A Poet of Poetry
PERHAPS the first thing one likes to do with a new poet is to put him where he belongs. To give him at once a definite rank in the scale of poetry (unless, indeed, he happens to be so near the bottom that there is scanty room for doubt) is a task for the ambitious alone. But to say, This new singer is of the tribe of Browning, or Shelley, or Locker, — that is a privilege which need not be restricted.
Now that a complete edition of Mr. Watson’s poems1 appears, we ask ourselves with what class of singers he shall be placed. Those who chance to know him best through his earlier volume, Wordsworth’s Grave, might well call him first of all a disciple of Wordsworth. They might wisely add that he recalls Wordsworth somewhat as Matthew Arnold does. But he is one remove farther from Wordsworth, not in power alone, or so much, perhaps, because his poetry is distinctly influenced by Arnold’s, as because the atmosphere it breathes belongs much more clearly to the last quarter of the century than to the first.
Yet it is not as a modern, or for his skill in the construction of verse, that Mr. Watson is entitled to his distinctive place. This, it seems to us, he has won by his poetical criticism of poetry. Throughout the body of his work there is much that is charming, and, be it said, something that is scarcely more than ordinary ; but when he deals in his verse with what the poets before him have written, one feels immediately the hand of a man who knows his favorites through and through, and is gifted with no common aptness in putting his sympathetic understanding of them into the wholly adequate form of poetry. In the simpler matter of criticism in prose, Mr. Watson’s introduction to his anthology of Lyric Love, in the Golden Treasury Series, has recently shown that his knowledge is abundant and his touch sure. But the best prose criticism of poetry, delightful as it often is, must necessarily fall short of that criticism which is poetry itself, — which, by the very means of recalling something that is precious, places by its side another treasure for the memory. No one will claim for this gift an equal rank with the gift of poetic imagining and creation ; yet there is immense satisfaction for the few though fit in finding the lesser gift so charmingly exercised as in the poems which lead one to say, Here is the distinctive thing; this is Watson.
From the very nature of its theme, therefore, Lachrymæ Musarum, Mr. Watson’s threnody on Tennyson, drew upon his muse for that of which she had most to give. The result is a poem which, to minds not cheaply satisfied, has seemed to fall very little below the great masterpieces of English elegiac verse. Though we shall not undertake to couple it with Lycidas, we may at least recall a remark from a shrewd talk on Shelley and elegies. Adonais and In Memoriam were contrasted : the one as a poem one would care beyond all things to have written, the other as a poem one would choose beyond all things to have had written about one’s self. Readers may determine which was which. On the same basis of division, Lachrymæ Musarum is a poem which, in selfish mood, one would wish exceedingly to have written ; for it is not so much an apotheosis of a person as a monument to its author’s thought upon a subject. Poetry is its theme, — poetry and the immortal reward that comes to such a singer as Tennyson.
says Mr. Watson ; farther on, he calls his poem
“ this verse which shall endure
By splendour of its theme that cannot die.”
The futility of prophecy is all too well known, yet one cannot help feeling that the poet has spoken truth for the future of his poem. In elevation and stately fitness of rhythm and phrase it possesses strong elements of endurance.
Is it to be expected in such a piece of work, especially from a man remarkable for his familiarity with the poets, that every line should bear the mark of complete novelty, that no suggestions of other elegies should arise ? Be the answer what it may, one would rather not find anything so closely akin to the beautiful forty-second and forty-third stanzas of the Adonais as the passage of Lachrymæ Musarum beginning,
Him doth the spirit divine
Of universal loveliness reclaim.
All nature is his shrine.”
Mr. Watson, from time to time, not only brings the poets of old to mind, but has a way, not quite pleasant, of repeating himself. He is not enough a Greek to wish to transfer his lines bodily from one poem to another, but is the recurrence of phrases like the following, apt as each is in its place, wholly to be commended ? Wordsworth’s country he calls
Are lovelier for his strain.”
Of Longfellow he speaks as
His native air the sweeter for his song.”
And it is he who says that Tennyson must be sought
Made stronger and more beauteous by his strain.”
This husbandry of a good thing once hit upon is still more curiously, if less questionably, illustrated in three of Mr. Watson’s quatrains. In his second book, Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature, this appears: —
AN ALLEGED CHARACTERISTIC OF GOETHE.
I doubt; for was he not a poet true ?
True poets but transcendent lovers be,
And one great love-confession poesy.
In the same volume this is found : —
A SOMETIME CONTEMPORARY.
Vain and thrice vain, as all shall see who wait;
For hawk at last shall be outsoar’d by dove,
And throats of thunder quell’d by lips of love.
But see how good a thing is wrought by wise tearing asunder and rebuilding. In their final form the Epigrams contain this quatrain : —
And the shrill tempest of thy clamorous page.
True poets but transcendent lovers be,
And one great love-confession poesy.”
No one will be disposed to quarrel with the “ songsmith ” for rejecting Goethe, the dogs, the hawk, and the dove, and for giving an example of a stanza’s evolution almost worthy of Gray.
These tricks of workmanship, however, are aside from the consideration of Mr. Watson as a Poet of Poetry. If it were possible to go through his work, and take out everything he says about Wordsworth, his chief master and admiration, about Shelley, Matthew Arnold, and a dozen other poets, the result would be a compact mass of remarkably shrewd and felicitous criticism. Of Wordsworth, perhaps, he has said the greatest number of the best things. Wordsworth’s Grave alone abounds in delightful lines touching the poet of “ sincere large accent nobly plain.” In stanzas such as this, Mr. Watson’s frequent cry that “ England hath need” of such as Wordsworth now is uttered : —
Thou answerest through the great calm nights and days,
‘ Laud me who will: not tuneless are your throats;
Yet if ye paused, I should not miss the praise.’ ”
Looking back to the poets before Wordsworth, what could be more satisfying than the fourth section of the poem, tracing as it does the course of English song through the eighteenth century ? In the lines To Edward Dowden, the poets of Wordsworth’s own time, and again Wordsworth himself, inspire some of the very best criticism and verse in all of Mr. Watson’s work. Space may be well spent in reprinting a few of these lines ; for if the contrasts between Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats have anywhere been more delicately drawn, it has not been our good fortune to meet with the passage: —
With something of a glorious soullessness.
And dear, and great with an excess of soul,
Shelley, the hectic flamelike rose of verse,
All colour, and all odour, and all bloom,
Steeped in the noonlight, glutted with the sun,
But somewhat lacking root in homely earth,
Lacking such human moisture as bedews
His not less starward stem of song, who, rapt
Not less in glowing vision, yet retained
His clasp of the prehensible, retained
The warm touch of the world that lies to hand,
Not in vague dreams of man forgetting men,
Nor in vast morrows losing the to-day;
Who trusted nature, trusted fate, nor found
An Ogre, sovereign on the throne of things;
Who felt the incumbence of the unknown, yet bore
Without resentment the Divine reserve.”
About Shelley there are many more things, sometimes even more happily said, in the poem for the Shelley Centenary, August 4, 1892. And so it is throughout the book. In passages far too frequent to cite one comes upon lines about poets and poetry — as, for a single example, in the noble England, My Mother — which, with scarcely an exception, add strength to Mr. Watson’s distinct position.
Is nothing to be said for the rest of his work, the poems on subjects not out of books ? Surely, it is by no means such as to reduce him to the ranks of the “ minor bards,” any more than it may be said to give him a place among the really great. Yet for a few qualities, not common in these days, he must be given hearty praise. His work is always the expression of a definite thought; he is never obscure ; and he never essays form merely for form’s sake. Indeed, the sonnet is the only rigidly fixed form into which his verse has been moulded. Not a rondel, not a ballade, so often mere tours de force, appears on his pages.
Most of his sonnets are open to the objection that they are occasional, and, what is worse, political. The series Ver Tenebrosum, written in the spring of Gordon’s fate, may have had their timely message to the English people. Today some of their finer lines of patriotism ring strong and true; but they met their purpose in their occasion, and have no rightful place in a book devoted to that for which the author may venture to hope permanence. The same fault is to be found with a few other verses not sonnets, and, above all, with some frankly personal poems, which are even more objectionable on the score of taste. One of them, an attack upon Mr. Ruskin, veiled only under the name “John of Brantwood,” has been dropped from the three volumes following Wordsworth’s Grave. The other, a very scornful fling at Mr. Oscar Wilde, appears in Mr. Watson’s last two books. Quite aside from the bestowal of dignity upon invective clearly the fruit of personal animosity, by putting it between the same covers with the treatment of high themes, any man would do well to consider the wisdom of barking at men of wits so much nimbler than his own.
Well had it been, too, could this his last book have been spared all such work as the long, laboriously imagined poem The Prince’s Quest, which gave the poet’s first volume its title, and now, thrown into close contrast with his later achievements, seems almost barren of promise. Mr. Watson has begun to learn the art of discarding. May he become more than a beginner.
Much of his wisdom in self-restraint has been shown in his Epigrams. The quatrain may owe some of its popularity to-day to its being a vehicle of expression in which the art of throwing away the unnecessary must be rigorously cultivated. In the Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature, published in 1884, there are one hundred quatrains. As they appear in the last volume, their number is reduced to fifty, and of course their average of merit is distinctly higher. Indeed, in respect of them, one is tempted to say that they show their maker’s individuality almost as clearly as what he has done in his criticisms of poetry. Some of the best of them deal, it is true, with letters, but Art, in the more abstract sense, and Life are their usual themes. The young verse-writer, avid of twittering, as Dr. Mitchell says, in the little bird-cages at the bottom of the magazine page, might well take some time from active production for the study of such excellent models. He will not find a stronger group of fifty quatrains from the same pen.
Nor will he be the loser for looking at the lyrics in the book. On his own showing, Mr. Watson holds poesy to be “ one great love-confession.” One is, therefore, not unprepared to find in a few of his lyrics of a love that was not all happiness some of the most charming lines he has written. Thy Voice from Inmost Dreamland Calls and The Lute-Player have the true lyrical note, the music of a song that is sung from the heart.
No less genuine are some of the songs of life and death. In two of them, especially, The Blind Summit and The Great Misgiving, he shows himself the modern we have already called him in coupling his name with Matthew Arnold’s. The same unrest and unresentful discontent; the same sincere attempt to see life steadily and whole, to preserve
The fortress of his ’stablisht soul; ”
and, with all emphasis be it said, the same pervading sanity of view, mark the work of both men, the greater and the less. Matthew Arnold had eyes to see far more of life than Mr. Watson has seen, or at least has yet let his readers see.
Remembering, then, how much of the world’s best work has been done by men past their second score of years, one may care all the more for what Mr. Watson has already accomplished, and may fairly try to give him and his work the place we set out to find. It is not among the great poets of England, nor, from any promises yet vouchsafed, is it at all sure to be. He is not a poet of great passion, nor a singer of strong good cheer and hope ; indeed, it seems to be with an effort that he withholds his song from sadness : —
Be henceforth joyous, or be henceforth mute.”
Let us rather give him the praise due to gravity and soberness of thought; to a certain solemn beauty of expression ; to cultivated reflection ; to a spirit simple in itself, but drawn somewhat to the tension of the modern note, and rendered complex under protest and by stress of circumstances. Beyond this, and most confidently, let us commend him to those who know and love their poets. Next to the poets themselves, there is hardly a power more satisfying than that of such lines about poetry as Mr. Watson has written. Few have ventured to attempt the task he has wrought so well as to have won for himself, where poetry is concerned, the rare title of a poet.
- The Poems of William Watson. New York and London : Macmillan & Co. 1893.↩