Tennyson's New Volume, and Other Poetry
A NEW book of poems from Alfred Tennyson’s hand 1 is now so nearly an unheard-of thing that we might almost be led into considering it possible to judge it as the first claim of a new poet; but this, in the last resort, is impossible. Were we to judge it so, the verdict would in some respects be strongly favorable, but on other counts it would have to be decidedly adverse. What, for instance, should be said in that case concerning the initial contribution, The First Quarrel ? It could hardly be pronounced other than a tale founded on a supposed incident, in itself unavoidably pathetic by the mere force of human existence, but recited in a manner which is the extreme of commonplace, and without a touch of true poetry of any sort in it. When we come to Rizpah, — that grim study of the madness and the memories of a woman whose son was gibbeted for highway robbery,— the impression changes: we begin to recognize, in spite of certain mannerisms, the hand of a master. The Northern Cobbler, a dialect poem after the manner of The Northern Farmer and Grandmother’s Apology, is still better; its homely details breathed through as they are by a strain of pure and simple feeling, and the reminiscences which the mechanic, enslaved by drink and laming his wife with a kick, still cherishes of the happy era of courtship. He and his sweetheart, standing “by Thursby thurn” of a Sunday, listened to the sky-lark : —
‘Doesn’t tha see ’im,’ she axes, ‘fur I can see ’im ? ' an’ I
Seeäd nobbut the smile o’ the sun as danced in 'er pratty blue eye.”
Then lie kissed her ;
But, arter, we sing’d the ’ymn togither like birds on a beugh.”
The whole story is forcibly and well told, without being robbed of the poetic atmosphere, as that of The First Quarrel is.
The Village Wife, another monologue in the same dialect, is extremely prosaic and dreary reading ; but the little story called In the Children’s Hospital — with its graphic power and glimpse of child-thought, its singularly effective hint of the power of prayer, and pathetic ending— does something to restore the balance. The Revenge; a Ballad of the Fleet, had already become well known through its magazine publication, before its appearance in this volume ; and, although it is in its way powerful, one cannot put out of sight the significant fact that both in subject, treatment, and metrical handling it. is to a large extent and plainly an imitation or echo of Browning’s Hervé Riel. The other national ballad, The Relief of Lucknow, falls far short of the one just named ; being little more than a somewhat formless rhymed journal of events connected with the famous siege it recalls. But here, suddenly, in the Dedicatory Poem to the dead Princess Alice, prefixed to the ballad, we strike at once upon the genuine Tennyson, the Tennyson of an earlier time, in all the strength of deep feeling concentrated on a single object and formulated in sonorous phrase, which made him famous : —
True life live on, and if the fatal kiss,
Born of true life and love, divorce thee not
From earthly love and life; if what we call
The spirit flash not all at once from out
This shadow into substance, then perhaps
The mellow'd murmur of the people’s praise
From thine own state and all our breadth of realm,
Where Love and longing dress thy deeds in light, Ascends to thee.”
In this we find the harmony, the alliteration not turned to vexation, the well-known cadences, which two generations have loved so well. The Sisters, again (a blank-verse idyl in the earlier manner, but rather negligently endowed with the same title borne by an old and well-known poem of the author’s), restores a sense that it is still the famous singer of The Gardener’s Daughter who addresses us, although the strain, of course, does not sound so freshly now. The De Profundis, too, despite its second portion (The Human Cry), which is pure rubbish, and certainly as far removed as possible from poetry, includes in its major half a kind of majestic incoherence, a lyric ecstasy of expression, which is deeply impressive, whatever may be said of it on a cold analysis. In addition to these, there occur three compositions of very doubtful worth: Sir John Oldcastle, Columbus, and The Voyage of Maeldune. The Columbus sounds like a school-boy’s effort, and might fittingly take a place with Timbuctoo ; Sir John Oldcastle is simply tedious; and The Voyage of Maeldune strikingly instances the spoiling of a superb and suggestive Celtic folk-tale by hasty and indifferent rendering. It has flashes of inspiration, as in these verses describing the Silent Isle : —
Pour'd in a thunderless plunge to the base of the mountain walls.”
There are four lines in this thin book capable of redeeming the whole: we refer to those written for Sir John Franklin’s cenotaph, for the sake of which it should repay any true admirer of good literature to buy the volume. We have, also, a fine sonnet written for the opening number of the Nineteenth Century,and one on Montenegro, which may perhaps rank unquestioned by the side of Milton’s great sonnet on the massacre of the Piedmontese. Even in the space we have taken, we do not exhaust the contents of Mr. Tennyson’s latest offering, and many pertinent things must remain unsaid. It would perhaps be useless as well as invidious to dwell on the excessive self-consciousness manifested in the dedication to the poet’s grandson ; in the lines to Victor Hugo ; and in those addressed to Dante " at the request of the Florentines.” What is most curious in connection with the book is the vacillation to which one is compelled between judging it as the mature work of a distinguished artist and pronouncing upon it as an embodiment of new ventures, and the conclusion at which we arrive, after weighing these two moods, is that Tennyson has sought in his latest years to grasp at something which is not naturally his, just as was seen in his dramatic efforts; has tried to force his genius into new and rougher channels, perhaps with the idea of acquiring “ breadth ” and disproving the frequent charge of over-refinement in his art. In so far, he has failed. Where he clings to his original lyrical inspiration, there he is at his best. Still, the Laureate is always an artist, and every new work from his hand has a peculiar value. The book is one which inevitably claims and will receive the attention of the whole literary world.
Under the Olive,1 the authorship of which we believe it is now generally understood must be credited to Mrs. James T. Fields, is an exceptional volume, to which for years we have had nothing similar ; excepting only Mr. Symonds’s translations from the Greek and some passages in his recent volume of original poetry. Yet it is likely to miss general appreciation, and to fall, at first sight, only half noticed even on the attention of the cultivated, because its spirit and utterance are so largely in sympathy with the calm, unassertive Greek love of the beautiful ; so far removed from the intense, high-colored, and emotional tendency of modern poetry. But within its pages will be found a great deal of exquisite verse, subtly interfused with ideas of much delicacy and clothed with plastic forms; the general effect being that of chaste and well-moulded bas-relief. No modern can avoid infusing into classic themes a strain of later sentiment, and we are sometimes slightly reminded of Keats by Mrs. Fields’s tone, though not to her disadvantage, except in the Elegy to Daphnis, where she seems to have surrendered to influences from the Ode on a Grecian Urn. In the beautiful Prelude, where the authoress celebrates the advent of Sorrow as “ a new friend ” come to solace the age of the world with new warmth of love and tenderness, and in one or two other pieces, as the Not by Will and not by Striving, she utters a note wholly her own and possessing a grace distinct from that of Greece. The Last Contest of Æschylus, the Lantern of Sestos, Herakles, and Antinous deserve to be singled out as charming idyllic compositions modeled to a complete finish with notable skill and purity. Theocritus, also, although one of the briefer poems, is externally almost as delightful as may be. The Return of Persephone and Pandora are delicious in their fullness of veiled meanings and their many touches of perfect allusion to nature. What a picture, what imagination, in this verse given to Helios, departing,—
And here is a line from The Lantern of Sestos: —
Strictly judged, Mrs. Fields’s verse is defective in places, especially where the hexameter is used; but in general the workmanship is wonderfully fine, and she employs a great variety of measures with exceptional success. The translations from Goethe are very good, and we are glad to see that among them is the little-known but excellent Musagetes, with gives due credit to the flies for waking the poet early in the morning.
Mr. Edwin Arnold and his publishers have been encouraged by the reception which his Light of Asia met with to bring out in this country a volume of his miscellaneous pieces,2 the first and longest of which is the Indian Song of Songs, a version of the Sanskrit Gita Govinda of Jayadeva. This is an elaborate idyl in several divisions (Sargas), representing the struggle of Krishna — whom Mr. Arnold, with Lassen, regards as “the divinely-given soul manifested in humanity” — between sensual temptation and his higher love for Rhada, who symbolizes the spirit of intellectual and moral beauty. The poem, however, has none of the didactic tone or pallor of allegory which this interpretation of its scope might lead readers to except. It is pastoral and musical, a very drama of flowers ; wreathed in blossoms, and fragrant and luminous with descriptions of natural beauty. A few lines will show this.
When parted lovers sigh to meet and greet, and closely hold
Hand fast in hand, and every branch upon the Vakul-tree
Droops downward with a hundred blooms, in every bloom a bee :
He is dancing with the dancers to a laughter-moving tone,
In the soft awakening spring-time, when't is hard to live alone.’’
The whole composition, which the translator assures us he has given with fairly close literalness, is saturated with the same light and warmth and sensuous splendor that distinguish The Light of Asia and appear in phrases like —
Where nectarous blossoms wove a shrine of shade,
Haunted by birds and bees of unknown skies; ”
so that we get in it not only a very interesting exemplar of Sanskrit literature, but a poem delightful to read. As to its moral purport, we have less faith. The “ lesson,” indeed, is nowhere, compared with the lavish outward beauty conveyed, and Mr. Arnold has been obliged to suppress portions and omit a whole Sarga (by which we are spared one of the titles which he affixes, such as Sakandkshapundarikaksho), in order, as he says, “ to conform to the canons of Western propriety.” Of the remaining poems, one founded on Mr. Aldrich’s Three Roses, the familiar one called After Death in Arabia, and the Belshazzar, which is a Newdigate prize production, are the most noticeable and the best; to which we should add some noble lines written to Florence Nightingale in 1853. A number of fine translations from the Greek poets complete the volume. Mr. Arnold is not an original poet, but he is a thorough artist: not rich in thought, but gifted with abundant feeling and a profuseness in imagery which make him a singer to be valued highly in certain moods.
One little chapel in the church of Christ.”
These lines, which form as strong a contrast as possible with Mr. Arnold’s poetic atmosphere, make a beginning for a volume of verse unexpected enough, in these days ; and when we find the same strain carried through the book, without once lapsing into weakness or sentimentality, we must recognize at once that Miss Palfrey (or, as she prefers to be known, E. Foxton) has acquitted herself of a very difficult undertaking in issuing an almost unbroken series of devotional poems,3 all of which are strong, sincere, and removed from the commonplace. The Chapel is a singularly pure, in fact austere, book of verse, every page of which conveys a direct or indirect rebuke to our skeptical and apparently insincere epoch. When the authoress turns to the secular world, she chants the praise of Barron, the loyal bank cashier, or holds up a picture of contemporary degeneracy in a quaint piece like Says She to Me, Says Ann, which relates the grievous disappointment of a Boston woman coming back from the West and finding all the old landmarks gone, the spirit of the place changed. To our thinking, this is the best thing in the book, worthy of ranking with the satire of Holmes, the Pennsylvania pastorals of Bayard Taylor, and the best of Tennyson’s realistic ballads.
“Don’t tell me so! Another fire?” she says to me, says Ann.
“No, wus,” I says; “the city’s fell into the hands o’ man.
They’ve filled it up, an’ built it up; they’ve tore and digged it down.
’T ain’t hardly more, forevermore, than any other town.”
The desultory effect which so many new volumes have when made up from short and isolated compositions is obviated by the arrangement which Miss Larcom has chosen in the first part of her Wild Roses of Cape Ann.4 Here some eight songs and brief narratives, having to do with the sea and Cape Ann life, are loosely strung together, with passages of blank verse, which characterize and celebrate the local scene and homely existence, while leading from one to another of the rhymed effusions. Miss Larcom is as thoroughly imbued with the light of New England landscape, and with the evasive touches of pathos or picturesqueness in New England country life, as any of our poets ; and in the miscellaneous contents of this latest volume, following the Wild Roses, she makes the fact fully manifest. Poems like Mehetable, A Gambrel Roof, Goody Grunsel’s House, Workmates, are full of charming genre painting, tender sentiment, and humor. Sometimes we meet with a peculiarly happy epigrammatic turn, like that in which it is said sober Colonel Audrey
The sparkle on his cup of life.”
Miss Larcom is quite uneven, and sometimes the interest of her themes is too attenuated ; but her work is so sincere, now as always, and often so delicately beautiful, that one does not care to dwell on these points.
The average of woman’s work in poetry amongst us to-day is certainly a high one. We have just spoken of Mrs. Fields and Miss Larcom ; the names of Mrs. Jackson (H. H.), Celia Thaxter, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Mapes Dodge, and Miss Phelps are at once suggested ; and now we have to consider a small book of Verses by Susan Coolidge,5 which goes to confirm our statement. The title is to be regretted, because Mrs. Jackson has used the same for a book widely known, because it is uninteresting, and because it suggests a modesty pressed to the point of affectation. But the writing covered by it, while eminently modest, is almost wholly unaffected, and singularly earnest, sweet, and pure. Miss Woolsey gives voice to a variety of thoughtful and tender moods, generally colored by a feminine feeling about friendship, suffering, love, and duty, and always in smooth, if sometimes rather constrained and dry language. The best known piece in the collection is that on the Cradle Tomb in Westminster Abbey, which has found much favor in England ; but readers of The Atlantic will remember her welltold Legend of Kintu, and the Ginevra degli Amieri is also an excellent and effective tale in blank verse. Perhaps the finest meditative strain of all is that of Benedicam Domino, at the end: —
Then the singer goes on to give thanks for love and for death in the same devout mood, and we close the book with a keen satisfaction in the pure sentiment and loveliness with which it is filled.
Precisely what Helen Barron Bostwick intends by the title of her new volume 6 we are unable to determine. It gives no indication, at least, of the forcible and well-wrought verses which are to be found within the covers, mingled with more or less that is sentimental or languid. The King’s Picture is a very pretty and suggestive parable, and the familiar sequel to Carleton’s Betsey and I are Out deserves its popularity. Here and there, also, Mrs. Bostwick offers pleasant fragments of description or fancy, as in the sonnet entitled My Lake. On the whole, it is a very fair collection, which will doubtless help in its way to carry out that general mission of partial culture, which Miss Woolsey’s and Miss Larcom’s books likewise serve.
Mrs. Richard Greenough, author of Arabesques, member of the Society of the Arcadia, and wife of the sculptor Greenough, reappears with a beautifully printed poem of seventy pages on Mary Magdalene, suggested by her husband’s statue of Mary Magdalene at the Tomb.7 It is carefully thought out and elaborately finished; tracing the whole story of the sinful woman’s penitence and rescue, from the first gleam of her knowledge of Christ to the climax of his choice to appear first to her, after his resurrection. Executed with deliberate art, a poem thus conceived abounds, as might be expected, in beautiful pictures, and the authoress is entitled to a reposeful satisfaction in the accomplishment of such a work ; but, if the truth must be said, it remains a work of luxury rather than of use.
It is a pleasure to see a poet’s fame so honorably and so well cared for as that of Bayard Taylor is in the new edition of his Dramatic Works,8 edited by his widow. In this volume, the Cambridge edition, delightfully printed and bound with sober elegance, are included The Prophet, The Masque of the Gods, Prince Deukalion ; so that it makes a supplement to the volume of Taylor’s miscellaneous poetic writings recently issued by the same publishers. This is not the place for a careful estimate of the dramas, but the occasion should not be lost of reminding our readers how much of Taylor’s highest poetic work is to be found in them, and of giving recognition, at the same time, to the thoroughness and interesting nature of Mrs. Taylor’s notes, in which is contained a good deal of new matter explaining the author’s purposes from a source than which there could be none more exact or sympathetic.
In Lord Stirling’s Stand9 a new writer, Mr. Babcock, comes before us, with a grateful dedication to Mrs. Ann S. Stephens and a confidential, prattling preface to the public; but his intention is entirely good, and in places it ripens into good performance. As one such we may instance Joseph the Nez Percé, which begins, —
Comes a cry of exultation:
It is ended! He has yielded! And the stubborn fight is won.”
Let the nation in its glory
Bow with shame before the story
Of the hero it has ruined and the evil it has done.”
A number of Mr. Babcock’s productions are concerned with national feeling and valorous action; but his great fault is that he is too diffuse and ordinary in his expression. He needs to edit himself.
Much more realistic than his verses is Mr. Peacock’s singular performance relating to American guerrilla warfare,10 with its voluble title-page. In it figure Quantrell and other personages of very recent times, and the author, as may be judged from the following, has no misgivings that he cannot make poetry of everything : —
Who lingered yet in life’s fair noon,
Was pacing as a sentinel,
Before a tent, wide, white, and tall,
Where General Thomas Ewing slept.”
The supply of unliterary curiosities professing to be literature is clearly not yet exhausted.
If Mr. Peacock left any doubt of this, it would be dispelled by Mr. William Leighton’s Shakespeare’s Dream,11 than which it would be hard to find a more startling piece of tinsel mistaken by its manufacturer for true metal. It is quite impossible and it would be useless to analyze its absurdity in these pages ; but we will quote, as being sufficient, two lines from an Ode to Shakespeare in the same book: —
Comes down to us your verse sublime.”
Such stuff as this it is printed on large paper and gotten out with all outward seeming of being something real, which arouses the suspicion that the august republic of letters is rapidly becoming a democracy, and that of a cheap and frothy type.
- Ballads and Other Poems. By ALFRED TENNYSON. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1880.↩
- Under the Olive. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1881.↩
- Poems. By EDWIN ARNOLD, author of The Light of Asia. With a Preface written for this edition by the author. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1880.↩
- The Chapel, and Other Poems. By E. FOXTON, author of Sir Pavon, etc. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1880.↩
- Wild Roses of Cope Ann, and Other Poems. By LUCY LARCOM. Boston : Houghton. Mifflin & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1881.↩
- Verses. By SUSAN COOLIDGE. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1880.↩
- Four-O' Clocks. Poems. By HELEN BAKRON BOSTWICK. Philadelphia: E. Claxton & Co. 1880.↩
- Mary Magdalene. A Poem. By MRS. RICHARD GREENOUGH. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1880.↩
- The Dramatic Works of Bayard Taylor. With Notes by MARIE HANSEN-TAYLOR. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin A Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1880.↩
- Lord Stirling’s Stand, and Other Poems. By W. H. BABCOCK. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1880.↩
- The Rhyme of the Border War. A Historical Poem of the Kansas-Missouri Guerrilla War, before and during the late Rebellion. By THOMAS BROWER PEACOCK. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co. 1880.↩
- Shakespeare s Dream, and Other Poems. By WILLIAM LEIGHTON, author of The Sons of Godwin. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1881.↩