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26 June, 2013
Letters On Literature
Of Modern English Poetry
by Lang, Andrew


My dear Wincott,--I hear that a book has lately been published by an American lady, in which all the modern poets are represented. The singers have been induced to make their own selections, and put forward, as Mr. Browning says, their best foot, anapaest or trochee, or whatever it may be. My information goes further, and declares that there are but eighteen poets of England to sixty inspired Americans.

This Western collection of modern minstrelsy shows how very dangerous it is to write even on the English poetry of the day. Eighteen is long odds against a single critic, and Major Bellenden, in "Old Mortality," tells us that three to one are odds as long as ever any warrior met victoriously, and that warrior was old Corporal Raddlebanes.

I decline the task; I am not going to try to estimate either the eighteen of England or the sixty of the States. It is enough to speak about three living poets, in addition to those masters treated of in my last letter. Two of the three you will have guessed at-- Mr. Swinburne and Mr. William Morris. The third, I dare say, you do not know even by name. I think he is not one of the English eighteen--Mr. Robert Bridges. His muse has followed the epicurean maxim, and chosen the shadowy path, fallentis semita vitae, where the dew lies longest on the grass, and the red rowan berries droop in autumn above the yellow St. John's wort. But you will find her all the fresher for her country ways.

My knowledge of Mr. William Morris's poetry begins in years so far away that they seem like reminiscences of another existence. I remember sitting beneath Cardinal Beaton's ruined castle at St. Andrews, looking across the bay to the sunset, while some one repeated "Two Red Roses across the Moon." And I remember thinking that the poem was nonsense. With Mr. Morris's other early verses, "The Defence of Guinevere," this song of the moon and the roses was published in 1858. Probably the little book won no attention; it is not popular even now. Yet the lyrics remain in memories which forget all but a general impression of the vast "Earthly Paradise," that huge decorative poem, in which slim maidens and green-clad men, and waters wan, and flowering apple trees, and rich palaces are all mingled as on some long ancient tapestry, shaken a little by the wind of death. They are not living and breathing people, these persons of the fables; they are but shadows, beautiful and faint, and their poem is fit reading for sleepy summer afternoons. But the characters in the lyrics in "The Defence of Guinevere" are people of flesh and blood, under their chain armour and their velvet, and the trappings of their tabards.

There is no book in the world quite like this of Mr. Morris's old Oxford days when the spirit of the Middle Ages entered into him, with all its contradictions of faith and doubt, and its earnest desire to enjoy this life to the full in war and love, or to make certain of a future in which war is not, and all love is pure heavenly. If one were to choose favourites from "The Defence of Guinevere," they would be the ballads of "Shameful Death," and of "The Sailing of the Sword," and "The Wind," which has the wind's wail in its voice, and all the mad regret of "Porphyria's Lover" in its burden.

The use of "colour-words," in all these pieces, is very curious and happy. The red ruby, the brown falcon, the white maids, "the scarlet roofs of the good town," in "The Sailing of the Sword," make the poem a vivid picture. Then look at the mad, remorseful sea- rover, the slayer of his lady, in "The Wind":

"For my chair is heavy and carved, and with sweeping green behind
It is hung, and the dragons thereon grin out in the gusts of the wind;
On its folds an orange lies with a deep gash cut in the rind;
If I move my chair it will scream, and the orange will roll out far,
And the faint yellow juice ooze out like blood from a wizard's jar,
And the dogs will howl for those who went last month the war."

"The Blue Closet," which is said to have been written for some drawings of Mr. Rossetti, is also a masterpiece in this romantic manner. Our brief English age of romanticism, our 1830, was 1856- 60, when Mr. Morris, Mr. Burne Jones, and Mr. Swinburne were undergraduates. Perhaps it wants a peculiar turn of taste to admire these strange things, though "The Haystack in the Floods," with its tragedy, must surely appeal to all who read poetry.

For the rest, as time goes on, I more and more feel as if Mr. Morris's long later poems, "The Earthly Paradise" especially, were less art than "art manufacture." This may be an ungrateful and erroneous sentiment. "The Earthly Paradise," and still more certainly "Jason," are full of such pleasure as only poetry can give. As some one said of a contemporary politician, they are "good, but copious." Even from narrative poetry Mr. Morris has long abstained. He, too, illustrates Mr. Matthew Arnold's parable of "The Progress of Poetry."

"The Mount is mute, the channel dry."

Euripides has been called "the meteoric poet," and the same title seems very appropriate to Mr. Swinburne. Probably few readers had heard his name--I only knew it as that of the author of a strange mediaeval tale in prose--when he published "Atalanta in Calydon" in 1865. I remember taking up the quarto in white cloth, at the Oxford Union, and being instantly led captive by the beauty and originality of the verse.

There was this novel "meteoric" character in the poem: the writer seemed to rejoice in snow and fire, and stars, and storm, "the blue cold fields and folds of air," in all the primitive forces which were alive before this earth was; the naked vast powers that circle the planets and farthest constellations. This quality, and his varied and sonorous verse, and his pessimism, put into the mouth of a Greek chorus, were the things that struck one most in Mr. Swinburne. He was, above all, "a mighty-mouthed inventer of harmonies," and one looked eagerly for his next poems. They came with disappointment and trouble.

The famous "Poems and Ballads" have become so well known that people can hardly understand the noise they made. I don't wonder at the scandal, even now. I don't see the fun of several of the pieces, except the mischievous fun of shocking your audience. However, "The Leper" and his company are chiefly boyish, in the least favourable sense of the word. They do not destroy the imperishable merit of the "Hymn to Proserpine" and the "Garden of Proserpine" and the "Triumph of Time" and "Itylus."

Many years have passed since 1866, and yet one's old opinion, that English poetry contains no verbal music more original, sonorous, and sweet than Mr. Swinburne wrote in these pieces when still very young, remains an opinion unshaken. Twenty years ago, then, he had enabled the world to take his measure; he had given proofs of a true poet; he was learned too in literature as few poets have been since Milton, and, like Milton, skilled to make verse in the languages of the ancient world and in modern tongues. His French songs and Greek elegiacs are of great excellence; probably no scholar who was not also a poet could match his Greek lines on Landor.

What, then, is lacking to make Mr. Swinburne a poet of a rank even higher than that which he occupies? Who can tell? There is no science that can master this chemistry of the brain. He is too copious. "Bothwell" is long enough for six plays, and "Tristram of Lyonesse" is prolix beyond even mediaeval narrative. He is too pertinacious; children are the joy of the world and Victor Hugo is a great poet; but Mr. Swinburne almost makes us excuse Herod and Napoleon III. by his endless odes to Hugo, and rondels to small boys and girls. Ne quid nimis, that is the golden rule which he constantly spurns, being too luxuriant, too emphatic, and as fond of repeating himself as Professor Freeman. Such are the defects of so noble a genius; thus perverse Nature has decided that it shall be, Nature which makes no ruby without a flaw.

The name of Mr. Robert Bridges is probably strange to many lovers of poetry who would like nothing better than to make acquaintance with his verse. But his verse is not so easily found. This poet never writes in magazines; his books have not appealed to the public by any sort of advertisement, only two or three of them have come forth in the regular way. The first was "Poems, by Robert Bridges, Batchelor of Arts in the University of Oxford. Parva seges satis est. London: Pickering, 1873."

This volume was presently, I fancy, withdrawn, and the author has distributed some portions of it in succeeding pamphlets, or in books printed at Mr. Daniel's private press in Oxford. In these, as in all Mr. Bridges's poems, there is a certain austere and indifferent beauty of diction and a memory of the old English poets, Milton and the earlier lyrists. I remember being greatly pleased with the "Elegy on a Lady whom Grief for the Death of Her Betrothed Killed."

"Let the priests go before, arrayed in white,
And let the dark-stoled minstrels follow slow
Next they that bear her, honoured on this night,
And then the maidens in a double row,
Each singing soft and low,
And each on high a torch upstaying:
Unto her lover lead her forth with light,
With music and with singing, and with praying."

This is a stately stanza.

In his first volume Mr. Bridges offered a few rondeaux and triolets, turning his back on all these things as soon as they became popular. In spite of their popularity I have the audacity to like them still, in their humble twittering way. Much more in his true vein were the lines, "Clear and Gentle Stream," and all the other verses in which, like a true Etonian, he celebrates the beautiful Thames:

"There is a hill beside the silver Thames,
Shady with birch and beech and odorous pine,
And brilliant under foot with thousand gems
Steeply the thickets to his floods decline.
Straight trees in every place
Their thick tops interlace,
And pendent branches trail their foliage fine
Upon his watery face.

* * *

A reedy island guards the sacred bower
And hides it from the meadow, where in peace
The lazy cows wrench many a scented flower,
Robbing the golden market of the bees.
And laden branches float
By banks of myosote;
And scented flag and golden fleur-de-lys
Delay the loitering boat."

I cannot say how often I have read that poem, and how delightfully it carries the breath of our River through the London smoke. Nor less welcome are the two poems on spring, the "Invitation to the Country," and the "Reply." In these, besides their verbal beauty and their charming pictures, is a manly philosophy of Life, which animates Mr. Bridges's more important pieces--his "Prometheus the Firebringer," and his "Nero," a tragedy remarkable for the representation of Nero himself, the luxurious human tiger. From "Prometheus" I make a short extract, to show the quality of Mr. Bridges's blank verse:

"Nor is there any spirit on earth astir,
Nor 'neath the airy vault, nor yet beyond
In any dweller in far-reaching space
Nobler or dearer than the spirit of man:
That spirit which lives in each and will not die,
That wooeth beauty, and for all good things
Urgeth a voice, or still in passion sigheth,
And where he loveth, draweth the heart with him."

Mr. Bridges's latest book is his "Eros and Psyche" (Bell & Sons, who publish the "Prometheus"). It is the old story very closely followed, and beautifully retold, with a hundred memories of ancient poets: Homer, Dante, Theocritus, as well as of Apuleius.

I have named Mr. Bridges here because his poems are probably all but unknown to readers well acquainted with many other English writers of late days. On them, especially on actual contemporaries or juniors in age, it would be almost impertinent for me to speak to you; but, even at that risk, I take the chance of directing you to the poetry of Mr. Bridges. I owe so much pleasure to its delicate air, that, if speech be impertinence, silence were ingratitude. {1}

{1} Since this was written, Mr. Bridges has made his lyrics accessible in "Shorter Poems." (G. Bell and Sons: 1890)

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