Recent Poetry

OF the minor works for the stage which Lord Tennyson has at last put forth in book form,1 the first is called a tragedy, and the second is offered without any sub-title to indicate what manner of piece the author considers it to be. The Cup, although moulded in two acts, would perhaps be better described as a sketch for a tragedy than as a fullgrown play. There are, of course, two ways in which it may be considered: as a composition expressly intended for acting, or simply as a poem in dramatic form. But, taken under either category, it falls short of success, and remains unimpressive. Structure it certainly possesses, and some merit of scattered phrase, — one would hardly expect less from Tennyson, even in these days; but strong characterization, true and moving passion, dramatic action, are all absent from its pages. There is a single dramatic point, at the end, but what precedes does not go towards that point with force; and the climax itself is weakened by an excess of vague and broken utterance.

Synorix, an ex-tetrarch of Galatia, who had been driven away by his people, returns with the Roman forces as their traitorous ally. He is in love with Camma, wife of his successor in the tetrarchy, whom he had seen three years before,

“ A maiden slowly moving on to music,
Among her maidens to this Temple; ”

and now he sends her as a gift a cup of the kind used in Galatian marriage services. He makes acquaintance with her husband, Sinnatus, and prepares to win her away from him. His plot results in the death of Sinnatus and Camma’s retirement as a priestess in the temple of Artemis. Synorix woos her, however, and on the very day when he is crowned King of Galatia she accepts him, only to poison him, at the wedding ceremony, with wine from the cup he had given her. This, certainly, is a situation proper to the theatre ; but the plot is worked out with a scantiness of invention that makes it seem bare and inadequate. So far as Synorix is a personality at all he is a very unpleasant one; he unmasks the villainy, also, of his brutal and treacherous passion with a cool frankness that robs him of interest; while the husband, Sinnatus, who should be opposed to this dull villain as an object of strong sympathy or admiration, is too lightly sketched as a “ rough, bluff, simple-looking fellow ” to excite a spark of concern in the reader, or, if we may judge, in the imagined audience. Camma alone stands out with a degree of distinctness as an actual being, a woman of pure, strong character, having the charm which is lacking in the others; and charm, or its substitute fascination, is indispensable in the personages of a drama. Camma, by the way, is given a brief song —

“ Moon on the field and the foam,
Moon on the waste and the wold” —

whichecalls in a measure the tender and rolling melody of the earlier Tennyson. Elsewhere the language is sometimes commonplace, as in the aside of Synorix when watching Camma: —

“ The bust of Juno, and the brows and eves
Of Venus ; face and form unmatcbable ! ”

In this, as in Queen Mary and Harold, the lines seldom strike those rich concords that formerly gave the author his supremacy in blank verse over all poets since Milton. Gamma’s eloquence makes an exception, when, speaking to Sinnatus, she recalls, —

“ That there, three years ago, the vast vine-bowers
Ran to the summit of the trees, and dropt
Their streamers earthward, which a breeze of
May
Took ever and anon, and open’d out
The purple zone of hill and heaven : there
You told your love ; and like the swaying
vines —
Yea — with our eyes — our hearts, our prophet
hopes
Let in the happy distance, and that all
But cloudless heaven which we have found to-
gether.”

But what could be weaker than the ending of the chopped verse with which Sinnatus answers ? —

“First kiss. There then. You talk almost as if it
Might be the last.”

Technical carelessnesses which would be natural enough in Byron seem to have been introduced from choice in this latter-day work of Tennyson’s ; and throughout The Cup, when the Laureate writes well, the play lags; while as soon as an attempt is made at action, the diction declines.

The Falcon is so slight a performance that it requires little consideration. Founded on the same story, from the Decameron, which supplied Longfellow with his Falcon of Ser Federigo, in the Tales of a Wayside Inn, it develops the one incident of that pleasing little fiction not ungracefully so far as the hero and heroine are concerned, and with a mixture of the poet’s own invention. But the effort at humor in the parts of the two servants is so spiritless as to mar the effect, instead of furnishing the advantageous contrast they were meant to give to the sentiment of the lovers. A mannerism of repeating the same words in close conjunction is so diligently practiced that even in the short space of one act it becomes excessively wearisome; and, on the whole, we cannot see that anything has been gained by putting the tale into dramatic form, when it could easily have been wrought into a captivating idyl. To the stage it is perhaps as well adapted as, for example, Coppée’s Le Passant, but it denies itself the half-lyrical quality which the French writer’s little episode in verse shares in common with genuine acting poems like Milton’s Comus. We can conceive that The Cup, with scenic aid, might be rendered with an effect akin to that of a series of tableaux accompanied by metrical explanation, and that The Falcon might serve agreeably in private theatricals; but, regarded as serious dramatic productions, they must be criticised for the constraint and Limidity that have befallen a master poet who has chosen of late years to appear as an amateur.

In Mr. Bunner New York has a poet whose first book of verse 2 may suggest, to some minds fond of looking at divergent lines as parallel, that another Halleck has come to light. Such a suggestion might be inspired by the twofold strain of serious song and lightly playful rhyme contained in the volume ; but Mr. Banner’s pen is more agile and his art more fastidious than Halleck’s, and the writer whose influence has been paramount with him would seem to be Austin Dobson. Mr. Dobson has tilled his chosen field with such perfection of skill as makes it difficult for a fresh hand to cultivate any flower of poesy, on the same soil and under similar conditions, which shall not be named of the Dobson variety. Mr. Banner, however, enters upon the competition with very sufficient resources of his own. His poetic faculty is evidently inborn, but his manner has been acquired and applied more than it has grown out of that faculty.

Aready, which was first given to readers of The Atlantic a few months ago, is also the first of these poems, and is likely to be thought by many readers the best; for it is quaintly graceful, it sings itself, and rises well to a climax that is at once a lesson and a tender sentiment. But The Appeal to Harold has more of intensity and fire in its embodiment of a distinctly original conception, by which a man is made to appeal to the king for redress against a woman who has wasted his life. There are boldness and the strength of despair in these lines: —

’Haro ! Haro !
Tell thou me not of a greater judge,
Haro !
It is He who hath my sin in grudge.
Yea, from God I appeal to thee ;
God hath no part or place for me.
Thou who hast sinned, judge thou my sinning.”

The execution of this poem, however, is hardly so good as that shown in handling less ambitious motives. Holiday Home is unmistakably a song, and where Mr. Bunner approaches the song-form his aptitude gives him success. This is exemplified again in Robin’s Song, —

“ Op, up, my heart! up, up, my heart,
This day was made for thee ! ” —

which is delightfully buoyant and breezy; and it should be borne in mind that the purely lyrical note thus sounded is a very rare one. Among the pieces included in the division called Philistia, Candor is excellent for its crispness and its “cunning” purport, though coming under the head of rhyme, not of poetry. The group entitled Bohemia will perhaps commend itself less to the author as time goes on ; but his Betrothed deals skillfully with an unpleasing theme and a deliberately morbid mood. A writer chiefly engaged, as Mr. Bunner is, in comic journalism, naturally incorporates some of his humorous pieces with the rest; and his travesties of Swinburne, Bret Harte, Pope, and Walt Whitman, illustrating how these might have written Home, Sweet Home, are worth preserving. But in the nondescript story of a school-girl who cuts her throat because her boy-love is offended with her, the author seems not to have been sure as to his aim or method. It is difficult to understand such an error of choice in a writer of so much discrimination, — one who could give us the fine stanzas of Triumph, with its conclusion : —

“For the space of a heart-beat fluttered her
As a bird’s wing spread to flee breath, ;
She turned her weary arms to Death,
And the light of her eyes to me.”

A defect of judgment is also apparent in Strong as Death, perhaps the noblest of the serious poems. As originally printed in this magazine,3 the third and fourth lines of the second stanza read, —

“ Let no faint perfume cling to thee
Of withered roses on thy brow.”

This has now been changed to —

“ Come not with graveyard smell on thee,
Or withered roses,” etc., —

an alteration which not only sacrifices the gentle flow of syllables in the first version, but also brings up a very disagreeable suggestion. The mistake made is that of supposing that ugliness is synonymous with strength. But Mr. Bunner at least shows a greater range of voice than any of our younger poets ; and if he continues to give only the best of his quality he may fulfill the expectations which the Airs from Arcady lead us to form.

The careers of Theodore Winthrop and Fitz-James O’Brien were alike in that both were men of uncommon promise, with a dash of the gayly heroic in their characters; both, by a destiny resembling that of the German poet Körner, whose fate was also theirs, became soldiers; and both fell early sacrifices in the war for the Union. They were born in the same year, 1828, and O’Brien received his death-wound less than a twelvemonth after the author of John Brent was laid low at Big Bethel, when only thirty - three years of age. The brilliant Irish-American had made his reputation as a story-writer before he volunteered, while Winthrop’s reputation had to wait for the posthumous appearance of the novels he had left in manuscript. Yet O’Brien’s Poems and Tales were not collected until 1881, and it is only in the present year that the fragmentary poems of Winthrop have been published, with a memoir by his sister.4 Winthrop, though he had not, attained to the fluency and finish that mark the style of O’Brien, was much the more powerful man of the two : indeed, we can hardly accord to the latter anything more than an exceptional talent, but Winthrop had the gift of genius. It was not genius if measured by the absurd gauge proposed by Anthony Trollope, — a man’s power of “sitting,” — for Winthrop was restless, active, a sufferer from ill-health, and, during some years of his short life, a wanderer; but it was genius of a more nervous and penetrating, a higher, kind.

His parentage and ancestry were of the purest American stock, for he was descended from John Winthrop and the Long Island Woolseys. With such blood in his veins, and an intermixture from the Huguenot Lispenards, it was natural that he should have been of a religious nature, and have developed a literary faculty, a taste for adventure, strong patriotism, and an inclination towards soldierly achievement. It is a curious reflection that his gallantry and his large mental grasp might, had his life been spared, have opened to him on the field a way to some wholly different renown from that which now attaches to his memory, and one that possibly would have caused the suppression of the works that survive him. But he seems to have been often haunted by a feeling akin to a premonition that his life would be frustrated ; and, by an odd coincidence which his sister mentions, while he was almost the first Union officer who died in battle, the last officer lost on the same side was his cousin, General Frederic Winthrop, killed at Seven Pines. This record of Theodore Winthrop’s life is principally made up from his letters and journals. At twentyone he went to Europe, and some of his scattered observations made there are trenchant and disclose an early maturity. He also went twice to the Isthmus of Panama, visited California and Oregon, and rode East across the plains ; absorbing on the way material which he afterwards used with power in his prose. The extracts from his journal are meagre, and of interest only as illustrating his clear and manly spirit.

The editor, we think, makes a mistake in hinting a kinship of genius, on his part, with Hawthorne, notwithstanding the support of Professor Nicoll’s opinion. His line of imagination was different; his whole mode of evolving problems was different. But it is on his wild and original fictions and on his fresh, vigorous, though harsh and broken style, that whatever fame accrues to him must rest. The poems, which are introduced at various stages of the Life, were never revised ; many are incomplete; and only two have appeared in print before. They can add nothing to his reputation. In prose he had the ambition “ to form a truly American style, good and original, not imitated; ” but in these hasty passages of verse there is almost nothing original, excepting the blank-verse story, Two Worlds. Twice we encounter this fragment : —

“’T is the wild battle, ’t is the crashing charge,
The shout of victory, the maddened shout,
The ecstatic agony of victor death.”

Two Worlds is also full of warlike imagery. Its narrative is vague and interrupted, and the verse is monotonous, spasmodic; but here and there occur strong and felicitous touches of description, like the following : —

“ At last, in moonlit glory overhead
Suddenly shone the mount like God’s calm
face.”
“ Then silence felt the rustling of a tone
Soft as the shiver of moonlighted leaves ; ”

or of statement, like this one : —

“ A thought had quivered like a dagger drawn ;
A thought and word had stolen from man to
man,
And whispers grew to shouts.”

The sister of the novelist has preferred to make the aim of her biography a lesson in the worth to others of an aspiring life and an unselfish patriotism. She has accomplished it well, in a modest and loving spirit, so that it is impossible to read it without being touched, or without recognizing in it a gain to the simple annals of American literature. One recalls Matthew Arnold’s lines on Early Death and Fame : —

“ But when immature death
Beckons too early the guest
from the half-tried banquet of life,
Fuller for him be the hours !
Give him emotion, though pain !
Let him live, let him feel : I havelived.”

Winthrop did not taste the fame which this wish, if fulfilled, would have given him, but he had the life of full emotion : he knew that he had striven well, and his guerdon is remembrance.

What we have said touching the error of mistaking ugliness for strength may find exemplification on almost every page of Miss Robinson’s new volume,5 and might, in fact, with such a text, be expanded into a long critical essay. But we shall content ourselves with briefly pointing out the manner in which this English poetess has gone astray. The main part of her volume consists of stories of country life; but they are very far from being idyllic. On the contrary, they are chosen expressly as illustrations of the evil and the misery which exist amid rural scenes. The authoress says with truth, and not without force in her way of saying it, —

“Alas, not all the greenness of the leaves,
Not all their delicate tremble in the air,
Can pluck one stab from a fierce heart that
grieves.
The harvest-moon slants on as sordid care
As wears its heart out under attic eaves,
And though, all round these folded mountains
sleep,
Think you that sin and heart-break are less
deep ? ”

In passing it may be questioned whether any power could ever pluck “a stub;” but the gist of Miss Robinson’s idea is plain, and the metrical pieces forming The New Arcadia are all designed to enforce that idea. In our judgment it is a wholly un poetical one ; not because poetry need be what Carlyle once vehemently declared that all poetry in this age must be, — namely, ‘lies,” —but because there is a great deal of beauty in nature, which has a refreshing and ennobling influence upon most minds, and accordingly aids the true function of the poetic art, which is to lift up, refine, and inspire us. Moreover, those whose homes are placed in surroundings of natural beauty often show in their lives much of worth and virtue ; and to select only detestable or painful traits of human nature in such scenes, for the theme of verse, is unfair as well as unpoetic. But Miss Robinson seems to have gone into the country with a very artificial notion that existence among the fields and hills must be quite devoid of sin or wretchedness. She was greatly shocked at discovering the reverse, and so decided to wreak her disappointment upon the public : —

“ For I do not sing to enchant: you or beguile:
I sing to make you think enchantment vile;
I sing to wring your hearts, and make you know
What shame there is in the world, what wrongs,
what woe.”

This is the announcement, made in her Prologue. But it may as well be said at once that she succeeds in wringing, not our hearts, but only our patience. In the first piece, The Hand-Bell Ringers, the authoress gives a very good picture of some peasants who come to celebrate Christmas by ringing bells. She sees them through the window, and wonders what their lives may be. It is a picture colored by her own mood, nothing more ; and in so far the result is good. But when she comes to deal with particular stories, as in the poems that follow, she fails entirely of artistic effect. In one instance she treats the misery of an old woman who has decided to go to the poorhouse with her blind husband, rather than be dependent on their married son ; in another she relates how a young woman, deserted by her father and brothers, betakes herself to a life of shame, merely for the sake of companionship. But in both cases we are repelled by the subject and by the treatment, instead of finding our sympathies enlisted. Janet Fisher is a narrative showing how an imbecile girl carried a deserting soldier, who had sought her aid in making his escape, out to sea in a boat, drowning both the soldier and herself. It may well be asked what there is in this haphazard incident to sustain Miss Robinson’s versified indictment against life in the country; but, further, there is nothing in such an occurrence to furnish the basis of a poem, be the aim what it may. Of the next piece, The Rothers, the theme is as abhorrent as possible, and is developed with a minuteness of loathsome detail which finds no justification in any canon of true poetry. Cottar’s Girl is equally disgusting ; being simply a recital of the murder of a young woman by her mother, who administers a dose of shot to save the girl from disgrace. Now, all these things may be realities, but if they are subjects for poetry at all — which we very much doubt— Miss Robinson certainly proves her inability to render them poetic by her mode of presentation. One cannot positively conclude that this is due to incapacity, because here and there, in the landscape portions above all, the writer manifests a graphic quality which could come only with observation and some skill in the handling of words. Take, for example, this sunset scene from The Rothers : —

“ The country caught the strange bright light;
The tufts of trees were yellow, not green;
Gray shadows hung like nets between.
“Such yellow colors on bush and tree!
Such sharp-cut shade and light I saw!
The white gates white as a star may be;
But every scarlet hip and haw,
Border of poppies, roof of red,
Had lost its color, wan and dead !
“ So strange the east, that soon I turned
To watch the shining west appear.
Under a billow of smoke there burned
A belt of blinding silver, sheer
White length of light, wherefrom there shone
A round, white, dazzling, rayless sun.”

Miss Robinson’s error consists in an ill-advised selection, and in her obvious but feeble imitation of Browning’s manner. The same faults obtrude themselves in the miscellaneous poems which compose the second section of this volume; and for confirmation of our opinion we need only refer readers to the tedious monologue, Jützi Schultheiss, which both by its title and execution justifies the belief that Miss Robinson, whether consciously or not, has succumbed to the enticement which. Browning’s dullest mood apparently has for certain minds.

The technique of this feminine versifier is so bad that it is impossible to criticise it in detail. Her rhythm halts and hobbles ; her verses are redundant where she evidently intends them to be strictly within rule ; and her rhymes are deliberately and copiously atrocious. For example, she forces “ incommunicable ” to chime with “ well ; ” she attempts to bring into companionship, at the ends of lines, “gone,” “ on,” “moan,” and in another place “ rough,” “ enough,” and “ of.” Altogether, in stumbling over these strange verses, one is made to think of the remark of Schaunard, in Mürger’s Vie de Bohème : “ Truly, my rhymes are not millionaires, but I did not have time to make them richer.” It is possible that Miss Robinson, if she takes more time, may not only improve her verses, but may also, by eliminating that which appertains only to prose, establish her claim to the title of poetess.

There are men and women who, from time to time, are singled out and greeted by the discerning critic because of some spark of promise emitted from their first book of verse. Most frequently the promise thus recognized remains unfulfilled ; but although we may not be led to found vast expectation on Miss Guiney’s tentative volume,6 it certainly deserves more than passing consideration. These firstlings of the Muse bring with them not a little of genuine merit and charm. So far as the tone and the execution are concerned, their inspiration comes largely, we incline to think, from Longfellow and Lowell, with a slight side-influence from the latest English school in sundry details of versification and expression. But the poem which begins the collection, Gloucester Harbor, is none the less a successful and semi - pathetic exposition of the spell which broods over a Now England seaside community, prompting the children always to follow the path of the waves, notwithstanding the disaster that has overtaken the fathers. The Cross-Roads is a more ambitious effort, describing the escape of a prisoner, who is driven by desperation to suicide in the sea. One of the most noticeable things about Miss Guiney’s verse, because it is unusual in beginners is the careful completeness of her ventures in the sonnet form ; but the critical reader will be quite as much struck by the neatness, the finish, the well-nigh epigrammatic turn of certain bits of rhyme contained in these Songs at the Start. Among them we may mention the three stanzas On Not Reading a Posthumous Work (à propos of Hawthorne’s Doctor Grimshawe), the title of which is in itself so unexpected that it has the value of a witticism, and the six lines which appear under the heading of Vitality : —

“ When I was born and wheeled upon my way,
As fire in stars my ready life did glow,
And thrill me through, and mount to lips and
lids:
I was as dead when I died yesterday
As those mild shapes Egypt ian, that we know,
Since Memnon sang, are housed in pyramids.”

Miss Guiney’s motive is generally sufficient, and her lines are for the most part carefully polished. That she should sometimes betray crudity is not surprising. Within its limits, Miss Guiney’s work is good ; and if one judges by the standard of pure poetry, these pages are much more deserving of praise than Miss Robinson’s.

  1. The Cup, and The Falcon. By ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, Poet Laureate. New York: Macmillan & Co. 1884
  2. Airs from Arcady and Elsewhere. By H. C. BUNNER. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1834.
  3. See Atlantic Monthly for July, 1882.
  4. The Life, and Poems of Theodore Winthrop. Edited by his Sister. With Portrait. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1884.
  5. The New Arcadia and Other Poems. By A. MAKY D. F. ROBINSON. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1884.
  6. Songs at the Start. By LOUISE IMOGEN GUINEY. Boston: Cupples, Upham & Co. 1884.