Song, Youth, and Sorrow
It is a feeling, or a fancy, common to many men in all ages, that unhappiness in love and the divine yet fatal gift of song doom the lyric poet, more often at least than other men, to an early death. We like to believe that this is foreshadowed even in the Homeric Achilles, who, alone of the heroes, sings to his own lyre the “ glories of men,” — and is so soon to fall, at the very gate of the city he thought to capture singlehanded, tricked by a promise of wedlock and peace, slain by Apollo and Paris, who are the eternal types of treachery to love and friendship, and of the lyric gift itself.
The mere fact of early departure from the stage of life, apart from harrowing circumstances or year-long agony like Heine’s, need not appear to us altogether cause for repining. A death like Keats’s, indeed, seems bitterest tragedy, the very mockery of human destiny : —
“ The Fates shall but reveal him to the world, Nor longer suffer him to be,” as Virgil sang of the boy Marcellus. Keats had but trilled his early morning note, assured us that his lute was truly strung: his hand attained the master’s firmer touch, — and straightway was relaxed forever.
In less degree, the mourning for Clough was embittered by the same truth: unless the fond confidence of friendship magnified the possibilities of the song he had never sung. And yet, what true lover of the Muses, whether himself voiceless or already blessed with the boon of self-utterance, might not eagerly barter away mere length of days, and time for slow decay, would divine Apollo grant him the power worthily to respond, though but for a single flight of breathless song, to the clear call of Clough’s Come, Poet, Come !
And certainly Shelley, a stranger always among men, still a dreamy-eyed and fragile boy at thirty, as he sinks, beaten down by stormy billows, into the deep blue Midland waters he had loved so passionately, the Endymion of his gentle brother minstrel thrust with open page hastily into his bosom, is no occasion for despairing tears. In his verse “ he has left his soul on earth.” Perhaps he even had an instant in which to realize that the noble words he had uttered of Keats were no less prophetic of himself: —
His voice in all her music.”
Even Körner, at twenty-two, lying dead upon the field of battle, is but one Sword less for the roused Fatherland; and who can doubt that the tones of his patriotic Lyre were glorified and reechoed a thousandfold by the tidings of his martyrdom ? Over him we can repeat the words Tyrtæus set to a Spartan harp twenty-five centuries ago: —
While in his lovely prime bright is the bloom of his youth.
Gladly beheld of men is he, and longed-for of women,
Living : and beautiful still, slain in the van of the fight! ”
More sad, surely, is his lot, who outlives all the illusions, the dreams, the world-wide hopes of youth,—a fate we almost feared for our Taliessin, “ our fullest throat of song,” as we listened to the wailing tones of Locksley Hall Sixty Years After.
And saddest of all, ghastlier even than they who fall like Keats, smitten by the shining archer just as their fingers find the magic string, and who “ die with all their music in them,” — infinitely sadder, I repeat, is the sight of the divinely dowered son of the morning, utterly astray in the paths of this world’s wilderness, dim-eyed and paralyzed from the flame of that earthly passion that scorches without purifying, tortured by the agony and shame of sin, and ready to dash down in his despair the gift of song, and life itself, a no less bitter gift.
Such a wasted existence has left most men in doubt whether Poe ever truly heard Apollo’s call. Such sin and misery darkened many a day the skies of Ayr above the sturdy peasant singer. Such a tragedy of glorious failure, I suppose, was the brief feverish struggle of De Musset, caught in the maelstrom of the world city. Some who love Heine best would set him, however unwillingly, in the same wretched group. Yet I doubt if in all the ages a sadder, a clearer, a more fearless voice ever spoke to men out of the depths of despair than the voice of Lesbia’s lover, the proud Roman boy, Catullus.
But sometimes there arises among men a nature so full of vitality that it can outlive, seemingly even outgrow, the evil which poisons unto death a spirit equally sensitive and of less abounding strength. Such mortals appear not merely to “ suck up sweetness from a sorrow’s root,” — he is indeed hopelessly weak who never learns that lesson, — but even to gather renewed vigor from their own degradation, to see life steadily and see it whole at last.
This is the problem over which, in Hawthorne’s romance, the thoughtful sculptor pauses half in awe, while Hilda, the faultless type of Puritanic girlhood, turns from it in horror. “ Sin has educated Donatello, and elevated him. . . . Is sin, then, like sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained ? ”
It is this dangerous doctrine which would enable us to see in all the wayward impulses of Goethe’s earlier life only a necessary progress through the full cycle of human experience and development. But perhaps here as elsewhere the myriad-minded poet offers the most perfect illustration. The later sonnets, especially such confessions as
reveal, all too clearly reveal, that both woman’s love and man’s friendship had brought to Shakespeare every bitter lesson which treachery without and a gnawing conscience within could enforce. And yet we might well hesitate to look with unmixed regret upon any lessons which may have gone to the shaping of Hamlet and Othello, Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare, it would seem, passed steadfastly on toward his artistic maturity, from the very same bitter experience which broke the heart and cut short the days of Rome’s clearest singer.