The Germ - Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art
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Papers of "The M. S. Society"

No. IV. Smoke.

I'm the king of the Cadaverals, I'm Spectral President; And, all from east to occident, There's not a man whose dermal walls Contain so narrow intervals, So lank a resident.

Look at me and you shall see The ghastliest of the ghastly; The eyes that have watched a thousand years, The forehead lined with a thousand cares, The seaweed-character of hairs!— You shall see and you shall see, Or you may hear, as I can feel, When the winds batter, how these parchments clatter, And the beautiful tenor that's ever ringing When thro' the Seaweed the breeze is singing: And you should know, I know a great deal, When the bacchi arcanum I clutch and gripe, I know a great deal of wind and weather By hearing my own cheeks slap together A-pulling up a pipe.

I believe—and I conceive I'm an authority In all things ghastly, First for tenuity For stringiness secondly, And sallowness lastly— I say I believe a cadaverous man Who would live as long and as lean as he can Should live entirely on bacchi— On the bacchic ambrosia entirely feed him; When living thus, so little lack I, So easy am I, I'll never heed him Who anything seeketh beyond the Leaf: For, what with mumbling pipe-ends freely, And snuffing the ashes now and then, I give it as my firm belief One might go living on genteelly To the age of an antediluvian.

This from the king to each spectral Grim— Mind, we address no bibbing smoker! Tell not us 'tis as broad as it's long, We've no breadth more than a leathern thong Tanned—or a tarnished poker: Ye are also lank and slim?— Your king he comes of an ancient line Which "length without breadth" the Gods define, And look ye follow him! Lanky lieges! the Gods one day Will cut off this line, as geometers say, Equal to any given line:— PI,—PE—their hands divine Do more than we can see: They cut off every length of clay Really in a most extraordinary way— They fill your bowls up—Dutch C'naster, Shag, York River—fill 'em faster, Fill 'em faster up, I say. What Turkey, Oronoko, Cavendish! There's the fuel to make a chafing dish, A chafing dish to peel the petty Paint that girls and boys call pretty— Peel it off from lip and cheek: We've none such here; yet, if ye seek An infallible test for a raw beginner, Mundungus will always discover a sinner.

Now ye are charged, we give the word Light! and pour it thro' your noses, And let it hover and lodge in your hair Bird-like, bird-like—You're aware Anacreon had a bird— A bird! and filled his bowl with roses. Ha ha! ye laugh in ghastlywise, And the smoke comes through your eyes, And you're looking very grim, And the air is very dim, And the casual paper flare Taketh still a redder glare.

Now thou pretty little fellow, Now thine eyes are turning yellow, Thou shalt be our page to-night! Come and sit thee next to us, And as we may want a light See that thou be dexterous.

Now bring forth your tractates musty, Dry, cadaverous, and dusty, One, on the sound of mammoths' bones In motion; one, on Druid-stones: Show designs for pipes most ghastly, And devils and ogres grinning nastily! Show, show the limnings ye brought back, Since round and round the zodiac Ye galloped goblin horses which Were light as smoke and black as pitch; And those ye made in the mouldy moon, And Uranus, Saturn, and Neptune, And in the planet Mercury, Where all things living and dead have an eye Which sometimes opening suddenly Stareth and startleth strangely

But now the night is growing better, And every jet of smoke grows jetter, While yet there blinks sufficient light, Bring in those skeletons that fright Most men into fits, but that We relish for their want of fat. Bring them in, the Cimabues With all or each that horribly true is, Francias, Giottos, Masaccios, That tread on the tops of their bony toes, And every one with a long sharp arrow Cleverly shot through his spinal marrow, With plenty of gridirons, spikes, and fires And fiddling angels in sheets and quires.

Hold! 'tis dark! 'tis lack of light, Or something wrong in this royal sight, Or else our musty, dusty, and right Well-beloved lieges all Are standing in rank against the wall, And ever thin and thinner, and tall And taller grow and cadaveral! Subjects, ye are sharp and spare, Every nose is blue and frosty, And your back-bone's growing bare, And your king can count your costae, And your bones are clattering, And your teeth are chattering, And ye spit out bits of pipe, Which, shorter grown, ye faster gripe In jaws; and weave a cloudy cloak That wraps up all except your bones Whose every joint is oozing smoke: And there's a creaky music drones Whenas your lungs distend your ribs, A sound, that's like the grating nibs Of pens on paper late at night; Your shanks are yellow more than white And very like what Holbein drew! Avaunt! ye are a ghastly crew Too like the Campo Santo—down! We are your monarch, but we own That were we not, we very well Might take ye to be imps of hell: But ye are glorious ghastly sprites, What ho! our page! Sir knave—lights, lights, The final pipes are to be lit: Sit, gentlemen, we charge ye sit Until the cock affrays the night And heralds in the limping morn, And makes the owl and raven flit; Until the jolly moon is white, And till the stars and moon are gone.

No. V. Rain.

The chamber is lonely and light; Outside there is nothing but night— And wind and a creeping rain. And the rain clings to the pane: And heavy and drear's The night; and the tears Of heaven are dropt in pain.

And the tears of heaven are dropt in pain; And man pains heaven and shuts the rain Outside, and sleeps: and winds are sighing; And turning worlds sing mass for the dying.


Christmas Eve and Easter Day: by Robert Browning.—Chapman and Hall. 1850.

There are occasions when the office of the critic becomes almost simply that of an expositor; when his duty is not to assert, but to interpret. It is his privilege to have been the first to study a subject, and become familiar with it; what remains is to state facts, and to suggest considerations; not to lay down dogmas. That which he speaks of is to him itself a dogma; he starts from conviction: his it is to convince others, and, as far as may be, by the same means as satisfied himself; to incite to the same study, doing his poor best, meanwhile, to supply the present want of it.

Thus much, indeed, is the critic's duty always; but he generally feels the right, and has it, of speaking with authority. He condemns, or gives praise; and his judgment, though merely individual and subject to revision, is judgment. Before the certainty of genius and deathless power, in the contemplation of consummate art, his position changes: and well for him if he knows, and is contented it should be so. Here he must follow, happy if he only follows and serves; and while even here he will not shelve his doubts, or blindly refuse to exercise a candid discrimination, his demur at unquestioning assent, far from betraying any arrogance, will be discreetly advanced, and on clearly stated grounds.

Of all poets, there is none more than Robert Browning, in approaching whom diffidence is necessary. The mere extent of his information cannot pass unobserved, either as a fact, or as a title to respect. No one who has read the body of his works will deny that they are replete with mental and speculative subtlety, with vivid and most diversified conception of character, with dramatic incident and feeling; with that intimate knowledge of outward nature which makes every sentence of description a living truth; replete with a most human tenderness and pathos. Common as is the accusation of "extravagance," and unhesitatingly as it is applied, in a general off-hand style, to the entire character of Browning's poems, it would require some jesuitism of self-persuasion to induce any one to affirm his belief in the existence of such extravagance in the conception of the poems, or in the sentiments expressed; of any want of concentration in thought, of national or historical keeping. Far from this, indeed, a deliberate unity of purpose is strikingly apparent. Without referring for the present to what are assumed to be perverse faults of execution—a question the principles and bearing of which will shortly be considered—assuredly the mention of the names of a few among Browning's poems—of "Paracelsus," "Pippa Passes," "Luria," the "Souls's Tragedy," "King Victor and King Charles," even of the less perfect achievement, "Strafford"; or, passing to the smaller poems, of "The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "The Laboratory," and "The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's";—will at once realize to the memory of all readers an abstruse ideal never lost sight of, and treated to the extreme of elaboration. As regards this point, we address all in any manner acquainted with the poet's works, certain of receiving an affirmative answer even from those who "can't read Sordello, or understand the object of writing in that style."

If so many exceptions to Browning's "system of extravagance" be admitted,—and we again refer for confirmation or refutation to all who have sincerely read him, and who, valuing written criticism at its worth, value also at its worth the criticism of individual conviction,—wherein are we to seek this extravagance? The groundwork exempted, the imputation attaches, if anywhere, to the framework; to the body, if not to the soul. And we are thus left to consider the style, or mode of expression.

Style is not stationary, or, in the concrete, matter of principle: style is, firstly, national; next, chronological; and lastly, individual. To try the oriental system by the European, and pronounce either wrong by so much as it exceeds or falls short, would imply so entire a want of comprehensive appreciation as can scarcely fail to induce the conviction, that the two are distinct and independent, each to be tested on its own merits. Again, were the Elizabethan dramatists right, or are those of our own day? Neither absolutely, as by comparison alone; his period speaks in each; and each must be judged by this: not whether he is true to any given type, but whether his own type be a true one for himself. And this, which holds good between nations and ages, holds good also between individuals. Very different from Shelley's are Wordsworth's nature in description, his sentiment, his love; Burn's and Keats's different from these and from each other: yet are all these, nature, and sentiment, and love.

But here it will be urged: by this process any and every style is pronounced good, so that it but find a measure of recognition in its own age and country; nay, even the author's self-approval will be sufficient. And, as a corollary, each age must and ought to reject its predecessor; and Voltaire was no less than right in dubbing Shakspere barbarian. That it is not so, however, will appear when the last element of truth in style, that with which all others combine, which includes and implies consistency with the author's self, with his age and his country, is taken into account. Appropriateness of treatment to subject it is which lies at the root of all controversy on style: this is the last and the whole test. And the fact that none other is requisite, or, more strictly, that all others are but aspects of this one, will very easily be allowed when it is reflected that the subject, to be of an earnest and sincere ideal, must be an emanation of the poet's most secret soul; and that the soul receives teaching from circumstance, which is the time when and place where.

This premised, it must next be borne in mind that the poet's conception of his subject is not identical with, and, in the majority of cases, will be unlike, his reader's. And, the question of style (manner) being necessarily subordinate to that of subject (matter), it is not for the reader to dispute with the author on his mode of rendering, provided that should be accepted as embodying (within the bounds of grammatical logic) the intention preconceived. The object of the poet in writing, why he attempts to describe an event as resulting from this cause or this, or why he assumes such as the effect; all these considerations the reader is competent to entertain: any two men may deduce from the same premises, and may probably arrive at different conclusions: but, these conclusions reached, what remains is a question of resemblance, which each must determine for himself, as best conscious of his own intention. To take an instance. Shakspere's conception of Macbeth as a man capable of uttering a pompous conceit—

("Here lay Duncan, His silver skin laced with his golden blood—")

in a moment, to him, and to all present, of startling purport, may be a correct or an impressive conception, or it may be the reverse. That the rendering of the momentary intention is adequate here there is no reason to doubt. If so, in what respect is the reader called upon to investigate a matter of style? He must simply return to the question of whether this point of character be consistent with others imagined of the same person; this, answered affirmatively, is an approval,—negatively, a condemnation, of intention; the merit of style, in either case, being mere competence, and that admitted irrespectively of the reader's liking or disliking of the passage per se, or as part of a context. Why, in this same tragedy of Macbeth, is a drunken porter introduced between a murder and its discovery? Did Shakspere really intend him to be a sharp-witted man? These questions are pertinent and necessary. There is no room for disputing that this scene is purposely a comic scene: and, if this is certain, the style of the speech is appropriate to the scene, and of the scene, to the conception of the drama? Is that conception admirable?

We have entered thus at length on the investigation of adequacy and appropriateness of style, and of the mode by which entire classes of disputable points, usually judged under that name, may be reduced to the more essential element of conception; because it will be almost invariably found, that a mere arbitrary standard of irresponsible private predilection is then resorted to. Nor can this be well guarded against. The concrete, style, being assumed as always constituting an entity auxiliary to, but not of necessity modified by, and representing subject,—as something substantially pre-existing in the author's mind or practice, and belonging to him individually; the reader will, not without show of reason, betake himself to the trial of personality by personality, another's by his own; and will thus pronounce on poems or passages of poems not as elevated, or vigorous, or well-sustained, or the opposite, in idea, but, according to certain notions of his own, as attractive, original, or conventional writing.

Thus far as regards those parts of execution which concern human{13} embodiment—the metaphysical and dramatic or epic faculties. Of style in description the reader is more nearly as competent a judge as the writer. In the one case, the poet is bound to realize an idea, which is his own, and the justness of which, and therefore of the form of its expression, can be decided only by reasoning and analogy; in the other, having for his type material phaenomena, he must reproduce the things as cognizable by all, though not hereby in any way exempt from adhering absolutely to his proper perception of them. Here, even as to ideal description or simile, the reader can assert its truth or falsehood of purpose, its sufficiency or insufficiency of means: but here again he must beware of exceeding his rights, and of substituting himself to his author. He must not dictate under what aspect nature is to be considered, stigmatizing the one chosen, because his own bent is rather towards some other. In the exercise of censure, he cannot fairly allow any personal peculiarities of view to influence him; but will have to decide from common grounds of perception, unless clearly conscious of short-coming, or of the extreme of any corresponding peculiarity on the author's part.

{13} In employing the word "human," we would have our intention understood to include organic spiritualism—the superhuman treated, from a human pou sto, as ideal mind, form, power, action, &c.

In speaking of the adaptation of style to conception, we advanced that, details of character and of action being a portion of the latter, the real point to determine in reference to the former is, whether such details are completely rendered in relation to the general purpose. And here, to return to Robert Browning, we would enforce on the attention of those among his readers who assume that he spoils fine thoughts by a vicious, extravagant, and involved style, a few analytical questions, to be answered unbiassed by hearsay evidence. Concerning the dramatic works: Is the leading idea conspicuously brought forward throughout each work? Is the language of the several speakers such as does not create any impression other than that warranted by the subject matter of each? If so, does it create the impression apparently intended? Is the character of speech varied according to that of the speaker? Are the passages of description and abstract reflection so introduced as to add to poetic, without detracting from dramatic, excellence? About the narrative poems, and those of a more occasional and personal quality the same questions may be asked with some obvious adaptation; and this about all:—Are the versification strong, the sound sharp or soft, monotonous, hurried, in proportion to the requirement of sense; the illustrative thoughts apt and new; the humour quaint and relishing? Finally, is not in many cases that which is spoken of as something extraneous, dragged in aforethought, for the purpose of singularity, the result more truly of a most earnest and single-minded labor after the utmost rendering of idiomatic conversational truth; the rejection of all stop-gap words; about the most literal transcript of fact compatible with the ends of poetry and true feeling for Art? This a point worthy note, and not capable of contradiction.{14}

{14} We may instance several scenes of "Pippa Passes,"—the concluding one especially, where Pippa reviews her day; the whole of the "Soul's Tragedy,"—the poetic as well as the prose portion; "The Flight of the Duchess;" "Waring," &c.; and passages continually recurring in "Sordello," and in "Colombe's Birthday."

These questions answered categorically will, we believe, be found to establish the assurance that Browning's style is copious, and certainly not other than appropriate,—instance contrasted with instance—as the form of expression bestowed on the several phases of a certain ever-present form of thought. We have already endeavored to show that, where style is not inadequate, its object as a means being attained, the mind must revert to its decision as to relative and collective value of intention: and we will again leave Browning's manifestations of intellectual purpose, as such, for the verdict of his readers.

To those who yet insist: "Why cannot I read Sordello?" we can only answer:—Admitted a leading idea, not only metaphysical but subtle and complicated to the highest degree; how work out this idea, unless through the finest intricacy of shades of mental development? Admitted a philosophic comprehensiveness of historical estimate and a minuteness of familiarity with details, with the added assumption, besides, of speaking with the very voice of the times; how present this position, unless by standing at an eminent point, and addressing thence a not unprepared audience? Admitted an intense aching concentration of thought; how be self-consistent, unless uttering words condensed to the limits of language?—And let us at last say: Read Sordello again. Why hold firm that you ought to be able at once to know Browning's stops, and to pluck out the heart of his mystery? Surely, if you do not understand him, the fact tells two ways. But, if you will understand him, you shall.

We have been desirous to explain and justify the state of feeling in which we enter on the consideration of a new poem by Robert Browning. Those who already feel with us will scarcely be disposed to forgive the prolixity which, for the present, has put it out of our power to come at the work itself: but, if earnestness of intention will plead our excuse, we need seek for no other.

The Evil under the Sun

How long, oh Lord?—The voice is sounding still, Not only heard beneath the altar stone, Not heard of John Evangelist alone In Patmos. It doth cry aloud and will Between the earth's end and earth's end, until The day of the great reckoning, bone for bone, And blood for righteous blood, and groan for groan: Then shall it cease on the air with a sudden thrill; Not slowly growing fainter if the rod Strikes one or two amid the evil throng, Or one oppressor's hand is stayed and numbs,— Not till the vengeance that is coming comes: For shall all hear the voice excepting God? Or God not listen, hearing?—Lord, how long?

Published Monthly.—Price One Shilling.

Art and Poetry, Being Thoughts towards Nature.

Conducted principally by Artists.

Of the little worthy the name of writing that has ever been written upon the principles of Art, (of course excepting that on the mere mechanism), a very small portion is by Artists themselves; and that is so scattered, that one scarcely knows where to find the ideas of an Artist except in his pictures.

With a view to obtain the thoughts of Artists, upon Nature as evolved in Art, in another language besides their own proper one, this Periodical has been established. Thus, then, it is not open to the conflicting opinions of all who handle the brush and palette, nor is it restricted to actual practitioners; but is intended to enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry, and consequently regardless whether emanating from practical Artists, or from those who have studied nature in the Artist's School.

Hence this work will contain such original Tales (in prose or verse), Poems, Essays, and the like, as may seem conceived in the spirit, or with the intent, of exhibiting a pure and unaffected style, to which purpose analytical Reviews of current Literature—especially Poetry—will be introduced; as also illustrative Etchings, one of which latter, executed with the utmost care and completeness, will appear in each number.


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