A Realistic Poet
IN the history of English poetic literature there has perhaps never occurred a period when a single school has exercised so absolute sway as that which has been enjoyed for the last fifteen or twenty years by what may be called the school of beauty in art. Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, and the men who came after these, though differing in thoughts and views as much as it is possible for men to differ, all prove by their work the theory that, whatever thought may underlie their work, it must, as work, be beautiful, if nothing else, — must at least be a lovely structure of words. It is owing to this general insistence on beauty that the school of modern æstheticism has arisen, — a school which has been brought into ridicule by the follies of some of its later disciples, but one which was perfectly sound to begin with. Its creed was that it was good not only to worship Beauty on high days and holidays, but to import as much of it as possible into our daily lives, thus transforming its worship from a dead into a living religion. Not only our pictures, but our houses, with their tinted walls and painted doors and their abundant blue china, were brought into conformity with the laws of beauty, and all was harmony.
Suddenly, into the very temple of beauty, with its wonderful, subdued light, its organ music, now high, now low, as the master bards chose to make it, its chanting, and its clouds of incense, burst a pilgrim with a coal sack on his back, the contents of which he emptied upon the sacred door. What would the high priests do? Would they cast out the pilgrim, and spurn him from their midst? Consistently, they could have done nothing else; but, inconsistently, they received him as a man and a brother, and made much of his sooty offering.
To pass from symbolism to fact, the autumn of 1880 witnessed the publication of a poem in elegiac measure — alternate hexameters and pentameters — which was the boldest possible challenge to the school of beauty in art. It was entitled Dorothy.1 No author’s name was upon the title-page, but it was an open secret that it was written by Arthur J. Munby. Browning and half a dozen other poets received this work with enthusiasm ; certain critics, secretly disaffected with the prevailing school, set it upon a pedestal, and did homage to it. It had a coarse though not unpicturesque preface, in which the author enunciated his theories with no uncertain note, and flew directly in the face of the poetic creeds which have governed our literature for the last half of this century.
His anger has been aroused because writers who treat of persons in humble life have too much idealized them,
have not sufficiently insisted on the hard, red, and oftentimes dirty hands which are incident to manual labor. He, at least, is resolved to gloze over none of these facts. He has two points on which to insist : first, that out-of-door workers have horny, red, and often dirty hands, yet that these hands are no impediment to the course of true love where it exists ; second, that out-of-door labor is good alike for the bodies and souls of women.
It is clear that he regards with a strong, human, and most praiseworthy love the heroine of his poem, Dorothy Crump. He pictures her fair though sunburned of face, strong of limb, large of body, quick to turn her useful hands to anything, straightforward, honest, good, above all a daughter of the people. She is the author’s ideal woman. He loves her strength as other men love grace. Her thick waist is as dear to him as the lithest shape would be to another. He glories in her ruddy, suntanned face, in her callous and stained hands, and in her strong red arms as so many evidences of her usefulness in the world. No dainty, pampered darling, she, — no soft-handed, bejeweled, indolent idler. The poem, as the following quotation will show, has at least the merit of thoroughness : —
Cleaned out the stables and byres, nothing afraid of the bull;
Helped at the pig-killing, too, and cleared out the pig-sty after:
She never thought, not she, that was a trouble to do.
Spring, she looked after the lambs, and the calves that Wanted suckling;
Worked in the fields, too, a bit, clearing the land, or at plow.”
The story of Dorothy is really nothing. Her dead mother was a pretty, too-lightly-won farm-girl. Her father, the wild off-shoot of a noble house, turns up at the end of the poem, grave, dignified, and full of honors, —
and gives Dorothy a handsome sum of money as a wedding present, without, however, at all acknowledging her as his child. Practically, therefore, Dorothy is without relations. She is the favorite and trusted servant on White Rose Farm, doing her work remarkably well. Once there is just a glimpse of a danger that her mother’s story may be relived in her. A young gentleman from London, whose morals, we fear, are not of the strictest kind, comes to visit in the neighborhood. He is attracted by Dorothy’s pretty face, and fain would begin some tender passages with her. But Dorothy is wise in her generation. Exulting in her hands scarcely less than the author exults in them, she gives him one of them to hold for a second. It is only for a second, however; for, as she no doubt foresaw, her admirer had the bad taste to be repelled, instead of attracted, by the hardened palm ; and thus, by means so natural and simple, Dorothy is rid forever of his persecutions. In the end she marries the man of her choice, who, being head gamekeeper at the hall, is in all ways quite a desirable match.
It will be seen from this sketch of the plot that it affords no special opening for eloquence. Dorothy is placed just where the author likes best to see her, in the midst of hard out-of-door work, and she is well treated by everybody. There is therefore no cause to plead, no wrong to redress, unless, indeed, it be the wrong of smooth, white hands.
There are two or three passages of description in the poem that are both faithful and imaginative, full of color, and quick with the smell of freshlyturned earth. Take, for example, the following : —
Driving from hedge to hedge furrows as straight as a line ;
Seeing the crisp brown earth, like waves at the bow of a vessel,
Rise, curl over, and fall, under the thrust of the share;
Orderly falling and still, its edges all creaming and crumbling,
But, on the sloping side, polished and purple as steel;
Till all the field, she thought, looked bright as the bars of that gridiron
In the great window at church, over the gentlefolks’ pew.
And evermore, as she strides, she has cheerful companions behind her,
Rooks and the smaller birds, following after her plow;
And, ere the ridges were done, there was gossamer woven above them, —
Gossamer dewy and white, shining like foam on the sea.”
With the exception of a few such passages, this so-called poem seems to me an outrage on poetry, which, but for its acceptance in the quarters before mentioned, might be allowed to pass unnoticed ; but since it has thus been taken up by men mostly thought capable of judging, I, as one sincerely believing in poetic fitness and in the worship of beauty, must needs assert that on nearly every page Dorothy sins against beauty and against poetic fitness.
The fact, however, of its acceptance with certain poets and critics is a fact charged with significance. It is a sure indication that the present school of poetry is near the end of its reign, and this for no other reason than that men and women are, to the end of their days, children. Leaving behind us the bald prosaicalness of much of Wordsworth, we yielded ourselves up gladly to the delight of wonderful, mystical beauty in art. Robert Browning — and no greater poet lives than Browning at his best — we have accepted with mixed feelings. There are whole tracts in his work that are neither good verse nor agreeable prose ; yet even this portion has a bitter, stimulating flavor of its own, not to be obtained elsewhere. Mr. Browning is many other things besides a poet, and could write trenchant prose if he would; but, from some cause difficult to understand, he prefers to clothe thoughts of a prosaic nature in an ill-fitting garment of verse. We rebel; but we cannot do without him, and are therefore compelled to accept him on his own conditions.
Between Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh and a poem uncompromisingly loyal to the laws of poetic fitness there is all the difference that there is between a warehouse where you may find many precious things deposited and a noble temple whose sculptured walls are themselves as precious as what they inclose. Excepting, then, Aurora Leigh and a large portion of Browning’s own work, our other poets have for so long given us only what was essentially and ideally beautiful that the childish element in us longs to hear and to see some new thing, by way of variety. Without directly owning it, men have wearied of beauty and tired of perfection; and as change always comes when imperatively demanded, to the music of the cow-boy’s whistle enters Dorothy.
The function of poetry has been as much discussed as the rights of women ; but for poetry the right to be itself is of all rights the first. Its legitimate business is not, surely, to reform the world ; yet if, without sacrificing its ideal loveliness, it can help in the world’s ruggedest work, so much the better ; but poems like Dorothy give us pause. On the other hand, however, we have shining examples of great truths set forth in the very noblest poetry. Mrs. Browning’s Cry of the Children is not less musical or poetic because it portrays the real wrongs of the children of the factories. Mr. Swinburne’s splendid and fiery denunciations in Songs before Sunrise, are directed against real evils. And where shall we find more help to meet with fortitude and courage the brief ills of this brief human life than in Mr. Matthew Arnold’s noble chant of Empedocles on Ætna ?
Philip Bourke Marston.
- Dorothy: A Country Story. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1882.↩