged shepherd, who longs to go out into the night and do his share of the work that must be done, but who is unable even to move, thus addresses the dying lamb:
Poor, bleating beast! We two are much alike, At either end of life, though scarce an hour You've been in this rough world, and I so long That death already has me by the heels; For neither of us can stir to help himself, But both must bleat for others' aid. This world Is rough and bitter to the newly born, But far more bitter to the nearly dead.
In Daily Bread (1908-09), there are eighteen brief plays, written not in orthodox blank verse, like Stonefolds, but in irregular, brittle, breathless metres. Here is where art takes the short cut to life, sacrificing every grace to gain reality; the typical goal and method of twentieth-century poetry. So long as a vivid impression of character and circumstance is produced, the writer apparently cares nothing about style. I say "apparently," because the styleless style is perhaps the one best adapted to produce the sought-for effect. There is ever one difference between life and "art"—between drama and theatre—that Mr. Gibson has, I suppose, tried to cancel in these poems of daily bread. In art, the bigger the drama, the bigger the stage; one could not mount Gtterdmmerung in a village schoolhouse. But Life does not fit the splendour of the setting to the grandeur of the struggle. In bleak farm cottages, in dull dwellings in city blocks, in slum tenements, the greatest of life's tragedies and comedies are enacted—love, hate, avarice, jealousy, revenge, birth, death—the most terrific passions known to human nature are fully presented, without the slightest care for appropriate scenery from the Master of the show. Thus our poet leads us by the hand into sea-girt huts, into hovels at the mouths of mines, into garrets of noisy cities, and makes us silent witnesses of elemental woe. Here Labour, man's greatest blessing, takes on the aspect of the primal curse, since so many tragedies spring from the simple root of poverty. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but the lack of it is the cause of much pain.
It was a happy inspiration that made Mr. Gibson call these scenes Daily Bread; for it is the struggle, not for comfort, but for existence, that drives these men from mother, wife, and child into the thick of the fight. Many novels and plays are written nowadays against "big business," where, among other real and imagined evils, the Business itself is represented as the villain in the home, alienating the husband's affections from wife and children. Whatever may be the case with the private soldiers, the Captain of Industry does not, and by the nature of things cannot, confine his labours to an eight-hour day—when he finally comes home, he brings the business with him, forming a more well-founded cause of jealousy than the one usually selected for conventional drama. Mr. Gibson, however, is not interested in the tragic few, but in the tragic many, and in his poems the man of the house leaves early and returns late. The industrial war caused by social conditions takes him from home as surely and as perilously as though he were drafted into an expeditionary force. The daily parting is poignant, for every member of the family knows he may not come back. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this corroding worry is seen in The Night-Shift, where four women with a newly-born baby spend a night of agonized waiting, only to have their fears confirmed in the dawn.
The wife, weak from childbirth, sits up in bed, and speaks:
Will no one stop that tapping? I cannot sleep for it. I think that someone is shut in somewhere, And trying to get out. Will no one let them out, And stop the tapping? It keeps on tapping, tapping.... Tap ... tap ... tap ... tap.... And I can scarcely breathe, The darkness is so thick. It stifles me, And weighs so heavily upon me, And drips, and drips.... My hair is wet already; There's water all about my knees.... As though great rocks were hanging overhead! And dripping, dripping.... I cannot lift my feet, The water holds them, It's creeping ... creeping ... creeping.... My wet hair drags me down. Ah, God! Will no one stop that tapping.... I cannot sleep.... And I would sleep Till he comes home.... Tap ... tap ... tap ... tap....
These poems were, of course, composed before the war. In the greater tragedy, some of the lesser ones disappear. For example, Mr. Gibson represents young, able-bodied, healthy and temperate men as unable to find work of any kind; their wives and children starve because of the absence of employment. Surely, since August, 1914, this particular cause of suffering has been removed.
In Womenkind (1909), dedicated to Rabbi and Mrs. Wise, we have a real play, not only dramatic in character and situation, but fitted for stage representation without the change of a word. The theme is just the opposite of Middleton's old drama, Women Beware Women. Here the two young women, one the mistress-mother, and one the bride, join forces against the man, and walk out of his house on the wedding-day. They feel that the tie between them is stronger than the tie which had united them severally to the man, and depart to live together. The play closes on a note of irony, for Jim, his blind father, and his weary mother repeat in turn—but with quite different emphasis—the accusation that women are a faithless lot.
The long series of poems called Fires (1910-11) differ in matter and manner from the earlier works. The form of drama is abandoned, and in its place we have vivid rimed narrative, mingled with glowing pictures of natural scenery, taken at all hours of the day and night. Each of his poems must be taken as a whole, for each poem strives for a single effect. This effect is often gained by taking some object, animate or inanimate, as a symbol. Thus, in The Hare, the hunted animal is the symbol of woman. The Flute, The Lighthouse, and The Money mean more than their definition. Mr. Gibson is somewhat kinder to his readers in this collection, for the monotony of woe, that hangs over his work like a cloud, is rifted here and there by a ray of happiness. In The Shop, the little boy actually recovers from pneumonia, and our share in the father's delight is heightened by surprise, for whenever any of our poet's characters falls into a sickness, we have learned to expect the worst. Still, the darker side of life remains the author's chosen field of exploration. Two pieces are so uncanny that one might almost think they proceeded from a disordered imagination. The blind boy, who every day has rowed his father back and forth from the fishing-grounds, while the man steered, one day rows cheerfully toward home, unaware that his father is dead. The boy wonders at his father's silence, and laughingly asserts that he has heard him snoring. Then his mirth changes to fear, and fear to horror.
Though none has ever known How he rowed in, alone, And never touched a reef. Some say they saw the dead man steer— The dead man steer the blind man home— Though, when they found him dead, His hand was cold as lead.
Another strange poem describes how a cripple sits in his room, with a mother eternally stitching for bread, and watches out of the window the giant crane swinging vast weights through the sky. One night, while he is half-dead with fear, the great crane swoops down upon him, clutches his bed, and swings him, bed and all, above the sleeping city, among the blazing stars.
Following Mr. Gibson's development as a poet, year by year, we come to Thoroughfares (1908-14). These are short poems more conventional in form than their predecessors, but just as stark and grim as chronicles of life. Every one remembers the torture inflicted on women in the good-old-times, when they were strapped to posts on the flats at low tide, and allowed to watch the cruel slowness of approaching death. The same theme, with an even more terrible termination, is selected by Mr. Gibson in Solway Ford, where the carter is pinned by the heavy, overturned wagon on the sands; while the tide gradually brings the water toward his helpless body. He dies a thousand deaths in imagination, but is rescued just as the waves are lapping the wheels. Now he lies in bed, an incurable idiot, smiling as he sees gold and sapphire fishes swimming in the water over his head.... That rarest of all English metres—which Browning chose for One Word More—is employed by Mr. Gibson in a compound of tragedy-irony called The Vindictive Staircase. Unfortunately the rhythm is so closely associated with Browning's love-poem, that these lines sound like a parody:
Mrs. Murphy, timidest of spectres, You who were the cheeriest of charers, With the heart of innocence and only Torn between a zest for priest and porter, Mrs. Murphy of the ample bosom,— Suckler of a score or so of children.
It seems best to leave this measure in the undisturbed possession of the poet who used it supremely well. Yet some of the verses in Thoroughfares are an advance on Mr. Gibson's previous work. No reader will ever forget Wheels.
Passing over Borderlands (1912-14) which, with the exception of Akra, is the least successful of Mr. Gibson's works, we come to his most original contribution to modern poetry, the short poems included under the heading Battle (1914-15). These verses afford one more bit of evidence that in order to write unconventional thoughts, it is not necessary to use unconventional forms. The ideas expressed here can be found in no other war-poet; they are idiosyncratic to the highest degree; yet the verse-forms in which they are written are stanzaic, as traditional as the most conservative critic could desire. There is, of course, no reason why any poet should not compose in new and strange rhythms if he prefers to do so; but I have never believed that originality in thought necessarily demands metrical measures other than those found in the history of English literature.
These lyrical poems are dramatic monologues. Each one is the testimony of some soldier in the thick of the fight as to what he has seen or heard, or as to what memories are strongest in his mind as he lies in the filth of the trenches. Conventional emotions of enthusiasm, glory, sacrifice, courage, are omitted, not because they do not exist, but simply because they are taken for granted; these boys are aflame with such feelings at the proper time. But Mr. Gibson is more interested in the strange, fantastic thoughts, waifs of memory, that wander across the surface of the mind in the midst of scenes of horror. And we feel that the more fantastic these thoughts are, the more do they reflect the deep truths of experience. Home naturally looms large, and some of the recollections of home take on a grim humour, strangely in contrast with the present environment of the soldier.
I quite forgot to put the spigot in. It's just come over me.... And it is queer To think he'll not care if we lose or win. And yet be jumping-mad about that beer.
I left it running full. He must have said A thing or two. I'd give my stripes to hear What he will say if I'm reported dead Before he gets me told about that beer!
It would appear that the world has grown up, or at all events, grown much older, during the last forty years. It has grown older at a high rate of speed. The love of country is the same as ever, because that is a primal human passion, that will never change, any more than the love of the sexes; but the expression of battle-poems seems more mature, more sophisticated, if you like, in this war than in any preceding conflict. Most of the verses written in England and in America are as different as may be from "Just before the battle, mother," which was so popular during our Civil War. Never before has the psychology of the soldier been so acutely studied by national poets. And instead of representing the soldier as a man swayed by a few elemental passions and lush sentiment, he is presented as an extraordinarily complex individual, with every part of his brain abnormally alert. Modern poetry, in this respect, has, I think, followed the lead of the realistic prose novel. Such books as Tolstoi's Sevastopol, and Zola's La Dbcle, have had a powerful effect in making war poetry more analytical; while that original story, The Red Badge of Courage, written by an inspired young American, Stephen Crane, has left its mark on many a volume of verse that has been produced since August, 1914. The unabashed realism of the trenches, together with the psychology of the soldier, is clearly and significantly reflected in From the Front (1918), a book of poems written by men in service, edited by Lieut. C. E. Andrews.
What is going to become of us all if the obsession of self-consciousness grows ever stronger?
There is not a trace of cheap sentiment in Battle. Even the poems that come nearest to the emotional surface are saved by some specific touch, like the sense of smell, which, as every one knows, is a sharper spur to the memory than any other sensation.
Tonight they're sitting by the peat Talking of me, I know— Grandfather in the ingle-seat, Mother and Meg and Joe.
I feel a sudden puff of heat That sets my ears aglow, And smell the reek of burning peat Across the Belgian snow.
Browning wrote of Shelley, who had been dead eleven years,
The air seems bright with thy past presence yet.
A similar effect of brightness in life and afterglow in death, seems to have been made on every one who knew him by Rupert Brooke. No young poet of the twentieth century has left such a flaming glory as he. The prefatory poem to Mr. Gibson's Friends (1915-16), beautifully expresses the common feeling:
He's gone. I do not understand. I only know That as he turned to go And waved his hand In his young eyes a sudden glory shone: And I was dazzled by a sunset glow, And he was gone.
The fine sonnets that follow strengthen the strong colour, and are among the most authentic claims to poetry that their author has set forth. The second one, contrasting the pale glimmer of the London garret with the brilliant apparition of Brooke at the open door, "like sudden April," is poignant in its beauty. The verses in this volume are richer in melody than is customary with Mr. Gibson, yet The Pessimist and The Ice-Cart show that he is as whimsical as ever. He has no end of fun with his fancy.
Livelihood (1914-16) takes us back to the bitter pessimism of Stonefolds and Daily Bread; only instead of being dialogues, these stories are given in descriptive form, and for the most part in regular pentameter rime. The best of them is In the Orchestra, where the poor fiddler in the band at the cheap music-hall plays mechanically every night for his daily bread, while his heart is torn by the vulture of memory. This poem shows a firm grasp of the material; every word adds something to the total impression.
Mr. Gibson's constantly repeated pictures of the grinding, soul-crushing labour of the poor seem to say J'accuse! Yet he nowhere says it explicitly. He never interrupts his narrative with "My Lords and Gentlemen," nor does he comment, like Hood in The Song of the Shirt.
Yet the effect of his work is an indictment. Only, whom does he accuse? Is it the government; is it society; is it God?
Mr. Gibson's latest book of poems, Hill-Tracks (1918), differs from his previous works in two respects. It is full of pictures of the open fields of Northumberland, the county where he was born; and nearly every piece is an attempt at a singing lyric, something seldom found in his Collected Poems. I say an "attempt" with deliberation, for song is not the most natural expression of this realistic writer, and not more than half of the fifty lyrics in this handsome volume are successfully melodious. Some are trivial, and hardly deserve such beauty of type and paper; others, however, will be gladly welcomed by all students of Mr. Gibson's work, because they exhibit the powers of the author in an unusual and charming manner. I should think that those familiar with the topography and with the colloquialisms constantly appearing in this book, would read it with a veritable delight of reminiscence.
Heatherland and bent-land— Black land and white, God bring me to Northumberland, The land of my delight.
Land of singing waters, And winds from off the sea, God bring me to Northumberland, The land where I would be.
Heatherland and bent-land, And valleys rich with corn, God bring me to Northumberland, The land where I was born.
The shadow of the war darkens nearly every page of this volume, and the last poem expresses not the local but the universal sentiment of us who remain in our homes.
We who are left, how shall we look again Happily on the sun, or feel the rain, Without remembering how they who went Ungrudgingly, and spent Their all for us, loved, too, the sun and rain?
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings— But we, how shall we turn to little things And listen to the birds and winds and streams Made holy by their dreams, Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?
An interesting feature of the Collected Poems is a striking unfinished portrait of the author by Mrs. Wise; but I think it was an error to publish all these verses in one volume. They produce an impression of grey monotony which is hardly fair to the poet. The individuals change their names, but they pass through the same typical woe of childbirth, desertion, loveless old age, incipient insanity, with eternal joyless toil. One will form a higher opinion if one reads the separate volumes as they appeared, and not too much at a time.
His contribution to the advance of English poetry is seen mainly in his grim realism, in his direct, unadorned presentation of what he believes to be the truth, whether it be the facts of environment, or the facts of thought. Conventional war-poetry, excellently represented by Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, which itself harks back to Drayton's stirring Ballad of Agincourt, has not the slightest echo in these volumes; and ordinary songs of labour are equally remote. Face to face with Life—that is where the poet leads us, and where he leaves us. He is far indeed from possessing the splendid lyrical gift of John Masefield; he has nothing of the literary quality of William Watson. He writes neither of romantic buccaneers nor of golden old books. But he is close to the grimy millions. He writes the short and simple annals of the poor. He is a poet of the people, and seems to have taken a vow that we shall not forget them.
Ralph Hodgson was born somewhere in Northumberland about forty years ago, and successfully eluded the notice of the world until the year 1907. He is by nature such a recluse that I feel certain he would prefer to attract no attention whatever were it not for the fact that it is as necessary for a poet to print his songs as it is for a bird to sing them. His favourite companions are Shelley, Wordsworth, and a bull terrier, and he is said to play billiards with "grim earnestness." In 1907 he published a tiny volume called The Last Blackbird, and in 1917 another and tinier one called Poems. During this decade he printed in a few paper booklets, which some day will be valuable curiosities, separate pieces such as Eve, The Bull, The Mystery. These are now permanently preserved in the 1917 book. This thin volume, weighing only two or three ounces, is a real addition to the English poetry of the twentieth century.
It is impossible to read the verse of Ralph Hodgson without admiration for the clarity of his art and respect for the vigour of his mind. Although many of his works are as aloof from his own opinions as a well-executed statue, the strength of his personality is an immanent force. He writes much and publishes little; he is an intellectual aristocrat. He has the fastidiousness which was the main characteristic of the temperament of Thomas Gray; and he has as well Gray's hatred of publicity and much of Gray's lambent humour, more salty than satiric. His work is decidedly caviare to the general, not because it is obscure, which it is not, but because it presupposes much background. Lovers of nature and lovers of books will love these verses, and reread them many times; but they are not for all markets. No contemporary poet is more truly original than he; but his originality is seen in his mental attitude rather than in newness of form or strangeness of language. The standard metres are good enough for him, and so are the words in common use. His subjects are the world-old subjects of poetry—birds, flowers, men and women. Religion is as conspicuously absent as it is in the works of Keats; its place is taken by sympathy for humanity and an extraordinary sympathy for animals. He is as far from the religious passion of Francis Thompson as he is from the sociological inquisitiveness of Mr. Gibson. To him each bird, each flower appears as a form of worship. Men and women appeal to him not because they are poor or downtrodden, but simply because they are men and women. He is neither an optimist nor a pessimist; the world is full of objects both interesting and beautiful, which will pay a rich return to those who observe them accurately. This is as near as he has thus far come to any philosophy or any theology:
He came and took me by the hand Up to a red rose tree, He kept His meaning to Himself But gave a rose to me.
I did not pray Him to lay bare The mystery to me, Enough the rose was Heaven to smell, And His own face to see.
It is the absolute object that interests this poet, rather than vague or futile speculation about it. The flower in the crannied wall he would leave there. He would never pluck it out, root and all, wondering about the mystery of the life principle. No poet is more clean-eyed. His eyes are achromatic. He has lost his illusions gladly; every time he has lost an illusion he has gained a new idea. The world as it is seems to him more beautiful, more interesting than any false-coloured picture of it or any longing to remould it nearer to the heart's desire. He faces life with steady composure. But it is not the composure either of stoicism or of despair. He finds it so wonderful just as it is that he is thankful that he has eyes to see its beauty, ears to hear its melodies—enough for his present mortal state.
"How fared you when you mortal were? What did you see on my peopled star?" "Oh, well enough," I answered her, "It went for me where mortals are!
"I saw blue flowers and the merlin's flight And the rime on the wintry tree, Blue doves I saw and summer light On the wings of the cinnamon bee."
There is in all this a kind of reverent worship without any trace of mysticism. And still less of that modern attitude more popular and surely more fruitless than mysticism—defiance.
There is a quite different side to the poetry of Mr. Hodgson, which one would hardly suspect after reading his outdoor verse. The lamplit silence of the library is as charming to him as the fragrant silence of the woods. He is as much of a recluse among books as he is among flowers. No poet of today seems more self-sufficient. Although a lover of humanity, he seems to require no companionship. He is no more lonely than a cat, and has as many resources as Tabby herself. Now when he talks about books, his poetry becomes intimate, and forsakes all objectivity. His humour, a purely intellectual quality with him, rises unrestrainedly.
When the folks have gone to bed, And the lamp is burning low, And the fire burns not so red As it burned an hour ago,
Then I turn about my chair So that I can dimly see Into the dark corners where Lies my modest library.
Volumes gay and volumes grave, Many volumes have I got; Many volumes though I have, Many volumes have I not.
I have not the rare Lucasta, London, 1649; I'm a lean-pursed poetaster, Or the book had long been mine....
Near the "Wit's Interpreter" (Like an antique Whitaker, Full of strange etcetera), "Areopagitiea,"
And the muse of Lycidas, Lost in meditation deep, Give the cut to Hudibras, Unaware the knave's asleep....
There lies Coleridge, bound in green, Sleepily still wond'ring what He meant Kubla Khan to mean, In that early Wordsworth, Mat.
Arnold knows a faithful prop,— Still to subject-matter leans, Murmurs of the loved hill-top, Fyfield tree and Cumnor scenes.
The poem closes with a high tribute to Shelley, "more than all the others mine."
The following trifle is excellent fooling:
THE GREAT AUK'S GHOST
The Great Auk's ghost rose on one leg, Sighed thrice and three times winkt, And turned and poached a phantom egg, And muttered, "I'm extinct."
But it is in the love of unextinct animals that Mr. Hodgson's poetic powers find their most effective display. His masterpiece on the old unhappy Bull is surprisingly impressive; surprisingly, because we almost resent being made to feel such ardent sympathy for the poor old Bull, when there are so many other and more important objects to be sorry for. Yet the poet draws us away for the moment from all the other tragedies in God's universe, and absolutely compels our pity for the Bull. The stanzas in this poem swarm with life.
From a certain point of view, poets are justified in calling attention to the sufferings of our animal brothers. For it is the sufferings of animals, even more than the sorrows of man, that check our faith either in the providence or in the love of God. Human suffering may possibly be balanced against the spiritual gain it (sometimes) brings; and at all events, we know that there is no road to greatness of character except through pain. But what can compensate the dumb animals for their physical anguish? It is certainly difficult to see their reward, unless they have immortal souls. That this is no slight obstacle in the way of those who earnestly desire to believe in an ethical universe, may be seen from the fact that it was the sight of a snake swallowing a toad that destroyed once for all the religious beliefs of Turgenev; and I know a man of science in America who became an agnostic simply from observation of a particular Texas fly that bites the cattle. The Founder of Christianity recognized this problem, as He did every other painful fact in life, when He made the remark about the sparrow.
Yet even the pessimists ought not to be quite so sure that God is morally inferior to man. Even their God may be no more amused by human anguish then men are amused by the grotesque floppings of a dying fish.
The villains in the world are those who have no respect for the personality of birds and beasts. And their cruelty to animals is not deliberate or vindictive—it arises from crass stupidity.
I saw with open eyes Singing birds sweet Sold in the shops For the people to eat, Sold in the shops of Stupidity Street.
I saw in vision The worm in the wheat, And in the shops nothing For people to eat; Nothing for sale in Stupidity Street.
The poet's attitude toward the lion in the jungle, the bull in the field, the cat in the yard, the bird on the tree is not one of affectionate petting, for love and sympathy are often mingled—consciously or unconsciously—with condescension. There is no trace of condescension in the way Mr. Hodgson writes of animals. He treats them with respect, and not only hates to see them hurt, he hates to see their dignity outraged.
THE BELLS OF HEAVEN
'Twould ring the bells of Heaven The wildest peal for years, If Parson lost his senses And people came to theirs, And he and they together Knelt down with angry prayers For tamed and shabby tigers And dancing dogs and bears, And wretched, blind pit ponies, And little hunted hares.
I confess that I have often felt a sense of shame for humanity when I have observed men and women staring through the bars at the splendid African cats in cages, and have also observed that their foolish stare is returned by the lion or tiger with a dull look of infinite boredom. Nor is it pleasant to see small boys pushing sticks through the safe bars, in an endeavour to irritate the royal captives. One remembers Browning's superb lion in The Glove, whom the knight was able to approach in safety, because the regal beast was completely lost in thought—he was homesick for the desert, oblivious of the little man-king and his duodecimo court.
Although the total production of Ralph Hodgson is slight in quantity, the percentage of excellence is remarkably high. The reason for this is clear. Instead of printing everything he writes, and leaving the employment of the cream-separator to his readers, he gives to the public only what has passed his own severe scrutiny. He is a true poet, with an original mind.
As for the work of Lascelles Abercrombie, which has been much praised in certain circles, I should prefer to leave the criticism of that to those who enjoy reading it. If I should attempt to "do justice" to his poetry, I should seem to his friends to be doing just the opposite—the opposite of just.
BROOKE, FLECKER, DE LA MARE, AND OTHERS
Rupert Brooke—a personality—the spirit of youth—his horror at old age—Henry James's tribute—his education—a genius—his poems of death—his affected cynicism—his nature poems—war sonnets—his supreme sacrifice—his charming humour—his masterpiece, Grantchester.—James Elroy Flecker—the editorial work of Mr. Squire—no posthumous puffery—the case of Crashaw—life of Flecker—his fondness for revision—his friendship with Rupert Brooke—his skill as a translator—his austerity—art for art's sake—his "brightness"—love of Greek mythology—steady mental development—his definition of the aim of poetry.—Walter De La Mare—the poet of shadow—Hawthorne's tales—his persistence—his reflective mood—his descriptive style—his Shakespeare characters—his sketches from life.—D. H. Lawrence—his lack of discipline—his subjectivity—absence of reserve—a master of colour—his glaring excesses.—John Drinkwater—the west of England—his healthy spirit.—W. H. Davies—the tramp poet.—Edward Thomas—his death—originality of his work.—Robert Nichols—Willoughby Weaving.—The young Oxford poets.
Rupert Brooke left the world in a chariot of fire. He was something more than either a man or a poet; he was and is a Personality. It was as a Personality that he dazzled his friends. He was overflowing with tremendous, contagious vitality. He was the incarnation of the spirit of youth, wearing the glamour and glory of youth like a shining garment. Despite our loss, it almost seems fitting that he did not live to that old age which he never understood, for which he had such little sympathy, and which he seems to have hated more than death. For he had the splendid insolence of youth. Youth commonly feels high-spirited in an unconscious, instinctive fashion, like a kitten or a puppy; but Rupert Brooke was as self-consciously young as a decrepit pensioner is self-consciously old. He rejoiced in the strength of his youth, and rolled it as a sweet morsel under his tongue. He was so glad to be young, and to know every morning on rising from sleep that he was still young! His passionate love of beauty made him see in old age only ugliness; he could not foresee the joys of the mellow years. All he saw consisted of grey hairs, wrinkles, double chins, paunches. To him all old people were Struldbrugs. We smile at the insolence of youth, because we know it will pass with the beauty and strength that support it. Ogniben says, "Youth, with its beauty and grace, would seem bestowed on us for some such reason as to make us partly endurable till we have time for really becoming so of ourselves, without their aid; when they leave us ... little by little, he sees fit to forego claim after claim on the world, puts up with a less and less share of its good as his proper portion; and when the octogenarian asks barely a sup of gruel and a fire of dry sticks, and thanks you as for his full allowance and right in the common good of life,—hoping nobody may murder him,—he who began by asking and expecting the whole of us to bow down in worship to him,—why, I say he is advanced."
Henry James—whose affectionate tribute in the preface to Brooke's Letters is impressive testimony—saw in the brilliant youth, besides the accident of genius, a perfect illustration of the highest type of Englishman, bred in the best English way, in the best traditions of English scholarship, and adorned with the good sense, fine temper, and healthy humour of the ideal Anglo-Saxon. He indeed enjoyed every possible advantage; like Milton and Browning, had he been intended for a poet from the cradle, his bringing-up could not have been better adapted to the purpose. He was born at Rugby, on the third of August, 1887, where his father was one of the masters in the famous school. He won a poetry prize there in 1905. The next year he entered King's College, Cambridge; his influence as an undergraduate was notable. He took honours in classics, went abroad to study in Munich, and returned to Grantchester, which he was later to celebrate in his best poem. He had travelled somewhat extensively on the Continent, and in 1913 went on a journey through the United States and Canada to the South Seas. I am glad he saw the Hawaiian Islands, for no one should die before beholding that paradise. At the outbreak of war, he enlisted, went to Antwerp, and later embarked on the expedition to the Dardanelles. He was bitten by a fly, and died of bloodpoisoning on a French hospital ship, the day being Shakespeare's, the twenty-third of April, 1915. He was buried on a Greek island.
Rupert Brooke lived to be nearly twenty-eight years old, a short life to show ability in most of the ways of the world, but long enough to test the quality of a poet, not merely in promise, but in performance. There is no doubt that he had the indefinable but unmistakable touch of genius. Only a portion of his slender production is of high rank, but it is enough to preserve his name. His Letters, which have been underestimated, prove that he had mental as well as poetical powers. Had he lived to middle age, it seems certain that his poetry would have been tightly packed with thought. He had an alert and inquisitive mind.
Many have seemed to think that the frequent allusions to death in his poetry are vaguely prophetic. They are, of course—with the exception of the war-poems—nothing of the kind, being merely symptomatic of youth. They form the most conventional side of his work. His cynicism toward the love of the sexes was a youthful affectation, strengthened by his reading. He was deeply read in the seventeenth-century poets, who delighted in imagining themselves passing from one woman to another—swearing "by love's sweetest part, variety." At all events, these poems, of which there are comparatively many, exhibit his least attractive side. The poem addressed to The One Before the Last, ends
Oh! bitter thoughts I had in plenty, But here's the worst of it— I shall forget, in Nineteen-twenty, You ever hurt a bit!
He was perhaps, too young to understand two real truths—that real love can exist in the midst of wild passion, and that the best part of it can and often does survive the early flames. Such poems as Menelaus and Helen, Jealousy, and others, profess a profound knowledge of life that is really a profound ignorance.
His pictures of nature, while often beautiful, lack the penetrative quality seen so constantly in Wordsworth and Browning; these greater poets saw nature not only with their eyes, but with their minds. Their representations glow with enduring beauty, but they leave in the spectator something even greater than beauty, something that is food for reflection and imagination, the source of quick-coming fancies. Compare the picture of the pines in Brooke's poem Pine-Trees and the Sky: Evening, with Browning's treatment of an identical theme in Paracelsus, remembering that Browning's lines were written when he was twenty-two years old. Brooke writes,
Then from the sad west turning wearily, I saw the pines against the white north sky, Very beautiful, and still, and bending over Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.
The herded pines commune, and have deep thoughts, A secret they assemble to discuss, When the sun drops behind their trunks which glare Like grates of hell.
Both in painting and in imagination the second passage is instantly seen to be superior.
The war sonnets of 1914 receive so much additional poignancy by the death of the author that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable, to judge them as objective works of art. They are essentially noble and sincere, speaking from the depths of high-hearted self-sacrifice. He poured out his young life freely and generously, knowing what it meant to say good-bye to his fancy. There is always something eternally sublime—something that we rightly call divine—in the spendthrift giving of one's life-blood for a great cause. And Rupert Brooke was intensely aware of the value of what he unhesitatingly gave.
The two "fish" poems exhibit a playful, charming side to Brooke's imagination; but if I could have only one of his pieces, I should assuredly choose Grantchester. Nostalgia is the mother of much fine poetry; but seldom has the expression of it been mingled more exquisitely with humour and longing. By the rivers of Babylon he sat down and laughed when he remembered Zion. And his laughter at Babylon is so different from his laughter at Grantchester. A few felicitous adjectives sum up the significant difference between Germany and England. Writing in a Berlin caf, he says:
Here tulips bloom as they are told; Unkempt about those hedges blows An English unofficial rose; And there the unregulated sun Slopes down to rest when day is done, And wakes a vague unpunctual star, A slippered Hesper; and there are Meads toward Haslingfleld and Coton Where das Betreten's not verboten.... Oh, is the water sweet and cool, Gentle and brown, above the pool? And laughs the immortal river still Under the mill, under the mill? Say, is there Beauty yet to find? And Certainty? and Quiet kind? Deep meadows yet, for to forget The lies, and truths, and pain? ... oh! yet Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?
When Hamlet died, he bequeathed his reputation to Horatio, the official custodian of his good name. He could not have made a better choice. Would that all poets who die young were equally fortunate in their posthumous editors! For there are some friends who conceive it to be their duty to print every scrap of written paper the bard left behind him, even if they have to act as scavengers to find the "remains"; and there are others who think affection and admiration for the dead are best shown by adopting the methods and the language of the press-agent. To my mind, the pious memoir of Tennyson is injured by the inclusion of a long list of "testimonials," which assure us that Alfred Tennyson was a remarkable poet. Mr. J. C. Squire, under whose auspices the works of Flecker appear in one handsome volume, is an admirable editor. His introduction is a model of its kind, giving the necessary biographical information, explaining the chronology, the origin, the background of the poems, and showing how the poet revised his earlier work; the last paragraph ought to serve as an example to those who may be entrusted with a task of similar delicacy in the future. "My only object in writing this necessarily rather disjointed Introduction is to give some information that may interest the reader and be useful to the critic; and if a few personal opinions have slipped in they may conveniently be ignored. A vehement 'puff preliminary' is an insolence in a volume of this kind; it might pardonably be supposed to imply either doubts about the author or distrust of his readers."
As a contrast to the above, it is interesting to recall the preface that an anonymous friend contributed to a volume of Crashaw's verse in the seventeenth century, which, in his own words, "I have impartially writ of this Learned young Gent." Fearing that readers might not appreciate his poetry at its true value, the friend writes, "It were prophane but to mention here in the Preface those under-headed Poets, Retainers to seven shares and a halfe; Madrigall fellowes, whose onely business in verse, is to rime a poore six-penny soule a Suburb sinner into hell;—May such arrogant pretenders to Poetry vanish, with their prodigious issue of tumorous heats, and flashes of their adulterate braines, and for ever after, may this our Poet fill up the better roome of man. Oh! when the generall arraignment of Poets shall be, to give an accompt of their higher soules, with what a triumphant brow shall our divine Poet sit above, and looke downe upon poore Homer, Virgil, Horace, Claudian; &c. who had amongst them the ill lucke to talke out a great part of their gallant Genius, upon Bees, Dung, froggs, and Gnats, &c. and not as himself here, upon Scriptures, divine Graces, Martyrs and Angels." Our prefatory friend set a pace that it is hopeless for modern champions to follow, and they might as well abandon the attempt.
James Elroy Flecker, the eldest child of the Rev. Dr. Flecker, who is Head Master of an English school, was born on the fifth of November, 1884, in London. He spent five years at Trinity College, Oxford, and later studied Oriental languages at Caius College, Cambridge. He went to Constantinople in 1910. In that same year signs of tuberculosis appeared, but after some months at an English sanatorium, he seemed to be absolutely well. In 1911 he was in Constantinople, Smyrna, and finally in Athens, where he was married to Miss Skiadaressi, a Greek. In March the dreaded illness returned, and the rest of his short life was spent in the vain endeavour to recover his health. He died in Switzerland, on the third of January, 1915, at the age of thirty. "I cannot help remembering," says Mr. Squire, "that I first heard the news over the telephone, and that the voice which spoke was Rupert Brooke's."
He had published four books of verse and four books of prose, leaving many poems, essays, short stories, and two plays, in manuscript. All his best poetry is now included in the Collected Poems (1916).
Flecker had the Tennysonian habit of continually revising; and in this volume we are permitted to see some of the interesting results of the process. I must say, however, that of the two versions of Tenebris Interlucentem, although the second is called a "drastic improvement," I prefer the earlier. Any poet might be proud of either.
Flecker liked the work of Mr. Yeats, of Mr. Housman, of Mr. De La Mare; and Rupert Brooke was an intimate friend, for the two young men were together at Cambridge. He wrote a sonnet on Francis Thompson, though he was never affected by Thompson's literary manner. Indeed, he is singularly free from the influence of any of the modern poets. His ideas and his style are his own; he thought deeply on the art of writing, and was given to eager and passionate discussion of it with those who had his confidence. His originality is the more remarkable when we remember his fondness for translating verse from a variety of foreign languages, ancient and modern. He was an excellent translator. His skill in this art can only be inferred where we know nothing at first hand of the originals; but his version of Goethe's immortal lyric is proof of his powers. The only blemish—an unavoidable one—is "far" and "father" in the last two lines.
Knowest thou the land where bloom the lemon trees? And darkly gleam the golden oranges? A gentle wind blows down from that blue sky; Calm stands the myrtle and the laurel high. Knowest thou the land? So far and fair! Thou, whom I love, and I will wander there.
Knowest thou the house with all its rooms aglow, And shining hall and columned portico? The marble statues stand and look at me. Alas, poor child, what have they done to thee? Knowest thou the land? So far and fair. My Guardian, thou and I will wander there.
Knowest thou the mountain with its bridge of cloud? The mule plods warily: the white mists crowd. Coiled in their caves the brood of dragons sleep; The torrent hurls the rock from steep to steep. Knowest thou the land? So far and fair. Father, away! Our road is over there!
Fletcher was more French than English in his dislike of romanticism, sentimentalism, intimate, and confessional poetry; and of course he was strenuously opposed to contemporary standards in so far as they put correct psychology above beauty. Much contemporary verse reads and sounds like undisciplined thinking out loud, where each poet feels it imperative to tell the reader in detail not only all his adventures, and passions, but even the most minute whimsies and caprices. When the result of this bosom-cleansing is real poetry, it justifies itself; but the method is the exact opposite of Flecker's. His master was Keats, and in his own words, he wrote "with the single intention of creating beauty." Austerity and objectivity were his ideals.
Strangely enough, he was able to state in a new and more convincing way the doctrine of art for art's sake. "However few poets have written with a clear theory of art for art's sake, it is by that theory alone that their work has been, or can be, judged;—and rightly so if we remember that art embraces all life and all humanity, and sees in the temporary and fleeting doctrines of conservative or revolutionary only the human grandeur or passion that inspires them."
Perhaps the best noun that describes Flecker's verse is brightness. He had a consumptive's longing for sunshine, and his sojourns on the Mediterranean shores illuminate his pages. The following poem is decidedly characteristic:
Had I that haze of streaming blue, That sea below, the summer faced, I'd work and weave a dress for you And kneel to clasp it round your waist, And broider with those burning bright Threads of the Sun across the sea, And bind it with the silver light That wavers in the olive tree.
Had I the gold that like a river Pours through our garden, eve by eve, Our garden that goes on for ever Out of the world, as we believe; Had I that glory on the vine, That splendour soft on tower and town, I'd forge a crown of that sunshine, And break before your feet the crown.
Through the great pinewood I have been An hour before the lustre dies, Nor have such forest-colours seen As those that glimmer in your eyes. Ah, misty woodland, down whose deep And twilight paths I love to stroll To meadows quieter than sleep And pools more secret than the soul!
Could I but steal that awful throne Ablaze with dreams and songs and stars Where sits Night, a man of stone, On the frozen mountain spars I'd cast him down, for he is old, And set my Lady there to rule, Gowned with silver, crowned with gold, And in her eyes the forest pool.
It seems to me improbable that Flecker will be forgotten; he was a real poet. But a remark made of Tennyson is still more applicable to Flecker. "He was an artist before he was a poet." Even as a small boy, he had astonishing facility, but naturally wrote little worth preserval. The Collected Poems show an extraordinary command of his instrument. He had the orthodox virtues of the orthodox poet—rime and rhythm, cunning in words, skill in nature-painting, imagination. The richness of his colouring and the loveliness of his melodies make his verses a delight to the senses. His mind was plentifully stored with classical authors, and he saw nature alive with old gods and fairies. In one of his most charming poems, Oak and Olive, he declares,
When I go down the Gloucester lanes My friends are deaf and blind: Fast as they turn their foolish eyes The Maenads leap behind, And when I hear the fire-winged feet, They only hear the wind.
Have I not chased the fluting Pan, Through Cranham's sober trees? Have I not sat on Painswick Hill With a nymph upon my knees, And she as rosy as the dawn, And naked as the breeze?
His poetry is composed of sensations rather than thoughts. What it lacks is intellectual content. A richly packed memory is not the same thing as original thinking, even when the memories are glorified by the artist's own imagination. Yet the death of this young man was a cruel loss to English literature, for his mental development would eventually have kept pace with his gift of song. His cheerful Paganism would, I think, have given place to something deeper and more fruitful. Before he went to Constantinople, he had, as it is a fashion for some modern Occidentals to have, a great admiration for Mohammedanism. A friend reports a rather nave remark of his, "this intercourse with Mohammedans had led him to find more good in Christianity than he had previously suspected." I have sometimes wondered whether a prolonged residence among Mohammedans might not temper the enthusiasm of those who so loudly insist on the superiority of that faith to Christianity. Mr. Santayana speaks somewhere of "the unconquerable mind of the East." Well, my guess is that this unconquerable mind will some day be conquered by the Man of Nazareth, just as I think He will eventually—some centuries ahead—conquer even us.