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26 June, 2013
Letters On Literature
On Vers de Societe
by Lang, Andrew


To Mr. Gifted Hopkins.

Dear Gifted,--If you will permit me to use your Christian, and prophetic, name--we improved the occasion lately with the writers of light verse in ancient times. We decided that the ancients were not great in verses of society, because they had, properly speaking, no society to write verses for. Women did not live in the Christian freedom and social equality with men, either in Greece or Rome--at least not "modest women," as Mr. Harry Foker calls them in "Pendennis." About the others there is plenty of pretty verse in the Anthology. What you need for verses of society is a period in which the social equality is recognized, and in which people are peaceable enough and comfortable enough to "play with light loves in the portal" of the Temple of Hymen, without any very definite intentions, on either part, of going inside and getting married.

Perhaps we should not expect vers de societe from the Crusaders, who were not peaceable, and who were very earnest indeed, in love or war. But as soon as you get a Court, and Court life, in France, even though the times were warlike, then ladies are lauded in artful strains, and the lyre is struck leviore plectro. Charles d'Orleans, that captive and captivating prince, wrote thousands of rondeaux; even before his time a gallant company of gentlemen composed the Livre des Cent Ballades, one hundred ballades, practically unreadable by modern men. Then came Clement Marot, with his gay and rather empty fluency, and Ronsard, with his mythological compliments, his sonnets, decked with roses, and led like lambs to the altar of Helen or Cassandra. A few, here and there, of his pieces are lighter, more pleasant, and, in a quiet way, immortal, such as the verses to his "fair flower of Anjou," a beauty of fifteen. So they ran on, in France, till Voiture's time, and Sarrazin's with his merry ballade of an elopement, and Corneille's proud and graceful stanzas to Marquise de Gorla.

But verses in the English tongue are more worthy of our attention. Mr. Locker begins his collection of them, Lyra Elegantiarum (no longer a very rare book in England), as far back as Skelton's age, and as Thomas Wyat's, and Sidney's; but those things, the lighter lyrics of that day, are rather songs than poems, and probably were all meant to be sung to the virginals by our musical ancestors.

"Drink to me only with thine eyes," says the great Ben Jonson, or sings it rather. The words, that he versified out of the Greek prose of Philostratus, cannot be thought of without the tune. It is the same with Carew's "He that loves a rosy cheek," or with "Roses, their sharp spines being gone." The lighter poetry of Carew's day is all powdered with gold dust, like the court ladies' hair, and is crowned and diapered with roses, and heavy with fabulous scents from the Arabian phoenix's nest. Little Cupids flutter and twitter here and there among the boughs, as in that feast of Adonis which Ptolemy's sister gave in Alexandria, or as in Eisen's vignettes for Dorat's Baisers:

"Ask me no more whither do stray
The golden atoms of the day;
For in pure love did Heaven prepare
These powders to enrich your hair."

It would be affectation, Gifted, if you rhymed in that fashion for the lady of your love, and presented her, as it were, with cosmical cosmetics, and compliments drawn from the starry spaces and deserts, from skies, phoenixes, and angels. But it was a natural and pretty way of writing when Thomas Carew was young. I prefer Herrick the inexhaustible in dainties; Herrick, that parson-pagan, with the soul of a Greek of the Anthology, and a cure of souls (Heaven help them!) in Devonshire. His Julia is the least mortal of these "daughters of dreams and of stories," whom poets celebrate; she has a certain opulence of flesh and blood, a cheek like a damask rose, and "rich eyes," like Keats's lady; no vaporous Beatrice, she; but a handsome English wench, with

"A cuff neglectful and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note
In the tempestuous petticoat."

Then Suckling strikes up a reckless military air; a warrior he is who has seen many a siege of hearts--hearts that capitulated, or held out like Troy-town, and the impatient assailant whistles:

"Quit, quit, for shame: this will not move,
This cannot take her.
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her -
The devil take her."

So he rides away, curling his moustache, hiding his defeat in a big inimitable swagger. It is a pleasanter piece in which Suckling, after a long leaguer of a lady's heart, finds that Captain honour is governor of the place, and surrender hopeless. So he departs with a salute:

"March, march (quoth I), the word straight give,
Let's lose no time but leave her:
That giant upon air will live,
And hold it out for ever."

Lovelace is even a better type in his rare good things of the military amorist and poet. What apology of Lauzun's, or Bussy Rabutin's for faithlessness could equal this? -

"Why dost thou say I am forsworn,
Since thine I vowed to be?
Lady, it is already morn;
It was last night I swore to thee
That fond impossibility."

Has "In Memoriam" nobler numbers than the poem, from exile, to Lucasta? -

"Our Faith and troth
All time and space controls,
Above the highest sphere we meet,
Unseen, unknown, and greet as angels greet."

How comes it that in the fierce fighting days the soldiers were so tuneful, and such scholars? In the first edition of Lovelace's "Lucasta" there is a flock of recommendatory verses, English, Latin, even Greek, by the gallant Colonel's mess-mates and comrades. What guardsman now writes like Lovelace, and how many of his friends could applaud him in Greek? You, my Gifted, are happily of a pacific disposition, and tune a gentle lyre. Is it not lucky for swains like you that the soldiers have quite forsworn sonneting? When a man was a rake, a poet, a warrior, all in one, what chance had a peaceful minor poet like you or me, Gifted, against his charms? Sedley, when sober, must have been an invincible rival-- invincible, above all, when he pretended constancy:

"Why then should I seek further store,
And still make love anew?
When change itself can give no more
'Tis easy to be true."


How infinitely more delightful, musical, and captivating are those Cavalier singers--their numbers flowing fair, like their scented lovelocks--than the prudish society poets of Pope's day. "The Rape of the Lock" is very witty, but through it all don't you mark the sneer of the contemptuous, unmanly little wit, the crooked dandy? He jibes among his compliments; and I do not wonder that Mistress Arabella Fermor was not conciliated by his long-drawn cleverness and polished lines. I prefer Sackville's verses "written at sea the night before an engagement":

"To all you ladies now on land
We men at sea indite."

They are all alike, the wits of Queen Anne; and even Matt Prior, when he writes of ladies occasionally, writes down to them, or at least glances up very saucily from his position on his knees. But Prior is the best of them, and the most candid:

"I court others in verse--but I love thee in prose;
And they have my whimsies, but thou hast my heart."

Yes, Prior is probably the greatest of all who dally with the light lyre which thrills to the wings of fleeting Loves--the greatest English writer of vers de societe; the most gay, frank, good- humoured, tuneful and engaging.

Landor is great, too, but in another kind; the bees that hummed over Plato's cradle have left their honey on his lips; none but Landor, or a Greek, could have written this on Catullus:

"Tell me not what too well I know
About the Bard of Sirmio -
Yes, in Thalia's son
Such stains there are as when a Grace
Sprinkles another's laughing face
With nectar, and runs on!"

That is poetry deserving of a place among the rarest things in the Anthology. It is a sorrow to me that I cannot quite place Praed with Prior in my affections. With all his gaiety and wit, he wearies one at last with that clever, punning antithesis. I don't want to know how

"Captain Hazard wins a bet,
Or Beaulieu spoils a curry" -

and I prefer his sombre "Red Fisherman," the idea of which is borrowed, wittingly or unwittingly, from Lucian.

Thackeray, too careless in his measures, yet comes nearer Prior in breadth of humour and in unaffected tenderness. Who can equal that song, "Once you come to Forty Year," or the lines on the Venice Love-lamp, or the "Cane-bottomed Chair"? Of living English writers of verse in the "familiar style," as Cowper has it, I prefer Mr. Locker when he is tender and not untouched with melancholy, as in "The Portrait of a Lady," and Mr. Austin Dobson, when he is not flirting, but in earnest, as in the "Song of Four Seasons" and "The Dead Letter." He has ingenuity, pathos, mastery of his art, and, though the least pedantic of poets, is "conveniently learned."

Of contemporary Americans, if I may be frank, I prefer the verse of Mr. Bret Harte, verse with so many tunes and turns, as comic as the "Heathen Chinee," as tender as the lay of the ship with its crew of children that slipped its moorings in the fog. To me it seems that Mr. Bret Harte's poems have never (at least in this country) been sufficiently esteemed. Mr. Lowell has written ("The Biglow Papers" apart) but little in this vein. Mr. Wendell Holmes, your delightful godfather, Gifted, has written much with perhaps some loss from the very quantity. A little of vers de societe, my dear Gifted, goes a long way, as you will think, if ever you sit down steadily to read right through any collection of poems in this manner. So do not add too rapidly to your own store; let them be "few, but roses" all of them.

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