Modern Poetry: its Genius and Tendencies.


Literatur: anonym
Literatur: The London Quarterly Review


[238] 1. Poems. By ALEXANDER SMITH. Third Edition. London, 1854.

2. Balder: a Poem. By the Author of "The Roman." London, 1854.

THE publication of these two volumes, within the space of the last few months, presents an opportunity of which we gladly avail ourselves, and so proceed at once to offer some brief remarks upon the leading characteristics of modern poetry. The whole of this wide subject could not, indeed, be discoursed upon from so limited a text; but for exhibiting the more prominent features and marked tendencies of poetry in the present day, we could not, perhaps, have selected better illustrations than those which come most recently to hand. Of those features and tendencies they furnish, it is true, exaggerated types; but for this reason they are only the more adapted to our present purpose, as a public lesson is illustrated best by examples in high relief.

To many of our readers, more familiar with the standard poets of our country than with the ardent and unsettled minstrelsy of the current time, the immediate subjects of this paper may not seem to have deserved our first attention; and such a feeling we can well appreciate. We, too, should have preferred to introduce this branch of literature by remarks in connexion with one or other of our elder poets; to have refreshed the mind and memory of the reader with some of the choice passages of Chaucer, rich both in character and circumstance, and buoyant with a certain natural gladness, – of Spenser, fruitful in invention, and high in moral tone, clothing the meekest virtues in heroic dress, and setting forth the most ennobling truths in quaint and pleasant allegories, – or of Dryden, whose nervous verse and masculine good sense discover to us how much of daily wisdom may consist with rare poetic gifts. From the pleasure of this retrospect there would have been no drawback; and in poetry so catholic, all healthy minds would have shared a genuine delight. But the usefulness of a journal like ours is dependent, in no small measure, upon its watching the social and literary aspect of the times, – in its reflection of every existing phase, or promise of improvement, – and its timely warning of every degenerate tendency. It is under the influence of this conviction that we now write. In the recent and rising school of poetry there is so much to elicit admiration, combined with still more that is fatal, as we think, to moral, as well as intellectual, maturity and well-being, that we at once address ourselves to a consideration of its peculiar character, to a brief acknowledgment of its beauties, and a serious inquiry into the nature and cause of its defects.

It is necessary, perhaps, to obviate the mere suspicion of narrowness or prejudice. In art we profess our tastes to be suf[239]ficiently eclectic. We are not of those who, from a natural or acquired bias towards one class of poetry, would deny the name to every composition of another school. The charm of this great art, as of its greater prototype, is its wonderful variety. It has something for every taste and every mood; it breathes successively the airs of every season, and touches by turns the simplest bosom and most cultivated mind. And if it be true, – as we believe it is, – that its great masters have the suffrages of every class, and attract the humblest to find some natural charm in those human features, whose deeper and divine significance makes the highest to return, and ponder, and gain fresh intelligence, with every further contemplation, it is also true that there is another order, whose office is more limited, but not less authentic. Seldom, indeed, is the gift of genius thus universal in its power; far more frequently is it thus circumscribed and special. A Madonna of Raphael, – all can see beauty there; peasant as well as prince, and Protestant as well as Catholic; not only maid and mother, with their mysterious sympathy, but boy and man, and all who have ever found or felt any natural strain of love. But where is the connoisseur who has traced all the magic of its art, and exhausted all the treasures of its truth and tenderness, – who has perused it thoroughly, is satisfied completely, and is content to look upon it for the last time? A play of Shakspeare, – this is patent to every schoolboy; it is history for the million, a repertory for every masquerader, a world for every humorist, a manual for every statesman, a text-book for every moralist. But where is the scholar or critic who has pointed out every beauty, and supplied the final gloss, and learnt the whole lesson? Honour then to Shakspeare and this chosen few! These are the High Priests of Nature, who minister at the great altar in the open service of the temple. But there are humbler oratories embayed within its solemn aisles, and there the pilgrims from every region may hear words of comfort, each in his own dialect; and the priests themselves drink sympathizing words from each other's lips. There are Poets who need Poets for an audience, – who have fed their imagination upon the selectest images and daintiest thoughts; and men of coarser mould can have no sympathy with these. There are others, who have brought learning to enrich their art, and whose claborate compositions are so many pieces of embroidered tapestry, bright with traditionary splendours, and moving with heroic life. Honour then to Collins and to Gray! All are welcome who are servants faithful both to virtue and to man, and who make Truth and Beauty the handmaids who unveil the face of Nature. In this spirit we gladly recognise the muse of Keats, with its sensuous delight in every natural object, and its almost pagan reverence for the dumb old deities of Greece, – and the genius of Shelley, soaring, like his own skylark, "higher yet, and higher," and shedding from [240] illustrious wings the whiteness of ideal beauty on every thing beneath.

Neither do we deny that true poetry may, in some faint degree, reflect the spirit of the age which gives it birth. Of some species, – such as satire, comedy, and the like, – it is the peculiar function so to do; and for many of the more serious kinds, it is no necessary detraction, that they indicate, with more or less distinctness, the character of the times in which the author lived. Poetry of the best description will often take something of its form and temper from popular and passing influences, from the force of national and temporary circumstances: for, though individual genius is the fire in which it is raised to its white heat, the present age is yet the anvil on which it is beaten into shape. This is chiefly true of poetry of a peculiar kind, mostly popular in its character, and always lyrical in its expression: of that which is highest and best, the most artistic and elaborate, we may confidently say that it is essentially independent of current tendencies, – that a spirit of utilitarian progress, if allowed to interfere, will more frequently deteriorate than exalt it; and an age of metaphysical inquiry serve rather to confound its pure æsthetic genius, than to yield it a truer or nobler theory of life.

As there is much error prevalent on this point, and as that error is, as it seems to us, a principal cause of the failure of many poems of undoubted genius in our day, we may, perhaps, be allowed to examine it more fully. We are persuaded that the ill-construction and feeble execution of these works are, in great measure, due to unsound notions of poetic art; while only from the observance of its genuine principles can moral truth, and every minor excellence, result.

That poetry should, according to the language of our great dramatist, "show the very age and body of the times, its form and pressure," is, indeed, maxim of some value to the artist of every class; but it is frequently repeated in our ears by those who forget to interpret it in the light of that great master's practice, and who both mistake its meaning, and exaggerate its importance.

First, they mistake its meaning. It signifies, – at least in its application to the art under review, of which precisely it was not first spoken, – not that poetry of set purpose must, but that poetry of the right stamp ever will, reflect the lineaments of the age, not of the poet himself, but of that imagined in the poet's fable. It dictates, not the choice of subject, which is left absolutely free, but the fidelity of imitation, which is strictly and primarily demanded by æsthetic law. Is the time we live in full of earnest inquiry, practical reform, philanthropic effort, and social improvement? These, then, will more or less appear in all works, even of the epic class, whose scene and era are [241] expressly identical with ours; but these works mostly take the shape of the prose novel. They will sometimes, also, condense themselves in verse, and find warm utterance in those brief and popular lyrics by which a nation or a class gives expression to its transitory throes. But we are speaking now of poems which, by their elaboration or their length, evidently make pretensions to the highest rank of art; and the method of true art is not altered by the genius of an age. Its appeals are made from one individual mind to another, and not from the individual to a collective people. It advocates no measure of reform, however pressing or desirable; it occupies itself with no single branch of industry or science, however useful; it does not even, without manifest deterioration and failure, rehearse the crude and disordered fancies of any single mind, however gifted, and though it be the poet's own. The nature of art is essentially objective and constructive. A poem, like a painting, is strictly a composition, whose materials   selected almost in whatsoever place you will – are faithfully combined by the aesthetic faculty, – a faculty that is neither wholly intellectual nor wholly moral, that acts in great measure like instinct, but needs the co-operation of science and intelligence.

But, secondly, our critics exaggerate the importance of this maxim, even when understood in their own limited and lesser sense. Poetry depends far more on the essential than the accidental; on the permanent than the temporary; on man himself than national costume or political conditions. For this reason it is that no poem worthy of the name can ever grow dim with age, but is fresh through all time. No man speaks so sincerely to his fellow-man as the poet; none is so free from the affectations and falsehoods which divide one class in society from another, and make one generation almost strange to that which follows; no one, therefore, is so widely recognised, so welcome in every neighbourhood, so secure against the changing fashions and confounding dialects of time. The best, and even the most popular, poems in the world, are those which are least shaped or coloured by the spirit of the author's age. If the ancients still move and delight us, it is not that we have anything in common with pagan Greece or Rome, either socially or politically considered; for by contrast in these particulars we are yet more divided from them than by centuries of time. It is as men beholding the same sun, feeling the same wants, and suffering the same changes. We may cease to wonder then that the ballads recited in their halls, and the dramas which held breathless their assembled cities, are still frequent on our lips, and often present to our minds. If pleasing to the young or to the old once, – as the Iliad or the Odyssey, – why not to youth or to experience now? If grateful to the instinct of filial piety once, – as the Antigone of Sophocles, – why not to filial piety in our day also? That these are not even more [242] popular among us is only because, with all their force of truth, they are not true enough, – not simply, fully, and profoundly so. They are Greek to a fault, as well as human to a miracle. Something of artifice stiffens the march of their otherwise consummate art; the brooding shadow of one great national belief obscures much of the delicate tracery of life; the demands of one grand action admit too seldom of a sweet and natural relief. Hence the defective sympathy existing between this age of readers and that age of poets; hence the need of culture and knowledge on the part of the former, before they can thoroughly enjoy the lofty creations of the latter. Something, indeed, of this is chargeable on the great difference, even of personal character, which the influence of our northern civilization, and especially of the new and better religion, has wrought upon mankind in modern times but still more, we suspect, is due to the less perfect sympathies of the poet, – for Sophocles is not the rival of Shakspeare. For some of the highest purposes of art, the ancients were sufficiently related to men in every age to bequeath examples of abiding interest; and, in the main, we have reason to congratulate ourselves on the actual legacy we enjoy; and certainly it does not forbid our admiration and wonder. Even our purer faith does not necessarily exclude our sympathy; all the nobler sentiments of natural religion – and poetry as an art would perhaps do well to concern itself with these alone – are to be met with in the bards of every country; wisdom and beauty find an oriental dress in Sadi and Ferdousi, a classic one in Sophocles and Homer, and in either dress we may welcome both. If we know how to keep poetry in its proper place, and expect from it only its legitimate effects, we shall not hesitate to profit and delight ourselves by Virgil as securely as by Milton; if we are so foolish as to draw our highest principles therefrom, we shall only err too far in either case.

But if the poet is indeed thus independent, and restrained neither to his own locality nor era, it is certain he will use this liberty, and for the most part fix his choice upon a distant or somewhat unfamiliar scene. The reasons for this are obvious and irresistible. In the first place, he is more likely to apprehend the limits of his subject, to recognise its genuine features, and to sketch the whole more freely, when he beholds it from a certain elevation, – from some height where no prejudices can obscure, and no distractions interrupt, his clear and calm observance, – where serene impartial art may exercise its functions undisturbed. But there is another consideration hardly less important. Above all things it is necessary that poetry should please; and that it may ultimately and profoundly please, it must first and easily attract. To this end, nothing is more likely to contribute than some novelty of external features, tending to stimulate our languid curiosity, and leading us, perhaps unawares, into a deeper [243] sympathy with all that is of more real and abiding interest. True it is that what is most essential in poetry, is that which touches us most nearly, and is promptly recognised and felt as true; but every thing which distinguishes it as an art, which raises it above the level of ordinary prose literature and learning, is traceable to some form of pleasure, sensuous or intellectual, as, for instance, to our delight in imitation, melody, or grouping. It is idle to object that a great poet should have a higher purpose than to please; enough for us to know, that to please by means of its legitimate resources is the first condition of his art, and for him to understand that he can no more with the lighter charm of novelty, than with the incorporated graces of harmonious verse.

We hope the relevance of these remarks will soon be more obvious to the reader, and that he will then acquit us of wilfully trifling with his patience. Much of the defectiveness of recent poetry arises, as we think, from a disregard of these first principles. Its faults, indeed, are both many and various, affecting style and sentiment as well as plan: but this deliberate weakness of design is doubtless a radical and primary defect; and this vague and vain attempt to give voice and utterance to the struggling forces of the age, brings a disturbing influence into the young poet's mind; while the effect of both together is to deny to his production that interest which arises from a definite purpose and an united action, attended, as these commonly are, by a due variety of character, and a sober and subordinated use of language. The books mentioned at the head of this article have been selected for illustrating this degenerate tendency; but, before turning particularly to them, we may briefly refer to two living authors who have set a contrary example, and proved both the soundness and success of their canons of art, – Henry Taylor, in "Philip Van Artevelde," and Walter Landor, in his "Hellenics." Do we want poems more beautiful – can we find any more genuine – than these? Neither of them is saturated with what is called "the spirit of the age;" we do not know that they are even biassed by it; perhaps the student of a hundred years hence could not learn the period of their production by internal evidence. Yet few authors of the present day are so certain to fulfil their century, few volumes of our teeming press more likely to be studied and perused in the future. Both works are acceptable to the healthiest and purest modern taste; for though the subject is mediæval in the one case, and classical in the other, they are the productions, not of antiquarians, but of poets.

But ours is not the argument of limitation or undue control; and we gladly admit that, if the poet is not restricted to the present, neither is he excluded from it. The Muse that has the wings of the morning may fold them above our noisiest cities, and gracefully alight in the forum or the market-place. The [244] influence of the present Laureate has not always been for good upon his followers; for they have caught his tone, but lack his pure insight and almost perfect taste. Yet it seems to us that, in the poems of Tennyson himself, both these conditions – which respect the transitory and the abiding, and find an element of this in a chaos of that – are fulfilled in a remarkable degree. He draws his inspiration from the native well of his own fancy, and yet sings from his height of place in the middle of the nineteenth century. His genius is affected, but not overborne, by the tumultuous spirit of the times, by the triumphs of material science, or the conflicts of the public soul. Hence the sweetness, as well as the subtlety, of his verse, the clearness of his ideas, and the ease of his expression. The doubt of other men he scems to pity, rather than to share. As a poet, he knows that enough of the beautiful and the good remains for him, enough of the lasting and the true; and therefore he glances only into the dark vortex of scepticism, and "drops a melodious tear," and in another moment he is soaring upward and away: resting now on Ida, he re-modulates the plaint of the deserted Œnone, henceforth immortal as love and grief can make it; and now, alighting on the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites, he rehearses the fearful lessons of ascetic virtue. From this true conception of his art, and this faithfulness to the universal and abiding above the merely local and transient, it is due that the writings of the Poet-Laureate harmonize with the standard poetry of all times, and take their place at once as classic pieces. For choiceness of imagery and allusion, for musical sweetness of intonation, and for that intellectual quality which is power and case and affluence at once, the poems of Tennyson may worthily compare with the minor poetry of Milton. Each is a master of lyrical expression, and sings from his own deep, human heart, as independent both of age and country. And yet we dare not say that there is no indication that these poets lived at different periods; only that indication, which is positive in the case of Tennyson, is merely negative in that of Milton. Milton seems to sing for recreation, – to unbend his sterner genius in some light exercise of imagination or fancy; and so he borrows something of the spirit of pagan poetry, the more thoroughly to mask the age of Puritanism from his own regard. In Tennyson, under much the same conditions of facile grace and exquisite allusion, we have glimpses of a mind that forecasts the fortunes of his race, whose thoughts are all thrown forward "by the progress of the suns," and, like pensive shadows, dapple the sunny future; but his spirit is cheerful throughout, and full of hope, if not evincing the confidence of faith; and, in his sweet wild music, we no longer hear "ancestral voices prophesying war," but a chorus – distant, yet jubilant, faint as echo, yet rounded and harmonious as the spheres – celebrating the age of peace and happiness, –

[245] "And one far-off divine event,
 To which the whole creation moves."



We must not any longer defer the promised introduction of our two young poets, but forthwith present them to the reader. When he has made their acquaintance, our previous observations on the art which they profess may recur to him as having a distinct bearing on our estimate of their practice and success.

The principal poem in Mr. Smith's volume, entitled, "A Life Drama," and that of " Balder," by the author of "The Roman," are elaborate productions of the same school of poetry; and it is, therefore, no cause for wonder, nor even ground of complaint, that they have much in common. Their originality is sufficiently marked and distinguished, and their poetical merits – though in each case graphic and pictorial – are not so similar as to be easily confounded. The bond of their union, as usual in all sects or schools of poetry, is rather in that which is adventitious than essential, – in what is doubtful than in what commands our admiration and esteem; and this being the case, we shall not wonder to find a great resemblance in the external form of their respective poems.

Each of these works is remarkable as having the length of an epic, the form of a drama, and the nature of a rhapsody. It has, indeed, a beginning, and somewhere (if you can find it) a middle, and, in the long run, (if you have only patience,) an end; but, in the sense of Aristotle, it has none of these. There is absolutely nothing to prevent you reversing the order of the scenes, except it be a superstitious notion, that the author must have had a reason for disposing them as they are at present found. By this oriental style of reading, you will lose none of its vivid passages, and may save yourself some general disappointment. Indeed, it is very likely you will find it improve as you proceed from that point, as to us it grew seriously worse while we proceeded from the other.

In each case, also, a poet is hero as well as author. This is highly characteristic of the poetical fraternity in our day. It is evident that the modern bard esteems no ordinary theme deserving of his song; and so he turns to glorify himself, and worship his own art by way of exercising it. His rhapsody is all about genius, – its sorrows, ecstasies, divinity, and might; what it can do if it only pleases, and what it scorns to do for so miserable an audience as humanity can furnish. No longer holding "the mirror up to Nature," he sits and turns it fairly on himself, and finds trace of thunder in every scar, and demon-beauty in every fantastic lock; the blue of his eye suggests (to him) the unutterable depths of heaven, and in the curl of his lip he reads and practises contempt for a paltry world of prose.

It is easy to find passages in both of these performances which [246] may justify the character we have ascribed to them. The real difficulty is to meet with a page in which Poesy, or Fame, or Genius is not extolled or invoked in good set terms; though sometimes this unfortunate passion-for evidently it is not reciprocated – finds a natural relief in equally extreme abuse, after the true lovers' fashion. Walter (in the "Life Drama" of Mr. Smith) exclaims, with his usual aptitude of comparison, –

"I love thee, Poesy!   Thou art a rock;
 I, a weak wave, would break on thee, and die!
              *               *               *               *
 O Fame! Fame! Fame! next grandest word to God!"

And soon afterwards he breaks into prophecy, and in this manner our author contrives, with charming innocence and naïveté, to foretell his own appearance: –

"My Friend! a Poet must ere long arise,
 And with a royal song sun-crown this age,
 As a saint's head is with a glory crown'd;
 One who shall hallow poetry to God,
 And to its own high use, for poetry is
 The grandest chariot wherein King-thoughts ride;
 One who shall fervent grasp the sword of song,
 As a stern swordsman grasps his keenest blade,
 To find the quickest passage to the heart.
 A mighty Poet, whom this age shall choose
 To be its spokesman to all coming times."

How far Walter, or his author, is likely to "hallow poetry to God," or be our "spokesman to all coming times," we shall see by and by. In the mean while let us hear how the poet of "Balder" apostrophizes his little matter (of nine thousand lines).

                            O thou first, last work!
Thou tardy-growing oak that art to be
My club of war, my staff, my sceptre!   Thou
Hast well-nigh gain'd thy height.   My early-plann'd,
Long-meditate, and slowly-written epic!
Turning thy leaves, dear labour of my life,
Almost I seem to turn my life in thee.
Thy many books, my many votive years,
And thy full pages number'd with my days.
I could look back on all that I have built,
As on some Memphian monument, wherein
The Kings do lie in glory, every one
Each in his house, and forward to thy blank,
Fair future, as one gazes into depths
Of necromantic crystal, and beholds
The heavens come down."

The adoption of such suspicious heroes as these, bodes no good to any laboured or ambitious poem. If epic, it will be [247] without incident, and full of reverie; if a drama, the choice spirit will have all the speaking to himself, and the scene lack action, character, and issue. There may, indeed, be found room for much ingenious description, à-propos to any thing or nothing; for a poetical hero may surely exercise a double licence, – his author's, and his own. Then, all the bits and fragments that our poet has ever written, in every conceivable mood and tense, may be fitly used up here. These are the conveniences of such a plan; but they stop chiefly with the author's part, and do not much befriend the reader. Many little poems do not make a great one; still less do several fragments make a whole. An epic poem is not manufactured like a quilt; nor do the pieces emptied, whether in disgust or admiration, from a young man's portfolio, fall, as by magic, into the true dramatic mould.

But skill and judgment of the highest order have often failed in coping with difficulties which our young authors boldly add to those which lie naturally in their way. So confident are they of their own powers, and so certain to attain the goal of fame, that they put hurdles on the course, and take a five-barred gate in pure bravado. Their choice of subjects in these performances, are instances in proof of this unlucky confidence. We do not think the poetic character very suitable for express delineation by poetic art, even as a matter of occasional choice, and when one true genius seeks thus to re-animate another. In a brief monody an interest of the kind may possibly be sustained, but hardly in a poem of more artistic form. We cannot think that even Goethe has wholly succeeded in his dramatic rendering of the life of Tasso. Byron's "Lament" is more to our liking, because it is less both in pretension and extent. But in the case of the authors before us, there is far less promise of success. Their heroes – Walter in the one case, and Balder in the other – have not the prestige of acknowledged genius; they have no grand associations to call up, nor any fadeless laurels to display upon their brows. Of course, then, they must approve their claims to the character in the work where they appear, which must at once establish the author and the hero. Now, both Mr. Smith and his anonymous brother have evidently felt this obligation; but we almost despair of conveying to the reader any adequate idea of the great efforts, and greater sacrifices, they make in order to obtain the character and praise of genius. It is clear that they design to give us the quintessence of the genuine article. Nothing that might for a moment be taken, by those who hear it read, for simple prose, or recognised as the thought and language of daily life, is suffered upon their pages for a moment. It is one unmitigated stream of genius, – we suppose, – that scorns all rule, as any river of spirit will overflow its bounds.

The "Life-Drama" of Mr. Smith is understood to be the work of a very young man; and, therefore, we are not without hope [248] that he may yet live to show that friendly reproof has not been lost upon him. In entertaining such a hope, of course we acknowledge the reality of his poetic gifts, which, indeed, are not inconsiderable. His poem is mostly free from metaphysical obscurities; and isolated pictures of great beauty meet you on every page. He has great ease, as well as force of language: though limited in range, his pencil is extremely vivid in expression. Here is a famous character, drawn in three lines: –

"Beside that well I read the mighty Bard,
 Who clad himself with beauty, genius, wealth;
 Then flung himself on his own passion-pyre,
 And was consumed."

Surely that comparison is very fine. Another specimen of his power, though tinged with his own peculiar extravagance, is the following, addressed to an infant: –

"O thou bright thing, fresh from the hand of God!
 The motions of thy dancing limbs are swayed
 By the unceasing music of thy being!
 Nearer I seem to God when looking on thee.
 'Tis ages since He made his youngest star:
 His hand was on thee, as 't were yesterday,
 Thou later Revelation!   Silver stream,
 Breaking with laughter from the lake divine
 Whence all things flow!  O bright and singing babe!
 What wilt thou be hereafter?"

This, we say, is a favourable example of our author's manner; but even in these lines we may trace that extravagance of language which is one of his prevailing faults. If we were to quote much more, the reader would soon discover his other prominent defect, namely, a fatal poverty of ideas. The poem lacks substance, form, and truth; and, in spite of the brilliance of certain parts, it is most unsatisfactory as a whole. To the young and ardent it must necessarily convey a false impression of life; to the experienced and right-minded it brings only weariness and impatience. The hero is a poet, who knows nothing of mankind or society, and only the worst part of himself. He talks as familiarly of sun, and moon, and stars, and mountains, as if they were his nearest neighbours; but of his actual neighbour – of man, in his sober sphere of action, with chastened affections, and reasonable hopes, and cheerful course of duties; of man, in his varied relationships and trials, as yielding to or mastering his own fortunes – he knows or tells us absolutely nothing. Hence his incessant use of stars, and clouds, and scas, and crisped smiles; for ignorance instinctively cowers down behind extravagance. Not without reason does Walter say, "I love the stars too much." Even when he condescends to any terrestrial objects, they are always the largest or most gaudy of their kind. garden teems with passion-flowers; his aviary is stocked [249] birds of paradise. He makes love in the most sumptuous manner possible. To say that his lady's mouth is full of pearls, and that every thing about her is to match, is only to dilute his very strong description. Of course, there is nothing valuable or extensive which is not at her service: of all his (promised) presents, a kingdom is about the poorest and most common-place. He is perfectly enamoured of a lazy life, and would fill up the hours with endless love and maundering. He is not ashamed to say, –

                                "O let me live
To love, and flush, and thrill – or let me die!"

Well, this Walter is the deliberately chosen "hero" of Mr. Smith; not selected as a warning, but presented as a model and example of what he holds to be the highest type of man, – the poet, destined "to sun-crown this age." We hardly see how the author can avoid the imputation of Walter's sentiments; at any rate, he is responsible for the general character, as fixed and approved by the action of the poem. Mr. Smith cannot safely plead the laws and licence of dramatic poetry; for by these he is condemned. The work is, indeed, formally, though not virtually, dramatic; and as all that Walter says or does is unrefuted in the course of the action, and uncontrasted by any nobler character, the evident moral is, that this precious hero is the favourite of poet as well as Providence. His end is very edifying. Walter the seducer has a transient passion, or rather passage, of remorse, induced, no doubt, by the recollection that he has some fine things to say in that character; and then, suddenly brightening up, he coolly determines to make a handsome figure in the world yet, and afterwards, leaving it with contempt, go as by right to heaven. Only hear him! –

"I'll rest myself, O World, awhile on thee,
 And, half in earnest, half in jest, I'll cut
 My name upon thee, pass the arch of Death,
 Then on a stair of stars go up to God."

This is not indeed the actual finale of the piece; but nothing afterwards occurs to alter our impression of the whole. Two friends of Walter meet, and speak of his poem as "a hit;" they tell us, moreover, that it was "done at a dash." All this very naturally confirms our impression that the author and the hero are identical; and, if so, we must say that Mr. Smith has very cleverly anticipated the popular effect of that style of poetry in which he has indulged. In a later scene Walter meets with the injured Violet, whom he had deserted, and professes suddenly to be cured of all his evil and romantic habits, and turned to constancy in love, and duty in the ordinary affairs of life. There is nothing to make this conversion probable or permanent. What we must regard as the most hopeful sign of improvement is the [250] slighting way in which he can endure to mention his favourite stars he is brought to admit, –

"A star's a cold thing to a human heart,
 And love is better than their radiance."

We gladly pardon the defective grammar, in consideration of the sentiment, which indicates at least some measure of returning reason.

Let us turn for a moment to the other volume before us. Who, then, and what, is "Balder?" Balder is not the divinity of Scandinavian mythology, – the Apollo of the North, – Balder the Beautiful. Neither is he a personification of the poetic character. We are afraid he is an English poet, who has taken to gloomy and unhealthy ways. The only other personage in the drama-excepting a Doctor Paul, who appears but twic – is Amy, the poet's wife. Between these two the long discourses of the poem are sustained, though in very unequal proportions. Balder has the first words and the last to himself, and a very unreasonable share of all that comes between. Of dialogue there is comparatively little. The poet soliloquizes in his study; and when we are supposed (not without reason) to have had enough of his distempered thoughts, we find a small relief in hearing "through the door the voice of Amy," which is frequently mournful and melodious in the highest degree. We are not certain if we rightly apprehend the prominent idea which disturbs the rest of Balder, and makes him so unsociable a being; but it would seem that, having totally lost his relish for the affairs and satisfactions of life, he has begun to entertain a morbid and insane desire to behold the face of Death. Death comes and takes the place of his babe; but this touches not him so much as Amy; and as the babe lay on the bosom of his wife, this is a dread exchange and awful fellowship for her. The plaints of Amy, if occurring in a piece of more dramatic and realizing power, would be affecting in a high degree. From this point we do not thoroughly understand the author's drift, but suspect that Balder would have more intimate relations with the grim and spectral foe. His wife falls ill; Balder threatens to murder Doctor Paul, if he do not cure her; yet – still unsatisfied and craving – he contemplates her slaughter by his own hand; but whether moved by some profound reason which he holds equal to alse, repeal of the forbidding statute, or urged by fate and irresistible impulse, is not clear. An opportunity is given for the accomplishment of his design by the intrusion of Amy into his study, during his momentary absence, with the purpose of awaiting his return. Balder enters, and takes up a scroll it is the MS. of his great poem. He addresses it in terms expressive of his hopes and admiration; and when he has got through only a page and a half of choice comparisons, in [251] which his fondness likens it to all mute but mighty things, his wife makes herself and her misery known, and flings the usurping parchment out of the window into the moat. Then follows a scene of passion and unreason which in itself is very beautiful and masterly. The lady's madness throws her into a swoon; and in that unconscious state her husband is intent on killing her, when the scene suddenly closes. So ends this strange volume; but not so the work; for this is only the first portion; and whether tithe or moiety who shall tell?

The following lines, forming part of a long eulogy prepared by Balder for his victim, Amy, will put the reader in possession of the manner which prevails through the entire volume; it contains, in brief, almost all the characteristic blemishes and beauties of our author's style: –

"So the world blessed her; and another world,
 Like spheres of cloud that inter-penetrate
 Till each is either, met and mixed with this.
 And so the angel Earth that bears her Heaven
 About her, so that wheresoe'er in space
 Her footstep stayeth, we look up, and say
 That Heaven is there – SHE moved, and made all times
 And seasons equal; trode the mortal life
 Immortally, and with her human tears
 Bedewed her everlasting, till the Past
 And Future lapsed into a golden Now
 For ever best.   She was much like the moon,
 Seen in the day-time, that by day receives
 Like joy with us, but when our night is dark,
 Lit by the changeless sun we cannot see,
 Shineth no less.   And she was like the moon
 Because the beams that brightened her passed o'er
 Our dark heads, and we knew them not for light
 Till they came back from hers; and she was like
 The moon, that wheresoe'er appeared her wane
 Or crescent, was no loss or gain in her,
 But in the changed beholder.   I, who saw
 Her constant countenance, and had its orb
 Still full on me, with whom she rose and set,
 Knew she had no lunation.   In herself
 The elements of holiness were merged
 In white completion, and all graces did
 The part of each.   To man or Deity
 Her sinless life had nought whereof to give
 Of worse or better, for she was to God
 As a smile to a face.   Ah, God of Beauty!
 Where in this lifeless picture my poor hand
 Hath done her wrong, forgive; she was Thy smile, –
 How could I paint her?  That I dared essay
 Her image, and am innocent, I plead
 Resistless intuition, which believes
 [252] Where knowledge fails, and powerless to divine
 Or to confound, still calls the face and smile
 Not one, but twain, and contradicts the sense
 Material, which, beholding her, beholds
 Essence, not Effluence, nor Thine, but Thee."

The faults of this elaborate description – which is only the summary or concluding part of one far more extensive are radical and pervading. It is extravagant in the extreme; and yet, after all, what qualities, that really command love and esteem, are told us of this lady? It is only a transcendental doll that the poet has dressed up in mist and moon-beam, without one human feature to attract our regard or engage our confidence. Perhaps, innocence – the innocence native to unsullied creatures – is the charm intended to prevail thoughout the picture. Not to urge that this is false to nature, and far beyond the range of our belief and sympathy, the author manifestly fails in the embodiment of his fair ideal. Not in such ethereal graces did Milton clothe the Eve of Paradise, – not so dangerously did he venture to confound her essence with that of the Divine and Perfect Being; yet, in that lovely portraiture, we have all that is womanly, and true, and pure, – humanity idealized by the perfection of its several qualities, and feminine affection and devotion subsisting in the loveliest of human moulds. But this picture of the poet's Amy is surely most unreal; we can form no conception of such a being as he labours to depict; it is so shadowy that the moon, intended to invest it only, streams fairly through it; and, at the first light of day, – the first dawn of reflection, – it melts insensibly off, and we have not the faintest notion left us of this unearthly beauty. Yet, as we are bound to believe that Amy was every thing to her enamoured poet, what must we think of her deliberate and barbarous murder at his hands? Surely, no doubt should have been allowed to rest upon our minds of the nature and strength of motive leading to this diabolic purpose.

Of the final and presiding moral of this unfinished poem we cannot pretend to speak; but the tendency of the part before us we do not hesitate both to judge and condemn. Apart from the outrageous action with which it seems to conclude, – the effect of which is so subordinate that we omit it from our calculation, – there is more than enough to satisfy us, that no time can be less profitably spent than that devoted to its perusal. Many of its faults originate, no doubt, in that defective structure to which our introductory remarks had reference; but we must point them out now, in the particular shape which they assume, as gross faults of exaggeration and disproportion, both in style and sentiment.

The style of "Balder" may be pronounced equally remarkable for beauties and defects; but it must be understood that its [253] beauties are limited to the minor qualities of expression and illustration, while the larger attributes of style, destined to harmonize and order and subordinate the parts, are almost wholly wanting. It is frequently obscure as well as gorgeous, seemingly written with great facility, and certainly read with a fluent case which makes the search for meaning, however necessary, quite impracticable. Once launched upon a tide of verse so affluent and sparkling, the reader is soon carried out of his own, if not his author's, depth; and, hopeless of regaining his feet, resigns himself to float away while all the willowy and monotonous banks glide by. The effect of this kind of poetry upon the mind is very singular. Having no earthly interest, it has, nevertheless, a certain charm for the bewildered sense. Abounding far more in brilliant imagery than distinct ideas, the reader is astonished by the opulence of language and the endless succession of pictures presented, often with great vividness, to the mind. This excess and total insubordination of imagery is characteristic of the school of rhapsodists and dreamers. Sometimes one feeble circumstance or thought – and that not arising out of any incident in the poem – is treated to a train of ten or even twenty similes, each far outshining its poor antecedent, which, of course, is quite forgotten long before the last illustration has appeared and vanished. Sometimes this poetry is metaphysical, and sometimes it is eminently sensuous; or rather it is each by turns, as the thought and illustration successively predominate. The thread upon which much of the delicate and splendid imagery of "Balder" is strung, is a peculiar and morbid strain of speculation, arising in the moody poet's mind. This psychological condition, and its curious phenomena, are not easily described by a pen so plain as ours, but may be found in all their strange proportions, or rather disproportions, in the poet's endless reverie. The following lines have more or less resemblance to many hundred others, dictated by this same questionable spirit: –

                    "Am I one and every one,
Either and all?   The innumerable race
My Past; these myriad-faced men my hours?
What have I fill'd the earth and knew it not?
Why not?   How other?   Am I not immortal?
And if immortal now, immortal then;
And if immortal then, existent now;
But where?   Thou living, moving neighbour, Man,
Art thou my former self, – me and not me?
Did I begin, and shall I end?   Was I
The first, and shall I one day, as the last,
Stand in the front of the long file of man,
And, looking back, behold it winding out,
Far through the unsearch'd void, and measuring time
Upon eternity, and know myself
[254] Sufficient, and that, like a comet, I
Pass'd through my heaven, and fill'd it?"

We admit that the metaphysical idea embodied in these lines is expressed in a highly poetical manner; and perhaps it is not more, but less, absurd in such a dress than in its customary style of sober prose. Yet a little of this kind of writing is enough; and we become naturally impatient when it is found to prevail through so large a quantity of verse, and in a form of composition where it was least to be expected.

Turning to a later part of the volume, we find Balder thus pompously witnessing to the vanity of human life: –

"I have tried all philosophies; I know
 The height and depth of science; I have dug
 The embalmed truth of Karnak, and have sail'd
 Tigris and Ganges to the sacred source
 Of eastern wisdom; I have lived a life
 Of noble means to noble ends; and here
 I turn to the four winds, and say, 'In vain,
 In vain, in vain, in vain!' "

Surely we ought to be made to see more distinctly how the use of "noble means to noble ends" were so entirely fruitless; throughout the present work no such ends or means are employed or sought by Balder. Besides, it is very easy, but not equally artistic, for an author to assert, in so many words, the vast learning and experience of his hero, when of this, also, wholly wanting to be assured by some collateral evidence: – otherwise we are treated only to a truism, the echo which every human heart awakes to the preacher's "vanity of vanities." In the case of Balder, – dreamer as he is, – so large a range of learning and experience is just what we are most disposed to doubt. He seems to have enervated his soul, and anticipated the voice of "vanity," by abstracting himself from all the wholesome influences of daily life and common duty. To idle on the grass is his beau-idéal of an earthly Paradise; to do a day's work would evidently fill him with fatigue and disgust, if the bare idea of it did not cause his feeble nature to collapse. He cries, (like Walter,) in the spirit of this luxurious philosophy, –

                                    "Alas! that one
Should use the days of summer but to live,
And breathe but as the needful element
The strange superfluous glory of the air!
Nor rather stand apart in awe beside
The untouch'd Time, and saying o'er and o'er
In love and wonder, 'These are summer days.' "

And so this precious sentiment is made the frequent burden of [255] his song, and more or less precisely its musical refrain; for our bard is found slighting to the last

"The untouch'd Time, and saying o'er and o'er
 In love and wonder, 'These are happy days.' "

We presume it is not necessary to occupy more time or space by further extracts from this poem; and our remarks, in conclusion, must be more brief than we had purposed.

It is clear that neither nature nor humanity is fairly represented in the pages of "Balder." For the one you have the colour without the composition of Turner; the bright, headlong, and disordered rack of clouds, but not the delicate and truthful line of coast. For the other you have the vivid palette of the pre-Raphaelite, but not his faithful and pathetic pencil. To the last-named school of art the poem bears some striking points of resemblance; but, on examination, we shall find more of contrast than coincidence in these artistic schools. Both are observant of the delicate and the minute in nature, and full of exquisite by-play; but the pre-Raphaelite is a realist, and the modern poet an ideal rhapsodist: the one trusts to find due sentiment and moral result from an almost literal exhibition of the truth; the other dreams his dream of metaphysical and wildest beauty, and then rifles nature for images of like power, like majesty, like evanescence, or like grace. We should less regret the structural defects of this poem, if it abounded in aphorisms of substantial worth. When our great poet drew the character of a man most worldly-wise, he put into his mouth an involuntary tribute to virtue, that is in admirable keeping and full of moral truth. The counsel of Polonius to his son is summed up in one brief maxim: –

            "To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."

How well does this express the linked order of the moral virtues! – the social not only consistent with, but included in, the personal, and both so intimately joined, that to do highest justice to yourself, is also to fulfil the laws of brotherhood and duty to your neighbour. Our author, among all his brilliant sayings, finds no opportunity of teaching such a truth. In the "Night Thoughts" of Dr. Young, there are a thousand instances of the value of this secondary element of poetry, and the more valuable in that work, because the primary artistic element is wanting. But nothing of the kind rewards the reader of this strange farrago.

In taking leave of Mr. Smith and his companion, we hope that none who have gone with us thus far together, can mistake the real grounds of censure upon which we have proceeded. If [256] we have sometimes spoken lightly of their defects, it is not because we under-rate the serious mischief of such productions. If many features expose them to slight and ridicule, their spirit and tendency make them obnoxious also to our just reproof. Our readers have had some means of judging of the freedom, bordering upon profanity, with which they make light use of the name and character of God; but this is done to an extent which our few extracts could not adequately show. On the lower grounds of art their condemnation is as strictly merited.

The author of "Balder" is the more deserving of reproof, though perhaps only the less likely to profit by it, because it is his second work and most deliberate choice. Yet talents so high as those which this author possesses, were not given to be squandered in intemperate fancies, which, while they enervate the reckless possessor, can only deprave the fine imagination and relax the moral tone of rising manhood. The youth of England, if they are to meet manfully the duties of their future life, must be hardy in their intellectual pastime, as well as in their holiday sports; for the one is as necessary to their mental and moral health, as the other to their physical maturity. To steep their minds in poetry like that which we have turned from, is about as wise as to spend their summer evenings, and make their nightly bed, in a steaming hot-house, only for the privilege of reposing under the leaves of some huge exotic. How much better to follow the muse of Scott over breezy heath and mountain fell; to watch the feast in Branksome Hall, or pursue the flying stag as he seeks "the wild heaths of Uum-bar!" It is the fashion, we know, to decry the poetic achievements of Sir Walter Scott, to style them (what, indeed, they are) mere versified romances: and we may admit that many of his contemporaries, as Campbell, Rogers, and Coleridge, struck loftier music from their lyres, and warbled a sweeter and a rarer song. But let the new generation of poets beware how they push the strain too far, and give us so much that is intensely poetical, (as they intend it;) and especially how they permit the expressional parts of poetry to overlay its more substantial elements. The sure effect of this will be to drive us back to the homelier but healthier standards, and among the rest to the plain but nervous minstrelsy of Scott, with its simple melody and vivid freshness, its hearty sympathy with external nature, and its skilful blending of the familiar and romantic.

But if something of deeper significance and tone be wanting, – something that shall touch the imagination most profoundly, and satisfy the ear most sensible to linked and hidden harmonies, – there are not wanting poets of the present day to whose influence, in a lawful measure, we may safely commit our minds. The pensive muse of Aubrey de Vere, and the deep pathetic genius of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, rise up at once to our recol[257]lection. Both are free, so far as we are aware, from those corrupting tendencies which we have found occasion to deplore in the poems passed in review before us. In Mrs. Browning, especially, we are glad to remark a truly religious spirit. But we hope to say more of this lady's writings in some future notice of the fairer aspect of poetic literature in the present day.

We cannot conclude this imperfect sketch of some of the tendencies of modern poetry, without alluding to a volume very recently published, – "Poems" by Matthew Arnold. We are of opinion that nothing so sensible, in the way of poetical criticism, as the Preface to this little volume, has appeared for many years past; and had we met with it at an earlier period of our present writing, we should gladly have spared the reader some of our own remarks, and treated him to certain passages of quotation, in which he would have found them more elegantly expressed. We earnestly commend this Preface, in connexion with that prefixed to Mr. Taylor's "Philip van Artevelde," to the attention of our young and rising poets: they will teach them in one how to avoid the false heroics of Byronic poetry, and the other how to make structure and composition the first requisites of his art, and to hold expression as a subordinate, though still essential matter. Of Mr. Arnold's "Poems" we shall not now speak, or say in how far he seems to have written up to the noble principles of art which he puts forth. In choice of subject he has perhaps too much neglected the reader's demand for easy, not familiar, apprehension; but the conception and execution of his Poems are sound and healthy; and we do not doubt that one who so thoroughly understands the constructive genius of his art, and is gifted, moreover, with no small degree of its spirit and power, will yet do great things, and furnish an occasion for our welcome to him on some future day.





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Literatur: The London Quarterly Review

King, Andrew / Plunkett, Andrew (Hrsg.): Victorian Print Media. A Reader. Oxford 2005.

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DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer