The Spanish Gypsy. A Poem

BY GEORGE ELIOT. Boston : Ticknor and Fields.
IT is disagreeable and mistaken criticism which attempts to prescribe some particular form of expression as the best for a given author ; and we do not concern ourselves with the wisdom of Miss Evans’s choice of the poetic form for the story told in The Spanish Gypsy, nor with the possibilities and limitations of her genius, when we say that up to this moment we think she has scarcely proved herself a poet. The fact is felt in nearly every part of her present work, and is noticeable in its dramatic and descriptive passages, no less than in the lyrics with which it is interspersed. She betrays her unfamiliarity with the mere letter as well as the spirit of poetic art, and makes blunders in versification, which cannot be blamed without some apparent petulance in the critic; for perfection of mechanical execution in a modern poem is so entirely taken for granted, that the charge of failure in this respect looks much like ungenerous carping, and is received with liberal incredulity. But even a careless reader of The Spanish Gypsy could not fail to note how many lines have but four feet, or four Feet and a half, and how little is done to restore the lost balance by giving other lines five and a half, six, and even seven feet. It was altogether hardy in so imperfect a versifier as Miss Evans to attempt to make English ears acquainted with the subtile music of the Spanish asonante, and it is not surprising that the effort should have failed, although sense, movement, everything, is sacrificed to the asonante, which obstinately remains at last as little like the peculiar Spanish rhyme, as the lyrics are like poetry, especially the poetry of Spanish canciones. The inequality of the versification infects the expression of ideas, which is sometimes null, and quite often confused and imperfect.
Until we read The Spanish Gypsy, nothing would have persuaded us that Miss Evans could write lines so absolutely discharged of meaning as these : —
“For strong souls
Live like fire-hearted suns to spend their strength
In furthest striving action.”
Or so turgid and obscure as these : —-
“ Sweeping like some pale herald from the dead,
Whose shadow-nurtured eyes, dazed by full light,
See naught without but give reverted sense
To the soul’s imagery, Silva came.”
Or burdened with such confused and huddled figures as these : —
“ Walked hesitating, all his frame instinct
With high born spirit never used to dread,
Or crouch for smiles, yet stung, yet quivering
With helpless strength, and in his soul convulsed
By visions where pale horror held a lamp
Over wide-reaching crime.”
In fact, this reluctant and deceitful poetic form always Seems to seek unfair advantages over the author’s thoughts, and to get them where, as it appears to us, prose would be entirely subject to her will. We cannot suppose, for example, that if she had not been writing the first lines of the poem in verse, she would have permitted any such tumult of images as now appears in them : —
“ ’T is the warm South, where Europe spreads her
Like fretted leaflets breathing on the deep :
Broad-breasted Spain, leaning with equal love
A calm earth-goddess crowned with corn and vines,
On the mid-sea that moans with memories,
And on the untravelled ocean, whose vast tides
Pant dumbly passionate with the dreams of youth,”
We can hardly, however, attribute to unfamiliarity with metrical expression the following very surprising lyric : —
“ Day is dying ! Float, O song,
Down the westward river,
Requiem chanting to the Day, —-
Day, the mighty Giver.
“ Pierced by shafts of Time he bleeds,
Melted rubies Sending
Through the river and the sky,
Earth and heaven blending ;
“All the long-drawn earthy banks
Up to cloud-land lifting ;
Slow between them drifts the swan,
’Twixt two heavens drifting.
“ Wings half open, like a flower
Inly deeper flushing,
Neck aud breast as virgin’s pure, —
Virgin proudly blushing.
“ Day is dying! Float, O swan,
Down the ruby river ;
Follow, song, in requiem
To the mighty Giver.”
This is the worst, we think, — though we are not sure, — of the lyrics, which are all bad. Commonly Miss Evans .is a poet of the kind described in the fortunate jest made of her minstrel Juan, and is
“ Crazed with finding words
May stick to things and seem like qualities.”
The splendor of her performance is an intellectual polish, not a spiritual translucence, and its climax is eloquence, with the natural tendency of eloquence to pass into grandiloquence ; though Miss Evans does at least in one place express the quality of things in words which reveal poetry of thought. It is where Fedalma says to her lover :—
“ Do you know
Sometimes when we sit silent, and the air
Breathes gently on us from the orange-trees,
It seems that with the whisper of a word
Our souls must shrink, get poorer, more apart.
Is it not true ? ”
And Don Silva answers : —
“ Yes, dearest, it is true.
Speech is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken ; even your loved words
Float in the larger meaning of your voice
As something dimmer.”
We recall fine effects in the poem, though none of them owe their success to the poetic form, and one of the best is in prose, It is a good scene, where the people of Don Silva’s household attend the old soldier as he reads from the book of Alfonso the Wise, that “ a noble is more dishonored than other men if he docs aught dishonorable ” ; and the page who doubts and disputes the precept puts it in a question to Don Silva, at that moment entering with a purpose of treason in his heart. It is also fine where Don Silva, having renounced rank and creed and country, and turned Gypsy for love’s sake, is tormented by his own remorse, and by the suspicion of those fierce adoptive brothers of his, as they chant around their camp - fire the curse which shall fall upon the recreant to their tribe. Usually, however, the best points to the poem are in the descriptions; and though descriptive poetry is of the same grade in art as landscape-painting, yet it is poetry, and it includes about all that can be so called in The Spanish Gypsy. It is great praise to say of the picture of the mountebank’s performance in the plaza at Bedmar, (where the scene of the drama for the most part is,) that it is not surpassed by anything in Miss Evans’s romances; and we think any reader who has known a southern evening of summer, and has seen a southern population in its unconscious, intense enjoyment of it, must exult to feel the truth and beauty of such passages as these : —
“ ’T is daylight still, but now the golden cross
Uplifted by the angel on the dome
Stands rayless in calm color clear-defined
Against the northern blue ; from turrets high
The flitting splendor sinks with folded wing
Dark-hid till morning, and the battlements
Wear soft relenting whiteness mellowed o'er
By summers generous and winters bland.
Now in the east tile distance casts its veil,
And gazes with a deepening earnestness.
And within Bedmar
Has come the time of sweet serenity
When color glows unglittering, and the soul
Of visible things shows silent happiness,
As that of lovers trusting though apart.
The ripe-cheeked fruits, the crimson-petalled flow-
The wingéd life that pausing seems a gem
Cunningly carven on the dark green leaf:
The face of man with hues supremely blent
To difference fine as of a voice ’mid sounds: —
Each lovely light-dipped thing stems to emerge
Flushed gravely from baptismal sacrament.
All beauteous existence rests, yet wakes,
Lies still, yet conscious, with clear open eyes
And gentle breath and mild suffused joy.
’T is day, but day that falls like melody
Repeated on a string with graver tones, —
Tones such as linger in a long farewell.
From o’er the roofs,
And from the shadowed pátios cool, there spreads
The breath of flowers and aromatic leaves
Soothing the sense with bliss indefinite, —
A baseless hope, a glad presentiment,
That curves the lip more softly, fills the eye
With more indulgent beam. And so it soothes,
So gently sways the pulses of the crowd
Who make a zone about the central spot
Chosen by Roldan for his theatre.
Maids with arched eyebrows, delicate-pencilled,
Fold their round arms below the kerchief full;
Men shoulder little girls ; and grandames gray,
But muscular still, hold babies on their arms ;
While mothers keep the stout-legged boys in front
Against their skirts, as the Greek pictures old
Show the Chief Mother with the Boy divine.
Youths keep the places for themselves, and roll
Large lazy eyes, and call recumbent dogs
(For reasons deep below the reach of thought).
The old men cough with purpose, wish to hint
Wisdom within that cheapens jugglery,
Maintain a neutral air, and knit their brows
In observation. None are quarrelsome,
Noisy, or very merry ; for their blood
Moves slowly into fervor, — they rejoice
Like those dark birds that sweep with heavy wing,
Cheering their mates with melancholy cries.
The winged sounds exalt the thick-pressed crowd
With a new pulse in common, blending all
The gazing life into one larger soul
With dimly widened consciousness : as waves
In heightened movement tell of waves far off.
And the light changes ; westward stationed clouds,
The sun’s ranged outposts, luminous message spread,
Rousing quiescent things to doff their shade
And show themselves as added audience.
Now Pablo, letting fall the eager bow,
Solicits softer murmurs from the strings.
And still the light is changing : high above
Float soft pink clouds ; others with deeper flush
Stretch like flamingoes bending toward the south.
Comes a more solemn brilliance o’er the sky,
A meaning more intense upon the air, —
The inspiration of the dying day.”
Good as this is, there is a picture of Juan the poet, with his audience at the inn, which is equally good, with like richness of color, and like felicity of drawing : —
“ While Juan sang, all round the tavern court
Gathered a constellation of black eyes.
Fat Lola leaned upon the balcony
With arms that might have pillowed Hercules
(Who built, ’t is known, the mightiest Spanish
towns) ;
Thin Alda’s face, sad as a wasted passion,
Leaned o’er the coral-biting baby’s ; ’twixt the rails
The little Pepe showed his two black beads,
His flat-ringed hair and small Semitic nose
Complete and tiny as a new-born minnow;
Patting his head and holding in her arms
The baby senior, stood Lorenzo’s wife
All negligent, her kerchief discomposed
By little clutches, woman’s coquetry
Quite turned to mother’s cares and sweet content.
These on the balcony, while at the door
Gazed the lank boys and lazy-shouldered men.”
It is the sort of people here pictured with whom we think Miss Evans has her only success with character in her poem, and they are true both to the sixteenth century and to human nature, which is not the case with their betters. We desire nothing racier, more individual, than the talk of Blasco, the Arrogonese silversmith, and that new-baptized Christian, the jolly host of the inn, as well as some of their interlocutors, leaving out Juan the poet, who is not much better when he talks than when he sings. We imagine that these characters, so strongly and so distinctively Spanish, as well as the happy local color of the descriptions, are the suggestion of that visit wluch the author made to Spain after the story of the poem was written. The Middle Ages linger yet in Spain, and the scenes in the plaza and inn, though so enchanting as pictures of the past, must have been in great part painted from life in our own time, and Blasco, Lopez, the Host, Roldan and Roldan’s monkey, remodelled if not created from actual knowledge of Spanish men and manners. But admirable as these characters are in themselves and in association, they do nothing to advance the action of the story, and they belong to that promise of interest which dwindles rapidly after the first books of the poem, and is never wholly fulfilled.
There is grandeur in the conception of the work. The intention of representing a conflict between national religions and prejudices and personal passions and aspirations, which should interpret the life of a period so marvellous and important as the close of the fifteenth century, was a great one, and Miss Evans has indicated it almost worthily in the prologue of the first book of her poem, recurring to it with something of like strength in the prologues of each succeeding book. In these we are aware of the far-reaching imagination and fine synthetic power which are so notable in the proem to “ Romola ” ; and in those minor characters of the drama which we have mentioned we recognize success not inferior to that which delights in the people of the great romance. But nothing could be in sharper contrast than the distinct impression left upon the mind by the chief ideas and personages of Romola, and by the painfully recollected intent and the figures which develop it in The Spanish Gypsy. In either case the author deals with a distant period, and with people and conditions equally strange to her experience and observation. In either case it is a psychical problem she proposes to solve or at least to Consider. In either case the chief characters about which the action revolves appear as human beings, with positive, personal desires and purposes. But while in Romola they retain this personal entity to the last, with the hold which nothing else can keep upon the reader’s sympathies, and ineffaecably imprint the lesson of their lives in his memory, in The Spanish Gypsy the personal principle is soon removed, and they all disappear from us, dry, rattling assemblages of moral attributes and inevitable results. It is especially to this effect that poets never work, and Miss Evans does not attain it by creating new and original characters. On the contrary, she adopts dresses and figures more or less familiar in romance, and evolves allegoric circumstances and actions from a plot smelling curiously of the dust of libraries and the smoke of foot-lights. We have the daughter of a Gypsy chief stolen in earliest childhood by the Spaniards, and bred in ignorance of her origin, who becomes the affianced of a Spanish grandee ; we have a monkish inquisitor, fierce with the pride of family and of faith, who hates this Fedalma both as a new Christian and as the accomplice of his cousin the grandee in the purpose of an ignoble marriage, and who arranges for her seizure by the holy office on the eve of her marriage; then we have Zarca, Fedalma’s father, who escapes the same night from Christian captivity, and who, revealing himself to his daughter, persuades her to fly with him, and share his aspirations and labors for the redemption of the Gypsy race. Her lover, desiring to win her back, applies to his friend, a Jewish physician, who knows enough of astrology to doubt it, as a learned and liberal-minded Jew of the Middle Ages naturally would. We are not so clear of any positive part this Hebrew has in the drama, as of the contrast to the inquisitor which he forms; and doubtless the author values the two less as persons than as the opposite principles of liberal science working to truth, and pitiless faith constituting itself a divine purpose. But for this use, Sephardo, whose talk is rather like a criticism and explanation of his attributive character than air expression of character, might with his speculative and philosophical turn be more naturally employed in writing for the reviews.
In Zarca we have a modern reformer a little restricted and corrected at first by costume and tradition, as all his fellowcharacters are, but early declaring himself a principle and not a person, as all his fellow-characters do. He appears as an embodiment of those aspirations for independent national existence, which now more than ever before are stirring the true peoples, but which probably existed in all ages ; and if he does not act very wisely, nor discourse very entertainingly, perhaps it is because men of one idea are very apt to be shortsighted and tedious, unless skilfully managed, in fiction as in real life. Morally, Zarca comes to be a theatrical kind of Hollingsworth, though we imagine nothing could be farther from the author’s consciousness than such a development. It is doubtful whether a purpose and grandeur such as his are predicable of the Gypsy race in any age; but in his daughter’s case we must grant even more to the author with less effect. In Fedalma is portrayed the conflict which would arise in the nature of a woman held to her betrothed by love, and identity of civilization and social custom, and drawn toward her father by the attraction of kindred, and race, and by vague sympathy with a devoted and heroic purpose; and in accounting for her desertion of her lover Don Silva, all is confided to the supposition that these remote instincts and sudden sympathies are stronger than the use of a lifetime. Fedalma is a Gypsy by birth ; and it is poetic, if not probable, that, yielding to the wild motions of her ancestral blood, she should wander with her duenna through the streets of Bedmar, and, forgetting the jealous decorums of her station, and the just claims of her lover’s pride, should dance in the circle drawn about the mountebank, that lovely evening in the plaza. At any rate, this escapade wins us the fine effect of her encounter with Zarca, her father, before whom she pauses, touched by some mysterious influence, as he passes through the circle with the other captive Gypsies. Yet this scarcely prepares us for her renunciation, at her father’s bidding, of Don Silva, Spain, and Christianity ; nor is the act sufficiently accounted for by the fact that if she had remained, she would have been seized by the Inquisition, for she did not know this; or by the other fact that, as is afterwards intimated, she never was true Spaniard or quite Christian. True lover she was, and believed in love, and she never believed in the purpose for which she sacrificed love. That she should act as she did was woman’s weakness, perhaps, — the weakness of Miss Evans. The reader cannot help resenting that the author throws the whole burden of remorse for the ensuing calamities and crimes upon Don Silva, who is at least faithful to love when he forsakes his command at Bedmar, follows Fedalma to the Gypsy camp, and, to win her from her father, renounces everything, and becomes himself a Gypsy. He is also true at least to Spanish and human nature of the fifteenth century when, tortured by the cruel sight of his slaughtered friends, on re-entering Bedmar with its Gypsy captors, he asks of Zarca the life of his cousin, the Inquisitor, and, being denied it, stabs Zarca to death, — who, remembering his duty to the nineteenth century, commands with his dying breath that Don Silva shall go unharmed. He accordingly goes unharmed—towards Rome, willing to assume any penance which may be laid upon him for his sins ; and the poor soul, who never loses our sympathy, has a kind of sublimity in his honest recognition of his crimes and his honest remorse for them ; while Fedalma, bidding him adieu in solemn impertinences that betray much doubt and regret, but dim sense of error, is a very unedifying spectacle. As she departs with the Gypsies whom she distrusts, to fulfil a purpose which she never thought possible, her last care is explicitly to stale the poem’s insufficiency of motive, and to put in the wrong the chief good that was in her by saying to Don Silva : —
“ Our dear young love, — its breath was happiness!
But it had grown upon a larger life
Which tore its roots asunder. We rebelled,
The larger life subdued us.”