prayed, shall Spring, the thrice desirable, be with thee the whole year through, where there is neither frost, nor is the heat so heavy on men, but all is fruitful, and all sweet things blossom, and evenly meted are darkness and dawn. Space is wide, and there be many worlds, and suns enow, and the Sun-god surely has had a care of his own. Little didst thou need, in thy native land, the isle of the three capes, little didst thou need but sunlight on land and sea. Death can have shown thee naught dearer than the fragrant shadow of the pines, where the dry needles of the fir are strewn, or glades where feathered ferns make ‘a couch more soft than Sleep.’ The short grass of the cliffs, too, thou didst love, where thou wouldst lie, and watch, with the tunny watcher till the deep blue sea was broken by the burnished sides of the tunny shoal, and afoam with their gambols in the brine. There the Muses met thee, and the Nymphs, and there Apollo, remembering his old thraldom with Admetus, would lead once more a mortal’s flocks, and listen and learn, Theocritus, while thou, like thine own Comatas, ‘didst sweetly sing.’
There, methinks, I see thee as in thy happy days, ‘reclined on deep beds of fragrant lentisk, lowly strewn, and rejoicing in new stript leaves of the vine, while far above thy head waved many a poplar, many an elm-tree, and close at hand the sacred waters sang from the mouth of the cavern of the nymphs.’ And when night came, methinks thou wouldst flee from the merry company and the dancing girls, from the fading crowds of roses or white violets, from the cottabos, and the minstrelsy, and the Bibline wine, from these thou wouldst slip away into the summer night. Then the beauty of life and of the summer would keep thee from thy couch, and wandering away from Syracuse by the sandhills and the sea, thou wouldst watch the low cabin, roofed with grass, where the fishing-rods of reed were leaning against the door, while the Mediterranean floated up her waves, and filled the waste with sound. There didst thou see thine ancient fishermen rising ere the dawn from their bed of dry sea-weed, and heardst them stirring, drowsy, among their fishing gear, and heardst them tell their dreams.
Or again thou wouldst wander with dusty feet through the ways that the dust makes silent, while the breath of the kine, as they were driven forth with the morning, came fresh to thee, and the trailing dewy branch of honeysuckle struck sudden on thy cheek. Thou wouldst see the Dawn awake in rose and saffron across the waters, and Etna, grey and pale against the sky, and the setting crescent would dip strangely in the glow, on her way to the sea. Then, methinks, thou wouldst murmur, like thine own Simaetha, the love-lorn witch, ‘Farewell, Selene, bright and fair; farewell, ye other stars, that follow the wheels of the quiet Night.’ Nay, surely it was in such an hour that thou didst behold the girl as she burned the laurel leaves and the barley grain, and melted the waxen image, and called on Selene to bring her lover home. Even so, even now, in the islands of Greece, the setting Moon may listen to the prayers of maidens. ‘Bright golden Moon, that now art near the waters, go thou and salute my lover, he that stole my love, and that kissed me, sayin;g “Never will I leave thee.” And lo, he hath left me as men leave a field reaped and gleaned, like a church where none cometh to pray, like a city desolate.’
So the girls still sing in Greece, for though the Temples have fallen, and the wandering shepherds sleep beneath the broken columns of the god’s house in Selinus, yet these ancient fires burn still to the old divinities in the shrines of the hearths of the peasants. It is none of the new creeds that cry, in the dirge of the Sicilian shepherds of our time, ‘Ah, light of mine eyes, what gift shall I send thee, what offering to the other world? The apple fadeth, the quince decayeth, and one by one they perish, the petals of the rose. I will send thee my tears shed on a napkin, and what though it burneth in the flame, if my tears reach thee at the last.’
Yes, little is ahered, Theocritus, on these shores beneath the sun, where thou didst wear a tawny skin stripped from the roughest of he-goats, and about thy breast an old cloak buckled with a plaited belt. Thou wert happier there, in Sicily, methinks, and among vines and shadowy lime-trees of Cos, than in the dust, and heat, and noise of Alexandria. What love of fame, what lust of gold tempted thee away from the red cliffs, and grey olives, and wells of black water wreathed with maidenhair?
The music of thv rustic flute
Kept not for long its happy country tone; Lost it too soon, and learned a stormy note Of men contention tost, of men who groan, Which tasked thy pipe too sore, and tired thy throat– It failed, and thou wast mute!
What hadst _thou_ to make in cities, and what could Ptolemies and Princes give thee better than the goat-milk cheese and the Ptelean wine? Thy Muses were meant to be the delight of peaceful men, not of tyrants and wealthy merchants, to whom they vainly went on a begging errand. ‘Who will open his door and gladly receive our Muses within his house, who is there that will not send them back again without a gift? And they with naked feet and looks askance come homewards, and sorely they upbraid me when they have gone on a vain journey, and listless again in the bottom of their empty coffer they dwell with heads bowed over their chilly knees, where is their drear abode, when portionless they return.’ How far happier was the prisoned goat-herd, Comatas, in the fragrant cedar chest where the blunt-faced bees from the meadow fed him with food of tender flowers, because still the Muse dropped sweet nectar on his lips!
Thou didst leave the neat-herds and the kine, and the oaks of Himera, the galingale hummed over by the bees, and the pine that dropped her cones, and Amarvllis in her cave, and Bombyca with her feet of carven ivory. Thou soughtest the City, and strife with other singers, and the learned write still on thy quarrels with Apollonius and Callimachus, and Antagoras of Rhodes. So ancient are the hatreds of poets, envy, jealousy, and all unkindness.
Not to the wits of Courts couldst thou teach thy rural song, though all these centuries, more than two thousand years, they have laboured to vie with thee. There has come no new pastoral poet, though Virgil copied thee, and Pope, and Phillips, and all the buckram band of the teacup time; and all the modish swains of France have sung against thee, as the _son_challenged_Athene_. They never knew the shepherd’s life, the long’ winter nights on dried heather by the fire, the long summer days, when over the dry grass all is quiet, and only the insects hum, and the shrunken burn whispers a silver tune. Swains in high-heeled shoon, and lace, shepherdesses in rouge and diamonds, the world is weary of all concerning them, save their images in porcelain, effigies how unlike the golden figures, dedicate to Aphrodite, of Bombyca and Battus. Somewhat, Theocritus, thou hast to answer for, thou that first of men brought the shepherd to Court, and made courtiers wild to go a Maying with the shepherds.
To Edgar Allan Poe.
Sir,–Your English readers, better acquainted with your poems and romances than with your criticisms, have long wondered at the indefatigable hatred which pursues your memory. You, who knew the men, will not marvel that certain microbes of letters, the survivors of your own generation, still harass your name with their malevolence, while old women twitter out their incredible and heeded slanders in the literary papers of New York. But their persistent animosity does not quite suffice to explain the dislike with which many American critics regard the greatest poet, perhaps the greatest literary genius, of their country. With a commendable patriotism, they are not apt to rate native merit too low; and you, I think, are the only example of an American prophet almost without honour in his own country.
The recent publication of a cold, careful, and in many respects admirable study of your career (‘Edgar Allan Poe,’ by George Woodberry: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Boston) reminds English readers who have forgotten it, and teaches those who never knew it, that you were, unfortunately, a Reviewer. How unhappy were the necessities, how deplorable the vein, that compelled or seduced a man of your eminence into the dusty and stony ways of contemporary criticism! About the writers of his own generation a leader of that generation should hold his peace, he should neither praise nor blame nor defend his equals; he should not strike one blow at the buzzing ephemerae of letters. The breath of their life is in the columns of ‘Literary Gossip;’ and they should be allowed to perish with the weekly advertisements on which they pasture. Reviewing, of course, there must needs be; but great minds should only criticise the great who have passed beyond the reach of eulogy or fault-finding.
Unhappily, taste and circumstances combined to make you a censor; you vexed a continent, and you are still unforgiven. What ‘irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong,’ drove you (in Mr. Longfellow’s own words) to attack his pure and beneficent Muse we may never ascertain. But Mr. Longfellow forgave you easily; for pardon comes easily to the great. It was the smaller men, the Daweses, Griswolds, and the like, that knew not how to forget. ‘The New Yorkers never forgave him,’ says your latest biographer; and one scarcely marvels at the inveteracy of their malice. It was not individual vanity alone, but the whole literary class that you assailed. ‘As a literary people,’ you wrote, ‘we are one vast perambulating humbug.’ After that declaration of war you died, and left your reputation to the vanities yet writhing beneath your scorn. They are writhing and writing still. He who knows them need not linger over the attacks and defences of your personal character; he will not waste time on calumnies, tale-bearing, private letters, and all the noisome dust which takes so long in settling above your tomb.
For us it is enough to know that you were compelled to live by your pen, and that in an age when the author of ‘To Helen’ and’ The Cask of Amontillado’ was paid at the rate of a dollar a column. When such poverty was the mate of such pride as yours, a misery more deep than that of Burns, an agony longer than Chatterton’s, were inevitable and assured. No man was less fortunate than you in the moment of his birth–_infelix_opportunitate_vitae_. Had you lived a generation later, honour, wealth, applause, success in Europe and at home, would all have been yours. Within thirty years so great a change has passed over the profession of letters in America; and it is impossible to estimate the rewards which would have fallen to Edgar Poe, had chance made him the contemporary of Mark Twain and of ‘Called Back.’ It may be that your criticisms helped to bring in the new era, and to lift letters out of the reach of quite unlettered scribblers. Though not a scholar, at least you had a respect for scholarship. You might still marvel over such words as ‘objectional’ in the new biography of yourself, and might ask what is meant by such a sentence as ‘his connection with it had inured to his own benefit by the frequent puffs of himself,’ and so forth.
Best known in your own day as a critic, it is as a poet and a writer of short tales that you must live. But to discuss your few and elaborate poems is a waste of time, so completely does your own brief definition of poetry, ‘the rhythmic creation of the beautiful,’ exhaust your theory, and so perfectly is the theory illustrated by the poems. Natural bent, and reaction against the example of Mr. Longfellow, combined to make you too intolerant of what you call the ‘didactic’ element in verse. Even if morality be not seven-eighths of our life (the exact proportion as at present estimated), there was a place even on the Hellenic Parnassus for gnomic bards, and theirs in the nature of the case must always be the largest public.
‘Music is the perfection of the soul or the idea of poetry,’ so you wrote; ‘the vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be indefinite and never too strongly suggestive), is precisely what we should aim at in poetry.’ You aimed at that mark, and struck it again and again, notably in ‘Helen, thy beauty is to me,’ in ‘The Haunted Palace,’ ‘The Valley of Unrest,’ and ‘The City in the Sea.’ But by some Nemesis which might, perhaps, have been foreseen, you are, to the world, the poet of one poem–‘The Raven:’ a piece in which the music is highly artificial, and the ‘exaltation’ (what there is of it) by no means particularly ‘vague.’ So a portion of the public know little of Shelley but the ‘Skylark,’ and those two incongruous birds, the lark and the raven, bear each of them a poet’s name _vivu’_per_ora_virum_. Your theory of poetry, if accepted, would make you (after the author of ‘Kubla Khan’) the foremost of the poets of the world; at no long distance would come Mr. William Morris as he was when he wrote ‘Golden Wings,’ ‘The Blue Closet,’ and ‘The Sailing of the Sword ;’ and, close up, Mr. Lear, the author of ‘The Yongi Bongi Bo,’ and the lay of the ‘Jumblies.’
On the other hand Homer would sink into the limbo to which you consigned Molie’re. If we may judge a theory by its results, when compared with the deliberate verdict of the world, your aesthetic does not seem to hold water. The ‘Odyssey’ is not really inferior to ‘Ulalume,’ as it ought to be if your doctrine of poetry were correct, nor ‘Le Festin de Pierre’ to ‘Undine.’ Yet you deserve the praise of having been constant, in your poetic practice, to your poetic principles–principles commonly deserted by poets who, like Wordsworth, have published their aesthetic system. Your pieces are few; and Dr. Johnson would have called you, like Fielding, ‘a barren rascal.’ But how can a writer’s verses be numerous if with him, as with you, ‘poetry is not a pursuit but a passion. . . which cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations or the more paltry commendations of mankind!’ Of you it may be said, more truly than Shelley said it of himself, that ‘to ask you for anything human, is like asking at a gin-shop for a leg of mutton.’
Humanity must always be, to the majority of men, the true stuff of poetry; and only a minority will thank you for that rare music which (like the strains of the fiddler in the story) is touched on a single string, and on an instrument fashioned from the spoils of the grave. You chose, or you were destined To vary from the kindly race of men;
and the consequences, which wasted your life, pursue your reputation. For your stories has been reserved a boundless popularity, and that highest success — the success of a perfectly sympathetic translation. By this time, of course, you have made the acquaintance of your translator, M. Charles Baudelaire, who so strenuously shared your views about Mr. Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and who so energetically resisted all those ideas of ‘progress’ which ‘came from Hell or Boston.’ On this point, however, the world continues to differ from you and M. Baudelaire, and perhaps there is only the choice between our optimism and universal suicide or universal opium-eating. But to discuss your ultimate ideas is perhaps a profitless digression from the topic of your prose romances.
An English critic (probably a Northerner at heart) has described them as ‘Hawthorne and delirium tremens.’ I am not aware that extreme orderliness, masterly elaboration, and unchecked progress towards a predetermined effect are characteristics of the visions of delirium. If they be, then there is a deal of truth in the criticism, and a good deal of delirium tremens in your style. But your ingenuity, your completeness, your occasional luxuriance of fancy and wealth of jewel-like words, are not, perhaps, gifts which Mr. Hawthorne had at his command. He was a great writer–the greatest writer in prose fiction whom America has produced. But you and he have not much in common, except a certain mortuary turn of mind and a taste for gloomy allegories about the workings of conscience.
I forbear to anticipate your verdict about the latest essays of American fiction. These by no means folow in the lines which you laid down about brevity and the steady working to one single effect. Probably you would not be very tolerant (tolerance was not your leading virtue) of Mr. Roe, now your countrymen’s favourite novelist. He is long, he is didactic, he is eminently uninspired. In the works of one who is, what you were called yourself, a Bostonian, you would admire, at least, the acute observation, the subtlety, and the unfailing distinction. But, destitute of humour as you unhappily but undeniably were, you would miss, I fear, the charm of ‘Daisy Miller.’ You would admit the unity of effect secured in ‘Washington Square,’ though that effect is as remote as possible from the terror of ‘The House of Usher’ or the vindictive triumph of ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’
Farewell, farewell, thou sombre and solitary spirit: a genius tethered to the hack-work of the press, a gentleman among _canaille_, a poet among poetasters, dowered with a scholar’s taste without a scholar’s training, embittered by his sensitive scorn, and all unsupported by his consolations.
To Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
Rodono, St. Mary’s Loch:
Sept. 5, 1885.
Sir,–In your biography it is recorded that you not only won the favour of all men and women; but that a domestic fowl conceived an affection for you, and that a pig, by his will, had never been severed from your company. If some Circe had repeated in my case her favourite miracle of turning mortals into swine, and had given me a choice, into that fortunate pig, blessed among his race, would I have been converted! You, almost alone among men of letters, still, like a living friend, win and charm us out of the past; and if one might call up a poet, as the scholiast tried to call Homer, from the shades, who would not, out of all the rest, demand some hours of your society? Who that ever meddled with letters, what child of the irritable race, possessed even a tithe of your simple manliness, of the heart that never knew a touch of jealousy, that envied no man his laurels, that took honour and wealth as they came, but never would have deplored them had you missed both and remained but the Border sportsman and the Border antiquary?
Were the word ‘genial’ not so much profaned, were it not misused in easy good-nature, to extenuate lettered and sensual indolence, that worn old term might be applied, above all men, to ‘the Shirra.’ But perhaps we scarcely need a word (it would be seldom in use)for a character so rare, or rather so lonely, in its nobility and charm as that of Walter Scott. Here, in the heart of your own country, among your own grey round-shouldered hills (each so like the other that the shadow of one falling on its neighbour exactly outlines that neighbour’s shape), it is of you and of your works that a native of the Forest is most frequently brought in mind. All the spirits of the river and the hill, all the dying refrains of ballad and the fading echoes of story, all the memory of the wild past, each legend of burn and loch, seem to have combined to inform your spirit, and to secure themselves an immortal life in your song. It is through you that we remember them; and in recalling them, as in treading each hillside in this land, we again remember you and bless you.
It is not ‘Sixty Years Since’ the echo of Tweed among his pebbles fell for the last time on your ear; not sixty years since, and how much is altered! But two generations have passed; the lad who used to ride from Edinburgh to Abbotsford, carrying new books for you, and old, is still vending, in George Street, old books and new. Of politics I have not the heart to speak. Little joy would you have had in most that has befallen since the Reform Bill was passed, to the chivalrous cry of ‘burke Sir Walter.’ We are still very Radical in the Forest, and you were taken away from many evils to come. How would the cheek of Walter Scott, or of Leyden, have blushed at the names of Majuba, The Soudan, Maiwand, and many others that recall political cowardice or military incapacity! On the other hand, who but you could have sung the dirge of Gordon, or wedded with immortal verse the names of Hamilton (who fell with Cavagnari), of the two Stewarts, of many another clansman, brave among the bravest! Only he who told how
The stubborn spearmen still made good Their dark impenetrable wood
could have fitly rhymed a score of feats of arms in which, as at M’Neill’s Zareeba and at Abu Klea,
Groom fought like noble, squire like knight, As fearlessly and well.
Ah, Sir, the hearts of the rulers may wax faint, and the voting classes may forget that they are Britons; but when it comes to blows our fighting men might cry, with Leyden,
My name is little Jock Elliot,
And wha daur meddle wi’ me!
Much is changed, in the country-side as well as in the country; but much remains. The little towns of your time are populous and excessively black with the smoke of factories–not, I fear, at present very flourishing. In Galashiels you still see the little change-house and the cluster of cottages round the Laird’s lodge, like the clachan of Tully Veolan. But these plain remnants of the old Scotch towns are almost buried in a multitude of ‘smoky dwarf houses’–a living poet, Mr. Matthew Arnold, has found the fitting phrase for these dwellings, once for all. All over the Forest he waters are dirty and poisoned: I think they are filthiest below Hawick; but this may be mere local prejudice in a Selkirk man. To keep them clean costs money; and, though improvements are often promised, I cannot see much change for the better. Abbotsford, luckily, is above Galashiels, and only receives the dirt and dyes of Selkirk, Peebles, Walkerburn, and Innerlethen. On the other hand, your ill-omened later dwelling, ‘the unhappy palace of your race,’ is overlooked by villas that prick a cockney ear among their larches, hotels of the future. Ah, Sir, Scotland is a strange place. Whisky is exiled from some of our caravanserais, and they have banished Sir John Barleycorn. It seems as if the views of the excellent critic (who wrote your life lately, and said you had left no descendants, _le_pauvre_homme_) were beginning to prevail. This pious biographer was greatly shocked by that capital story about the keg of whisky that arrived at the Liddesdale farmer’s during family prayers. Your Toryism also was an offence to him.
Among these vicissitudes of things and the overthrow of customs, let us be thankful that, beyond the reach of the manufacturers, the Border country remains as kind and homely as ever. I looked at Ashiestiel some days ago: the house seemed just as it may have been when you left it for Abbotsford, only there was a lawn-tennis net on the lawn, the hill on the opposite bank of the Tweed was covered to the crest with turnips, and the burn did not sing below the little bridge, for in this arid summer the burn was dry. But there was still a grilse that rose to a big March brown in the shrunken stream below Elibank. This may not interest you, who styled yourself No fisher,
But a well-wisher
To the game!
Still, as when you were thinking over Marmion, a man might have ‘grand gallops among the hills’–those grave wastes of heather and bent that sever all the watercourses and roll their sheep-covered pastures from Dollar Law to White Combe, and from White Combe to the Three Brethren Cairn and the Windburg and Skelf-hill Pen. Yes, Teviotdale is pleasant still, and there is not a drop of dye in the water, _purior_electro_, of Yarrow. St. Mary’s Loch lies beneath me, smitten with wind and rain–the St. Mary’s of North and of the Shepherd. Only the trout, that see a myriad of artificial flies, are shyer than of yore. The Shepherd could no longer fill a cart up Meggat with trout so much of a size that the country people took them for herrings.
The grave of Piers Cockburn is still not desecrated: hard by it lies, within a little wood; and beneath that slab of old sandstone, and the graven letters, and the sword and shield, sleep ‘Piers Cock-burn and Marjory his wife.’ Not a hundred yards off was the castle door where they hanged him; this is the tomb of the ballad, and the lady that buried him rests now with her wild lord. Oh, wat ye no my heart was sair,
When I happit the mouls on his yellow hair; Oh, wat ye no my heart was wae,
When I turned about and went my way! (1) Here too hearts have broken, and there is a sacredness in the shadow and beneath these clustering berries of the rowan-trees. That sacredness, that reverent memory of our old land, it is always and inextricably blended with our memories, with our thoughts, with our love of you. Scotchmen, methinks, who owe so much to you, owe you most for the example you gave of the beauty of a life of honour, showing them what, by Heaven’s blessing, a Scotchman still might be.
(1) Lord Napier and Ettrick points out to me that, unluckily, the tradition is erroneous. Piers was not executed at all. William Cockburn suffered in Edinburgh. But the _Border_Minstrelsy_ overrides history.
_Criminal_Trials_in_Scotland_ by Robert Pitcairn, Esq. Vol. i. part I. p. 144, A. D. 1530. 17 Jac. V.
May 16. William Cokburne of Henderland, convicted (in presence of the King) of high treason committed by him in bringing Alexander Forestare and his son, Englishmen, to the plundering of Archibald Somervile; and for treasunably bringing certain Englishmen to the lands of Glenquhome; and for common theft, common reset of theft, out-putting and in-putting thereof. Sentence. For which causes and crimes he has forfeited his life, lands, and goods, movable and immovable; which shall be escheated to the King. Beheaded.
Words, empty and unavailing–for what words of ours can speak our thoughts or interpret our affections! From you first, as we followed the deer with King James, or rode with William of Deloraine on his midnight errand, did we learn what Poetry means and ali the happiness that is in the gift of song. This and more than may be told you gave us, that are not forgetful, not ungrateful, though our praise be unequal to our gratitude. _Fungor_inani_munere!_
To Eusebius of Caesarea.
(Concerning the Gods of the Heathen.)
Touching the Gods of the Heathen, most reverend Father, thou art not ignorant that even now, as in the time of thy probation on earth, there is great dissension. That these feigned Deities and idols, the work of men’s hands, are no longer worshipped thou knowest; neither do men eat meat offered to idols. Even as spoke that last Oracle which murmured forth, the latest and the only true voice from Delphi, even so ‘the fair-wrought court divine hath fallen; no more hath Phoebus his home, no more his laurel-bough, nor the singing well of water; nay, the sweet-voiced water is silent.’ The fane is ruinous, and the images of men’s idolatry are dust.
Nevertheless, most worshipful, men do still dispute about the beginnings of those sinful Gods: such as Zeus, Athene, and Dionysus: and marvel how first they won their dominion over the souls of the foolish peoples. Now, concerning these things there is not one belief, but many; howbeit, there are two main kinds of opinion. One sect of philosophers believes–as thyself, with heavenly learning, didst not vainly persuade–that the Gods were the inventions of wild and bestial folk, who, long before cities were builded or life was honourably ordained, fashioned forth evil spirits in their own savage likeness; ay, or in the likeness of the very beasts that perish. To this judgment, as it is set forth in thy Book of the Preparation for the Gospel, I, humble as I am, do give my consent. But on the other side are many and learned men, chiefly of the tribes of the Alemanni, who have almost conquered the whole inhabited world. These, being unwilling to suppose that the Hellenes were in bondage to superstitions handed down from times of utter darkness and a bestial life, do chiefly hold with the heathen philosophers, even with the writers whom thou, most venerable, didst confound with thy wisdom and chasten with the scourge of small cords of thy wit.
Thus, like the heathen, our doctors and teachers maintain that the Gods of the nations were, in the beginning, such pure natural creatures as the blue sky, the sun, the air, the bright dawn, and the fire; but, as time went on, men, forgetting the meaning of their own speech and no longer understanding the tongue of their own fathers, were misled and beguiled into fashioning all those lamentable tales: as that Zeus, for love of mortal women, took the shape of a bull, a ram, a serpent, an ant, an eagle, and sinned in such wise as it is a shame even to speak of.
Behold, then, most worshipful, how these doctors and learned men argue, even like the philosophers of the heathen whom thou didst confound. For they declare the Gods to have been natural elements, sun and sky and storm, even as did thy opponents; and, like them, as thou saidst, ‘they are nowise at one with each other in their explanations.’ For of old some boasted that Hera was the Air; and some that she signified the love of woman and man; and some that she was the waters above the Earth; and others that she was the Earth beneath the waters; and yet others that she was the Night, for that Night is the shadow of Earth: as if, forsooth, the men who first worshipped Hera had understanding of these things! And when Hera and Zeus quarrel unseemly (as Homer declareth), this meant (said the learned in thy days) no more than the strife and confusion of the elements, and was not in the beginning an idle slanderous tale.
To all which, most worshipful, thou didst answer wisely: saying that Hera could not be both night, and earth, and water, and air, and the love of sexes, and the confusion of the elements ; but that all these opinions were vain dreams, and the guesses of the learned. And why–thou saidst–even if the Gods were pure natural creatures, are such foul things told of them in the Mysteries as it is not fitting for me to declare. ‘These wanderings, and drinkings, and loves, and corruptions, that would be shameful in men, why,’ thou saidst, ‘were they attributed to the natural elements; and wherefore did the Gods constantly show themselves, like the sorcerers called were-wolves, in the shape of the perishable beasts?’ But, mainly, thou didst argue that, till the philosophers of the heathen were agreed among themselves, not all contradicting each the other, they had no semblance of a sure foundation for their doctrine.
To all this and more, most worshipful Father, I know not what the heathen answered thee. But, in our time, the learned men who stand to it that the heathen Gods were in the beginning the pure elements, and that the nations, forgetting their first love and the significance of their own speech, became confused and were betrayed into foul stories about the pure Gods–these learned men, I say, agree no whit among themselves. Nay, they differ one from another, not less than did Plutarch and Porphyry and Theagenes, and the rest whom thou didst laugh to scorn. Bear with me, Father, while I tell thee how the new Plutarchs and Porphyrys do contend among themselves; and yet these differences of theirs they call ‘Science’!
Consider the goddess Athene, who sprang armed from the head of Zeus, even as–among the fables of the poor heathen folk of seas thou never knewest– goddesses are fabled to leap out from the armpits or feet of their fathers. Thou must know that what Plato, in the ‘Cratylus,’ made Socrates say in jest, the learned among us practise in sad earnest. For, when they wish to explain the nature of any God, they first examine his name, and torment the letters thereof, arranging and altering them according to their will, and flying off to the speech of the Indians and Medes and Chaldeans, and other Barbarians, if Greek will not serve their turn. How saith Socrates? ‘I bethink me of a very new and ingenious idea that occurs to me; and, if I do not mind, I shall be wiser than I should be by to-morrow’s dawn. My notion is that we may put in and pull out letters at pleasure and alter the accents.’ Even so do our learned–not at pleasure, maybe, but according to certain fixed laws (so they declare); yet none the more do they agree among themselves. And I deny not that they discover many things true and good to be known; but, as touching the names of the Gods, their learning, as it standeth, is confusion. Look, then, at the goddess Athene: taking one example out of hundreds. We have dwelling in our coasts Muellerus, the most erudite of the doctors of the Alemanni, and the most golden-mouthed. Concerning Athene, he saith that her name is none other than, in the ancient tongue of the Brach-manae, _Ahana’_, which, being interpreted, means the Dawn. ‘And that the morning light,’ saith he, ‘offers the best starting-point; for the later growth of Athene has been proved, I believe, beyond the reach of doubt or even cavil.’ (1)
(1) ‘The Lesson of Jupiter.’–_Nineteenth_Century_, October, 1885.
Yet this same doctor candidly lets us know that another of his nation, the witty Benfeius, hath devised another sense and origin of Athene, taken from the speech of the old Medes. But Muellerus declares to us that whosoever shall examine the contention of Benfeius ‘will be bound, in common honesty, to confess that it is untenable.’ This, Father, is one for Benfeius, as the saying goes. And as Muellerus holds that these matters ‘admit of almost mathematical precision,’ it would seem that Benfeius is but a _Dummkopf_, as the Alemanni say, in their own language, when they would be pleasant among themselves.
Now, wouldst thou credit it? despite the mathematical plainness of the facts, other Alemanni agree neither with Muellerus, nor yet with Benfeius, and will neither hear that Athene was the Dawn, nor yet that she is ‘the feminine of the Zend _Thra’eta’na_athwya’na_.’ Lo, you! how Prellerus goes about to show that her name is drawn not from _Ahana’_ and the old Brachmanae, nor _athwya’na_ and the old Medes, but from ‘the root _aith_*, whence _aither_*, the air, or _ath_*, whence _anthos_*, a flower.’ Yea, and Prellerus will have it that no man knows the verity of this matter. None the less he is very bold, and will none of the Dawn; but holds to it that Athene was, from the first, ‘the clear pure height of the Air, which is exceeding pure in Attica.’
Now, Father, as if all this were not enough, comes one Roscherus in, with a mighty great volume on the Gods, and Furtwaenglerus, among others, for his ally. And these doctors will neither with Rueckertus and Hermannus, take Athene for ‘wisdom in person;’ nor with Welckerus and Prellerus, for ‘the goddess of air;’ nor even, with Muellerus and mathematical certainty, for ‘the Morning-Red:’ but they say that Athene is the ‘black thunder-cloud, and the lightning that leapeth therefrom’! I make no doubt that other Alemanni are of other minds: _quot_Alemanni_tot_sententiae_.
Yea, as thou saidst of the learned heathen, _Oude_gar_allelois_symphona_ _physiologousis_. Yet these disputes of theirs they call ‘Science’! But if any man says to the learned: ‘Best of men, you are erudite, and laborious and witty; but, till you are more of the same mind, your opinions cannot be styled knowledge. Nay, they are at present of no avail whereon to found any doctrine concerning the Gods’–that man is railed at for his ‘mean’ and ‘weak’ arguments.
*Transliterated from Greek.
Was it thus, Father, that the heathen railed against thee? But I must still believe, with thee, that these evil tales of the Gods were invented ‘when man’s life was yet brutish and wandering’ (as is the life of many tribes that even now tell like tales), and were maintained in honour of the later Greeks ‘because none dared alter the ancient beliefs of his ancestors.’ Farewell, Father; and all good be with thee, wishes thy well-wisher and thy disciple.
To Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sir,–In your lifetime on earth you were not more than commonly curious as to what was said by ‘the herd of mankind,’ if I may quote your own phrase. It was that of one who loved his fellow-men, but did not in his less enthusiastic moments overestimate their virtues and their discretion. Removed so far away from our hubbub, and that world where, as you say, we ‘pursue our serious folly as of old,’ you are, one may guess, but moderately concerned about the fate of your writings and your reputation. As to the first, you have somewhere said, in one of your letters, that the final judgment on your merits as a poet is in the hands of posterity, and that you fear the verdict will be ‘Guilty,’ and the sentence ‘Death.’ Such apprehensions cannot have been fixed or frequent in the mind of one whose genius burned always with a clearer and steadier flame to the last. The jury of which you spoke has met: a mixed jury and a merciful. The verdict is ‘Well done,’ and the sentence Immortality of Fame. There have been, there are, dissenters; yet probably they will be less and less heard as the years go on.
One judge, or juryman, has made up his mind that prose was your true province, and that your letters will outlive your lays. I know not whether it was the same or an equally well-inspired critic, who spoke of your most perfect lyrics (so Beau Brummell spoke of his ill-tied cravats) as ‘a gallery of your failures.’ But the general voice does not echo these utterances of a too subtle intellect. At a famous University (not your own) once existed a band of men known as ‘The Trinity Sniffers.’ Perhaps the spirit of the sniffer may still inspire some of the jurors who from time to time make themselves heard in your case. The ‘Quarterly Review’, I fear, is still unreconciled. It regards your attempts as tainted by the spirit of ‘The Liberal Movement in English Literature;’ and it is impossible, alas! to maintain with any success that you were a Throne and Altar Tory. At Oxford you are forgiven;and the old rooms where you let the oysters burn (was not your founder, King Alfred, once guilty of similar negligence?) are now shown to pious pilgrims.
But Conservatives, ‘t is rumoured, are still averse to your opinions, and are believed to prefer to yours the works of the Reverend Mr. Keble, and, indeed, of the clergy in general. But, in spite of all this, your poems, like the affections of the true lovers in Theocritus, are still ‘in the mouths of all, and chiefly on the lips of the young.’ It is in your lyrics that you live, and I do not mean that every one could pass an examination in the plot of ‘Prometheus Unbound” Talking of this piece, by the way, a Cambridge critic finds that it reveals in you a hankering after life in a cave–doubtless an unconsciously inherited memory from cave-man. Speaking of cave-man reminds me that you once spoke of deserting song for prose, and of producing a history of the moral, intellectual, and political elements in human society, which, we now agree, began, as Asia would fain have ended, in a cave.
Fortunately you gave us ‘Adonai, and ‘Hellas’ instead of this treatise, and we have now successfully written the natural history of Man for ourselves. Science tells us that before becoming cave-dweller he was a brute; Experience daily proclaims that he constantly reverts to his original condition. _L’homme_est_un_me’chant_animal_, in spite of your boyish efforts to add pretty girls ‘to the list of the good, the disinterested, and the free.’
Ah, not in the wastes of Speculation, nor the sterile din of Politics, were ‘the haunts meet for thee.’ Watching the yellow bees in the ivy bloom, and the reflected pine forest in the water-pools, watching the sunset as it faded, and the dawn as it fired, and weaving all fair and fleeting things into a tissue where light and music were at one, that was the task of Shelley! ‘To ask you for anything human,’ you said, ‘was like asking for a leg of mutton at a gin-shop.’ Nay, rather, like asking Apollo and Hebe, in the Olympian abodes, to give us beef for ambrosia, and port for nectar. Each poet gives what he has, and what he can offer; you spread before us fairy bread, and enchanted wine, and shall we turn away, with a sneer, because, out of all the multitudes of singers, one is spiritual and strange, one has seen Artemis unveiled? One, like Anchises, has been beloved of the Goddess, and his eyes, when he looks on the common works of common men, are, like the eyes of Anchises, blind with excess of light. Let Shelley sing of what he saw, what none saw but Shelley!
Notwithstanding the popularity of your poems (the most romantic of things didactic), our world is no better than the world you knew. This will disappoint you, who had ‘a passion for reforming it.’ Kings and priests are very much where you left them. True, we have a poet who assails them, at large, frequently and fearlessly; yet Mr. Swinburne has never, like ‘kind Hunt,’ been in prison, nor do we fear for him a charge of treason. Moreover, chemical science has discovered new and ingenious ways of destroying principalities and powers. You would be interested in the methods, but your peaceful Revolutionism, which disdained physical force, would regret their application.
Our foreign affairs are not in a state which even you would consider satisfactory; for we have just had to contend with a Revolt of Islam, and we still find in Russia exactly the qualities which you recognised and described. We have a great statesman whose methods and eloquence somewhat resemble those you attribute to Laon and Prince Athanase. Alas! he is a youth of more than seventy summers; and not in his time will Prometheus retire to a cavern and pass a peaceful millennium in twining buds and beams.
In domestic affairs most of the Reforms you desired to see have been carried. Ireland has received Emancipation, and almost everytbing else she can ask for. I regret to say that she is still unhappy; her wounds unstanched, her wrongs unforgiven. At home we have enfranchised the paupers, and expect the most happy results. Paupers (as Mr. Gladstone says) are ‘our own flesh and blood,’ and, as we compel them to be vaccinated, so we should permit them to vote. Is it a dream that Mr. Jesse Collings (how you would have loved that man!) has a Bill for extending the priceless boon of the vote to inmates of Pauper Lunatic Asylums? This may prove that last element in the Elixir of political happiness which we have sought in vain. Atheists, you will re to hear, are still unpopular; but the new Parliament has done something for Mr. Bradlaugh. You should have known our Charles while you were in the ‘Queen Mab’ stage. I fear you wandered, later, from his robust condition of intellectual development.
As to your private life, many biographers contrive to make public as much of it as possible. Your name, even in life, was, alas! a kind of _ducdame_ to bring people of no very great sense into your circle. This curious fascination has attracted round your memory a feeble folk of commentators, biographers, anecdotists, and others of the tribe. They swarm round you like carrion-flies round a sensitive plant, like night-birds bewildered by the sun. Men of sense and taste have written on you, indeed; but your weaker admirers are now disputing as to whether it was your heart, or a less dignified and most troublesome organ, which escaped the flames of the funeral pyre. These biographers fight terribly among themselves, and vainly prolong the memory of ‘old unhappy far-off things, and _sorrows_ long ago.’ Let us leave them and their squabbles over what is unessential, their raking up of old letters and old stories.
The town has lately yawned a weary laugh over an enemy of yours, who has produced two heavy volumes, styled by him ‘The Real Shelley.’ The real Shelley, it appears, was Shelley as conceived of by a worthy gentleman so prejudiced and so skilled in taking up things by the wrong handle that I wonder he has not made a name in the exact science of Comparative Mythology. He criticises you in the spirit of that Christian Apologist, the Englishman who called you ‘a damned Atheist’ in the post-office at Pisa. He finds that you had ‘a little turned-up nose,’ a feature no less important in his system than was the nose of Cleopatra (according to Pascal) in the history of the world. To be in harmony with your nose, you were a ‘phenomenal’ liar, an ill-bred, ill-born, profligate, partly insane, an evil-tempered monster, a self-righteous person, full of self-approbation–in fact you were the Beast of this pious Apocalypse. Your friend Dr. Lind was an embittered and scurrilous apothecary, ‘a bad old man.’ But enough of this inopportune brawler. For Humanity, of which you hoped such great things, Science predicts extinction in a night of Frost. The sun will grow cold, slowly–as slowly as doom came on Jupiter in your ‘Prometheus,’ but as surely. If this nightmare be fulfilled, perhaps the Last Man, in some fetid hut on the ice-bound Equator, will read. by a fading lamp charged with the dregs of the oil in his cruse, the poetry of Shelley. So reading, he, the latest of his race, will not wholly be deprived of those sights which alone (says the nameless Greek) make life worth enduring. In your verse he will have sight of sky, and sea, and cloud, the gold of dawn and the gloom of earthquake and eclipse, he will be face to face, in fancy, with the great powers that are dead, sun, and ocean, and the illimitable azure of the heavens. In Shelley’s poetry, while Man endures, all those will survive; for your ‘voice is as the voice of winds and tides,’ and perhaps more deathless than all of these, and only perishable with the perishing of the human spirit.
To Monsieur de Molie’re, Valet de Chambre du Roi.
Monsieur,–With what awe does a writer venture into the presence of the great Molie’re! As a courtier in your time would scratch humbly (with his comb!) at the door of the Grand Monarch, so I presume to draw near your dwelling among the Immortals. You, like the king who, among all his titles, has now none so proud as that of the friend of Molie’re–you found your dominions small, humble, and distracted; you raised them to the dignity of an empire: what Louis XIV. did for France you achieved for French comedy; and the ba’ton of Scapin still wields its sway though the sword of Louis was broken at Blenheim. For the King the Pyrenees, or so he fancied, ceased to exist; by a more magnificent conquest you overcame the Channel. If England vanquished your country’s arms, it was through you that France _ferum_victorem_cepit_, and restored the dynasty of Comedy to the land whence she had been driven. Ever since Dryden borrowed ‘L’Etourdi,’ our tardy apish nation has lived (in matters theatrical) on the spoils of the wits of France.
In one respect, to be sure, times and manners have altered. While you lived, taste kept the French drama pure; and it was the congenial business of English playwrights to foist their rustic grossness and their large Fescennine jests into the urban page of Molie’re. Now they are diversely occupied; and it is their affair to lend modesty where they borrow wit, and to spare a blush to the cheek of the Lord Chamberlain. But still, as has ever been our wont since Etherege saw, and envied, and imitated your successes–still we pilfer the plays of France, and take our _bien_, as you said in your lordly manner, wherever we can find it. We are the privateers of the stage; and it is rarely, to be sure, that a comedy pleases the town which has not first been ‘cut out’ from the countrymen of Molie’re. Why this should be, and what ‘tenebriferous star’ (as Paracelsus, your companion in the ‘Dialogues des Morts,’ would have believed) thus darkens the sun of English humour, we know not; but certainly our dependence on France is the sincerest tribute to you. Without you, neither Rotrou, nor Corneille, nor ‘a wilderness of monkeys’ like Scarron, could ever have given Comedy to France and restored her to Europe.
While we owe to you, Monsieur, the beautiful advent of Comedy, fair and beneficent as Peace in the play of Aristophanes, it is still to you that we must turn when of comedies we desire the best. If you studied with daily and nightly care the works of Plautus and Terence, if you ‘let no musty _bouquin_ escape you’ (so your enemies declared), it was to some purpose that you laboured. Shakespeare excepted, you eclipsed all who came before you; and from those that follow, however fresh, we turn: we turn from Regnard and Beaumarchais, from Sheridan: and Goldsmith, from Musset and Pailleron and Labiche, to that crowded world of your creations. ‘Creations’ one may well say, for you anticipated Nature herself: you gave us, before she did, in Alceste a Rousseau who was a gentleman not a lacquey; in a _mot_ of Don Juan’s, the secret of the new Religion and the watchword of Comte, _l’amour_de_l’humanite’_.
Before you where can we find, save in Rabelais, a Frenchman with humour; and where, unless it be in Montaigne, the wise philosophy of a secular civilisalion? With a heart the most tender, delicate, loving, and generous, a heart often in agony and torment, you had to make life endurable (we cannot doubt it) without any whisper of promise, or hope, or warning from Religion. Yes, in an age when the greatest mind of all, the mind of Pascal, proclaimed that the only help was in voluntary blindness, that the only chance was to hazard all on a bet at evens, you, Monsieur, refused to be blinded, or to pretend to see what you found invisible.
In Religion you beheld no promise of help. When the Jesuits and Jansenists of your time saw, each of them, in Tartufe the portrait of their rivals (as each of the laughable Marquises in your play conceived that you were girding at his neighbour), you all the while were mocking every credulous excess of Faith. In the sermons preached to Agne’s we surely hear your private laughter; in the arguments for credulity which are presented to Don Juan by his valet we listen to the eternal self-defence of superstition. Thus, desolate of belief, you sought for the permanent element of life–precisely where Pascal recognised all that was most fleeting and unsubstantial–in _divertissement_; in the pleasure of looking on, a spectator of the accidents of existence, an observer of the follies of mankind. Like the Gods of the Epicurean, you seem to regard our life as a play that is played, as a comedy; yet how often the tragic note comes in! What pity, and in the laughter what an accent of tears, as of rain in the wind! No comedian has been so kindly and human as you; none has had a heart, like you, to feel for his butts, and to leave them sometimes, in a sense, superior to their tormentors. Sganarelle, M. de Pourceaugnac, George Dandin, and the rest–our sympathy, somehow, is with them, after all; and M. de Pourceaugnac is a gentleman, despite his misadventures.
Though triumphant Youth and malicious Love in your plays may batter and defeat Jealousy and Old Age, yet they have not all the victory, or you did not mean that they should win it. They go off with laughter, and their victim with a grimace; but in him we, that are past our youth, behold an actor in an unending tragedy, the defeat of a generation. Your sympathy is not wholly with the dogs that are having their day; you can throw a bone or a crust to the dog that has had his, and has been taught that it is over and ended. Yourself not unlearned in shame, in jealousy, in endurance of the wanton pride of men (how could the poor player and the husband of Ce’lime’ne be untaught in that experience?), you never sided quite heartily, as other comedians have done, with young prosperity and rank and power.
I am not the first who has dared to approach you in the Shades; for just after your own death the author of ‘Les Dialogues des Morts’ gave you Paracelsus as a companion, and the author of ‘Le Jugement de Pluton’ made the ‘mighty warder’ decide that ‘Molie’re should not talk philosophy.’ These writers, like most of us, feel that, after all, the comedies of the _Contemplateur_, of the translator of Lucretius, are a philosophy of life in themselves, and that in them we read the lessons of human experience writ small and clear.
What comedian but Molie’re has combined with such depths–with the indignation of Alceste, the self-deception of Tartufe, the blasphemy of Don Juan–such wildness of irresponsible mirth, such humour, such wit! Even now, when more than two hundred years have sped by, when so much water has flowed under the bridges and has borne away so many trifles of contemporary mirth (_cetera_ _fluminis_ritu_feruntur_), even now we never laugh so well as when Mascarille and Vadius and M. Jourdain tread the boards in the Maison de Molie’re. Since those mobile dark brows of yours ceased to make men laugh, since your voice denounced the ‘demoniac’ manner of contemporary tragedians, I take leave to think that no player has been more worthy to wear the _canons_ of Mascarille or the gown of Vadius than M. Coquelin of the Come’die Francaise. In him you have a successor to your Mascarille so perfect, that the ghosts of play-goers of your date might cry, could they see him, that Molie’re had come again. But, with all respect to the efforts of the fair, I doubt if Mdlle. Barthet, or Mdme. Croizette herself, would reconcile the town to the loss of the fair De Brie, and Madeleine, and the first, the true Ce’lime’ne, Armande. Yet had you ever so merry a _soubrette_ as Mdme. Samary, so exquisite a Nicole?
Denounced, persecuted, and buried hugger-mugger two hundred years ago, you are now not over-praised, but more worshipped, with more servility and ostentation, studied with more prying curiosity than you may approve. :\re not the Molie’ristes a body who carry adoration to fanaticism? Any scrap of your handwriting (so few are these), any anecdote even remotely touching on your life, any fact that may prove your house was numbered 15 not 22, is eagerly seized and discussed by your too minute historians. Concerning your private life, these men often write more like malicious enemies than friends; repeating the fabulous scandals of Le Boulanger, and trying vainly to support them by grubbing in dusty parish registers. It is most necessary to defend you from your friends–from such friends as the veteran and inveterate M. Arse’ne Houssaye, or the industrious but puzzle-headed M. Loiseleur. Truly they seek the living among the dead, and the immortal Molie’re among the sweepings of attorneys’ offices. As I regard them (for I have tarried in their tents) and as I behold their trivialities–the exercises of men who neglect Molie’re’s works to write about Molie’re’s great-grandmother’s second-best bed–I sometimes wish that Molie’re were here to write on his devotees a new comedy, ‘Les Molie’ristes.’ How fortunate were they, Monsieur, who lived and worked with you, who saw you day by day, who were attached, as Lagrange tells us, by the kindest loyalty to the best and most honourable of men, the most open-handed in friendship, in charity the most delicate, of the heartiest sympathy! Ah, that for one day I could behold you, writing in the study, rehearsing on the stage, musing in the lace-seller’s shop, strolling through the Palais, turning over the new books at Billaine’s, dusting your ruffles among the old volumes on the sunny stalls. Would that, through the ages, we could hear you after supper, merry with Boileau, and with Racine,–not yet a traitor,–laughing over Chapelain, combining to gird at him in an epigram, or mocking at Cotin, or talking your favourite philosophy, mindful of Descartes. Surely of all the wits none was ever so good a man, none ever made life so rich with humour and friendship.
To Robert Burns.
Sir,–Among men of Genius, and especially among Poets, there are some to whom we turn with a peculiar and unfeigned affection; there are others whom we admire rather than love. By some we are won with our will, by others conquered against our desire. It has been your peculiar fortune to capture the hearts of a whole people–a people not usually prone to praise, but devoted with a personal and patriotic loyalty to you and to your reputation. In you every Scot who _is_ a Scot sees, admires, and compliments Himself, his ideal self– independent, fond of whisky, fonder of the lassies; you are the true representative of him and of his nation. Next year will be the hundredth since the press of Kilmarnock brought to light its solitary masterpiece, your Poems; and next year, therefore, methinks, the revenue will receive a welcome accession from the abundance of whisky drunk in your honour. It is a cruel thing for any of your countrymen to feel that, where all the rest love, he can only admire; where all the rest are idolators, he may not bend the knee; but stands apart and beats upon his breast, observing, not adoring–a critic. Yet to some of us–petty souls, perhaps, and envious–that loud indiscriminating praise of ‘Robbie Burns’ (for so they style you in their Change-house familiarity) has long been ungrateful; and, among the treasures of your songs, we venture to select and even to reject. So it must be! We cannot all love Haggis, nor ‘painch, tripe, and thairm,’ and all those rural dainties which you celebrate as ‘warm-reekin, rich!’ ‘Rather too rich,’ as the Young Lady said on an occasion recorded by Sam Weller.
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, Gie her a Haggis!
You _have_ given her a Haggis, with a vengeance, and her ‘gratefu’ prayer’ is yours for ever. But if even an eternity of partridge may pall on the epicure, so of Haggis too, as of all earthly delights, cometh satiety at last. And yet what a glorious Haggis it is–the more emphatically rustic and even Fescennine part of your verse! We have had many a rural bard since Theocritus ‘watched the visionary flocks,’ but you are the only one of them all who has spoken the sincere Doric. Yours is the talk of the byre and the plough-tail; yours is that large utterance of the early hinds. Even Theocritus minces matters, save where Lacon and Comatas quite outdo the swains of Ayrshire. ‘But thee, Theocritus, wha matches?’ you ask, and yourself out-match him in this wide rude region, trodden only by the rural Muse.
‘_Thy_ rural loves are nature’s sel’;’ and the wooer of Jean Armour speaks more like a true shepherd than the elegant Daphnis of the ‘Oaristys.’
Indeed it is with this that moral critics of your life reproach you, forgetting, perhaps, that in your amours you were but as other Scotch ploughmen and shepherds of the past and present. Ettrick may still, with Afghanistan, offer matter for idylls, as Mr. Carlyle (your antithesis, and the complement of the Scotch character) supposed; but the morals of Ettrick are those of rural Sicily in old days, or of Mossgiel in your days. Over these matters the Kirk, with all her power, and the Free Kirk too, have had absolutely no influence whatever. To leave so delicate a topic, you were but as other swains, or, as ‘that Birkie ca’d a lord,’ Lord Byron; only you combined (in certain of your letters) a libertine theory with your practice; you poured out in song your audacious raptures, your half-hearted repentance, your shame and your scorn. You spoke the truth about rural lives and loves. We may like it or dislike it; but we cannot deny the verity.
Was it not as unhappy a thing, Sir, for you, as it was fortunate for Letters and for Scotland, that you were born at the meeting of two ages and of two worlds–precisely in the moment when bookish literature was beginning to reach the people, and when Society was first learning to admit the low-born to her Minor Mysteries? Before you how many singers not less truly poets than yourself–though less versatile not less passionate, though less sensuous not less simple–had been born and had died in poor men’s cottages! There abides not even the shadow of a name of the old Scotch song-smiths, of the old ballad-makers. The authors of ‘Clerk Saunders,’ of ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well,’ of ‘Fair Annie,’ and ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ and ‘The Bonny Hind,’ are as unknown to us as Homer, whom in their directness and force they resemble. They never, perhaps, gave their poems to writing; certainly they never gave them to the press. On the lips and in the hearts of the people they have their lives; and the singers, after a life obscure and untroubled by society or by fame, are forgotten. ‘The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth his Poppy.’
Had you been born some years earlier you would have been even as these unnamed Immortals, leaving great verses to a little clan–verses retained only by Memory. You would have been but the minstrel of your native valley: the wider world would not have known you, nor you the world. Great thoughts of independence and revolt would never have burned in you; indignation would not have vexed you. Society would not have given and denied her caresses. You would have been happy. Your songs would have lingered in all ‘the circle of the summer hills;’ and your scorn, your satire, your narrative verse, would have been unwritten or unknown. To the world what a loss! and what a gain to you! We should have possessed but a few of your lyrics, as When o’er the hill the eastern star
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo; And owsen frae the furrowed field,
Return sae dowf and wearie 0!
How noble that is, how natural, how unconsciously Greek! You found, oddly, in good Mrs. Barbauld, the merits of the Tenth Muse: In thy sweet sang, Barbauld, survives
Even Sappho’s flame!
But how unconsciously you remind us both of Sappho and of Homer in these strains about the Evening Star and the hour when the Day _metenisseto_ _boulytoide_?* Had you lived and died the pastoral poet of some silent glen, such lyrics could not but have survived; free, too, of all that in your songs reminds us of the Poet’s Corner in the ‘Kirkcudbright Advertiser.’ We should not have read how
Phoebus, gilding the brow o’ morning, Banishes ilk darksome shade!
Still we might keep a love-poem unexcelled by Catullus, Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met–or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
But the letters to Clarinda would have been unwritten, and the thrush would have been untaught in ‘the style of the Bird of Paradise.’
*Transliterated from Greek.
A quiet life of song, _fallentis_semita_vitae_’, was not to be yours. Fate otherwise decreed it. The touch of a lettered society, the strife with the Kirk, discontent with the State, poverty and pride, neglect and success, were needed to make your Genius what it was, and to endow the world with ‘Tam o’ Shanter,’ the ‘Jolly Beggars,’ and ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer.’ Who can praise them too highly–who admire in them too much the humour, the scorn, the wisdom, the unsurpassed energy and courage? So powerful, so commanding, is the movement of that Beggars’ Chorus, that, methinks, it unconsciously echoed in the brain of our greatest living poet when he conceived the Vision of Sin. You shall judge for yourself. Recall:
Here’s to budgets, bags, and wallets! Here’s to all the wandering train!
Here’s our ragged bairns and callers! One and all cry out, Amen!
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected!
Churches built to please the priest!
Then read this:
Drink to lofty hopes that cool
Visions of a perfect state:
Drink we, last, the public fool,
Frantic love and frantic hate.
Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance, While we keep a little breath!
Drink to heavy Ignorance
Hob and nob with brother Death!
Is not the movement the same, though the modern speaks a wilder recklessness?
So in the best company we leave you, who were the life and soul of so much company, good and bad. No poet, since the Psalmist of Israel, ever gave the world more assurance of a man; none lived a life more strenuous, engaged in an eternal conflict of the passions, and by them overcome–‘mighty and mightily fallen.’ When we think of you, Byron seems, as Plato would have said, remote by one degree from actual truth, and Musset by a degree more remote than Byron.
To Lord Byron.
(Do you remember how Leigh Hunt
Enraged you once by writing _My_dear_Byron_?) Books have their fates,–as mortals have who punt, And _yours_ have entered on an age of iron. Critics there be who think your satin blunt, Your pathos, fudge; such perils must environ Poets who in their time were quite the rage, Though now there’s not a soul to turn their page.
Yes, there is much dispute about your worth, And much is said which you might like to know By modern poets here upon the earth,
Where poets live, and love each other so; And, in Elysium, it may move your mirth To hear of bards that pitch your praises low, Though there be some that for your credit stickle, As–Glorious Mat,–and not inglorious Nichol.
This kind of writing is my pet aversion, I hate the slang, I hate the personalities, I loathe the aimless, reckless, loose dispersion, Of every rhyme that in the singer’s wallet is, I hate it as you hated the _Excursion_, But, while no man a hero to his valet is, The hero’s still the model; I indite
The kind of rhymes that Byron oft would write.
There’s a Swiss critic whom I cannot rhyme to, One Scherer, dry as sawdust, grim and prim. Of him there’s much to say, if I had time to Concern myself in any wise with him.
He seems to hate the heights he cannot climb to, He thinks your poetry a coxcomb’s whim, A good deal of his sawdust he has spilt on Shakspeare, and Molie’re, and you, and Milton.
Ay, much his temper is like Vivien’s mood, Which found not Galahad pure, nor Lancelot brave; Cold as a hailstorm on an April wood,
He buries poets in an icy grave,
His Essays–he of the Genevan hood! Nothing so good, but better doth he crave. So stupid and so solemn in his spite
He dares to print that Molie’re could not write!
Enough of these excursions; I was saying That half our English Bards are turned Reviewers, And Arnold was discussing and assaying
The weight and value of that work of yours, Examining and testing it and weighing,
And proved, the gems are pure, the gold endures. While Swinburne cries with an exceeding joy, the stones are paste, and half the gold, alloy.
In Byron, Arnold finds the greatest force, Poetic, in this later age of ours
His song, a torrent from a mountain source, Clear as the crystal, singing with the showers, Sweeps to the sea in unrestricted course Through banks o’erhung with rocks and sweet with flowers; None of your brooks that modestly meander, But swift as Awe along the Pass of Brander.
And when our century has clomb its crest, And backward gazes o’er the plains of Time, And counts its harvest, yours is still the best, The richest garner in the field of rhyme (The metaphoric mixture, ‘t is confest, Is all my own, and is not quite sublime). But fame’s not yours alone; you must divide all The plums and pudding with the Bard of Rydal!
WORDSWORTH and BYRON, these the lordly names And these the gods to whom most incense burns. ‘Absurd!’ cries Swinburne, and in anger flames, And in an AEschylean fury spurns
With impious foot your altar, and exclaims And wreathes his laurels on the golden urns Where Coleridge’s and Shelley’s ashes lie, Deaf to the din and heedless of the cry.
For Byron (Swinburne shouts) has never woven One honest thread of life within his song; As Offenbach is to divine Beethoven
So Byron is to Shelley (_This_ is strong!), And on Parnassus’ peak, divinely cloven, He may not stand, or stands by cruel wrong; For Byron’s rank (the Examiner has reckoned) Is in the third class or a feeble second.
‘A Bernesque poet’ at the very most, And never earnest save in politics–
The Pegasus that he was wont to boast A blundering, floundering hackney, full of tricks, A beast that must be driven to the post By whips and spurs and oaths and kicks and sticks, A gasping, ranting, broken-winded brute, That any judge of Pegasi would shoot;
In sooth, a half-bred Pegasus, and far gone In spavin, curb, and half a hundred woes. And Byron’s style is ‘jolter-headed jargon ;’ His verse is ‘only bearable in prose.’
So living poets write of those that are gone, And o’er the Eagle thus the Bantam crows; And Swinburne ends where Verisopht began, By owning you ‘a very clever man.’
Or rather does not end: he still must utter A quantity of the unkindest things.
Ah! were you here, I marvel, would you flutter O’er such a foe the tempest of your wings? ‘T is ‘rant and cant and glare and splash and splutter’ That rend the modest air when Byron sings. There Swinburne stops: a critic rather fiery. _Animis_caelestibus_tantaene_irae_?
But whether he or Arnold in the right is, Long is the argument, the quarrel long; _Non_nobis_est_ to settle _tantas_lites_; No poet I, to judge of right or wrong:
But of all things I always think a fight is The most unpleasant in the lists of song; When Marsyas of old was flayed, Apollo
Set an example which we need not follow.
The fashion changes! Maidens do not wear, As once they wore, in necklaces and lockets A curl ambrosial of Lord Byron’s hair;
‘Don Juan’ is not always in our pockets Nay, a NEW WRITER’s readers do not care Much for your verse, but are inclined to mock its Manners and morals. Ay, and most young ladies To yours prefer the ‘Epic’ called ‘of Hades’!
I do not blame them; I’m inclined to think That with the reigning taste ‘t is vain to quarrel, And Burns might teach his votaries to drink, And Byron never meant to make them moral. You yet have lovers true, who will not shrink From lauding you and giving you the laurel; The Germans too, those men of blood and iron, Of all our poets chiefly swear by Byron.
Farewell, thou Titan fairer than the gods! Farewell, farewell, thou swift and lovely spirit, Thou splendid warrior with the world at odds, Unpraised, unpraisable, beyond thy merit; Chased, like Oresres, by the furies’ rods, Like him at length thy peace dost thou inherit; Beholding whom, men think how fairer far Than all the steadfast stars the wandering star!
_Note_ Mr. Swlnburne’s and Mr. Arnold’s diverse views of Byron will be found in the _Selections_ by Mr. Arnold and in the _Nineteenth_Century_.
To Omar Kha’yya’m.
Wise Omar, do the Southern Breezes fling Above your Grave, at ending of the Spring, The Snowdrift of the petals of the Rose, The wild white Roses you were wont to sing?
Far in the South I know a Land divine, (1) And there is many a Saint and many a Shrine, And over all the shrines the Blossom blows Of Roses that were dear to you as wine.
(1) The hills above San Remo, where rose-bushes are planted by the shrines. Omar desired that his grave might be where the wind would scatter rose-leaves over it.
You were a Saint of unbelieving days, Liking your Life and happy in men’s Praise; Enough for you the Shade beneath the Bough, Enough to watch the wild World go its Ways.
Dreadless and hopeless thou of Heaven or Hell, Careless of Words thou hadst not Skill to spell, Content to know not all thou knowest now, What’s Death? Doth any Pitcher dread the Well?
The Pitchers we, whose Maker makes them ill, Shall He torment them if they chance to spill? Nay, like the broken potsherds are we cast Forth and forgotten,–and what will be will!
So still were we, before the Months began That rounded us and shaped us into Man.
So still we shall be, surely, at the last, Dreamless, untouched of Blessing or of Ban!
Ah, strange it seems that this thy common thought How all things have been, ay, and shall be nought Was ancient Wisdom in thine ancient East, In those old Days when Senlac fight was fought,
Which gave our England for a captive Land To pious Chiefs of a believing Band,
A gift to the Believer from the Priest, Tossed from the holy to the blood-red Hand! (1)
(1) Omar was contemporary with the battle of Hastings.
Yea, thou wert singing when that Arrow clave Through helm and brain of him who could not save His England, even of Harold Godwin’s son; The high tide murmurs by the Hero’s grave! (1)
(1) Per mandata Ducis, Rex hic, Heralde, quiescis, Ut custos maneas littoris et pelagi.
And _thou_ wert wreathing Roses–who can tell?– Or chanting for some girl that pleased thee well, Or satst at wine in Nasha’pu’r, when dun The twilight veiled the field where Harold fell!
The salt Sea-waves above him rage and roam! Along the white Walls of his guarded Home No Zephyr stirs the Rose, but o’er the wave The wild Wind beats the Breakers into Foam!
And dear to him, as Roses were to thee, Rings long the Roar of Onset of the Sea; The _Swan’s_Path_ of his Fathers is his grave: His sleep, methinks, is sound as thine can be.
His was the Age of Faith, when all the West Looked to the Priest for torment or for rest; And thou wert living then, and didst not heed The Saint who banned thee or the Saint who blessed!
Ages of Progress! These eight hundred years Hath Europe shuddered with her hopes or fears, And now!–she listens in the wilderness To thee, and half believeth what she hears!
Hadst _thou_ THE SECRET? Ah, and who may tell? ‘An hour we have,’ thou saidst. ‘Ah, waste it well!’ An hour we have, and yet Eternity
Looms o’er us, and the thought of Heaven or Hell!
Nay, we can never be as wise as thou, O idle singer ‘neath the blossomed bough. Nay, and we cannot be content to die.
_We_ cannot shirk the questions ‘ Where?’ and ‘How?’
Ah, not from learned Peace and gay Content Shall we of England go the way he went
The Singer of the Red Wine and the Rose Nay, otherwise than his our Day is spent!
Serene he dwelt in fragrant Nasha’pu’r, But we must wander while the Stars endure. _He_ knew THE SECRET: we have none that knows, No Man so sure as Omar once was sure!
To Q. Horatius Flaccus.
In what manner of Paradise are we to conceive that you, Horace, are dwelling, or what region of immortality can give you such pleasures as this life afforded? The country and the town, nature and men, who knew them so well as you, or who ever so wisely made the best of those two worlds? Truly here you had good things, nor do you ever, in all your poems, look for more delight in the life beyond; you never expect consolation for present sorrow, and when you once have shaken hands with a friend the parting seems to you eternal. Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
Tam cari capitis?
So you sing, for the dear head you mourn has sunk for ever beneath the wave. Virgil might wander forth bearing the golden branch ‘the Sibyl doth to singing men allow,’ and might visit, as one not wholly without hope, the dim dwellings of the dead and the unborn. To him was it permitted to see and sing ‘mothers and men, and the bodies out-worn of mighty heroes, boys and unwedded maids, and young men borne to the funeral fire before their parents’ eyes.’ The endless caravan swept past him–‘many as fluttering leaves that drop and fall in autumn woods when the first frost begins; many as birds that flock landward from the great sea when now the chill year drives them o’er the deep and leads them to sunnier lands.’ Such things was it given to the sacred poet to behold, and the happy seats and sweet pleasances of fortunate souls, where the larger light clothes all the plains and dips them in a rosier gleam, plains with their own new sun and stars before unknown. Ah, not _frustra_pius_ was Virgil, as you say, Horace, in your melancholy song. In him, we fancy, there was a happier mood than your melancholy patience. ‘Not, though thou wert sweeter of song than Thracian Orpheus, with that lyre whose lay led the dancing trees, not so would the blood return to the empty shade of him whom once with dread wand the inexorable god hath folded with his shadowy flocks; but patience lighteneth what heaven forbids us to undo.’ _Durum,_sed_levius_fit_patientia_?
It was all your philosophy in that last sad resort to which we are pushed so often–
‘With close-lipped Patience for our only friend, Sad Patience, too near neighbour of Despair.’ The Epicurean is at one with the Stoic at last, and Horace with Marcus Aurelius. ‘To go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of providence?’
An excellent philosophy, but easier to those for whom no Hope had dawn or seemed to set. Yet it is harder than common, Horace, for us to think of you, still glad somewhere, among rivers like Liris and plains and vine-clad hills, that
Solemque suum, sua sidera borunt.
It is hard, for you looked for no such thing. _Omnes_una_manet_nox_
You could not tell Maecenas that you would meet him again; you could only promise to tread the dark path with him. _Ibimus,_ibimus_,
Enough, Horace, of these mortuary musings. You loved the lesson of the roses, and now and again would speak somewhat like a death’s head over thy temperate cups of Sabine _ordinaire_. Your melancholy moral was but meant to heighten the joy of thy pleasant life, when wearied Italy, after all her wars and civic bloodshed, had won a peaceful haven.The harbour might be treacherous; the prince might turn to the tyrant;far away on the wide Roman marches might be heard, as it were, the endless, ceaseless monotone of beating horses’ hoofs and marching feet of men. They were coming, they were nearing, like footsteps heard on wool; there was a sound of multitudes and millions of barbarians, all the North, _officina_gentium_, mustering and marshalling her peoples. But their coming was not to be to-day, nor to-morrow; nor to-day was the budding princely sway to blossom into the blood-red flower of Nero. In the hall between the two tempests of Republic and Empire your odes sound ‘like linnets in the pauses of the wind.’
What joy there is in these songs! what delight of life, what an exquisite Hellenic grace of art, what a manly nature to endure, what tenderness and constancy of friendship, what a sense of all that is fair in the glittering stream, the music of the waterfall, the hum of bees, the silvery grey of the olive woods on the hillside! How human are all your verses, Horace! what a pleasure is yours in the straining poplars, swaying in the wind! what gladness you gain from the white crest of Soracte, beheld through the fluttering snowflakes while the logs are being piled higher on the hearth. You sing of women and wine–not all whole-hearted in your praise of them, perhaps, for passion frightens you, and ‘t is pleasure more than love that you commend to the young. Lydia and Glycera, and the others, are but passing guests of a heart at ease in itself, and happy enough when their facile reign is ended. You seem to me like a man who welcomes middle age, and is more glad than Sophocles was to ‘flee from these hard masters’ the passions. In the ‘fallow leisure of life’ you glance round contented, and find all very good save the need to leave all behind. Even that you take with an Italian good-humour, as the folk of your sunny country bear poverty and hunger. _Durum,_sed_levius_fit_patientia_!
To them, to you, the loveliness of your land is, and was, a thing to live for. None of the Latin poets your fellows, or none but Virgil, seem to me to have known so well as you, Horace, how happy and fortunate a thing it was to be born in Italy. You do not say so, like your Virgil, in one splendid passage, numbering the glories of the land as a lover might count the perfections of his mistress. But the sentiment is ever in your heart and often on your lips. Me nec tam patiens Lacedaemon,
Nec tam Larissae percussit campus opimae, Quam domus Albuneae resonantis
Et praeceps Anio, ac Tiburni lucus, et uda Mobilibus pomaria rivis. (1)
(1) ‘Me neither resolute Sparta nor the rich Larissaean plain so enraptures as the fane of echoing Albunea, the headlong Anio, the grove of Tibur, the orchards watered by the wandering rills.
So a poet should speak, and to every singer his own land should be dearest. Beautiful is Italy with the grave and delicate outlines of her sacred hills, her dark groves, her little cities perched like eyries on the crags, her rivers gliding under ancient walls; beautiful is Italy, her seas, and her suns: but dearer to me the long grey wave that bites the rock below the minster in the north; dearer is the barren moor and black peat-water swirling in tanny foam, and the scent of bog myrtle and the bloom of heather, and, watching over the lochs, the green round-shouldered hills.
In affection for your native land, Horace, certainly the pride in great Romans dead and gone made part, and you were, in all senses, a lover of your country, your country’s heroes, your country’s gods. None but a patriot could have sung that ode on Regulus, who died, as our own hero died, on an evil day for the honour of Rome, as Gordon for the honour of England.
Fertur pudicae conjujis osculum,
Parvosque natos, ut capitis minor, Ab se removisse, et virilem
Torvus humi pusuisse voltum:
Donec labantes consilio patres
Firmaret auctor nunquam alias dato, Interque maerentes amicos
Egregius properaret exul.
Atqui sciebat, quae sibi barbarus
Tortor pararet: non aliter tamen
Dimovit obstantes propinquos,
Et populum reditus morantem,
Quam si clientum longa negotia
Dijudicata lite relinqueret,
Tendens Venafranos in agros
Aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum. (1)
(1) ‘They say he put aside from him the pure lips of his wife and his little children, like a man unfree, and with his brave face bowed earthward sternly he waited till with such counsel as never mortal gave he might strengthen the hearts of the Fathers, and through his mourning friends go forth, a hero, into exile. Yet well he knew what things were being prepared for him at the hands of the tormenters, who, none the less, put aside the kinsmen that barred his path and the people that would fain have held him back, passing through their midst as he might have done, if, his retainers’ weary business ended and the suits adjudged, he were faring to his Venafran lands or to Dorian Tarentum.’
We talk of the Greeks as your teachers. Your teachers they were, but that poem could only have been written by a Roman! The strength, the tenderness, the noble and monumental resolution and resignation–these are the gift of the lords of human things, the masters of the world. Your country’s heroes are dear to you, Horace, but you did not sing them better than your country’s Gods, the pious protecting spirits of the hearth, the farm, the field, kindly ghosts, it may be, of Latin fathers dead or Gods framed in the image of these. What you actually believed we know not, _you_ knew not. Who knows what he believes? _Parcus_Deorum_cultor_ you bowed not often, it may be, in the temples of the state religion and before the statues of the great Olympians; but the pure and pious worship of rustic tradition, the faith handed down by the homely elders, with that you never broke. Clean hands and a pure heart, these, with a sacred cake and shining grains of salt, you could offer to the Lares. It was a benignant religion, uniting old times and new, men living and men long dead and gone, in a kind of service and sacrifice solemn yet familiar.
Te nihil attinet
Tentare multa caede bidentium
Parvos coronantem marino
Rore deos fragilique myrto.
Immunis aram si tetigit manus,
Non sumptuosa blandior hostia
Mollivit aversos Penates
Farre pio et salienta mica. (1)
(1) Thou, Phidyle, hast no need to besiege the gods with slaughter so great of sheep, thou who crownest thy tiny deities with myrtle rare and rosemary. If but the hand be clean that touches the altar, then richest sacrifice will not more appease the angered Penates than the duteous cake and salt that crackles in the blaze.’
Farewell, dear Horace; farewell, thou wise and kindly heathen; of mortals the most human, the friend of my friends and of so many generations of men.