Skip to main content

Full text of "pre-raphaelite and other poets"

See other formats


hen Lig ait, f 
TERS RAs the othr Herta ds 
ed x bl wasted 
base Bpebae CLE 
4 ets vA hy iy 


Wee babes 


’ esi 
; P slate grerard 
wes hile et vss “1 
OOo pt iras, H 
a in ‘ a fail 
ib silva aad “aia a t , wae 
eet rir " € : ; ht UN 
aes | ‘ vebeee: 
Sats seares 
SCN iw 
Aiea 


» 
4 34 Pee 
} ; i) wma eee 
) he . : 
, A ‘ erie 
ate : , veel y 
Rei 
OW abe , 
rae LCL Yee LL ee i One 
ota ae ea ‘ ; rite 4 vi 
, Cag ; 
Sede can ole { 


Peers 


Pie wes 


HAM ee rete 


Wiebe wih & 


PIP) AS Ai bias wie Aa tas 
Areesisulsans oy a stit Ha aie lareiéia 
#O'0 9 adie ores : 
en Sere . e Veer e 

Liesenes EPC aie 4 
Bs be ome Ve TREE Seerely bie riekinky 
mite el nimie bale erate diag 
Nes ern en dy 

amor 
ee 
bioividiblve asc 
aU te 
A 


+4 ON reteib 
Le 
+4 osla 


La Dea icut m ot fees 


* : 
f é Pre eT ERE Ried 
hah & ben? 
Ley ates Eb Ree Bo nbs 
ae | Cre ebing 
HEV ee tae 
Me ire 


; 204 WAie dbo brs § erates tei at ie) Piece 

shh clit Magbieh a Lah ETO Per Cre . Pewhenayaiees 
a dadibdete alt it APO bo dele isiee ee 
+ eth ale Wav des be enee ee the 
OU iea War 

O4rhi bie bid tarasadh adele 


be eaeend 
1 htd bee eee ey 
ea 


reir 


‘ wre ewierks ee EER EE 
og 


BS 
fale ee 


ciglened 
He 


eal e ele 


Tee ae 
Pree esiel 


a) 


3 


wr arse ree 

ew Re OF PEE (ae fit sh yagh os 
Ue oe & map see 
* see 


AAD EOE Pee ee alle 


Pere 
ee 
; ix 


alae 


ANDEHos« sis COLI ety 


i, INDIANA 


Paar var 


— : 
| PR 593 .H45 1922 10745 
Hearn, Lafcadio 


Pre-Raphaelite and other 
poets 


7 
oF 
= ¢ 
?; . 
ay 
ve a - 
i 
: At 
_— "i mts 
b f ee 2.2 
ff: ee - 
mas a} be 7 . j ; , ® i 
x : " one 
j i 
: n J 1 fH 


Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2022 with funding from 
Kahle/Austin Foundation 


https://archive.org/details/preraphaeliteothOOOOlafc 


a= 


PRE-RAPHAELITE AND OTHER POETS 


“se 


PRE-RAPHAELITE 
' AND OTHER POETS 


lectures by 


LAFCADIO HEARN: 


Selected and Edited with an Introduction 
by 
JOHN ERSKINE 


Professor of English 
Columbia University 


NEW YORK 
DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY 
1922 


CopyrieHT, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1922 
By MITCHELL McDONALD 


AMUEIKSON CULLEAWw 
LIBRARY 
ANDERSON, INDIANA 


PRINTED IN THE U. S. A. BY 


The Quinn & Boden Company 


BOOK MANUFACTURERS 
RAHWAY NEW JERSEY 


INTRODUCTION 


Tus volume is issued in response to a demand from 
students of literature for the best lectures of Lafcadio 
Hearn in a more accessible form than the library edi- 
tions in which they first appeared. It seemed advisable 
to bring together these chapters from “Interpretations 
of Literature,” 1915, “Appreciations of Poetry,” 1916, 
and “Life and Literature,” 1917, in order to provide 
under one cover—and let us hope, in spite of the cost 
of printing, at a lower price—a fair example of 
Hearn’s critical felicity in the field of modern poetry, 
where perhaps he was at his best. The choice of lec- 
tures has been governed largely by the manuscripts 
available; the studies of Rossetti, Swinburne, Browning, 
Morris, and Meredith are among the longest and clear- 
est of the texts; the lecture on Robert Bridges is one 
of those kindling analyses which Hearn gave only when 
he was most happy, and only of the writers he loved; 
othe brief notes on Rossetti’s prose and on the “Shaving 
“of Shagpat” were added as naturally complementing 
“the verse-writings of their respective authors; and the 
account of Buchanan’s ballad not only helps to round 
out a portrait of the modern muse, but it also illus- 
“trates Hearn’s keen recognition of a great note in 
“minor poets, and his ability to make us feel the great- 
ness. 
Those who have not read the prefaces to the library 
editions of Hearn’s lectures should be reminded that 


[v] 


a é 


ny mF 
DLAN, ai ¢ tO) 


Introduction 


he gave them before Japanese students at the Univer- 
sity of Tokyo, in the years between 1896 and 1902. 
He lectured without manuscript, and since he died be- 
fore he had the opportunity of formulating in writing 
for Western readers his judgments of European litera- 
ture, it is entirely to the devotion of his students that 
we owe the present chapters. Out of consideration for 
his audience, whose English was but recently acquired, 
Hearn lectured slowly. Some dozen of his pupils were 
able, therefore, to write down practically every word 
he said. After his death they presented the manuscripts 
to Mrs. Hearn, who put them in the hands of her hus- 
band’s friend and literary executor, Mitchell McDon- 
ald, Pay Director U. 8. N., who in turn brought them 
to the present publishers. 

In editing these lectures for the volumes in which 
they first appeared, I tried to make as few alterations 
as possible. Only those manuscripts have been pub- 
lished which were fairly clear; all passages which were 
so mangled as to call for a reconstruction of the text, 
I omitted, and if the omission seemed to affect in any 
essential way what remained, I rejected the whole lec- 
ture. No additions whatever were made to the text; 
only the punctuation was made uniform, and the numer- 
ous quotations verified. Undaunted by many misprints 
and many oversights of my own in the citations of the 
four thick volumes, I have once more verified the quota- 
tions in this present book, and dare hope that few errors 
now survive. 

Allowing, therefore, for such mistakes as are inci- 
dent to proofreading, the reader will find here a close 
record of Hearn’s daily instruction to his Japanese 


[vi] 


Introduction 


class in English literature. The record is unique. I 
never read these chapters without marvelling at their 
simplicity, at the volume, if I may say so, of Hearn’s 
critical faculty, and at the integrity of his character. 
The simplicity of the lectures is deceptive. The jaded 
book reviewer, coming, for example, on these trans- 
parent summaries or paraphrases of verse just quoted, 
feels that such repetitions may have aided the Japanese 
boys, but are only encumbrances for the reader born to 
the command of the English language. Against a judg- 
ment so shallow or so blind, I am somewhat put on 
my guard by my own experience with Hearn’s lectures ; 
for having been a student of the English language and 
a devoted lover of English poetry all my life, I am glad 
to acknowledge that Hearn’s simple paraphrases of 
well-known poems have taught me truths about the 
poems which I never learned from the poems themselves, 
nor from critics of poetry to whom simplicity seems a 
fault. In editing these lectures of Hearn’s, in this and 
the other volumes, I have had occasion to read every 
chapter many times, and I have read at least once the 
manuscripts which have not been printed. Simple as 
each lecture seems, the mass effect of them all, deliv- 
ered day in and day out, on all the great themes of 
Western literature, is nothing short of titanic. In criti- 
cism as well as in creation, volume counts. To have a 
sound reasoned opinion of one book is beyond the 
power of the average reader. To be expert in all the 
writings of one author is to be a more than average 
critic. To know all the writers in one period is to be 
an authority. But to have so mature a knowledge of 
life and of art, so wide an outlook on experience and 


[vii] 


Introduction 


so philosophic a control of it, as to find consistently the 
meaning of any book, classic or modern, is to be among 
the few great critics, the few in whom criticism is a 
function and not an event. Hearn is, I believe, among 
the greatest of critics. It should be remembered also 
that his many lectures, all illustrating this high dis- 
crimination, were delivered in a foreign land, before a 
group of young men who could understand only the 
general drift of them, and with no likelihood, as it 
seemed, that they would ever come under the review of 
Western readers. Yet day in and day out Hearn lec- 
tured at Tokyo before his boys with the same care and 
with the same elevation of spirit as though he had been 
addressing an audience at the Sorbonne or at Oxford 
—or better, as though he had been the official instead 
of the accidental spokesman for Western letters, and 
as though the whole East, and not only his limited 
classroom, were hanging on his words. This consecra- 
tion to work done in obscurity is as rare in teaching as 
in other human activities. Observing it on every page 
of Hearn’s lectures, I marvel at the integrity of his 
character. 

One is tempted to speak in detail of all the lectures 
in this book—of the special merit of each, and of the 
relation of one to the other. It will be sufficient, how- 
ever, to say a word of the chapter on Rossetti, which 
exhibits Hearn’s method and his success. Rossetti 
usually seems, even to his admirers, a poet of tempera- 
ment and color, diffuse temperament and exotic color; 
in so much sensuousness it has not been easy for the 
casual critic to trace the intellectual fibre. But Hearn 
observes that the plots of Rossetti’s ballads, stripped 


[ viii | 


Introduction 


somewhat of their Rossetti decorations, are stirring 
plots, contrived by an energetic mind. With this clue 
he undertakes to show us that Rossetti’s work is all of 
an intellectual architecture, however emotional the sur- 
face of it may be. To read what Hearn says of the 
“Staff and Scrip,” and then to read the ballad, is to 
discover a new poem, with the conviction besides that 
the poem is what Hearn discovered it to be. If the 
reader of Rossetti thinks this praise of Hearn’s chapter 
is excessive, let him run over at his leisure all the other 
criticism of Rossetti he can find. He will agree at last 
that here is criticism of the first order—the criticism 
which opens our eyes to things in books, and thereby 
to the things in life of which books are only the mirror. 


JoHN ERSKINE. 


[ix] 


CHAPTER 


CONTENTS 


INTRODUCTION 

StrupieEs In RosseErtt . 

Nore upon Rossetti’s Prose 
STUDIES IN SWINBURNE 
Stupies In Brownine 


Witimm Morris 


Tue Poetry or Grorce MEREDITH . 


“TE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT” 
A Nore on Rosert BucHANAN . 
Rosert BRIDGES 


InDEXx 


C. 7 ‘ 7 
—- a + yy S im : 
> a _ 


ede: 


‘ ae ; 
7 . ae _ 
a 


itt ian “a aan 
Pabag SANTO cLARe 


1 pees pike { 


PRE-RAPHAELITE 
AND OTHER POETS 


CHAPTER I 
STUDIES IN ROSSETTI 


I 


We must rank Dante Gabriel Rossetti as not inferior 
to Tennyson in workmanship—therefore as occupying 
the very first rank in nineteenth century poetry. He 
was not inferior to Tennyson either as a thinker, but 
his thinking was in totally different directions. He 
had no sympathy with the ideas of his own century; he 
lived and thought in the Middle Ages; and while one of 
our very greatest English poets, he takes a place apart, 
for he does not reflect the century at all. He had the 
dramatic gift, but it was a gift in his case much more 
limited than that of Browning. Altogether we can 
safely give him a place in the first rank as a maker 
of poetry, but in all other respects we cannot classify 
him in any way. He remains a unique figure in the 
Victorian age, a figure such as may not reappear for 
hundreds of years to come. It was as if a man of the 
thirteenth century had been reborn into the nineteenth 
century, and, in spite of modern culture, had continued 


[1] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


to think and to feel very much as men felt and thought 
in the time of the great Italian poete Dante. 

One reason for this extraordinary difference between 
himself and his contemporaries was that Rossetti was 
not an Englishman but an Italian by blood, religion, 
and feeling. In his verse we might expect to find some- 
thing that we cannot find in any other English poet; 
and I think that we shall find it. The facts of his life— 
strange and pathetic—need not occupy us now. You 
need only remember for the present that he was a great 
painter before becoming a great poet, and that his 
painting, like his poetry, was the painting of another 
century than his own. Also it will be well to bear in 
mind that he detested modern science and modern phi- 
losophy—which fact makes it all the more remarkable 
that he uttered some great thoughts quite in harmony 
with the most profound philosophy of the Orient. 

In studying the best of his poetry, it will be well for 
us to consider it by groups, taking a few specimens 
from each group as examples of the rest; since we shall 
not have time to read even a quarter of all his produc- 
tion. ‘Taking the very simplest of his work to begin 
with, I shall make a selection from what I might call the 
symbolic group, for want of a better name. I mean 
those poems which are parables, or symbolic illustra- 
tions of deep truths—poems which seem childishly sim- 
ple, but are nevertheless very deep indeed. We may 
begin with a little piece called “The Mirror.” 


She knew it not,—most perfect pain 
To learn: this too she knew not. Strife 
For me, calm hers, as from the first. 


[2] 


Studies in Rossetti 


"Twas but another bubble burst 
Upon the curdling draught of life,— 
My silent patience mine again. 


As who, of forms that crowd unknown 
Within a distant mirror’s shade, 
Deems such an one himself, and makes 
Some sign; but when the image shakes 
No whit, he finds his thought betray’d, 
And must seek elsewhere for his own. 


So far as the English goes, this verse is plain enough; 
but unless you have met with the same idea in some other 
English writer, you will find the meaning very obscure. 
The poet is speaking of a universal, or almost univer- 
sal, experience of misplaced love. A man becomes pas- 
sionately attached to a woman, who treats him with, 
cold indifference. Finally the lover finds out his mis- 
take; the woman that he loved proves not to be what 
he imagined; she is not worthy of his love. Then what 
was he in love with? With a shadow out of his brain, 
with an imagination or ideal very pure and noble, but 
only an imagination. Supposing that he was worship- 
ping good qualities in a noble woman, he deceived him- 
self ; the woman had no such qualities ; they existed only 
in his fancy. Thus he calls her his mirror, the human 
being that seemed to be a reflection of all that was good 
in his own heart. She never knows the truth as to why 
the man loved her and then ceased to love her; he could 
not tell her, because it would have been to her “most 
perfect pain to learn.” 

A less obscure but equally beautiful symbolism, in an- 
other metre, is “The Honeysuckle.” 


[3] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


I plucked a honeysuckle where 
The hedge on high is quick with thorn, 
And climbing for the prize, was torn, 
And fouled my feet in quag-water ; 
And by the thorns and by the wind 
The blossom that I took was thinn’d, 
And yet I found it sweet and fair. 


Thence to a richer growth I came, 
Where, nursed in mellow intercourse, 
The honeysuckles sprang by scores, 

Not harried like my single stem, 

All virgin lamps of scent and dew. 
So from my hand that first I threw, 
Yet plucked not any more of them. 


It often happens that a young man during his first 
struggle in life, when all the world seems to be against 
him, meets with some poor girl who loves him. She is 
not educated as he has been; she is ignorant of many 
things, and she has suffered herself a great deal of 
hardship, so that although beautiful naturally and 
good-hearted, both her beauty and her temper have been 
a little spoiled by the troubles of life. The young man 
whom she loves is obliged to mix with a very poor and 
vulgar class of people in order to become intimate with 
her. There are plenty of rough common men who. 
would like to get that girl; and the young man has a 
good deal of trouble in winning her away from them. 
With all her small faults she seems for the time very 
beautiful to her lover, because he cannot get any finer 
woman while he remains poor. But presently success 
comes to him, and he is able to enter a much higher 


[4] 


Studies in Rossetti 


class of society, where he finds scores of beautiful girls, 
much more accomplished than his poor sweetheart; and 
he becomes ashamed of her and cruelly abandons her. 
But he does not marry any of the rich and beautiful 
women. Perhaps he is tired of women; perhaps his 
heart has been spoiled. The poet does not tell us why. 
He simply tells a story of human ingratitude which is 
as old as the world. 

One more simple poem before we take up the larger 
and more complicated pieces of the group. 


THE WOODSPURGE 


The wind flapped loose, the wind was still, 
Shaken out dead from tree and hill: 

I had walked on at the wind’s will,— 

I sat now, for the wind was still. 


Between my knees my forehead was,— 
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas! 
My hair was over in the grass, 


My naked ears heard the day pass. 


My eyes, wide open, had the run 

Of some ten weeds to fix upon; 

Among those few, out of the sun, 

The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one. 
From perfect grief there need not be 
Wisdom or even memory: 

One thing then learnt remains to me,— 
The woodspurge has a cup of three! 


The phenomenon here described by the poet is uncon- 
sciously familiar to most of us. Any person who has 
suffered some very great pain, moral pain, is apt to 


[5] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


observe during that instant of suffering things which 
he never observed before, or to notice details never 
noticed before in common things. One reason is that at 
such a time sense-impressions are stimulated to a strange 
degree by the increase of circulation, while the eyes and 
ears remain automatically active only. Whoever 
among you can remember the pain of losing a parent 
or beloved friend, will probably remember with ex- 
traordinary vividness all kinds of little things seen 
‘or heard at the time, such as the cry of a bird or a 
cricket, the sound of the dripping of water, the form 
of a sunbeam upon a wall, the shapes of shadows in a 
garden. The personage of this poem often before saw 
the woodspurge, without noticing anything particular 
about it; but in a moment of great sorrow observing 
the plant, he learns for the first time the peculiar form 
of its flower. In a wonderful novel by Henry Kingsley, 
called ‘“Ravenshoe,” there is a very striking example 
of the same thing. <A cavalry-soldier, waiting in the 
saddle for the order to charge the enemy, observes on 
the back of the soldier before him a grease-spot which 
looks exactly like the map of Sweden, and begins to 
think that if the outline of Norway were beside it, the 
upper part of the map would go over the shoulder of 
the man. This fancy comes to him in a moment when 
he believes himself going to certain death. 

Now we will take a longer poem, very celebrated, en- 


titled **The Cloud Confines.” 


The day is dark and the night 
To him that would search their heart; 
No lips of cloud that will part 

Nor morning song in the light: 


[6] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Only, gazing alone, 
To him wild shadows are shown, 
Deep under deep unknown, 
And height above unknown height. 
Still we say as we go,— 
“Strange to think by the way, 
Whatever there is to know, 
That shall we know one day.” 


The Past is over and fled; 
Named new, we name it the old; 
Thereof some tale hath been told, 
But no word comes from the dead; 
Whether at all they be, 
Or whether as bond or free, 
Or whether they too were we, 
Or by what spell they have sped. 
Still we say as we go,— 
“Strange to think by the way, 
Whatever there is to know, 
That shall we know one day.” 


What of the heart of hate 
That beats in thy breast, O Time ?— 
Red strife from the furthest prime, 
And anguish of fierce debate; 
War that shatters her slain, 
And peace that grinds them as grain, 
And eyes fixed ever in vain 
On the pitiless eyes of Fate. 
Still we say as we go,— 
“Strange to think by the way, 
Whatever there is to know, 
That shall we know one day.” 


[7] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


What of the heart of love 
That bleeds in thy breast, O Man?— 
Thy kisses snatched ‘neath the ban 
Of fangs that mock them above; 
Thy bells prolonged unto knells, 
Thy hope that a breath dispels, 
Thy bitter forlorn farewells 
And the empty echoes thereof? 
Still we say as we go,— 
“Strange to think by the way, 
Whatever there is to know, 
That shall we know one day.” 


The sky leans dumb on the sea, 
Aweary with all its wings; 
And oh! the song the sea sings 
Is dark everlastingly. 
Our past is clean forgot, 
Our present is and is not, 
Our future’s a sealed seedplot, 
And what betwixt them are we? 
We who say as we go,— 
“Strange to think by the way, 
Whatever there is to know, 
That shall we know one day.” 


This dark poetry is very different from the optimism 
of Tennyson; and we uncomfortably feel it to be much 
more true. In spite of all its wonderful tenderness and 
caressing hopefulness, we feel that Tennyson’s poetry 
does not illuminate the sombre problems of life. But 
Rossetti will not be found to be a pessimist. I shall 
presently show, by examples, the difference between 
poetical pessimism and Rossetti’s thoughtful melan- 
choly. He is simply communing with us about the 


[8] 


Studies in Rossetti 


mystery of the universe—sadly enough, but always 
truthfully. We may even suspect a slight mockery 
in the burthen of his poem: 


Whatever there is to know, 
That shall we know one day. 


Suppose there is nothing to know? “Very well,” the 
poet would answer, “then we shall know nothing.” Al- 
though by education and by ancestry a Roman Catho- 
lic, Rossetti seems to have had just as little faith as 
any of his great contemporaries; the artistic and emo-. 
tional side of Catholicism made strong appeal to his 
nature as an artist, but so far as personal belief is 
concerned we may judge him by his own lines: 


Would God I knew there were a God to thank 
When thanks rise in me! 


Nevertheless we have here no preacher of negation, 
but a sincere doubter. We know nothing of the secret 
of the universe, the meaning of its joy and pain and 
impermanency ; we do not know anything of the dead; 
we do not know the meaning of time or space or life. 
But just for that reason there may be marvellous things 
to know. The dead do not come back, but we do not 
know whether they could come back, nor even the real 
meaning of death. Do we even know, he asks, whether 
the dead were not ourselves? This thought, like the 
thought in the poem “Sudden Light,” is peculiar to 
Rossetti. You will find nothing of this thought in any 
other Victorian poet of great rank—except, indeed, in 
some of the work of O’Shaughnessy, who is now coming 


[9] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


into a place of eminence only second to that of the 
four great masters. 

Besides this remarkable line, which I have asked you 
to put in italics, you should remember those two very 
splendid lines in the third stanza: 


War that shatters her slain, 
And peace that grinds them as grain. 


These have become famous. The suggestion is that 
peace is more cruel than war. In battle a man is dashed 
to pieces, and his pain is immediately over. In the com- 
petition of civil life, the weak and the stupid, no matter 
how good or moral they may be, are practically crushed 
by the machinery of Western civilisation, as grain 
might be crushed in a mill. 

In the last stanza of the composition you will doubt- 
less have observed the pathetic reference to the mean- 
ing of the song of the sea, mysterious and awful beyond 
all other sounds of nature. Rossetti’ has not failed 
to consider this sound, philosophically and emotionally, 
in one of his most beautiful poems. And now I want 
to show you, by illustration, the difference between a 
really pessimistic treatment of a subject and Rossetti’s 
treatment of it. Perhaps the very finest example of 
pessimism in Victorian poetry is a sonnet by Lee-Ham- 
ilton, on the subject of a sea-shell. You know that if 
you take a large sea-shell of a particular form, and 
hold it close to your ear, you will hear a sound like the 
sound of the surf, as if the ghost of the sea were in the 
shell. Nearly all English children have the experience 
of listening to the sound of the sea in a shell; it startles 
them at first; but nobody tells them what the sound 


[10] 


Studies in Rossetti 


really is, for that would spoil their surprise and de- 
light. You must not tell a child that there are no 
ghosts or fairies. Well, Rossetti and Lee-Hamilton 
wrote about this sound of the sea in a shell—but how 
differently! Here is Lee-Hamilton’s composition: 


The hollow sea-shell, which for years hath stood 
On dusty shelves, when held against the ear 
Proclaims its stormy parent; and we hear 

The faint far murmur of the breaking flood. 

We hear the sea. The sea? It is the blood 

In our own veins, impetuous and near, 

And pulses keeping pace with hope and fear, 
And with our feelings’ ever-shifting mood. 


Lo! in my heart I hear, as in a shell, 

The murmur of a world beyond the grave, 
Distinct, distinct, though faint and far it be. 
Thou fool; this echo is a cheat as well,— 
The hum of earthly instincts; and we crave 
A world unreal as the shell-heard sea. 


Of course this is a very fine poem, so far as the poetry 
is concerned. But it is pessimism absolute. Its author, 
a brilliant graduate of Oxford University, entered the 
English diplomatic service as a young man, and in the 
middle of a promising career was attacked by a disease 
of the spine which left him a hopeless invalid. We 
might say that he had some reason to look at the 
world in a dark light. But such poetry is not healthy. 
It is morbid. It means retrogression. It brings a 
sharp truth to the mind with a painful shock, and leaves 
an after-impression of gloom unspeakable. As I said 
before, we must not spoil the happiness of children by 


[11] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


telling them that there are no ghosts or fairies. So 
we must not tell the humanity which believes in happi- 
ness after death that there is no heaven. All progress 
is through faith and hope in something. The measure 
of a poet is in the largeness of the thought which he 
can apply to any subject, however trifling. Bearing 
this in mind, let us now see how the same subject of 
the sea-shell appeals to the thought of Rossetti. You 
will then perceive the difference between pessimism and 
philosophical humanitarianism. 


THE SEA-LIMITS 


Consider the sea’s listless chime: 
Time’s self it is, made audible,— 
The murmur of the earth’s own shell. 
Secret continuance sublime 
Is the sea’s end: our sight may pass 
No furlong further. Since time was, 
This sound hath told the lapse of time. 


No quiet, which is death’s,—it hath 
The mournfulness of ancient life, 
Enduring always at dull strife. 

As the world’s heart of rest and wrath, 
Its painful pulse is in the sands. 
Last utterly, the whole sky stands, 

Grey and not known, along its path. 


Listen alone beside the sea, 
Listen alone among the woods; 
Those voices of twin solitudes 
Shall have one sound alike to thee: 
Hark where the murmurs of thronged men 
Surge and sink back and surge again,— 
Still the one voice of wave and tree. 


[12] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Gather a shell from the strown beach 
And listen at its lips: they sigh 
The same desire and mystery, 

The echo of the whole sea’s speech. 
And all mankind is thus at heart 
Not anything but what thou art: 

And Earth, Sea, Man, are all in each. 


In the last beautiful stanza we have a comparison as 
sublime as any ever made by any poet—of the human 
heart, the human life, re-echoing the murmur of the 
infinite Sea of Life. As the same sound of the sea is 
heard in every shell, so in every human heart is the 
_same ghostly murmur of Universal Being. The sound 
of the sea, the sound of the forest, the sound of men 
in cities, not only are the same to the ear, but they 
tell the same story of pain. The sound of the sea is 
a sound of perpetual strife, the sound of the woods 
in the wind is a sound of ceaseless struggle, the tumult 
of a great city is also a tumult of effort. In this sense 
all the three sounds are but one, and that one is the 
sound of life everywhere. Life is pain, and therefore 
sadness. The world itself is like a great shell full of 
this sound. But it is a shell on the verge of the In- 
finite. The millions of suns, the millions of planets and 
moons, are all of them but shells on the shore of the 
everlasting sea of death and birth, and each would, 
if we could hear it, convey to our ears and hearts the 
one same murmur of pain. This is, to my thinking, 
a much vaster conception than anything to be found 
in Tennyson; and such a poem as that of Lee-Hamil- 
ton dwindles into nothingness beside it, for we have here 
all that man can know of our relation to the universe, 


[13] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


and the mystery of that universe brought before us 
by a simile of incomparable sublimity. 

Before leaving this important class of poems, let me 
cite another instance of the comparative nearness of 
Rossetti at times to Oriental thought. It is the fif- 
teenth of that wonderful set of sonnets entitled the 


“House of Life.” 


THE BIRTH-BOND 


Have you not noted, in some family 

Where two were born of a first marriage-bed, 

How still they own their gracious bond, though fed 
And nursed on the forgotten breast and knee? 
How to their father’s children they shall be 

In act and thought of one goodwill; but each 

Shall for the other have, in silence speech, 
And in a word complete community? 


Even so, when first I saw you, seemed it, love, 
That among souls allied to mine was yet 

One nearer kindred than life hinted of. 
O born with me somewhere that men forget, 
And though in years of sight and sound unmet, 

Known for my soul’s birth-partner well enough! 


This beautiful little thought of love is almost exactly 
the same as that suggested in a well-known Japanese 
proverb about the relations of a previous existence. 
We have here, in an English poet, who very probably 
never read anything about Buddhism, the very idea of 
the Buddhist en. The whole tendency of the poet's 
mind was toward larger things than his early training 


had prepared him for. 
[14] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Yet it would be a mistake to suppose Rossetti a 
pure mystic; he was too much of an artist for that. No 
one felt the sensuous charm of life more keenly, nor the 
attraction of plastic beauty and grace. By way of an 
interlude, we may turn for a time to his more sensuous 
poetry. It is by this that he is best known; for you 
need not suppose that the general English public un- 
derstands such poems a6 those which we have been exam- 
ining. Keep in mind that there is a good deal of dif- 
ference between the adjectives “sensuous” and “sen- 
sual.” The former has no evil meaning; it refers only 
to sense-impression—to sensations visual, auditory, 
tactile. The other adjective is more commonly used 
in « bad sense, At one time an attempt was made to 
injure Rossetti by applying it to his work; but all good 
critics have severely condemned that attempt, and Ros- 
setti must not be regarded as in any sense an immora) 
poet. 


m1 


To the cultivated the very highest quality of emo- 
tional poetry is that given by blending the artistically 
sensuous with the mystic. This very rare quality 
colours the greater part of Rossetti’s work. Perhaps 
one may even say that it is never entirely absent. 
Only, the proportions of the blending vary, like those 
mixtures of red and blue, crimson and azure, which may 
give us cither purple or violet of different shades ac- 
cording to the wish of the dyer. The quality of mys- 
ticisss dominates in the symbolic poems; we might call 
those deep purple. The sensuous clement dominates in 
most of the ballads and narrative poems; we might say 


[15] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


that these have rather the tone of bright violet. But 
even ir. the ballads there is a very great difference in 
the proportions of the two qualities. The highest tone 
is in the “Blessed Damozel,”’ and in the beautiful nar- 
rative poem of the “Staff and Scrip”; while the lowest 
tone is perhaps that of the ballad of “Eden Bower,” 
which describes the two passions of lust and hate at 
their greatest intensity. But everything is beautifully 
finished as work, and unapproachably exquisite in feel- 
ing. I think the best example of what I have called the 
violet style is the ballad of “Troy Town.” 


Heavenborn Helen, Sparta’s Queen, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Had two breasts of heavenly sheen, 
The sun and moon of the heart’s desire: 
All Love’s lordship lay between. 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


Helen knelt at Venus’ shrine, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Saying, “A little gift is mine, 
A little gift for a heart’s desire. 
Hear me speak and make me a sign! 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


“Look! I bring thee a carven cup; 
(O Troy Town!) 
See it here as I hold it up,— 
Shaped it is to the heart’s desire, 
Fit to fill when the gods would sup. 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


[16] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“It was moulded like my breast; 
(O Troy Town!) 
He that sees it may not rest, 
Rest at all for his heart’s desire. 
O give ear to my heart’s behest! 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on jire!) 


“See my breast, how like it is; 
(O Troy Town!) 

See it bare for the air to kiss! 

Is the cup to thy heart’s desire? 

O for the breast, O make it his! 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


“Yea, for my bosom here I sue; 
(O Troy Town!) 
Thou must give it where ’tis due, 
Give it there to the heart’s desire. 
Whom do I give my bosom to? 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


“Each twin breast is an apple sweet! 


(O Troy Town!) 
Once an apple stirred the beat 


Of thy heart with the heart’s desire :— 
Say, who brought it then to thy feet? 


(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


“They that claimed it then were three: 


(O Troy Town!) 
For thy sake two hearts did he 
Make forlorn of the hearts desire. 


[17] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Do for him as he did for thee! 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


“Mine are apples grown to the south, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Grown to taste in the days of drouth, 
Taste and waste to the heart’s desire: 
Mine are apples meet for his mouth!” 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


Venus looked on Helen’s gift, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Looked and smiled with subtle drift, 
Saw the work of her heart’s desire :— 
“There thou kneel’st for Love to lift!” 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


Venus looked in Helen’s face, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Knew far off an hour and place, 
And fire lit from the heart’s desire; 
Laughed and said, “Thy gift hath grace!” 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


Cupid looked on Helen’s breast, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Saw the heart within its nest, 
Saw the flame of the heart’s desire,— 
Marked his arrow’s burning crest. 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


[18] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Cupid took another dart, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Fledged it for another heart, 
Winged the shaft with the heart’s desire, 
Drew the string, and said “Depart!” 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


Paris turned upon his bed, 
(O Troy Town!) 
Turned upon his bed, and said, 
Dead at heart with the heart’s desire,— 
“O to clasp her golden head!” 
(O Troy’s down! 
Tall Troy’s on fire!) 


This wonderful ballad, with its single and its double 
refrains, represents Rossetti’s nearest approach to 
earth, except the ballad of “Eden Bower.” Usually 
he seldom touches the ground, but moves at some dis- 
tance above it, just as one flies in dreams. But you 
will observe that the mysticism here has almost van- 
ished. There is just a little ghostliness to remind you 
that the writer is no common singer, but a poet able 
to give a thrill. The ghostliness is chiefly in the fact 
of the supernatural elements involved; Helen with her 
warm breast we feel to be a real woman, but Venus and 
love are phantoms, who speak and act as figures in 
sleep. This is true art under the circumstances. We 
feel nothing more human until we come to the last 
stanza; then we hear it in the cry of Paris. But why 
do I say that this is high art to make the gods as they 
are made here? The Greeks would have made Venus 
and Cupid purely human. But Rossetti is not taking 


[19] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


the Greek view of the subject at all. He is taking the 
medieval one. He is writing of Greek gods and Greek 
legends as such subjects were felt by Chaucer and by 
the French poets of the thirteenth and fourteenth cen- 
turies. It would not be easy to explain the medieval 
tone of the poem to you; that would require a compari- 
son with the work of very much older poets. I only 
want now to call your attention to the fact that even 
in a Greek subject of the sensuous kind Rossetti always 
keeps the tone of the Middle Ages; and that tone was 
mystical. 

Having given this beautiful example of the least 
mystical class of Rossetti’s ight poems, let us pass at 
once to the most mystical. These are in all respects, 
I am not afraid to say, far superior. The poem by 
which Rossetti became first widely known and admired 
was ‘The Blessed Damozel.” This and a lovely narra- 
tive poem entitled “Staff and Scrip” form the most 
exquisite examples of the poet’s treatment of mystical 
love. You should know both of them; but we shall first 
take “The Blessed Damozel.” 

This is the story of a woman in heaven, speaking of 
the man she loved on earth. She is waiting for him. 
She watches every new soul that comes to heaven, hop- 
ing that it may be the soul of her lover. While wait- 
ing thus, she talks to herself about what she will do to 
make her lover happy when he comes, how she will show 
him all the beautiful things in heaven, and will introduce 
him to the holy saints and angels. That is all. But 
it is very wonderful in its sweetness of simple pathos, 
and in a peculiar, indescribable quaintness which is not 
of the nineteenth century at all. It is of the Middle 

[20] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Ages, the Italian Middle Ages before the time of 
Raphael. The heaven painted here is not the heaven 
of modern Christianity—if modern Christianity can be 
said to have a heaven; it is the heaven of Dante, a 
heaven almost as sharply defined as if it were on earth. 


THE BLESSED DAMOZEL 


The blessed damozel leaned out 
From the gold bar of Heaven; 

Her eyes were deeper than the depth 
Of waters stilled at even; 

She had three lilies in her hand, 
And the stars in her hair were seven. 


Damozel. This is only a quaint form of the same 
word which in modern French signifies a young lady— 
demoiselle. The suggestion is not simply that it is a 
maiden that speaks, but a maiden of noble blood. The 
idea of the poet is exactly that of Dante in speaking 
of Beatrice. Seven is the mystical number of Chris- 
tianity. 

Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem, 
No wrought flowers did adorn, 

But a white rose of Mary’s gift, 
For service meetly worn; 

Her hair that lay along her back 
Was yellow like ripe corn. 


Clasp. The ornamental fastening of the dress at the 
neck. ‘From clasp to hem” thus signifies simply “from 
neck to feet,” for the hem of a garment means especially 
its lower edge. Wrought flowers here means embroid- 
ered flowers. The dress has no ornament and no 


[21] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


girdle; it is a dress of the thirteenth century as to 
form; but it may interest you to know that usually 
in religious pictures of angels and heavenly souls (the 
French religious prints are incomparably the best): 
there is no girdle, and the robe falls straight from neck 
to feet. Service. The maiden in heaven becomes a 
servant of the Mother of God. But the medieval idea 
was that the daughter of a very noble house, entering 
heaven, might be honoured by being taken into the 
service of Mary, just as in this world one might be hon- 
oured by being taken into the personal service of a queen 
oremperor. A white rose is worn as the badge or mark 
of this distinction, because white is the symbol of chas- 
tity, and Mary is especially the patron of chastity. In 
heaven also—the heaven of Dante—the white rose has 
many symbolic significations. Yellow. Compare “Elle 
est. blonde comme le blé.” (De Musset.) 


Herseemed she scarce had been a day 
One of God’s choristers ; 

The wonder was not yet quite gone 
From that still look of hers; 

Albeit, to them she left, her day 
Had counted as ten years. 


Herseemed. This word is very unusual, even obso- 
lete. Formerly instedd of saying “it seems to me,” “‘it 
seems to him,” English people used to say meseems, him- 
seems, herseems. The word “meseems” is still used, but 
only in the present, with rare exceptions. It is becom- 
ing obsolete also. Choristers. Choir-singers. The 
daily duty of angels and souls in heaven was supposed 
to be to sing the praises of God, just as on earth hymns 


[22] 


Studies in Rossetti 


are sung in church. Albeit. An ancient form of 
“although.” 


(To one, it is ten years of years, 
. . . Yet now, and in this place, 
Surely she leaned o’er me—her hair 
Fell all about my face... . 
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves. 
The whole year sets apace.) 


Ten years of years. ‘That is, years composed not of 
three hundred and. sixty-five days, but of three hundred 
and sixty-five years. To the lover on earth, deprived 
of his beloved by death, the time passes slowly so that 
a day seems as long’as a year. Sometimes he imagines 
that he feels the dead bending over him—that he feels 
her hair falling over his face. When he looks, he finds 
that it is only the leaves of the trees that have been 
falling upon him; and he knows that the autumn has 
come, and that the year is slowly dying. 


It was the rampart of God’s house 
That she was standing on; 

By God built over the sheer depth 
The which is Space begun; 

So high, that looking downward thence 
She scarce could see the sun. 


Rampart, you know, means part of a fortification; 
all the nobility of the Middle Ages lived in castles or 
fortresses, and their idea of heaven was necessarily the 
idea of a splendid castle. In the “Song of Roland” we 
find the angels and the saints spoken of as knights and 
ladies, and the language they use is the language of 
chivalry. Sheer depth, straight down, perpendicularly, 


[23] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


absolute. God’s castle overlooks, not a landscape, but 
space; the sun and the stars le far below. 


It lies in Heaven, across the flood 
Of ether, as a bridge. 

Beneath, the tides of day and night 
With flame and darkness ridge 
The void, as low as where this earth 

Spins like a fretful midge. 


Around her, lovers, newly met 
*Mid deathless love’s acclaims, 
Spoke ever more among themselves 
Their heart-remembered names; 
And the souls mounting up to God 
Went by her like thin flames. 


Ether. This is not the modern word, the scientific 
ether, but the Greek and also medieval ether, the most 
spiritual form of matter. The house of God, or heaven, 
rests upon nothing, but stretches out lke a bridge over 
the ether itself. Far below something like enormous 
waves seem to be soundlessly passing, hight and dark. 
Even in heaven, and throughout the universe, it was 
supposed in the Middle Ages that there were succes- 
sions of day and night independent of the sun. These 
are the “‘tides” described. Ridge the void means, make 
ridges or wave-like lines in the ether of space. Midge 
is used in English just as the word kobai is used in Japa- 
nese. Fretful midge, a midge that moves very quickly 
as if fretted or frightened. 


And still she bowed herself and stooped 
Out of the circling charm; 
Until her bosom must have made 


[24] 


Studies in Rossetti 


The bar she leaned on warm, 
And the lilies lay as if asleep 
Along her bended arm. 


Charm. The circling charm is not merely the gold 
railing upon which she leans, but the magical limits of 
heaven itself which holds the souls back. She cannot 
pass beyond them. Otherwise her wish would take 
her back to this world to watch by her living lover. 
But only the angels, who are the messengers of heaven, 
can go beyond the boundaries. 


From the fixed place of Heaven she saw 
Time like a pulse shake fierce 

Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove 
Within the gulf to pierce 

Its path; and now she spoke as when 
The stars sang in their spheres. 


Shake. Here in the sense of to beat like a heart or 
pulse. Heaven about her is motionless, fixed ; but look- 
ing down upon the universe she sees a luminous motion, 
regular like a heart-beat; that is Time. Its path. 
Her eyes tried to pierce a way or path for themselves 
through space; that is, she made a desperate effort to 
see farther than she could see. She is looking in vain 
for the coming of her lover. Their spheres. This is 
an allusion to a Biblical verse, “when the morning stars 
‘sang together.” It was said that when the world was 
created the stars sang for joy. 


The sun was gone now; the curled moon 
Was like a little feather 

Fluttering far down the gulf; and now 
She spoke through the still weather. 


[25] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Her voice was like the voice the stars 
Had when they sang together. 


(Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird’s song, 
Strove not her accents there, 

Fain to be hearkened? When those bells 
Possessed the mid-day air, 

Strove not her steps to reach my side 
Down all the echoing stair?) 


Stair. We must suppose the lover to be in or near 
a church with a steeple, or lofty bell tower. Outside he 
hears a bird singing; and in the sweetness of its song 
he thinks that he hears the voice of the dead girl speak- 
ing to him. Then, as the church bells send down to 
him great sweet waves of sound from the tower, he imag- 
ines that he can hear, in the volume of the sound, some- 
thing lke a whispering of robes and faint steps as of 
a spirit trying to descend to his side. 


“T wish that he were come to me, 
For he will come,” she said. 

“Have I not prayed in Heaven?—on earth, 
Lord, Lord, has he not prayed? 

Are not two prayers a perfect strength? 
And shall I fell afraid? 


An allusion to a verse in the New Testament—“if 
two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything 
that they shall ask, it shall be done for them.” She is 
a little afraid that her lover may not get to heaven after 
all, but she suddenly remembers this verse, and it gives 
her encouragement. Perfect strength means strength 
of prayer, the power of the prayer to obtain what is 


[26] 


Studies in Rossetti 


prayed for. As she and he have both been praying for 
reunion in heaven, and as Christ has promised that 
whatever two people pray for, shall be granted, she 
feels consoled. 


“When round his head the aureole clings, 
And he is clothed in white, 

‘I'll take his hand and go with him 
To the deep wells of light; 

As unto a stream we will step down, 
And bathe there in God’s sight. 


The aureole is the circle or disk of golden light round 
the head of a saint. Sometimes it is called a “glory.” 
In some respects the aureole of Christian art much re- 
sembles that of Buddhist art, with this exception, that 
some of the Oriental forms are much richer and more 
elaborate. Three forms in Christian art are especially 
common—the plain circle; the disk, like a moon or sun, 
usually made in art by a solid plate of gilded material 
behind the head; the full “glory,” enshrining the whole 
figure. There is only one curious fact to which I need 
further refer here; it is that the Holy Ghost in Chris- 
tian art has a glory of a special kind—the triangle. 
White. This is a reference to the description of heaven 
in the paradise of St. John’s vision, where all the saints 
are represented in white garments. Deep wells of light. 
Another reference to St. John’s vision, Rev. xxii, 1— 
“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear 
as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God.” In 
the heaven of the Middle Ages, as in the Buddhist para- 
dise, we find also lakes and fountains of light, or of 
liquid jewels. 

[27] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“We two will stand beside that shrine, 
Occult, withheld, untrod, 
Whose lamps are stirred continually 
With prayer sent up to God; 
And see our old prayers, granted, melt 
Each like a little cloud. 


Shrine. The Holy of Holies, or innermost. sanctu- 
ary of heaven, imagined by medieval faith as a sort of 
reserved chapel.. But the origin of the fancy will be 
explained in the next note. Lamps. See again St. 
John’s vision, Rey. iv, 5—‘‘And there were seven lamps 
of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven 
Spirits of God.” These mystical flames, representing 
special virtues and powers, would be agitated according 
to the special virtues corresponding to them in the as- 
cending prayers of men. But now we come to another 
and stranger thought. 4 little clowd. See again Rev. 
v, 8, in which reference is made to “golden vials, full of 
incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Here we 
see the evidence of a curious belief that prayers in 
heaven actually become transformed into the substance 
of incense. By the Talmudists it was said that they 
were turned into beautiful flowers. Again, in Rev. 
vill, 8, we have an allusion to this incense, made of 
prayer, being burned in heaven—‘And there was given 
unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the 
prayers of all saints.” Now the poem can be better 
understood. The Blessed Damozel thinks that her old 
prayers, that is to say, the prayers that she made on 
earth, together with those of her lover, are in heaven 
in the shape of incense. As long as prayer is not 
granted, it remains incense; when granted it becomes 


[28] 


Studies in Rossetti 


perfume smoke and vanishes. Therefore she says, “We 
shall see our old prayers, granted, melt each like a little 
cloud’”’—that is, a cloud of smoke of incense. 


“We two will lie i’ the shadow of 
That living mystic tree 

Within whose secret growth the Dove 
Is sometimes felt to be, 

While every leaf that His plumes touch 
Saith His Name audibly. 


The heavenly tree of life is described in Rev. xxvii, 
2, as bearing twelve different kinds of fruit, one for 
each of the twelve months of the year, while its leaves 
heal all diseases or troubles of any kind. The Dove 
is the Holy Ghost, who is commonly represented in 
Christian art by this bird, when he is not represented 
by a tongue or flame of fire. Every time that a leaf 
touches the body of the Dove, we are told that the leaf 
repeats the name of the Holy Ghost. In what lan- 
guage? Probably in Latin, and the sound of the Latin 
name would be like the sound of the motion of leaves, 
stirred by a wind: Sanctus Spiritus. 


“And I myself will teach to him, 
I myself, lying so, 

The songs I sing here; which his voice 
Shall pause in, hushed and slow, 

And find some knowledge at each pause, 
Or some new thing to know.” 


(Alas! we two, we two, thou say’st! 
Yea, one wast thou with me 

That once of old. But shall God lift 
To endless unity 


[29] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


The soul whose likeness with thy soul 
Was but its love for thee?) 


It is the lover who now speaks, commenting upon 
the imagined words of the beloved in heaven. Endless 
unity here has a double meaning, signifying at once 
the mystical union of the soul with God, and the re- 
union forever of lovers separated by death. The lover 
doubts whether he can be found worthy to enter heaven, 
because his only likeness to the beloved was in his love 
for her; that is to say, his merit was not so much in 
being good as in loving good in another. 


“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves 
Where the lady Mary is, 

With her fine handmaidens, whose names 
Are five sweet symphonies, 

Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen, 
Margaret, and Rosalys. 


Notice the medieval method of speaking of the 
mother of God as “‘the lady Mary”; such would have 
been the form of address for a princess or queen in 
those times. So King Arthur’s wife, in the old ro- 
mance, is called the lady Guinevere. Symphonies here 
has only the simplest meaning of a sweet sound, not of 
a combination of sounds; but the use of the word never- 
theless implies to a delicate ear that the five names make 
harmony with each other. They are names of saints, 
but also favourite names given to daughters of great 
families as Christian names. The picture is simply 
that of the lady of a great castle, surrounded by her 
waiting women, engaged in weaving and sewing. 


[30] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“Cirelewise sit they, with bound locks 
And foreheads garlanded; 

Into the fine cloth white like flame 
Weaving the golden thread, 

To fashion the birth-robes for them 
Who are just born, being dead. 


With bound locks means only with the hair tied up, 
not flowing loose, as was usual in figures of saints and 
angels. They are weaving garments for new souls 
received into heaven, just as mothers might weave cloth 
for a child soon to be born. The description of the 
luminous white cloth might be compared with descrip- 
tions in Revelation. Being dead. Christianity, like 
the Oriental religions, calls death a rebirth; but the 
doctrinal idea is entirely different. You will remem- 
ber that the Greeks represented the soul under the form 
of a butterfly. Christianity approaches the Greek 
fancy by considering the human body as a sort of cater- 
pillar, which enters the pupa-state at death; the soul 
is like the butterfly leaving the chrysalis. So far 
everything is easy to understand; but this rebirth of 
the soul is only half a rebirth in the Christian sense. 
The body is also to be born again at a later day. At 
present there are only souls in heaven; but after the 
judgment day the same bodies which they used to have 
during life are to be given back to them. Therefore 
Rossetti is not referring here to rebirth except in the 
sense of spiritual rebirth, as Christ used it, in saying 
“Ye must be born again”—that is, obtain new hearts, 
new feelings. What in Oriental poetry would repre- 
sent a fact of belief, here represents only the symbol of 
a belief, a belief of a totally different kind. 


[31] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“He shall fear, haply, and be dumb: 
Then will I lay my cheek 

To his, and tell about our love, 
Not once abashed or weak: 

And the dear Mother will approve 
My pride, and let me speak. 


“Herself shall bring us, hand in hand, 
To Him round whom all souls 

Kneel, the clear-ranged unnumbered heads 
Bowed with their aureoles: 

And angels meeting us shall sing 
To their citherns and citoles. 


“There will I ask of Christ the Lord 
Thus much for him and me:— 
Only to live as once on earth 
With Love, only to be, 
As then awhile, forever now 


Together, I and he.” 


The Damozel’s idea is that her lover will be ashamed 
and afraid to speak to the mother of God when he is 
introduced to her; but she will not be afraid to say how 
much she loves her lover, and she will cause the lady 
Mary to bring them both into the presence of God him- 
self, identified here rather with the Son than with the 


Citherns and citoles. Both words are de- 


rived from the Latin cithara, a harp, and both refer 
to long obsolete kinds of stringed instruments used dur- 
ing the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. 


She gazed and listened and then said, 
Less sad of speech than mild,— 
“All this is when he comes.” She ceased. 


[32] 


Studies in Rossetti _ 


The light thrilled toward her, filled 
With angels in strong level flight. 
Her eyes prayed, and she smiled. 


(I saw her smile.) But soon their path 
Was vague in distant spheres: 

And then she cast her arms along 
The golden barriers, 

And laid her face between her hands, 
And wept. (I heard her tears.) 


In these beautiful lines we are reminded of the special 
duty of angels, from which they take their name, “mes- 
senger’’—the duty of communicating between earth and 
heaven and bringing the souls of the dead to paradise. 
The Damozel, waiting and watching for her lover, 
imagines, whenever she sees the angels coming from 
the direction of the human world, that her lover may 
be coming with them. At last she sees a band of angels 
flying straight toward her through the luminous ether, 
which shivers and flashes before their coming. ‘Her 
eyes prayed,” that is, expressed the prayerful desire 
that it might be her beloved; and she feels almost sure 
that it is. Then comes her disappointment, for the 
angels pass out of sight in another direction, and she 
cries—even in heaven. At least her lover imagines that 
he saw and heard her weeping. 

The use of the word Damozel needs a little more 
explanation, that you may understand the great art 
with which the poem was arranged. The Old French 
damoisel (later damoiseaw) sigmified a young lad of 
noble birth or knightly parentage, employed in a noble 
house as page or squire. Originally there was no 


[33] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


feminine form; but afterwards the form damoselle came 
into use, signifying a young lady in the corresponding 
capacity. Thus Rossetti in choosing the old English 
form damozel selected perhaps the only possible word 
which could exactly express the position of the Damo- 
zel in heaven, as well as the medieval conception of that 
heaven. Our English word “damsel,” so common in the 
Bible, is a much later form than damozel. There was, 
however, a Middle English form spelled almost like the 
form used by Rossetti, except that there was an “‘s” in- 
stead of a “2.7? 

Now you will better see the meaning of Rossetti’s 
mysticism. When you make religion love, without 
ceasing to be religious, and make love religion, without 
ceasing to be human and sensuous, in the good sense 
of the word, then you have made a form of mysticism. 
The blending in Rossetti is very remarkable, and has 
made this particular poem the most famous thing which 
he wrote. We have here a picture of heaven, with all 
its mysteries and splendours, suspended over an ocean 
of ether, through which souls are passing like an up- 
ward showering of fire; and all this is spiritual enough. 
But the Damozel, with her yellow hair, and her bosom 
making warm what she leans upon, is very human; 
and her thoughts are not of the immaterial kind. The 
suggestions about bathing together, about embracing, 
cheek against cheek, and about being able to love in 
heaven as on earth, have all the delightful innocence 
of the Middle Ages, when the soul was thought of only 
as another body of finer substance. Now it is alto- 
gether the human warmth of the poem that makes its 
intense attraction. Rarely to-day can any Western 


[84] 


Studies in Rossetti 


poet write satisfactorily about heavenly things, be- 
cause we have lost the artless feeling of the Middle 
Ages, and we cannot think of the old heaven as a real- 
ity. In order to write such things, we should have 
to get back the heart of our fathers; and Rossetti hap- 
pened to be born with just such a heart. He had prob- 
ably little or no real faith in religion; but he was 
able to understand exactly how religious people felt 
hundreds of years ago. 

Let us now turn to a more earthly phase of the same 
tone of love which appears in ‘The Blessed Damozel.” 
Now it is the lover himself on earth who is speaking, 
while contemplating the portrait of the dead woman 
whom he loved. We shall only make extracts, on ac- 
count of the extremely elaborate and difficult structure 
of the poem. 


THE PORTRAIT 


This is her picture as she was: 
It seems a thing to wonder on, 
As though mine image in the glass 
Should tarry when myself am gone. 
I gaze until she seems to stir,— 
Until mine ‘eyes almost aver 
That now, even now, the sweet lips part 
To breathe the words of the sweet heart:— 
And yet the earth is over her. 


° e . ° 


Even so, where Heaven holds breath and hears 
The beating heart of Love’s own breast,— 
Where round the secret of all spheres 
All angels lay their wings to rest,— 


[35] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


How shall my soul stand rapt and awed, 
When, by the new birth borne abroad 
Throughout the music of the suns, 
It enters in her soul at once 
And knows the silence there for God! 


Here is the very highest form of mystical love; for 
love is identified with God, and the reunion in heaven 
is a blending, not with a mere fellow soul, but with the 
Supreme Being. By “silence” here you must under- 
stand rest, heavenly peace. The closing stanza of the 
poem contains one of the most beautiful images of com- 
parison ever made in any language. 


Here with her face doth memory sit 
Meanwhile, and wait the day’s decline, 

Till other eyes shall look from it, 

Eyes of the spirit’s Palestine, 

Even than the old gaze tenderer: 

While hopes and aims long lost with her 
Stand round her image side by side, 
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died 

About the Holy Sepulchre. 


What the poet means is this: “Now I sit, remember- 
ing the past, and look at her face in the picture, as 
long as the ight of day remains. Presently, with twi- 
light the stars will shine out like eyes in heaven—heaven 
which is my Holy Land, because she is there. Those 
stars will then seem to me even as her eyes, but more 
beautiful, more loving than the living eyes. The hopes 
and the projects which I used to entertain for her sake, 
and which died when she died—they come back to mind, 
but like the graves ranged around the grave of Christ 


[36] 


Studies in Rossetti 


at Jerusalem.” The reference is of course to the great 
pilgrimages of the Middle Ages made to Jerusalem. 

More than the artist speaks here; and if there be not 
strong faith, there is at least beautiful hope. A more 
tender feeling could not be combined with a greater 
pathos; but Rossetti often reaches the very same su- 
preme quality of sentiment, even in poems of a charac- 
ter closely allied to romance. We can take “The Staff 
and Scrip” as an example of medieval story of the 
highest emotional quality. 


“Who rules these lands?” the Pilgrim said. 
“Stranger, Queen Blanchelys.” 
“And who has thus harried them?” he said. 
“Tt was Duke Luke did this; 
God’s ban be his!” 


The Pilgrim said, ““Where is your house? 
Tl rest there, with your will.” 
“You've but to climb these blackened boughs 
And you'll see it over the hill, 
For it burns still.” 


“Which road, to seek your Queen?” said he. 
“Nay, nay, but with some wound 
You'll fly back hither, it may be, 
And by your blood i’ the ground 
My place be found.” 


“Friend, stay in peace. God keep your head, 
And mine, where I will go; 
For He is here and there,” he said. 
He passed the hillside, slow, 
And stood below. 


[37] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


So far the poem is so simple that no one could expect 
anything very beautiful in the sequence. We only have 
a conversation between a pilgrim from the Holy Land, 
returned to his native country (probably medieval 
France), and a peasant or yeoman belonging to the es- 
tate of a certain Queen. We may suspect, however, 
from the conversation, that the pilgrim is a knight or 
noble, and probably has been a crusader. He sees that 
the country has been ravaged by some merciless enemy ; 
and the peasant tells him that it was Duke Luke. The 
peasant’s house is burning; he himself is hiding in ter- 
ror of his life. But the pilgrim is not afraid, and 
goes to see the Queen in spite of all warning. One can 
imagine very well that the purpose of the Duke in thus 
making war upon a woman was to force a marriage as 
well as to acquire territory. Now it was the duty of a 
true knight to help any woman unjustly oppressed or 
attacked ; therefore the pilgrim’s wish to see the Queen 
is prompted by this sense of duty. Hereafter the poem 
has an entirely different tone. 


The Queen sat idle by her loom: 
She heard the arras stir, 
And looked up sadly: through the room 
The sweetness sickened her 
Of musk and myrrh. 


Her women, standing two and two, 
In silence combed the fleece. 
The Pilgrim said, “Peace be with you, 
Lady”; and bent his knees. 
She answered, “Peace.” 


[38] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Her eyes were like the wave within; 
Like water-reeds the poise 
Of her soft body, dainty-thin; 
And like the water’s noise 
Her plaintive voice. 


The naked walls of rooms during the Middle Ages 
were covered with drapery or tapestry, on which figures 
were embroidered or woven. Arras was the name given 
to a kind of tapestry made at the town of Arras in 
France. 


For him, the stream had never well’d 
In desert tracts malign 
So sweet; nor had he ever felt 
So faint in the sunshine 
Of Palestine. 


Right so, he knew that he saw weep 
Each night through every dream 
The Queen’s own face, confused in sleep 
With visages supreme 
Not known to him. 


At this point the poem suddenly becomes mystical. 
It is not chance nor will that has brought these two 
together, but some divine destiny. As he sees the 
Queen’s face for the first time with his eyes, he remem- 
bers having seen the same face many times before in 
his dreams. And when he saw it in dreams, it was also 
the face of a woman weeping; and there were also other 
faces in the dream, not human but ‘‘supreme”—prob- 
ably angels or other heavenly beings. 

[39] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Lady,” he said, “your lands lie burnt 
And waste: to meet your foe 
All fear: this I have seen and learnt. 
Say that it shall be so, 
And I will go.” 


She gazed at him. “Your cause is just, 
For I have heard the same:” 
He said: “God’s strength shall be my trust. 
Fall it to good or grame, 
*Tis in His name.” 


“Sir, you are thanked. My cause is dead. 
Why should you toil to break 
A grave, and fall therein?” she said. 
He did not pause but spake: 
“For my vow’s sake.” 


“Can such vows be, Sir—to God’s ear, 
Not to God’s will?” “My vow 
Remains: God heard me there as here,” 
He said, with reverent brow, 
“Both then. and. now.” 


They gazed together, he and she, 
The minute while he spoke; 
And when he ceased, she suddenly 
Looked round upon her folk 
As though she woke. 


“Fight, Sir,” she said; “my prayers in pain 
Shall be your fellowship.” 
He whispered one among her train,— 
“To-morrow bid her keep 
This staff and scrip.” 


[40] 


Studies in Rossetti 


The scrip was a kind of wallet or bag carried by 
pilgrims. Now we have a few sensuous touches, of the 
kind in which Rossetti excels all other poets, because 
they always are kept within the extreme limits of artis- 
tic taste. 


She sent him a sharp sword, whose belt 
About his body there 
As sweet as her own arms he felt. 
He kissed its blade, all bare, 
Instead of her. 


She sent him a green banner wrought 
With one white lily stem, 
To bind his lance with when he fought. 
He writ upon the same 
And kissed her name. 


“Wrought” here signifies embroidered with the design 
of the white lily. Remember that the Queen’s name is 
white lily (Blanchelys), and the flower is her crest. It 
was the custom for every knight to have fastened to his 
lance a small flag or pennon—also called sometimes 


“pennant.” 


She,sent him a white shield, whereon 
She bade that he should trace 
His will. He blent fair hues that shone, 


And in a golden space 
He kissed her face. 


Being appointed by the Queen her knight, it would 
have been more customary that she should tell him what 
design he should put upon his shield—heraldic privi- 
leges coming from the sovereign only. But she tells him 


[41] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


generously that he may choose any design that he 
pleases. He returns the courtesy very beautifully. by 
painting the Queen’s face on the shield upon a back- 
ground of gold, and kissing the image. By “space” 
here must be understood a quarter, or compartment, 
of the shield, according to the rules of heraldry. 


Born of the day that died, that eve 
Now dying sank to rest; 
As he, in likewise taking leave, 
Once with a heaving breast 
Looked to the west. 


And there the sunset skies unseal’d, 
Like lands he never knew, 
Beyond to-morrow’s battle-field 
Lay open out of view 
To ride into. 


Here we have the suggestion of emotions known to us 
all, when looking into a beautiful sunset sky in which 
there appeared to be landscapes of gold and purple and 
other wonderful colours, like some glimpse of a heavenly 
world. Notice the double suggestion of this verse. 
The knight, having bidden the Queen good-bye, is riding 
home, looking, as he rides, into the sunset and over the 
same plain where he must fight to-morrow. Looking, 
he sees such landscapes—strangely beautiful, more 
beautiful than anything in the real world. Then he 
thinks that heaven might be like that. At the same time 
he has a premonition that he is going to be killed the 
next day, and this thought comes to him: “Perhaps I 
shall ride into that heaven to-morrow.” 


[42] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Next day till dark the women pray’d; 
Nor any might know there 
How the fight went; the Queen has bade 
That there do come to her 
No messengez. 


The Queen is pale, her maidens ail; 
And to the organ-tones 
They sing but faintly, who sang well 
The matin-orisons, 
The lauds and nones. 


Orison means a prayer; matin has the same meaning 
as the French word, spelled in the same way, for morn- 
ing. Matin-orisons are morning prayers, but special 
prayers belonging to the ancient church services are 
intended; these prayers are still called matins. Lauds 
is also the name of special prayers of the Roman morn- 
ing service ; the word properly means “‘praises.”” Nones 
is the name of a third special kind of prayers, intended 
to be repeated or sung at the ninth hour of the morn- 
ing—hence nones. 


Lo, Father, is thine ear inclin’d, 
And hath thine angel pass’d? 
For these thy watchers now are blind 
With vigil, and at last 
Dizzy with fast. 


Weak now to them the voice o’ the priest 
As any trance affords; 
And when each anthem failed and ceas’d, 
It seemed that the last chords 
Still sang the words. 


[43] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 
By Father is here meant God—probably in the per- 


son of Christ. To incline the ear means to listen. 
When this expression is used of God it always means 
listening to prayer. In the second line angel has the 
double signification of spirit and messenger, but espe- 
cially the latter. Why is the expression “at last” used 
here? It was the custom when making special prayer 
both to remain without sleep, which was called “‘keeping 
vigil’* or watch, and to remain without food, or ‘to 
fast.” The evening has come and the women have not 
eaten, anything all day. At first they were too anxious 
to feel hungry, but at last as the night advances, they 
become too- weak. 


“Oh, what is the light that shines so red? 
*Tis long since the sun set’; 
Quoth the youngest to the eldest maid: 
“°Twas dim but now, and yet 
The light is great.” 


Quoth the other: “’Tis our sight is dazed 
That we see flame i’ the air.” 
But the Queen held her brows and gazed, 
And said, “It is the glare 
Of torches there.” 


Held her brows—that is, put her hand above her eyes 
so as to see better by keeping off the light in the room. 
There is a very nice suggestion here; the Queen hears 
and sees better than the young girls, not simply because 
she has finer senses, or because she has more to fear by 
the loss of her kingdom. It is the intensification of the 
senses caused by love that makes her see and hear so 


well. 
[44] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“Oh what are the sounds that rise and spread? 
All day it was so still;” 
Quoth the youngest to the eldest maid: 
“Unto the furthest hill 
The air they fill.” 


Quoth the other: “’Tis our sense is blurr’d 
With all the chants gone by.” 
But the Queen held her breath and heard, 
And said, “It is the cry 
Of Victory.” 


The first of all the rout was sound, 
The next were dust and flame, 
And then the horses shook the ground; 
And in the thick of them 
A still band came. 


I think that no poet in the world ever performed a 
greater feat than this stanza, in which, and in three 
lines only, the whole effect of the spectacle and sound 
of an army returning at night has been given. We 
must suppose that the women have gone out to wait for 
the army. It comes; but the night is dark, and they 
hear at first only the sound of the coming, the tramp 
of black masses of men passing. Probably these would 
be the light troops, archers and footmen. The lights 
are still behind, with the cavalry. Then the first ap- 
pearance is made in the light of torches—foot soldiers 
still, covered with dust and carrying lights with them. 
Then they feel the ground shake under the weight of 
the feudal cavalry—the knights come. But where is 
the chief? No chief is visible; but, surrounded by the 
mounted knights, there is a silent company of men on 


[45] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


foot carrying something. The Queen wants to know 
what it is. It is covered with leaves and branches so 
that she cannot see it. 


“Oh what do ye bring out of the fight, 
Thus hid beneath these boughs?” 
“Thy conquering guest returns to-night, 
And yet shall not carouse, 

Queen, in thy house.” 


After a victory there was always in those days a 
great feast of wine-drinking, or carousal. T'o carouse 
means to take part in such noisy festivity. When the 
Queen puts her question, she is kindly but grimly an- 
swered, so that she knows the dead body of her knight 
must be under the branches. But being a true woman 
and lover, her love conquers her fear and pain; she 
must see him again, no matter how horribly his body 
may have been wounded. 


“Uncover ye his face,” she said. 
“O changed in little space!” 
She cried, “O pale that was so red! 
O God, O God of grace! 


Cover his face!” 


His sword was broken in his hand 
Where he had kissed the blade. 
“O soft steel that could not withstand! 
O my hard heart unstayed, 
That prayed and prayed!” 


Why does she call her heart hard? Because she nat- 
urally reproaches herself with his death. Unstayed 
means uncomforted, unsupported. There is a sugges- 


[46] 


Studies in Rossetti 


tion that she prayed and prayed in vain because her 
heart had suffered her to send that man to battle. 


His bloodied banner crossed his mouth 
Where he had kissed her name. 
“O east, and west, and north, and south, 
Fair flew my web, for shame, 
To guide Death’s aim!” 


The tints were shredded from his shield 
Where he had kissed her face. 
“Oh, of all gifts that I could yield, 
Death only keeps its place, 
My gift and grace!” 


The expression “my web” implies that the Queen had 
herself woven the material of the flag. The word ‘‘web” 
is not now often used in modern prose in this sense— 
we say texture, stuff, material instead. A shred espe- 
cially means a small torn piece. ‘To shred from” 
would therefore mean to remove in small torn pieces— 
or, more simply expressed, to scratch off, or rend away. 
Of course the rich thick painting upon the shield is 
referred to. Repeated blows upon the surface would 
remove the painting in small shreds. This is very 
pathetic when rightly studied. She sees that all the 
presents she made to him, banner, sword, shield, have 
been destroyed in the battle; and with bitter irony, the 
irony of grief, she exclaims, “The only present I made 
him that could not be taken back or broken was death. 
Death was my grace, my one kindness!” 


Then stepped a damsel to her side, 
And spoke, and needs must weep; 


[47] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“For his sake, lady, if he died, 
He prayed of thee to keep 
This staff and scrip.” 


That night they hung above her bed, 
Till morning wet with tears. 
Year after year above her head 
Her bed his token wears, 
Five years, ten years. 


That night the passion of her grief 
Shook them as there they hung 
Each year the wind that shed the leaf 
Shook them and in its tongue 
A message flung. 


We must suppose the Queen’s bed to have been one 
of the great beds used in the Middle Ages and long 
afterwards, with four great pillars supporting a kind of 
little roof or ceiling above it, and also supporting cur- 
tains, which would be drawn around the bed at night. 
The staff and scrip and the token would have been hung 
to the ceiling, or as the French call it ciel, of the bed; 
and therefore they might be shaken by a passion of 
grief—because a woman sobbing in the bed would shake 
the bed, and therefore anything hung to the awning 
above it. 


And once she woke with a clear mind 
That letters writ to calm 
Her soul lay in the scrip; to find 
Only a torpid balm 
And dust of palm. 


Sometimes when we are very unhappy, we dream that 


[48] 


Studies in Rossetti 


what we really wish for has happened, and that the sor- 
row is taken away. And in such dreams we are very 
sure that what we were dreaming is true. Then we 
wake up to find the misery come back again. The 
Queen has been greatly sorrowing for this man, and 
wishing she could have some news from his spirit, some 
message from him. One night she dreams that some- 
body tells her, “If you will open that scrip, you will 
find in it the message which you want.” Then she 
wakes up and finds only some palm-dust, and some 
balm so old that it no longer has any perfume—but 
no letter. 


They shook far off with palace sport 
When joust and dance were rife; 
And the hunt shook them from the court; 
For hers, in peace or strife, 
Was a Queen’s life. 


A Queen’s death now: as now they shake 
To gusts in chapel dim,— 
Hung where she sleeps, not seen to wake 
(Carved lovely white and slim), 
With them by him. 


It would be for her, as for any one in great sorrow, a 
consolation to be alone with her grief. But this she 
cannot be, nor can she show her grief to any one, be- 
cause she is a Queen. Only when in her chamber, at 
certain moments, can she think of the dead knight, and 
see the staff and scrip shaking in their place, as the 
castle itself shakes to the sound of the tournaments, 
dances, and the gathering of the great hunting parties 
in the court below. 

[49] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


In that age it was the custom when a knight died 
to carve an image of him, lying asleep in his armour, 
and this image was laid upon his long tomb. When 
his wife died, or the lady to whom he had been pledged, 
she was represented as lying beside him, with her hands 
joined, as if in prayer. You will see plenty of these 
figures upon old tombs in England. Usually a noble- 
man was not buried in the main body of a large church, 
but in a chapel—which is a kind of little side-church, 
opening into the great church. Such is the case in 
many cathedrals; and some cathedrals, like Westmin- 
ster, have many chapels used as places of burial and 
places of worship. On the altar in these little chapels 
special services are performed for the souls of the dead 
buried in the chapel. It is not uncommon to see, in 
such a chapel, some relics of the dead suspended to the 
wall, such as a shield or a flag. In this poem, by the 
Queen’s own wish, the staff and scrip of the dead knight 
are hung on the wall above her tomb, where they are 
sometimes shaken by the wind. 


Stand up to-day, still armed, with her, 
Good knight, before His brow 
Who then as now was here and there, 
Who had in mind thy vow 
Then even as now. 


The lists are set in Heaven to-day, 
The bright pavilions shine; 
Fair hangs thy shield, and none gainsay; 
The trumpets sound in sign 
That she is thine. 


[50] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Not tithed with days’ and years’ decease 
He pays thy wage He owed, 
But with imperishable peace 
Here in His own abode, 
Thy jealous God. 


Still armed refers to the representation of the dead 
knight in full armour. Medieval faith imagined the 
warrior armed in the spiritual world as he was in this 
life; and the ghosts of dead knights used to appear in 
armour. The general meaning of these stanzas is, 
“God now gives you the reward which he owed to you; 
and unlike rewards given to men in this world, your 
heavenly reward is not diminished by the certainty that 
you cannot enjoy it except for a certain number of 
days or years. God does not keep anything back out 
of his servants’ wages—no tithe or tenth. You will 
be with her forever.” The adjective “jealous” applied 
to God is a Hebrew use of the term; but it has here a 
slightly different meaning. The idea is this, that 
Heaven is jealous of human love when human love alone 
is a motive of duty. Therefore the reward of duty 
need not be expected in this world but only in Heaven. 

Outside of the sonnets, which we must consider sepa- 
rately, I do not know any more beautiful example of the 
mystical feeling of love in Rossetti than this. It will 
not be necessary to search any further for examples in 
this special direction; I think you will now perfectly 
understand one of the peculiar qualities distinguishing 
Rossetti from all the other Victorian poets—the min- 
gling of religious with amatory emotion in the highest 
form of which the language is capable. 


[51] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Til 


While we are discussing the ballads and shorter nar- 
rative poems, let us now consider Rossetti simply as a 
story-teller, and see how wonderful he is in some of those 
lighter productions in which he brought the art of the 
refrain to a perfection which nobody else, except per- 
haps Swinburne, has equalled. Among the ballads 
there is but one, “Stratton Water,” conceived al- 
together after the old English fashion; and this has no 
refrain. I do not know that any higher praise can be 
given to it than the simple statement that it is a perfect 
imitation of the old ballad—at least so far as a perfect 
imitation is possible in the nineteenth century. Should 
there be any criticism allowable, it could be only this, 
that the tenderness and pathos are somewhat deeper, 
and somewhat less rough in utterance, than we expect 
in a ballad of the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Yet 
there is no stanza in it for which some parallel might 
not be found in ballads of the old time. It is nothing 
more than the story of a country girl seduced by a 
nobleman, who nevertheless has no intention of being 
cruel or unfaithful. Just as she is about to drown her- 
self, or rather to let herself be drowned, he rescues her 
from the danger, marries her in haste to save appear- 
ances, and makes her his wife. There is nothing more 
of narrative, and no narrative could be more simple. 
But as the great pains and great joys of life are really 
in simple things, the simplest is capable of almost in- 
finite expansion when handled by a true artist. Cer- 
tainly in English poetry there is no ballad more beau- 


[52] 


Studies in Rossetti 


tiful than this; nor can we imagine it possible to do 
anything more with so slight a theme. It contains 
nothing, however, calling for elaborate explanation or 
comment; I need only recommend you to read it and to 
feel it. 

It is otherwise in the case of such ballads as “Sister 
Helen” and ‘The White Ship.” ‘The White Ship” is 
a little too long for full reproduction in the lecture; 
but we can point out its special beauties. ‘Sister 
Helen,” although rather long also, we must study the 
whole of, partly because it has become so very famous, 
and partly because it deals with emotions and facts of 
the Middle Ages requiring careful interpretation. Per- 
haps it is the best example of story telling in the 
shorter pieces of Rossetti—not because its pictures are 
more objectively vivid than the themes of the ‘White 
Ship,” but because it is more subjectively vivid, dealing 
with the extremes of human passion, hate, love, re- 
venge, and religious despair. All these are passions 
peculiarly coloured by the age in which the story is 
supposed to happen, the age of belief in magic, in 
ghosts, and in hell-fire. 

I think that in nearly all civilised countries, Kast and 
West, from very old times there has been some belief 
in the kind of magic which this poem describes. I have 
seen references to similar magic in translations of Chi- 
nese books, and I imagine that it may have been known 
in Japan. In India it is still practised. At one time 
or other it was practised in every country of Europe. 
Indeed, it was only the development of exact science 
that rendered such beliefs impossible. During the 
Middle Ages they caused the misery of many thousands 


[53] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of lives, and the fear born of them weighed upon men’s 
minds like a nightmare. 

This superstition in its simplest form was that if 
you wished to kill a hated person, it was only necessary 
to make a small statue or image of that person in wax, 
or some other soft material, and to place the image be- 
fore a fire, after having repeated certain formulas. As 
the wax began to melt before the fire, the person repre- 
sented by the image would become sick and grow weaker 
and weaker, until with the complete melting of the 
image, he would die. Sometimes when the image was 
made of material other than wax, it was differently 
treated. Also it was a custom to stick needles into such 
images, for the purpose of injuring rather than of 
killing. By putting the needles into the place of the 
eyes, for example, the person would be made blind; or 
by putting them into the place of the ears, he might be 
rendered deaf. A needle stuck into the place of the 
heart would cause death, slow or quick according to the 
slowness with which the needle was forced in. 

But there were many penalties attaching to the exer- 
cise of such magic. People convicted of having prac- 
tised it were burned alive by law. However, burning 
alive was not the worst consequence of the practice, 
according to general belief ; for the church taught that 
such a crime was unpardonable, and that all guilty of 
it must go to hell for all eternity. You might destroy 
your enemy by magic, but only at the cost of your 
own soul. <A soul for a life. And you must know 
that the persons who did such things believed the magic 
was real, believed they were killing, and believed they 
were condemned to lose their souls in consequence. Can 


[54] 


Studies in Rossetti 


we conceive of hatred strong enough to satisfy itself 
at this price? Certainly, there have been many ex- 
amples in the history of those courts in which trials for 
witchcraft were formerly held. 

Now we have the general idea behind this awful bal- 
lad. ‘The speakers in the story are only two, a young 
woman and her brother, a little boy. We may sup- 
pose the girl to be twenty and the boy about five years 
old or even younger. The girl is apparently of good 
family, for she appears to be living in a castle of her 
own—at least a fortified dwelling of some sort. We 
must also suppose her to be an orphan, for she avenges 
herself—as one having no male relative to fight for her. 
She has been seduced under promise of marriage; but 
before the marriage day, her faithless lover marries 
another woman. ‘Then she determines to destroy his 
life by magic. While her man of wax is melting before 
the fire, the parents, relatives, and newly-wedded bride 
of her victim come on horseback to beg that she will 
forgive. But forgive she will not, and he dies, and at 
the last his ghost actually enters the room. This is 
the story. 

You will observe that the whole conversation is only 
between the girl and this baby-brother. She talks to 
the child in child language, but with a terrible meaning 
behind each simple word. She herself will not answer 
the prayers of the relatives of the dying man; she 
makes the little brother act as messenger. So all that 
is said in the poem is said between the girl and the 
little boy. Even in the opening of the ballad there is 
a terrible pathos in the presence of this little baby 
brother. What does he know of horrible beliefs, hat- 

[55] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


red, lust, evil passion of any sort? He only sees that 
his sister has made a kind of wax-doll, and he thinks 
that it is a pretty doll, and would like to play with it. 
But his sister, instead of giving him the doll, begins to 
melt it before the fire, and he cannot understand why. 

One more preliminary observation. What is the 
meaning of the refrain? This refrain, in italics, always 
represents the secret thought of the girl, what she can- 
not say to the little brother, but what she thinks and 
suffers. The references to Mary refer to the Virgin 
Mary of course, but with the special medieval sense. 
God would not forgive certain sins; but, during the 
Middle Ages at least, the Virgin Mary, the mother of 
God, was a refuge even for the despairing magician or 
witch. We could not expect one practising witchcraft 
to call upon the name of Christ. But the same per- 
son, in moments of intense pain, might very naturally 
ejaculate the name of Mary. And now we can begin 
the poem. 


SISTER HELEN 


“Why did you melt your waxen man, 
Sister Helen? 
To-day is the third since you began.” 
“The time was long, yet the time ran, 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Three days to-day, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“But if you have done your work aright, 
Sister Helen, 
You'll let me play, for you said I might.” 


[56] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“Be very still in your play to-night, 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Third night, to-night, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“You said it must melt ere vesper-bell, 
Sister Helen; 
If now it be molten, all is well.” 
“Even so,—nay, peace! you cannot tell, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
O what is this, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“Oh, the waxen knave was plump to-day, 
Sister Helen; 
How like dead folk he has dropped away!” 
“Nay now, of the dead what can you say, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What of the dead, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“See, see, the sunken pile of wood, 
Sister Helen, 
Shines through the thinned wax red as blood!” 
“Nay now, when looked you yet on blood, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
How pale she is, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Now close your eyes, for they’re sick and sore, 
Sister Helen, 
And I’ll play without the gallery door.” 
“Aye, let me rest,—I’ll lie on the floor, 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What rest to-night, between Hell and Heaven? y 


[57] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Here high up in the balcony, 
Sister Helen, 
The moon flies face to face with me.” 
“Aye, look and say whatever you see, 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What sight to-night, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“Outside, it’s merry in the wind’s wake, 
Sister Helen; 
In the shaken trees the chill stars shake.” 
“Hush, heard you a horse-tread as you spake, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What sound to-night, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“T hear a horse-tread, and I see, 
Sister Helen, 
Three horsemen that ride terribly.” 
“Little brother, whence come the three, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Whence should they come, between Hell and Heaven?) 


In this last stanza the repetition of the words “‘little 
brother” indicates intense eagerness. The girl has 
been expecting that the result of her enchantments 
would force the relatives of her victim to come and beg 
for mercy. The child’s words therefore bring to her 
a shock of excitement. 


“They come by the hill-verge from Boyne Bar, 
Sister Helen, 
And one draws nigh, but two are afar.” 


[58] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“Look, look, do you know them who they are, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Who should they be, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“Oh, it’s Keith of Eastholm rides so fast, 
Sister Helen, 
For I know the white mane on the blast.” 
“The hour has come, has come at last, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Her hour at last, between Hell and Heaven!) 


Those who‘ come are knights, and the child can know 


them only by the crest or by the horses ; as they are very 
far he can distinguish only the horses, but he knows 
the horse of Keith of Eastholm, because of its white 
mane, floating in the wind. From this point the poem 
becomes very terrible, because it shows us a play of 
terrible passion—passion all the more terrible because 


it is that of a woman. 


“He has made a sign and called Halloo! 
Sister Helen, 
And he says that he would speak with you.” 
“Oh, tell him I fear the frozen dew 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Why laughs she thus, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“The wind is loud, but I hear him cry, 
Sister Helen, 
That Keith of Ewern’s like to die.” 


[59] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“And he and thou, and thou and I, 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
And they and we, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Three days ago, on his marriage-morn, 
Sister Helen, 
He sickened, and lies since then forlorn.” 
“For bridegroom’s side is the bride a thorn, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Cold bridal cheer, between Hell and Heaven!) 


We now can surmise the story from the girl’s own 
lips. There are wrongs that a woman cannot forgive, 
unless she is of very weak character indeed. But this 
woman is no weakling; she can kill, and laugh while kill- 
ing, because she is a daughter of warriors, and has been 
cruelly injured. Notice the bitter mockery of every 
word she utters, especially the exulting reference to the 
unhappy bride. We imagine that she might be sorry 
for killing a man whom she once loved; but we may be 
perfectly sure that she will feel no pity for the woman 
that he married. 


“Three days and nights he has lain abed, 
Sister Helen, 
And he prays in torment to be dead.” 
“The thing may chance, if he have prayed, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
If he have prayed, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“But he has not ceased td cry to-day, 
Sister Helen, 
That you should take your curse away.” 


[60] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“My prayer was heard,—he need but pray, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Shdli God not hear, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“But he says till you take back your ban, 
Sister Helen, 
His soul would pass, yet never can.” 
“Nay then, shall I slay a living man, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
A living soul, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“But he calls for ever on your name, 
Sister Helen, 
And says that he melts before a flame.” 
“My heart for his pleasure fared the same, 
Little brother.” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Fire at the heart, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Here’s Keith of Westholm riding fast, 
Sister Helen, 
For I know the white plume on the blast.” 
“The hour, the sweet hour I forecast, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Is the hour sweet, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“He stops to speak, and he stills his horse, 
Sister Helen, 
But his words are drowned in the wind’s course.” 
“Nay hear, nay hear, you must hear perforce, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What word now heard, between Hell and Heaven?) 


[61] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Oh, he says that Keith of Ewern’s cry, 
Sister Helen, 
Is ever to see you ere he die.” 
“In all that his soul sees, there am I, e 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
The soul’s one sight, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“He sends a ring and a broken coin, 
Sister Helen, 
And bids you mind the banks of Boyne.” 
“What else he broke will he ever join, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
No, never joined, between Hell and Heaven!) 


It was a custom, and in some parts of England still is 
a custom, for lovers not only to give each other rings,” 
but also to divide something between them—such as a 
coin or a ring, for pledge and remembrance. Some- 
times a ring would be cut in two, and each person would 
keep one-half. Sometimes a thin coin, gold or silver 
money, was broken into halves and each of the lovers 
would wear one-half round the neck fastened to a string. 
Such pledges would be always recognised, and were 
only to be sent back in time of terrible danger—in a 
matter of life and death. There are many references 
to this custom in the old ballads. 


“He yields you these, and craves full fain, 
Sister Helen, 

You pardon him in his mortal pain.” 

“What else he took will he give again, 
Little brother?” 


[62] 


Studies in Rossetti 


(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Not twice to give, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“He calls your name in an agony, 
Sister Helen, 
That even dead Love must weep to see.” 
“Hate, born of Love, is blind as he, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Love turned to hate, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Oh it’s Keith of Keith now that rides fast, 
Sister Helen, 
For I know the white hair on the blast.” 
“The short, short hour will soon be past, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Will soon be past, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“He looks at me and he tries to speak, 
Sister Helen, 
But oh! his voice is sad and weak!” 
“‘What here should the mighty Baron seek, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Is this the end, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“Oh his son still cries, if you forgive, 
Sister Helen, 
The body dies, but the soul shall live.” 
“Fire shall forgive me as I forgive, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
As she forgives, between Hell and Heaven!) 


This needs some explanation in reference to religious 


belief. The witch, you will observe, has the power to 


[63] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


destroy the soul as well as the body, but on the condi- 
tion of suffering the same loss herself. Yet how can 
this be? It could happen thus: if the dying man could 
make a confession before he dies, and sincerely repent of 
his sin before a priest, his soul might be saved; but 
while he remains in the agony of suffering caused by 
the enchantment, he cannot repent. Not to repent 
means to go to Hell for ever and ever. If the woman 
would forgive him, withdrawing the curse and pain for 
one instant, all might be well. But she answers, “Fire 
shall forgive me as I forgive”—she means, “The fire of 
Hell shall sooner forgive me when I go to Hell, than I 
shall forgive him in this world.” There will be other 
references to this horrible belief later on. It was very 
common in the Middle Ages. 


“Oh he prays you, as his heart would rive, 
Sister Helen, 
To save his dear son’s soul alive.” 
“Fire cannot slay it, it shall thrive, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Alas, alas, between Hell and Heaven!) 


Rive is seldom used now in prose, though we have 
“riven” very often. To rive is to tear. The last line 
of this stanza is savage, for it refers to the belief that 
the black fire of Hell preserves the body of the damned 
person instead of consuming it. 


“He cries to you, kneeling in the road, 
Sister Helen, 
To go with him for the love of God!” 


[64] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“The way is long to his son’s abode, 
Little brother!’ 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
The way is long, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“A lady’s here, by a dark steed brought, 
Sister Helen, 
So darkly clad, I saw her not.” 
“See her now or never see aught, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What more to see, between Hell and Heaven?) 


As the horse was black and the lady was all dressed 
in black, the child could not at first notice either in the 
shadows of the road. On announcing that he had seen 
her at last, the excitement of the sister reaches its 
highest and wickedest; she says to him, “Nay, you will 
never be able to see anything in this world, unless you 
can see that woman’s face and tell me all about it.” 
For it is the other woman, who has made forgiveness im- 
possible; it is the other woman, the object of her 
deepest hate. 


“Her hood falls back, and the moon shines fair, 
Sister Helen, 
On the Lady of Ewern’s golden hair.” 
“Blest hour of my power and her despair, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Hour blessed and bann’d, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Pale, pale her cheeks, that in pride did glow, 
Sister Helen, 
’Neath the bridal-wreath three days ago.” 


[65] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“One morn for pride, and three days for woe, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Three days, three nights, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Her clasped hands stretch from her bending head, 
Sister Helen; 
With the loud wind’s wail her sobs are wed.” 
“What wedding-strains hath her bridal bed, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What strain but death’s, between Hell and Heaven?) 


You must remember that the word “strains” is 
nearly always used in the sense of musical tones, and 
that “wedding-strains” means the joyful music played 
at a wedding. Thus the ferocity of Helen’s mockery 
becomes apparent, for it was upon the bridal night 
that the bridegroom was first bewitched; and from the 
moment of his marriage, therefore, he has been scream- 
ing in agony. 

The climax of hatred is in the next stanza. After 
that the tone begins to reverse, and gradually passes 
away in the melancholy of eternal despair. 


“She may not speak, she sinks in a swoon, 
Sister Helen,— 
She lifts her lips and gasps on the moon.” 
“Oh! might I but hear her soul’s blithe tune, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Her woe’s dumb cry, between Hell and Heaven!) 


To “gasp” means to open the mouth in the effort 
to get breath, as one does in a fit of hysterics, or in 


[66] 


Studies in Rossetti 


time of great agony. ‘“Gasps on the moon” means that 
she gasps with her face turned up toward the moon. 
In the last line we have the words “blithe tune” used 
in the same tone of terrible irony as that with which 
the word “wedding-strain” was used in the preceding 
stanza. “Blithe” means “merry.” Helen is angry 
because the other woman has fainted; having fainted, 
she has become for the moment physically incapable of 
suffering. But Helen thinks that her soul must be 
conscious and suffering as much as ever; therefore she 
wishes that she could hear the suffering of the soul, 
since she cannot longer hear the outcries of the body. 


“They’ve caught her to Westholm’s saddle-bow, 
Sister Helen, 
And her moonlit hair gleams white in its flow.” 
“Let it turn whiter than winter-snow, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Woe-withered gold, between Hell and Heaven!) 


The allusion is to the physiological fact that intense 
moral pain, or terrible fear, sometimes turns the hair 
of a young person suddenly white. 


“O Sister Helen, you heard the bell, 
Sister Helen! 
More loud than the vesper-chime it fell.” 
“No vesper-chime, but a dying knell, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
His dying knell, between Hell and Heaven!) 


[67] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Alas, but I fear the heavy sound, 
Sister Helen; 
Is it in the sky or in the ground?” 
“Say, have they turned their horses round, 
Little brother?” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
What would she more, between Hell and Heaven?) 


“They have raised the old man from his knee, 
Sister Helen, 
And they ride in silence hastily.” 
“More fast the naked soul doth flee, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
The naked soul, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Flank to flank are the three steeds gone, 
Sister Helen, 
But the lady’s dark steed goes alone.” 
“And lonely her bridegroom’s soul hath flown, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
The lonely ghost, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Oh the wind is sad in the iron chill, 
Sister Helen, 
And weary sad they look by the hill.” 
“But he and I are sadder still, 
Little brother !”’ 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Most sad of all, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“See, see, the wax has dropped from its place, 
Sister Helen, 
And the flames are winning up apace!” 


[68] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“Yet here they burn but for a space, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Here for a space, between Hell and Heaven!) 


“Ah! what white thing at the door has cross’d, 
Sister Helen? 
Ah! what is this that sighs in the frost?” 
“A soul that’s lost as mine is lost, 
Little brother!” 
(O Mother, Mary Mother, 
Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!) 


Notice how the action naturally dies off into despair. 
From the beginning until very nearly the close, we had 
an uninterrupted crescendo, as we should say in music 
—that is, a gradual intensification of the passion ex- 
pressed. With the stroke of the death-bell the passion 
subsides. The revenge is satisfied, the irreparable 
wrong is done to avenge a wrong, and with the entrance 
of the ghost the whole consequence of the act begins to 
appear within the soul of the actor. I know of noth- 
ing more terrible in literature than this poem, as ex- 
pressing certain phases of human feeling, and nothing 
more intensely true. The probability or improbability 
of the incidents is of no more consequence than is the 
unreality of the witch-belief. It is enough that such 
beliefs once existed to make us know that the rest is 
not only possible but certain. For a time we are really 
subjected to the spell of a medieval nightmare. 

As we have seen, the above poem is mainly a sub- 
jective study. As an objective study, “The White 
Ship” shows us an equal degree of power, appealing to 


[69 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


the visual faculty. We cannot read it all, nor is this 
necessary. A few examples will be sufficient. This 
ballad is in distichs, and has a striking refrain. The 
story is founded upon historical fact. The son and 
heir of the English king Henry I, together with his sis- 
ter and many knights and ladies, was drowned on a 
voyage from France to England, and it is said that 
the king was never again seen to smile after he had 
heard the news. Rossetti imagines the story told by 
a survivor—a butcher employed on the ship, the lowest 
menial on board. Such a man would naturally feel very 
differently toward the prince from others of the train, 
and would criticise him honestly from the standpoint 
of simple morality. 


HKighteen years till then he had seen, 
And the devil’s dues in him were eighteen. 


The peasant thus estimates the ruler who breaks the 
common laws of God and man. Nevertheless he is just 
in his own way, and can appreciate unselfishness even 
in a man whom he hates. 


He was a Prince of lust and pride; 
He showed no grace till the hour he died. 


God only knows where his soul did wake, 
But I saw him die for his sister’s sake. 


It is a simple mind of this sort that can best tell a 
tragical story; and the butcher’s story is about the 
most perfect thing imaginable of its kind. Here also 
we have one admirable bit of subjective work, the nar- 


[70] 


Studies in Rossetti 


ration of the butcher’s experience in the moment of 
drowning. I suppose you all know that when one is 
just about to die, or in danger of sudden death, the 
memory becomes extraordinarily vivid, and things long 
forgotten flash into the mind as if painted by light- 
ning, together with voices of the past. 


I Berold was down in the sea; 
Passing strange though the thing may be, 
Of dreams then known I remember me. 


Not dreams in the sense of visions of sleep, but images 
of memory. 


Blithe is the shout on Harfleur’s strand 
When morning lights the sails to land: 


And blithe is Honfleur’s echoing gloam 
When mothers call the children home: 


And high do the bells of Rouen beat 
When the Body of Christ goes down the street. 


These things and the like were heard and shown 
In a moment’s trance ‘neath the sea alone; 


And when I rose, ’twas the sea did seem, 
And not these things, to be all a dream. 


In the moment after the sinking of the ship, under the 
water, the man remembers what he most loved at home— 
mornings in a fishing village, seeing the ships return; 
evenings in a like village, and the sound of his own 
mother’s voice calling him home, as when he was a little 
child at play; then the old Norman city that he knew 

[71] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


well, and the church processions of Corpus Christi 
(Body of Christ), the great event of the year for the 
poorer classes. Why he remembered such things at 
such a time he cannot say; it seemed to him a very 
ghostly experience, but not more ghostly than the sight 
of the sea and the moon when he rose again. 


The ship was gone and the crowd was gone, 
And the deep shuddered and the moon shone; 


And in a strait grasp my arms did span 
The mainyard rent from the mast where it ran; 
And on it with me was another man. 


Where lands were none ‘neath the dim sea-sky, 
We told our names, that man and I. 


“O I am Godefroy de l’Aigle hight, 
And son I am to a belted knight.” 


“And I am Berold the butcher’s son, 
Who slays the beasts in Rouen town.” 


The touch here, fine as it is, is perfectly natural. The 
common butcher finds himself not only for the moment 
in company with a nobleman, but able to talk to him as 
a friend. ‘There is no rank or wealth between sky and 
sea—or, as a Japanese proverb says, “There is no king 
on the road of death.” The refrain of the ballad utters 
the same truth: 


Lands are swayed by a King on a throne, 
The sea hath no King but God alone. 


Both in its realism and in its emotion this ballad is 


[72] 


Studies in Rossetti 


a great masterpiece. It is much superior to “The 
King’s Tragedy,” also founded upon history. “The 
King’s Tragedy” seems to us a little strained; perhaps 
the poet attempted too much. I shall not quote from 
it, but will only recommend a reading of it to students 
of English literature because of its relation to a very 
beautiful story—the story of the courtship of James I 
of Scotland, and of how he came to write his poem 
called **The King’s Quhair.” 

Another ballad demands some attention and ex- 
planation, though it is not suitable for reading in the 
classroom. It is an expression of passion—but not 
passion merely human; rather superhuman and evil. 
For she who speaks in this poem is not a woman like 
“Sister Helen”; she is a demon. 


Not a drop of her blood was human, 
But she was made like a soft sweet woman. 


Perhaps the poet desired to show us here the extremest 
imaginative force of hate and cruelty—not in a mortal 
being, because that would repel us, but in an immortal 
being, in whom such emotion can only inspire fear. 
Emotionally, the poet’s conception is of the Middle 
Ages, but the tradition is incomparably older; we can 
trace it back to ancient Assyrian beliefs. Coming to 
us through Hebrew literature, this strange story has 
inspired numberless European poets and painters, be- 
sides the author of ““Eden Bower.” You should know 
the story, because you will find a great many references 
to it in the different literatures of Europe. 

Briefly, Lilith is the name of an evil spirit believed 
by the ancient Jews and by other Oriental nations to 


[73] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


cause nightmare. But she did other things much more 
evil, and there were curious legends about her. The 
Jews said that before the first woman, Eve, was cre- 
ated, Adam had a demon wife by whom he became the 
father of many evil spirits. When Eve was created and 
given to him in marriage, Lilith was necessarily jealous, 
and resolved to avenge herself upon the whole human 
race. It is even to-day the custom among Jews to make 
a charm against Lilith on their marriage night; for 
Lilith is especially the enemy of brides. 

But the particular story about Lilith that mostly 
figures in poetry and painting is this: If any young 
man sees Lilith, he must at once fall in love with her, 
because she is much more beautiful than any human 
being; and if he falls in love with her, he dies. After 
his death, if his body is opened by the doctors, it will 
be found that a long golden hair, one strand of woman’s 
hair, is fastened round his heart. The particular evil 
in which Lilith delights is the destruction of youth. 

In Rossetti’s poem Lilith is represented only as de- 
claring to her demon lover, the Serpent, how she will 
avenge herself upon Adam and upon Eve. The ideas 
are in one way extremely interesting; they represent 
the most tragical and terrible form of jealousy—that 
jealousy written of in the Bible as being like the very 
fires of Hell. We might say that in Victorian verse 
this is the unique poem of jealousy, in a female personi-- 
fication. For the male personification we must go to 
Robert Browning. 

But there is a masterly phase of jealousy described in 
one of Rossetti’s modern poems, “A Last Confession.” 
Here, however, the jealousy is of the kind with which 


[74] 


Studies in Rossetti 


we can humanly sympathise; there is nothing monstrous 
or distorted about it. The man has reason to suspect 
unchastity, and he kills the woman on the instant. I 
should, therefore, consider this poem rather as a simple 
and natural tragedy than as a study of jealousy. It 
is to be remarked here that Rossetti did not confine 
himself to medieval or supernatural subjects. Three 
of his very best poems are purely modern, belonging to 
the nineteenth century. This “Last Confession,” ap- 
propriately placed in Italy, is not the most remark- 
able of the three, but it is very fine. I do not know 
anything in even French literature to be compared with 
the pathos of the murder scene, unless it be the terrible 
closing chapter of Prosper Merimée’s “Carmen.” The 
story of “Carmen” is also a confession; but there is a 
great difference in the history of the tragedies. Car- 
‘men’s lover does not kill in a moment of passion. He 
kills only after having done everything that a man 
could do in order to avoid killing. He argues, prays, 
goes on his knees in supplication—all in vain. And 
then we know that he must kill, that any man in the 
‘same terrible situation must kill. He stabs her; then 
the two continue to look at each other—she keeping 
her large black eyes fixed on the face of her murderer, 
till suddenly they close, and she falls. No simpler fact 
could occur in the history of an assassination; yet how 
marvellous the power of that simple fact as the artist 
tells it. We always see those eyes. In the case of 
Rossetti’s murderer, the incidents of the tragedy differ 
somewhat, because he is blind with passion at the mo- 
ment that he strikes, and does not see. When his 
vision clears again, he sees the girl fall, and 


[75] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


—her stiff bodice scooped the sand 
Into her bosom. 


As long as he lived, he always saw that—the low stiff 
front of the girl’s dress with the sand and blood. In 
its way this description is quite as terrible as the last 
chapter of “Carmen”; and it would be difficult to say 
which victim of passion most excites our sympathies. 
The other two poems of modern life to which I have 
referred are “The Card-Dealer” and “Jenny.” ‘The 
Card-Dealer” represents a singular faculty on the poet’s 
part of seeing ordinary facts in their largest relations. 
In many European gambling houses of celebrity, the 
cards used are dealt—that is, given to the players—by 
a beautiful woman, usually a woman not of the virtu- 
ous kind. The poet, entering such a place, watches 
the game for a time in silence, and utters his artistic 
admiration of the beauty of the card-dealer, merely as 
he would admire a costly picture or a statue of gold. 
Then suddenly comes to him the thought that this 
woman, and the silent players, and the game, are but 
symbols of eternal fact. The game is no longer to his 
eyes a mere game of cards; it is the terrible game of 
Life, the struggle for wealth and vain pleasures. The 
woman is no longer a woman, but Fate; she plays the 
game of Death against Life, and those who play with 
her must lose. However, the allusions in this poem 
would require for easy understanding considerable fa- 
miliarity with the terms of card-play and the names of 
the cards. If you know these, I think you will find 
this poem a very solemn and beautiful composition. 
Much more modern is “Jenny,” a poem which 


[76] 


Studies in Rossetti 


greatly startled the public when it was first published. 
People were inclined for the moment to be shocked; 
then they studied and admired; finally they praised un- 
limitedly, and the poem deserved all praise. But the 
subject was a very daring one to put before a public 
so prudish as the English. For Jennny is a prostitute. 
Nevertheless the prudish public gladly accepted this 
wonderful psychological study, which no other poet of 
the nineteenth century, except perhaps Browning, could 
have attempted. 

The plan of the poem is as follows: A young man, 
perhaps the poet himself, finds at some public place 
of pleasure a woman of the town who pleases him, and 
he accompanies her to her residence. Although the 
young man is perhaps imprudent in seeking the com- 
pany of such a person, he is only doing what tens of 
thousands of young men are apt to do without thinking. 
He represents, we might say, youth in general. But 
there is a difference between him and the average youth 
in one respect—he thinks. On reaching the girl’s room, 
he is already in a thoughtful mood; and when she falls 
asleep upon his knees, tired with the dancing and ban- 
queting of the evening, he does not think of awakening 
her. He begins to meditate. He looks about the room 
and notices the various objects in it, simple enough in 
themselves, but strangely significant by their relation 
to such a time and place—a vase of flowers, a little clock 
ticking, a bird in a cage. The flowers make him think 
of the symbolism of flowers—lilies they are, but faded. 
Lilies, the symbol of purity, in Jenny’s room! But 
once she herself was a lily—now also morally faded. 
Then the clock, ticking out its minutes, hours—what 


[77] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


strange hours it has ticked out! He looks at the sleep- 
ing girl again, but with infinite pity. She dreams; 
what is she dreaming of? To wake her would be cruel, 
for in the interval of sleep she forgets all the sorrows 


of the world. He thinks: 


For sometimes, were the truth confess’d, 
You're thankful for a little rest,— 

Glad from the crush to rest within, 

From the heart-sickness and the din 
Where envy’s voice at virtue’s pitch 
Mocks you because your gown is rich; 

And from the pale girl’s dumb rebuke, 
Whose ill-clad grace and toil-worn look 
Proclaims the strength that keeps her weak. 


Is rest not sometimes sweet to you?— 
But most from the hatefulness of man, 
Who spares not to end what he began, 
Whose acts are ill and his speech ill, 
Who, having used you at his will, 
Thrusts you aside, as when I dine 

I serve the dishes’ and the wine. 


Then he begins to think of the terrible life of the pros- 
titute, what it means, the hideous and cruel part of it, 
and the end of it. Here let me say that the condition 
of such a woman in England is infinitely worse than it 
is in many other countries; in no place is she treated 
with such merciless cruelty by society. He asks him- 
self why this should be so—how can men find pleasure 
in cruelty to so beautiful and simple-hearted a creature? 
Then, suddenly looking at her asleep, he is struck by 
a terrible resemblance which she bears to the sweetest 


[78] 


Studies in Rossetti 


woman that he knows, the girl perhaps that he would 
marry. Seen asleep, the two girls look exactly the same. 
Each is young, graceful, and beautiful; yet one is a girl 
adored by society for all that makes a woman lovable, 
and the other is—what? These lines best explain the 
thought: 


Just as another woman sleeps! 

Enough to throw one’s thoughts in heaps 
Of doubt and horror,—what to say 

Or think,—this awful secret sway, 
The potter’s power over the clay! 

Of the same lump (it has been said) 
For honour and dishonour made, 

Two sister vessels. Here is one. 


My cousin Nell is fond of fun, 

And fond of dress, and change, and praise, 
So mere a woman in her ways: 

And if her sweet eyes rich in youth 

Are like her lips that tell the truth, 

My cousin Nell is fond of love. 

And she’s the girl I’m proudest of. 

Who does not prize her, guard her well? 
The love of change, in cousin Nell, 

Shall find the best and hold it dear: 

The unconquered mirth turn quieter 

Not through her own, through others’ woe: 
The conscious pride of beauty glow 
Beside another’s pride in her. 


Of the same lump (as it is said), 
For honour and dishonour made, 
Two sister vessels. Here is one. 
It makes a goblin of the sun! 


[79] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


For, judging by the two faces, the two characters were 
originally the same. Yet how terrible the difference 
now. This woman likes what all women like; his cousin, 
the girl he most loves in the world, has the very same 
love of nice dresses, pleasures, praise. There is nothing 
wrong in liking these things. But in the case of the 
prostitute all pleasure must turn for her to ashes and 
bitterness. The pure girl will have in this world all the 
pretty dresses and pleasures and love that she can 
wish for; and will never have reason to feel unhappy 
except when she hears of the unhappiness of somebody 
else. And it seems a monstrous thing under heaven that 
such a different destiny should be portioned out to 
beings at first so much alike as those two women. Even 
to think of his cousin looking like her, gives him a 
shudder of pain—not because he cruelly despises the 
sleeping girl, but because he thinks of what might have 
happened to his own dearest, under other chances of 
life. 

Yet again, who knows what may be in the future, any 
more than what has been in the past? All this world 
is change. The fortunate of to-day may be unfortu- 
nate in their descendants; the fortunate of long ago 
were perhaps the ancestors of the miserable of to-day. 
And everything may in the eternal order of change 
have to rise and sink alternately. Cousin Nell is to- 
day a fortunate woman; he, the dreamer at the bed-side 
of the nameless girl, is a fortunate man. But what 
might happen to their children? He thinks again of 
the strange resemblance of the two women, and mur- 


murs: 
[80] 


Studies in Rossetti 


So pure,—so fall’n! How dare to think 
Of the first common kindred link? 
Yet, Jenny, till the world shall burn 
It seems that all things take their turn; 
And who shall say but this fair tree 
May need, in changes that may be, 
Your children’s children’s charity? 
Scorned then, no doubt, as you are scorn’d! 
Shall no man hold his pride forewarn’d 
Till in the end, the Day of Days, 

At Judgment, one of his own race, 

As frail and lost as you, shall rise,— 
His daughter, with his mother’s eyes? 


Then he begins to think more deeply on the great 
wrongs of this world, the great misery caused by vice, 
the cruelty of lust in itself. The ruined life of this girl 
represents but one fact of innumerable facts of a like 
kind. Millions of beautiful and affectionate women 
have been, and are being, and will be through all time 
to come, sacrificed in this way to lust—selfish and fool- 
ish and cruel lust, that destroys mind and body to- 
gether. The mystery of the dark side of life comes 
to him in a new way. He cannot explain it—who can 
explain the original meaning of pain in this world? 
But he begins to get at least a new gleam of truth— 
this great truth, that every one who seeks pleasure in 
the way that he at first intended to seek it that night, 
adds a little to the great sum of human misery. For 
vice exists only at the cost of misery. The question is 
not, “Is it right for me or wrong for me to take what 
is forbidden if I pay for it.” The real question is, 


[81] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Ts it right for me or wrong for me to help in any 
way to support that condition of society which sacri- 
fices lives, body, and soul, to cruelty and selfishness.” 
We all of us in youth think chiefly about right and 
wrong in their immediate relations to ourselves and our 
friends. Only later in life, after we have seen a great 
deal of the red of human pain, do we begin to think of 
the consequences of an act in relation to the happiness 
or unhappiness of humanity. 

Suddenly the morning comes as he is thinking thus. 
At once he ceases to be the philosopher, and becomes 
again the gentleman of the world. The girl’s head is 
still upon his knees; he looks at the sleeping face, and 
wonders whether any painter could have painted a face 
more beautiful. But the beauty does not appeal to his 
senses in any passional way; it only fills him with un- 
speakable compassion. He does not awake her, but 
lifts her into a more comfortable position for sleeping, 
and leaves beside her pillow a present of gold coins, and 
then steals away without bidding her good-bye. The 
night has not given him pleasure, but pain only—yet 
a pain that has made his heart more kindly and his 
thoughts more wise than they had been before. 


IV 


Our last lecture dealt with the shorter narrative poems 
of Rossetti, including the ballads. . There remain to be 
considered two other narrative poems of a much more 
extended kind. They are quite unique in English liter- 
ature; and both of them deal with medieval subjects. 
One, again, is chiefly objective in its treatment; and 
the other chiefly subjective—that is to say, psycho- 


[82] 


Studies in Rossetti 


logical. One is a fragment, but the most wonderful 
fragment of its kind in existence; more wonderful, I 
think, than even the fragments of Coleridge, both as to 
volume and finish. The other is complete, a story of 
magic and passion entitled “Rose Mary.” We may 
first deal with “Rose Mary,” giving the general plan of 
the poem, rather than extracts of any length; for this 
narration cannot very well be illustrated by examples. 
We shall make some quotations only in illustration of 
the finish and the beauty of the work. 

The subject of “Rose Mary” was peculiarly adapted 
to Rossetti’s genius. In the Middle Ages there was a 
great belief in the virtue of jewels and crystals of a 
precious kind. Belief in the magical power of rubies, 
diamonds, emeralds, and opals was not confined either 
to Europe or to modern civilisation; it had existed from 
great antiquity in the Orient, and had been accepted by 
the Greeks and Romans. This belief was perhaps for- 
gotten after the destruction of the Roman Empire, for 
a time at least, in Europe; but the Crusades revived 
it. Talismanic stones were brought back from Pales- 
tine by many pilgrim-knights; and as some of these 
were marked with Arabic characters, then supposed by 
the ignorant to be characters of magic, supernatural 
legends were invented to account for the history of not 
a few. Also there was a certain magical use to which 
precious stones were put during the Middle Ages, and 
to which they are still sometimes put in Oriental coun- 
tries. This is called crystallomancy. Crystallomancy 
is the art of seeing the future in crystals, or glass, or 
transparent substances of jewels. The same art can 
be practised even with ink—a drop of ink, held in the 


[83] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


hand, offering to the eye the same reflecting surface 
that a black jewel would do. In Egypt, Arabia, 
Persia, and India divination is still practised with ink. 
This is the same thing as crystallomancy. Usually in 
those countries a young boy or a young girl is used by 
the diviner. He mesmerises the boy or the girl, and 
bids him or her look into the crystal or the ink-drop, 
as the case may be, and say what he or she sees there. 
In this way, the future is supposed to be told. Modern 
investigation has taught us how the whole thing is done, 
though science has not been able yet to explain all that 
goes on in the mind of the “subject.” But in the 
Middle Ages, when the whole process was absolutely 
mysterious, it was thought to be the work of spirits 
inside the stone, or crystal, or ink-drop. And this is 
the superstition to which Rossetti refers in his poem 
“Rose Mary.” 

Now there is one more fact which must be explained 
in connection with crystallomancy. It has always been 
thought that the “subject”—that is, the boy or girl 
who looks into the stone, crystal, or ink-drop—must be 
absolutely innocent. The “subject” must be virtuous. 
In the Catholic Middle Ages the same idea took form 
especially in relation to the chastity of the “subject.” 
Chastity was, in those centuries, considered a magical 
virtue. A maiden, it was thought, could play with 
lions or tigers, and not be hurt by them. A maiden— 
and the word was then used for both sexes, as it is 
sometimes used by Tennyson in his Idylls—could see 
ghosts or spirits, and could be made use of for purposes 
of crystallomancy even by a very wicked person. But 
should the subject have been secretly guilty of any 


[84] 


Studies in Rossetti 


fault, then the power to sce would be impaired. The 
tragedy of Rossetti’s poem turns upon this fact. 

In the poem a precious stone, of the description called 
beryl, is the instrument of divination. This beryl is 
round, like a terrestrial globe, and is supposed to be 
of the shape of the world. It is half transparent, but 
there are cloudings inside of it. Hidden among these 
cloudings are a number of evil spirits, who were en- 
closed in the jewel by magic. These spirits make the 
future appear visible to any virtuous person who looks 
into the stone; but they have power to deceive and to 
injure any one coming to consult them who is not per- 
fectly chaste. The stone came from the East, and it 
was obtained only at the sacrifice of the soul of the 
person who obtained it. Having been brought to Eng- 
land, it became the property of a knightly family. 
This family consists only of a widow and her daughter 
Rose Mary. The daughter is in a state of great anxi- 
ety. She was to be married to a certain knight, who 
has not kept his affectionate promises. The daughter 
and the mother both fear that the knight may have been 
killed by some of his enemies. So they resolve to con- 
sult the beryl-stone. ‘The mother does not know that 
her daughter has been too intimate with the absent 
knight. Believing that Rose Mary is all purity, the 
mother makes her the subject of an experiment in crys- 
tallomancy ; and she looks into the beryl. 

First she sees an old man with a broom, sweeping 
away dust and cobwebs; that is always the first thing 
seen. ‘Then the inside of the beryl becomes perfectly 
clear, and the girl can see the open country, and the 
road along which her lover is expected to travel. And 


[85] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


she sees him too. But there are perhaps enemies wait- 
ing for him. The mother tells her to look for those 
enemies. She looks; she sees the points of lances, in 
a hiding place by a roadside, and there is the evidence 
of what the lover has to fear in that direction. “Now 
look in the other direction,” says the mother. The 
girl does so, and sees the whole road clearly, except in 
one place, in a valley. There she says that there is a 
mist; and she cannot see under the mist. This sur- 
prises the mother, and she takes away the beryl. The 
presence of the mist indicates that Rose Mary has com- 
mitted some sin. 

As a consequence the daughter confesses to the 
mother all that has occurred. She is not severely 
blamed; she is only gently rebuked, and forgiven with 
great love and tenderness. But it is probable that the 
sin must be expiated. Both are afraid. Then the ex- 
piation comes. The lover is killed by his enemies, and 
killed exactly on that part of the road where the mist 
was in the image seen in the beryl-stone. The mother 
goes to the dead knight’s home, and examines the body. 
Evidently the man had died fighting bravely. The 
woman at first is all pity for him, as well as for her 
daughter. Suddenly she notices something in the dead 
man’s breast. She takes it out, and finds that it is a 
package containing a love-letter, and a lock of hair. 
The hair is bright gold—while the hair of Rose Mary 
is black. This makes the mother suspicious, and she 
reads the letter. Then she no longer pities but abhors 
the dead man; for the letter proves him to have had 
another sweetheart, and that he had intended to betray 
Rose Mary. 

[86] 


Studies in Rossetti 


When the daughter learns of her lover’s death, she 
suffers terribly; but she makes sincere repentance for 
her fault, and then in her mother’s absence she deter- 
mines to destroy the beryl-stone, as a devilish thing. 
This is another way of committing suicide, because who- 
ever breaks the stone is certain to be killed by the en- 
raged spirits cast out of it. By one blow of a sword the 
stone is broken, and Rose Mary atones for all her faults 
by death. This is the whole of the story. 

The extraordinary charm of the story is in its vivid- 
ness—a vividness perhaps without equal even in the 
best work of Tennyson (certainly much finer than simi- 
lar work in Coleridge), and in the attractive charac- 
terisation of mother and daughter. There is this great 
difference between the medieval poems of Coleridge or 
Scott, and those of Rossetti, that when you are reading 
“The Lay of the Last Minstrel” or the wonderful 
“Christabel,” you feel that you are reading a fairy-tale, 
but when you read Rossetti you are looking at life and 
feeling human passion. It is a great puzzle to critics 
how any man could make the Middle Ages live as Ros- 
setti did. One reason, I think, is that Rossetti was 
a great painter as well as a great poet, and he studied 
the life of the past in documents and in museums until 
it became to him as real as the present. But we must 
also suppose that he inherited a great deal of his 
peculiar power. This power never wearies. Although 
the romance of Rose Mary is not very short, you do not 
get tired of wondering at its beauty until you reach the 
end. It is divided into three parts, which is a good 
thing for the student, as he can see the structure of 
the composition at once. It is written in stanzas of 


[87] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


five lines, thus arranged—a, a, b, b, b. You would think 
this measure monotonous, but it is not. I give two ex- 
amples. ‘The first is the description of the magic jewel. 


The lady unbound her jewelled zone 

And drew from her robe the Beryl-stone. 
Shaped it was to a shadowy sphere,— 
World of our world, the sun’s compeer, 
That bears and buries the toiling year. 


With shuddering light ’twas stirred and strewn 
Like the cloud-nest of the wading moon: 
Freaked it was as the bubble’s ball, 
Rainbow-hued through a misty pall, 

Like the middle light of the waterfall. 


Shadows dwelt in its teeming girth 

Of the known and unknown things of earth; 
The cloud above and the wave around,— 
The central fire at the sphere’s heart bound, 
Like doomsday prisoned underground. 


I feel quite sure that even Tennyson could not have done 
this. Only a great painter, as well as a great observer, 
could have done it; and the choice of words is astonish- 
ing in its exquisiteness. Most of them have more than 
one meaning, and both meanings are equally implied by 
their use. Take, for example, the word “shadowy”; it 
means cloudy and it also means ghostly. Thus it is 
peculiarly appropriate to picture the magic stone as 
full of moving shadows, themselves of ghostly character. 
Or take the word “shuddering’’; it means trembling 
with cold or fear, and it means also a quick trembling, 
never a slow motion. Just such a word might be used 


[88] 


Studies in Rossetti 


to describe the strange vibration of air-bubbles enclosed 
in a voleanic crystal. But we have also the suggestion 
here of a ghostly motion, a motion that gives a shiver 
of fear to the person who sees it. Or take the word 
“freaked.” ‘Freak’ is commonly used to signify a mis- 
chievous bit of play, a wild fancy. ‘“Fancifully 
marked” would be the exact meaning of “freaked” in 
the ordinary sense; but here it is likewise appropriate 
as a description of the streams and streaks of colour 
playing over the surface of a bubble without any appar- 
ent law, as if they were made by some whimsical spirit. 
Now every verse of the whole long poem is equally 
worthy of study for its astonishing finish. I shall give 
a few more verses merely to show the application of 
the same power to a description of pain. The girl 
has just been told of her lover’s murder; and the 
whole immediate consequence is told in five lines. 


Once she sprang as the heifer springs 

With the wolf’s teeth at its red heart-strings: 
First ’twas fire in her breast and brain, 

And then scarce hers but the whole world’s pain, 
As she gave one shriek and sank again. 


The first two lines might give you an undignified image 
unless you understood the position of the girl when she 
received the news. She was kneeling at her mother’s 
feet, with her mother’s arms around her. On being 
told the terrible thing, she tries to spring up, because of 
the shock of the pain—just as a young heifer would 
leap when the wolf had seized it from underneath. A 
wolf snaps at the belly of the animal, close to the heart. 
Therefore the comparison is admirable. As for the rest 


[89] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of the verse, any physician can confirm its accuracy. 
The up-rush of blood at the instant of a great shock of 
pain feels like a great sudden heat, burning up toward 
the head. And in such a time one realises that certain 
forms of pain, moral pain, are larger than oneself—too 
great to be borne. Psychologically, great moral pain 
depends upon nervous development; and this nervous 
susceptibility to pain is greater than would seem fitted 
to the compass of one life. Moral pain can kill. It 
is said that in such times we feel not only our own pain, 
but the pain of all those among our ancestors who suf- 
fered in like manner., Thus, by inheritance, individual 
pain is more than individual. At all events the fourth 
line of the stanza I have quoted will appear astonish- 
ingly true to anybody who knows the greater forms of 
mental suffering. 

Leaving this poem, which could not be too highly 
praised, we may turn to “The Bride’s Prelude,” the 
greatest of the longer compositions, therefore the great- 
est thing that Rossetti did. Unfortunately, perhaps, 
it is unfinished. It is only a fragment; death overtook 
the writer before he was able to complete it. Like 
“Rose Mary,” it leads us back to the Middle Ages. 
But here there is no magic, nothing ghostly, nothing 
impossible; there is only truth, atrocious, terrible truth 
—a tale of cruelty, treachery, and pain related by the 
victim. The victim is a bride. She is just going to 
be married. But before her marriage, she has a story 
to tell her sister—a story so sad and so frightful that 
it requires strong nerves to read the thing without pain. 

We may suppose that the incident occurred in old 
France, or—though I doubt it—in Norman England. 


[90] 


Studies in Rossetti 


The scenery and the names remind us rather of South- 
ern France. All the facts belong to the life of the 
feudal aristocracy. We are among princes and prin- 
cesses ; great lords of territory and great lords of battle 
are introduced to us, with their secret sorrows and 
shames. Great ladies, too, open their hearts to us, and 
prove so intensely human that it is very hard to believe 
the whole story is a dream. It rather seems as if we 
had known all these people, and that our lives had at 
some time been mingled with theirs. The eldest daugh- 
ter of one great house, very beautiful, and very inno- 
cent, is taken advantage of by a retainer in the castle. 
She is foolish and unable to imagine that any gentleman 
could intend to do her a wrong. The retainer, on the 
other hand, is a very cunning villain. His real purpose 
is to bring shame upon the daughter of the house. 
Why? Because, as he is only a poor knight, he could 
not hope to marry into a princely family. But if he 
can seduce one of the girls, then perhaps the family will 
be only too glad to have him marry his victim, because 
that will hide their shame. Evidently he has plotted for 
this. But his plans, and everybody’s plans, are af- 
fected by unexpected results of civil war. His masters, 
being defeated in a great battle, have to retreat to the 
mountains for a time; and then he deserts them in the 
basest manner. Meantime the unhappy girl is found 
to be with child. Death was the rule in those days for 
such a case—burning alive. Her brothers wish to kill 
her. But her father interferes and saves her. It is 
decided only that the child shall be taken from her— 
to be killed, probably. Everybody is forbidden to 
speak of the matter. Some retainers who did speak 


[91] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of it are hanged for anexample. Presently, by another 
battle, the family return into their old possessions, and 
enormously increase their ancient power. When this 
happens the scoundrel that seduced the daughter of the 
house and then deserted the family returns. Why 
does he return? Now is the time to fulfil his purpose. 
He has become a great soldier and a nobleman in his 
own right. Now he can ask for that young lady in 
marriage, and they dare not refuse. If they refuse, he 
can revenge himself by telling the story of her disgrace. 
If they accept him as a son-in-law, they will also be 
obliged to make him very powerful; and he will know 
how to take every advantage. The girl is not consulted 
at all. Her business is to obey. She thinks that it 
would be better to die than to marry the wicked man 
that had wronged her; but she must obey and she is 
ordered to marry him. He cares nothing about her; 
she is only the tool by which he wishes to win his way 
into power. But, cunning as he is, the brothers of the 
girl are even more cunning. They wish for the mar- 
riage only for the purpose of getting the man into their 
hands, just for one moment. He shall marry her, but 
immediately afterwards he shall disappear forever from 
the sight of men. The bride does not know the pur- 
pose of her terrible brothers; she thinks they are cruel 
to her when she tells her story, but they only wish to 
avenge her, and they are much too prudent to tell her 
what they are going to do. The poem does not go any 
further than the moment before the marriage. The 
first part is quite finished; but the second part was 
never written. 

The whole of this great composition is in verses of 


[92] 


Studies in Rossetti 


five lines, curiously arranged. Rossetti adopts a dif- 
ferent form of verse for almost every one of his narra- 
tions. This is quite as unique a measure in its way— 
that is, in nineteeth century poetry—as was the meas- 
ure of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” in elegiac poetry. 
Now we shall try to illustrate the style of the poem. 


Against the haloed lattice-panes 

The bridesmaid sunned her breast; 
Then to the glass turned tall and free, 
And braced and shifted daintily 
Her loin-belt through her céte-hardie. 


The belt was silver, and the clasp 
Of lozenged arm-bearings ; 
A world of mirrored tints minute 
The rippling sunshine wrought into ’t, 
That flushed her hand and warmed her foot. 


At least an hour had Aloyse,— 
Her jewels in her hair,— 

Her white gown, as became a bride, 

Quartered in silver at each side,— 

Sat thus aloof, as if to hide. 


Over her bosom, that lay still, 

The vest was rich in grain, 
With close pearls wholly overset: 
Around her throat the fastenings met 
Of chevesayle and mantelet. 


Absolutely real as this seems, we know that the details 
must have been carefully studied in museums. Else- 
where, except perhaps in very old pictures, these things 
no longer exist. There are no more loin-belts of silver, 


[93] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


no cote-hardies, no chevesayle or mantelet. I cannot 
explain to you what they are without pictures—further 
than to say that they were parts of the attire of a lady 
of rank about the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 
Brides do not now have their white robes “quartered in 
silver”—that is, figured with the family crest or arms. 
Why silver instead of gold? Simply because of the rule 
that brides should be all in white; therefore even the 
crest was worked in white metal instead of gold. By 
the word vest, you must also understand an ancient 
garment for women; the modern word signifies a gar- 
ment worn only by men. “Grain” is an old term for 
texture. The description of the light playing on the 
belt-clasp of the bridesmaid, in the second stanza, is a 
marvellous bit of work, the effect being given especially 
by three words—“‘lozenged,” “rippling,” for the sun- 
shine, and “minute,” for the separate flushes or spark- 
lings thrown off from the surface. But all is wonder- 
ful; this is painting with words exactly as a painter 
paints with colours. Sounds are treated with the same 
wonderful vividness: 


Although the lattice had dropped loose, 
There was no wind; the heat 

Being so at rest that Amelotte 

Heard far beneath the plunge and float 

Of a hound swimming in the moat. 


Some minutes since, two rooks had toiled 
Home to the nests that crowned 
Ancestral ash-trees. Through the glare 
Beating again, they seemed to tear 
With that thick caw the woof o’ the air. 


[94] 


Studies in Rossetti 


One must have been in the tower of a castle to feel the 
full force of the first stanza. The two girls are in a 
room perhaps one hundred and fifty or two hundred 
feet above the water of the moat, so that except in a 
time of extraordinary stillness they would not hear ordi- 
nary sounds from so far below. And notice that the 
poet does not tell us that this was because the air did 
not move; he says that the heat was at rest. Very 
expressive—in great summer heat, without wind, the 
air itself seems to our senses not air but fluid heat. 
And the same impression of summer is given by the 
description of the two crows flying to their nest and 
back again, and screaming as they fly. The poet does 
not say that they flew; he says they toiled home—be- 
cause flying in that thick warm air is difficult for them. 
When they return he uses another word, still more im- 
pressive; he says they beat again through the glare. 
This makes you hear the heavy motion of the wings. 
And he describes the crow as seeming to tear the air, 
because that air is so heavy that it seems like a thing 
woven. 

Here is a strangely powerful stanza describing the 
difficulty of speaking about a painful subject that for 
many years one has tried to forget: 


Her thought, long stagnant, stirred by speech, 
Gave her a sick recoil; 

As, dip thy fingers through the green 

That masks a pool,—where they have been 

The naked depth is black between. 


Any of you who as boys have played about a castle 
moat, and stirred the green water weeds covering the 


[95] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


still water, must have remarked that the water looks 
black as ink underneath. Of course it is not black in 
itself; but the weeds keep out the sun, so that it seems 
black because of the shadow. The poet’s comparison 
has a terrible exactness here. The mind is compared 
to stagnant water covered with water-weeds. Weeds 
grow upon water in this way only when there has been 
no wind for a long time, and no current. The condi- 
tion of a mind that does not think, that dares not 
think, is like stagnant water in this way. Memory be- 
comes covered up with other things, matters not re- 
lating to the past. 

Now we can take four stanzas from the scene of the 
secret family meeting, after the shame has been con- 
fessed and is known. ‘They are very powerful. 


“Time crept. Upon a day at length 
My kinsfolk sat with me: 
That which they asked was bare and plain: 
I answered: the whole bitter strain 
Was again said, and heard again. 


“Fierce Raoul snatched his sword, and turned 
The point against my breast. 

I bared it, smiling: “To the heart 

Strike home,’ I said; ‘another dart 

Wreaks hourly there a deadlier smart.’ 

“Twas then my sire struck down the sword, 

And said, with shaken lips: 

‘She from whom all of you receive 

Your life, so smiled; and I forgive.’ 

Thus for my mother’s sake, I live. 


[96] 


Studies in Rossetti 


“But I, a mother even as she, 
Turned shuddering to the wall: 
For I said: ‘Great God! and what would I do, 
When to the sword, with the thing I knew, 
I offered not one life but two!’ ” 


This is now the most terrible part of the story; and 
it has a humanity about it that almost makes us doubt. 
Fancy the situation. The daughter of a prince un- 
chaste with a common retainer. Now in princely 
families chastity was of as much importance as physi- 
cal strength and will; it meant everything—honour, 
purity of race, the possibility of alliance. And a great 
house is thus disgraced. We can sympathise with the 
horrible mental suffering of the girl, but it is impos- 
sible not to sympathise also even with the terrible 
brother that wishes to kill her. He is right, she de- 
serves death; but he is young, and cruel because young. 
The father sorrows, and seeing the girl smiling, thinks 
of the dead mother, and forgives. This is the only 
point at which we feel inclined to lay down the book 
and ask questions. Would a father in such a position 
have done this in those cruel ages? Would he have 
allowed himself to pity?—or rather, could he have al- 
lowed himself to pity? Tender-hearted men did not 
rule in those days. We have records of husbands burn- 
ing their wives, of fathers killing their sons. All we 
can say is that an exception might have existed, just 
as Rossetti imagines. Human nature was of course not 
different then from what it is now, but it is quite cer- 
tain that the gentle side of human nature seldom dis- 
played itself in the families of the feudal princes; a 


[97] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


man who was gentle could not rule. In Italy sons who 
did not show the ruling character were apt to be killed 
or poisoned. One must understand that feudal life was 
not much more moral than other life. 

I think we can here turn to another department of 
Rossetti’s verse. I only hope that the examples given 
from the “Bride’s Prelude” will interest you sufficiently 
to make you at a later day turn to this wonderful poem 
for a careful studv of its beauty and power. 


Vi 


When we come to the study of the lives of the Vic- 
torian poets, we shall find that Rossetti’s whole exist- 
ence was governed by his passion for one woman, whom 
he loved in a strange mystical way, with a love that was 
half art (art in the good sense) and half idolatry. To 
him she was much more than a woman; she was a 
divinity, an angel, a model for all things beautiful. You 
know that he was a great painter, and in a multitude 
of beautiful pictures he painted the face of this woman. 
He composed his poems also in order to please her. He 
lost her within a little more than a year after winning 
her, and this nearly killed him. I may say that 
throughout all his poems, speaking in a general way, 
there are references to this great love of his life; but 
there is one portion of his work that we must consider 
as especially illustrating it, and that is the “House of 
Life,” a collection of more than one hundred sonnets 
upon the subject of love and its kindred emotions. But 
the love of which Rossetti sings is not the love of a 
young man for a girl—not the love of youth and maid. 
It is married love carried to the utmost degree of 


[98] 


Studies in Rossetti 


worship. You will think this a strange subject; and 
I confess that it is. Very few men could be praised 
for touching such a subject. Coventry Patmore, you 
know, was an exception. He made the subject of his 
own courtship, wedding, and married life the subject 
of his poetry, and he did it so nicely and so tenderly 
that his book had a great success. But Rossetti did 
his work in an entirely different way, which I must try 
to explain. 

Unlike Patmore, Rossetti did not openly declare that 
he took any personal experience for the subject of his 
study; we only perceive, through knowledge of his life, 
and through suggestions obtained from other parts of 
his work, that personal love and personal loss were his 
great inspiration. As a matter of fact, any man who 
sings about love must draw upon his own personal ex- 
perience of the passion. Every lover thinks of love 
in his own way. But the value of a love poem is not 
the personal part of it; the value of a love poem is 
according to the degree in which it represents uni- 
versal experience, or experience of a very large kind. 
It must represent to some degree a general philosophy 
of life. Even the commonest little love-song, such as 
a peasant might sing in the streets of Tokyo, as he 
comes in from the country walking beside his horse, 
will represent something of the philosophy of life if it 
is a good and true composition, no matter how vulgar 
may be the idiom of it. When we come to think about 
it, we shall find that all great poetry is in this sense 
also philosophical poetry. 

Rossetti, as I have already shown you, was a true 
philosopher in certain directions; and he applied his 


[99] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


philosophical powers, as well as his artistic powers, to 
his own experiences, so as to adapt them to the uses 
of great poetry. He is never narrowly personal. 
And his sonnets are really very wonderful compositions 
—not reflecting universal experience so as to be uni- 
versally understood, but reflecting universal experience 
so as to be understood by cultivated minds only. These 
productions are altogether above the range of the com- 
mon mind; they are extremely subtle and elaborate, 
both as to thought and as to form. But their subject 
is not at all special. Rossetti had the idea that every 
phase of happiness and sorrow belonging to married 
life, from the hour of the wedding night to the hour of 
death, was worthy of poetical treatment, because mar- 
ried life is related to the deepest human emotions. And 
in the space of one hundred sonnets he treats every 
phase. This series of sonnets is divided into two groups. 
The first contains poems relating to the early conditions 
of love in marriage; the second group treats especially 
of the more sorrowful aspects of a married life—the 
trials of death, the pains of memory, and the hopes and 
fears of reuniting after death. The second part does 
not, however, contain all the sad pieces ; there are very 
sad ones in the first group of fifty-nine. We have 
already studied one of the first group, the piece called 
“The Birth-Bond.” There is another piece in this 
group, the first of four sonnets, which is exquisite as a 
bit of fancy. It is entitled “Willowwood.” 


I sat with Love upon a woodside well, 
Leaning across the water, I and he; 
Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me, 
But touched his lute wherein was audible 


[100] 


Studies in Rossetti 


The certain secret thing he had to tell: 

Only our mirrored eyes met silently 

In the low wave; and that sound came to be 
The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell. 


And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers; 
And with his foot and with his wing-feathers 
He swept the spring that watered my heart’s drouth. 
Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair, 
And as I stooped, her own lips rising there 
Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth. 


This is a dream of the dead woman loved. The lover 
finds himself seated with the god of love, the little naked 
boy with wings, as the ancients represented him, at 
the edge of a spring near the forest. He does not look 
at the god of love, neither does the god look at him; 
they were friends long ago, but now—what is the use? 
She is dead. By the reflection in the water only he 
knows that Love is looking down, and he does not wish 
to speak to him. But Love will not leave him alone. 
He hears the tone of a musical instrument, and that 
music makes him suddenly very sad, for it seems like 
the voice of the dead for whom he mourns. It makes 
his tears fall into the water; and immediately, magi- 
cally, the reflection of the eyes of Love in the water 
become like the eyes of the woman he loved. Then 
while he looks in wonder, the little god stirs the surface 
of the water with wings and feet, and the ripples become 
like the hair of the dead woman, and as the lover bends 
down, her lips rise up through the water to kiss him. 
You may ask, what does all this mean? Well, it means 
as much as any dream means; it is all impossible, no 


[101] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


doubt, but the impossible in dreams often makes us very 
sad indeed—especially if the dead appear to come back 
in them. 

Another example of regret, very beautiful, is the son- 
net numbered ninety-one in this collection. It is called 
“Lost on Both Sides.” 


As when two men have loved a woman well, 
Each hating each, through Love’s and Death’s deceit; 
Since not for either this stark marriage-sheet 
And the long pauses of this wedding-bell; 
Yet o’er her grave the night and day dispel 
At last their feud forlorn, with cold and heat; 
Nor other than dear friends to death may fleet 
The two lives left that most of her can tell:— 


So separate hopes, which in a soul had wooed 
The one same Peace, strove with each other’ long, 
And Peace before their faces perished since: 
So through that soul, in restless brotherhood, 
They roam together now, and wind among 
Its bye-streets, knocking at the dusty inns. 


The comparison is of the hopes and aims of the artist 
to a couple of men in love with the same woman— 
bitter enemies while she lives, because of their natural 
rivalry, but loving each other after her death, simply 
because each can understand better than anybody else 
in the world the pain of the other. Afterward the men, 
once rivals, passed all their time together, wandering 
about at night in search of some quiet place, where 
they can sit down and drink and talk together. In 
Rossetti’s time such quiet places were not to be found 
in the main streets, but in the little side streets called 


[102] 


Studies in Rossetti 


bye-streets. After this explanation, the comparison 
should not be obscure. The artist who loves does all 
his work with the thought of the woman that he loves 
before him; his hope to win fame is that he may make 
her proud of him; his aims are in all cases to please 
her. After he has lost her, these hopes and aims, which 
might have been antagonists to each other in former 
days, are now reconciled within him; her memory alone 
is now the inspiration and the theme. I hope you will 
notice the curious and exquisite value of certain words 
here: “Stark,” meaning stiff, nearly always refers to 
the rigidness of death; it is especially used of the ap- 
pearance and attitude of corpses, and its application 
in this poem to the cover of the marriage bed is quite 
enough to convey the sense of death without any more 
definite observation. Again the expression “long 
pauses,” referring to the sound of the church bells, 
makes us understand that the bells are really ringing 
a funeral knell; for the ringing of wedding bells ought 
to be quick and joyous. It might seem a strange con- 
tradiction, this simile, but the poet has in his mind an 
old expression about the death of a maiden: “She be- 
came the bride of Death.” Thus the effect is greatly 
intensified by the sombre irony of the simile itself. 

We might extract a great many beauties from this 
wonderful collection of sonnets; but time is precious, 
and we shall have room for only another quotation or 
two. The following is one to which I should like espe- 
cially to invite your attention—not only because of its 
strange charm, but also because of the curious legend 
which it recalls—a legend which we have already 
studied: 

[103] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


BODY’S BEAUTY 


Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told 

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,) 

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive, 
And her enchanted hair was the first gold. 
And still she sits, young while the earth is old, 

And subtly of herself contemplative, 

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave, 
Till heart and body and life are in its hold. 


The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where 
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent 
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare? 
Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went 
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent, 
And round his heart one strangling golden hair. 


The reference to the rose and the poppy may need 
some explanation. ‘The rose has been for many cen- 
turies in Western countries a symbol of love; and the 
poppy has been a symbol of death and sleep from the 
time of the Greeks. It is from the seeds of the poppy 
that opium is extracted. The Greeks did not know the 
use of opium; but they knew that the seeds of the 
flower produced sleep, and might, in certain quantities, 
produce death. We have the expression ‘‘poppied 
sleep” to express the sleep of death. 

A final word must be said about Rossetti’s genius 
as a translator. He has given us, in one large volume, 
the most precious anthology of the Italian poets of 
the Middle Ages that ever has been made—the poets of 
the time of Dante, under the title of “Dante and his 

[104] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Circle.” This magnificent work would alone be sufficient 
to establish his supreme excellence as a translator of 
poetry; but the material is mostly of a sort that can 
appeal to scholars only. Rossetti is better known as 
a translator through a very few short pieces translated 
from French poets, chiefly. Such is the wonderful ren- 
dering of Villon’s “Ballad of Dead Ladies,” beginning 


Tell me now in what hidden way is 
Lady Flora, the lovely Roman? 
Where’s Hipparchia, and where is Thais, 
Neither of them the fairer woman? 
Where is Echo, beheld of no man, 
Only heard on river and mere,— 
She whose beauty was more than human ?— 
But where are the snows of yester-year? 


Even Swinburne, when making his splendid translations 
from Villon, refrained from attempting to translate this 
ballad, saying that no man could surpass, even if he 
could equal, Rossetti’s version. The burthen is said to 
be especially successful as a rendering of the difficult 
French refrain: 


Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? 


You will find this matchless translation almost any- 
where, so we need not occupy the time further with it; 
but I doubt whether you have noticed as yet other 
wonderful translations made by this master from the 
French. Such is the song from Victor Hugo’s drama 
“Tes Burgraves”; you will not forget Rossetti’s trans- 
lation after having once read it. 


[105] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Through the long winter the rough wind tears; 
With their white garments the hills look wan. 
Love on: who cares? 
Who cares? Love on! 
My mother is dead; God’s patience wears; 
It seems my chaplain will not have done! 
Love on: who cares? 
Who cares? Love on! 
The Devil, hobbling up the stairs, 
Comes for me with his ugly throng. 
Love on: who cares? 
Who cares? Love on. 


Another remarkable translation from the same drama 
is that of the song beginning: 


In the time of the civil broils 
Our swords are stubborn things. 
A fig for all the cities! 

A fig for all the kings! 


and ending: 


Right well we hold our own 
With the brand and the iron rod. 
A fig for Satan, Burgraves ; 
Burgraves, a fig for God! 


But even more wonderful Rossetti seems when we go 
back to the old French, as in the translation which has 
been called “My Father’s Close.” 


Inside my father’s close 
(Fly away O my heart away!) 
Sweet apple-blossom blows 
So sweet. 


[106] 


Studies in Rossetti 


Three kings’ daughters fair, 
(Fly away O my heart away!) 
They lie below it there 
So sweet! 


Now the Old French of the first stanza will show you 
the astonishing faithfulness of the rendering: 


Au jardin de mon pére, 
(Vole, mon ceur, vole!) 

Il y a un pommier doux, 
Tout dou. 


Besides the small exquisite things, there are long trans- 
lations from medieval writers, French and Italian, of 
wonderful beauty. Compare, for example, the cele- 
brated episode of Francesca da Rimini in Dante (which 
Carlyle so beautifully called “a lily in the mouth of 
Hell”), as translated by Byron, and as translated by 
Rossetti, and observe the immeasurable superiority of 
the latter. It would be very pleasant, if we had time, 
to examine Rossetti’s translations more in detail; but 
the year advances and we must turn to an even greater 
master of verse—Swinburne. 


[107] 


CHAPTER II 
NOTE UPON ROSSETTI’S PROSE 


As we are now studying Rossetti’s poetry in other 
hours, you may be interested in some discussion of the 
merits of his prose—for this is still, so far as the great 
public are concerned, almost an unknown topic. The 
best of the painters of his own school, and the most 
delicate poet of the Victorian period, Rossetti might 
also have become one of the greatest prose writers of 
the century if he had seriously turned to prose. But 
ill-health and other circumstances prevented him from 
doing much in this direction. What he did do, how- 
ever, is so remarkable that it deserves to be very care- 
fully studied. I do not refer to his critical essays. 
These are not very remarkable. I refer only to his 
stories; and his stories are great because they happen 
to have exactly the same kind of merit that distin- 
guishes his poetry. They might be compared with the 
stories of Poe; and yet they are entirely different, with 
the difference distinguishing all Latin prose fiction 
from English fiction. But there is certainly no other 
story writer, except Poe, with whose work that of Ros- 
setti can be at all classed. They are ghostly stories— 
one of them a fragment, the other complete. Only two 
—and the outline of the third. The fragment is not 
less worthy of attention because it happens to be a 


[108] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


fragment—like the poet’s own “Bride’s Prelude,” or 
Coleridge’s “‘Christabel,” or Poe’s “Silence.’’ The trou- 
ble with all great fragments, and the proof of their 
greatness, is that we cannot imagine what the real end- 
ing would have been; and this puzzle only lends addi- 
tional charm to the imaginative effect. Of the two 
consecutive stories, it is the fragment which has the 
greater merit. 

The first story, called “Hand and Soul,” has another 
interest besides the interest of narrative. It contains 
the whole zsthetic creed of Rossetti’s school of paint- 
ing,—a little philosophy of art that is well worth study 
ing. That is especially why I want to talk about it. 
The so-called Pre-Raphaelite school of English paint- 
ing, whereof Rossetti was the recognized chief, were not 
altogether disciples of Ruskin. They did not believe 
that art must have a religious impulse in order to be 
great art; and they did not exactly support the antago- 
nistic doctrine of “Art for Art’s Sake.” They con- 
sidered that absolute sincerity in one’s own conception 
of the beautiful, and wide toleration of all esthetic 
ideas, were axiomatic truths which it was necessary to 
accept without reserve. They had no detestation for 
any school of art; they practically banished prejudice 
from their little circle. I may add that they were not 
indifferent to Japanese art, even at a time when it 
found many enemies in London, and when the great 
Ruskin himself endeavoured to help the prejudice 
against it. In that very time Rossetti was making 
Japanese collections, and Burne-Jones and others were 
discovering new methods by the help of this Eastern 
art. 


[109] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Now the story of “Hand and Soul” is, in a small 
way, a history of man’s experience with Painting. It 
is supposed to be the story of a real picture. The pic- 
ture is only the figure of a woman in a grey and green 
dress, very beautiful. But whoever looks at that pic- 
ture for a minute or two, suddenly becomes afraid— 
afraid in exactly the same way that he would be on 
seeing a ghost. The picture could not have been painted 
from imagination; that figure must have been seen by 
somebody; and yet it could not have been a living 
woman! Then what could have been the real story of 
that picture? Did the artist see a ghost; or did he see 
something supernatural? 

The answer to these questions is the following story. 
The artist who painted that picture, four hundred years 
ago, was a young Italian of immense genius, so passion- 
ately devoted to his art that he lived for nothing else. 
At first he wished only to be the greatest painter of his 
time; and that he became without much difficulty. He 
painted only what he thought beautiful; and he painted 
beautiful faces that he saw passing by in the street, 
and beautiful sunsets that he saw from his window, 
and beautiful fancies that came into his mind. Every- 
body loved his pictures; and princes made him great 
gifts of money. 

Then a sudden remorse came to this painter, who was 
at heart a religious man. He said to himself: “Here, 
God has given me the power to paint beautiful things ; 
and I have been painting only those beautiful things 
which please the senses of men. Therefore I have been 
doing wrong. Henceforward I will paint only things 
which represent eternal truth, the things of Heaven.” 


[110] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


After that he began to paint only religious and 
mystical pictures, and pictures which common people 
could not understand at all. The people no longer 
came to admire his work; the princes no longer paid 
him honour or brought him gifts; and he became as one 
forgotten in the world. 

Moreover, he found himself losing his power as an 
artist. And then, to crown all his misfortunes, some 
of his most famous pictures were ruined one day by the 
extraordinary incident of a church fight; for two great 
Italian clans between whom a feud existed, happened to 
meet in the church porch, and a blow was struck and 
swords were drawn—and there was such killing that 
the blood of the fighters was splashed upon the paint- 
ings on the wall. 

When all these things had happened, the artist de- 
spaired. He became weary of life, and thought of de- 
stroying himself. And while he was thus thinking, there 
suddenly entered his room, without any sound, the figure 
of a woman robed in green and grey; and she stood 
before him and looked into his eyes. And as she looked 
into his eyes, an awe came upon him such as he had 
never before known; and a great feeling of sadness alsa 
came with the awe. But he could not speak, any more 
than a person in a dream, who wants to cry out, and 
cannot make a sound. But the woman spoke and said 
to him, “I am your own soul—that soul to whom you 
have done so much wrong. And I have been allowed 
to come to you in this form, only because you have 
never been of those men who make art merely to win 
money. To win fame, however, you did not scruple; 
and that was not altogether good, although it was not 

[111] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


altogether bad. What was much worse was the pride 
which turned you away from me—religious pride. You 
wanted to do what God did not ask you to do—to work 
against your own soul, and to cast away your love of 
beauty. Into me God placed the desire of loveliness 
and the bliss of the charm of the world. Wherefore 
then should you strive against His work? And what 
pride impelled you to imagine that heaven needed the 
help of your art to teach men what is good? When 
did God say to you, Friend, let me lean upon you, or 
I shall fall down? No; it is by teaching men to seek 
and to love the beautiful things in this beautiful world 
that you make their hearts better within them—never 
by preaching to them with allegories that they cannot 
understand ; and because you have done this, you have 
been punished. Be true to me, your own very soul; 
then you will do marvellous things. Now paint a pic- 
ture of me, just as I am, so that you may know that 
your power of art is given back to you.” 

So the artist painted a picture of his own soul in 
the likeness of a woman clad in green and grey; and 
all who see that picture even today feel at once a 
great fear and a great charm, and find it hard to 
understand how mortal man could have painted it. 

That is the story of “Hand and Soul”; and it teaches 
a great deal of everlasting truth, Assuredly the road 
to all artistic greatness is the road of sincerity—truth 
to one’s own emotional sense of what is beautiful. And 
just to that degree in which the artist or poet allows 
himself to be made insincere, either by desire of wealth 
and fame, or by religious scruples, just to that extent 
he must fail. I have only given a very slight outline 

[112] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


of the tale; to give more might be to spoil your pleasure 
of reading it. 

The second story will not seem to you quite so origi- 
nal as the first, though, to English minds, it probably 
seems stranger. It is a story of pre-existence. Now, a 
very curious fact is that this idea of pre-existence, ex- 
pressed by Rossetti in many passages of his verse, as 
well as in his prose story, did not come to him from 
Eastern sources at all. He never cared for, and per- 
haps never read, any Oriental literature. His idea re- 
garding re-birth and the memory of past lives belongs 
rather to certain strangely imaginative works of me- 
dieval literature, than to anything else. Even to him- 
self they appeared novel—something dangerous to talk 
about. Unless you understand this, you will not be able 
to account for the curious thrill of terror that runs 
through “St. Agnes of Intercession.” ‘The writer writes 
as if he were afraid of his own thought. 

The story begins with a little bit of autobiography, 
Rossetti telling about his thoughts as a child, when he 
played at his father’s knee on winter evenings. Of 
course these memories did not appear as his own; but 
as those of the painter supposed to tell the story. As 
a child this painter was very fond of picture books. In 
the house there was one picture book containing a pic- 
ture of a saint—St. Agnes—which pleased him in such 
a way that he could spend hours in contemplating it 
with delight. But he did not know why. He grew up, 
was educated, became a man and became a painter; and 
still he could not forget the charm of the picture that 
had pleased him when a child. One day a young Eng- 
lish girl, a friend of his sister’s, comes to the house 


[113] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


on a visit. He is greatly startled on seeing her, be- 
cause her face is exactly like the face of the saint in 
the picture book. He falls in love with her, and they 
are engaged to be married. But before that time he 
paints her portrait, and as her portrait happens to be 
the best work of the kind that he ever did, he sends it 
to the Royal Academy to be put on exhibition. Critics 
greatly praise the picture, but one of them remarks that 
at Bologna in Italy there is a painting of St. Agnes 
that very much resembles it. Upon this he goes to 
Italy to find the picture, and does find it after a great 
deal of trouble. It is said to be the work of a certain 
Angiolieri, who lived some four hundred years ago. 
Every detail of the face proves to be exactly lke that 
of the living face which he painted in London. Being 
greatly startled by this discovery, he examines the cata- 
logue of paintings, which he bought at the door, in 
order to find out whether there is anything else said 
in it about the model from whom Angiolieri painted that 
St. Agnes. He cannot find any information about the 
model; but he finds out that in another part of the 
building there is a portrait of Angiolieri, painted by 
himself. J thmk you know that many famous artists 
have painted portraits of themselves. Greatly inter- 
ested, he hurries to where the picture is hanging, and 
finds, to his amazement, that the portrait of Angiolieri 
is exactly like himself—the very image of him. Was it 
then possible that, four hundred years before, he him- 
self might have been Angiolieri, and had painted that 
picture of St. Agnes? 

A fever seizes upon him, one of those fevers only 
too common in Italy. While he is still under its in- 


[114] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


fluence, he dreams a dream. He is in a picture gallery; 
and on the wall he sees Angiolieri’s painting hanging 
up; and there is a great crowd looking at it. In that 
crowd he sees his betrothed, leaning upon the arm of 
another man. Then he feels angrily jealous, and says 
to the strange man, tapping him on the shoulder, “Sir, 
I am engaged to that lady!” Then the man turns 
round; and as he turns round, his face proves to be 
the face of Angiolieri, and his dress is the costume of 
four hundred years ago, and he says, “She is not mine, 
good friend—but neither is she thine.” As he speaks 
his face falls in, like the face of a dead man, and be- 
comes the face of a skull. From this dream we can 
guess the conclusion which the author intended. 

On returning to England, when the painter attempted 
to speak of what he had seen and learned, his family 
believed him insane, and forbade him to speak on the 
subject any more. Also he was warned that should he 
speak of it to his betrothed, the marriage would be 
broken off. Accordingly, though he obeys, he is placed 
in a very unhappy position. All about him there is the 
oppression of a mystery involving two lives; and he 
cannot even try to solve it—cannot speak about it to 
the person whom it most directly concerns. . . . And 
here the fragment breaks. 

If this admirable story had been finished, the result 
could not have been more impressive than is this sud- 
den interruption. We know that Rossetti intended to 
make the betrothed girl also the victim of a mysterious 
destiny ; but he did not intend, it appears, to elucidate 
the reason of the thing in detail. That would have in- 
deed destroyed the shadowy charm of the recital. 

[115] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


While the causes of things remain vague and mysteri- 
ous, the pleasurable fear of the unknown remains with 
the reader. But if you try to account for everything, 
at once the illusion vanishes, and the art becomes dead. 
It seems to me that Rossetti has given in this unfinished 
tale a very fine suggestion of what use the old romances 
still are. It was by careful study of them, combined 
with his great knowledge of art, that he was able to 
produce, both in his poetry and in his prose, the ex- 
quisite charm of reality in unreality. Reading either, 
you have the sensation of actually seeing, touching, 
feeling, and yet you know that the whole thing is prac- 
tically impossible. No art of romance can rise higher 
than this. And speaking of that soul-woman, whose 
portrait was painted in the former story, reminds me 
of an incident in Taine’s wonderful book “De 1|’Intelli- 
gence,” which is @ propos. It is actually on record that 
a French artist had the following curious hallucina- 
tion: 

He was ill, from overwork perhaps, and opening his 
eyes after a feverish sleep, he saw a beautiful lady 
seated at his bedside, with one hand upon the bed cover, 
and he said to himself, ‘This is certainly an illusion 
caused by my nervous condition. But how beautiful an 
illusion it is!’ And how wonderfully luminous and deli- 
cate is that hand! If I dared only put my hand where 
it is, I wonder what would happen. Probably the whole 
thing would vanish at once, and I should lose the pleas- 
ure of looking at it.” 

Suddenly, as if answering his thought, a voice as 
clear as the voice of a bird said to him, “I am not a 
shadow; and you can take my hand and kiss it if you 


[116] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


like.” He did lift the lady’s hand to his lips and felt 
it, and then he entered into conversation with her. The 
conversation continued until interrupted by the en- 
trance of the doctor attending the patient. This is the 
record of an extraordinary case of double conscious- 
ness—the illusion and the reason working together in 
such harmony that neither in the slightest degree dis- 
turbed the other. Rossetti’s figures, whether of the 
Middle Ages or of modern times, seem also like the re- 
sults of a double consciousness. We can touch them 
and feel them, although they are ghosts. 

As I said before, he might have been one of the great- 
est of romantic story tellers had he turned his attention 
in that direction and kept his health. No better proof 
of this could be asked for than the printed plans of 
several stories which he never had time to develop. He 
collected the material from the study of Old French and 
Old Italian poets chiefly; but that material, when 
thrown into the crucible of his imagination, assumed 
totally novel and strange forms. I may tell you the 
outline of one story by way of conclusion. It was a 
beautiful idea; and it is a great regret that it could 
not have been executed in the author’s lifetime: 

One day a king and his favourite knight, while hunt- 
ing in a forest, visited the house of a woodcutter, or 
something of that kind, to ask for water—both being 
very thirsty. The water was served to them by a young 
girl of such extraordinary beauty that both the king 
and the knight were greatly startled. The knight falls 
in love with the maid, and afterwards asks the king’s 
leave to woo her.’ But when he comes to woo, he finds 
out that the maid has become enamoured of the king, 


ei 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


whom she does not know to be the king. She says that, 
unless she can marry him she will never become a wife. 
The king therefore himself goes to her to plead for his 
friend. “I cannot marry you,” he says, “because I am 
married already. But my friend, who loves you very 
much, is not married; and if you will wed him I shall 
make him a baron and confer upon him the gift of 
many castles.” 

The young girl to please the king accepts the knight ; 
a grand wedding takes place at the king’s castle; and 
the knight is made a great noble, and is gifted with 
many rich estates. Then the king makes this arrange- 
ment with the bride: “I will never visit you or allow 
you to visit me, because we love each other too much. 
But, once every year, when I go to hunt in the forest 
with your husband, you shall bring me a cup of water, 
just as on the first day, when we saw you.” 

After this the king saw her three times ;—that is to 
say, in three successive years she greeted him with the 
cup of water when he went hunting. In the fourth year 
she died, leaving behind her a little daughter. 

The sorrowing husband carefully brought up the 
little girl—or, at least caused her to be carefully 
brought up; but he never presented her to the king, or 
spoke of her, because the death of the mother was a 
subject too painful for either of them to talk about. 

But when the girl was sixteen years old, she looked. 
so exactly like her mother, that the father was startled 
by the resemblance. And he thought, “Tomorrow I 
shall present her to the king.” And to his daughter 
he said, “Tomorrow I am going to hunt with the king. 
When we are on our way home, we shall stop at a little 


[118] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


cottage in the wood—the little cottage in which your 
mother used to live. Do you then wait in the cottage, 
and when the king comes, bring him a cup of water, just 
as your mother did.” 

So next day the king and his baron approached the 
cottage after their hunt; and the king was greatly as- 
tonished and moved by the apparition of a young girl 
offering him a cup of water—so strangely did she re- 
semble the girl whom he had seen in the same place 
nearly twenty years before. And as he took the cup 
from her hand, his heart went out toward her, and he 
asked his companion, “Is this indeed the ghost of her? 
—or another dear vision?” But before the companion 
could make any answer—lo! another shadow stood be- 
tween the king and the girl; and none could have said 
which was which, so exactly each beautiful face resem- 
bled the other—only the second apparition wore peas- 
ant clothes. And she that wore the clothes of a peasant 
girl kissed the king as he sat upon his horse, and dis- 
appeared. And the king immediately, on receiving that 
kiss and returning it, fell forward and died. 

This is a vague. charming romance indeed, for some 
one to take up and develop. Of course the figure in 
the peasant clothes is the spirit of the mother of the 
girl. There are many pretty stories somewhat re- 
sembling this in the old Japanese story books, but 
none quite the same; and I venture to recommend any- 
body who understands the literary value of such things 
to attempt a modified version of Rossetti’s outline in 
Japanese. Some things would, of course, have to be 
changed ; but no small changes would in the least affect 
the charm of the story as a whole. 


[119] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


In conclusion, I may observe that the object of this 
little lecture has not been merely to interest you in the 
prose of Rossetti, but also to quicken your interest in 
the subject of romance in general. Remember that no 
matter how learned or how scientific the world may be- 
come, romance can never die. No greater mistake could 
be made by the Japanese student than that of despising 
the romantic element in the literature of his own coun- 
try. Recently I have been thinking very often that a 
great deal might be done toward the development of 
later literature by remodelling and reanimating the ro- 
mance of the older centuries. I believe that many 
young writers think chiefly about the possibility of 
writing something entirely new. This is a great liter- 
ary misfortune; for the writing of something entirely 
new is scarcely possible for any human being. The 
greatest Western writers have not become great by try- 
ing to write what is new, but by writing over again in 
a much better way, that which is old. Rossetti and 
Tennyson and scores of others made the world richer 
simply by going back to the literature of a thousand 
years ago, and giving it re-birth. Like everything else, 
even a good story must die and be re-born hundreds 
of times before it shows the highest possibilities of 
beauty. All literary history is a story of re-birth— 
periods of death and restful forgetfulness alternating 
with periods of resurrection and activity. In the do- 
main of pure literature nobody need ever be troubled 
for want of a subject. He has only to look for some- 
thing which has been dead for a very long time, and 
to give that body a new soul. In romance it would be 
absurd to think about despising a subject, because it is 


[120] 


Note upon Rossetti’s Prose 


unscientific. Science has nothing to do with pure ro- 
mance or poetry, though it may enrich both. These 
are emotional flowers; and what we can do for them 
is only to transplant and cultivate them, much as roses 
or chrysanthemums are cultivated. The original wild 
flower is very simple; but the clever gardener can de- 
velop the simple blossom into a marvellous compound 
apparition, displaying ten petals where the original 
could show but one. Now the same horticultural proc- 
ess can be carried out with any good story or poem or 
drama in Japan, just as readily as in any other coun- 
try. The romantic has nothing to gain from the new 
learning except in the direction of pure art; the new 
learning, by enriching the language and enlarging the 
imagination, makes it possible to express the ancient 
beauty in a new and much more beautiful way. Tenny- 
son might be quoted in illustration. What is the differ- 
ence between his two or three hundred lines of won- 
drous poetry entitled “The Passing of Arthur,” and 
the earliest thirteenth or fourteenth century idea of the 
same mythical event? The facts in either case are the 
same. But the language and the imagery are a thou- 
sand times more forcible and more vivid in the Victorian 
poet. Indeed, progress in belles-lettres is almost alto- 
gether brought about by making old things conform to 
the imagination of succeeding generations; and poesy, 
like the human race, of which it represents the emo- 
tional spirit, must change its dress and the colour of its 
dress as the world also changes. 


[121] 


CHAPTER III 
STUDIES IN SWINBURNE 


A coop modern critic has said that the resemblance 
between Shelley and Algernon Charles Swinburne is 
of so astonishing a kind that it tempts one to believe 
that Swinburne is Shelley in a new body, that the soul 
of the drowned poet really came back to life again, and 
returned to finish at Oxford University the studies in- 
terrupted by his expulsion at the beginning of the cen- 
tury. The fancy is pretty; and it is supported by a 
number of queer analogies. Swinburne, like Shelley, is 
well born; like Shelley, he has been from his early days 
at Eton a furious radical; like Shelley, he has always 
been an enemy of Christianity; and like Shelley, he has 
also been an enemy of conventions and prejudices of 
every description. At the beginning of the century 
Swinburne would certainly have been treated just as 
Byron and Shelley were treated, but times are changed 
to-day; the public has become more generous and more 
sensible, and critics generally recognise Swinburne as 
the greatest verse writer English literature produced. 
He will certainly have justice done him after his death, 
if not during his life. 

If Swinburne were Shelley reborn, we should have to 
recognise that he gained a good deal of wisdom from 
the experiences of his former life. He is altogether an 
incomparably stronger character than Shelley. He 

[122] 


Studies in Swinburne 


kept his radicalism for his poetry, and never in any 
manner outraged the conventions of society in such 
matters as might relate to his private life. He is also 
a far greater poet than Shelley—greater than Tenny- 
son, greater than Rossetti, greater than Browning, 
greater than any other Englishman, not excepting 
Milton, in the mastery of verse. He is also probably 
one of the greatest of scholars among the poets of any 
country, writing poetry in English or French, in Greek 
and Latin. For learning, there are certainly few among 
the poets of England who would not have been obliged 
to bow before him. He is also the greatest living Eng- 
lish dramatist—I might as well say the greatest Eng- 
lish dramatist of the nineteenth century. Except the 
“Cenci” of Shelley, there is no other great drama since 
1800 to be placed beside the dramas of Swinburne; and 
the “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley is far surpassed 
by Swinburne’s Greck tragedy of “Atalanta in Caly- 
don.” Another feature of Swinburne’s genius is his 
critical capacity. He is a great critic; so great that 
he has been able to make his enemies afraid of him, as 
well as to help to distinction struggling young men of 
talent whose work he admires. You will perceive what 
force there must be in the man. Born in 1837, he has 
never ceased to produce poetry from the time of his 
University days, and he still writes, with the result that 
the bulk of his work probably exceeds the work of any 
other great poet of the century. If he be indeed the 
reborn Shelley, it is certain that Shelley has become a 
giant. 

I may have surprised you by saying that Swinburne 
is the greatest of all our poets. But understand that I 

[123] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


am speaking of poetry as distinguished from prose, of 
poetry as rhythm and rhyme, as melody and measure. 
By greatest of poets I mean the greatest master of 
verse. If you were to ask me whether Swinburne has as 
great a quality as Tennyson or as Rossetti or as Brown- 
ing, either in the moral or philosophical sense, I should 
say no. Greatest of all in the knowledge and use of 
words, he is perhaps less than any of the three in the 
higher emotional, moral, sympathetic, and philosophical 
qualities that give poetry its charm for even those who 
know nothing about the art of words. And of all the 
Victorian poets, Swinburne will be the least useful to 
students of these literary classes. The extraordinary 
powers that distinguish him are powers requiring not 
only a perfect knowledge of English, but a perfect 
knowledge of those higher forms of literary expression 
which are especially the outcome of classical study. 
Swinburne’s scholarship is one of the great obstacles to 
his being understood by any who are not scholars them- 
selves in the very same direction; in this sense he would 
be, I think, quite as useless to you as Milton in the 
matter of form. In value to you he would be far below 
Milton in the matter of thought and sentiment. 

There are several ways of studying poetry. The 
greater number of people who buy the books of poets, 
and who find pleasure in them, do not know anything 
about the rules of verse. Out of one hundred thousand 
Englishmen who read Tennyson, I doubt very much if 
one thousand know the worth of his art. English Uni- 
versity students, who have taken a literary course, prob- 
ably do understand very well; but a poet’s reputation 
and fortune are not made by scholars, but by the great 

[124] 


Studies in Swinburne 


mass of half-educated people. They read for sentiment, 
for emotion, for imagination; and they are quite satis- 
fied with the pleasure given them by the poet in this 
way. They are improving and educating themselves 
when they read him, and for this it is not necessary that 
they should know the methods of his work, but only 
that they should know its results. The educators of the 
great mass of any people in Europe are, in this sense, 
the poets. 

The other way of studying a poet is the scholarly 
way, the critical method (I do not mean the philosophi- 
cal method; that is beside our subject) ; we read a poet 
closely, carefully, observing every new and unfamiliar 
word, every beautiful phrase and unaccustomed term, 
every device of rhythm or rhyme, sound or colour that 
he has to give us. Our capacity to study any poet in 
this way depends a good deal upon literary habit and 
upon educational opportunity. By the first method I 
doubt whether you could find much in Swinburne. He 
is like Shelley, often without substance of any kind. 
By the second method we can do a great deal with a 
choice of texts from his best work. I think it better 
to state this clearly beforehand, so that you may not 
be disappointed, failing to find in him the beautiful 
haunting thoughts that you can find in Rossetti or in 
Tennyson or in Browning. 

Here I must digress a little. I must speak of the 
worst side of Swinburne as well as of the best. The 
worst is nearly all in one book, not a very large book, 
which made the greatest excitement in England that 
had been made since the appearance of Byron’s “Don 
Juan.” It is the greatest lyrical gift ever given to 

[125] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


English literature, this book; but it is also, in some 
respects, the most immoral book yet written by an 
English poet. The work of Byron, at its worst, is 
pure and innocent by comparison with the work of 
Swinburne in this book. It is astonishing that the 
English public could have allowed the book to exist. 
Probably it was forgiven on account of its beauty. 
Some years ago, I remember, an excellent English re- 
view said, in speaking of a certain French poem, that 
it was the most beautiful poem of its kind in the French 
language, but that, unfortunately, the subject could 
not be mentioned in print. Of course when there is a 
great beauty and great voluptuousness at the same 
time, it is the former, not the latter, that makes the 
greatness of the work. There must be something very 
good to excuse the existence of the bad. Much of the 
work of Swinburne is like that French poem, valuable 
for the beauty and condemnable for the badness in it 
—and touching upon subjects which cannot be named 
at all. Why he did this work we must try to under- 
stand without prejudice. 

First, as to the man himself. We must not suppose 
that a person is necessarily immoral in his life because 
he happens to write something which is immoral, any 
more than we should suppose a person whose writings 
are extremely moral to be incapable of doing anything 
of a vicious or foolish kind. Shelley, for example, is a 
very chaste poet—there is not one improper line in the 
whole of his poetry; but his life was decidedly unfortu- 
nate. Exactly the reverse happens in the case of Swin- 
burne, who has written thousands of immoral lines. 
The fact is that many persons are apt to mistake 


[126] 


Studies in Swinburne 


artistic feeling for vicious feeling, and a spirit of re- 
volt against conventions for a general hatred of moral 
law. I must ask you to try to put yourselves for a 
moment in the place of a young student, such as Swin- 
burne was at the time of these writings, and try to 
imagine how he felt about things. In every Western 
boy—indeed, I may say in every civilised boy—there 
are several distinct periods, corresponding to the vari- 
ous periods in the history of human progress. Both 
psychologically and physiologically the history of the 
race is repeated in the history of the individual. The 
child is a savage, without religion, without tenderness, 
with a good deal of cruelty and cunning in his little 
soul. He is this because the first faculties that are 
developed within him are the faculties for self-preser- 
vation, the faculties of primitive man. Then ideas of 
right and wrong and religious feelings are quickened 
within him by home-training, and he becomes somewhat 
like the man of the Middle Ages—he enters into his 
medieval period. Then in the course of his college 
studies he is gradually introduced to a knowledge of 
the wonderful old Greek civilisation, civilisation socially 
and, in some respects, even morally superior to any- 
thing in the existing world; and he enters into the 
period of his Renaissance. If he be very sensitive to 
beauty, if he have the esthetic faculty largely devel- 
oped, there will almost certainly come upon him an en- 
thusiastic love and reverence for the old paganism, and 
a corresponding dislike of his modern surroundings. 
This feeling may last only for a short time, or it may 
change his whole life. One fact to observe is this, that 
it is just about the time when a young man’s passions 


[127] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


are strongest that the story of Greek life is suddenly 
expounded to him in the course of his studies ; and you 
must remember that the esthetic faculty is primarily 
based upon the sensuous life. Now in Swinburne’s case 
we have an abnormal esthetic and scholarly faculty 
brought into contact with these influences at a very 
early age; and the result must have been to that young 
mind like the shock of an earth-quake. We must also 
imagine the natural consequence of this enthusiasm in a 
violent reaction against all literary, religious, or social 
conventions that endeavour to keep the spirit of the old 
paganism hidden and suppressed within narrow limits, 
as a dangerous thing. Finally we must suppose the 
natural effect of opposition upon this mind, the effect 
of threats, sneers, or prohibitions, like oil upon fire. 
For young Swinburne was, and still is, a man of ex- 
ceeding courage, incapable of fear of any sort. A 
great idea suddenly came to him, and he resolved to 
put it into execution. This idea was nothing less than 
to attempt to obtain for English poetry the same lb- 
erty enjoyed by French poetry in recent times, to 
attempt to obtain the right of absolute liberty of ex- 
pression in all directions, and to provoke the contest 
with such a bold stroke as never had been dared be- 
fore. The result was the book that has been so much 
condemned, 

We cannot say that Swinburne was successful in this 
attempt at reform. He attempted a little too much, 
and attempted it too soon. Even in his own time the 
great French poet Charles Baudelaire was publicly 
condemned in a French court for having written verse 
less daring than Swinburne’s. The great French novel- 


[128] 


Studies in Swinburne 


ist Flaubert also had to answer in court for the pro- 
duction of a novel that is now thought to be very inno- 
cent. It was only at a considerably later time that 
the French poets obtained such liberty of expression as 
allowed of the excesses of writers like Zola or of poets 
like Richepin. Altogether Swinburne’s fight was pre- 
mature. He must now see that it was. But I should 
not like to say that he was entirely wrong. The result 
of absolute liberty in French literature gives us a good 
idea of what would be the result of absolute liberty in 
English literature. Extravagances of immorality were 
followed by extravagances of vulgarity as well, and 
after the novelty of the thing was over a reaction set 
in, provoked by disgust and national shame. Exactly 
the same thing would happen in England after a brief 
period of vicious carnival; the English tide of opinion 
would set in the contrary direction with immense force, 
and would bring about such a tyrannical conservatism 
in letters as would signify, for the time being, a serious 
check upon progress. As a matter of fact, we cannot 
do in English literature what can be done in French 
literature. Swinburne might, but there is only one 
Swinburne. The English language is not perfect 
enough, not graceful and flexible enough, to admit of 
elegant immorality; and the English character is not 
refined enough. A Frenchman can say very daring 
things, very immoral things, gracefully; an English- 
man cannot. Only one Englishman has approached 
the possibility ; and that Englishman is Swinburne him- 
self. 

I think you will now understand what Swinburne’s 
purpose was, and be able to judge of it. His mistakes 

[129] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


were due not only to his youth but also to his astonish- 
ing genius; for he could not then know how much su- 
perior in ability he actually was to any other English 
poet. He imagined that there were many who might 
do what he could do. The truth is that hundreds of 
years may pass before another Englishman is born 
capable of doing what Swinburne could do. Men of 
letters have long ago forgiven him, because of this as- 
tonishing power. They say, “We know the poems are 
improper, but we have nothing else like them, and Eng- 
lish literature cannot afford to lose them.” The schol- 
ars have forgiven him, because his worst faults are 
always scholarly; and a common person cannot un- 
derstand his worst allusions. Indeed, one must be much 
of a classical scholar to comprehend what is most con- 
demnable in the first series of the ““Poems and Ballads.” 
Their extreme laxity will not be perceived without elabo- 
rate explanation, and no one can venture to explain— 
I do not mean in a university class room only, I mean 
even in printed criticism. When this ‘was attempted by 
the poet’s enemies, he was able to point out, with great 
effect, that the explanations were much more immoral 
than the poems. 

Now in considering Swinburne’s poetry in a short 
course of lectures, I think it will be well to begin by 
explaining his philosophical position; for every poet 
has a philosophy of his own. As I have already said, 
there is less of this visible in Swinburne than in the 
other Victorian poets, but the little there is has a par- 
ticular and beautiful interest, which we shall be able 
to illustrate in a series of quotations. I am presuming 
a little in speaking about his philosophy because there 

[130] 


Studies in Swinburne 


has been nothing of importance written about his phi- 
losophy, nor has he himself ever made a plain state- 
ment of it. In such a case I can only surmise, and 
you need not consider my opinion as definitive. Swin- 
burne is, like George Meredith, an evolutionist, and he 
has something of the spiritual element in him which we 
notice in Meredith as a philosopher—but always with 
this difference, that Meredith makes evolution preach 
a moral law, and Swinburne does not. But here we 
notice that Swinburne’s evolution is something totally 
different from Meredith’s in its origin. I have said to 
you that Meredith expresses evolutional philosophy ac- 
cording to Herbert Spencer; I consider him the great- 
est of our philosophical poets for that very reason. 
Swinburne does not appear to have felt the influence of 
Herbert Spencer; he seems rather to reflect the opin- 
ions of Comte—especially of Comte as interpreted by 
Lewes, and perhaps by Frederic Harrison. He speaks 
of the Religion of Humanity, of the Divinity of Man, 
and of other things which indicate the influence of 
Comte. Furthermore, I must say, being myself a dis- 
ciple of Spencer, that Swinburne’s sociological and 
radical opinions are quite incompatible with evolutional 
philosophy as expounded by Spencer. Indeed, Swin- 
burne’s views about government, about fraternity and 
equality, about liberty in all matters of thought and 
action, are heresigs for the strictly scientific mind. The 
great thinkers of our century have exposed and over- 
thrown the old fallacies of the French revolutionary 
school as to the equality of men and the meaning of 
liberty and fraternity. Swinburne still champions, or 
appears to champion, some of the erroneous ideas of 


[131] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Rousseau. Otherwise there is little fault to be found 
with his thoughts concerning the ultimate nature of 
things, except in the deep melancholy that always ac- 
companies them. Meredith is a grand optimist. Swin- 
burne is something very like a pessimist. There is no 
joy and no hope in his tone of speaking about the mys- 
tery of death; rather we find ourselves listening to the 
tone of the ancient Roman Epicureans, in the time 
when faith was dying, and when philosophy attempted, 
without success, to establish a religion of duty founded 
upon pure ethics. 

An important test of any writer’s metaphysical posi- 
tion is what he believes about the soul. Swinburne’s 
idea is very well expressed in the prelude to his “Songs 
before Sunrise.” A single stanza would be enough in 
this case; but we shall give two, in order to show the 
pantheistic side of the poet’s faith. 


Because man’s soul is man’s God still, 
What wind soever waft his will 
Across the waves of day and night 
To port or shipwreck, left or right, 
By shores and shoals of good and ill; 
And still its flame at mainmast height 
Through the rent air that foam-flakes fill 
Sustains the indomitable light 
Whence only man hath strength to steer 
Or helm to handle without fear. 


Save his own soul’s light overhead, 

None leads him, and none ever led, 
Across birth’s hidden harbour-bar, 
Past youth where shoreward shallows are, 


[132] 


Studies in Swinburne 


Through age that drives on toward the red 
Vast void of sunset hailed from far, 
To the equal waters of the dead; 
Save his own soul he hath no star, 
And sinks, except his own soul guide, 
Helmless in middle turn of tide. 


This is a very plain statement not only that man has 
no god, and that he makes his own gods, but that he 
never had a creator or a god of any kind. He has no 
divine help, no one to pray to, no one to trust except: 
himself. So far this is in tolerable accord with the: 
teaching of the Buddha, “Be ye lights unto yourselves ; 
seek no refuge but in yourselves.” But the question 
comes, What is man’s soul? Is it divine? Is it part of 
the universal soul, a supreme and infinite intelligence? 
There is another meaning in the first line of the first 
stanza which I quoted to you about man’s soul being 
man’s god. Some verses from the wonderful poem 
called “On the Downs” will make the meaning plainer. 


“No light to lighten and no rod 

To chasten men? Is there no God?” 
So girt with anguish, iron-zoned, 

Went my soul weeping as she trod 
Between the men enthroned 
And men that groaned. 


O fool, that for brute cries of wrong 
Heard not the grey glad mother’s song 

Ring response from the hills and waves, 
But heard harsh noises all day long 

Of spirits that were slaves 

And dwelt in graves. 


[133] | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


With all her tongues of life and death, 
With all her bloom and blood and breath, 
From all years dead and all things done, 
In the ear of man the mother saith, 
“There is no God, O son, 
If thou be none.” 


This is the declaration of a belief in the divinity of 
man, a doctrine well known to students of Comte. It 
is not altogether in disaccord with Oriental philoso- 
phy; you must not suppose Swinburne to be speaking 
of individual divinity, but of a universal divinity ex- 
pressing itself in human thought and feeling. His view 
of life is that the essential thing is to live as excellently 
as possible, but we must not suppose that excellence is 
used in the moral sense. Swinburne’s idea of excellence 
is the idea of completeness. His notions of right and 
wrong are not the religious or the social notions of 
right and wrong. In this respect he sometimes seems 
to think very much lke the German philosopher 
Nietzsche. Nevertheless he does tell us that the real 
spirit of the universe is a spirit of love, a doctrine at 
which Huxley would certainly have laughed. But it is 
beautiful doctrine in its way, even if not true, and 
admirably suits the purposes of poetry. 

I think that I need not say much more here about 
Swinburne’s philosophy; you will understand that he is 
at once a pantheist and an evolutionist, and that is suf- 
ficient for our purposes. But it is necessary to re- 
member this in order to understand many things in his 
verse, and especially in order to understand some of 
his extraordinary attitudes in condemning what most 
men respect, and in praising what most men condemn. 


[134] 


Studies in Swinburne 


Remember also that his judgments, like those of Na- 
ture, are never moral; they are not always the reverse, 
but they are founded entirely upon zsthetic perception. 
Those who praise him especially are men in revolt like 
himself. Therefore he praised Walt Whitman, at a 
time when Walt Whitman was being condemned every- 
where for certain faults in his compositions ; therefore 
he sang the praises of Baudelaire, as none other had 
done before him (and here he is certainly right) ; there- 
fore he praised Théophile Gautier’s “Mademoiselle de 
Maupin,” calling it “the golden book of spirit and 
sense” ; therefore also he wrote a sonnet praising Bur- 
ton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, which made a 
great scandal in England because it translated all the 
obscene passages which nobody else had ventured to 
put into English or French. The esthetic judgment 
in all these cases is correct, but I will not venture to 
pronounce upon the moral judgment any further than 
to say this, that Swinburne delights in courage, and 
that literary courage in his eyes covers a multitude of 
sins. 

Not a few, however, of these daring songs of praise 
are among the most wonderful triumphs of modern 
lyric verse. I should like, for example, to quote to you 
the whole of his ode to Villon, but I fear that because 
of its length, and the unfamiliarity of the subject, we 
cannot afford the time. I will quote the closing stanza 
as a specimen of the rest, and I am sure that you will 
see its beauty. 


Prince of sweet songs made out of tears and fire, 
A harlot was thy nurse, a God thy sire; 
[135 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Shame soiled thy song, and song assoiled thy shame. 
But from thy feet now death has washed the mire, 
Love reads out first at head of all our quire, 

Villon, our sad bad glad mad brother’s name. 


Each stanza ends with this strange refrain of ‘‘sad bad 
glad mad,” adjectives which excellently express the 
changeful and extraordinary character of that poor 
student of Paris with whose name modern French lit- 
erature properly begins. He lived a terrible and reck- 
less life, very nearly ending with the gallows; he was 
an associate at one time of princes and bishops, at an- 
other time of thieves and prostitutes; he would be one 
day a spendthrift, the next day a beggar or a prisoner; 
and he sang of all these experiences as no man ever sang 
before or since. Really Swinburne’s praise in this case 
is not only just—it represents the best possible esti- 
mate of the singer’s faults and virtues combined. 

To speak in detail of the great range of subjects 
chosen by Swinburne is not possible within the limits 
of this lecture. I am going to make selections from 
every part of his production, except the dramatic, as 
well as I can, and the selections will be made with a 
view especially to show you the music of his verse and 
the brillhance of his language. Most of his poems are 
above the ordinary lyrical length rather than below 
it, and I hope that you will not be disappointed if I do 
not often give the whole of a poem, for the selections 
will contain, I am sure, the best part of the poem. 

Being a descendant of great seamen, Swinburne had 
every reason to sing of the sea; and he has sung of it 
better than any one else. A great number of his poems 


[136 ] 


Studies in Swinburne 


are sea-poems, or poems containing descriptions of the 
sea in all its moods, splendours, or terrors. Sun, sea, 
and wind are favourite subjects with him, and I know 
of nothing in the whole of his work finer than his de- 
scription of the wind as the lover of the sea. The 
verses I am going to quote are from a great composi- 
tion entitled “By the North Sea.” The personal pro- 
noun “he” in the first line means the wind personified. 


The delight that he takes but in living 
Is more than of all things that live: 
For the world that has all things for giving 
Has nothing so goodly to give: 
But more than delight his desire is, 
For the goal where his pinions would be 
Is immortal as air or as fire is, 
Immense as the sea. 


Though hence come the moan that he borrows 
From darkness and depth of the night, 
Though hence be the spring of his sorrows, 
Hence too is the joy of his might; 
The delight that his doom is for ever 
To seek and desire and rejoice, 
And the sense that eternity never 
Shall silence his voice. 


That satiety never may stifle 
Nor weariness ever estrange 
Nor time be so strong as to rifle 
Nor change be so great as to change 
His gift that renews in the giving, 
The joy that exalts him to be 
Alone of all elements living 
The lord of the sea. 


[137 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


What is fire, that its flame should consume her? 
More fierce than all fires are her waves: 
What is earth, that its gulfs should entomb her? 
More deep are her own than their graves. 
Life shrinks from his pinions that cover 
The darkness by thunders bedinned ; 
But she knows him, her lord and her lover, 
The godhead of wind. 


This titanic personification of sea and wind is sublime, 
but Swinburne has many other ways of personifying 
wind and sea, and sometimes the element of tenderness 
and love is not wanting. Sometimes the sea is addressed 
as a goddess, but more often she is addressed as a 
mother, and some of the most exquisite forms of such 
address are found in poems which have, properly speak- 
ing, nothing to do with the sea at all. A good example 
is in the poem called “The Triumph of Time.” The 
words are supposed to be spoken by a person who is 
going to drown himself. 


O fair green-girdled mother of mine, 
Sea, that art clothed with the sun and the rain, 
Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine, 
Thy large embraces are keen like pain. 
Save me and hide me with all thy waves, 
Find me one grave of thy thousand graves, 
Those pure cold populous graves of thine, 
Wrought without hand in a world without stain. 


We shall also find great wonder and beauty in Swin- 
burne’s hymns to the sun, which is also for him, as 
for the poets of old, a living god, and which certainly 
is, in a scientific sense, the lord of all life within this 


[138] 


Studies in Swinburne 


world. 'The best expression of this feeling is in a poem 
called “Off Shore,” describing sunrise over the sea, and 
the glory of light. 


Light, perfect and visible 
Godhead of God! 
God indivisible, 
Lifts but his rod, 
And the shadows are scattered in sunder, and darkness 
is light at his nod. 


At the touch of his wand, 
At the nod of his head 
From the spaces beyond 
Where the dawn hath her bed, 
Earth, water, and air are transfigured, and rise as one 
risen from the dead. 


He puts forth his hand, 
And the mountains are thrilled 
To the heart as they stand 
In his presence, fulfilled 
With his glory that utters his grace upon earth, and 
her sorrows are stilled. 


° . ° e ° ° e ° e 


As a kiss on my brow 
Be the light of thy grace, 
Be thy glance on me now 
From the pride of thy place: 
As the sign of a sire to a son be the light on my face 
of thy face. 


" [139] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Fair father of all 
In thy ways that have trod, 
That have risen at thy call, 
That have thrilled at thy nod, 
Arise, shine, lighten upon me, O sun that we see to 
be God. 


Be praised and adored of us 
All in accord, 
Father and lord of us 
Always adored, 
The slayer and the stayer and the harper, the light 
of us all and our lord. 


Swinburne has no equal in enthusiastic celebration of 
the beauties of sky and sea and wood, of light and 
clouds and waters, of sound and perfume and blossom- 
ing. Indeed, one of his particular characteristics, a 
characteristic very seldom found in English master- 
pieces, though common in the best French work, is his 
art for describing odours—the smell of morning and 
evening, scents of the seasons, scents also of life. We 
shall have many opportunities to notice this character- 
istic of Swinburne, even in his descriptions of human 
beauty. What the French call the parfum de jeunesse 
or odour of youth, the pleasant smell of young bodies, 
the perfume that we notice, for example, in the hair of 
a healthy child, is something which English writers very 
seldom venture to treat of ; but Swinburne has treated 
it quite as delicately at times as a French poet could do, 
though sometimes a little extravagantly. You must 
think of him as one whom no quality of beauty escapes, 


[140] 


Studies in Swinburne 


whether of colour, odour, or motion; and as one who 
believes, I think rightly, that whatever is in itself beau- 
tiful and natural is worthy of song. You will be able 
to imagine, from what I have already quoted, how he 
feels in the presence of wild nature. How he considers 
human beauty is a more difficult matter to illustrate by 
quotation, at least by quotation before a class. But I 
shall try to offer some illustrations from the “Masque 
of Queen Bersabe.” You all know what a masque is. 
The masque in question is a perfect imitation, for the 
most part, of a medieval masque, both as to form and 
language. But there is one portion of it which is 
medizval only in tone, not in language, since there never 
lived in the Middle Ages any man capable of writing 
such verse. It is from this part that I want to quote. 
But I must first explain to you that the name Bersabe 
is only a medieval form of the Biblical name Bath- 
sheba, the wife of Uriah, whom King David caused to 
be murdered. It is anugly story. The King committed 
adultery with Bathsheba; then he ordered her husband 
to be put into the front rank during a battle, in such 
a place that he must be killed. Afterwards the King 
married Bathsheba; but the prophet Nathan heard of 
the wickedness, and threatened the King with the pun- 
ishment of God. This was the subject of several 
medieval religious plays, and Swinburne adopted it for 
an imitation of such play. The first part of his con- 
ception is that at the command of the prophet the 
ghosts of all the beautiful and wicked queens who ever 
lived come before Bathsheba, to reproach her with her 
sin, and to tell her how they had been punished in other 
time for sins of the same kind. Each one speaks in 


[141] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


turn; and though I cannot quote all of what they said, 
I can quote enough to illustrate the magnificence of the 
work. Each verse is a portrait in words, uttered by the 
subject. 


CLEOPATRA 


I am the queen of Ethiope. 

Love bade my kissing eyelids ope 
That men beholding might praise love. 

My hair was wonderful and curled; 

My lips held fast the mouth o’ the world 
To spoil the strength and speech thereof. 

The latter triumph in my breath 

Bowed down the beaten brows of death, 
Ashamed they had not wrath enough. 


AHOLAH 


I am the queen of Amalek. 

There was no tender touch or fleck 
To spoil my body or bared feet. 

My words were soft like dulcimers, 

And the first sweet of grape-flowers 
Made each side of my bosom sweet. 

My raiment was as tender fruit 

Whose rind smells sweet of spice-tree root, 
Bruised balm-blossom and budded wheat. 


. . ° . . e 


‘ 


SEMIRAMIS 


I am the queen Semiramis. 
The whole world and the sea that is 


[142] 


Studies in Swinburne 


In fashion like a chrysopras, 

The noise of all men labouring, 

The priest’s mouth tired through thanksgiving, 
The sound of love in the blood’s pause, 

The strength of love in the blood’s beat, 

All these were cast beneath my feet 
And all found lesser than I was. 


PASITHEA 


I am the queen of Cypriotes. 

Mine oarsmen, labouring with brown throats 
Sang of me many a tender thing. 

My maidens, girdled loose and braced 

With gold from bosom to white waist, 
Praised me between their wool-combing. 

All that praise Venus all night long 

With lips like speech and lids like song 
Praised me till song lost heart to sing. 


s) 


ALACIEL 


I am the queen Alaciel. 
My mouth was like that moist gold cell 
Whereout the thickest honey drips. 
Mine eyes were as a grey-green sea; 
The amorous blood that smote on me 
Smote to my feet and finger-tips. 
My throat was whiter than the dove, 
Mine eyelids as the seals of love, 
And as the doors of love my lips. 
[143] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


ERIGONE 


I am the queen Erigone. 
The wild wine shed as blood on me 
Made my face brighter than a bride’s. 
My large lips had the old thirst of earth, 
Mine arms the might of the old sea’s girth 
Bound round the whole world’s iron sides. 
Within mine eyes and in mine ears 
Were music and the wine of tears, 
And light, and thunder of the tides. 


So pass the strange phantoms of dead pride and lust 
and power, together with many more of whom the de- 
scriptions are not less beautiful and strange, though 
much less suitable for quotation. I have made the 
citations somewhat long, but I have done so because 
they offer the best possible illustration of two things 
peculiar to Swinburne, the music and colour of his 
verse, and the peculiar medieval tone which he some- 
times assumes in dealing with antique subjects. These 
descriptions are quite unlike anything done by Tenny- 
son, or indeed by any other poet except Rossetti. They 
represent, in a certain way, what has been called Pre- 
Raphaelitism in poetry. Swinburne was, with Rossetti, 
one of the great forces of the new movement in litera- 
ture. Observe that the illustrations are chiefly made by 
comparisons—that the descriptions are made by sug- 
gestion; there is no attempt to draw a clear sharp line, 
nothing is described completely, but by some compari- 
son or symbolism in praise of a part, the whole figure 
is vaguely brought before the imagination in a blaze of 


[144] 


Studies in Swinburne 


colour with strange accompaniment of melody. For 
example, you will have noticed that no face is fully 
pictured; you find only some praise of the eyes or the 
mouth, the throat or the skin, but that is quite enough 
to bring to your fancy the entire person. But there is 
another queer fact which you must be careful to notice 
namely, that no comparison is modern. The lan- 
guage and the symbolism are Biblical or medieval in 
every case. The European scholar who had made a 
special study of the literature of the Middle Ages 
would notice even more than this; he would notice that 
the whole tone is not of the later but of the earlier 
Middle Ages, that the old miracle plays, the old French 
romances, and the early Italian poets, have all con- 
tributed something to this splendour of expression. It 
is modern art in one sense, of course, but there is noth- 
ing modern about it except the craftsmanship; the 
material is all quaint and strange, and gives us the 
sensation of old tapestry or of the paintings that 
were painted in Italy before the time of Raphael. 

Here I must say a word about the Pre-Raphaelite 
movement in nineteenth century literature. To ex- 
plain everything satisfactorily, I ought to have pic- 
tures to show you; and that is unfortunately impos- 
sible. But I think I can make a very easy explanation 
of the subject. First of all you must be quite well 
aware that the literature of all countries seeks for a 
majority of its subjects in the past. The everyday, 
the familiar, does not attract us in the same way as 
that which is not familiar and not of the present. Dis- 
tance, whether of space or time, lends to things a certain 
tone of beauty, just as mountains look more beautifully 


[145] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


blue the further away they happen to be. This seeking 
for beauty in the past rather than in the present repre- 
sents much of what is called romanticism in any litera- 
ture. 

Necessarily, even in this age of precise historical 
knowledge, the past is for us less real than the present ; 
time has spread mists of many colours between it and 
us, so that we cannot be sure of details, distances, 
depths, and heights. But in other generations the mists 
were heavier, and the past was more of a fairy-land 
than now; it was more pleasant also to think about, 
because the mysterious is attractive to all of us, and 
men of letters delighted to write about it, because they 
could give free play to the imagination. Such stories 
of the past as we find even in what have been called 
historical novels, were called also, and rightly called, 
romances—works of imagination rather than of fact. 

But still you may ask, why such words as romance 
and romantic? The answer is that works of imagina- 
tion, dealing with past events, were first written in 
languages derived from the Latin, the Romance lan- 
guages; and at a very early time it became the custom 
to distinguish work written in these modern tongues 
upon fanciful or heroic subjects, by this name and 
quality. The romantic in the Middle Ages signified 
especially the new literature of fancy as opposed to the 
old classical literature. Remember, therefore, that this 
meaning is not yet entirely lost, though it has under- 
gone many modifications. “Romantic” in literature 
still means “not classical,” and it also suggests imagi- 
nation rather than fact, and the past rather than the 
present. 


[146] 


Studies in Swinburne 


When we say “medieval” in speaking of nineteenth 
century poetry, we mean of course nineteenth century 
literature having a romantic tone, as well as reflecting, 
so far as imagination can, the spirit of the Middle 
Ages. But what is the difference between the Pre- 
Raphaelite and Medieval? The time before Raphael, 
the Pre-Raphaelite period, would necessarily have been 
medieval. As a matter of fact, the term Pre-Raphael- 
ite does not have the wide general meaning usually given 
to it. It is something of a technical term, belonging to 
art rather than to literature, and first introduced into 
literature by a company of painters. The Pre-Raphael- 
ite painters, in the technical sense, were a special group 
of modern painters, distinguished by particular char- 
acteristics. 

So much being clear, I may say that there was a 
school of painting before Raphael of a very realistic 
and remarkable kind. This school came to existence a 
little after the true religious spirit of the Middle Ages 
had begun to weaken. It sought the emotion of beauty 
as well as the emotion of religion, but it did not yet feel 
the influence of the Renaissance in a strong way; it was 
not Greek nor pagan. It sought beauty in truth, study- 
ing ordinary men and women, flowers and birds, scenery 
of nature or scenery of streets; and it used reality for 
its model. It was much less romantic than the school 
that came after it ; but it was very great and very noble. 
With Raphael the Greek feeling, the old pagan feeling 
for sensuous beauty, found full expression, and this 
Renaissance tone changed the whole direction and char- 
acter of art. After Raphael the painters sought beauty 
before all things; previously they had sought for truth 


[147] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


and sentiment even before beauty. Raphael set a fash- 
ion which influenced all arts after him down to our own 
time; for centuries the older painters were neglected 
and almost forgotten. Therefore Ruskin boldly de- 
clared that since Raphael’s death Western art had been 
upon the decline and that the school of painters imme- 
diately before Raphael were greater than any who came 
after him. Gradually within our own time a new taste 
came into art-circles, a new love for the old forgotten 
masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It 
was discovered that they were, after all, nearer to truth 
in many respects than the later painters; and then was 
established, by Rossetti and others, a new school of 
painting called the Pre-Raphaelite school. It sought 
truth to life as well as beauty, and it endeavoured to 
mingle both with mystical emotion. 

At first this was a new movement in art only, or 
rather in painting and drawing only, as distinguished 
from literary art. But literature and painting and ar- 
chitecture and music are really all very closely related, 
and a new literary movement also took place in har- 
mony with the new departure in painting. This was 
chiefly the work of Rossetti, Swinburne, and William 
Morris. They tried to make poems and to write stories 
according to the same esthetic motives which seem to 
have inspired the school of painters before Raphael. 
This is the signification of the strange method and 
beauty of those quotations which I have been giving to 
you from Swinburne’s masque. They represent very 
powerfully the Pre-Raphaelite feelings in English 
poetry. 

I know that this digression is somewhat long, but 


[148] 


Studies in Swinburne 


I believe that it is of great importance: without 
knowing these facts, it would be impossible for the 
student to understand many curious things in Swin- 
burne’s manner. Throughout even his lighter poems 
we find this curious habit of describing things in ways 
totally remote from nineteenth century feeling, and 
nevertheless astonishingly effective. Fancy such com- 
parisons as these for a woman’s beauty in the correct 
age of Wordsworth: 


I said ‘“‘she must be swift and white, 
And subtly warm, and half perverse, 
And sweet like sharp soft fruit to bite, 
And like a snake’s love lithe and fierce.” 
Men have guessed worse. 


Or take the following extraordinary description of a 
woman’s name, perhaps I had better say of the sensa- 
tion given by the name Félise, probably an abbreviation 
of Felicita, but by its spelling reminding one very much 
of the Latin word felis, which means a cat: 


Like colors in the sea, like flowers, 
Like a cat’s splendid circled eyes 

That wax and wane with love for hours, 
Green as green flame, blue-grey like skies, 
And soft like sighs. 


The third line refers to the curious phenomenon of the 
enlarging and diminishing of the pupil in a cat’s eye 
according to the decrease or increase of light. It is 
said that you can tell the time of day by looking at a 
cat’s eyes. Now all these comparisons are in the high- 
est degree offences against classical feeling. The classi- 


[149] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


cal poet, even the half-classical poet of the beginning of 
our own century, would have told you that a woman 
must not be compared to a snake or a cat; that you 
must not talk about her sweetness being like the sweet- 
ness of fruit, or the charm of her presence being like 
the smell of perfume. All such comparisons seemed 
monstrous, unnatural. If such a critic were asked why 
one must not compare a woman to a snake or a cat, the 
critic would probably answer, “Because a snake is a 
hateful reptile and a cat is a hateful animal.” What 
would Ruskin or Swinburne then say to the critic? 
' He would say simply, “Did you ever look at a snake? 
Did you ever study a cat?” The classicist would soon 
be convicted of utter ignorance about snakes and cats. 
He thought them hateful simply because it was not 
fashionable to admire them a hundred years ago. But 
the old poets of the early Middle Ages were not such 
fools. They had seen snakes and admired them, because 
for any man who is not prejudiced, a snake is a very 
beautiful creature, and its motions are as beautiful as 
geometry. If you do not think this is true, I beg of 
you to watch a snake, where its body can catch the light 
of the sun. Then there is no more graceful or friendly 
or more attractively intelligent animal than a cat. The 
common feeling about snakes and cats is not an ar- 
tistic one, nor even a true one; it is of ethical origin, 
and unjust. These animals are not moral according 
to our notions; they seem cruel and treacherous, and 
forgetting that they cannot be judged by our code of 
morals, we have learned to speak of them contemptu- 
ously even from the physical point of view. Well, this 
was not the way in the early Middle Ages. People were 
[150] 


Studies in Swinburne 


less sensitive on the subject of cruelty than they are 
to-day, and they could praise the beauty of snakes and 
tigers and all fierce or cunning creatures of prey, be- 
cause they could admire the physical qualities without 
thinking of the moral ones. In Pre-Raphaelite poetry 
there is an attempt to do the very same thing. Swin- 
burne does it more than any one else, perhaps even too 
much; but there is a great and true principle of art 
behind this revolution. 

Now we can study Swinburne in some other moods. 
I want to show you the splendour of his long verse, 
verse of fourteen and sixteen syllables, of a form resur- 
rected by him after centuries of neglect; and also verse 
written in imitation of Greek and Roman measures with 
more success than has attended similar efforts on the 
part of any other living poet. But in the first example 
that I shall offer, you will find matter of more interest 
than verse as verse. The poem is one of Swinburne’s 
greatest, and the subject is entirely novel. The poet 
attempts to express the feeling of a Roman pagan, 
perhaps one of the last Epicurean philosophers, living 
at the time when Christianity was first declared the 
religion of the Empire, and despairing because of the 
destruction of the older religion and the vanishing of 
the gods whom he loved. By law Christianity has been 
made the state-religion, and it is forbidden to worship 
the other gods; the old man haughtily refuses to become 
a Christian, even after an impartial study of Christian 
doctrine; on the contrary, he is so unhappy at the fate 
of the religion of his fathers that he does not care to 
live any longer without his gods. And he prays to the 
goddess of death to take him out of this world, from 

[151] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


which all the beauty and art, all the old loved customs 
and beliefs are departing. We cannot read the whole 
“Hymn to Proserpine”; but we shall read enough to 
illustrate the style and feeling of the whole. At the 
head of the poem are the words Vicisti, Galilee !— 
“Thou hast conquered, O Galilean”—words uttered by 
the great Roman Emperor Julian at the moment of his 
death in battle. Julian was the last Emperor who tried 
to revive and purify the decaying Roman religion, and 
to oppose the growth of Christianity. He was, there- 
fore, the great enemy of Christianity. His dying words 
were said to have been addressed to Christ, when he 
felt himself dying, but it is not certain whether he 
really ever uttered these words at all. 


I have lived long enough, having seen one thing, that love 
hath an end; 

Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and be- 
friend. 

Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons 
that laugh or that weep; 

For these give joy and sorrow; but thou, Proserpina, sleep. 

Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet ot the 
dove: 

But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love. 


After speaking to the goddess of death, he speaks thus 
to Christ: 


Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not 
take, 

The laurel, the palms and the pxan, the breasts of the 
nymphs in the brake; 


[152] 


Studies in Swinburne 


Breasts more soft than a dove’s, that tremble with tenderer 
breath; 

And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before 
death; 

All the feet of the hours that sound as a single lyre, 

Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker 
like fire. 

More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all 
these things? 

Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings. 

A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may? 

For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day. 

And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of 
his tears: 

Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his 
years? 

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown 
grey from thy breath; 

We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness 
of death. 


Or, in other words, the pagan says: “O Christ, you 
would wish to take everything from us, yet some things 
there are which you cannot take: not the inspiration of 
the poet, nor the spirit of art, nor the glory of heroism, 
nor the dreams of youth and love, nor the great and 
gracious gifts of time—the beauty of the seasons, the 
splendour of night and day. All these you cannot de- 
prive us of, though you wish to; and what is better 
than these? Can you give us anything more precious? 
Assuredly you cannot. For these things are fitted to 
human life; and what do we know about any other 
life? Life passes quickly ; why should we make it mis- 
erable with the evil dreams of a religion of sorrow? 


[153] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Short enough is the time in which we have pleasure, and 
the world is already full enough of pain; wherefore 
should we try to make ourselves still more unhappy than 
we already are? Yet you have conquered; you have 
destroyed the beauty of life; you have made the world 
seem grey and old, that was so beautiful and eternally 
young. You have made us drink the waters of forget- 
fulness and eat the food of death. For your religion is 
a religion of death, not of life; you yourself and the 
Christian gods are figures of death, not figures of life.” 

And how does he think of this new divinity, Christ? 
As a Roman citizen necessarily, and to a Roman citizen 
Christ was nothing more than a vulgar, common crim- 
inal executed by Roman law in company with thieves 
and murderers. Therefore he addresses such a divinity 
with scorn, even in the hour of his triumph: 


O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks 
and rods! 

O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods! 

Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all 
knees bend, 

I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end! 


To understand the terrible bitterness of this scorn, 
it is necessary for the student to remember that a 
Roman citizen could not be tortured or flogged or gib- 
beted. Such punishments and penalties were reserved 
for slaves and for barbarians. Therefore to a Roman 
the mere fact of Christ’s death and punishment—for he 
was tortured before being crucified—was a subject for 
contempt ; accordingly he speaks of such a divinity as 
the “leavings of racks and rods”—that is, so much of 


[154] 


Studies in Swinburne 


a man’s body as might be left after the torturers and 
executioners had finished with it. Should a Roman 
citizen kneel down and humble himself before that? A 
little while, some thousands of years, perhaps, Chris- 
tianity may be a triumphant religion, but all religions 
must die and pass away, one after another, and this new 
and detestable religion, with its ugly gods, must also 
pass away. For although the old Roman has studied 
too much philosophy to believe in all that his fathers 
believed, he believes in a power that is greater than man 
and gods and the universe itself, in the unknown power 
which gives life and death, and makes perpetual change, 
and sweeps away everything that man foolishly believes 
to be permanent. He gives to this law of imperma- 
nency the name of the goddess of death, but the name 
makes little difference; he has recognised the eternal 
law. Time will sweep away Christianity itself, and his 
description of this mighty wave of time is one of the 
finest passages in all his poetry: 


All delicate days and pleasant, all spirits and sorrows are 
cast 

Far out with the foam of the present that sweeps to the 
surf of the past: 


Where, mighty with deepening sides, clad about with the 
seas as with wings, 

And impelled of invisible tides, and fulfilled of unspeakable 
things, 

White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and ser- 
pentine-curled, 

Rolls, under the whitening wind of the future, the wave of 
the world. 

[155] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


The depths stand naked in sunder behind it, the storms flee 
away; 

In the hollow before it the thunder is taken and snared as 
a prey; 

In its sides is the north-wind bound; and its salt is of all 
men’s tears; 

With light of ruins and sound of changes, and pulse of 
years: 

With travail of day after day, and with trouble of hour 
upon hour ; 

And bitter as blood is the spray; and the crests are as fangs 
that devour: 

And its vapour and storm of its steam as the sighing of 
spirits to be; 

And its noise as the noise in a dream; and its depth as the 
roots of the sea: 

And the height of its heads as the height of the utmost stars 
of the air: 

And the ends of the earth at the might thereof tremble, and 
time is made bare. 


When the poet calls this the wave of the world, you 
must not understand world to mean our planet only, 
but the universe, the cosmos; and the wave is the great 
wave of impermanency, including all forces of time and 
death and life and pain. But why these terrible similes 
of white eyes and poisonous things and shark’s teeth, of 
blood and bitterness and terror? Because the old phi- 
losopher dimly recognises the cruelty of nature, the 
mercilessness of that awful law of change which, having 
swept away his old gods, will just as certainly sweep 
away the new gods that have appeared. Who can re- 
sist that mighty power, higher than the stars, deeper 
than the depths, in whose motion even gods are but as 


[156] 


Studies in Swinburne 


bubbles and foam? Assuredly not Christ and his new 
religion. Speaking to the new gods the Roman cries: 


All ye as a wind shall go by, as a fire shall ye pass and be 
past; 

Ye are Gods, and behold, ye shall die, and the waves be 
upon you at last. 


Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go 
down to thee dead. 


Here follows a beautiful picture of the contrast be- 
tween the beauty of the old gods and the uninviting 
aspect of the new. It is a comparison between the 
Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, and Venus or Aphro- 
dite, the ancient goddess of love, born from the sea. 
For to the Roman mind the Christian gods and saints 
wanted even the common charm of beauty and tender- 
ness. All the divinities of the old Greek world were 
beautiful to look upon, and warmly human; but these 
strange new gods from Asia seemed to be not even 
artistically endurable. Addressing Christ, he con- 
tinues : 


Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace 
clad around; 

Thou art throned where another was king; where another 
was queen she is crowned. 

Yea, once we had sight of another: but now she is queen, 


say these. 
Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of 


flowering seas, 


[157] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Clothed around with the world’s desire as with raiment and 
fair as the foam, 

And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess and mother of 
Rome. 

For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; 
but ours, 

Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of 
flowers, 

White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a 
flame, 

Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet 
with her name. 

For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; 
but she 

Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her 
foot on the sea. 

And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the 
viewless ways, 

And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream 
of the bays. 

Ye are fallen, our lords, by what token? we wist that ye 
should not fall. 

Ye were all so fair that are broken; and one more fair than 
ye all. 


Why, by what power, for what reason, should the old 
gods have passed away? Even if one could not believe 
in them all, they were too beautiful to pass away and 
be broken, as their statues were broken by the early 
Christians in the rage of their ignorant and brutal zeal. 
The triumph of Christianity meant much more than 
the introduction of a new religion; it meant the de- 
struction of priceless art and priceless literature, it 
signified the victory of barbarism over culture and re- 


[158] 


Studies in Swinburne 


finement. Doubtless the change, like all great changes, 
was for the better in some ways; but no lover of art and 
the refinements of civilisation can read without regret 
the history of the iconoclasm in which the Christian 
fanatics indulged when they got the government and 
the law upon their side. It is this feeling of regret and 
horror that the poet well expresses through the mouth 
of the Roman who cares no more to live, because the 
gods and everything beautiful must pass away. But 
there is one goddess still left for him, one whom the 
Christians cannot break but who will at last break them 
and their religion, and scatter them as dust—the god- 
dess of death. To her he turns with a last prayer: 


But I turn to her still, having seen she shall surely abide 
in the end; 

Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and be- 
friend. 

O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom 
of birth, 

I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth. 


Thou art more than the Gods who number the days of our 
temporal breath; 
For these give labour and slumber, but thou, Proserpina, 


death. 

Therefore now at thy feet I abide for a season in silence. 
I know 

I shall die as my fathers died, and sleep as they sleep; 
even so. 


For the glass of the years is brittle wherein we gaze for a 
span ; 
A little soul for a little bears up this corpse which is man. 


[159] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


So long I endure, no longer; and Jaugh not again, neither 
weep. 

For there is no God found stronger than death; and death 
is a sleep. 


The third line from the end, “‘a little soul for a little,” 
is a translation from the philosopher Epictetus. It is 
the Epicurean philosophy especially which speaks in 
this poetry. The address to the goddess of death as 
the daughter of earth, cannot be understood without 
some reference to Greek mythology. Proserpina was 
the daughter of the goddess Ceres, whom the ancients 
termed the Holy Mother—queen of the earth, but espe- 
cially the goddess of fruitfulness and of harvests. 
While playing in the fields as a young girl, Proserpina 
was seized and carried away by the god of the dead, 
Hades or Pluto, to become his wife. Everywhere her 
mother sought after her to no purpose; and because of 
the grief of the goddess, the earth dried up, the harvests 
failed, and all nature became desolate. Afterwards, 
finding that her daughter had become the queen of the 
kingdom of the dead, Ceres agreed that Proserpina 
should spend a part of every year with her husband, 
and part of the year with her mother. To this arrange- 
ment the Greeks partly attributed the origin of the 
seasons. 

Incidentally in the poem there is a very beautiful 
passage describing the world of death, where no sun 
is, where the silence is more than music, where the 
flowers are white and full of strange sleepy smell, and 
where the sound of the speech of the dead is like the 
sound of water heard far away, or a humming of bees 


[160] 


Studies in Swinburne 


—whither the old man prays to go, to rest with his 
ancestors away from the light of the sun, and to forget 
all the sorrow of this world and its changes. But I 
think that you will do well to study this poem in detail 
by yourselves, when opportunity allows. It happens 
to be one of the very few poems in the first series of 
Swinburne’s “Poems and Ballads” to which no reason- 
able exceptién can be made; and it is without doubt 
one of the very finest things that he has ever written. 
I could recommend this for translation; there are many 
pieces in the same book which I could not so recom- 
mend, notwithstanding their beauty. For instance, the 
poem entitled “Hesperia,” with its splendid beginning: 


Out of the golden remote wild west where the sea without 


shore is, 
Full of the sunset, and sad, if at all, with the fulness of joy. 


There is nothing more perfect in modern literature than 
the beginning of this poem, which gives us an exact 
imitation in English words of the sound of the Greek 
hexameter and pentameter. But much of this work is 
too passionate and violent for even the most indulgent 
ears; and though I think that you ought to study the 
beginning, I should never recommend it for translation. 

The comparison of the wave in the hymn to Proser- 
pina must have given you an idea of Swinburne’s power 
to deal with colossal images. I know of few descrip- 
tions in any literature to be compared with that pic- 
ture of the wave; but Swinburne himself in another poem 
has given us descriptions nearly as surprising, if not as 
beautiful. There is a poem called “Thalassius,” a kind. 


[161] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of philosophical moral fable in Greek form, that con- 
tains a surprise of this kind. The subject is a young 
man’s first experience with love. Walking in the mead- 
ows he sees a pretty boy, or rather child, just able to 
walk—a delicious child, tender as a flower, and appar- 
ently needing kindly care. So he takes the child by the 
hand, wondering at his beauty; and he speaks to the 
child, but never gets any reply except a smile. Sud- 
denly, at a certain point of the road the child begins 
to grow tall, to grow tremendous; his stature reaches 
the sky, and in a terrible voice that shakes everything 
like an earthquake, he announces that though he may 
be Love, he is also Death, and that only the fool 
imagines him to be Love alone. There is a bit both of 
old and of new philosophy in this; and I remarked when 
reading it that in Indian mythology there is a similar 
representation of this double attribute of divinity, love 
and death, creation and destruction, represented by one 
personage. But we had better read the scene which I 
have been trying to describe, the meeting with the child: 


That wellnigh wept for wondez that it smiled, 
And was so feeble and fearful, with soft speech 
The youth bespake him softly; but there fell 
From the sweet lips no sweet word audible 
That ear or thought might reach; 

No sound to make the dim cold silence glad, 
No breath to thaw the hard harsh air with heat, 
Only the saddest smile of all things sweet, 
Only the sweetest smile of all things sad. 


And so they went together one green way 
Till April dying made free the world for May; 
[162] 


Studies in Swinburne 


And on his guide suddenly Love’s face turned, 
And in his blind eyes burned 

Hard light and heat of laughter; and like flame 
That opens in a mountain’s ravening mouth 

To blear and sear the sunlight from the south, 
His mute mouth opened, and his first word came; 
“Knowest thou me now by name?” 

And all his stature waxed immeasurable, 

As of one shadowing heaven and lightening hell; 
And statelier stood he than a tower that stands 
And darkens with its darkness far-off sands 
Whereon the sky leans red; 

And with a voice that stilled the winds he said: 
“T am he that was thy lord before thy birth, 

I am he that is thy lord till thou turn earth; 

I make the night more dark, and all the morrow 
Dark as the night whose darkness was my breath: 
O fool, my name is sorrow; 

Thou fool, my name is death.” 


By the term “darkness” in the third line from the end 
of the above quotation, we must understand the dark- 
ness and mystery out of which man comes into this 
world, and comes only to die. This monstrous sym- 
bolism may need some explanation, before you see how 
very fine the meaning is. Love, that is the attraction 
of sex to sex, with all its emotions, heroisms, sacrifices, 
and nobilities, cannot be understood by the young. To 
them, love is only the physical and the moral charm 
of the being that is loved. In man the passion of love 
becomes noble and specialised by the development in him 
of moral, esthetic, and other feelings that are purely 
human. But the attraction of sex, that is behind all 
this, is a universal and terrible fact, a tremendous mys- 


[163] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


tery, whose ultimate nature no man knows or ever will 
know. Why? Because if we knew the nature and 
origin of the forces that create, we could understand 
the whole universe, and ourselves, and everything that 
men now call mystery. But all that we certainly do 
know is this, that we come into the world out of mys- 
tery and go out of the world again back into mystery, 
and that no mortal man can explain the Whence, the 
Why, or the Whither. The first sensations of love for 
another being are perhaps the most delicious feelings 
known to men; the person loved seems for the time to 
be more beautiful and good than any one else in the 
world. This is what the poet means by describing the 
first appearance of love as a beautiful, tender child, 
innocent and dumb. But later in life the physical illu- 
sion passes away; then one learns the relation of this 
seeming romance to the awful questions of life and 
death. The girl beloved becomes the wife; then she 
becomes the mother; but in becoming a mother, she 
enters into the very shadow of death, sometimes never 
to return from it. Birth itself is an agony, the great- 
est agony that humanity has to bear. We come into 
the world through pains of the most deadly kind, and 
leave the world later on in pain; and what all this 
means, we do not know. We are only certain that the 
Greeks were not wrong in representing love as the 
brother of death. The Oriental philosophers went fur- 
ther; they identified love with death, making them one 
and the same. One cannot help thinking of the Indian 
statue representing the creative power, holding in his 
hand the symbol of life, but wearing around his neck a 
necklace of human skulls. 


[164] 


Studies in Swinburne 


The poem that introduces the first volume of Swin- 
burne’s poems, as published in America, gave its name 
to the book, so that thousands of English readers used 
to call the volume by the name of this poem, “Laus 
Veneris,” which means the praise of Venus. I do not 
think that there is a more characteristic poem in all 
Swinburne’s work; it is certainly the most interesting 
version in any modern language of the old medieval 
story. Without understanding the story you could not 
possibly understand the poem, and as the story has been 
famous for hundreds of years, I shall first relate it. 

After Christianity had made laws forbidding people 
to worship the old gods, it was believed that these gods 
still remained wandering about like ghosts and tempt- 
ing men to sin. One of these divinities especially 
dreaded by the Christian priests, was Venus. Now in 
the Middle Ages there was a strange story about a 
knight called Tannhiuser, who, riding home one eve- 
ning, saw by the wayside a beautiful woman unclad, 
who smiled at him, and induced him to follow her. He 
followed her to the foot of a great mountain; the moun- 
tain opened like a door, and they went in, and found a 
splendid palace under the mountain. The fairy woman 
was Venus herself; and the knight lived with her for 
seven years. At the end of the seven years he became 
afraid because of the sin which he had committed; and 
he begged her, as Urashima begged the daughter of the 
Dragon King, to let him return for a little time to 
the world of men. She let him go; and he went to 
Rome. There he told his story to different priests, and 
asked them to obtain for him the forgiveness of God. 
But each of the priests made answer that the sin was 


[165] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


so great that nobody except the Pope of Rome could 
forgive it. Then the knight went to the Pope. But 
when the Pope heard his confession, the Pope said that 
there was no forgiveness possible for such a crime as 
that of loving a demon. The Pope had a wooden staff 
in his hand, and he said, ‘Sooner shall this dry stick 
burst into blossom than you obtain God’s pardon for 
such a sin.” Then the knight, sorrowing greatly, went 
back to the mountain and to Venus. After he had 
gone, the Pope was astonished to see that the dry staff 
was covered with beautiful flowers and leaves that had 
suddenly grown out of it, as a sign that God was more 
merciful than his priests. At this the Pope became 
sorry and afraid, and he sent out messengers to look 
for the knight. But no man ever saw him again, for 
Venus kept him hidden in her palace under the moun- 
tain. Swinburne found his version of the story in a 
quaint French book published in 1530. He represents, 
not the incidents of the story itself, but only the feel- 
ings of the knight after his return from Rome. There 
is no more hope for him. His only consolation is his 
love and worship for her; but this love and worship is 
mingled with fear of hell and regret for his condition. 
Into the poem Swinburne has put the whole spirit of 
revolt of which he and the Pre-Raphaelite school were 
exponents. A few verses will show you the tone. The 
knight praises Venus: 


Lo, this is she that was the world’s delight; 

The old grey years were parcels of her might; 
The strewings of the ways wherein she trod 

Were the twain seasons of the day and night. 


[166] 


Studies in Swinburne 


Lo, she was thus when her clear limbs enticed 

All lips that now grow sad with kissing Christ, 
Stained with blood fallen from the feet of God, 

The feet and hands whereat our souls were priced. 


Alas, Lord, surely thou art great and fair. 
But lo her wonderfully woven hair! 

And thou didst heal us with thy piteous kiss; 
But see now, Lord; her mouth is lovelier. 


She is right fair; what hath she done to thee? 

Nay, fair Lord Christ, lift up thine eyes and see; 
Had now thy mother such a lip—like this? 

Thou knowest how sweet a thing it is to me. 


This calling upon God to admire Venus, this asking 
Christ whether his mother was even half as beautiful 
as Venus, was to religious people extremely shocking, of 
course. And still more shocking seemed the confession 
in the latter part of the poem that the knight does not 
care whether he has sinned or not, since, after all, he 
has been more fortunate than any other man. This 
expression of exultation after remorse appeared to rev- 
erent minds diabolical, the thought of a new Satanic 
School. But really the poet was doing his work excel- 
lently, so far as truth to nature was concerned; and 
these criticisms were as ignorant as they were out of 
place. The real fault of the poem was only a fault of 
youth, a too great sensuousness in its descriptive pas- 
sages. We might say that Swinburne himself was, dur- 
ing those years, very much in the position of the knight 
Tannhiauser; he had gone back to the worship of the 
old gods because they were more beautiful and more 
joyous than the Christian gods; we may even say that 


[167] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


he never came back from the mountain of Venus. But 
all this poetry of the first series was experimental; it 
was an expression of the Renaissance feeling that visits 
the youth of every poet possessing a strong sense of 
beauty. Before the emotions can be fully corrected by 
the intellect, such poets are apt to offend the proprie- 
ties, and even to say things which the most liberal 
philosopher would have to condemn. It was at such a 
time that in another poem, “Dolores,” Swinburne spoke 
of leaving 


The lilies and languors of virtue 
For the raptures and roses of vice, 


—lines that immediately became famous. It was also 
at such a time that he uttered the prayer to a pagan 
ideal: 


Come down and redeem us from virtue. 


But on the other hand, if all poets were to wait for the 
age of wisdom before they began to sing, we should 
miss a thousand beautiful things of which only youth 
is capable, wherefore it were best to forgive the eccen- 
tricities for the sake of the incomparable merits. For 
example, in the very poem from which these quotations 
have been made, we have such splendid verses as these, 
referring to the worship of Venus in the time of Nero: 


Dost thou dream, in a respite of slumber, 
In a lull of the fires of thy life, 

Of the days without name, without number, 
When thy will stung the world into strife; 


[168] 


Studies in Swinburne 


When, a goddess, the pulse of thy passion 
Smote kings as they revelled in Rome, 
And they hailed thee re-risen, O Thalassian, 

Foam-white, from the foam? 


Thalassian means the sea-born, derived from the Greek 
word Thalatta, the sea. Here Swinburne might be re- 
ferring to the times of the Triumvirate, when Cleo- 
patra succeeded in bewitching the great captain Cesar 
and the great captain Antony, and set the world fight- 
ing for her sake. Then we have a reference to the great 
games in Rome, the splendour and the horror of the 
amphitheatre: 


On sands by the storm never shaken, 
Nor wet from the washing of tides; 
Nor by foam of the waves overtaken, 
Nor winds that the thunder bestrides ; 
But red from the print of thy paces, 
Made smooth for the world and its lords, 
Ringed round with a flame of fair faces, 
And splendid with swords. 


The floor of the amphitheatre was covered with sand, 
which absorbed the blood of the combatants. But you 
will ask what had the games to do with the goddess? 
All the Roman festivities of this kind were, to a certain 
extent, considered as religious celebrations ; they formed 
parts of holiday ceremony. 


There the gladiator, pale for thy pleasure, 
Drew bitter and perilous breath; 

There torments laid hold on the treasure 
Of limbs too delicious for death; 


[169] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


When thy gardens were lit with live torches ; 
When the world was a steed for thy rein; 

When the nations lay prone in thy porches, 
Our Lady of Pain. 


When with flame all around him aspirant, 
Stood flushed, as a harp-player stands, 

The implacable beautiful tyrant, 
Rose-crowned, having death in his hands; 

And a sound as the sound of loud water 
Smote far through the flight of the fires, 

And mixed with the lightning of slaughter 
A thunder of lyres. 


The reference here in the third, fourth, and fifth lines 
of the first of the above stanzas is to the torture of the 
Christians by Nero in the amphitheatre. By “limbs 
too delicious for death” the poet refers to the torture 
of young girls. The “live torches” refers to Nero’s 
cruelty in having hundreds of Christians wrapped about 
with combustible material, tied to lofty poles, and set 
on fire, to serve as torches during a great festival which 
he gave in the gardens of his palace. The second stanza 
represents him as the destroyer of Rome. It is said 
that he secretly had the city set on fire in a dozen dif- 
ferent places, in order that he might be thereby enabled 
to imagine the scene of the burning of Troy, as de- 
scribed by Homer. He wanted to write a poem about 
it; and it is said that while the city was burning, he 
watchea it from a high place, at the same time compos- 
ing and singing a poem on the spectacle. The “flight 
of fires” refers of course to the spreading of fire 
through Rome. The “lightning of slaughter” means 
[170] 


Studies in Swinburne 


the flashing of swords in the work of killing, and is ex- 
plained by the legend that Nero sent soldiers to kill 
anybody who tried to put out the fire. Anything was 
possible in the times of which Swinburne sings; for 
the world was then governed by emperors who were 
not simply wicked but mad. But what I wish to point 
out is that while a poet can write verses so splendid in 
sound and colour as those that I have quoted, even such 
a composition as “Dolores” must be preserved, with all 
its good and bad, among the treasures of English verse. 

In spite of his radicalism in the matter of religion 
and of ethics, the Bible has had no more devoted student 
than Swinburne; he has not only appreciated all the 
beauties of its imagery and the strength of its wonder- 
ful English, but he has used for the subjects of not a 
few of his pieces, and his more daring pieces, Biblical 
subjects. The extraordinary composition A holibah” 
was inspired by a study of Ezekiel; unfortunately this 
is one of the pieces especially inappropriate to the 
classroom. “A Litany” will suit our purpose better. 
It consists of a number of Biblical prophecies, from 
Isaiah and other books of the Old Testament, arranged 
into a kind of dramatic chorus. God is made the chief 
speaker, and he is answered by his people. This is a 
kind of imitation of a certain part of the old church- 
service, in which one band of singers answers another, 
such singing being called “antiphonal,” and the differ- 
ent parts, “antiphones.” There is very little English 
verse written in the measure which Swinburne has 
adopted for this study, and I hope that you will notice 
the peculiar rhythmic force of the stanzas. We need 
quote only a few. 


[171] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


All the bright lights of heaven 
I will make dark over thee; 

One night shall be as seven 
That its skirts may cover thee; 

I will send on thy strong men a sword, 
On thy remnant a rod: 

Ye shall know that I am the Lord, 
Saith the Lord God. 


And the people answer: 


All the bright lights of heaven 
Thou hast made dark over us; 
One night has been as seven, 
That its skirt might cover us; 
Thou hast sent on our strong men a sword, 
On our remnant a rod; 
We know that thou art the Lord, 
O Lord our God. 


But this submission is not enough; for the Lord replies: 


As the tresses and wings of the wind 
Are scattered and shaken, 

I will scatter all them that have sinned, 
There shall none be taken; 

As a sower that scattereth seed, 
So will I seatter them; 

As one breaketh and shattereth a reed, 
I will break and shatter them. 


The antiphone is: 


As the wings and the locks of the wind 
Are scattered and shaken, 

Thou hast scattered all them that have sinned; 
There was no man taken; 


[172] 


Studies in Swinburne 


As a sower that scattereth seed, 
So hast thou scattered us; 

As one breaketh and shattereth a reed, 
Thou hast broken and shattered us. 


Observe that, simple as this versification looks, there is 
nothing more difficult. With the simplest possible 
words, the greatest possible amount of sound and force 
is here obtained. There are many other stanzas, and a 
noteworthy fact is that very few words of Latin origin 
are used. Most of the words are Anglo-Saxon; per- 
haps that is why the language is so sonorous and 
strong. But when the poet does use a word of Latin 
origin, the result is simply splendid: 


Ye whom your lords loved well, 
Putting silver and gold on you, 
The inevitable hell 
Shall surely take hold on you; 
Your gold shall be for a token, 
Your staff for a rod; 
With the breaking of bands ye are broken, 
Saith the Lord God. 


The use of the Latin adjective “inevitable” here gives 
an extraordinary effect, the main accent of the line com- 
ing on the second syllable of the word. But, as if to 
show his power, in the antiphonal response the poet does 
not repeat this effect, but goes back to the simple 
Anglo-Saxon with astonishing success : 


We whom the world loved well, 
Laying silver and gold on us, 
The kingdom of death and of hell 
Riseth up to take hold on us; 


[173] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Our gold is turned to a token, 
Our staff to a rod; 

Yet shalt thou bind them up that were broken, 
O Lord our God. 


Here the substitution of these much simpler words gives 
nearly as fine an effect of sound and a grander effect of 
sense because of the grim power of the words themselves. 

Besides studies in Biblical English, the poet has made 
a number of studies in the Old Anglo-Saxon poets, most 
of whom were religious men who liked sad and terrible 
subjects. In the poem entitled “After Death” we have 
an example of this Anglo-Saxon feeling combined with 
the plain strength of a later form of language, chiefly 
Middle English, with here and there a very quaint use 
of grammar. It was common in Anglo-Saxon poetry 
to depict the horrors of the grave. Here we have a 
dead man talking to his own coffin, and the coffin an- 
swers him horribly: 


The four boards of the coffin lid 
Heard all the dead man did. 


“T had fair coins red and white, 
And my name was as great light; 


“T had fair clothes green and red, 
And strong gold bound round my head. 


“But no meat comes in my mouth, 
Now I fare as the worm doth; 


“And no gold binds in my hair, 
Now I fare as the blind fare. 


[174] 


Studies in Swinburne 


“My live thews were of great strength, 
Now am I waxen a span’s length; 


“My live sides were full of lust, 
Now are they dried with dust.” 


The first board spake and said: 
“Ts it best eating flesh or bread?” 


The second answered it: 
“Ts wine or honey the more sweet?” 


The third board spake and said: 
“Ts red gold worth a girl’s gold head?” 


The fourth made answer thus: 
“All these things are as one with us.” 


The dead man asked of them: 
“Is the green land stained brown with flame? 


“Have they hewn my son for beasts to eat, 
And my wife’s body for beasts’ meat? 


“Have they boiled my maid in a brass pan, 
And built a gallows to hang my man?” 


The boards said to him: 
“This is a lewd thing that ye deem. 


“Your wife has gotten a golden bed; 
All the sheets are sewn with red. 


“Your son has gotten a coat of silk, 
The sleeves are soft as curded milk. 


“Your maid has gotten a kirtle new, 
All the skirt has braids of blue. 
[175] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Your man has gotten both ring and glove, 
Wrought well for eyes to love.” 


The dead man answered thus: 
“What good gift shall God give us?” 


The boards answered anon: 
“Flesh to feed hell’s worm upon.” 


I doubt very much whether a more terrible effect could 
be produced by any change of language. The poem is 
an excellent illustration of the force of the Old English, 
without admixture of any sort. Do not think that this 
is simple and easy work; perhaps no other living man 
could have done it equally well. It is not only in these 
simple forms, however, that Swinburne shows us the 
results of his Old English studies. Two of the most 
celebrated among his early poems, “The Triumph of 
Time” and the poem on the swallow, “Itylus,” are imi- 
tations of very old forms of English verse, though the 
language is luxurious and new. I have already given 
you a quotation from the former poem, describing the 


poet’s love of the sea. I now cite a single stanza of 
“Itylus.” 


Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow, 
How can thine heart be full of the spring? 
A thousand summers are over and dead. 
What hast thou found in the spring to follow? 
What hast thou found in thine heart to sing? 
What wilt thou do when the summer is shed? 


Probably Swinburne found this measure in early Middle 

English poetry ; it was used by the old poet Hampole in 

his “Prick of Conscience.” After it had been forgotten 
[176] 


Studies in Swinburne 


for five hundred years, Swinburne brought it to life 
again. Something very close to it forms the splendid 
and beautiful chorus of “Atalanta in Calydon”: 


When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces, 
The mother of months in meadow or plain 

Fills the shadows and windy places 
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain; 

And the brown bright nightingale amorous 
Is half assuaged for Itylus, 

For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces, 
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain. 


Here as in all other cases, however, the poet has far sur- 
passed his model. The measures which he revived take 
new life only because of the extraordinary charm which 
he has put into them. 

Passing suddenly from these lighter structures, let us 
observe the great power which Swinburne manifests in 
another kind of revival, the sixteen syllable line. This 
is not a modern measure at all. It was used long ago, 
but was practically abandoned and almost forgotten ex- 
cept by scholars when Swinburne revived it. Nor has 
he revived it only in one shape, but in a great many 
shapes, sometimes using single lines, sometimes double, 
or again varying the accent so as to make four or five 
different kinds of verse with the same number of syl- 
lables. The poem “The Armada” is a rich example 
of this re-animation and variation of the long dead 
form. In this poem Swinburne describes the god of 
Spain as opposed to the god of England, and the most 
forceful lines are those devoted to these conceptions. 
Observe the double rhymes. 

[177] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Ay, but we that the wind and sea gird round with shelter 
of storms and waves, 

Know not him that ye worship, grim as dreams that quicken 
from dead men’s graves: 

God is one with the sea, the sun, the land that nursed us, 
the love that saves. 


Love whose heart is in ours, and part of all things noble 
and all things fair; 

Sweet and free as the circling sea, sublime and kind as the 
fostering air; 

Pure of shame as is England’s name, whose crowns to come 
are as crowns that were. 


Now we have, quite easily, a change in the measure. 
We have sixteen syllables still, but the whole music is 
changed. 


But the Lord of darkness, the God whose love is a flaming 
fire, 

The master whose mercy fulfils wide hell till its torturers 
tines 

He shall surely have heed of his servants who serve him 
for love, not hire. 


The double rhymes are not used here. Later on, after 
the English victory and the storm, they are used again, 
for the purpose of additional force. The address is to 
the Spaniards and to their gods. 


Lords of night, who would breathe your blight on April’s 
morning and August’s noon, 

God your Lord, the condemned, the abhorred, sinks hell- 
ward, smitten with deathlike swoon, 

Death’s own dart in his hateful heart now thrills, and night 
shall receive him soon. 


[178] 


Studies in Swinburne 


God the Devil, thy reign of revel is here forever eclipsed 
and fled; 

God the Liar, everlasting fire lays hold at last on thee, hand 
and head. 


Page after page of constantly varying measures of this 
kind will be found in the poem—a poem which notwith- 
standing its strong violence at times, represents the 
power of the verse-maker better than almost any other 
single piece in the work of his later years. 

From what extracts we have already made, I think 
you will see enough of the value and beauty of Swin- 
burne’s diction to take in it such interest as it really 
deserves. We might continue the study of this author 
for a much longer time. But the year is waning, the 
third term, which is very short, will soon be upon us; 
and I wish to turn with you next week to the study of 
Browning. 


[179] 


CHAPTER IV 
STUDIES IN BROWNING 


Rozert Brownine very much reminds us in some re- 
spects of the American thinker, Emerson. The main 
doctrine of Emerson is Individualism; and this happens 
also to be the main doctrine of Browning. By Indi- 
vidualism, Emerson and Browning mean self-cultivation. 
Both thought that the highest possible duty of every 
man was to develop the best powers of his mind and 
body to the utmost possible degree. Make yourself 
strong—that is the teaching. You are only a man, 
not a god; therefore it is very hkely that you will do 
many things which are very wrong or very foolish. 
But whatever you do, even if it be wrong, do it well— 
do it with all your strength. Even a strong sin may 
be better than a cowardly virtue. Weakness is of all 
things the worst. When we do wrong, experience soon 
teaches us our mistake. And the stronger the mistake 
has been, the more quickly will the experience come 
which corrects and purifies. Now you understand what 
I mean by Individualism—the cultivation by untiring 
exercise of all our best faculties, and especially of the 
force and courage to act. 

This Individualism in Emerson was founded upon a 
vague Unitarian pantheism. The same fact is true of 


[180] 


Studies in Browning 


Browning’s system. According to both thinkers, all of 
us are parts of one infinite life, and it is by cultivating 
our powers that we can best serve the purpose of the 
Infinite Mind. Leaving out the words “mind” and 
“purpose,” which are anthropomorphisms, this doctrine 
accords fairly well with evolutional philosophy; and 
both writers were, to a certain degree, evolutionists. 
But neither yielded much to the melancholy of nine- 
teenth century doubt. Both were optimists. We may 
say that Browning’s philosophy is an optimistic pan- 
theism, inculcating effort as the very first and highest 
duty of life. But Browning is not especially a philo- 
sophical poet. We find his philosophy flashing out 
only at long intervals. Knowing this, we know what 
he is likely to think under certain circumstances; but 
his mission was of another special kind. 

His message to the world was that of an interpreter 
of life. His art is, from first to last, a faithful re- 
flection of human nature, the human nature of hundreds 
of different characters, good and bad, but in a large 
proportion of cases, decidedly bad. Why? Because, 
as a great artist, Browning understood very well that 
you can draw quite as good a moral from bad actions 
as from good ones, and his unconscious purpose is 
always moral. Such art of picturing character, to be 
really great, must be dramatic; and all of Browning’s 
work is dramatic. He does not say to us, “This man 
has such and such a character”; he makes the man 
himself act and speak so as to show his nature. The 
second fact, therefore, to remember about Browning 
is that artistically he is a dramatic poet, whose subject 
is human nature. No other English poet so closely 


[181] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


resembled Shakespeare in this kind of representation 
as Browning. 

There is one more remarkable fact about the poet. 
He always, or nearly always, writes in the first person. 
Every one of his poems, with few exceptions, is a so- 
liloquy. It is not he who speaks, of course; it is the 
“IT”? of some other person’s soul. This kind of literary 
form is called “monologue.”? Even the enormous poem 
of “The Ring and the Book” is nothing but a gigantic 
collection of monologues, grouped and ordered so as to 
produce one great dramatic effect. 

In the case of Browning, I shall not attempt much 
illustration by way of texts, because a great deal of 
Browning’s form could be not only of no use to you, 
but would even be mischievous in its influence upon your 
use of language. In Browning every rule of rhetoric, 
of arrangement, is likely to be broken. The adjective 
is separated by vast distances from the noun; the prep- 
osition is tumbled after the word to which it refers; 
the verb is found at the end of a sentence of which 
it should have been the first word. When Carlyle first 
read the poem called “‘Sordello,” he said that he could 
not tell whether “Sordello” was a man or a town or a 
book. And the obscurity of “Sordello” is in some 
places so atrocious that I do not think anybody in the 
world can unravel it. Now, most of Browning’s long 
poems are written in this amazing style. The text is, 
therefore, not a good subject for literary study. But 
it is an admirable subject for psychological study, emo- 
tional study, dramatic study, and sometimes for philo- 
sophic study. Instead of giving extracts, therefore, 
from very long poems, I shall give only a summary of 


[182] 


Studies in Browning 


the meaning of the poem itself. If such summary 
should tempt you to the terrible labour of studying the 
original, I am sure that you would be very tired, but 
after the weariness, you would be very much surprised 
and pleased. 

Providing, of course, that you would understand ; and 
I very much doubt whether you could understand. I 
doubt because I cannot always understand it myself, 
no matter how hard I try. 

One reason is the suppression of words. Browning 
leaves out all the articles, prepositions, and verbs that 
he can. I met some years ago a Japanese scholar who 
had mastered almost every difficulty of the English lan- 
guage except the articles and prepositions ; he had never 
been abroad long enough to acquire the habit of using 
them properly. But it was his business to write many 
letters upon technical subjects, and these letters were 
always perfectly correct, except for the extraordinary 
fact that they contained no articles and very few prep- 
ositions. Much of Browning’s poetry reads just in 
that way. You cannot say that there is anything 
wrong; but too much is left to the imagination. There- 
fore he has been spoken of as writing in telegraph 
language. 

Not to make Browning too formidable at first, let us 
begin with a few of his lighter studies, in very simple 
verse. I will take as the first example the poem called 
“A Light Woman.” This is a polite word for courte- 
san, “light” referring to the moral character. The 
story, told in monologue, is the most ordinary story 
imagineble. It happens in every great city of the world 
almost every day, among that class of young men who 


[183] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


play with fire. But there are two classes among these, 
the strong and the weak. The strong take life as half 
a joke, a very pleasant thing, and pass through many 
dangers unscathed simply because they know that what 
they are doing is foolish; they never consider it in a 
serious way. The other class of young men take life 
seriously. They are foolish rather through affection 
and pity than through anything else. They want a 
woman’s love, and they foolishly ask it from women who 
cannot love at all—not, at least, in ninety cases 
out of a hundred. They get what seems to them affec- 
tion, however, and this deludes them. Then they be- 
come bewitched ; and the result is much sorrow, perhaps 
ruin, perhaps crime, perhaps suicide. In Browning’s 
poem we have a representative of each type. A strong 
man, strong in character, has a young friend who has 
been fascinated by a woman of a dangerous class. He 
says to himself, ““My friend will be ruined; he is be- 
witched; it is no use to talk to him. I will save him 
by taking that woman away from him. I know the 
kind of man that she would like; she would like such a 
man as I.” And the rest of the cruel story is told in 
Browning’s verses too well to need further explanation. 


So far as our story approaches the end, 
Which do you pity the most of us three ?>— 

My friend, or the mistress of my friend 
With her wanton eyes, or me? 


My friend was already too good to lose, 
And seemed in the way of improvement yet, 
When she crossed his path with her hunting-noose, 
And over him drew her net. 


[184] 


Studies in Browning 


When I saw him tangled in her toils, 
A shame, said I, if she adds just him 
To her nine-and-ninety other spoils, 
The hundredth for a whim! 


And before my friend be wholly hers, 
How easy to prove to him, I said, 
An eagle’s the game her pride prefers, 

Though she snaps at a wren instead! 


So I gave her eyes my own eyes to take, 
My hand sought hers as in earnest need, 

And round she turned for my noble sake, 
And gave me herself indeed. 


The eagle am I, with my fame in the world, 
The wren is he, with his maiden face. 

You look away, and your lip is curled? 
Patience, a moment’s space! 


For see, my friend goes shaking and white; 
He eyes me as the basilisk: 

I have turned, it appears, his day to night, 
Eclipsing his sun’s disk. 


And I did it, he thinks, as a very thief: 
“Though I love her—that, he comprehends— 
One should master one’s passions (love, in chief), 
And be loyal to one’s friends!” 


And she—she lies in my hand as tame 
As a pear late basking over a wall; 

Just a touch to try, and off it came; 
’Tis mine,—can I let it fall? 


[185] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


With no mind to eat it, that’s the worst! 

Were it thrown in the road, would the case assist? 
’Twas quenching a dozen blue-flies’ thirst 

When I gave its stalk a twist. 


And I,—what I seem to my friend, you see: 
What I soon shall seem to his love, you guess: 
What I seem to myself, do you ask of me? 
No hero, I confess. 


’Tis an awkward thing to play with souls, 
And matter enough to save one’s own: 

Yet think of my friend, and the burning coals 
He played with for bits of stone! 


One likes to show the truth for the truth; 
That the woman was light is very true: 

But suppose she says,—Never mind that youth! 
What wrong have I done to you? 


Well, anyhow, here the story stays, 
So far at least as I understand; 

And, Robert Browning, you writer of plays, 
Here’s a subject made to your hand! 


Now let us see how much there is to study in this simple- 
seeming poem. It will give us an easy and an excellent 
example of the way in which Browning must be read; 
and it will require at least an hour’s chat to explain 
properly. For, really, Browning never writes simply. 
Here we have a monologue. It is uttered to the poet 
by a young man with whom he has been passing an 
hour in conversation. We can guess from the story 
something about the young man; we can almost see 


[186] 


Studies in Browning 


him. We know that he must be handsome, tall, grace- 
ful, and strong; and full of that formidable coolness 
which the sense of great strength gives—great strength 
of mind and will rather than of body, but probably 
both. Let us hear him talk. “You see that friend of 
mine over there?” he says to the poet. “He hates me 
now. When he looks at me his lips turn white. I 
can’t say that he is wrong to hate me, but really I 
wanted to do him a service. He got fascinated by that 
woman of whom I was speaking; she was playing with 
him as a cat plays with a mouse or with a bird before 
killing it. Well, I thought to myself that my friend 
was in great danger, and that it was better for me 
to try to save him. You see, he is not the kind of man 
that a woman of that class could fancy; he is too small, 
too feeble, too gentle; they like strong men only, men 
they are afraid of. So, just for my friend’s sake, I 
made love to her one day, and she left him immediately 
and came to me. I have to take care of her now, and 
I do not like the trouble at all. I never cared about the 
woman herself; she is not the kind of woman that I 
admire; I did all this only to save my friend. And my 
friend does not understand. He thinks that I took the 
woman from him because I was in love with her; he 
thinks it quite natural that I should love her (which I 
don’t) ; but he says that even in love a man ought to 
be true to his friends.” 

At this point of the story the young man sees that 
the poet is disgusted by what he has heard, but this 
does not embarrass him; he is too strong a character 
to be embarrassed at all, and he resumes: “Don’t be 
impatient—I want to tell you the whole thing. You 

[187] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


see, I have destroyed all the happiness of my friend 
merely through my desire to do him a service. He hates 
me, and he does not understand. He thinks that I was 
moved by lust; and everybody else thinks the same 
thing. Of course it is not true. But now there is 
another trouble. The woman does not understand. 
She thinks that I was really in love with her; and I 
must get rid of her as soon as I can. If I tell her 
that I made love to her only in order to save my friend, 
she will say, ‘What had that to do with your treatment 
of me? I did not do you any harm; why should you 
have amused yourself by trying to injure and to de- 
ceive me?’ If she says that, I don’t know how I shall 
be able to answer. So it seems that I have made a 
serious mistake; I have lost my friend, I have wan- 
tonly wronged a woman whose only fault toward me 
was to love me, and I have made for myself a bad repu- 
tation in society. People cannot understand the truth 
of the thing.” 

This is the language of the man, and he perhaps 
thinks that he is telling the truth. But is he telling 
the truth? Does any man in this world ever tell the 
exact truth about himself? Probably not. No man 
really understands himself so well as to be able to tell 
the exact truth about himself. It is possible that this 
man believes himself to be speaking truthfully, but he 
is certainly telling a lie, a half-truth only. We have 
his exact words, but the exact language of the speaker 
in any one of Browning’s monologues does not tell the 
truth; it only suggests the truth. We must find out 
the real character of the person, and the real facts 
of the case, from our own experience of human nature. 


[188] 


Studies in Browning 


And to understand the real meaning behind this man’s 
words, you must ask yourselves whether you would be- 
heve such a story if it were told to you in exactly the 
same way by some one whom you know. I shall answer 
for you that you certainly would not. 

And now we come to the real meaning. The young 
man saw his friend desperately in love with a woman 
who did not love that friend. The woman was beauti- 
ful. Looking at her, he thought to himself, “How 
easily I could take her away from my friend!” Then 
he thought to himself that not only would this be a 
cause of enmity between himself and his friend, but 
such an action would be severely judged by all his 
acquaintances. Could he be justified? When a man 
wishes to do what is wrong, he can nearly always invent 
a moral reason for doing it. So this young man finds 
a moral reason. He says, “My friend is in danger; 
therefore I will sacrifice myself for him. It will be 
quite gratifying both to my pride and to my pleasure 
to take that woman from him; then I shall tell every- 
body why I did it. My friend would like to kill me, 
of course, but he is too weak to avenge himself.” He 
follows this course, and really tries to persuade himself 
that he is justified in following it. When he says that 
he did not care for the woman, he only means that 
he is now tired of her. He has indulged his lust and 
his vanity by the most treacherous and brutal conduct; 
yet he tries to tell the world that he is a moral man, 
a martyr, a calumniated person. Such is the real 
meaning of his apology. 

Nevertheless we cannot altogether dislike this young 
man. He is selfish and proud and not quite truthful, 

[189 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


but these are faults of youth. On the other hand we 
can feel that he is very gifted, very intelligent, and very 
brave, and, what is still better, that he is ashamed of 
himself. He has done wrong, and the very fact that he 
lies about what he has done shows us that he is ashamed. 
He is not all bad. If he does not tell us the whole truth, 
he tells a great deal of it ; and we feel that as he becomes 
older he will become better. He has abused his power, 
and he feels sorry for having abused it; some day he 
will probably become a very fine man. We feel this; 
and, curiously, we like him better than we like the man 
whom he has wronged. We like him because of his 
force; we despise the other man because of his weakness. 
It would be a mistake to do this if we did not feel that 
the man who has done wrong is really the better man 
of the two. What he has done is not at all to be ex- 
cused, but we believe that he will redeem his fault later 
on. This type is an English or American type—per- 
haps it might be a German type. There is nothing 
Latin about it. Its faults are of the Northern race. 
But now let us take an unredeemable type, the purely 
bad, the hopelessly wicked, a type not of the North this 
time, but purely Latin. As the Latin races have been 
civilised for a very much longer time than the Northern 
races, they have higher capacities in certain directions. 
They are physically and emotionally much more at- 
tractive to us. The beauty of an Italian or French 
or Spanish woman is incomparably more delicate, more 
exquisite, than the beauty of the Northern women. 
The social intelligence of the Italian or Spaniard or 
Frenchman is something immeasurably superior to the 
same capacity in the Englishman, the Scandinavian, or 


[190] 


Studies in Browning 


the German. The Latins have much less moral stam- 
ina, but imaginatively, xsthetically, emotionally, they 
have centuries of superiority. The Northern races 
were savages when these were lords of the world. But 
the vices of civilisation are likely to be developed in 
them to a degree impossible to the Northern character. 
If their good qualities are older and finer than ours, 
so their bad qualities will be older and stronger and 
deeper. At no time was the worst side of man more 
terribly shown than during the Renaissance. Here is 
an illustration. We know that for this man there is 
no hope; the evil predominates in his nature to such an 
extent that we can see nothing at all of the good except 
his fine sense of beauty. And even this sense becomes 
a curse to him. 


MY LAST DUCHESS 


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
Looking as if she were alive. I call 

That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands 
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 
“Fri Pandolf” by design, for never read 
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
Are you to turn and ask thus. 


Let us paraphrase the above. It is a duke of Ferrara 
who speaks. The person to whom he is speaking is a 


[191] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


marriage-maker, a nakodo employed by the prince of a 
neighbouring state. For tke duke wishes to marry the 
daughter of that prince. When the match-maker 
comes, the duke draws a curtain from a part of the wall 
of the room in which the two men meet, and shows him, 
painted upon the wall, the picture of a wonderfully 
beautiful woman. Then the duke says to the messen- 
ger: “That is a picture of my last wife. It is a beau- 
tiful picture, is it not? Well, it was painted by that 
wonderful monk, Fra Pandolf. I mention his name on 
purpose, because everybody who sees that picture for 
the first time wants to know why it is so beautiful, and 
would ask me questions if they were not afraid. I have 
shown it to several other people; but nobody, except 
myself, dares draw the curtain that covers it. Yes, 
Fra Pandolf painted it all in one day; and the expres- 
sion of the smiling face still makes everybody wonder. 
You wonder; you want to know why that woman looks 
so charming, so bewitching in the picture.” 

Now listen to the explanation. It is worthy of the 
greatest of the villains of Shakespeare: 


Sir, “twas not 
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps 
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or, “Paint 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’” such stuff 
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, 


[192] 


Studies in Browning 


Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er 

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West, 

The bough of cherries some officious fool 

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 

She rode with round the terrace—all and each 
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked 
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 

With anybody’s gift. 


The explanation at least shows us the sweet and child- 
ish character of the woman, which the speaker tries to 
describe as folly: “It was not her gladness at seeing 
me, her husband, that made her smile so beautifully, 
that brought the rosy dimple to her cheek. Probably 
the painter said something to flatter her, and she smiled 
at him. She was ready to smile at anything, at any- 
body, she was altogether too easily pleased; she liked 
everything and everybody that she saw, and she took a 
pleasure in looking at everything and at everybody. 
Nothing made any difference to her. She would smile 
at the jewel which I gave her, but she would also smile 
at the sunset, at a bunch of cherries, at her mule, at 
anything or anybody. Any matter would bring the 
dimple to her cheek, or the blush of joy. I do not 
blame her for thanking people, but she had a way of 
thanking people that seemed to show that she was just 
as much pleased by what a stranger did for her, as by 
the fact that she had become the wife of a man like my- 
self, head of a family nine hundred years old.” Notice 
[193 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


how the speaker calls the man who gave his wife a bough 
with cherries upon it “an officious fool.” We can begin 
to perceive what was the matter. He was insanely jeal- 
ous of her, without any cause; and she, poor little soul ! 
did not know anything about it. She was too innocent 
to know. The duke does not want anybody else to 
know, either; he is trying to give quite a different ex- 
planation of what happened: 


Who'd stoop to blame 
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will 
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let 
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, 
—KE’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 
Much the same smile? 


This means, “A man like me cannot afford to degrade 
himself by showing what he feels under such circum- 
stances; a man like me cannot say to a woman, ‘I am 
greatly vexed and pained when I see you smile at any 
one except myself.’ If I were to speak to her about 
the matter at all, she might think I was jealous. Of 
course she would insult me by making excuses, by saying 
that she did not know, which would be nothing less than 
daring to oppose her judgment to mine. To speak 
about my feelings in any case would require a skill in 
the use of language such as only poets or such vulgar 
people possess. I am a prince, not a poet, and I shall 


[194] 


Studies in Browning 


never disgrace myself by telling anybody, especially 
a woman, that I do not like this or I do not like that. 
So I said nothing. Perhaps you think that she did 
not smile when she saw me. That would be a mistake; 
she always smiled when I passed. But she smiled at 
everybody else in exactly the same way.” He found 
the smile unbearable at last, and the poet lets him tell 
us the rest in a very few words: 


This grew; I gave commands; 
Then all smiles stopped together. 


In other words, he caused her to be killed; told some- 
body to cut her throat, probably, or to give her a drink 
of poison, all without having ever allowed her to know 
how or why he had been displeased with her. And he 
is not a bit sorry. No, looking at the dead woman’s 
picture, in company with the marriage-maker, he coolly 
expresses his admiration for it as a word of realistic art 
—as much as to say, “You can see for yourself how 
beautiful she was; but that did not prevent me from 
killing her.” Listen to his atrocious chatter: 


There she stands 
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We'll meet 
The company below, then. I repeat, 
The Count your master’s known munificence 
Is ample warrant that no just pretence 
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed ; 
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go 
Together down, sir. . . . Notice Neptune, though, 
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! 


[195] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Evidently both had seated themselves in front of the 
picture. The count says, “Now she is as if alive; and 
we shall go downstairs together. As for the matter 
of the new marriage, you can tell your master that I am 
quite sure so generous a man will not make any ob- 
jection to my just demands for a dowry—though, of 
course, it is his daughter that I principally want.” 
Here the messenger bows, to allow the duke to go first 
downstairs. He answers: “No, we can go down to- 
gether this time.” On the way, probably at a turn of 
the grand staircase, the count points to a fine bronze 
statue, representing the god of the sea, and asks the man 
to admire it. That is all. 

This is a Renaissance character, and a very terrible 
one But it is also very complicated. We must think 
a little before we can even guess the whole range and 
depth of this man’s wickedness. Even then we can only 
guess, because he lets us know only so much about him 
as he wishes us to know. Every word that he says is 
carefully measured in its pride, in its falsehood, in its 
cruelty, in its cunning. Just this much he tells us: 
“I had a beautiful wife, but you must not think that I 
can be influenced by beauty. Look at the picture of 
her. You would worship a woman like that. But I 
cut her throat. Why did I doit? Just because I did 
not like her way of smiling; she was too tender-hearted 
to love. And I would do the same thing to-morrow to 
any one who displeased me. Some people will think 
that I am jealous; let them think so. But you had 
better tell the girl who now expects to become my wife 
what kind of person I am.” 


[196] 


Studies in Browning 


How much of this is the truth? Probably more than 
half. Undoubtedly the man was jealous, and he wishes 
to deceive us in regard to the whole extent of that jeal- 
ousy. He has no shame or remorse for crime, but he 
has shame of appearing to be weak. Jealousy is a. 
weakness ; therefore he does not like to be suspected of” 
being weak in that way. He gives a strong suggestion: 
that he must not have future cause for jealousy—noth-- 
ing more. But the fact that he most wishes to have: 
understood is that his wife must be a wicked woman, a: 
vulture among vultures. He does not want a dove. 
And he hated his first wife much more because she was 
good and gentle and loving, than because she smiled at 
other people. You may ask, why should he hate a 
woman for being good? The answer is simple. In the 
courts of such princes as the Borgias, a good woman 
could only do mischief. She could not be used for cun- 
ning and wicked purposes. She would have refused 
to poison a guest, or to entice a man to make love to her 
only in order to get that man killed; and as you will 
discover if you read the terrible history of the Italian 
republics, all these things had to be done. Morality 
was a hindrance to such men. Power remained only 
to cunning and strength; all kind-heartedness was re- 
garded as criminal weakness. When you have become 
familiar with the real history of Ferrara, you will per- 
ceive the terrible truth of this poem. 

The most unpleasant fact still remains to be noticed. 
The wickedness of this man is not a wickedness of igno- 
rance. It is a wickedness of highly cultivated intelli- 
gence. The manis an artist, a judge of beauty, a con- 


[197] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


noisseur. To suppose that cultivation makes a natu- 
rally wicked man better is a great educational mistake, 
as Herbert Spencer showed long ago. Education does 
not make a man more moral; it may give him power 
to be more immoral. Italian history furnishes us with 
the most extraordinary illustrations of this fact. Some 
of the wickedest of the Italian princes were great poets, 
great artists, great scholars, and great patrons of 
learning. Among the monsters, we have, for example, 
the terrible Malatesta of Rimini, whose life was given 
to us some years ago by the French antiquarian 
Yriarte. He wrote the most delicate and tender poetry, 
and he committed crimes so terrible that they cannot be 
named. When he laid his hand, however lightly, upon 
a horse, the animal began to tremble from head to foot. 
Yet he could love, and be the most devoted of gallants. 
Again, you know the case of Benvenuto Cellini, a splen- 
did artist and an atrocious murderer, who actually tells 
us the pleasure that he felt in killing. And there were 
the Borgias, all of them, father, daughter, and brothers, 
who committed every crime and never knew remorse, 
yet who were beautiful and gifted lovers of art and 
poetry. So in this case Browning is true to life when 
he shows us the duke pointing out the beauty of pic- 
tures and statues, even in the same moment that he is 
uttering horrors. There is a strange mixture of the 
extremes of the bad and of the good in the higher types 
of the Italian race—a mingling that gives us much 
to think about in regard to moral problems. Probably 
that is why a very large number of Browning’s studies 
are of the dark side of Italian character. 

Now we can take a lighter subject. It is not black, 

[198 ] 


Studies in Browning 


it is only gloomy, and the interest of it will chiefly 
be found in the extraordinary moral comment made by 
Browning. This is one of the few studies which is not 
all written in the first person. It is called “The Statue 
and the Bust.” It is a tale or tradition of Florence. 

The legend is that a certain duke of Florence, by 
name Ferdinand, attempted to captivate the young 
bride of a Florentine nobleman named Riccardi. But 
Riccardi, a very keen man, observed what was going on; 
and he said to his wife very quietly and firmly, ‘“This is 
your room in my house; you shall stay in this room and 
never leave it during the rest of your life, never leave 
it until you are carried to the graveyard.” So she 
had to live in that room. But the duke, who was a very 
handsome man, got a splendid bronze statue of himself 
on horseback erected in the public street opposite the 
window of the lady’s room, so that she could always 
look at him. Then she had a bust of herself made 
and placed above the window, so that the duke could 
see the bust whenever he rode by. That is all the story 
—hbut not all the story as Browning tells it. Browning 
tells us the secret thoughts and feelings of the im- 
prisoned wife and of the duke. At first the two intended 
to run away together. It would have been an easy 
matter. The woman would only have had to dress her- 
self like a boy, and drop from the window, and get help 
from the duke to reach his palace. The duke thought 
to himself, “I can get this woman whenever I wish; 
but it will be better to wait a little while; then we can 
manage to live as we please without making too much 
trouble.” So they both waited till they became old. 
Then the woman called an artist and said: 


[199] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Make me a face on the window there, 
Waiting as ever, mute the while, 
My love pass below in the square! 


“And let me think that it may beguile 
Dreary days which the dead must spend 
Down in their darkness under the aisle, 


“To say, ‘What matters it at the end? 
I did no more while my heart was warm 
Than does that image, my pale-faced friend.’ ” 


She thinks to console herself a moment by saying, 
“What is life worth? When I was young and beauti- 
ful and impulsive, I did no more harm or good, no more 
right or wrong, than the bust that resembles me. It 
is a comfort to think that I did nothing wrong.” But 
is that enough? 


“Where is the use of the lip’s red charm, 
The heaven of hair, the pride of the brow, 
And the blood that blues the inside arm— 


“Unless we turn, as the soul knows how, 
The earthly gift to an end divine? 
A lady of clay is as good, I trow.” 


Somehow or other she feels that it is no consolation not 
to have done wrong. She wonders what was the use 
of being so beautiful, if she could not make use of that 
beauty. The bust itself lived just as much as she did. 
And all this is true; but she is nearer to living than 
the duke. What does he say? 


“Set me on horseback here aloft, 
Alive, as the crafty sculptor can, 


[200] 


Studies in Browning 


“In the very square I have crossed so oft: 
That men may admire, when future suns 
Shall touch the eyes to a purpose soft, 


“While the mouth and the brow stay brave in bronze— 
Admire and say, ‘When he was alive 
How he would take his pleasure once!’ ” 


Nothing else; he only wants to be admired after his 
death, to have people say, looking at his statue, “What 
a splendid looking man he must have been, how the 
women must have loved him!” And they both died, 
and were buried in the church near where they lived; 
and the English poet Browning went to that church, 
and heard the story, and thought about it, and gives us 
the moral of it. It is a startling moral and needs expla- 
nation. I think you will be shocked when you first hear 
it, but you will not be shocked if you think about it. 
The following verses are the poet’s own reflections: 


So! While these wait the trump of doom, 
How do their spirits pass, I wonder, 
Nights and days in the narrow room? 


Still, I suppose, they sit and ponder 
What a gift life was, ages ago, 
Six steps out of the chapel yonder. 


Only they see not God, I know, 
Nor all that chivalry of his, 
The soldier-saints who, row on row, 


Burn upward each to his point of bliss— 


[201] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


He condemns them. Why? Because they did not do 
anything. Anything? You do not mean to say that 
they ought to have committed adultery? 


I hear you reproach—“But delay was best, 
For their end was a crime.” —Oh, a crime will do 
As well, I reply, to serve for a test, 


As a virtue golden through and through, 
Sufficient to vindicate itself 
And prove its worth at a moment’s view! 


Must a game be played for the sake of pelf? 


The true has no value beyond the sham: 
As well the counter as coin, I submit, 
When your table’s a hat, and your prize, a dram. 


Stake your counter as boldly every whit, 
Venture as warily, use the same skill, 
Do your best, whether winning or losing it, 


If you choose to play !—is my principle. 
Let a man contend to the uttermost 
For his life’s set prize, be it what it will! 


The counter our lovers staked was lost 
As surely as if it were lawful coin; 
And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost 


Is the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin, 
Though the end in sight was a vice, I say. 


In order to understand the full force of this strange 
ethical philosophy, you must remember that the word 
“counter” is here a gambling term; it is used for the 


[202] 


Studies in Browning 


round buttons or disks of bone or ivory, not in them- 
selves money, but representing money to be eventually 
received or paid. Remembering this, we can simplify 
Browning; this is what he says: 

“These people were the most contemptible of sinners; 
they deliberately threw their lives away. They were 
afraid to commit a sin. To wish to commit a sin and 
to be afraid to commit it, is much worse than commit- 
ting it. All their lives those two dreamed and purposed 
and desired a sin; they wanted to commit adultery. If 
they had committed the crime, there would have been 
some hope for them; there is always hope for the per- 
sons who are not afraid. When a young man begins 
to doubt what his parents and teachers tell him about 
virtue, it is sometimes a good thing for him to test this 
teaching by disobeying it. Human experience has pro- 
claimed in all ages that theft and murder and adultery 
and a few other things can never give good results. 
It is not easy to explain the whole why and wherefore 
to a young person who is both self-willed and ignorant. 
But let him try for himself what murder means, or 
theft means, or adultery means, and after he has experi- 
enced the consequences, he will begin to perceive what 
moral teaching signifies. If he is not killed, or im- 
prisoned for life, he will very possibly become wise and 
good at a later time. Now in regard to those two 
lovers, they wanted to have an experience; and the ex- 
perience might have been so valuable to them that it 
would have given them a new soul—but they were 
afraid; they were criminals without profit; and their 
great sin was that of being too cowardly to commit sin. 
Never will God forgive such weakness as that!” Of 

[203 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


course all great religions teach that the man who wishes 
to do wrong does the wrong in wishing as truly as if 
he did it with his body; there is only a difference of 
degree. Now Browning goes a little further than such 
religious teaching; he tells us that only wishing under 
certain circumstances may be incomparably worse than 
doing, because the doing brings about its punishment 
in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, and the punish- 
ment becomes a moral lesson, forcing the sufferer to 
think about the moral aspect of what he has done. 
That is why Browning says, “A sin will do to serve 
for a test.” But only to wish to do, and not do, leaves 
a person in a state of inexperience. There is an old 
proverb, which is quite true: “Any man can become 
rich who is willing to pay the price.” With equal truth 
it might be said, “You can do anything that you please 
in this world, if you are willing to pay the price, but 
the price of acts and thoughts is fixed by the Eternal 
Powers, and you must not try to cheat them.” 
Philosophers will tell you that our moral laws are 
not always perfect, that man cannot make a perfect 
code invariably applicable to all times and circum- 
stances. This is true. But it is also true that there 
is a higher morality than human codes, and when human 
law fails to give justice, a larger law occasionally steps 
in to correct the failure. Browning delights in giving 
us examples of this kind, extraordinary moral situa- 
tions, wrong by legal opinion, right by the larger law 
of nature, which is sometimes divine. A startling story 
which he tells us, entitled “Ivan Ivanovitch,” will show 
us how he treats such themes. Ivan, the hero of the 
story, is a wood-cutter, who works all day in his native 


[204] 


Studies in Browning 


village, to support a large family. He is the most 
highly respected of the young peasants, the strong man. 
of the community, a good father and a good husband. 
One day, while he is working out of doors in the bitter 
cold, a sledge drawn by a maddened and dying horse 
enters the village, with a half dead woman on it. The 
woman is the wife of Ivan’s best friend, and she has 
come back alone, although she had taken her three chil- 
dren with her on the homeward journey. Ivan helps 
her into the house, gives her something warm to drink, 
caresses her, comforts her, and asks at last for her 
story. The sledge had been pursued by wolves, and 
the wolves had eaten the three children, one after an- 
other. Ivan listens very carefully to the mother’s re- 
lation of how the three children were snatched out of the 
sledge by the wolves. As soon as she has told every one 
in her own way, Ivan takes his sharp axe, and with one 
blow cuts the woman’s head off. To the other peasants 
he simply observes, “God told me to do that ; I could not 
help it.” Of course Ivan knew that the woman had lied. 
The wolves had not taken the children away from her: 
she had dropped one child after another out of the sledge 
in order to save her own miserable life. 

At the news of the murder, the authorities of the vil- 
lage all hurry to the scene. There is the dead body 
without its head, and the blood flowing, or rather crawl- 
ing like a great red snake over the floor. The lord of 
the village declares that Ivan must be executed for this 
crime. The Starosta, or head man, takes the same 
view of the situation. But, just as Ivan is about to be 
arrested, the old priest of the village, the Pope as the 
peasants call him, a man more than a hundred years 


[205] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of age, comes into the assembly and speaks. He is 
the only man who has a word to say on behalf of Ivan, 
but what he says is extraordinary in its force and primi- 
tive wisdom. All of it would be too long to quote. 
I give you only the conclusion, which immediately re- 
sults in Ivan’s being acquitted both by law and by pub- 


lic opinion. 


“A mother bears a child: perfection is complete 
So far in such a birth. Enabled to repeat 

The miracle of life-—herself was born so just 
A type of womankind, that God sees fit to trust 
Her with the holy task of giving life in turn. 


How say you, should the hand God trusted with life’s 
torch 

Kindled to light the word—aware of sparks that scorch, 

Let fall the same? Forsooth, her flesh a fire-flake stings: 

The mother drops the child! Among what monstrous 
things 

Shall she be classed?” 


Of course the old Pope is speaking from the Christian 
point of view when he says that perfection is complete 
in a birth; he refers to the orthodox belief that the soul 
of man is created a perfect thing of its kind, a perfect 
spiritual entity, to be further made or marred by its 
own acts and thoughts. The mother does not give 
birth only to a body, but to a soul also, expressly made 
by God to fit that body. She is allowed to repeat the 
miracle of creation thus far; as mother she is creator, 
but only in trust. She has made the vessel of the soul; 
her most sacred duty is to guard that little body from 
[206 ] 


Studies in Browning 


all harm. A mother who would even let her child fall 
to escape pain herself would be incomparably more 
ignoble than the most savage of animals. The rule 
is that during motherhood even the animal-mother for 
the time being becomes the ruling power; the male ani- 
mal then allows her to have her own way in all things. 


“Because of motherhood, each male 
Yields to his partner place, sinks proudly in the scale: 
His strength owned weakness, wit—folly, and courage— 
fear, 
Beside the female proved male’s mistress—only here. 
The fox-dam, hunger-pined, will slay the felon sire 
Who dares assault her whelp: the beaver, stretched on fire, 
Will die without a groan: no pang avails to wrest 
Her young from where they hide—her sanctuary breast. 
What’s here then? Answer me, thou dead one, as, I trow, 
Standing at God’s own bar, he bids thee answer now! 
Thrice crowned wast thou—each crown of pride, a child— 
thy charge! 
Where are they? Lost? Enough: no need that thou en- 
large 
On how or why the loss: life left to utter ‘lost’ 
Condemns itself beyond appeal. The soldier’s post 
Guards from the foe’s attack the camp he sentinels: 
That he no traitor proved, this and this only tells— 
Over the corpse of him trod foe to foe’s success. 
Yet—one by one thy crowns torn from thee—thou no less 
To scare the world, shame God,—livedst! I hold he saw 
The unexampled sin, ordained the novel law, 
Whereof first instrument was first intelligence 
Found loyal here. I hold that, failing human sense, 
The very earth had oped, sky fallen, to efface 
Humanity’s new wrong, motherhood’s first disgrace. 


[207] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets . 


Earth oped not, neither fell the sky, for prompt was found 
A man and man enough, head-sober and heart-sound, 
Ready to hear God’s voice, resolute to obey. 


I proclaim 
Ivan Ivanovitch God’s servant!” 


On hearing this speech the peasantry are at once con- 
vinced ; the Russian lord orders the proclamation to be 
made that the murderer is forgiven, and the head man 
of the village goes to Ivan’s house to bring the good 
news. He expects to find Ivan on his knees at prayer, 
very much afraid of the police and coming punishment. 
But on opening the door the head man finds Ivan play- 
ing with his five children, and making for them a toy- 
church out of little bits of wood. It has not even en- 
tered into the mind of Ivan that he did anything wrong. 
And when they tell him, “You are free, you will not be 
punished,” he answers them in surprise, “Why should 
I not be free? Why should you talk of my not being 
punished?” To this simple mind there is nothing to 
argue about. He has only done what God told him 
to do, punished a crime against Nature. 

The story is a strange one; but not stranger than 
many to be found in Browning. None of his moral 
teachings are at discord with any form of true religion, 
yet they are mostly larger than the teachings of any 
creed. Perhaps this is why he has never offended the 
religious element even while preaching doctrines over its 
head. he higher doctrines thus proclaimed might be 
anywhere accepted; they might be also questioned; but 
no one would deny their beauty and power. We may 


[208] 


Studies in Browning 


assume that Browning usually considers all incidents 
in their relation to eternal law, not to one place or time, 
but to all places and to all times, because the results 
of every act and thought are infinite. This doctrine 
especially is quite in harmony with Oriental philosophy, 
even when given such a Christian shape as it takes in 
the beautiful verses of “Abt Vogler.” 

Abt Vogler was a great musician, a great improviser. 
Here let me explain the words “improvise” and “im- 
provisation,” as to some of you they are likely to be 
unfamiliar, at least in the special sense given to them 
in this connection. An improvisation in poetry means 
a composition made instantly, without preparation, at 
request or upon a sudden impulse. In Japanese lite- 
rary history, I am told, there are some very interesting 
examples of improvisation. For example, the story of 
that poetess who, on being asked to compose a poem 
including the mention of something square, something 
round, and something triangular, wrote those celebrated 
lines about unfastening one corner of a mosquito-curtain 
in order to look at the moon. Among Europeans im- 
provisation is now almost a lost art in poetry, except 
among the Italians. Some Italian families still exist 
in which the art of poetical improvisation has been 
cultivated for hundreds of years. But in music it is 
otherwise. Improvisation in music is greatly culti- 
vated and esteemed. Most of our celebrated musicians 
have been great improvisers. Those who heard such 
music would regret that it could not be reproduced, not 
even by the musician himself. It was a beautiful crea- 
tion, forgotten as soon as made, because never written 
down. 


[209] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Now you know what Browning means by improvisa- 
tion in his poem “Abt Vogler.” The musician has been 
improvising, and the music, made only to be forgotten, 
is so beautiful that he himself bitterly regrets the 
evanescence of it. We may quote a few of the verses 
in which this regret is expressed; they are very fine 
and very strange, written in a measure which I think 
you have never seen before. 


Would that the structure brave, the manifold music I build, 
Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to their work, 
Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch, as when 

Solomon willed 
Armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk, 
Man, brute, reptile, fly—alien of end and of aim, 
Adverse, each from the other heaven-high, hell-deep re- 


moved,— 
Should rush into sight at once as he named the ineffable 
Name, 
And pile him a palace straight, to pleasure the princess 
he loved! 


The musician is comparing the music that he makes to 
magical architecture; he refers to the Mohammedan 
legends of Solomon. Solomon knew all magic; and all 
men, animals, angels, and demons obeyed him. God | 
has ninety-nine names by which the faithful may speak 
of him, but the hundredth name is secret, the Name 
ineffable. He who knows it can do all things by the 
utterance of it. When Solomon pronounced it, all the 
spirits of the air and of heaven and of hell would rush 
to obey him. And if he wanted a palace or a city built, 
he had only to order the spirits to build it, and they 
[210] 


Studies in Browning 


would build it immediately, finishing everything between 
the rising and the setting of the sun. That is the 
story which the musiciar refers to. He has the power 
of the master-musician over sounds; but the sounds will 
not stay. 


Would it might tarry like his, the beautiful building of 
mine, 
This which my keys in a crowd pressed and importuned 
to raise! 
Ah, one and all, how they helped, would dispart now and 
now combine, 
Zealous to hasten the work, heighten their master his 
praise! 
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to 
hell, 
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things, 
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace 
well, 
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs. 


The musician wishes that his architecture of sound 
could remain, as remained the magical palace that Solo- 
mon made the spirits build to please Queen Balkis. He 
remembers how beautiful his music was; he remembers 
how the different classes of notes combined to make it, 
just as the different classes of spirits combined to make 
the palace of Solomon. There the deep notes, the bass 
chords, sank down thundering like demon-spirits work- 
ing to make the foundation in the very heart of the 
earth. And the treble notes seemed to soar up like 
angels to make the roof of gold, and to tip all the 
points of the building with glorious fires of illumina- 


[211] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


tion. ‘Truly the palace of sounds was built, but it has 
vanished away like a mirage; the builder cannot repro- 
duce it. Why not? Well, because great composition 
of any kind is not merely the work of man; it is an 
inspiration from God, and the mystery of such inspired ° 
composition is manifested in music as it is manifested in 
no other art. For the harmonies, the combinations of 
tones, are mysteries, and must remain mysterious even 
for the musician himself. Who can explain them? 


But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can, 
Existent behind all laws, that made them, and lo, they 
are! 
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to 
man, 
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, 
but a star. 
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is naught: 
It is everywhere in the world—loud, soft, and all is said: 
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought: 
And there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow 
the head! 


But for the same reason that they are mysteries and 
cannot be understood because they relate to the infinite, 
they are eternal. That is the consolation. The musi- 
cian need not regret that the music composed in a 
moment of divine inspiration cannot be remembered; 
he need not regret that it has been forgotten. Forgot- 
ten it is by the man who made it; forgotten it is by 
the people who heard it; forgotten it is therefore by all 
mankind. Nevertheless it is eternal, because the Uni- 
versal Soul that inspired it never forgets anything. I 
[212] 


Studies in Browning 


think that the verse in which this beautiful thought is 
expressed—the verse that contains the whole of Brown- 
ing’s religion, is the most beautiful thing in all his work. 
But you must judge for yourselves: 


All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist; 
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor 
power 
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the 
melodist 
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour. 
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too 
hard, 
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky, 
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard; 
Enough that he heard it once; we shall hear it by and by. 


By the phrase “‘when eternity affirms the conception 
of an hour,” the poet means when we ourselves, in a 
future and higher state of being, shall see the worth of 
our good acts and thoughts proved by the fact that they 
survive along with us. Eternity affirms them—that is, 
recognises them as worthy of immortality by suffering 
them to exist. This line gives us the key to the philos- 
ophy of the rest. It is quite in harmony with Bud- 
dhist philosophy. Browning holds that all good acts 
and thoughts are eternal, whether men in this world 
remember them or not. But what of the bad acts and 
thoughts? Are they also eternal? Not in the same 
sense. Evil acts and thoughts do indeed exert an in- 
fluence reaching enormously into the future, but it is 
an influence that must gradually wane, it is a Karma 
that must become exhausted. As for regretting that 

[213] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


nobody sees or knows the good that we do, that is very 
foolish. The good will never die; it will be seen again— 
perhaps only in millions of years, yet this should make 
no difference. To the dead the time of a million years 
and the time of a moment may be quite the same thing. 

But you must not suppose that Browning lives much 
in the regions of abstract philosophy. He is human in 
the warmest way, and very much alive to impressions 
of sense. Not even Swinburne is at times more voluptu- 
ous, but the voluptuous in Browning is always natural 
and healthy as well as artistic. I must quote to you 
some passages from the wonderful little dramatic poem 
entitled “In a Gondola.” You know that a gondola is 
a peculiar kind of boat which in Venice takes the place 
of carriages or vehicles of any kind. In the city of 
Venice there are no streets to speak of, but canals only, 
so that people go from one place to another only by 
boat. These boats or gondolas of Venice are not al- 
together unlike some of the old-fashioned Japanese 
pleasure-boats; they have a roof and windows and 
rooms, and it is possible to travel in them without being 
seen by anybody. In the old days of Venice, many 
secret meetings between lovers and many secret meetings 
of conspirators were held in such boats. The poet is 
telling us of the secret meeting of two lovers, at the 
risk of death, for if the man is seen he will certainly be 
killed. At the end of the poem he actually is killed; 
the moment he steps on shore he is stabbed, because 
he has been watched by the spies of a political faction 
that hates him. But this is not the essential part of 
the poem at all. The essential part of the poem is the 
description, of the feelings and thoughts of these two 

[214] 


Studies in Browning 


people, loving in the shadow of death; this is very beau- 
tiful and almost painfully true to nature. We get also 
not a few glimpses of the old life and luxury of Venice 
in the course of the narrative. As the boat glides down 
the long canals, between the high ranges of marble pal- 
aces rising from the water, the two watch the windows 
of the houses that they know, and talk about what is 
gcing on inside. 


Past we glide, and past, and past! 
What's that poor Agnese doing 
Where they make the shutters fast? 
Grey Zanobi’s just a-wooing 
To his couch the purchased bride: 

Past we glide! 


Past we glide, and past, and past! 
Why’s the Pucci Palace flaring 
Like 2 beacon to the blast? 
Guests by hundreds, not one caring 
If the dear host’s neck were wried: 
Past we glide! 


It is the man who is here looking and talking and criti- 
cising. The woman is less curious; she is thinking only 
of love, and what she says in reply has become famous 
in English literature; we might say that this is the 
very best we have in what might be called the “literature 
of kissing.” 

The moth’s kiss, first! 

Kiss me as if you made believe 

You were not sure, this eve, 

How my face, your flower, had pursed 


[215] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Its petals up; so, here and there 
You brush it, till I grow aware 
Who wants me, and wide ope I burst. 


The bee’s kiss, now! 

Kiss me as if you entered gay 
My heart at some noonday, 

A bud that dares not disallow 
The claim, so all is rendered up, 
And passively its shattered cup 
Over your head to sleep I bow. 


Of course you know all about the relation of insects to 
flowers—how moths, beetles, butterflies, and other little 
creatures, by entering flowers in order to suck the 
honey, really act as fertilisers, carrying the pollen from 
the male flower to the female flower. It is the use of 
this fact from natural history that makes these verses 
so exquisite. The woman’s mouth is the flower ; the lips 
of the man, the visiting insect. “Moth” is the name 
which we give to night butterflies, that visit flowers in 
the dark. What the woman says is this in substance: 
‘Kiss me with my mouth shut first, ike a night moth 
coming to a flower all shut up, and not knowing where 
the opening is.” The second comparison of the bee 
suggests another interesting fact in the relation be- 
tween insects and flowers. A bee or wasp, on finding 
it difficult to enter a flower from the top, so as to get 
at the honey, will cut open the side of the flower, and 
break its way in. The woman is asking simply, “Now 
give me a rough kiss after the gentle one.” All this is 
mere play, of course, but by reason of the language 
used it rises far above the merely trifling into the zones 


[216] 


Studies in Browning 


of supreme literary art. Later on, we have another 
comparison, made by the man, which I think very beau- 
tiful. The thought, the comparison itself, is not new; 
from very ancient times it has been the custom of lovers 
to call the woman they loved an angel. I fancy this 
custom is reflected in the amatory literature of all 
countries; it exists even in Japanese poetry. But 
really it does not matter whether a comparison be new 
or old; its value depends upon the way that a poet 
utters it. Browning’s lover says: 


Lie back; could thought of mine improve you? 
From this shoulder let there spring 

A wing; from this, another wing; 
Wings, not legs and feet, shall move you! 
Snow-white must they spring, to blend 
With your flesh, but I intend 

They shall deepen to the end, 

Broader, into burning gold, 

Till both wings crescent-wise enfold 
Your perfect self, from ‘neath your feet 
To o’er your head, where, lo, they meet 
As if a million sword-blades hurled 
Defiance from you to the world! 


This is a picture painted after the manner of the Vene- 
tian school; we seem to be looking at something created 
by the brush of Titian or Tintoretto. I am not sure 
that it will seem to you as beautiful as it really is, for 
it is intended to appeal to the imagination of persons 
who have actually seen the paintings of the Italian 
masters, or at least engravings of them. Angels were 
frequently represented by those great artists as clothed 
[217] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


with their own wings, the wings, white below, gold 
above, meeting over the head like two new moons join- 
ing their shining tips. What the poet means by 
“sword-blades” are the long narrow flashing feathers 
of the angel-wings, which, joined all together, look like 
a cluster of sword-blades. But one must have seen 
the pictures of the Italian masters to appreciate the 
skill of this drawing in words. Here I may remind you 
that Dante, in his vision of Paradise, uses colours of a 
very similar sort—blinding white and dazzling gold ap- 
pear in the wings of his angels also. 

The above examples of the merely artistic power of 
Browning will suffice for the moment; great as he always 
is when he descends to earth, he is most noteworthy 
in those other directions which I have already pointed 
out, and which are chiefly psychological. I want to 
give you more examples from the poems of the psycho- 
logical kind, partly because they are of universally rec- 
ognised value in themselves, and partly because it is 
these that make the distinction between Browning and 
his great contemporaries. One of these pieces, now 
quoted through the whole English-speaking world, is 
“A Grammarian’s Funeral.” ‘This poem is intended to 
give us the enthusiasm which the students of the later 
Middle Ages felt for scholarship, the delight in learning 
which revived shortly before the Renaissance. I sup- 
pose that many of you recollect the first enthusiasm for 
Western studies in Japan; people then studied too hard, 
tried to do even more than they could do. So it was 
in Europe at the time of the revival of learning; men 
killed themselves by overstudy. In this poem Brown- 
ing makes us listen to the song sung by a company of 


[218] 


Studies in Browning 


university students burying their dead teacher; they 
are carrying him up to the top of a high mountain 
above the medieval city, there to let him sleep forever 
above the clouds and above the vulgarities of mankind. 
The philosophy in it is very noble and strong, though 
it be only the philosophy of young men. 


Let us begin and carry up this corpse, 
Singing together. 

Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes 
Each in its tether 

Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain, 
Cared-for till cock-crow: 

Look out if yonder be not day again 
Rimming the rock-row! 

That’s the appropriate country; there, man’s thought, 
Rarer, intenser, 

Self-gathered for an outbreak, as it ought, 
Chafes in the censer. 

Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop; 
Seek we sepulture 

On a tall mountain, citied to the top, 
Crowded with culture! 

All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels, 
Clouds overcome it; 

No! yonder sparkle is the citadel’s 
Circling its summit. 

Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights ; 
Wait ye the warning? 

Our low life was the level’s and the night’s; 
He’s for the morning. 

Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head, 
Ware the beholders! 

This is our master, famous, calm and dead, 
Borne on our shoulders. 


[219] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Some little description will be necessary before we can 
go further with the poem. It was dark, before day- 
break, when the students assembled for the funeral, 
and it is still rather dark when the funeral procession 
starts up the mountain. This appears from the lines, 
“Took out if yonder be not day again rimming the 
rock-row”—meaning, see if that is not daylight up there 
at the top of the mountains. It is not full day, but 
they can see, far up, the lights of the citadel. The 
poet wants to give us the feeling of a fortified city of 
the Middle Ages. You must understand that multi- 
tudes of cities, especially in France and in Germany, 
were then built upon mountain tops, so that they could 
be better fortified and defended against attack. Part 
of such a city would be of course on sloping ground. 
But the very highest place was always reserved, inside 
the city, for military purposes. Outside the city were 
walls and ditches and towers. Inside the city there was 
a smaller city or citadel, also surrounded by ditches and 
walls and towers, and occupying the highest place pos- 
sible. An enemy, after capturing the city proper, 
would still have the citadel to capture, always a very 
difficult military feat. Now you will understand bet- 
ter the suggestions of immense height in the poem. 
The students are going up above the citadel to bury 
their teacher. They say that the place is appropriate 
because the air at that height is, like intellectual 
thought, cold and pure and full of electricity, the sym- 
bol of mental energy and moral effort. You may notice 
that the students are still somewhat rough in their 
ways. It was a rough age; they do not intend to sub- 
mit to any interference on the way, nor even to any 


[220] 


Studies in Browning 


curiosity, so the ignorant “beholders” are bidden to be 
very careful. 

At this point the poem gives us the students’ account 
of their teacher’s life. They are singing a song about 
it, and you must understand that all the lines in paren- 
theses do not necessarily mean interruptions of the nar- 
rative, though some of them do. A little careful read- 
ing will make everything clear; then you will perceive 
how very fine the spirit of the whole thing is. 


Sleep, crop and herd! sleep, darkling thorpe and croft, 
Safe from the weather! 

He, whom we convoy to his grave aloft, 
Singing together, 

He was a man born with thy face and throat, 
Lyric Apollo! 

Long he lived nameless: how should Spring take note 
Winter would follow? 

Till lo! the little touch, and youth was gone! 
Cramped and diminished, 

Moaned he, “New measures, other feet anon! 
My dance is finished?” 

No, that’s the world’s way: (keep the mountain-side, 
Make for the city !) 

He knew the signal, and stepped on with pride 
Over men’s pity; 

Left play for work, and grappled with the world 
Bent on escaping: 

“What’s in the scroll,” quoth he, “thou keepest furled? 
Show me their shaping, 

Theirs who most studied man, the bard and sage,— 
Give!’,—So he gowned him, 

Straight got by heart that book to its last page: 
Learned, we found him. 


[221] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


When his first students met him, they met him as a 
youthful and a learned man; these latest students found 
him old, bald, scarcely able to see—and yet he had not 
allowed himself any rest. In spite of the fact that 
he felt death was coming, he continued to study day 
and night, he read all the books then existing, and when 
he had read them all, he said only, “Now I have got to 
the beginning of my real studies. The material is in 
my hands; now I shall use it.” Sickness or health 
made no difference to him. This life he thought of 
only as the commencement of eternity. 


He said, “What’s Time? Leave Now for dogs and apes! 
Man has Forever!” 

Back to his books then; deeper drooped his head: 
Calculus racked him: 

Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead: 
Tussis attacked him. 


In vain did his friends and pupils beg him to take a 
little rest, but he never would; he said that he must 
learn everything he could before dying. 


So, with the throttling hands of death at strife, 
Ground he at grammar; 

Still, through the rattle, parts of speech were rife: 
While he could stammer 

He settled Hoti’s business—let it be !— 
Properly based Oun— 

Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De, 
Dead from the waist down. 


“Hoti” is the Greek word “that”; ‘“Oun’” is the word 
“then,” also “now”; it has other kindred meanings. 


[222] 


Studies in Browning 


“De” has the meaning of “toward” when enclitic ; but 
there is another Greek word “de” meaning “but.” The 
reference in the poem is to the rule for distinguishing 
the Greek “de” meaning “toward” from the Greek “de” 
meaning “but.” “Calculus” is the disease commonly 
called “stone in the bladder.” ‘Tussis” is a cough. 

And now the singers have brought the body to the 
burial-place at the top of the mountain, and their song 
ends with this glorious burst: 


Well, here’s the platform, here’s the proper place: 
Hail to your purlieus, 

All ye highfliers of the feathered race, 
Swallows and curlews! 

Here’s the top-peak; the multitude below 
Live, for they can, there; 

This man decided not to Live but Know— 
Bury this man there? 

Here—here’s his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form, 
Lightnings are loosened, 

Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm, 
Peace let the dew send! 

Lofty designs must close in like effects: 
Loftily lying, 

Leave him—still loftier than the world suspects, 
Living and. dying. 


We may turn from this fine poem without further 
comment to a piece entitled “The Patriot.” There is a 
bit, and a very bitter bit, of the true philosophy of life 
in it. Nothing is so fickle, so uncertain, so treacherous 
as popularity. Thousands of men who tried to get the 
applause of the multitude, the love of the millions, and 

[223] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


thought that they had succeeded, found out at a later 
day how quickly that applause could be turned into 
roars of hate, how quickly that seeming admiration 
could be changed into scorn. This fact about the insta- 
bility of human favour is well known to every clear 
headed person who enters into what is called the social 
struggle; but it is more often illustrated in politics. 
The political aspect of the matter is the most remark- 
able, and has therefore been chosen by Browning. I do 
not know to what particular person he may be making 
reference—perhaps he was thinking of Rienzi. But in 
all periods of history the fact has been about the same. 
You will remember, no doubt, the case of Pericles in the 
history of Athens, and of many others. You may re- 
member also how the French Revolution devoured its 
own children, how the men that were one day almost 
worshipped by the people like gods, would be dragged 
to the guillotine the day after. And even in the history 
of this country I think you must remember not a few 
examples of how uncertain popular favour must always 
be. In this case the victim speaks, some man who once 
had been regarded as the saviour of the people, but 
who is now regarded as their enemy, and who is going 
to be executed as a common criminal, simply because 
he happened to be unfortunate. He remembers the 
past, and contrasts it with the cruel present: 


It was roses, roses, all the way, 
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad: 
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway, 
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had, 
A year ago on this very day. 


[224] 


Studies in Browning 


The air broke into a mist with bells, 

The old walls rocked with the crowd and cries. 
Had I said: “Good folk, mere noise repels— 

But give me your sun from yonder skies!” 
They had answered, “And afterward, what else?” 


Here I may say that in Western countries from very 
ancient times it has been the custom to cover with 
flowers the road along which some great conqueror or 
other honoured person was to come. The ancients used 
especially roses and myrtles, but even to-day it is often 
the custom to throw flowers on the ground before the 
passing of a sovereign or other great person. “Like 
mad” is an idiom used to express extreme action of any 
sort; “to laugh like mad,” would be to laugh unreason- 
ably and extravagantly. The reference to the appar- 
ent movement of the roofs of the houses pictures the 
crowding of people on the house-tops to see the hero, a 
custom still kept up. And the reference to the effect 
of the bells as making “mist,” indicates the excessive 
volume of sound; for it is said that the firing of cannon 
or the making of any other great noise will often cause 
rain to fall. The idea is that the people rang the bells 
so hard that the rain fell, and these were what we call 
“joy-bells.” 

“Tf on that day of my triumph,” he says, “T had 
asked them to give me the sun, they would have answered 
out of their hearts, Certainly—and what else?” Now 
it is very different indeed. 


Alack, it was I who leaped at the sun 
To give it my loving friends to keep! 
[225 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Nought man could do, have I left undone: 
And you see my harvest, what I reap 
This very day, now a year is run. 


There’s nobody on the house-tops now— 
Just a palsied few at the windows set; 
For the best of the sight is, all allow, 
At the Shambles’ Gate—or, better yet, 
By the very scaffold’s foot, I trow. 


I go in the rain, and, more than needs, 
A rope cuts both my wrists behind; 

And I think, by the feel, my forehead bleeds, 
For they fling, whoever has a mind, 

Stones at me for my year’s misdeeds. 


What he says is this: “I did not ask them for any- 
thing for myself; it was I who wanted to give them the 
sun, or anything else that they wished for. Every pos- 
sible sacrifice that any man could make I made for 
these people, and you see what my reward is to-day— 
just one year from the time when they honoured and 
revered me. Nobody now stands on the house tops 
to look at me; all have gone to the execution ground 
to see me die, except a few old people who cannot walk, 
and who stay at the windows to see me pass, with my 
hands tied behind my back. People are throwing stones 
at me, and I think my face is bleeding.”” The last allu- 
sion is to a very cruel custom only of late years abol- 
ished in England by better police regulations. In the 
old times, when a prisoner was being taken to the gal- 
lows, people would often strike him, or throw stones at 
him as he went by, and nobody attempted to protect 

[226] 


Studies in Browning 


him. To-day this is not done, simply because the police 
do not allow it, but the natural cruelty of a mob is per- 
haps just as great as it ever was. 


Thus I entered, and thus I go! 
In triumphs, people have dropped down dead. 
“Paid by the world, what dost thou owe 
Me?”—God might question; now instead, 
’Tis God shall repay: I am safer so. 


These are the man’s last thoughts. “I came into 
this city a hero, as I told you; now I am going out of 
it, to be executed like a vulgar criminal. How much 
better would it have been if I had died on the day when 
all the people were honouring me! I have heard that 
men have fallen dead from joy in the middle of such 
a triumph as I thenhad. But would it have been better 
if I had died happy like that? Perhaps it would not. 
God is said to demand a strict account in the next 
world from any human being who has been too happy 
in this. If I had died that day, God might have said 
to me, You have had your reward from the world; have 
you paid to me what you owed in love and duty? But 
now the world kills me; it is from God only that I can 
hope for justice. He is terrible, but I can trust him 
better than this people; I am safer with him!” 

I am not sure what Browning refers to in speaking 
of those who have been known to drop dead in the mid- 
dle of a triumph. But perhaps he is referring to the 
story of the Sicilian, Diagoras, which is one of the most 
beautiful of all Greek stories, and is fortunately quite 
true. Diagoras had been the greatest wrestler among 
the Greeks, the greatest athlete of his time, and was 


[227] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 
loved and honoured by all men of Greek blood. He 


had seven sons. When he was a very old man these 
seven sons went to contend at the great Olympic games 
(if I remember correctly). There were but seven 
prizes for all the feats of strength and skill; and these 
seven prizes were all won by the seven sons of Diagoras 
—that is to say, they had proved themselves the best 
men of the whole world at that time, even the boy son 
winning the prize given only to boys. Then the people 
demanded to know the name of the father of those 
young men, and the sons lifted him upon their shoulders 
to show him to all the people. The people shouted so 
that birds flying above them, fell down; and the old man 
in the same moment died of joy, as he was thus sup- 
ported upon the shoulders of his sons. The Greeks 
said that this was the happiest death that any man 
ever died. Perhaps Browning was referring to this 
story; but I am not sure. 

Kings have sometimes been accused of ingratitude, 
but on the whole, kings have shown more gratitude than 
mobs; a sovereign is apt to remember that it is good 
policy to repay loyalty and to encourage affection. 
Browning gives us a few magnificent specimens of loyal 
feeling toward sovereigns, feeling which it is pleasant to 
know was not repaid with ingratitude. I am referring 
to his “Cavalier Tunes,” little songs into which he has 
managed to put all the fiery love and devotion of the 
English gentlemen who fought for the king against 
Cromwell and his Puritans, and who fought, luckily 
for England, in vain at that time. Right or wrong 
as we may think their cause, it is impossible not to ad- 
mire the feeling here expressed. I shall quote the sec- 


[228] 


Studies in Browning 


ond song first. You must imagine that all these gentle- 
men are drinking the health of the king, with songs and 
cheers, even at the time when the king’s cause seems 


hopeless. 
GIVE A ROUSE! 


King Charles, and who'll do him right now? 
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now? 
Give a rouse: here’s, in hell’s despite now, 
King Charles! 
(Single voice) 
Who gave me the goods that went since? 
Who raised me the house that sank once? 
Who helped me to gold I spent since? 
Who found me in wine you drank once? 
(Chorus, answering) 
King Charles, and who'll do him right now? 
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now? 
Give a rouse: here’s, in hell’s despite now, 
King Charles! 
(Single voice) 
To whom used my boy George quaff else, 
By the old fool’s side that begot him? 
For whom did he cheer and laugh else, 
While Noll’s damned troopers shot him? 
(Chorus, answering) 
King Charles, and who'll do him right now? 
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now? 
Give a rouse: here’s, in hell’s despite now, 
King Charles! 


The father is reminding his friends of the brave death 
of his own son, who died shouting for the king and 
laughing at his executioners. I do not think that there 

[229] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


is a more spirited song in English literature than this. 
Perhaps you may observe that the measure in the third 
stanza does not run smoothly like the measure of the 
other stanzas; it hesitates a little. But this is a great 
stroke of art, for it indicates the suppressed emotion 
of the father speaking of his dead son. ‘The other song, 
the first of the three given by Browning, represents the 
feeling of an earlier time in the civil war, probably the 
time when the aristocracy and gentry first gathered 
together to defend the king. There is a splendid swing 
init. Both songs are a little rough, because the spirit 
of the age was rough; the finest gentleman used to 
swear in those days, and to use words which we now 
consider rather violent. I may remark, however, that 
even to-day in the upper ranks of the English army 
and navy, something of the same scorn of conventions 
still remains; generals and admirals will swear occa- 
sionally in battle, just as these gentlemen of an older 
school swore as they advanced against the Puritan 
armies. 


MARCHING ALONG 


Kentish Sir Byng stood for his King, 

Bidding the crop-headed Parliament swing: 

And, pressing a troop unable to stoop 

And see the rogues flourish and honest folk droop, 
Marched them along, fifty-score strong, 
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song. 


God for King Charles! Pym and such carles 
To the Devil that prompts ’em their treasonous parles! 


[230] 


Studies in Browning 


Cavaliers, up! Lips from the cup, 
Hands from the pasty, nor bite take nor sup 
Till you’re— 
(Chorus) Marching along, fifty-score strong, 
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song. 


Hampden to hell, and his obsequies’ knell 
Serve Hazelrig, Fiennes, and young Harry as well! 
England, good cheer! Rupert is near! 
Kentish and loyalists, keep we not here, 
(Chorus) Marching along, fifty-score strong, 
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song. 


Then, God for King Charles! Pym and his snarls 
To the Devil that pricks on such pestilent carles! 
Hold by the right, you double your might; 
So, onward to Nottingham, fresh for the fight, 
(Chorus) March we along, fifty-score strong, 
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song. 


The names in this poem are all of them great names 
of the Civil War. Hampden, you know, was Parlia- 
mentary leader in the movement against the king. He 
was killed in battle, and his place as leader was taken 
by Pym. The other names are of members of the Long 
Parliament—except Rupert. Rupert, or Prince Ru- 
pert, as he is more generally known, was the leader of 
the Royal cavalry, one of the most brilliant cavalry 
leaders of history. He was never beaten seriously until 
he met Cromwell’s Puritan cavalry. A reference may 
be necessary in regard to Nottingham. There was no 
fight exactly at Nottingham; but it was at Nottingham 
that the cavalry gathered round the king’s standard 
[231 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


before the battle of Edgehill, near Banbury, a drawn 
battle, not decided either way. 

So much for the references. As for the song itself, 
something remains to be said. I think that the two 
songs are about the most spirited in English literature. 
They are so for many reasons, especially because of the 
fiery emotion which the poet has flung into them, and 
because of their absolute truth to the feeling of the 
seventeenth century, both as to form and as to tone, 
But I wonder whether any of you have noticed what it is 
that gives such uncommon force to the verses. ‘To a 
great degree, it is the use of triple rhymes. In both 
songs the rhymes are triple, while the measure is short, 
and the result is something of that rough strength which 
characterises the old Northern poetry. For instance: 


Hold by the right, you double your might, 
So onward to Nottingham, fresh for the fight. 


King Charles, and who'll do him right now? 
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now? 
Give a rouse: here’s, in hell’s despite now, 


King Charles! 


‘ 


You see that very great effects may be produced by very 
simple means. In “Marching Along,” the “swing” or 
“lilt” is partly due to the fact that the three rhymes 
follow each other not in regular but in irregular suc- 
cession, a rhymeless measure alternating between the 
second and the third rhymes, as will be plainly seen if 
we write the verses in another form: 


[232] 


Studies in Browning 


Kentish Sir Byng 

Stood for his king, 
Bidding the crop-headed 
Parliament swing. 


But I want to explain the spirit rather than the work- 
manship of Browning; and I have turned aside here to 
the subject of measure only because the instances hap- 
pened to be very extraordinary. The beauty of the 
work is really in the glow and strength of the loyal feel- 
ing that peals through it. 

Do not suppose, however, that the poet picks out by 
preference the noble or the attractive side of human 
feeling in any form of society, for his subject. Quite 
the contrary. Most often he paints the ugly side, even 
in speaking of kings and courts, nobles and princes. 
In the splendid poem “Count Gismond,” which I dic- 
tated last year, you may have seen one very beautiful 
side of knightly character, but there were horrible 
phases of human nature exhibited in the story. Brown- 
ing made the shadows very heavy, with the result that 
the lights appeared more dazzling Sometimes we have 
no lights—all is shadow, and sometimes a shadow of 
hell. Such is the case in the horrible poem called ‘The 
Laboratory,” depicting the feelings of a jealous court- 
lady, as she stands in the laboratory of a chemist who 
is selling her a poison with which she intends to poison 
her rival in the favour of the king. The story is laid 
in the time of Louis XIV, probably, when such things 
did actually occur in France. A still blacker shadow, 
a still more infernal picture of humanity’s dark side, 
is “The Heretic’s Tragedy,” portraying the wicked 

[ 233 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


feelings of a superstitious person while watching a here- 
tic being burned alive. Another frightful thing is 
“The Confessional,” a story of the Inquisition in Spain, 
showing how the inquisitors succeeded in seizing, con- 
victing, and burning alive a young man, by taking ad- 
vantage of the innocence of his sweetheart, who was 
made to betray him through confession without know- 
ing it. Another piece that is ugly psychologically, is 
“Cristina and Monaldeschi.” 
Sweden, and one of the most learned women of her time, 


Cristina was a queen of 


but very masculine; she liked to wear men’s clothes and 
to follow the amusements of men. She abdicated her 
throne, merely in order to feel more free in her habits. 
It is believed that she secretly loved her private secre- 
tary, and that he was dishonourable enough to tell other 
people of his relation to her. At all events, one day 
she ordered him to come into her room, and after up- 
braiding him with treachery to her, she had him killed 
in her presence. The fact shocked Europe a great deal 
at the time. Browning tries to make us understand 
Cristina’s feeling, and he forces us to sympathise a lit- 
tle with her anger. There are multitudes of poems of 
this class in Browning. He wants us to know all the 
strange possibilities of the human soul, bad or good, 
and he never hesitates because a subject may be shock- 
ing to weak nerves. It is just because he does not care 
about public feeling, ignorant public opinion, upon 
these matters, that he manages to give us such exact 
truth; he is not afraid. For a little bit of truth thus 
exemplified—this is not ugly—let us take a little piece 
entitled “Which?” Here is another picture of the 
manners of the old French court, a very corrupt court 


[234] 


Studies in Browning 


and very luxurious. You must read Taine’s “Ancien 
Régime” to understand what its morals were. But let 
us turn to the little picture. Three great ladies are 
talking with a priest about love—a fashionable priest, 
a priest of the old age, ready to make love or to say 
mass just according as it suited his private interest. 
A very good priest could scarcely have existed in the 
court; one had to be very clever and very subtle to live 
there. The conversation of these four persons gives 
us a hint of the feeling of the age. Only one woman 
really seems to say what she thinks; and she says what 
she thinks only because she is the most clever of the 
three. 


So, the three Court-ladies began 
Their trial of who judged best 
In esteeming the love of a man: 
Who preferred with most reason was thereby confessed 
Boy-Cupid’s exemplary catcher and cager; 
An Abbé crossed legs to decide on the wager. 


First the Duchesse: ‘Mine for me— 
Who were it but God’s for Him, 
And the King’s for—who but he? 
Both faithful and loyal, one grace more shall brim 
His cup with perfection: a lady’s true lover, 
He holds—save his God and his king—none above her.” 


“I require’—outspoke the Marquise— 
“Pure thoughts, ay, but also fine deeds: 
Play the paladin must he, to please 
My whim, and—to prove my knight’s service exceeds 
Your saint’s and your loyalist’s praying and kneeling— 
Show wounds, each wide mouth to my mercy appealing.” 


[235] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Then the Comtesse: “My choice be a wretch, 
Mere losel in body and soul, 
Thrice accurst! What care I, so he stretch 
Arms to me his sole saviour, love’s ultimate goal, 
Out of earth and men’s noise—names of ‘infidel,’ ‘traitor,’ 
Cast up at him? Crown me, crown’s adjudicator!” 


And the Abbé uncrossed his legs, 
Took snuff, a reflective pinch, 
Broke silence: “The question begs 
Much pondering ere I pronounce. Shall I flinch? 
The love which to one and one only has reference 
Seems terribly like what perhaps gains God’s preference.” 


The answer of the priest, giving the victory to the 
Comtesse, is clever and double-edged. He probably 
knows everything that goes on in the court: he knows 
how many lovers the Duchesse has had, and the Mar- 
quise. He knows that their talk about religion and 
loyalty as the perfections of man, are not quite 
sincere. Indeed, the Marquise is much more sincere 
than the Duchesse; but if she were altogether sincere, 
she would have recognised that her wish—her ex- 
pressed wish, at least—must appear as pure pride, 
not anything else. But the Comtesse tells a bitter 
truth by pointing out that if it is a question of real 
love, the place and station of the man can signify 
nothing at all; love should be a thing of. the heart, 
not a thing of rank and fashion. And the priest, 
in supporting her claim and in saying that a true 
love can have reference only to one person, really 
suggests to his audience, whose love relations have 
doubtless been very numerous, what he thinks to be the 


[236] 


Studies in Browning 


opinion of God on the subject. But “perhaps,” as the 
priest utters the word, is terrible irony. ‘Perhaps 
gains God’s preference,” means “I know, of course, 
that in the society to which we belong, love only for 
one’s husband is not considered fashionable; yet the 
opinions of God may not be the same as the opinions 
of our society. It would not be polite of me to say 
directly that your opinions and God’s opinions are 
different, but I just hint it.” It was a very queer age. 
Taine, in his history of the time, tells a story about 
a nobleman who, on entering his wife’s room suddenly 
and finding her making love to another man, took off 
his hat and saluted her, saying, “Oh, my dear, how 
can you be so careless! Suppose it had not been your 
husband who opened the door!’ You must understand 
all this, to understand the mockery of the poem. Then, 
again, you must understand the desire of the Comtesse 
even for the love of a “wretch,” a mere losel, as mean- 
ing that here is a woman who deserves to be loved, but 
is not loved by her husband, and who has learned that 
real love has a value in this world beyond all value of 
rank or money or influence. 

If you ask me why I have talked so much about so 
short a poem, the answer is that nearly all of Brown- 
ing’s short poems mean a great deal, and force us to 
think and to talk about them. The reason is that the 
characters in these poems are really alive; they impress 
us exactly as living persons do, and excite our curiosity 
in precisely the same way. Accordingly, notwithstand- 
ing their many faults of construction and obscure Eng- 
lish, they have something of the greatness of Shake- 
speare’s dramas. 


[237] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


It is now time to turn to the study of the greatest of 
all Browning’s poems. Perhaps I should not call it a 
poem. It is rather an immense poetic drama. As 
printed in this single volume it represents four hundred 
and seventy-seven pages of closely printed small text. 
It is, therefore, even considered as a dramatic composi- 
tion, many times larger than any true drama. But no 
true drama, except Shakespeare’s, is more real or more 
terrible. Besides, it is a purely psychological drama. 
There is no scenery, no narrative in the ordinary sense. 
Everything is related in the first person. The whole is 
divided into twelve parts, each of which is a monologue. 
Nearly all of the monologues are spoken by different 
persons. The first monologue is the author’s own, 
in which he tells us the meaning of the title and the 
story of the drama. 

It is a true story of Italian life in the seventeenth 
century, the chief incident having really occurred in the 
year 1698. The poet one day found in an old Italian 
book shop a little book for sale, which was the history 
of a celebrated criminal trial. Besides the book, which 
included the speeches of the lawyers on both sides, and 
the evidence given before the court, there was a good 
deal of old manuscript—papers probably prepared by 
some lawyer of the time in connection with the case. 
Browning was able to buy the whole thing for eight 
pence; that small sum furnished him with material for 
the most enormous poem in the English language. 
When he read the facts of the trial, he said he could 
actually see all the characters as plainly as if they 
were alive, and could even hear them speak. He soon 
formed in his mind the plan for his poem; but it was a 


[238] 


Studies in Browning 


peculiar plan. The plan is indicated by the title of 
“The Ring and the Book.” In Italy there is a great 
deal of beautiful light gold work made—for rings espe- 
cially, which looks so delicate that at first sight you 
cannot understand how it was made. In a gold ring 
there are leaves and flowers and fruits and insects, so 
lightly made that even if you let the ring fall they would 
be injured and destroyed. Gold is very soft. In order 
to cut the gold in this way, the goldsmith uses a hard 
composition with which he covers the gold work, and 
after the carving and engraving have been done, this 
composition is melted off, so that only the pure gold is 
left, with all the work upon it. Browning says that he 
made his book somewhat in the same way that the 
Italian goldsmith makes his ring—by the use of an 
alloy. The facts of history and of law represent the 
gold in this case, and the poet mixes them with an alloy 
of imagination, emotion, sympathy, which helps him 
to make the whole story into a perfectly rounded 
drama, a complete circle, a Ring. This is the meaning 
‘of the title. 

I shall first tell you the story briefly, according to the 
historical facts. About the year 1679 there was a fam- 
ily in Rome of the name of Comparini. The family 
consisted only of husband and wife; but it happened 
that the fact of their being without children proved a 
legal obstacle in the way of obtaining some money which 
they greatly desired. The wife, Violante, knew that her 
husband was too honest to wish to cheat the law, so she 
determined to try to get the money without letting him 
know her deceit in the matter. She pretended to have 
given birth, unexpectedly, to a child, but the child had 

[239 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


really been bought from a woman of loose life—it was 
a very pretty female child, and was called Francesca 
Pompilia. Little Pompilia was supposed to be the real 
child of the Comparini; and the much desired money 
thus passed into their hands. This is the first act of 
the tragedy. 

Pompilia grew up into a wonderfully beautiful girl; 
and when she was thirteen years old, many people wished 
to marry her. Guido Franceschini, Count of Arezzo, 
noticed the girl’s beauty, and heard that she was rich. 
He determined to marry her if possible, chiefly for the 
sake of her money. He was a wicked old man, between 
fifty and sixty years of age, ugly, cunning, and poor. 
But he had immense influence, both among the nobility 
and among the church dignitaries, on account of his 
family relations ; and he was himself of high rank. The 
marriage was negotiated successfully. Pompilia, a 
child of thirteen, could not naturally have wished to 
marry this horrible old man, but she had been taught 
to obey her parents as she obeyed Almighty God, and 
when she was told to marry him she married him with- 
out one word of complaint. By this marriage the 
wicked Count got into his hands all the property of the 
Comparini family, but it had been promised that the 
parents of the girl were to live in the palace of the 
Count, and to be taken care of for the rest of their 
lives. Nevertheless, as soon as the Count had every- 
thing in his hands, he turned the old parents out of his 
house, in a state of absolute destitution; he had taken 
from them their daughter and all their money, every- 
thing that they had in the world. This is the second 
act of the tragedy. 


[240] 


Studies in Browning 


Naturally the Comparini family were very angry. 
The mother of the girl was so angry that she told her 
husband all about the trick which she had played in 
passing off Pompilia for her own child. Pompilia, you 
know, was not her real child at all. This changed the 
legal aspect of the matter. Old Comparini went to the 
Count and said, “You took our money, and thought that 
you were taking our daughter. But you must give 
back that money. The girl is not our daughter; the 
money does not belong to her: it will have to be given 
back to the government that we deceived.” This is the 
third act of the tragedy. 

The Count was equal to the occasion. He under- 
stood the law; but he understood it much better than 
the Comparini people. So long as he kept Pompilia as 
his wife, he knew that he could keep the money. If he 
divorced her, on the ground that she was of vulgar 
origin, then he would have to give up the money. But 
this was not the only alternative. There was a third 
possibility. If Pompilia committed adultery, then he 
could either kill her or get rid of her and keep the 
money notwithstanding. Pompilia was a weak child 
only thirteen years old. He was a wicked and terrible 
man, with half a century of experience, diabolical cun- 
ning, diabolical cruelty, and ferocious determination. 
He would make her commit adultery. That would be 
the simplest possible solution of the difficulty. But, 
strange to say, this terrible man could not conquer 
that delicate child of thirteen. First he tried to ap- 
peal to her passions, to excite her imagination in an 
immoral way. But her heart was too pure to be cor- 
rupted. There was in her no spur of lust. She was a 


[241] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


simple good pure wife, too pure for any wicked ideas 
to be planted in her mind. Then he tried force, atro- 
cious cruelty, horrible menace, always without letting 
her know what he really intended. What he really 
intended was to force her to run away from him. She 
could not run away except in the company of a pro- 
tector. If she ran away with a protector, then he 
could kill both her and the man and claim that he had 
detected the two in adultery. After having tortured 
the girl hideously, in every moral and immoral way, 
he did succeed in getting her to ask for protection. 
She first asked protection from priests and bishops. 
The priests and bishops were afraid of the Count, and 
told her, like the cowards that they were, that they 
could not help her. She wanted to become a nun. The 
nuns were afraid of the Count, and refused her prayer. 
At last she did find one priest, a brave man, who 
was willing to save her if possible. He said, “You must 
run away with me, though it will look very bad; there 
is no other way to help you.” She ran away with him. 
Within twenty-four hours the pair were overtaken by 
the Count and his company of armed men. The oppor- 
tunity to kill Pompilia and her “lover” had come; but 
the so-called “lover,” although only an honest poor 
priest, showed fight, and protected Pompilia against 
the Count and all his followers. The priest refused to 
surrender Pompilia except to the Church. The Church 
arrested both. Pompilia was put into a convent for 
safe keeping. The priest was tried for adultery, and 
acquitted. But he had done wrong by breaking the 
law of the Church even for a good purpose; therefore 
he was sentenced to banishment for a certain num- 


[242] 


Studies in Browning 


ber of years. This is the fourth act of the tragedy. 

The Count finds that all his plans have failed. He 
has not been able to convict his wife of adultery, al- 
though he has been able to injure her reputation in 
the opinion of the public. He cannot get rid of her, 
and keep her money too, except by killing her. But 
she is in the convent. While he is thinking what to 
do, another event happens which upsets all his calcu- 
lations. Pompilia gives birth to a child of which he 
certainly is the father. The money question, the legal 
aspect of it, is still more complicated by the birth of 
the child. At once the Count determines to kill Pom- 
pilia and her parents, out of revenge. He knows that 
on certain days she goes to visit her parents. He 
watches for such an occasion, and with the help of some 
professional murderers, he kills the Comparini, and 
stabs Pompilia twenty-two times with a dagger. He 
imagined that this could be done so as to remain un- . 
discovered; he thought that the crime could not be 
proved upon him. But poor Pompilia is very hard to 
kill. Although her slender body was thus stabbed 
through and through by a powerful man, she did not 
die at once; her wonderful youth kept her alive long 
enough to tell the police what had happened. The 
Count and his hired murderers were arrested and 
thrown into prison. This is the fifth act of the tragedy. 

It is one thing to find the author of a crime, and 
put him into prison; it is a very different thing to 
convict and punish him. The Count was very power- 
ful with the army, with the nobility, with the Church; 
everybody in his native city was more afraid of him 
than of the devil. Nothing is so hard to get in this 

[243 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


world as justice. The Count’s powerful friends and 
relations all united to defend him. Dukes and great 
captains, cardinals and bishops and abbots and priests, 
rich merchants, influential statesmen, all combined to 
secure his acquittal. They obtained the services of 
great lawyers. They used money and threats to cor- 
rupt witnesses or to terrify them. Yet there was one 
thing necessary to secure his acquittal—evidence that 
the deed, which he cannot deny, was justified by adul- 
tery. An attempt was made to blacken the character 
of the murdered wife. But this evidence was overthrown 
in the court, and the judges pronounced sentence of 
death. Thereupon all the Count’s friends made an 
appeal to the Pope; the Pope can save the Count, if 
pressure be brought of a sufficient sort upon his judg- 
ment. But the Pope happened to be a good man, and 
a keen man. He examines the evidence. He sees the 
truth. He understands the innocence and beauty of the 
character of the murdered Pompilia; he comprehends 
also the innocence and the courage of the priest who 
tried to defend her. He sends word to the prison that 
the Count must be executed immediately. So justice 
is obtained, at least so far as the punishment of murder 
can be called justice. But what becomes of the money? 
The nuns of the convent in which Pompilia died, they 
get the money by very discreditable means, and they 
keep it. The terrible Franceschini family cannot try 
to get that money from the convent; for the convent 
means the power of the Church; and the power of the 
Church is even more terrible than the power of the 
Franceschini. Of course the Pope knows nothing of 
this matter; the Pope is the finest character in the 
[244] 


Studies in Browning 


whole story. Historically this Pope was Innocent XII, 
but his character, as drawn in the study of Browning, 
is much more hke the character of one of his prede- 
cessors, Innocent XI. 

Now I have told you the story, or rather the history 
of the real tragedy, which happened something more 
than two hundred years ago. You can imagine how 
complicated the whole thing is, from the very short 
summary which I have made. Now if you had to treat 
a story like this dramatically, how would you do it? 
where would you begin? in what way could you hope 
to make artistic order out of such confusion? The 
task might have puzzled even Shakespeare. It puzzled 
Browning for more than a year before he felt how the 
thing was possible to manage. When I tell you the 
way in which he treated the whole material of the case, 
I think you will perceive that only a genius could have 
thought of the way. 

As I have said, Browning divides his poem into twelve 
parts; and each part is a monologue. I shall now give 
you in paragraphs as brief as possible, the subject of 
each monologue. You had better follow the order of 
the book, using Roman numerals at the beginning of 
each paragraph, and putting the title of the book in 
Italic letters: 

I. The Ring and the Book. Interpretation of the 
title, and history of the crime and the trial as told in 
the ancient legal documents. This monologue repre- 
sents the author’s speaking only. 

Il. Half-Rome. Public opinion is always divided 
upon any extraordinary event. Browning here tries to 
give us one side of public opinion in the year 1698, upon 


[245] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


the Franceschini murder. The monologue represents 
the ideas of a man of the society of that time. 

Ill. The Other Half-Rome. This monologue repre- 
sents the contrary opinion on the subject. But it is a 
curious fact that neither form of public opinion even 
approaches the truth. Both sides are absolutely mis- 
taken, and very unjust to poor Pompilia. 

IV. Tertiwm Quid (i.e., “a third somebody” or 
“party”). This opinion is quite different from that of 
the two halves of Rome, but it is equally far from the 
truth. 

V. Count Guido Franceschini. Notice that although 
the three forms of opinion previously expressed all con- 
tradict each other, and all are untrue, nevertheless every 
one of them seems true while you read it. So does the 
story of Count Guido Franceschini, the murderer, in his 
own defence. Although you have been prejudiced 
against him from the beginning, when you first read 
his side of the story you cannot help thinking that it 
is a very reasonable and very true story. He says in 
substance that he made a great mistake in marrying 
so young a girl, that she disliked him, that he did every- 
thing in his power to obtain her affection and to make 
her happy, that she ran away from his house with a 
monk, that even after that he was willing to make every 
allowance for her, but that at last it was impossible 
tor him, without losing all self-respect, not to punish 
her crimes, and those of her infamous parents. He 
makes an excellent speech, this Count Guido Frances- 
chini. 

VI. Giuseppe Caponsacchi. This is the good priest, 
the true loyal man that tried to save Pompilia. He 

[246 ] 


Studies in Browning 


tells his story with perfect truthfulness and simplicity, 
and you know that it is true. But at the same time you 
feel that no one can believe it. The evidence is against 
the priest. Although he is innocent, everybody laughs 
at his protestations of innocence. 

VIL. Pompilia. This is the most horrible part of 
the book. It is a monologue by Pompilia telling of the 
cruelty and the atrocious wickedness of her husband. 
It makes your blood run cold to read it, but you know 
that nobody would believe that story in a court of jus- 
tice. It is too terrible, too unnatural. Those who hear 
it only think that Pompilia is a very cunning wicked 
woman, trying to make people hate her husband, in 
order to excuse her own adultery. 

VUL. Dominus Hyocinthus de Archangelis, Pau- 
perum Procurator. The speech of the lawyer for the 
defence, very cautious, very learned, very cunning. It 
was in those days the custom to argue such cases partly 
in Latin, and the papers were made out in Latin. 
“Dominus,” “lord,” was the Latin title of lawyer. 
“Pauperum Procurator” means the advocate or counsel 
of the poor; persons without money enough to procure 
legal services in the ordinary way, might be furnished 
with a lawyer employed by the state. 

IX. Juris Doctor Johannes-Battista, Bottinius, &c. 
The speech of the lawyer on the other side, equally 
learned, equally cunning, and equally cautious. The 
reader is forced to the conclusion that neither of these 
lawyers really understands the truth of the case. Both 
are telling untruth, and both are afraid of the truth. 
But you will notice that the lawyer who should speak 
in favour of Pompilia really does her more harm than 


[247] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


the lawyer whose duty it is to speak against her. This 
is the result of cowardice and self-interest on both sides. 

X. The Pope. A beautiful study of character. For 
the first time we learn the truth in this tenth monologue, 
so that we feel it is all there, and not to be mistaken by 
any one who hears it. 

XI. Guido. Horrible. The murderer’s confession 
of his own character. 

XII. The Book and the Ring. Conclusion, and 
moral commentary. 

I believe there is only part of this whole drama that 
has been seriously called into question by critics—the 
last line of the eleventh monologue, where Guido cries 
out, “Pompilia, will you let them murder me?” The 
question is whether the poet is right in representing 
this terrible man in such a passion of fear that he 
calls to his dead wife to help him. Certainly it is a 
general rule that the man capable of studied cruelty to 
women and children 


to the weak, in short—is a cow- 
ard at heart. But there are exceptions to this rule, 
and a great many remarkable Italian exceptions. 
Again many tribes of savages contradict the rule, being 
at once brave and cruel. I think that the criticism 
in this case may have been largely inspired by the his- 
tory of certain Italian families, who were cruel indeed, 
but ferociously brave as well. However, Browning 
studied the facts for his characters very closely, and 
he may be right in representing Guido as a coward. 
He has been proved to be both treacherous and avari- 
cious by the evidence in the case, and although pru- 
dence may sometimes be mistaken for cowardice, there 
were some facts brought out by witnesses that seem 


[248] 


Studies in Browning 


to show the man to have been as much of a coward as 
he was a miser. 

Now observe the immense psychological work that 
this treatment of the story involves—the study of nine 
or ten completely different characters, no one of whom 
could resemble a character of the nineteenth century, 
not at least in the matter of thought and speech. To 
create these was almost as wonderful as to call the dead 
of two hundred years ago out of their graves, a verl- 
table necromancy. This work alone would make the 
book a marvellous thing. But the book is more than 
marvellous; it is in the highest degree philosophically 
instructive. Almost anything that happens in this 
world is judged somewhat after the fashion of the 
judgments delivered in “The Ring and the Book.” For 
example, let us suppose an episode in Tokyo to-day, 
rather than an episode in Italy two hundred years ago, 
a case of killing. At first when the mere fact of the 
killing is known, there is a great curiosity as to the 
reason of it, and different newspapers publish different 
stories about it, and different people who knew both 
parties express different opinions as to the why and 
how. You may be sure that none of these accounts 
is perfectly true—they could not be true, because those 
from whom the accounts come have no perfect knowl- 
edge of the antecedents of the crime. But presently 
the case comes before the criminal court, with lawyers 
on both sides, to prosecute and to defend. Each does 
his duty the very best he can, one trying to convict, one 
trying to secure acquittal. But do these know the real 
story from beginning to end? Probably not. It is very 
seldom indeed that a lawyer can learn the inside, the 


[249] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


psychological, history of a crime. He learns only the 
naked facts, and he must theorise largely from these 
facts. Finally the judge pronounces judgment. Does 
the judge know all about the matter? Almost certainly 
not. His duty is fixed by law in rigid lines, and he 
cannot depart from those lines; he can sentence only 
according to the broad conclusions which he draws from 
the facts. And after the whole thing is over, still the 
real secrets of the two parties, of the criminal and the 
victim, remain forever unknown in a majority of cases. 
Now what does this prove? It proves that human 
judgment is necessarily very imperfect, and that noth- 
ing is so difficult to learn as the absolute truth of 
motives and of feelings, even when the truth of the 
facts is unquestionable. Browning’s book tells us more 
than this; it shows us that in some cases, where power 
and crime are on one side, and poverty and virtue upon 
the other, the chances against truth being able to make 
itself heard are just about a thousand to one. Of 
course the world is a little better to-day than two 
hundred years ago; murder is less common, justice is 
less corrupt. But allowing for these things, the chances 
of a man persecuted by a rich corporation, without 
reason, perhaps with monstrous cruelty, to obtain even 
a hearing, would be scarcely better than those of Pom- 
pilia in the story of ‘The Ring and the Book.” 

So much for the teaching. There is more than teach- 
ing, however; there are studies of character truly 
Shakespearian, Pompilia is quite as sweet a woman as 
Shakespeare’s Cordelia. Her sweetness is altogether 
shown by a multitude of details, little words and 
thoughts and feelings, that we find scattered through 

[250] 


Studies in Browning 


her account of her terrible sufferings. The author 
never interrupts his speakers; he makes them describe 
themselves. In the case of the Pope, we are brought into 
the presence of a very superior intellect—one-sided, 
perhaps, but immensely strong in the direction of moral 
judgment ; the mind of an old man whose entire life has 
been spent in the finest study of human nature from 
_an ethical point of view, of human nature in its mani- 
festations of good and evil. Nothing but this long ex- 
perience helps him to see exactly how matters stand. 
The evidence brought before him is hopelessly confused, 
and where not confused, the facts are against Pompilia 
and strongly in favour of the murderer. Moreover, the 
murderer is powerful in the Church, with all the influence 
of clergy and nobility upon his side. But the old man 
can see through the entire plot; he cuts it open, gets 
to the heart of it, perceives everything that was hidden. 
What is the lesson of his character? I think it is this, 
that a pure nature obtains, simply by reason of its 
unselfishness and purity, certain classes of perceptions 
that very cunning minds never can obtain. Very cun- 
ning people are peculiarly apt to make false judgments, 
because they are particularly in the habit of looking 
for selfish motives. They judge other hearts by their 
own. A pure nature does not do this; it considers the 
motive in the last rather than the first place, preferring 
to judge kindly so long as the evidence allows it. In- 
tellectual training cannot always compensate for purity 
of character. 

The studies of Guido himself, which are very hor- 
rible, are especially studies of the man of the Renais- 
sance. We have had other studies of this kind in other 

[251] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


poems of Browning, some of which I have already 
quoted to you. But there is a special moral in this 
study of Guido, the moral that a really wicked man 
must hate a really good woman, simply for the reason 
that she is good. Then we have in the two lawyers 
two pictures of conflicting selfish interests, of selfish- 
ness and falsehood combined to defeat the truth, not 
because truth is necessarily unpleasant to the lawyer, 
but because he wants to make no enemies by exposing 
it. This is the way of the world to-day, and although 
these men speak the language of the sixteenth or sev- 
enteenth century, their feelings are those of the shrewd 
and selfish modern man of society, the man who has no 
courage in the face of wrong, if his pocket happens to 
be in danger. We lke only three characters in the 
whole drama—Pompilia, the Pope, and Caponsacchi. 
Yet there is nothing very remarkable about Capon- 
sacchi, except in the way of contrast. He is the one 
character who, although his life and interests and repu- 
tation are at stake, boldly risks everything simply for 
a generous impulse. Happily he is not extraordinary ; 
if he were, one would lose faith in so terrible a world. 
Happily we know that wherever and whenever a great 
wrong is done, there will always be a Caponsacchi to 
speak out and to do all that is possible against it. But 
Caponsacchi is crushed; and even the Pope is obliged 
to punish him for doing what is noble. This is one of 
the moral problems of the composition. The man who 
wants to do right, and cannot do right except by dis- 
obedience to law, may be loved for doing right, but he 
must be punished nevertheless for breaking the law. 
Does this mean that he is punished for doing right? I 
[ 252 | 


Studies in Browning 


think we should not look at it in that way. The truth 
is that the observance of discipline must be insisted 
upon even in exceptional cases, because it regards the 
happiness of millions. We cannot allow men to decide 
for themselves when discipline should be broken. 
Caponsacchi is thus a martyr in the cause of individual 
justice. He has to pay, justly, the penalty of setting 
a dangerous example to thousands of others. But he 
is not on that account less estimable and lovable, and 
even the Pope, in punishing him, gives him words of 
warm praise. 

The consideration of this huge poem ought also to 
tempt some of you at a later day to try some applica- 
tion of its method to some incident of real life. I do 
not now mean in poetry, but in prose. If you know 
enough about human nature to make the attempt, there 
is no better way of telling a story. It was a pure in- 
vention on the part of Browning, and we may call it 
a new method. But of course one must have a very 
great power of reading character to be able to do any- 
thing of the same kind. 

This is the most colossal attempt in psychology made 
by Browning, but a large number of his longer poems 
are worked out in precisely the same manner as single 
monologues. “The Bishop Orders his Tomb,” another 
Italian study, gives us all the ugly side of the Renais- 
sance character—its selfishness, lust, hypocrisy, and 
ambition, together with that extraordinary sense of art 
which gave a certain greatness even to very bad men. 
“Bishop Blougram’s Apology” (which is said to be a 
satire upon a famous English Cardinal) is quite mod- 
ern, but it is almost equally ugly. It shows us a very 


[253] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


powerful mind arguing, with irresistible logic and merci- 
less cleverness, in an absolutely unworthy cause. The 
bishop has heard a young free thinker observe that the 
bishop could not believe the doctrines of the church, 
he was too clever a bishop for that. So he calls the 
young man to him, and utterly crushes him by a very 
clever lecture, in which he proves that belief or un- 
belief are equally foolish, that right and wrong are 
interchangeable, that black may be white or white black, 
that common sense and a knowledge of the world repre- 
sent the highest wisdom, and that the free thinker is 
an absolute fool because he tells the world that he is a 
free thinker. We know that the bishop is morally 
wrong the whole way through, that every statement 
which he makes is wrong; yet it would take a clever 
man to prove him wrong. The logic is too well man- - 
aged. Few psychological studies are comparable to 
this. “Mr. Sludge, ‘the Medium,’ ” said to be a satire 
upon the great Scottish spiritualist and humbug, Home, 
shows us another kind of quackery; a man who lives by 
imposture explains to us how he can practise imposture 
with a good moral conscience, and under the belief that 
imposture is a benefit to mankind. He talks so well 
that he obliges even the person who has detected his 
imposture to lend him or give him a considerable sum 
of money—in short, he can trick even those who know 
his trickery. But see how different these beings are 
from each other, and how different the studies of their 
character must necessarily prove. Yet Browning seems 
never to find any difficulty in painting the mind of a 
man, whether good or bad, whether of to-day or of the 
Middle Ages. “Paracelsus,” for example, is a medieval 


[254] 


Studies in Browning 


character ; Browning makes him tell us the story of his 
researches into alchemy and magic, makes him impart 
to us the secret ambition that once filled him, and the 
consequences of disappointment and of failure. “Sor- 
dello,” again, is of the thirteenth century; you will find 
his name in the great poem of Dante. Sordello was a 
poet and troubadour, who tried to succeed socially and 
politically by the exercise of a brilliant talent, and 
almost did succeed. Browning’s poem on him is the 
whole story of a human soul; only, it is the man himself 
who tells it. And the moral is that suffering and sor- 
row bring wisdom. How various and how wonderful is 
this range of character-study! Yet I have mentioned. 
only a few out of scores and scores of compositions. I 
cannot insist too much upon this quality of versatility 
in Browning, this display of Shakespearian power. In 
all Tennyson you will find scarcely more than twenty 
really distinct characters; and some of these are but 
half drawn. In Rossetti you will find scarcely more 
than half a dozen, mostly women. In Swinburne there 
is no character whatever, except the poet’s own, outside 
of that grand singer’s dramatic work. But in Brown- 
ing there are hundreds of distinct characters, and there 
is nothing at all vague about them; they speak, they 
move, they act with real and not with artificial life. 
Sometimes a character may occupy a hundred pages, 
sometimes it may be drawn in half a dozen lines, but 
the drawing is equally distinct and equally true. And 
there is scarcely any kind of human nature of which we 
have no picture. Even the lowest type of savage is 
drawn, the primitive savage, for “Caliban upon Sete- 
bos” gives us the thoughts and feelings of such a savage 


[255] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


about God—God being figured in the savage mind, of 
course, as only a much stronger and larger kind of 
savage, possessing magical power. 

In all his poems, as I said, Browning is essentially 
dramatic. Quite rightly has he grouped several collec- 
tions of short poems under titles which suggest this 
fact, such as “Dramatic Idyls,” “Dramatis Persone,” 
“Men and Women.” Sometimes the poet himself is the 
only speaker and actor, giving us his own particular 
feelings of the moment; but in the most noteworthy 
cases of this kind he is talking, not to the reader, but 
to ghosts. For instance, “Parleyings with Certain 
People of Importance in Their Day,” 
conversations which Browning holds with the ghosts 
of men long dead—writers, philosophers, statesmen, 
priests. It is in this collection that you will find the 
remarkable verses on the great poem of Smart, which 


are imaginary 


revived Smart’s work for modern readers after a hun- 
dred years of oblivion. I cannot find time to tell you 
about the other personages of these imaginary conver- 
sations; but I may mention that Mandeville is the sub- 
ject of a special conversation, and that you will find the 
whole germ of Mandeville’s philosophy in this composi- 
tion. But let us turn to some consideration of Brown- 
ing’s work in the true dramatic form—in plays, trage- 
dies or comedies, and in translations of plays from the 
Greek. 

It would require several lectures to give a summary 
of Browning’s plays; and they do not always represent 
his best genius. For it is a curious fact that this man 
who, as a simple poet, was the greatest of English 
dramatists after Shakespeare, was rarely quite success- 


[256] 


Studies in Browning 


ful when he attempted the true dramatic form. He 
was great in the monologue; he was not great upon the 
stage. Some of his plays were acted, such as “Straf- 
ford” and “The Blot on the ’Scutcheon”; but they did 
not prove to be worthy of great success. “In a Bal- 
cony,” which could not be put upon the stage at all, as 
much better; and perhaps it is better because it con- 
sists only of two monologues, or rather of a conversa- 
tion between two persons; for the part taken by the 
other actors is altogether insignificant. “The Return 
of the Druses” and “Luria,” tke Tennyson’s dramas, 
are excellent poetry, but they are not suited for the 
stage. The best of all Browning’s dramas, the only one 
that I really want you to read, is “A Soul’s Tragedy.” 
I may say a word about the plot of this. It is a story 
of friendship between two young men, patriots and 
statesmen. In a political crisis one of the young men 
stabs a political enemy, and has fled from the country. 
But before fleeing, he trusts all his interests and his 
property to his friend, and asks the friend also to take 
care of his betrothed. What does the friend do? Ex- 
posed to great temptation, he betrays his trust. He 
sees a chance to obtain political power by pretending 
to be the man who really stabbed the politician on the 
other side—the tyrant of an hour. The people acclaim 
him as their saviour, make him dictator. Then he goes 
further in his treachery, by making love to his friend’s 
sweetheart. At last a Roman statesman, Ogniben, ap- 
pears upon the scene, with power to crush the revolu- 
tion, or to do anything that he pleases. But Ogniben 
is a terribly clever man, and he does not want blood- 
shed; he knows the character of the new dictator, and 


[257 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


determines to play with him, as a cat with a mouse. 
First he flatters him enough to make him betray all 
his weaknesses, his vanities, his fears. Then, at quite 
the unexpected moment, he summons the young man 
who had run away, I mean the friend betrayed, and 
brings him face to face with the treacherous dictator. 
The result is of course a moral collapse; that is the 
real Soul’s Tragedy. I am giving only a thin skeleton 
of the plot. But you ought to read this play, if only 
for the wonderful studies of character in it, not the 
least remarkable of which is the awful Ogniben, far- 
seeing, cunning beyond cunning, strong beyond force, 
who can unravel plots with a single word and pierce 
all masks of hypocrisy with a single glance; but whom 
you feel to be, in a large way, generous and kindly, and 
so far as possible, just. I think not only that this 
is Browning’s greatest play, but that as a play it is 
psychologically superior to anything else which has been 
done in Victorian drama. It is not fit for the stage, 
and it is not even very great as poetry—indeed half of 
it or more is prose, and rather eccentric prose; but it 
offers wonderful examples of analytical power not sur- 
passed in any other contemporary poet or dramatist. 
About Browning’s translations from the Greek poets, 
I scarcely know what to say. Most critics of authority 
acknowledge that Browning has made the most faithful 
metrical translation of the “Agamemnon” of Aschylus. 
But they also declare that in spite of its exactness, 
the Greek spirit and feeling have entirely vanished 
under Browning’s treatment. My own feeling about 
the matter is that you would do much better to read 
the prose translation of Aischylus. Yet I could not 
[258 | 


Studies in Browning 


say this in regard to Browning’s translation of the 
*Alkestis” of Euripides, which you will find embodied 
in the text of “Balaustian’s Adventure.” Balaustian 
is a Greek dancing girl. She is taken prisoner with 
many Athenian people at the time of the disastrous 
Greek expedition to Syracuse, which you must have 
read about in history. To please her captors, she re- 
peats for them the wonderful verses of Euripides, by 
which they are so much affected that they pardon both 
her and her companions. This incident is founded upon 
fact, and Browning uses it very well to introduce his 
translation. Perhaps the genius of Euripides was 
closer to the genius of Browning than that of 
Eschylus; for this translation is incomparably better 
from an emotional point of view than the other. It is 
‘very beautiful indeed; and even after having read the 
Greek play in a good prose translation, I think that 
you would find both pleasure and profit in reading 
Browning’s verses. 

The important thing now for you to get clearly into 
your minds is one general fact about this enormously 
various work of Browning. Suppose somebody should 
ask you what is different in the work of Browning from 
that of all other modern poets, what would you be able 
to answer? But unless you can answer, the whole value 
of this lecture would be lost upon you. Browning him- 
self has excellently answered, in a little verse which 
forms the prologue to the second series of the Dramatic 


Idyls. 


“You are sick, that’s sure,’—they say: 
“Sick of what?’—they disagree. 
[259] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“°?Tis the brain,’—thinks Doctor A; 
“°?Tis the heart,’—holds Doctor B. 
“The liver—my life I’d lay!” 
“The lungs!” “The lights!” 

Ah me! 


So ignorant of man’s whole 

Of bodily organs plain to see— 

So sage and certain, frank and free, 

About what’s under lock and key— 
Man’s soul! 


That is to say, even the wisest doctors cannot agree 
about the simple fact of a man’s sickness, notwith- 
standing the fact that they have studied anatomy and 
physiology and osteology, and have examined every 
part of the body. Yet, although the wisest men of 
science are obliged to confess that they cannot tell you 
everything about the body, which can be seen, even 
ignorant persons think that they know everything about 
the soul of a man, which cannot be seen at all, and about 
the mind of a man, to which only God himself has the 
key. Now all the purpose of Browning’s work and life 
has been to show people what a very wonderful and 
complex and incomprehensible thing human character is 
—therefore to show that the most needful of all study 
is the study of human nature. He is especially the poet 
of character, the only one who has taught us, since 
Shakespeare’s time, what real men and women are, how 
different each from every other, how unclassifiable ac- 
cording to any general rule, how differently noble at 
their best, how differently wicked at their worst, how 
altogether marvellous and infinitely interesting. His 
mission has been the mission of a great dramatic psy- 


[260] 


Studies in Browning 


chologist. And if anybody ever asks you what was 
Robert Browning, you can answer that he was the great 
Poet of Human Character—not of character of any 
one time or place or nation, but of all times and places 
and peoples of which it was possible for him to learn 
anything. 

Here we must close our little studies of Victorian 
poets—that is to say, of the four great ones. I hope 
that you will be able to summarise in your own mind 
the main characteristic of each, as I have tried to in- 
dicate in the case of Browning. Remember Tennyson 
as the greatest influence upon the language of his 
mother country, because of his exquisiteness of work- 
manship and his choice of English subjects in preference 
to all others. He is the most English of all the four. 
Remember Rossetti as being altogether different in his 
personality and feeling—a man of the Middle Ages born 
into the nineteenth century, and in the nineteenth cen- 
tury still the poet of medieval feeling. And think of 
Swinburne—the greatest musician of all, the most per- 
fect master of form and sound in modern poetry—as an 
expounder of Neo-Paganism, of another Renaissance in 
the world of literature. 


[261] 


CHAPTER V 
WILLIAM MORRIS 


Witiram Morris suffers by comparison with the more 
exquisite poets of his own time and circle. Neverthe- 
less he is quite great enough to call for a special lec- 
ture. I am not sure whether I shall be able to make 
you much interested in him; but I shall certainly try to 
give you a clear idea of his position in English poetry 
as something entirely distinct, and very curious. 

A few words first about the man himself—in more 
ways than one the largest figure among the Romantics. 
He was the great spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite coterie; 
he was the most prolific poet of the century ; and he was 
in all respects the nearest in his talent and sentiment to 
Sir Walter Scott. All these reasons make it necessary 
to speak of him at considerable length. 

He was born in 1834 and died in 1896, so that he is 
very recent in his relation to English poetry. There 
was nothing extraordinary in the incidents of his life 
at school or in his university career. In this man the 
extraordinary gift was altogether of the mind. With- 
out the eccentricity of genius, he was also without the 
highest capacity of genius; but in his life as well as in 
his poetry he was always correct and always charming 
in a certain gentle and dreamy way. He had the 
stature and strength of a giant, perfect health, and 
immense working capacity, and did very well whatever. 


[262] 


William Morris 


he tried to do. Fortunately for his inclinations, he 
was the son of a rich man and never knew want; so 
that when he took to literature ‘as a profession, he 
never had to think about pleasing the public, nor to 
care how much money his books might bring. After 
leaving Oxford University he devoted his life to art and 
literature, becoming equally well known as a painter 
and a poet. At a later day he established various 
businesses for an ewsthetic purpose. For example, he 
thought that the early Italian printers and Venetian 
printers had done much better work and produced much 
more wonderful books than any modern printer; and he 
founded a press for the purpose of producing modern 
books in the same beautiful way. Then he thought that 
a reform in the matter of house furniture was possible. 
The furniture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries 
had been good, solid, costly, and beautiful; but the 
later furniture had become both cheap and ugly. Mor- 
ris’s artistic interests had led him to study furniture 
a great deal; he became familiar with the furniture of 
the Middle Ages, of the Elizabethan Age, and of later 
times, as scarcely any man of the day had become. It 
occurred to him that the best and most beautiful forms 
of medieval and later furniture might be reintroduced, 
if anybody would only take pains to manufacture them. 
The ordinary manufacturers of furniture would not do 
this. Morris and a few friends established a factory, 
and there designed and made furniture equal to any- 
thing in the past. This undertaking was successful, and 
it changed the whole fashion of English house furnish- 
ing. Only a decorative artist like Morris would have 
been capable of imagining and carrying out such a 


[263] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


plan; and it was carried out so well that almost every 
rich house in England now possesses some furniture de- 
signed by him. 

Thus you will see that he must have been a very busy 
man, occupied at once with poetry, with romance (for 
he wrote a great many prose romances), with artistic 
printing, with house furniture, with designs for windows 
of stained glass, and with designs for beautiful tiling— 
also with a very considerable amount of work as a deco- 
rative artist. All this would appear almost too much 
for any one person to attempt. But it was rendered 
easy to Morris by the simple fact that the whole of his 
various undertakings happened to be influenced by 
exactly the same spirit and motive, the artistic feeling 
of the Middle Ages, and of the period ending with the 
eighteenth century. Whether Morris was making books 
of poetry or books of prose, whether he was translating 
sagas from the Norse or writing stories in imitation of 
the early French romances, whether he was casting Ital- 
ian forms of type for the making of beautiful books 
or designing furniture for some English palace, what- 
ever he was doing, he had but one thought, one will—to 
reproduce the strange beauty of the Middle Ages. 
There was almost nothing modern about the man. The 
whole of his writings, comprising a great many volumes, 
contained scarcely ten pages having any reference to 
modern things. Even the language that he used has 
been correctly described by a great critic as eighteenth 
century English, mixed with Scandinavian idioms and 
forms. Thus there were two men among the Pre- 
Raphaelites who actually did not belong to their own 
century—Rossetti and Morris. Both were painters as 


[264] 


William Morris 


well as poets, and though the former was the greater in 
both arts, the practical influence of Morris counted for 
much more in changing English taste both in literature 
and in esthetics. 

We have chiefly to consider his writing, and, of that 
writing, especially the poetry. As a poet I have al- 
ready mentioned him as having points of resemblance 
with Sir Walter Scott. But he also had even more 
points of resemblance with Chaucer. He was like Scott 
in the singular ease and joyous force of his creative 
talent. Scott could sit down and write a romance in 
verse beautifully, correctly, without any more difficulty 
than other men write prose. Byron, you know, used 
to write his poetry straight off, without even taking the 
trouble to correct it; as a consequence it is now be- 
coming forgotten. But Scott took very great trouble 
to make his verse quite correct, without trying to be 
exquisite, and his verse will always count as good, stir- 
ring English poetry. Morris had almost exactly the 
same talent, the talent that can give you a three-volume 
story either in verse or prose, Just as you may prefer. 
And he wrote in verse on a scale that astonishes, a scale 
exceeding that of any modern poet. To find his equal 
in production we must go back to the poets of those 
romantic Middle Ages which he so much loved, the poets 
who wrote vast epics or romances in thirty or forty 
thousand lines. Eleven volumes of verse and fifteen 
volumes of prose represent Morris’s production; and 
the extraordinary thing is that all his production is 
good. It does not reach the very highest place in lit- 
erature; no man could write so much and make his work 
of the very highest class. But it is good as to form, 

[265] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


good as to feeling, much beyond mediocrity at all times ; 
and sometimes it rises to a level that is only a little 
below the first class. 

I am not going to give selections from his larger 
works, so I can only mention here what the large works 
signify and how he is related to Chaucer through one 
of them. The most successful, in a popular sense, of 
all his poems is the “Earthly Paradise,” originally pub- 
lished in five volumes, now published in four—and the 
volumes are very thick. This vast composition is much 
on the plan of the “Canterbury Tales”; and Morris and 
Chaucer both followed the same method, and were filled 
with the same sense of beauty. Both found in the 
legends of the Middle Ages and in the myths of an- 
tiquity, material for their art in the shape of stories; 
and as these stories had no inter-relation, belonging 
even to widely different epochs of human civilisation, it 
was necessary to imagine some general plan according 
to which all could be brought harmoniously together, 
like jewels, upon a single tray. This plan of uniting 
heterogeneous masses of fiction or legends into one ar- 
tistic circle was known to the East long before it was 
known in Europe; the great Indian collections of 
stories, such as the Panchatantra and the Katha-sarit- 
sdgara, are perhaps the oldest examples; and the huge 
Sanskrit epics show something of the same design, after- 
wards adopted by Arabian and Persian story-tellers. 
But Chaucer was the first to make the attempt with 
any success in English literature. His plan was to have 
the stories told by pilgrims travelling on their way to 
Canterbury, every man or woman of the company be- 
ing obliged to tell one or two stories. The plan was so 


[266] 


William Morris 


good that it has been followed in our own day; Long- 
fellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn” are constructed 
upon precisely the same principle. But Chaucer made 
a plan so large that he had not the strength nor the 
time to carry it to completion; Morris, upon a scale 
nearly as large, brought his work to a happy conclusion 
with the greatest ease. He makes a company of exiled 
warriors tell the stories of a foreign court, as results 
of their experience or knowledge obtained in many dif- 
ferent countries. There are twenty-four stories, twelve 
medieval or romantic and twelve classical; and each 
pair of these corresponds with one of the twelve months, 
the first two stories being told in January, the second 
two in February, and so forth. The division neatly 
partitions the great composition into twelve books, 
with the regular prologues and epilogues added. The 
English are not apt to trouble themselves to read very 
long poems these days; but Morris was able actually 
to revive the medieval taste for long romances. ‘Tens 
of thousands of his books were sold, notwithstanding 
their costliness, and the result was altogether favour- 
able for the new development of romantic feeling, not 
only in literature, but in art and decoration. One 
might suppose that such composition was enough to 
occupy a lifetime, but Morris threw it off quite lightly 
and set to work upon a variety of poetical undertakings 
nearly as large. He translated Homer and Virgil into 
the same kind of flowery verse; and he put the grand 
Scandinavian epic of Sigurd the Volsung into some of 
the finest long-lined poetry produced in modern times. 
This epic seems to me the better work of the two long 
productions by which Morris is best known; later on 


[267] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


some lines from it may be quoted. But Morris was 
scarcely less attracted by Greek myths than by the 
old literature of Scandinavia; and he also produced a 
long epic poem upon the story of Jason and Medea, the 
story of the Golden Fleece. Nevertheless, I can much 
better illustrate to you what Morris is in literature and 
what his influence and his objects were, by means of 
his still earlier and shorter poems. There are several 
volumes of these, now published in more compact form 
under the titles of “Poems by the Way” and “Love is 
Enough” and “The Defense of Guinevere.” From the 
last, originally dedicated to Rossetti, I will make some 
quotations that will show you how Morris tried to 
revive the Middle Ages. 

One of the most remarkable things in the late Mr. 
Froude’s charming account of a voyage which he made 
to Norway, is his statement of a sudden conviction that 
there came to him about the character of the ancient 
Vikings. He felt assured, he said, that the modern 
Norwegian and the ancient Norwegian were very much 
the same; that modern customs, religion, and education 
had produced only differences of surface; and that if 
we could go back against the stream of time to the age 
of the sea kings, we should find that they were exactly 
like the men of to-day in all that essentially belongs to 
race character. Now Morris, while studying medieval 
romances and loving them for their intrinsic curious 
beauty, came to a very similar conclusion. It is true, 
he thought, that the Middle Ages were much more cruel, 
more ignorant, more savage than the ages before them 
or after them; but after all, the men and women of 
those times must have felt about many things just like 


[268] 


William Morris 


modern men and women. Why should we not feel 
enough of this to study their fashions, joys, and feel- 
ings under the peculiar conditions of their terrible so- 
ciety? And this is what he did. You may say that, 
except for some difference in the home speech, the talk 
of these people in the poems of Morris is the talk of 
modern men and women. There is some difference as 
to sentiment. But you cannot say that it is not natu- 
ral, not likely; in fact, the seeming pictures often have 
such force that you cannot forget them. That is a 
test of truth. 

They are very brief pictures, like sudden glimpses 
caught during a flash of lightning: a glimpse into an 
arena where two men are about to fight to the death in 
presence of their king, according to the code of the 
day ; a knight riding through a flooded country in order 
to take a castle by surprise; a woman driven to mad- 
ness by the murder of her lover; a woman at the stake 
about to be burned alive, when the sound of the hoofs 
of the lover’s horse is heard, as he gallops to her rescue ; 
ladies in the upper chamber of a castle, weaving and 
singing; the capture of a robber and his vain pleading 
for life; also some fairy tales of weird and sensuous 
beauty, told as people of the Middle Ages must have 
felt them. To me one of the most powerful pictures 
is the story of “The Haystack in the Floods.” We are 
not told how the tragedy began, nor how it ended; and 
this is great art to tell something without beginning 
and without end, so well that the reader is always there- 
after wondering what the beginning was and what the 
end might have been. The poem begins with the 
words: 


[269] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Had she come all the way for this 

To part at last without a kiss? 

Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain 
That her own eyes might see him slain 
Beside the haystack in the floods? 


We know from this only that the woman referred to 
is a woman of gentle birth, accustomed to luxurious 
things, so that it was very difficult for her to travel in 
rainy weather and cold, and that she thought it was a 
great sacrifice on her part to do so even for a lover. 
If she thought this, we have a right to suspect that 
she is a wanton—though we are not quite sure about it. 
The description of her does not explain anything fur- 
ther than the misery of the situation. 


Along the dripping leafless woods, 

The stirrup touching either shoe, 

She rode astride as troopers do; 

With kirtle kilted to her knee, 

To which the mud splashed wretchedly ; 
And the wet dripp’d from every tree 
Upon her head and heavy hair, 

And on her eyelids broad and fair; 

The tears and rain ran down her face. 


The delicate woman has also the pain of being lone- 
some on her ride; for the lover, the knight, cannot ride 
beside her, cannot comfort her; he has to ride far ahead 
in order to see what danger may be in the road. He 
is running away with her; perhaps he is a stranger in 
that country ; we shall presently see. 

Suddenly, nearby in the middle of a flooded place the 

[270] 


William Morris 


enemy appears, a treacherous knight who is the avowed 
lover of the woman and the enemy of the man, She 
counts the number of spears with him—thirty spears, 
and they have but ten. Fighting is of no use, the 
woman says, but Robert (now we know for the first time 
the name of her companion) is not afraid—believes 
that by courage and skill alone he can scatter the 
hostile force, and bring his sweetheart over the river. 
She begs him not to fight; her selfishness shows her 
character—it is not for him she is afraid, but for her- 


self. 


But, “O!” she said, 

“My God! my God! I have to tread 
The long way back without you; then 
The court at Paris; those six men; 


The gratings of the Chatelet; . . ae 


And worse than the gratings of the Chatelet is the 
stake; at which she may be burned, or the river into 
which she may be thrown, if her lover is killed; there 
is only one way to secure her own safety—that is to 
accept the love of another man whom she hates, the 
wicked knight Godmar, who is now in front of them 
with thirty spearsmen. Evidently this is no warrior 
woman, no daughter of soldiers; she may love, but like 
Cleopatra she is afraid of battle. Her lover Robert, 
like a man, does not answer her tearful prayers, but 
gives the command to his men to shout his war-cry, and 
boldly charges forward. Then, triple sorrow! his men 
stand still; they refuse to fight against three times their 
number, and in another moment Robert is in the power 


[271] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of his enemy, disarmed and bound. ‘Thereupon Godmar 
with a wicked smile observes to the woman: 


“Now, Jehane, 
Your lover’s life is on the wane 
So fast, that, if this very hour 
You yield not as my paramour, 
He will not see the rain leave off.” 


He does more than threaten to kill her lover; he 
reminds her of what he can further do to her. She has 
said that if he takes her into his castle by force, she 
will kill either herself or him (we may doubt whether 
she would really do either) ; and he wants a voluntary 
submission. He talks to her about burning her alive; 
how would she like that? And the ironical caressing 
tone of his language only makes it more implacable. 


“Nay, if you do not my behest, 

O Jehane! though I love you well,” 
Said Godmar, “‘would I fail to tell 

All that I know?” “Foul lies,” she said. 
“Eh? lies, my Jehane? by God’s head, 
At Paris folks would deem them true! 
Do you know, Jehane, they ery for you: 
Jehane the brown! Jehane the brown! 
Give us Jehane to burn or drown! 
Eh!—gag me Robert!—sweet my friend, 
This were indeed a piteous end 

For those long fingers, and long feet, 
And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet; 
An end that few men would forget 
That saw it. So, an hour yet: 

Consider, Jehane, which to take 

Of life or death!” 


[272] 


William Morris 


She considers, or rather tries to consider, for she is 
almost too weary to speak, and very quickly falls asleep 
in the rain on the wet hay. An hour passes. When she 
is awakened, she only sighs like a tired child, and an- 
swers, “I will not.’? Perhaps she could not believe that 
her enemy and lover would do as he had threatened ; and 
in spite of the risk of further angering him, she ap- 
proaches the prisoner and tries to kiss him farewell. 
Immediately, 


With a start 
Up Godmar rose, thrust them apart; 
From Robert’s throat he loosed the bands 
Of silk and mail; with empty hands 
Held out, she stood and gazed, and saw 
The long bright blade without a flaw 
Glide out from Godmar’s sheath, his hand 
In Robert’s hair; she saw him bend 
Back Robert’s head; she saw him send 
The thin steel down; the blow told well, 
Right backward the knight Robert fell, 
And moaned as dogs do, being half dead, 
Unwittingly, as I deem: so then 
Godmar turn’d grinning to his men, 
Who ran, some five or six, and beat 
His head to pieces at her feet. 


The knight groans involuntarily, in the death 
struggle only, and probably the sound of his pain 
pleases Godmar, but in order to make sure that he can- 
not recover again, he makes a sign to his followers to 
finish the work of murder; so they beat in his skull— 
an ugly thing for a woman to see done. There were 
rough-hearted men in those days who could see a woman 


[273] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


burned alive and laugh at her suffering. You have read, 
I think, the terrible story about Black Fulk, who made 
a great holiday on the occasion of burning his young 
wife alive, and took his friends to see the show, himself 
putting on his best holiday attire. This Godmar seems 
to be nearly as harsh a brute, judging from what he 
next has to say. 


Then Godmar turn’d again and said: 
“So, Jehane, the first fitte is read! 

Take note, my lady, that your way 
Lies backward to the Chatelet!” 

She shook her head and gazed awhile 

At her cold hands with rueful smile, 

As though this thing had made her mad. 


This was the parting that they had 
Beside the haystack in the floods. 


Notice the brutal use of the word “‘fitte” (often 
spelled fytte). This was an old name for the divisions 
of a long poem, romance, or epic. Later the Italian 
term “canto” was substituted for it. Godmar refers 
to the woman’s love as her romance, her poem: “Now 
the first canto of our love-romance has been read—only 
the first, remember!” The second fitte will be perhaps 
the burning of the woman when she is brought back to 
the castle prison from which she fled. It all depends 
upon circumstances. If she has really become mad, 
she may escape. The poem ends here, leaving us in 
doubt about the rest. We can only imagine the termi- 
nation. I think that she has not really become mad, 
that she is too selfish and weak to bear or even to feel 


[274] 


William Morris 


the real emotional shock of the thing; and that when 
they are half way to the prison she is likely to yield 
to Godmar’s will. If she does so, he will probably keep 
her in his castle until he tires of her, and finds it expedi- 
ent to end her existence with as little scruple as he 
showed in killing Robert. But, as an actual fact, it is 
difficult to be sure of anything, because we know neither 
the beginning nor the end of the affair. We have only 
a glimpse of the passion, suffering, selfishness, cruelty— 
then utter darkness. And this method of merely 
glimpsing the story causes it to leave a profound im- 
pression upon the imagination. Please do not forget 
this, because it is the most important art in any kind 
of narrative literature, whether of poetry or of prose. 

A second example of the same device is furnished by 
another terrible poem called “The Judgment of God.” 
The Judgment of God is an old name for trial by single 
combat. It was a superstitious law, a foolish and 
wicked law, but it served a purpose in the Middle Ages, 
and it afforded an opportunity for many noble and 
courageous deeds. Browning took up this subject in 
his stirring poem of “Count Gismond.” The law was 
this: when one knight was accused by another of some 
evil, cruel, or treacherous act, he was allowed to chal- 
lenge the man who brought the charge against him te 
fight to the death—a Toutrance, as the old term ex- 
pressed it. The combat took place in the presence of 
the lord or king and before a great assembly, according 
to fixed rules. If the man who brought the charge lost 
the fight, then it was thought that he had proved him- 
self a liar. If the person accused won the battle, then 
he was declared to be innocent. For it was thought that 


[275] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


God would protect the truth in such cases; and there- 
fore these combats were called the “judgment of God.” 
Nevertheless you will perceive that a very skilful knight 
might be able to kill a great number of accusers, and 
lawfully “prove” himself innocent of a hundred crimes. 
That was a great defect of the system. 

The “Judgment of God” is a monologue, quite as 
good in its way as many of the short monologues of 
Browning. It is the knight against whom accusation 
has been brought that tells us the feelings and impres- 
sions of the moment that he enters the lists to fight. 
In this case we are more moved to sympathy than in the 
former stories, because we know that the man, whether 
otherwise bad or good, bas saved a woman from the 
stake, and killed the lords who were about to burn her. 
So we are inclined to think of him as a hero. We have 
just one sudden vision of a man’s mind, as he stands 
in the face of death, with no sympathy about him ex- 
cept that of his old father, who comes to give him advice 
about fighting, because he is to be matched against a 
very skilful knight. 


“Swerve to the left, son Roger,” he said, 

“When you catch his eyes through the helmet-slit, 
Swerve to the left, then out at his head, 

And the Lord God give you joy of it!” 


The old man knows how to fight, has probably won 
many a battle, and he has observed the way that the 
light is falling. So he tells his son, “When you begin 
to fight, don’t turn to the right—turn tothe left; then 
you will be able to see his eyes through the helmet, 
and immediately that you see them, strike straight for 


[276] 


William Morris 


his head, and may God help you to kill him.” He has 
just heard these words from his father when the pro- 
logue begins. 


The blue owls on my father’s hood 

Were a little dimm’d, as I turned away; 
This giving up of blood for blood 

Will finish here somehow to-day. 


So when I walked from out the tent, 
Their howling almost blinded me; 
Yet for all that I was not bent 
By any shame. Hard by, the sea 


Made a noise like the aspens where 

We did that wrong, but now the place 
Is very pleasant, and the air 

Blows cool on any passer’s face. 


And all the throng is gather’d now 
Into the circle of these lists— 

Yea, howl out, butchers! tell me how 
His hands were cut off at the wrists; 


And how Lord Roger bore his face 
A league above his spear point, high 
Above the owls, to that strong place 
Among the waters—yea, yea, cry! 


The owls on the crest are the emblem of the family. 
The knight has been waiting in his tent according to 
rule, until the signal is given; and his father and his 
retainers probably helped to arm him there. He feels 
no emotion except at the moment of bidding his father 
good-bye, and then he knows that there are tears in 
his own eyes, because the owl crest on his father’s hood. 


[277] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


suddenly appears dim. Then, as the signal is given, he 
walks out of the tent into the lists, only to hear a roar 
of hatred and abuse go up from all the circles of seats. 
The friends of the dead are evidently in great force, 
and he has no friend except his father and his retainers. 
And they shout at him, his enemies, telling him what he 
has done—how he cut off the hands of the knight and 
cut off his head and carried it upon the top of a spear 
for three miles, carried it above his own banner to his 
own castle. This was indeed considered an unknightly 
thing in those days, for such was the treatment given 
to common people in war, not to knights or men of 
rank. 

Then he sees the man with whom he must fight, wait- 
ing for him, all in armour, with white linen over his 
arm, to indicate that he is fighting for the cause of 
truth. At this Roger can very well laugh; and he 
remarks that the face of the champion’s lady looks even 
whiter than the linen upon her lord’s arm. She has 
reason, perhaps, to be afraid for him. And though he 
has not much time for thinking, Roger remembers his 
own beloved, waiting for him, remembers even how he 
first met her. Addressing her in thought, he says: 


And these say: “No more now my knight, 
Or God’s knight any longer’”—you 
Being than they so much more white, 
So much more pure and good and true, 


Will cling to me forever—there, 
Is not that wrong turn’d right at last 
Through all these years, and I wash’d clean? 
Say, yea, Ellayne; the time is past, 
[278 ] 


William Morris 


Since on that Christmas-day last year 
Up to your feet the fire crept; 

And the smoke through the brown leaves sere 
Blinded your dear eyes that you wept; 


Was it not I that caught you then 
And kiss’d you on the saddle-bow? 

Did not the blue owl mark the men 
Whose spears stood like the corn a-row? 


Evidently she has reason to love him and his house; 
did he not save her from the fire?p—did he not come 
with his spearmen and crush her enemies, and take her 
away upon his horse to safety? And was not that 
enough to atone for whatever other wrong he might 
have done? But he has only a moment in which to 
think all this, for the trumpet is about to sound for 
the fight, and there are other things to think about. 
One of these is that his antagonist is a very good 
man, difficult to overcome; the other is that there is 
danger for him even if he conquers, because there are 
so many present who hate him. 


This Oliver is a right good knight, 
And needs must beat me, as I fear, 
Unless I catch him in the fight, 
My father’s crafty way—John, here! 


Bring up the men from the south gate, 
To help me if I fall or win, 

For even if I beat, their hate 
Will grow to more than this mere grin. 


If the reader could imagine the result of the com- 
bat, the real effect of the poem in its present form 


[279 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


would be lost. No man can imagine it. The challenged 
knight acknowledges his antagonist to be a better man 
— indeed, he says that he can only hope to conquer him 
by the cunning trick taught him by his old father. But 
the really dangerous man never underrates the capacity 
of an enemy; and we may suspect that the forces are 
at least even. So, as I have said, no man can guess 
the result of the battle, and the reader is forced to 
keep wondering what happened. He will always won- 
der, but he will never be able to feel convinced. And 
to leave the mind of the reader thus interested and 
unsatisfied is a great stroke of literary art. The same 
book contains a number of medieval pieces of the same 
sort, showing how very unimportant it is whether you 
begin a story in the middle or whether you leave it with- 
out anend. The greatest French story-tellers of mod- 
ern times have made almost popular the form of art in 
fiction to which I refer. Take, for example, the late 
Guy de Maupassant, many of whose short stories have, 
I am told, been translated into Japanese. No one mod- 
ern prose writer ever succeeded better in telling a story 
without any beginning or without any end. Positively 
no beginning and no end is necessary, in many cases; 
and remember, this method of representing only the 
middle of things is exactly true to life. We never see 
or hear of the whole of any incident that happens under 
our eyes. We sce only a fact, without knowing what 
caused it to come about, and without knowing what will 
be the consequences of it. Outside of our own homes 
we do not see much of other people’s lives, and never 
the whole of any one’s life. 

Among other pieces in the book I should call your 

[280] 


; William Morris 


attention to “The Little Tower,” “Sir Peter Harpdon’s 
End,” “The Wind,” ‘“The Eve of Crecy,” “In Prison,” 
and ‘The Blue Closet.” They are very different in 
idea, but I think that you will find them all extremely 
original. “The Little Tower” has no beginning and no 
end. It only describes faithfully the feelings of a 
knight riding over an inundated country, swimming 
his horse along the side of bridges under water, and 
thinking to himself of the joy of capturing an enemy’s 
castle by surprise, killing the lord and burning the lady. 
It is brutal in a certain way, but supremely natural. 
The story of “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End” is not a 
monologue; it is a very dramatic narrative in which a 
number of men of different character play their parts. 
It has no beginning, but the end is plainly suggested. 
—and this shows the tender side of human nature in 
the Middle Ages. Sir Peter is brave, kindly, and true. 
Therefore, when he has his enemy at his mercy, instead 
of killing him, he only cuts off his ears. As a conse- 
quence he is afterwards himself destroyed; the obvious 
moral of the narrative is that a merciful heart was a 
dangerous possession in those times. The good men 
were easily trapped by playing upon their feelings of 
pity or sympathy. “The Wind” represents the mad- 
ness of a very old knight, alone in his castle. The 
sound of the wind makes him think of the voices of 
the dead whom he knew, and brings him back to the 
memories of his youth, and of a woman that he loved. 
And at last the ghosts of forgotten friends enter and 
glide about him. This has no beginning and no end, 
and it remains very strongly impressed upon the mem- 
ory. We should like to know the story of that woman, 
[281] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


the story of the madness of the old man, but we shall 
never know. ‘The Eve of Crecy” represents the state 
of mind of a young French knight just before the fatal 
battle, when the flower of the French chivalry was de- 
stroyed by a mere handful of English soldiers driven 
to bay. You may remember that before the battle the 
English prepared themselves very thoroughly and made 
fervent prayers to heaven for success. But the French 
spent the night in carousing and jesting, never dream- 
ing that they could lose the fight. Here Morris shows 
us one of the young noblemen thinking only about his 
sweetheart, some girl of noble rank whom he hopes to 
win. He is going to do great deeds the next day, then 
the king will smile upon him, and he will not be afraid 
to ask the father of that girl to permit him to become 
his son-in-law. And so the poem abruptly breaks off. 
The end here we can guess—a corpse riddled with Eng- 
lish arrows, and trampled under the feet of thousands 
of horses. ‘In Prison,’ among the others, represents 
the emotions of a knight confined in a medieval dungeon. 
“The Blue Closet” is a fantasy, a wild medieval fairy 
tale, put into a dramatic form that reminds one singu- 
larly of the later work of Maeterlinck. It is, however, 
a noteworthy composition as poetry, and attained im- 
mediate popularity among all those who looked for beau- 
ties of colour and sound rather than reflections of life. 

Those notes will give you an idea of the variety of 
the book. And the medieval pieces are worth thinking 
about, if any of you should care to attempt authorship 
in a similar direction, whether in poetry or in prose. 
There was a period in Japanese feudalism, a period of 


[282] 


William Morris 


constant civil wars and baronial quarrels, which would 
have produced a very similar condition of things to that 
described in certain of these poems, and I even think 
that more startling effects could be produced by a judi- 
cious handling of Japanese themes in the same way, 
that is, without attempting any beginning or suggest- 
ing any end. 

But observe that I am not holding up these poems 
to you as great masterpieces of verse. I mean only 
that they suggest how great masterpieces might be 
made. And please to note especially one phase of the 
art of them, its psychological quality. Morris was not 
so great a psychologist as Browning, who came nearest 
to Shakespeare in this respect of all English poets. 
But Morris has considerable ability in this way, and 
the most striking effects in his short poems are pro- 
duced by making us understand the feelings of persons 
in particular moments of pain or terror or heroic ef- 
fort. For example, how natural and horrible is the 
soliloquy of Guinevere in the long poem with which the 
book opens. You know that Tennyson did not follow 
the original account of Malory in regard to the more 
cruel episodes of the old story. He felt repelled by 
such an incident as the preparations for burning the 
queen alive. In the real story she is about to be burned 
when Lancelot comes and saves her, not without killing 
half the knights present and some of his own relations 
into the bargain. But Morris saw in this episode an 
opportunity for psychological work, and took it, just 
as Browning might have done. He makes the queen 
express her thought: 

[283 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets. 


Sere LeRnOw 
I wondered how the fire, while I should stand, 
And burn, against the heat, would quiver so, 
Yards above my head.” 


This startles, because it is true. The quotations 
which I gave you from “The Haystack in the Floods” 
contain several passages of an equally impressive sort. 
We can best revive the past in literature not by trying 
to describe the details of custom and of costume then 
prevalent, but by trying to express faithfully the feel- 
ings of people who lived long ago. And this can be 
managed most effectively either by monologue or dia- 
logue. 

The only other collection of short poems written by 
Morris is now compressed into a companion volume en- 
titled “Poems by the Way.” All of it is later work, but 
it is not more successful than the youthful productions 
which we have been considering. Nevertheless it excels 
in greater variety. You have here dramatic pieces of 
several kinds, ballads and translations of ballads, fairy 
tales and translations of fairy tales, medieval and 
Norse stories, and strangely mixed with these a number 
of socialist poems—for Morris believed in the theories 
of socialism, in the possibility of an ideal communism. 

The bulk of the pieces in the volume, however, are 
Scandinavian, and the general tone of the book is 
Northern. Morris was a tremendous worker jin the 
interest of Scandinavian literature. He loved the me- 
dizvalism of the pagan Norse even more than the cor- 
responding period of the Christian and chivalrous 
South. He helped the work of those great Oxford pro- 
fessors who brought out the Corpus Poeticum Boreale, 


[284] 


William Morris 


translating in conjunction with one of them several 
ancient Sagas. And as a poet he did a great deal to 
quicken English interest in Norse literature, as we 
shall see later on. In this book we have only short 
pieces, but they are good, and a number of them have 
the value of almost literal translations. As for the 
style, a good example is furnished by the story of the 
killing of the Hallgerd (or Hallgerda) by Hallbiorn 
the Strong. The story is taken from an old Icelandic 
history, and is undoubtedly true. Hallbiorn wedded a 
daughter of a man called Odd, on account of his odd 
character. She was very beautiful. Her father insisted 
that Hallbiorn should spend the whole next season, 
winter, with him, and said that he might take his bride 
away in the spring for the summer. During the winter 
Hallgerda had a secret intrigue with a blood relation 
called Snebiorn. The husband did not know, he only 
felt a little suspicious at times. When the summer 
came, and he asked Hallgerda to go with him to the 
house which he had built for her, she did not answer. 
He asked her twice, still she did not answer. The third 
time she refused. Then he killed her. Then Snzbiorn, 
her lover, attacked him, and after a terrible fight in 
which eight or nine men were killed, Hallbiorn was cut 
down. Snexbiorn then left the country vowing that he 
would never speak to man again, and settled in Green- 
land, where he died. The incidents are not wonderful, 
but the simple and terrible way in which they are told 
by the Icelandic chronicle makes them appeal greatly to 
the imagination. And Morris did justice to the style 
of the old Landnémabok, as it is called. The following 
lines relate to the tragedy only: 
[285 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


. . . But Hallbiorn into the bower is gone 
And there sat Hallgerd all alone. 

She was not dight to go nor ride, 

She had no joy of the summer-tide, 

Silent she sat and combed her hair, 

That fell all round about her there. 

The slant beam lay upon her head 

And gilt her golden locks to red. 

He gazed at her with hungry eyes 

And fluttering did his heart arise. 

“Full hot,” he said, “is the sun to-day, 

And the snow is gone from the mountain-way, 
The king-cup grows above the grass, 

And through the wood do the thrushes pass.” 
Of all his words she hearkened none 

But combed her hair amidst the sun. 

“The laden beasts stand in the garth, 

And their heads are turned to Helliskarth.’”’ 
The sun was falling on her knee, 

And she combed her gold hair silently. 
“To-morrow great will be the cheer 

At the Brother’s Tongue by Whitewater.” 
From her folded lap the sunbeam slid; 

She combed her hair, and the word she hid. 
“Come, love; is the way so long and drear 
From Whitewater to Whitewater?” 

The sunbeam lay upon the floor ; 

She combed her hair and spake no more. 
He drew her by the lily hand: 

“TI love thee better than all the land.” 

He drew her by the shoulders sweet, 

“My threshold is but for thy feet.” 

He drew her by the yellow hair, 

“Oh, why wert thou so deadly fair? 

Oh, am I wedded to death?” he cried, 

“Is the Dead-strand come to Whitewater side?” 


[286] 


William Morris 


In order to know how terrible all this is, we must 
understand the character of the Norse woman. Like the 
will of the man, her will is iron; she cannot be broken, 
she cannot be made to bend, except by love, and when 
she refuses to bend there is nothing to be done but to 
kill her. All the facts stated here in rhymed verse are 
even more terrible and more simple in the prose chron- 
icle. Throughout Norse history we repeatedly hear of 
women being killed under like circumstances. These 
ferocious men would not beat or abuse their women; 
that would have been no use. But they insisted upon 
being obeyed; to refuse obedience was to court death. 
In the present true story, however, the refusal to obey 
means much more than to court death; it means a bold 
confession by the bride that she has loved and still 
loves another man than her husband, and that is the 
reason of his sudden and terrible question, “Oh, am I 
wedded to death? Is the Dead-strand come to this 
place?” The Dead-strand or Corpse-strand was, in 
Norse mythology, the name of a part of Hel, the region 
of the dead, the Hades of old Norse, so his question 
really means, “Have the evil dead come here for us 
both?” for good men and women did not go to the 
Dead-strand. Now hear her answer. When he speaks 
at last, she sings in his face her secret lover’s favourite 
song, which is just the same thing as to say, “T am 
glad to be killed for my lover’s sake.” And to kill a 
Norse woman meant, of course, death for the man who 
slew her, for her kindred were bound to avenge her. So 
she is defying him in every way. 


The sun was fading from the room, 
But her eyes were bright in the change and the gloom, 


[287 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


“Sharp Sword,” she sang,—‘‘and death is sure, 
But over all doth love endure.” 

She stood up shining in her place 

And laughed beneath his deadly face. 

Instead of the sunbeam gleamed a brand, 

The hilts were hard in Hallbiorn’s hand. 


The last line contains a phrase from old Northern 
war poetry. To say that the hilt of a man’s sword 
was hard in his hand, signifies that he was a terrible 
swordsman, accustomed to mighty blows. But Morris 
here makes a little departure from the original chron- 
icle. He makes Hallbiorn pass his sword through the 
woman’s body. As a matter of fact he did nothing of 
the kind; he simply cut her head off at a single blow. 
Very dramatic, however, is his telling of the subsequent 
flight of Hallbiorn, and the pursuit by Snebiorn. Hall- 
biorn’s men are surprised at the fact that he does not 
hold his ground, for they know nothing of what hap- 
pened in the house, and one of them says, “Where shall 
we sleep to-night?” MHallbiorn answers grimly, “Under 
the ground.” Then his retainers know for the first time 
that they are going to be attacked. The attacking 
party consists of twelve men. MHallbiorn’s retainers 
urge their master to hasten forward; it is still possible, 
they think, to escape. But he stops his horse and leaps 
down, exclaiming: 


“Why should the supper of Odin wait? 
Weary and chased I will not come 
To the table of my father’s home.” 


That is a fine expression about the supper of Odin, 
referring to the hope of every brave man to enter, at 


[288] 


William Morris 


his death, into Valhalla, the hall of Odin, and to sup 
with the gods. And to enter there one had to be killed 
in battle. So you can see the fierce humour of Hall- 
biorn’s remark that he does not want to come late to the 
supper of the gods, and to keep the feast waiting. 
Snebiorn does not speak. Hallbiorn only laughs. He 
kills five men; then one of his feet is cut off, but he 
rushes forward upon the bleeding stump, and kills two 
more before he is overpowered. It was a terribly savage 
world, the old Norse world; but we like to read about 
it, and we cannot help loving the splendid courage of 
the men and women who passed their lives among such 
tragedies, fearing nothing but loss of honour. 

Several other Norse subjects have been treated by 
Morris with equal success; and one is remarkable for 
the strange charm of a refrain used in it, a refrain from 
the Norse. It is called “The King of Denmark’s Sons,” 
and it is the story of a fratricide. King Gorm of Den- 
mark had two sons, Knut and Harald: 


Fair was Knut of face and limb, 

As the breast of the Queen that suckled him; 
But Harald was hot of hand and heart 

As lips of lovers ere they part. 


In history Knut was called the beloved. All men 
loved him, he was the heir; and the old king loved him 
so much that he one day said, “If any one, man or 
woman, ever tells me that my son Knut is dead, that 
person has spoken the word which sends him or her to 
Hel.” But this great love only made the younger 
brother jealous. Harald was a Viking; he voyaged 
southward and eastward, ravaging coasts in the Medi- 


[289] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


terranean or desolating provinces nearer home. His 
name was a terror in England at one time. But his 
father never praised him as he praised his brother. 
So one day at sea he attacked his brother, overcame all 
resistance, and killed him. Then he went home and told 
his mother what had been done. But who dare tell 
the King? The mother imagined a plan. During the 
night she decked the palace hall all in black, taking 
away every ornament. So in the morning, when the 
King entered the hall, he asked, “Who has dared to 
do this?” the Queen answered, “We, the women of the 
palace, have done it.” ‘‘Then,” said the King, “tell me 
that my son Knut is dead!” “You yourself have said 
the word,” the Queen made answer. And therewith the 
old king died as he sat in his chair; and the wicked 
son became king. This is the simple history, and Morris 
has not departed from historic truth in his version of 
it. The refrain excellently suits the ballad measure 
chosen; from the very first stanza, the tone of it sug- 
gests all the tragedy that is going to follow. 


In Denmark gone is many a year, 
So fair upriseth the rim of the sun, 
Two sons of Gorm the King there were, 
So grey is the sea when the day is done. 


Sunrise symbolises happiness, joy; grey is the colour 
of melancholy ; and nothing is so lonesome, so sad look- 
ing, as the waste of the sea when it turns to grey in 
the twilight. The refrain reminds one of a famous line 
by an American poet, Bryant, who certainly never saw 


this ballad: 
[290] 


William Morris 


Old ocean’s grey and melancholy waste. 


Besides the above Norse subjects, I might call your 
attention to the following titles: “The Folk-Mote by the 
River,” “Knight Aagen and Maiden Else,” “Hafbur 
and Signy,” “The Raven and the King’s Daughter.” 
All these are well worth reading. So are the purely 
fairy tales. Northern fairy tales had a great charm for 
Morris. He chose them as subjects, perhaps because 
he saw a way of putting into them a new charm, a 
charm not suited for child readers, but attractive to 
the adult public. I suppose you know that fairy tales, 
as written for children, are written so as to appeal 
chiefly to the imagination, and to those simple emotions 
of which children are capable. But originally such 
stories were told for the amusement of grown up people, 
and a great deal of love sentiment figures in some of 
them. Morris, remembering this, took several charming 
stories and infused them with a new artistic sensuous- 
ness, making love the motive and the principal senti- 
ment. In the other volume of which I spoke, the old 
story of “Rapunzel” is treated in this way; in the 
volume now under consideration we have the story 
“Goldilocks and Goldilocks.” It is the wildest, the most 
impossible kind of fairy tale (so, for that matter, is 
Coleridge’s “Christabel”), but he gave it a very human 
charm by putting delightful little bits of human nature 
‘nto it—such as the passage where the enchanted 
maiden, who never saw a man before, meets the hand- 
some knight for the first time: 


But the very first step he made from the place 
He met a maiden face to face. 


[291] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Face to face, and so close was she, 
That their lips met soft and lovingly. 


Sweet-mouthed she was, and fair he wist; 
And again in the darksome wood they kissed. 


Then first in the wood her voice he heard, 
As sweet as the song of the summer bird. 


“O thou fair man with the golden head, 
What is the name of thee?” she said. 


“My name is Goldilocks,” said he, 
“O sweet-breathed, what is the name of thee?” 


“O Goldilocks the Swain,” she said, 
“My name is Goldilocks the Maid.” 


He spake, “Love me as I love thee, 
And Goldilocks one flesh shall be.” 


She said, “Fair man, I wot not how 
Thou lovest, but I love thee now.” 


And they go on talking together, like two children, 
in their eighteenth century English—she full of won- 
der at the beauty of the stranger of another sex, he 
full of loving pity for her supreme innocence. And 
then all kinds of magical dangers and troubles come 
to separate them, but love conquers all. The story is 
known by many children, but not as Morris tells it. 
His principal purpose is to picture a character of per- 
fect innocence and perfect trust; and he does this so 
delightfully that we cease to care whether the tale is 

[292 ] 


William Morris 


a fairy one or not. It stirs most agreeably something 
which is true in everybody’s heart; we love what is beau- 
tiful in the character of the child or the supremely 
innocent young girl. - 

As a single work in one key, the greatest production 
of Morris is the “Story of Sigurd”; indeed, we might 
call it the masterpiece of the poet, but for the fact that 
it is not original in the true sense. It is little more 
than a magnificent translation in swinging verse of the 
Volsunga Saga. But in more ways than one, it has 
become a literary work of extreme importance. It was 
through this metrical version that the Volsunga Saga 
first became known to English readers in a general way. 
Since then we have had prose translations. 

I want to speak about this Saga, because the subject 
is of extreme literary importance. To-day you can 
scarcely open a literary periodical or any volume of 
essays on literary subjects without finding there some 
reference to the famous Northern story. It is one ver- 
sion of an epic which in various forms belongs to the 
whole Northern race; and one of the forms best known 
is the Nibelungenlied of Germany. Through German 
musical art the latter form of the story has in our own 
time become universally known in all great cities of the 
West, for Wagner made it the subject of a magnificent 
composition ; the greatest of all modern operas, dra- 
matically at least, is certainly his musical presentation 
of the epic cycle. ; 

A word now about the place of this story in Kuro- 
pean literature. Medieval Europe produced four great 
epics. Each of these represents the beginning of a vast 
national literature. The great English epic is the story 

[293 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


of Beowulf, and I am sorry to say that it is not the 
best. The great French epic is the story of Roland. 
The great Spanish epic is the story of the Cid. And 
the great German epic is the Nibelungenlied or Nibe- 
lunge Not, as it has also been called. Of these four 
the German epic is the grandest. Its date is not exactly 
known. But the best critics assert that it cannot be 
older than the middle of the twelfth century, and not 
later than the middle of the thirteenth. Therefore the 
date must be somewhat between 1150-1250. 

But the German epic is by no means the oldest form 
of the story. The older forms are Norse. There are 
poetical fragments of the story to be found in the 
ancient Scandinavian literature (you can find them in 
the library in the Corpus Poeticum Boreale), and there 
is a splendid prose version of the story in the old Ice- 
landic—this is the Volsunga Saga, from which Morris 
took his poetical materials. Between the versions of 
the German and the North, there are great differences 
of narrative, but perhaps not great differences of merit. 
If we could have the whole of the old Norse epic, we 
should perhaps find it even grander than the German. 
But only fragments have been preserved of the poetry, 
and we can only imagine from the prose Saga how mag- 
nificent the lost poetry may have been. And now a 
word about the story itself. 

When Herbert Spencer, some years ago, criticised 
certain English translations issued by the Japanese de- 
partment of education, he stated that the story of the 
great swordsman Musashi was not a proper subject for 
the admiration of the youth, because it is a story of 
vengeance. He was speaking from the standpoint of 


[294] 


William Morris 


ideal education, and from that standpoint his criticism 
is not disputable. But ideal education, in the present 
state of humanity, he himself would acknowledge to be 
impossible. It is only something toward which we can 
all work a little, slowly and patiently. In the mean- 
time, the same objection made to the story of Musashi 
might equally well be made to all the epic poems of the 
Western world, and to nearly all the great romances 
of the past. To begin with, the grand poems of Homer, 
both the Iliad and the Odyssey, are epics of vengeance. 
The great story of King Arthur is a narrative full of 
incidents of revenge and even of crime. We can 
scarcely mention any great composition which is not 
full of vengeance, and which is not also admired. But 
I wonder what could Mr. Spencer say of the Volsunga 
Saga or the Nibelungenlied. For all stories of venge- 
ance ever told, whether in verse or prose, pale before 
the immense quarrel and cruelty of these. They are 
terrible stories, and the Volsunga version is even more 
terrible than the German. 

The story takes its name from the great family of 
the Volsung. It opens with an account of the might 
and power of King Volsung, the heroism of his sons and 
the beauty of his only daughter Signy. These rule in 
the far North. After a time the King of the Goths in 
the South, hearing of the wonderful beauty of Signy, 
asks for her hand in marriage, and obtains it. He goes 
to the country of the Volsung to wed her, and during 
the wedding he becomes jealous of the splendour and 
strength of the Volsung family. When he takes his 
bride South with him there is an evil purpose in his 
heart—the purpose to destroy the family of his bride by 

[295 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


treachery whenever opportunity offers. What follows 
does not belong to the German story at all; it is only 
to be found in the Norse. 

Siggeir, the Gothic king, next year invites the King 
Volsung and his sons to come South and pay him a 
visit. The sons of King Volsung suspect treachery, 
and they advise their father not to go without a great 
army. But the old king wants to see his daughter, and 
he thinks that it would be showing fear to go with a 
great army, so he tells his sons that they must go as 
invited, with only a small following. They go. But the 
suspicion of the sons was justified by events. In the 
middle of the festival of welcome, King Volsung and his 
party are attacked by an immense force, and nearly all 
the followers of the king are killed. The sons are taken 
prisoners and left in a wood tied to trees for the wolves 
to devour. Only one escapes, Sigmund. He hides in 
the forest and becomes a hunter, and dreams of venge- 
ance. 

But the real avenger is Signy, the daughter of the 
dead King Volsung and the wife of the murderer. Signy 
knows that her brother Sigmund is alive. But that 
makes only two Volsungs; and two young people alone 
cannot hope to destroy a king and anarmy. But Signy 
believes that three can do it. Secretly she keeps her 
brother supplied with provisions and weapons, and she 
resolves to raise up sons to avenge the wrong. When 
her first son is born she begs to train him, and when 
he is old enough to begin to learn what war means, she 
sends him to her brother in the wood that he may teach 
the lad. 

Sigmund does not much like the boy. He thinks that 

[296 ] 


William Morris 


he talks too much to be really brave. He tests the lad’s 
courage in different ways, telling him, among other 
things, to bake and knead cake in which a poisonous 
snake has been hidden. The boy is afraid of the snake. 
Sigmund sends him back to Signy, saying that he will 
not do. 

Signy almost despairs. Must her sons be cowards be- 
cause they have a coward father? Suddenly a strange 
idea comes to her. “I shall do as the Gods did in ancient 
times,” she said; “only my brother can produce such 
a child as I wish for, and I shall have a child by him.” 
She goes to a witch, who changes her body, transforms 
her so completely that her brother can have no suspicion 
of what has taken place. Then by him she has a son, 
Sinfiotli. When he is old enough she sends the boy to 
Sigmund. 

Sigmund is astonished by the extraordinary fierce- 
ness and sullenness of the child. “Is it possible,” he 
wonders, “that my sister can have such a child by her 
husband?” The boy scarcely speaks at all, but does 
whatever he is told, and is afraid of nothing. Sigmund 
gives him flour to knead and bake containing a poison- 
ous snake. Instead of being afraid of the serpent, the 
child breaks and crushes the creature in his fingers and 
rolls the poisonous body in the flour, and makes the 
whole thing into cakes. Sigmund is delighted. He 
sends word to his sister, “This boy will do.” 

The rest of this part of the story you can imagine. 
The boy grows up a giant, and is trained in all arts 
by Sigmund. On a certain day these two unexpectedly 
force their way into the palace of the King Siggeir, 
slaughter his people and himself, and set fire to the 

[297] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


palace. Thus King Volsung is avenged. But Signy, 
after having told her brother the story of Sinfiotli, goes 
back into the burning house of the king, and volun- 
tarily dies. She has done her duty, but she does not 
care to live any longer. This ends the great episode of 
the Volsung Saga. 

The next part contains the story of the dragon 
Fafnir. Here we have no more Sigmund. Sinfiotli has 
been poisoned, Sigmund has been killed in battle. But 
there is still one child of the Volsung blood alive in the 
world. This is Sigurd (the Siegfried of the German 
story). Sigurd is kindly brought up by a foster father, 
a Viking, who teaches him all the arts of seamanship 
and war. One of the teachers who helped the Viking 
in the work is a strange old man called Regin, who much 
resembles the Merlin of the story of King Arthur. 
Sigurd wants a sword, a magical sword, that will not 
break in his hand; for he is so strong that common 
swords are of no use to him. Regin alone knows the 
art. But he does not wish to give Sigurd such art. 
He makes in succession a number of swords. Sigurd 
takes each one of them and strikes the anvil with it, 
whereupon the blade flies into pieces. He threatens 
Regin so terribly that the latter at last is obliged to 
make the magical sword. When he finishes, Sigurd 
strikes the anvil with the blade, and the anvil is cut 
in two pieces. In the musical presentation of the story 
by Wagner, the finest episode is this forging of the 
sword. If you ever see that performed in a great 
theatre, you will not easily forget it. But in the Ger- 
man story it is not Regin but the hero himself who 
makes the blade. The anvil is placed upon the stage 

[298 ] 


William Morris 


and all the forging is really done there. When the anvil 
is cut in two, a flash as of lightning follows the blade of 
the sword; the spectacle is very grand. 

But to return to the Volsung legend. Sigurd needs 
the sword in order that he may perform great deeds in 
the world, and the first great deed that he wishes to 
perform is to secure a magical hoard of wealth, belong- 
ing to the Dwarfs of the underworld and guarded by 
the terrible dragon Fafnir. He goes with Regin to the 
place of the hoard, and meets the dragon, and kills him. 
Regin then says to him, “Give me his heart—cut it out 
and roast it.” Sigurd obeys, cuts out the heart of the 
dragon, and begins to roast it over the fire. But while 
roasting it, some grease gets upon his fingers, and he 
licks it off with his tongue. Immediately a wonderful 
thing happens—he can understand the language of 
birds and animals. In the trees above him he hears the 
birds speaking, and they give him warning that Regin 
intends to kill him. Thereupon he kills Regin. This 
story of the dragon’s heart is very famous in European 
literature, and you will find many references to it in the 
poetry and prose of to-day. 

The next part of the story is one of the finest—the 
meeting of Sigurd and Brynhild, the first love episode. 
Brynhild is half human, half divine. Though born 
among men, she had been taken to heaven by Odin and 
made a Valkyria, one of the celestial virgins called the 
“Choosers of the Slain.” But for a fault which she 
committed she had been sent back to earth again, to 
suffer pain and sorrow. In an enchanted sleep she was 
left upon the summit of a mountain, and all about her 
sleeping-place towered a wall of never-dying fire. “Only 

[299 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


the man brave enough to ride through the fire shall have 
this maiden”—so spake Odin. 

Sigurd rides through the fire, and the fire, although 
roaring like the sea, does not hurt him, because he is 
brave. Entering the enchanted circle, he there sees 
a human figure lying, all in golden armour not made 
by any human smith. He tries to awake the sleeper, 
but cannot. He tries to take off the armour, but he 
cannot unfasten it. Then he takes his wonderful sword 
and cuts open the armour as easily as if it were silk. 
Then he finds that the sleeper is a woman, more beau- 
tiful than any woman of earth. She opens her eyes 
and looks at him. They fall in love with each other, 
and pledge themselves to become man and wife. Prob- 
ably this part of the story is one of the sources from 
which the beautiful fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty 
came into our child literature. But the idea is also 
found in very ancient Eastern literature. 

The third part of the great story treats of the his- 
tory of Brynhild especially. Being a Valkyria, she has 
power to see much of the future; she can foretell things 
in a dim way. She warns Sigurd that there is danger 
for him if he should ever be untrue to her. Sigurd 
accepts the warning in the noblest spirit. But the 
Fates are against him. He goes upon a warlike expedi- 
tion to the kingdom of Niblung in the North. The 
Niblung family, after a great battle which Sigurd has 
helped them to win, wish to adopt him as a son, and 
the beautiful daughter of the King falls in love with 
him. Her father and her brothers wish Sigurd to marry 
the girl, whose name is Gudrun. But Sigurd remembers 
his promise to Brynhild. Then the wicked Queen Grim- 


[300] 


William Morris 


hild, the mother of Gudrun, gives Sigurd a poisonous 
drink that causes him to forget the past; and while he 
is under the influence of this magical drink he is per- 
suaded to marry Gudrun. 

But this is not the worst thing that he is obliged to 
do through the magical arts of Grimhild. He is obliged 
to go to Brynhild, and persuade her to become the wife 
of young Gunnar, the brother of Gudrun. He rides 
through the fire again, and persuades Brynhild to be- 
come the wife of Gunnar. She obeys his will, but the 
result is the destruction of Sigurd and all concerned. 
For the two women presently begin to quarrel. Bryn- 
hild loves Sigurd with a supernatural love, and he knows 
that he has been deceived. Gudrun also loves Sigurd 
fiercely, and her jealousy quickly perceives the secret 
affection of Brynhild. In short, the result of the quar- 
rel between the women is that the brothers of Gudrun 
resolve to kill Sigurd while he sleeps. One of them 
stabs him in the middle of night. Sigurd, awaken- 
ing, throws his sword after the escaping murderer with 
such force that the man is cut in two. But Sigurd dies 
of his wound, and Brynhild then kills herself, and the 
two are burnt upon the same funeral pyre. 

The last part of the story is the revenge of Gudrun, 
one of the most terrible characters in all Northern 
stories. She lives only to avenge Sigurd. On finding 
that her brothers have caused his murder, she curses 
her house, her family, her people, and vows that they 
shall all suffer for the wrong done her. Her brothers, 
who know her character, are afraid, but there is a hope 
that time will make her heart more gentle. At all events 
she cannot remain always a widow. Presently she is 


[301] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 
asked for in marriage by Atli, king of the Goths. Her 


brothers wish for this marriage, all except one, who 
is against it. Gudrun marries Atl. This gives her 
power to plan her longed-for revenge. She persuades 
her husband that the great treasures which Sigurd got 
by killing the dragon are worth securing even at the 
cost of the lives of her brothers and father. She does 
not lie to the King; she frankly tells him that she hates 
her people, and he believes her. By treachery, all the 
Niblungs are allured to Atli’s hall. In the middle of 
the day of their arrival, they are suddenly attacked. 
They make a great fight, but all their followers are 
killed, and they themselves are taken prisoners—that 
is, the brothers, the father having died before the oc- 
currence. During the fight Gudrun is present and the 
blood spurts upon her dress and hands, but the expres- 
sion of her face never changes. This is one of the most 
awful scenes in the poem. 

When all the brothers are dead but two, Hogni and 
Gunnar, the King says to Gunnar, “Give me the treas- 
ure of the Niblungs, and I will spare your life.” Gunnar 
answers: “I must first see the heart of my brother 
Hogni cut out of his breast and laid upon a dish.” The 
King’s soldiers take among the prisoners a tall man 
whom they imagine to be Hogni, but who is really only 
a slave, and they cut out the man’s heart and put it 
upon a dish and bring it to Gunnar. Gunnar looks at 
it and laughs and says, “That is not my brother’s 
heart ; see how it trembles—that is the heart of a slave!” 
Then the soldiers kill the real Hogni and cut out his 
heart and bring it upon a plate. This time Gunnar 
does not laugh. He says, “That is really my brother’s 

[302 ] 


William Morris 


heart. It does not tremble. Neither did it ever tremble 
in his breast when he was alive. There were only two 
men in the world yesterday who knew where the treas- 
ure of the Niblungs is hidden, my brother and myself. 
And now that my brother is dead, I am the only one in 
the world who knows. See if you can make me tell you. 
I shall never tell you.” He is tortured and killed, but 
he never tells. 

There is only one of the whole Niblung race still 
alive, Gudrun. She has avenged her husband upon her 
own brothers, but that does not satisfy her. By the 
strange and ferocious Northern code she must now 
avenge her kindred, though they be her enemies, upon 
the stranger. She has used Atli in order to destroy her 
brothers; but, after all, they were her brothers and 
Atli only her husband. She sets fire to the palace, kills 
Atli with her own hands, and then leaps into the sea. 
Thus all the characters of the story meet with a tragic 
end. There is no such story of vengeance in any other 
literature. Yet this epic, or romance, is the greatest 
of medieval compositions, and every student ought to 
know something about it, either in its Scandinavian or 
its German form. In the German form the character 
of Gudrun—she is there called Kriemhild—is much less 
savage ; and the German story is altogether a more civi- 
lised expression of feeling. But any form of the story 
(and there are several other forms besides those of 
which I have spoken) shows the moving passion to be 
vengeance; and to return to the subject of Mr. Spen- 
cer’s criticism, we may say that there is no great tale, 
Western or Eastern, in which this passion has no 
play. 

[303 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


The values of the story are in the narration, in the 
descriptions of battles, weapons, banquets, weddings, in 
the heroic emotions often expressed in speeches or 
pledges, and in the few chapters of profound tenderness 
strangely mingled among chapters dealing only with 
atrocious and cruel passions; all these give perpetual 
literary worth to the composition, and we cannot be 
tired of them. The subject was a grand one for any 
English poet to take up, and Morris took it up in a 
very worthy way. He has put the whole legend into 
anapestic verse of sixteen syllables, a long swinging, 
irregular measure which has a peculiar exultant effect 
upon the reader. To give an example of this work is 
very difficult. Any part detached from the rest, loses 
by detachment—for Morris, although a good poet, and 
a correct poet, and a spiritual poet, is not an exquisite 
poet. He does not give to his verses that supreme 
finish which we find in the compositions of the greater 
Victorian poets. However, I shall attempt a few 
examples. I thought at first of reading to you some 
passages regarding the forging of the sword; but I 
gave up the idea on remembering how much better 
Wagner has treated the same incident where the hero 
chants as he strikes out the shape of the blade with 
his hammer, and at last, with a mighty shout lifts up 
the blade and cuts the anvil in two. Perhaps a better 
example of Morris’s verse may be found in these lines: 


By the Earth that groweth and giveth, and by all the 
Earth’s increase 

That is spent for Gods and man-folk, by the sun that 
shines on these; 


[304] 


William Morris 
By the Salt-Sea-Flood that beareth the life and death of 


men; 
By the Heaven and Stars that change not, though Earth 
die out again; 


I hallow me to Odin for a leader of his host, 

To do the deeds of the Highest, and never count the cost; 

And I swear, that whatso great-one shall show the day and 
the deed, 

I shall ask not why nor wherefore, but the sword’s desire 
shall speed: 

And I swear to seek no quarrel, nor to swerve aside for 
aught 

Though the right and the left be blooming, and the straight 
way wend to nought, 

And I swear to abide and hearken the prayer of any thrall, 

Though the war-torch be on the threshold and the foemen’s 
feet in the hall: 

And I swear to sit on my throne in the guise of the kings 
of the earth, 

Though the anguish past amending, and the unheard woe 
have birth: 

And I swear to wend in my sorrow that none shall curse 
mine eyes 

For the scowl that quelleth beseeching, and the hate that 
scorneth the wise. 

So help me Earth and Heavens, and the Under-sky and 
Seas, 

And the Stars in their ordered houses, and the Norns that 
order these! 

And he drank of the cup of Promise, and fair as a star he 
shone, 

And all men rejoiced and wondered, and deemed Earth’s 
glory won. 


[305] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


This will serve very well to show you the ringing 
spirit of the measure. Here is an example of another 
kind taken from the pages describing the first secret 
love of the maiden Gudrun for Sigurd. It is true to 
human nature; the Northern woman is apt to be most 
cruel to the man whom she loves most, and these few 
lines give us a dark suggestion of the character of 
Gudrun long before the real woman reveals herself— 
immensely passionate and immensely strong in self- 
control. 


But men say that howsoever all other folk of earth 

Loved Sigmund’s son rejoicing, and were bettered of their 

i mirth, 

Yet ever the white-armed Gudrun, the dark haired Niblung 
Maid, 

From the barren heart of sorrow her love upon him laid; 

He rejoiceth, and she droopeth; he speaks and hushed is 
she; 

He beholds the world’s days coming, nought but Sigurd 
may she see. 

He is wise and her wisdom falters; he is kind, and harsh 
and strange 

Comes the voice from her bosom laden, and her woman’s 
mercies change. 

He longs, and she sees his longing, and her heart grows 
cold as a sword. 

And her heart is the ravening fire, and the fretting sorrows’ 
hoard. 


A great deal is said in these lines by the use of sug- 
gestive words and words of symbolism. Paraphrased 
these verses mean much more. “No matter how much 
all other people showed their love and admiration for 


[306] 


William Morris 


Sigurd by making festival and public rejoicing, feeling 
happier and better for having seen him, all their affec- 
tion was as nothing to the love that Gudrun secretly 
felt for him, out of her lonesome heart; and great was 
her secret grief at the thought that he might not love 
her. Then she acted with him after the manner of the 
woman resolved to win. Whenever she saw him 
rejoice she became sad. Whenever he spoke to her, she 
remained silent. Many things Sigurd knew—so wise 
he was that he could see even the events of the future; 
but she saw nothing and knew nothing thereafter ex- 
cept Sigurd, nor did she wish to see or to know any- 
thing else. And when he showed himself wise, she acted 
as a foolish child. And when he tried to be kind to 
her she answered him with a strange and harsh voice, 
and suddenly became without pity. And at last when 
he began to long for love, and she perceived it, then 
her heart became cold as a sword. So was the soul 
of this woman in the time of her passion—now like 
ravening fire, now again desolate with all the sorrows 
that corrode and destroy.” 

Because she sees still that love is not for her, the 
whole scene of the courting—this is one of the cases 
where the maiden woos the man without ever losing 
her dignity as a maiden—is of consummate skill, show- 
ing Gudrun at one moment simple and sweet as a child, 
revealing suddenly, at another time, the strange height 
and depth of her, many things terrible in her, capa- 
ble of the making or the ruin of a kingdom. 

I am not going to quote, but I hope that you will 
notice particularly the fine scene of the death of Bryn- 
hild. There is a grand thought in it. I did not tell 


[307] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


you, in the brief epitome of the plot which I gave you, 
about the second wooing of Brynhild. When Sigurd 
wooed her for King Gunnar, he lay down beside her 
at night; but he placed his naked sword between them. 
This episode is famous in Western literature. So he 
brought her chaste to her bridegroom. And when 
afterwards Brynhild kills herself, in order that she 
may be able to join him in the spirit world, she shows 
her admiration of Sigurd’s action by saying, “When 
you put my dead body on the funeral pyre beside the 
dead body of Sigurd, put his naked sword again be- 
tween us, as it was put between us when he wooed me 
long ago, for the sake of King Gunnar.” The suicide 
chapter is very grand. And the ending of the long 
tragedy has also a peculiar grandeur, when Gudrun 
leaps into the sea. 


The sea-waves o’er her swept; 

And their will is her will henceforward; and who knoweth 
the deeps of the sea 

And the wealth of the bed of Gudrun, and the days that 
yet shall be? 


A finer simile could not be imagined than this sudden 
transformation of a passionate woman’s will into the 
vast motion and unimaginable depths of the sea. The 
idea is, “Deep and wide was her soul like the sea; 
and the strength of her and the depth of her are now 
the strength and depth of the ocean; and who knows 
what her spirit may hereafter accomplish?” 

In concluding this little study of the romance, I 
may say that some of its incidents are probably im- 


[308] 


William Morris 


mortal because they contain perpetual truth. I am not 
now speaking particularly of Morris’s work, but only 
of the legend of Sigurd. The studies in it of evil 
passions need not demand our praise, but the stories 
of heroism, like that of the naked sword laid between 
the man and the maid, will always seem to us grand. 
Symbolically we may say that the wealth of the world 
is still guarded by dragons as truly as in the story of 
Sigurd; formidable and difficult to overcome are the 
powers opposing success in the struggle of life, and 
the acquisition of the prize can be only for the hero, 
the strong man mentally or morally. Again that 
strange fancy of Brynhild ringed about in her magical 
sleep with a wall of living fire—I do not know how 
it may seem to the far Eastern reader, but to the 
Western it is the symbol of a real truth, that beauty, 
the object of human desire, is still truly ringed about 
by fire, in the sense that the winner of it must risk 
all possible dangers of body and soul before he suc- 
ceeds. Still in Northern countries the finest woman 
is for the best man; only the hero can truly ride 
through the fire of the gods. 

I have said enough about the great poems of Morris; 
I do not think that it will be necessary to say any- 
thing about “The Life and Death of Jason.” If you 
like his other work, probably you will like that book 
also. But I think that the story of Jason is more 
charmingly told by Charles Kingsley in his Greek fairy 
tale, and that Morris was at his best, so far as long 
narrative poems are concerned, in Norse subjects. I 
have already told you about his strong personal inter- 
est in Norse literature, and about his work as a prose 


[309] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


translator. In this connection I may mention a queer 
fact. Morris, who claimed to have Norse blood in 
his own veins, became so absorbed by the Norse sub- 
jects that his character seems to have been changed in 
later life. He became stark and grim like the old 
Vikings, even to his friends. But if he offended in this 
wise, he certainly made up for the fault by that tre- 
mendous energy which he appeared to absorb from the 
same source. No man ever worked harder for romantic 
literature and romantic art, and few men have made 
so deep an impression upon the esthetic sentiments 
of the English public. 


[310] 


CHAPTER VI 
THE POETRY OF GEORGE MEREDITH 


At the present time (1900) scarcely any English poet 
is more in vogue than George Meredith. His popu- 
larity is comparatively new, but it is founded upon 
solid excellence of a very extraordinary kind. George 
Meredith is an exception to general rules—even to 
the rule that a great poet is scarcely ever a great 
prose writer; for he was known to the public as a 
novelist for half a century before he began to be 
known as a poet. To-day he is so often quoted from, 
so often referred to, that we cannot ignore him in the 
course of lectures upon English literature. 

He is now nearly seventy-two years old, having been 
born in 1828. He studied mostly in Germany, and 
studied law, but he had scarcely left his university 
when he resolved to abandon law and devote his life 
to literature. Returning to England he published his 
first book, a volume of poems, in 1851. It attracted no 
notice at all. In 1856 his next book appeared, called 
“The Shaving of Shagpat,” a wonderful fairy-tale, 
written in imitation of the Arabian Nights with Ara- 
bian characters and scenery. It remains the best thing 
of the kind ever done by any European writer, but 
the kind was not popular, and only a few of the great 
poets and critics noticed what a wonderful book it 


[311] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


was. After that Meredith took up novel writing, 
studying English life and character in an entirely new 
way. But he was not at first able to attract much 
attention. His novels were too scholarly and too psy- 
chological. Ten years from the date of his first volume 
of poems, in 1862, he published another book of verses, 
entitled “Modern Love.” This attracted the notice of 
Swinburne, but of scarcely anybody else, and Mere- 
dith went back to novel writing. Twenty years later, 
in 1883, a third volume of poems appeared, “Poems and 
Lyrics of the Joy of Earth.” This book obtained 
some critical praise, but only the cultivated men of 
letters appreciated it. More novels followed, and in 
1887 and 1888 appeared the last volumes of poems, 
“Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life,” and ‘A Reading 
of Earth.” Since then Meredith has chiefly written 
novels, but occasionally he writes poems. Success 
came to him only in old age—within the last twenty 
years. It is not within the purpose of this lecture to 
speak of his novels at all; we shall deal only with his 
poetry. 

At the first sight of such poetry a good judge would 
naturally exclaim, “How is it that I never heard of 
this wonderful poet before??? But a further examina- 
tion will easily furnish the reason. Meredith is un- 
commonly difficult as well as uncommonly deep. He 
has the obscurity of Browning, and yet a profundity 
exceeding Browning’s; he is essentially a psychological 
poet, but he is also an evolutional philosopher, which 
Browning scarcely was. He did not study in Germany 
for nothing, and he alone of all living Englishmen 
really expresses the whole philosophy of the modern 

[312] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


scientific age. Now such a man necessarily found him- 
self in a peculiar position. The older thinkers of his 
own time could scarcely understand him; he was ut- 
tering new thoughts, and uttering them often in a 
German rather than in an English way. The younger 
thinkers of the period were still at school or in the 
university when he began to express himself. His 
audience was therefore extremely small at first. Now 
it is very large, and he is known as well in France and 
Germany as at home, but we may say that he gave his 
whole life for this success. 

A word now about his philosophy. Meredith is a 
thinker of the broadest and most advanced type, but 
he is essentially optimistic—that is, he considers all 
things as an evolutionist, but also as one who believes 
that the tendency of the laws which govern the uni- 
verse is toward the highest possible good. He believes 
the world to be the best possible world which man 
could desire, and he thinks that all the unhappiness 
and folly of men is due only to ignorance and to 
weakness. He proclaims that the world can give every 
joy and every pleasure possible to those who are both 
wise and strong. Above all else he preaches the duty 
of moral strength—the power to control our passions 
and impulses. He has, however, very little compassion 
in him; he is a terribly stern teacher, never pitying 
weakness, never forgiving ignorance. He never talks of 
any theological God—not at least as a God to believe 
in; but you get from all his poetry the general im- 
pression that he considers the working of the universe 
divine. It will not be necessary to say more here 
about his opinions, because we shall find them better 


[313] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


expressed in his poems than they could be in any at- 
tempt at a brief réswmé. 

I think that it will be better to take some of his 
simpler poems first, for study; indeed the longer ones 
are very difficult and would require much explanation 
as well as paraphrasing. The shorter ones will better 
serve the first purpose of showing you how different 
this man’s poetry is from that of any other English 
poet of the time. The first example will be from 
“Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life.” I need not 
explain to you the meaning of the word “Tragic.” But 
the tragedies in which Meredith is interested are never 
tragedies of mere physical pain. There may be some 
killing in them, but the shedding of blood does not 
mean the tragedy. “King Harald’s Trance” is a good 
illustration of this. 

Harald—a name common in Scandinavian history— 
we may suppose to be a Norwegian Viking. The Vik- 
ings of old Norway were the most terrible men that 
ever lived, but they were also among the grandest and 
noblest. Their trade was war, their religion was war, 
their idea of happiness after death was still war— 
eternal war in heaven, ghostly fighting on the side of 
the gods. Such an idea of life requires many great 
qualities as well as natural fearlessness and great 
physical strength. These men had to learn from child- 
hood not only how to fight, but how to control their 
passions, for in fighting, you know that the man who 
first gets angry is almost certain to get beaten. The 
Norse character was above all things a character of 
great self-mastery, and the finer qualities of it are 
those which have also made the finer qualities of both 

[314] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


the German and the English speaking races of the 
modern world. It occurred to the poet Meredith to 
study such a character among its ancient surround- 
ings, and among the most trying possible circumstances. 
What could break down such mighty strength? What 


could conquer such iron hearts? We are going to see. 


I 


Sword in length a reaping-hook amain 
Harald sheared his field, blood up to shank; 
*Mid the swathes of slain 
First at moonrise drank. 


II 


Thereof hunger, as for meats the knife, 
Pricked his ribs, in one sharp spur to reach 
Home and his young wife, 
By the sea-ford beach. 


III 


After battle keen to feed was he: 

Smoking flesh the thresher washed down fast, 
Like an angry sea 
Ships from keel to mast. 


IV 


Name us glory, singer, name us pride 
Matching Harald’s in his deeds of strength; 
Chiefs, wife, sword by side, 
Foemen stretched their length! 
[315] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Vv 


Half a winter night the toasts hurrahed, 
Crowned him, clothed him, ee him high, 
Till awink he bade 
Wife to chamber fly. 


Mightily Harald, as a reaper in a field of corn mows 
down the grain, with his scythe-long sword moved down 
the enemy—standing in blood up to his ankles. All 
day he slew, and when the battle was finished after 
dark and the dead lay all about him, like the swathes 
of grain cut down by reapers, then for the first time 
he was able to drink, as the moon began to rise. 

Then the great effort and excitement of the battle 
left him hungry. His hunger pricked him like a knife 
—aimpelled him to mount his horse and gallop straight 
home at full speed to where his young wife was wait- 
ing for news of him. 

He always ate prodigiously after fighting; to see 
him eating roast meat and washing it down his great 
throat with drinks of ale after a battle, made one 
think of the spectacle of a stormy sea swallowing 
ships. 

Then came the customary banqueting and singing 
and drinking. Professional singers sang songs in praise 
of his fighting that day, while he sat enthroned among 
his warriors, with his sword by his side, and his young 
wife seated at his right hand. All his enemies were 
dead. 

For half the night the drinking and singing con- 
tinued. Harald had to sit there and hear himself 
praised, and drink whenever his own health was drunk 


[316] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


to—such was the custom. But when the strong men 
had begun to show the influence of liquor too much, 
the king made a sign to his wife to withdraw to her 
own room. When the warriors drank too much, it 
was not a time for women to be present. 

This is the substance of the first part of the poem. 
Observe that Harald is never spoken of as having been 
fatigued by his battle; fighting only makes him hungry. 
This is a giant and probably a kindly giant in his 
way; we see that he is fond of his young wife. But 
he cannot retire from the banquet according to the 
custom of his people. He must drink with everybody 
after the great victory. And he drinks so much that 
he remains like a dead man for three days. Only 
after that, his great strength is to be tried. 


VI 


Twice the sun had mounted, twice had sunk, 
Ere his ears took sound; he lay for dead; 
Mountain on his trunk, 
Ocean on his head. 


VII 


Clamped to couch, his fiery hearing sucked 
Whispers that at heart made iron-clang; 
Here fool-women clucked, 


There men held harangue. 
Vill 


Burial to fit their lord of war, 

They decreed him: hailed the kingling: ha! 
Hateful! but this Thor 
Failed a weak lamb’s baa. 


[317 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


IX 


King they hailed a branchlet, shaped to fare, 
Weighted so, like quaking shingle-spume, 
When his blood’s own heir 
Ripened in the womb! 


Twice the sun had risen and had set, yet Harald had 
not stirred. His hearing returned; but he could not 
move, could not speak, could not open his eyes. Upon 
his breast there seemed to be a weight like the weight 
of a mountain keeping him down; above his head it 
seemed to him that there was a whole ocean—in his 
head there was the sound of it. 

But soon other sounds came to his ears, as he lay 
upon his bed, as if fixed to it with bands of iron. He 
heard whispers that made a disturbance at his heart. 
He heard women cluttering like hens; he heard also 
men making speeches. 

What were they making speeches about? About 
him. He heard them say that he was dead; that he 
must be grandly buried like a great warrior and 
king. And he heard them talk of the new king— 
rather, of the kingling. Why did they appoint so 
weak a man to be king? How quickly he could stop 
all that with a word. But although he had been as 
strong and terrible as the God Thor, he could not now 
even make a noise like the bleat of a lamb. 

Still he listened, he heard more. This king that was 
to be was only very distantly related to him. Such 
a man never could have force of will to rule the men 
of that country. He would have no more power than 


[318] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


sea foam on a beach of rocks. But why should a king 
have been elected at all? Was not his own wife soon 
to become a mother? His child would be a man fit to 
rule. While the child was still a child, the chiefs could 
govern. Why did they elect that other? 

He is going to learn why—and this is the beginning 
of the terrible part of the poem. 


xX 


Still he heard, and doglike, hoglike, ran 

Nose of hearing till his blind sight saw: 
Woman stood with man, 
Mouthing low, at paw. 


XI 


Woman, man, they mouthed; they spake a thing 
Armed to split a mountain, sunder seas: 

Still the frozen king 

Lay and felt him freeze. 


XII 


Doglike, hoglike, horselike now he raced, 
Riderless, in ghost across a ground 
Flint of breast, blank-faced, 
Past the fleshly bound. 


Still the King listened in his trance, and he listened 
until his hearing acted for him as a dog acts for the 
hunter, or as a wild hog acts, following the scents of 
the roots that he wants even under the surface of the 
ground. Alone by his hearing he perceived what was 

[319] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


going on; his eyes could not see, but his mind saw 
even more clearly than eyes. His young wife had been 
false to him; she was talking to another man even 
there within his own house; they were kissing each 
other, they were touching each other, they were 
speaking wickedness, such wickedness as would have 
power to split a mountain or-to separate the waters 
of the sea—crime as would destroy the world. But 
he, the giant they betrayed, the King they be- 
trayed, the husband, he could not move. Coldness 
of death is about him; he feels his blood freezing. 
O! for the days when he could renew his strength in 
a moment merely by filling his great lungs with the 
sea winds. “If I could only breathe the sea wind for 
one second,” he thinks, “then I could rise up.” And 
the ghost of him really seeks the shore of the sea, 
the flint-breasted naked rocks of the beach—racing like 
a horse in order to get strength from the sea wind 
to awaken the great inert body. When the ghost gets 
in, then the King can wake. 


XIII 


Smell of brine his nostrils filled with might, 
Nostrils quickened eyelids, eyelids hand; 
Hand for sword at right 
Groped, the great haft spanned. 


XIV 


Wonder struck to ice his people’s eyes; 

Him they saw, the prone upon the bier, 
Sheer from backbone rise, 
Sword uplifting peer. 


[320] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


XV 


Sitting did he breathe against that blade, 

Standing kiss it for that proof of life: 
Strode, as netters wade, 
Straightway to his wife. 


Here the scene has suddenly changed. We are on 
the sea shore. But you will remember that in the last 
of the verses before paraphrased, we were in the house, 
and the man imagined himself moving as a ghost on 
the sea shore in search of strength. Before we para- 
phrase again, it is necessary to understand this. First 
I must tell you that Meredith does not believe in ghosts, 
and does not want us to imagine that the man’s spirit 
was really moving outside of his body. He has been 
describing only the feeling and imagination of the 
warrior, in the state between life and death. It was 
the custom to burn the dead body of a great sea-king 
on the sea shore, and you must imagine that the body 
has been carried down to the shore to be burnt. Then 
the smell of the sea really revived him. And this 
explanation is further required by the fact that later 
on, Harald is represented in full armour, with his helmet 
upon his head and his sword laid by his side. It was 
¢ custom to burn the warrior with his arms and ar- 
mour. All we have been reading about the ghost rep- 
resents only what Harald felt, just before his awaken- 
ing. Now we will paraphrase: The smell of the sea 
came to him; he breathed the sea wind, and, as he 
breathed it, it seemed to fill him with strength. He 
opened his eyes, he saw; at once he felt at his right 

[321] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


hand for his sword, which he knew ought to be there. 
He felt the handle, grasped it. 

Then he sat up on the bier, and his men were utterly 
astonished, for they had thought him dead; but lo! he 
had risen up straight to a sitting posture. They 
stared motionless, as if their eyes had been frozen. 

Sitting up, Harald still doubted whether he was really 
alive. He lifted the blade of his sword to his lips, 
and breathed upon it. Seeing his own breath on the 
great steel, he kissed the sword affectionately, out of 
gratitude to find himself alive again. Then standing 
up he advanced toward his wife—slowly, slowly,—as a 
fisherman or a bird catcher advances, wading in water, 
against a current. 


XVI 


Her he eyed: his judgment was one word, 
Foulbed !—and she fell; the blow clove two. 
Fearful for the third, 
All their breath indrew. 


XVII 


Morning danced along the waves to beach; 

Dumb his chiefs fetched breath for what might hap, 
Glassily on each 
Stared the iron cap. 


XVIII 


Sudden, as it were a monster oak 

Split to yield a limb by stress of heat, 
Strained he, staggered, broke 
Doubled at their feet. 


[322] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


He looked upon her face, judged her guilt, expressed 
that judgment by the single word “Adulteress”—and 
struck. His blow killed two, for she was about to 
become a mother. Whom would he kill next? Who was 
the guilty man? Evidently he was not there; or per- 
haps Harald did not know yet who he was. Everybody 
waited in silent terror. 

The sun rose, sending his gold light dancing over 
the waves from the East. And still the men stood 
there in silent fear. Harald said nothing, did not 
move; but he looked at each man with a glassy stare, 
with the look of one who does not find what he is wait- 
ing for. 

Then suddenly, like a great oak tree, too large to be 
cut with the ax and therefore possible only to split 
by the use of fire, the giant seemed to make a sudden ef- 
fort, he moved, he staggered, he fell dead at their feet. 

What is the deeper meaning of this terrible poem, 
founded upon an historical fact? Simply that moral 
pain is much more powerful than physical pain—that 
it is capable of breaking down any strength. Harald 
could not be killed in battle under ordinary circum- 
stances; fighting could not even tire him, it only made 
him hungry and thirsty. No physical excess could 
injure that body of iron. His vast eating and drink- 
ing only gave him a heavy sleep. But when he was 
wounded in his affections, by the treachery of the only 
being whom he could love and trust, then his heart 
burst. He dies in the poem magnificently, even like 
a moral hero, containing himself perfectly until death 
takes him away. But the teaching of the story is very 
awful as well as very true. 


[323] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


The remarkable thing to notice about this poetry is 
its compression, a compression that only seems to make 
the colour more vivid and the emotion more forceful. 
In order to paraphrase it intelligibly one must use two 
or three times as many words as the poet uses. Brown- 
ing has the same strange power, and in many ways 
Meredith strongly resembles Browning. But he is 
much more philosophical, as we see later on. 

Of ballads written in the true ballad form, there 
are not more than three or four in the whole book, 
notwithstanding the title, “Ballads and Poems.” An- 
other ballad more famous than that which I have 
quoted is called “Archduchess Anne,” a title which at 
once makes us think of various episodes in Austrian 
history. It is a splendid piece of psychological study, 
but less suitable for quotation than the poem on King 
Harald, for it is very long. The object of the poet is 
to show the consequences of a foolish act on the part 
of a person ruling the destiny of a nation. Anne is 
practically a queen; and she is married. But she takes 
a strong fancy to a handsome man among her courtiers, 
Count Louis. In other words, she falls in love with 
him. He takes every advantage of the situation, be- 
cause he is both diplomatic and selfish. The Arch- 
duchess rules her own cabinet; but the Count soon 
learns how to rule her; consequently he gets all the 
power of the government into his hands. And when 
he has done this, he shows his selfishness. She im- 
mediately reassumes her power, and then there is a 
political quarrel. The state is divided in two parties. 
Count Louis then does what no gentleman under the 
circumstances could very well do, he marries a young 


[324] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


wife, and brings her to the court. Of course, when 
there is, or has been, illegitimate love in high places, 
the fact can not be very well concealed. Everybody 
knows it. The whole court knows that the Queen has 
loved Count Louis, and that his marriage, and, above 
all, the bringing of his wife to the court is a cruel 
insult. One of the Queen’s faithful servants, an old 
general, determines to avenge her if he can ever get a 
chance. And the chance comes. Count Louis soon 
afterwards incites a revolution, raises an army and 
advances to battle. The old general meets him, cap- 
tures him by a cunning trick, and writes the Queen a 
letter, saying, “I have him.” But the old general does 
not quite understand a woman’s heart. When a good 
woman—and by “good” I mean especially affectionate 
—has once loved a man, it is scarcely possible that 
anything could make her afterwards really hate him. 
There was of course the extraordinary case of Chris- 
tina of Sweden, who had her lover stabbed to death 
before her eyes, but in such a case as that we do not 
believe there was a real affection at any time. Anne 
is in a very difficult position; she is very angry with 
the prisoner, but she secretly loves him. How is she 
to answer the letter of her general? If she says, “Do 
not kill him,” the general will think that she is very 
fond of him. If she says, “Kill him,” the general will 
think that she is revengeful and the whole world will 
think the same thing. If she says, ‘Let him go free,” 
that will only make the general despise her, not to 
speak of all the political trouble that would follow. 
If she says, “Send him to me that he may be ‘mpris- 
oned at once,” that would seem to the world as if she 


[325] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


wished to make love to the prisoner by force, to take 
him away from his wife. Whatever she does will seem 
in some way wrong. She has placed herself in a false 
position to begin with; and now she does not know 
what to do. What she really wishes is a reconcilia- 
tion with the man who has been so base to her, but 
she dares not say that to the leader of her armies. 
Therefore she writes a diplomatic letter to him, hoping 
that he can understand it. She says that she does not 
want to be too severe; she speaks of religion, she 
trusts that her general will know what to do. He 
determines that the man shall die as quickly as possible. 


Her words he took; her nods and winks 
Treated as woman’s fog, 

The man-dog for his mistress thinks, 
Not less her faithful dog. 


She hugged a cloak old Kraken ripped; 
Disguise to him he loathed. 

—Your mercy, madam, shows you stripped, 
While mine will keep your clothed. 


That is, the old soldier determined to act exactly 
upon the words of the letter; as for suggestions, he 
refused to pay any attention to them. ‘‘Women,” he 
thought, ‘“‘are too weak. She wants to hide her feelings 
from me. And she wants to be merciful. By law the 
man is a traitor, and ought to be hanged. But I shall 
shoot him instead—give him the death of a soldier, 
that is mercy enough. My mercy will hide the Queen’s 
shame; her mercy would proclaim that shame to the 
whole world.” So Count Louis is shot. Before this, 


[326] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


however, the young wife of Count Louis goes to the 
Archduchess to beg for her husband’s life, and this is 
a very touching part of the poem. Of course this 
innocent young wife does not know what has happened 
in the past, and can not know what pain her presence 
is giving. 


The Countess Louis from her head 
Drew veil: “Great Lady, hear! 

My husband deems you Justice dread, 
I know you Mercy dear. 


“His error upon him may fall; 
He will not breath a nay. 

I am his helpless mate in all, 
Except for grace to pray. 


“Perchance on me his choice inclined, 
To give his House an heir; 

I had not marriage with his mind, 
His counsel could not share. 


“J brought no portion for his weal 
But this one instinct true, 

Which bids me in my weakness kneel, 
Archduchess Anne, to you.” 


Now you can see that every word here innocently 
uttered would seem to the Archduchess very cunning 
or very stupid. Did the young wife know the secret, 
then every word would be like turning a knife in the 
heart of the Archduchess. And if she did not know, 
how horribly stupid she must be to say what seems 

[327] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


so wicked. Therefore she is driven away at once. But 
after she has gone, the Archduchess has to think about 
what was said, and she feels that after all the young 
wife really did the very best thing that a woman 
could have done to save her husband. 

Yet it is too late to save him. Presently the news 
comes that he has been shot. And the result is a civil 
war; for the party of Count Louis tries to avenge him. 
There is war also in the heart of the sovereign. How 
unutterably she hates her faithful old general; yet she 
must trust to him, for the kingdom is in danger.’ Pain 
and sorrow make Anne look already like an old woman. 
When the war is over she treats her general so ill that 
he is obliged to leave the country. By one fauit, how 
much unhappiness and destruction comes to pass— 
revolution, civil war, and the ruin of many lives!) And 
the poem ends with the quatrain often quoted in other 
connections than the present: 


And she that helped to slay, yet bade 
To spare the fated man, 

Great were her errors, but she had 
Great heart, Archduchess Anne. 


Of course, there is just a little bit of cruel irony in 
the statement, for it obliges us to ask the question 
whether a great heart can compensate for much fool- 
ishness, whether affection can excuse the ruin of a 
government. I think that the poet here is quietly 
opposing the moral of the beautiful old Bible story, 
about the woman forgiven “because she loved much”— 
qua multum amavit. One would say that a person 


[328] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


holding the position of supreme ruler cannot be for- 
given simply because she loved much, although we may 
pity her with all our hearts. 

Pity is not a virtue with Meredith. He reminds us 
often of the old Jesuit doctrine, that pity is akin to 
concupiscence. For example, Meredith takes a ground 
strongly opposed to all romantic precedents when he 
treats of the question of adultery. From the time 
of the Middle Ages it was the custom of poets to rep- 
resent unhappy wives secretly in love with strangers, 
or to paint the tragedies arising from the consequence 
of sexual jealousy. Even in all the versions of the 
story of King Arthur, our sympathies are invoked on 
behalf of illegitimate love,—even in Tennyson. We 
sympathise a good deal with Lancelot and with Guine- 
vere. In Dante, most religious of the old poets, we 
have a striking example of this appeal to pity in the 
story of Francesca da Rimini. And I need scarcely 
speak of various modern schools of poetry who have 
imitated the poets of the Middle Ages in this respect. 
Meredith takes the opposite view—represents the err- 
ing woman always as culpable, and praises the act of 
killing her. He gives evolutional reasons for this. For 
example, he takes an old Spanish love story, and tells 
it over again in a new way. There is a beautiful young 
wife alone at home. ‘There is a terrible rascal of a 
husband, a fellow who spends all his time in drinking, 
gambling, fighting, and making love to other women. 
His wife gets tired of his neglect and his brutality 
and his viciousness. If he does not love her, somebody 
else shall. So she gets a secret lover, while her hus- 
band is away. This young man visits her. Suddenly 

[329] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


her husband returns, and now we leave Meredith to 
moralise the situation. I think that you will find it 
both new and interesting. 


Thundered then her lord of thunders; 
Burst the door, and flashing sword, 
Loud disgorged the woman’s title: 
Condemnation in one word. 


Grand by righteous wrath transfigured, 
Towers the husband who provides 

In his person judge and witness, 
Death’s black doorkeeper besides! 


e . . . . . 


How though he hath squandered Honour! 
High of Honour let him scold: 

Gilding of the man’s possession, 

*Tis the woman’s coin of gold. 


She, inheriting from many 

Bleeding mothers bleeding sense, 

Feels *twixt her and sharp-fanged nature 
Honour first did plant the fence. 


Nature, that so shrieks for justice; 
Honour’s thirst, that blood will slake; 
These are women’s riddles, roughly 
Mixed to write them saint or snake. 


Never nature cherished woman; 
She throughout the sexes’ war 
Serves as temptress and betrayer, 
Favouring man, the muscular. 


[330] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


Hard the task: your prison-chamber 
Widens not for lifted latch 

Till the giant thews and sinews 
Meet their Godlike overmatch. 


Read that riddle, scorning pity’s 
Tears, of cockatrices shed; 

When the heart is vowed for freedom, 
Captaincy it yields to head. 


The point upon which the poet here insists is the 
evolutional signification of female virtue and of all that 
relates to it. Evidently he does not believe that either 
men or women were very virtuous in the beginning— 
not at all; their knowledge of right and wrong had to 
be developed slowly through great sufferings in the 
course of thousands of years. In order that the modern 
woman may be virtuous as she is, millions of her ances- 
tors must have suffered the experience that teaches the 
social worth of female honour. And a woman who 
to-day proves unfaithful to her marriage duty is sin- 
ning, not simply against modern society, but against 
the whole experience, the whole modern experience, of 
the human race. This would make the fault a great 
one, of course, but would not the fault of the man be 
as great? By what right, except the right of force, 
can he punish her, if he himself be guilty of unfaith- 
fulness? I am not sure what answer religion would 
give to these questions. But Meredith answers imme- 
diately and clearly. The fault of the woman is incom- 
parably worse than the fault of the man. It is worse 
in relation to the injury done to society, to morality, 
to progress. Society is founded upon the family; the 

[331] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


strength of society to defend itself against the enemy, 
to accumulate wealth, and to find happiness, depends 
upon the care and the love given to the children. It 
is in proportion to the love and care given to the 
young that a nation becomes strong. Now it is espe- 
cially the mother’s duty to look after the interests of 
the young. This requires no argument. And a sexual 
weakness upon her part means an injury done to the 
family in the sense of its very life. The whole interest 
of society depends upon the chastity and tenderness 
and moral force of its women. Moral weakness once 
begun among the women of the people, the decline of 
that race begins. So indeed perished the finest race 
that ever existed in this world—the old Greek race. 
On the other hand, though unchastity on the part of 
the man be certainly condemnable—from a purely moral 
point of view equally condemnable—its consequences are 
not fraught with the same danger to society, because 
they are not of a character to destroy the family. 
Really the part of man in the great struggle of life 
is the part of the fighter. The all important thing 
for the man is to be strong. If he can be morally as 
well as physically strong, so much the better for the 
race; but the all important thing is that he shall be 
able to fight, to contend, to conquer. It is not through 
the man that the moral progress of society is directly 
effected; it is through the woman and the teaching of 
the young, it is through the tenderness and love of 
the home—the only place where a man can rest from 
his constant battle with the world. It is only in his 
own home that he can be as good as he may wish 
to be. Every good home is a little nursing place of 
[ 332 | 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


morality, a little garden in which the plants of honour 
and truth and courage and gentleness can be cultivated 
until they are strong enough to bear the frosts and 
the cold winds of the great outside world. In one 
generation home life may accomplish very little for 
the improvement of a race, but in the course of thou- 
sands of years it accomplishes everything. If men are 
kinder and wiser and better to-day than they were 
thousands of years ago, it is because of the virtues 
which have been cultivated in the family. Had the 
home of human history been a struggle between men 
only, the result would have been very different indeed, 
for competition and battle cultivate only the hard 
and fierce and cunning side of character. Taking all 
these facts together, the poet tells us very plainly 
that adultery is something which should never be for- 
given in a woman, however it might be forgiven in a 
man, because the fault against human society is too 
great. And therefore he has written this poem espe- 
cially to condemn those old romances in which illegiti- 
mate affection was the theme—in which, also, every 
effort was made to excite the sympathy of the reader 
with the sin of the woman. No sympathy has George 
Meredith; on the contrary, he praises the man who 
kills, in the line where he speaks of the sword—where 
he says that the good steel of the sword that killed 
was what every man ought to be—hard and penetrat- 
ing, hard and terrible to deal with social wrong. It is 
very curious to compare this stern view of life with the 
tenderness of Michelet, in his books entitled “T’ Amour” 
and “Les Femmes.” Michelet actually says that in 
many cases the woman should be forgiven. The two 


[333] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


opposing kinds of views thus expressed by two great 
men of different races do really suggest something of 
the difference of character in the races. Both men are 
liberal thinkers, both men studied the new philosophy. 
Yet how very antagonistic their teachings. 

I do not wish to give you too much of the moral side 
of Meredith at one time, for fear that it should become 
tiresome. So before we take up another philosophical 
poem, I should like to speak of a poem which is only 
emotional and descriptive—a tremendous poem, and 
certainly the greatest thing in verse that Meredith 
has composed. I mean ‘The Nuptials of Attila.” In 
some parts it is very hard reading. In other parts it 
is unmatched in the splendour and strength of its verse. 

First we must say a few words about the subject 
chosen. Doubtless you remember the apparition of 
Attila in Roman history. You have read how he came 
from the East with his tempestuous cavalry and 
threatened to destroy the whole of Western civilization. 
During his brief career Attila probably wielded the 
greatest power that has ever been united in the hands 
of one man. He controlled a larger portion of the 
earth’s surface than that to-day controlled by the 
Russians, and he might have realized his dream of 
subduing all the West of Europe, had it not been for 
one act of folly. That was his marriage to a young 
girl called Idico, whom he demanded from her parents 
against her will. On the night of the wedding there 
was great drinking and feasting, and when the King 
retired to the bridal chamber he had probably drunk 
to excess. At all events he died suddenly in the night, 
through the bursting of a blood-vessel; and his death 

[334] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


saved Western civilisation. There was not another 
leader in the vast army capable of keeping it together. 
The host broke up. The chiefs returned to their sev- 
eral countries, and the great empire of Attila melted 
away almost as suddenly as frost disappears in the 
morning sun. What became of Ildico nobody knows. 
It is the scene of the wedding night, and the scene 
of the morning following, that the poet describes. 
First we have a few lines describing the power of 
Attila and the hunger of his army for more war: 


Flat as to an eagle’s eye, 

Earth hung under Attila, 

Sign for carnage gave he none. 

In the peace of his disdain, 

Sun and rain, and rain and sun, 

Cherished men to wax again, 

Crawl, and in their manner die. 

On his people stood a frost. 

Like the charger cut in stone, 

Rearing stiff, the warrior host, 

Which had life from him alone, 

Craved the trumpet’s eager note, 

As the bridled earth the Spring. 

Rusty was the trumpet’s throat. 

He let chief and prophet rave; 

Venturous earth around him string 

Threads of grass and slender rye, 

Wave them, and untrampled wave. 

O for the time when God did cry, 
Eye and have, my Attila! 


You must remember that Attila was called the 
Scourge of God. So terrible was the destruction that 
[335 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


he wrought, that the Western world of the fifth century 
thought that he had been sent by God to destroy them 
as a punishment for sin. He himself accepted this name, 
and also called himself the Hammer of the World. 
His own words, translated into Latin, are said to have 
been “Stella cadit, tellus fremit, en ego Malleus Orbis” 
(the star falls, the earth shudders; lo! I am the ham- 
mer of the world). But why this peace? Why does 
not Attila continue to destroy? 


Scorn of conquest filled like sleep 
Him that drank of havoe deep 

When the Green Cat pawed the globe: 
When his horsemen from his bow 

Shot in sheaves. 


This scorn of conquest was only induced by Attila’s 
sudden love for a woman. Perhaps the girl Ildico 
would rather have died than have been given to Attila; 
but she had to obey the will and words of the master, 
and there was no opportunity given her to express her 
likes or dislikes—no opportunity even to kill herself, 
for she was well watched. White as death she ap- 
peared in her wedding robes upon the night of her 
awful marriage, and the wedding guests did not like 
to see her looking so white. Why should she not have 
been glad? Why should she not have blushed as a bride 
blushes? Some said that she loved another man; some 
said that she was frightened; but nobody knew and 
nobody was pleased, and the wedding ceremony went 
on. It was a strange banquet that she had to attend, 
for these terrible men lived upon horse-back, drank 


[336] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


upon horse-back, ate upon horse-back. The wedding 
guests entered the hall in all the panoply of war, all 
mounted upon their battle steeds—not to sit down, but 
to ride furiously round the table. 


Round the banquet-table’s load 
Scores of iron horsemen rode; 
Chosen warriors, keen and hard; 
Grain of threshing battle-dints ; 
Attila’s fierce body-guard, 
Smelling war like fire in flints. 
Grant them peace be fugitive! 
Iron-capped and iron-heeled 
Each against his fellow’s shield 
Smote the spear-head, shouting, Live 
Attila! my Attila! 
Eagle, eagle of our breed, 
Eagle, beak the lamb, and feed! 
Have her, and unleash us! live! 
Attila! my Attila! 


Now to understand how fearful a scene this must 
have appeared to the bride, you must understand that 
Ildico was a German girl of noble family representing 
the highest refinement and delicacy of the old civilisa- 
tion. To have given her to these savage people was, 
of course, a monstrous cruelty. She did not enjoy 
the wonderful displays of power and barbaric luxury 
about her; she must have felt as one seated alone in 
the midst of an earth-quake. 


Fair she seemed surpassingly; 
Soft, yet vivid as the stream 


[337] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Danube rolls in the moonbeam 

Through rock barriers; but she smiled 

Never, she sat cold as salt: 

Open-mouthed as a young child 

Wondering with a mind at fault. 
Make the bed for Attila! 


Under the thin hoop of gold 

Whence in waves her hair outrolled, 
*Twixt her brows the women saw 
Shadows of a vulture’s claw 

Gript in flight; strange knots that sped 
Closing and dissolving aye; 

Such as wicked dreams betray 

When pale dawn creeps o’er the bed. 
They might show the common pang 
Known to virgins, in whom dread 
Hunts their bliss like famished hounds; 
While the chiefs with roaring rounds 
Tossed her to her lord, and sang 
Praise of him whose hand was large, 
Cheers for beauty brought to yield, 
Chirrups of the trot afield, 

Hurrahs of the battle-charge. 


Here we suffer with her, so plainly does the figure of 
the girl appear before us, silent and white with little 
shadows of pain coming and going upon her young 
forehead, while all about her shakes the ground under 
the hoofs of the battle-horses, under the thunder roar 
of the songs and the clashing of steel on steel. These 
roaring horsemen are singing of other things than the 
past and the present; they are clamouring for the 
future, for more war, more slaughter, more destruc- 


[338] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


tion; they are shouting that even their horses are 
hungry for war. 


Whisper it (the war signal), you sound a horn 

To the grey beast in the stall! 

Yea, he whinnies at a nod. 

O, for sound of the trumpet-notes! 

O, for the time when thunder-shod, 

He that scarce can munch his oats, 

Hung on the peaks, brooded aloof, 

Champed the grain of the wrath of God, 

Pressed a cloud on the cowering roof, 

Snorted out of the blackness fire! 

Scarlet broke the sky, and down, 

Hammering West with print of his hoof, 

He burst out of the bosom of ire, 

Sharp as eyelight under thy frown, 
Attila! my Attila! 


Ravaged cities rolling smoke 

Thick on cornfields dry and black, 

Wave his banners, bear his yoke. 

Track the lightning, and you track 

Attila. They moan: ’tis he! 

Bleed: ’tis he! Beneath his foot 

Leagues are deserts charred and mute; 

Where he passed, there passed a sea. 
Attila! my Attila! 


The splendid and terrible description of the war 
horse, the Tartar horse, descending over the mountains 
into Europe, not frightened by things of flesh and bone, 
but like a thunder-cloud descending upon the cities 
below—reminds one of the description of Death in the 
Apocalypse—“I saw a pale horse; and he that sat upon 

[339 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


him was called Death, and all hell followed after him.” 
In the fifth century this scriptural text was not forgot- 
ten; Attila was often compared, with very good reason, 
to the rider of the pale horse. Where he conquered, 
there was nothing left; the ground became a desert, a 
waste of death, dry like the bed of a vanished sea. It 
is for another devastation, such another ride, that the 
warriors are clamouring at the wedding feast. But 
suddenly these men observe that Ildico never smiles, that 
she is terribly white like a ghost, and they do not 
like this. 


Who breathed on the king cold breath? 
Said a voice amid the host, 

He is Death that weds a ghost, 

Else a ghost that weds with Death? 


The barbarian idea of beauty is the red-faced, full- 
fleshed woman. ‘They see no beauty in the fair, pale 
girl; she seems to them like a phantom. But Attila 
only laughs at the ominous exclamation; he knows that 
she is beautiful, and he orders her to fulfil her part 
of the wedding ceremony by pledging the guests in a 
cup of wine. 


Silent Idico stood up. 

King and chief to pledge her well, 
Shocked sword sword and cup on cup, 
Clamouring like a brazen bell. 

Silent stepped the queenly slave. 
Fair, by heaven! she was to meet 
On a midnight, near a grave, 
Flapping wide the winding sheet. 


[340] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


The last three lines of course are ironical—they rep- 
resent the criticism of the warriors. Perhaps one may 
have said, “How beautiful she is! How fair.” “Fair !? 
observes another, “she might seem beautiful in a grave- 
yard at night, wrapped in a white shroud!” To the 
speaker, such beauty as that is the beauty of the dead; 
there is something sinister about it. He is not all 
wrong; for in a little while the mightiest king in the 
world will die in the woman’s arms. It is time for the 
bride to go to the bridal chamber; see how the women 
bow down to her as she passes by, not because they 
love her, but because she has become their queen! 


Death and she walked through the crowd, 
Out beyond the flush of light. 
Ceremonious women bowed 

Following her; ’twas middle night. 


Attila remained. 


He remains, as the master of the feast, to speak a 
few last words to his faithful chiefs, but even while 
talking to them he feels impatient to visit his bride, 
not knowing that she is Death. 


a | ee: as a corse 

Gathers vultures, in his brain 

Images of her eyes and kiss 

Plucked at the limbs that could remain 

Loitering nigh the doors of bliss. 
Make the bed for Attila! 


[341] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


A more terrible comparison could not have been used 
than this of the dead body attracting vultures. But 
the warriors want to talk to him a little longer; they 
want a promise of war; they want to feel sure that, 
after this wedding, the King will lead them again to 
battle. They want to capture and sack Rome. And 
one of them cries out to the King in Latin, “Lead us 
to Rome!” He answers, he pledges them in wine, he 
promises that they shall have Rome to sack and burn; 
and they are happy—they bid him farewell with roars 
of joy. In the morning he will lead them to Rome, 
that is enough. 

In the morning what a tumult is in the camp, myriads 
and myriads of squadrons of cavalry, assembling for 
battle, chanting, cheering, roaring in the gladness of 
their expectation! But in the pavilion of Attila all is 
still silent. The chiefs know that their king is seldom 
late in rising; they are surprised that he does not 
appear. They make jests about the charm of his new 
bride, but they do not dare to call him, not for another 
hour, two hours, three hours, not until midday. At 
midday the chiefs lose patience, but still all is silent. 
At last, and only in the evening, after much calling 
in vain, they break in the door. 


*Tis the room where thunder sleeps. 
Frenzy, as a wave to shore 
Surging, burst the silent door, 
And drew back to awful deeps, 
Breath beaten out, foam-white. Anew 
Howled and pressed the ghastly crew, 
Like storm-waters over rocks. 

Attila! my Attila! 


[342] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


One long shaft of sunset red 
Laid a finger on the bed. 


Square along the couch and stark, 

Like the sea-rejected thing 

Sea-sucked white, behold their King. 
Attila! my Attila! 


The King is dead! The warriors cannot believe it, 
do not want to believe. They see, and are struck with 
horror also because of the incalculable consequence of 
his death. But certainly he is dead. The red light of 
the setting sun illuminates his bloodless body lying in a 
pool of blood, for an artery burst. But what has 
become of Ildico—the wife? 


Name us that 
Huddled in the corner dark, 
Humped and grinning like a cat, 
Teeth for lips !—’tis she! she stares, 
Glittering through her bristled hairs. 


There is something there, in a dark corner of the 
room—something crouching like an animal, like a terri- 
fied cat, showing its teeth, raising its back, as in the 
presence of an attacking dog. Is it an animal? It 
is a woman, with her hair hanging down loose over her 
face, a woman, laughing horribly, because she is mad. 
They can see her eyes and her teeth glittering through 
her long hair. Did she kill him? Some think she did; 
others know that she did not. Some wish to kill her; 
cooler heads have resolved to defend her. 


[343] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Rend her! Pierce her to the hilt! 
She is Murder: have her out! 
What! this little fist, as big 

As the southern summer fig! 

She is Madness, none may doubt. 
Death, who dares deny her guilt! 
Death, who says his blood she spilt! 


Each at each, a crouching beast, 
Glared, and quivered for the word, 
Each at each, and all on that, 
Humped and grinning like a cat. 
Head bound with its bridal wreath. 


Death, who dares deny her guilt! 
Death, who says his blood she spilt! 
Traitor he who stands between! 
Swift to hell, who harms the Queen! 
She, the wild, contention’s cause, 
Combed her hair with quiet paws. 
Make the bed for Attila! 


Notice the horror of the effect caused by the use 
of certain simple words in these verses. The beautiful 
Ildico is no longer spoken of as a woman, but as an 
insane animal or a thing. First we notice that “it” 
and “its” have been substituted for “she” and “hers” 
or “her”; then we have the word “paws,” making a 
very horrible impression. The woman is so mad that 
she knows nothing of her danger, knows nothing of 
what has happened; through some old habit of wom- 

[344] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


anly instinct, she tries to arrange her poor tossed hair, 
but with her fingers, as a cat combs itself with its paws. 

Then begins the mighty breaking of that tremendous 
army. First Attila must be buried; and, according to 
custom, no one must know where the King is buried. 
A party of slaves are ordered to make the grave; 
when they have made it, they are killed and buried, 
in order that none of them may be able to say to 
strangers where the corpse of Attila reposes. It is not 
impossible, it is even probable that Ildico was killed 
and buried with her king, for the barbarians were ac- 
customed to slaughter the attendants of a dead prince, 
and even his horses, in order that he might have shad- 
owy company and shadowy steeds in the other world. 
But we do not know. History has nothing to say as 
to what became of Ildico. The poem closes with a 
wonderful description of the breaking up of the army, 
which is likened to the breaking up of the ice in a 
great river at the approach of spring. 


Lo, upon a silent hour, 

When the pitch of frost subsides, 
Danube with a shout of power 
Loosens his imprisoned tides: 
Wide around the frighted plains 
Shake to hear the riven chains, 
Dreadfuller than heaven in wrath, 
As he makes himself a path: 

High leaps the ice-cracks, towering pile 
Floes to bergs, and giant peers 
Wrestle on a drifted isle; 

Island on ice-island rears; 


[345] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Dissolution battles fast: 
Big the senseless Titans loom, 
Through a mist of common doom 
Striving which shall die the last: 
Till a gentle-breathing morn 
Frees the stream from bank to bank. 
So the Empire built of scorn 
Agonised, dissolved, and sank. 
Of the queen no more was told 
Than of leaf on Danube rolled. 
Make the bed for Attila! 


I have said that this poem is emotional rather than 
didactic ; yet there is a moral suggestion in it, the sug- 
gestion of what one foolish indulgence in lust may 
cause. For in the case of Attila, who had already 
scores and scores of wives, the marriage with Ildico 
was a mere piece of brutal indulgence and cruelty, and 
it proved his death. Then again, of course, it was a 
good thing for the world that Attila died when he did. 
It would seem as if nature takes very good care that 
men who are only brutal and cunning shall not be 
allowed to rule human life for a great length of time. 
Their own passions or their own follies eventually 
destroy them. 

There is yet another suggestion in the poem, which 
Meredith is very fond of making, both in his novels 
and in his verse. He thinks that an old man should 
never marry a young woman, no matter how great 
the merit of the old man may be. Here and there 
will be many to disagree with Meredith, and to quote 
such cases as that of the great French engineer, De 
Lesseps, who married only when he was more than sixty 


[346] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


years old, and thereafter raised a very numerous fam- 
ily of remarkably fine children. But in a general way, 
Meredith is probably right. He expounds his ideas 
very clearly in a little poem called ““The Last Conten- 
tion.” In this “last contention” the poet addresses 
an old man who wants to marry a young girl. He 
represents the mind of the man as that of a captain, 
directing a ship, and the ship is the body, the consti- 
tution, the physical part of the individual. With this 
explanation we may quote a few verses of the poem. 
It is cruel; but it is very moral and perhaps very just. 


Young captain of a crazy bark! 

O tameless heart in battered frame! 

Thy sailing orders have a mark, 
And hers is not the name. 


For action all thine iron clanks 

In cravings for a splendid prize; 

Again to race or bump thy planks 
With any flag that flies. 


Admires thee Nature with much pride; 
She clasps thee for a gift of morn, 
Till thou art set against the tide, 

And then beware her scorn. 


This lady of the luting tongue, 

The flash in darkness, billow’s grace, 

For thee the worship; for the young 
In muscle the embrace. 


[347] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Soar on thy manhood clear for those 

Whose toothless Winter claws at May, 

And take her as the vein of rose 
Athwart an evening grey. 


I have left out the most cruel verses; but these are 
significant enough. The person addressed might be one 
of those old generals or admirals who figure so often 
in the novels of Meredith, some brave old man, with a 
great reputation for courage and skill and the arts of 
courtesy. Such men may be able to win a young wife, 
rather by help of their wealth, social position, and repu- 
tation than by real love. The poet says that one 
should not try to do this. And he says that the man 
who does it, or wishes to do it, is like a skilful captain 
who trusts too much to his seamanship, forgetting that 
his vessel is in a state of decay. The heart may be 
young enough, but that is not sufficient. Nature seems 
to love and favour grand old men, but not if they do 
what is not according to Nature’s laws. Therefore if 
marriages between old and young prove to be unfor- 
tunate, the fault is in most cases with the old. The 
old man may admire, may reverence a beautiful young 
person; but only as we admire a work of art, at a 
distance, or beautiful colours in the sunset sky. Let me 
call your attention to the use of the phrases “flash in 
darkness” and “billow’s grace.”? The Greeks said that 
life was like a flash between two darknesses—the dark- 
ness of the mystery out of which we come, and the 
darkness of the mystery into which we go. It is a very 
beautiful and a very profound comparison; the poet 
here uses it especially in reference to the beautiful pe- 


[348] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


riod of youth, which is short. He suggests that an old 
man should have wisdom enough to think of youth and 
of beauty as passing illusions. “Billow’s grace” is a 
very striking simile. The charm of movement in a grace- 
ful person is something which no art can reproduce. It 
is beauty of motion, and the instant that the motion 
stops, the charm is not. The beauty of water, flowing 
water, is of this kind. Even while you admire the 
motion of a wave, gilded by the sunlight, the wave has 
passed, 

And now we shall turn to a very important division 
of Meredith’s poems—those dealing with the philosophy 
of life as a whole. On this subject most of the great 
English poets are apt to be a little didactic in the 
religious sense. Meredith is also didactic—but not in 
a religious sense. One peculiarity of his work is the 
total absence of theological doctrine of any kind. He 
talks to you about the laws of the universe, the laws 
of life, the laws of nature—never about the laws of 
any God or any religion. When he does mention the 
word God or the word religion, it is always in such a 
way that you feel he considers such things only as 
symbols—useful symbols, perhaps, but symbols only. I 
shall speak only of two remarkable poems of this kind. 
The first, called “The Woods of Westermain,” consid- 
ers especially the struggle of human life, and the duties 
of man in that struggle. The other poem, entitled 
“Earth and Man,” treats more largely of the problem 
of the universe—the great mystery of the questions, 
Where do we come from? Why do we exist? Whither 
are we going? Let us first take the “Woods of Wester- 
main.” 


[349] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Why the poem should be called by the name of “The 
Woods of Westermain,” I am not able to tell you; but 
I think that the name contains a suggestion about 
occidental life as contrasted with oriental life. How- 
ever, I am not sure, but, at all events, the subject of 
the poem is not a real forest, but the forest of human 
existence, the place in which the struggle of life goes 
on—therefore, in the true sense, Nature. 

The great teaching of this poem is that Nature has 
given us powers and senses not for pleasure, not for 
the obtaining of selfish enjoyment, but for battle. All 
that we know at present about the reason of life is 
summed up in that fact. The great natural duty of 
every man is to fight, morally and physically, and 
though he has a perfect right to enjoy himself, to seek 
pleasure at proper times and places, he must never 
allow pleasure to interfere with the supreme duty of 
struggle in battle; the first requisite, therefore, is 
courage, the first thing necessary is never to be afraid. 
In the ancient fairy-tales of Europe, we find many 
stories about enchanted forests, goblin forests. The 
knight, the hero of the story, enters a great wood, 
which seems very green and pleasant to the eye. As 
he lies down under a tree, however, he sees strange 
shapes looking at him—shapes of fairies, shapes of 
demons, shapes of giants. But he rides on, and they 
do not do him any harm. After a while he arrives 
safely at his destination. Quite otherwise in the case 
of the cowardly knight. When he finds himself in the 
forest he becomes afraid, and terrible shapes rise up 
about him, come close to him, at last attack him and 
tear him to pieces. Now the forest of life is just like 


[350] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


the enchanted forest of the old fairy-tales. If you 
are afraid, you are destroyed. If you are not afraid, 
all is bright and beautiful. 


Enter these enchanted woods, 
You who dare. 
Nothing harms beneath the leaves 
More than waves a swimmer cleaves. 
Toss your heart up with the lark, 
Float at peace with mouse and worm, 
Fair you fare. 


Only at a dread of dark 
Quaver, and they quit their form: 
Thousand eyeballs under hoods 
Have you by the hair. 
Enter these enchanted woods, 
You who dare. 
Here the snake across your path 
Stretches in his golden bath; 
Mossy-footed squirrels leap 
Soft as winnowing plumes of Sleep. 


. . e e) e) 


Each has business of his own; 

But should you distrust a tone, 
Then beware! 

Shudder all the haunted roods, 

All the eyeballs under hoods 
Shroud you in their glare. 


I am not sure that this imagery can appeal to you 
as it was intended to appeal to the Western reader, 
because it partly depends for effect upon the knowl- 

[351] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


edge of the old fairy-tale pictures. In Western ghost 
stories and fairy stories, goblins and other phantoms 
are usually represented in long robes with hoods over 
their faces, and very big, wicked eyes. That is why 
the poet speaks so often of the hoods and the eyeballs. 
The meaning is that, in this world, just so soon as you 
begin to suspect and to be afraid, everything really 
becomes to you terrible—even as in the old fairy-tales 
a tree was only a tree to the sight of a brave man, 
but to the cowardly man its roots became feet and its 
branches horrible arms and claws, and its crest a goblin 
face. > 

Then follows a wonderful description of wood life— 
the life of insect, reptile, bird and little animals—the 
poet taking care to show how each and all of these 
represent something of human life and moral truth. 
But it is one of the most difficult poems in English 
literature to read; and I shall not try to quote much 
from it. Enough to say that the same lesson is taught 
all the way through the poem, the lesson of what Nature 
means. She must not be thought of as a cruel Sphinx: 
she is cruel only if you imagine her to be cruel. Nature 
will always be what you think her to be. Think of 
her as beautiful and good; then she will be good and 
beautiful for you. Think of her as cruel; then she will 
be cruel to you. Do not think of her as pleasure; if 
you do, she will give you pleasure, but she will destroy 
you at the same time. She is the spirit and law of 
Eternal Struggle; and it is thus only that you should 
think of her, as a divinity desiring you to be brave, 
active, generous, ambitious. Above all things, you must 
not hate. Hate Nature, and you are instantly de- 

[ 352 ] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


stroyed. You must not allow even a thought of hate 
to enter your mind. 


Hate, the shadow of a grain; 
You are lost in Westermain: 
Earthward swoops a vulture sun 
Nighted upon carrion: 
Straightway venom winecups shout 
As to One whose eyes are out: 
Flowers along the reeling floor 
Drip henbane and hellebore; 
Beauty, of her tresses shorn, 
Shrieks as nature’s maniac: 
Hideousness on hoof and horn 
Tumbles, yapping in her track: 
Haggard Wisdom, stately once, 
Leers fantastical and trips. 


Imp that dances, imp that flits, 
Imp o’ the demon-growing girl, 
Maddest! whirl with imp o’ the pits 
Round you, and with them you whirl 
Fast where pours the fountain—rout 
Out of Him whose eyes are out. 


The foregoing must seem to you very difficult verse ; 
and it is really very difficult for the best English 
readers. But at the same time it is very powerful; and 
I think that you ought to have at least one example 
of the difficult side of Meredith. This is a picture—a 
horrible picture, such as old artists used to make in 
the fifteenth or sixteenth century to illustrate the temp- 
tations of a saint by devils, or the terrors of a sinner 
about to die, and surrounded by ghastly visions. Really 

[353 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


if you hate Nature, the universe will at once for you 
become what it seemed to the superstitious of the past 
ages and to the disordered fancies of insane fanatics. 
The very sun itself will no longer appear as a glorious 
star, but as a creature of prey, devouring the dead. 
Perhaps the poet here wishes also to teach us that we 
must not think too much about the ugly side of death 
as an appearance—the corruption, the worms, the 
darkness of the grave. To think about those things, 
as the monks of the Middle Ages did, is to hate Nature. 
Everything seems foul to the man whose imagination 
is foul. Everything which should be nourishing be- 
comes poison, everything which should seem beautiful 
becomes hideous. The reference to “One whose eyes 
are out,” is, you know, a reference to the old fash- 
ioned pictures of death, as a goblin skeleton, seeing 
without eyes. In some frightful pictures death was 
represented also as an eyeless corpse, out of which all 
kinds of goblins, demons, and bad dreams were swarm- 
ing, like maggots. Of course such are the pictures 
referred to here by the poet. Believe in goblins and 
devils, and you will see them; believe that all men are 
wicked, and you will find them wicked; believe that 
Nature is evil, and Nature will certainly destroy you, 
just as the demons in the medieval story tore to pieces 
the magician who had not learned the secret of making 
them obey. 

Very much more easy to understand are the stanzas 
upon “Earth and Man.” These attempt to explain the 
real problem of man’s existence. The poet represents 
the earth as a person, a mother, a nurse. But this 
mother, this-nurse, this divine person is not able to do 


[354] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


everything for man. She can give him life; she can 
feed him; but she cannot help him otherwise, except 
upon the strange condition that he helps himself. She 
makes him and embraces him, but that is all. Other- 
wise he must make his own future, his own happiness 
or misery. 


For he is in the lists 
Contentious with the elements, whose dower 


First sprang him; for swift vultures to devour 
If he desists. 


His breath of instant thirst 
Is warning of a creature matched with strife, 
To meet it as a bride, or let fall life 

On life’s accursed. 


That is, man in this world is like an athlete, or a 
warrior in the lists—in the place of contests. With 
what must he contend? First of all, he must contend 
with the very elements of nature, with the very same 
forces which brought him into being, or as the poet 
says “sprang him.” And if he hesitates to fight with 
those forces, then quickly the vultures of death seize 
upon him. The condition of his existence is struggle. 
Even the first cry of the child, the cry of thirst for 
the mother’s milk, signifies that man is born to desire 
and to toil and to contend. He must either meet the 
duty of struggle as gladly as he would meet a bride, 
or he must acknowledge himself unfit to live, and 
cursed by his own mother, Nature. Nature is not to 
be thought of as a mother that pets her child and weeps 
over its small sorrows; no, she is a good mother, but 


[355 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 
very rough, and she loves only the child that fights 


and conquers. 

She has no pity upon him except as he fights and 
wins. She cannot do certain things for him; she can- 
not develop his mind—he must do that for himself. 
She makes him do it by pain, by terror, by punishing 
him fearfully for his mistakes. By the consequence 
of mistakes only does she teach him. She urges him 
forward by hunger and by fear, but there is no mercy 
for him if he blunders. I want you to remember that 
the poet is not speaking of the separate individual 
man, but of mankind and of the history of the human 
race. According to modern science, man was at the 
beginning nothing more than an animal; he has become 
what he is through knowledge of suffering, and the 
poet describes his sufferings in the beginning: 


By hunger sharply sped 

To grasp at weapons ere he learns their use, 

In each new ring he bears a giant’s thews, 
An infant’s head. 


And ever that old task 

Of reading what he is and whence he came, 

Whither to go, finds wilder letters flame 
Across her mask. 


That is to say, man first is impelled by hunger to 
use weapons, in order to kill animals, and these weapons 
he at first must use very clumsily. You must under- 
stand the word “ring” to mean an age or cycle. The 
poet wishes to say that through many past ages in suc- 
cession, man had the strength of a giant, but his brain, 


[356] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


his mind, was feeble and foolish like that of a little 
child—not even a child in the common meaning of the 
word, for the poet uses the term “infant,” signifying a 
child before it has yet learned how to speak. It is sup- 
posed that primitive man had no developed languages. 
But, as time goes on, man learns how to express 
thought by speech, and presently he begins to think 
about himself—to wonder what he is, where he came 
from, and where he is going. Then he invents religious 
theories to account for his origin. But the mystery 
always remains. There are ancient stories about a 
magical writing. When you looked at this writing, at 
first it seemed to be in one language, and to have one 
meaning, but when you looked at it a second time, the 
letters and the meaning had changed, and every suc- 
ceeding time that you looked at it, again it changed. 
Like this magical writing is the mystery of Nature, of 
the Universe; so that poet represents Nature as wearing 
a mask upon which such ever-changing characters ap- 
pear in letters of fire. No matter how much we learn or 
theorise, the infinite riddle cannot be read. And one 
factor of this terrible riddle is Death. Death of all 
things most puzzles and terrifies man. He sometimes 
suspects that Nature herself is Death, and purely evil. 
He began by worshipping her through fear, but his 
worship did not change his destiny in the least. 


The thing that shudders most 

Within him is the burden of his cry. 

Seen of his dread, she is to his blank eye 
The eyeless Ghost. 


[357] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Once worshipped Prime of Powers, 

She still was the Implacable; as a beast, 

She struck him down and dragged him from the feast 
She crowned with flowers. 


He may entreat, aspire, 

He may despair, and she has never heed. 

She drinking his warm sweat will soothe his need, 
Not his desire. 


She prompts him to rejoice, 

Yet scares him on the threshold with the shroud. 

He deems her cherishing ef her best-endowed 
A wanton’s choice. 


If man thought of the spirit of Nature as the cruel 
spirit of death and destruction, surely he had reason to 
do so in the time of his primitive ignorance. Pleasure 
seemed to him of Nature—offered to him by Nature, 
and yet to indulge it often brought upon him destruc- 
tion. Joy seemed to him natural, yet whenever he 
most rejoiced, the shadow of death would appear 
somewhere near him. Always this Nature seemed to be 
putting out temptations to joy and pleasure, only as 
a bird hunter scatters food on the ground to attract 
birds into his snare. And again this Nature would 
never listen to man’s prayer. He found out that by 
working hard he could obtain food enough to live 
upon; thus Nature seemed to allow him the right 
of life, or as the poet says, “to soothe his needs”; but 
never would she grant him his “desire,” his prayer 
for supernatural help. When it came to the matter 


[358] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


of help, he found out that he must help himself. 
But why was it, again, that the wicked and the 
cruel were permitted to succeed and to become pros- 
perous, while the good and the gentle perished from 
the face of the earth? To ancient mankind this 
was indeed a most terrible problem, a problem which 
has not been perfectly solved even at this day. 
Was Nature a wanton—that is, a wicked woman, 
preferring the evil characters, the murderer, the thief, 
the robber, to the upright and just? Such was the 
question which millions of men must have asked them- 
selves in the past. Evidently the poet does not think 
so; he calls the successful, “‘the best endowed.” What 
does this mean? It means that the choice of Nature 
in her favours, however immoral that choice may seem 
to us, is really a choice of the best, according to her 
judgment. You may say, if you like, that these or 
those successful men are bad, that they have broken 
all moral rules, that they have sinned against all the 
ethics of society, that they are scoundrels who ought 
to be in prison.’ But Nature says, “No, those are my 
best children. You may not like them, and doubtless 
they are not good to your thinking, but they are very 
much more clever and much stronger than you. I want 
my children to be cunning and to be strong.” Are 
we to suppose, therefore, that Nature wishes to culti- 
vate only wicked cunning and brutal strength? No, 
but cunning and strength are the foundations upon 
which intellect and moral power are eventually built. 
It is like the statement of Herbert Spencer, that the 
first thing necessary for success in life is “to be a good 
animal.” If you can be both a good animal and a 


[359] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


moral and kind person, so much the better. But while 
the development is going on, the chances always are 
that Nature will favour the animal man at the expense 
of the moral man who has no strength and no clever- 
ness. For those who have neither strength nor cun- 
ning must disappear from the face of the earth. Na- 
ture does not want to help weakness; she prefers strong 
wickedness to helpless goodness. And if we reflect 
upon this, we shall find that the whole tendency is not 
to evil but to good. It is by considering the past his- 
tory of man that we can learn how much he has gained 
through this cruel policy of Nature. 


. Thereof he has found 
Firm roadway between lustfulness and pain; 
‘Has half transferred the battle to his brain, 
From bloody ground; 


He will not read her good, 

Or wise, but with the passion Self obscures; 

Through that old devil of the thousand lures, 
Through that dense hood: 


Through terror, through distrust; 

The greed to touch, to view, to have, to live; 

Through all that makes of him a sensitive 
Abhorring dust. 


Which means that, if we will really think about the 
matter from an evolutional standpoint, we shall find 
that it has been through the destruction of the weak 
that mankind has become strong. At first he knew 
only desire, like an animal; his wants were only like 


[360] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


those of an animal. But gradually nobler desires came 
to him, because they were forced upon him by his con- 
stant struggle against death. He learns that one 
must be able to control one’s desire as well as to fight 
against other enemies. From the day man discovered 
that the greatest enemy was Self, he became a higher 
being, he was no longer a mere animal. When the poet 
speaks of him as “transferring the battle to his brain 
from bloody ground,” he means that the struggle of 
existence to-day has become a battle of minds, instead 
of being, as it used to be, a trial of mere physical 
strength. We must every one of us fight, but the fight 
is now intellectual. Notwithstanding this progress, 
we are still very stupid, for we try to explain the laws 
of the Universe according to our little feeble concep- 
tions of moral law. Or, as the poet says, we insist on 
thinking about Nature “with the passion Self obscures” 
—with that selfishness in our hearts which judges every- 
thing to be bad that gives us pain. Until we can get 
rid of that selfishness, we shall never understand Na- 
ture. 

Now the question is, shall we ever be able to under- 
stand Nature? I shall let the poet answer that ques- 
tion in his own way. It is an optimistic way, and it 
has the great merit of being quite different from 
anything else written upon the subject by any English 
poet. 


But that the senses still 

Usurp the station of their issue mind, 

He would have burst the chrysalis of the blind: 
As yet he will; 


[361] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


As yet he will, she prays, 
Yet will when his distempered devil of Self ;— 
The glutton for her fruits, the wily elf 

In shifting rays ;— 


That captain of the scorned ; 

The coveter of life in soul and shell, 

The fratricide, the thief, the infidel, 
The hoofed and horned ;— 


He singularly doomed 

To what he execrates and writhes to shun ;— 

WHEN FIRE HAS PASSED HIM VAPOUR TO THE SUN, 
AND SUN. RELUMED. 


Here we might well imagine that we were listening to 
a Buddhist, not to an English poet, for the thought 
is altogether the thought of an Oriental philosopher, 
though it happens also to be in accord with the phi- 
losophy of Western science. The lines which I put in 
capital letters seem to me the most remarkable and the 
most profound that any Western poet has yet written 
about the future of mankind. Let us loosely para- 
phrase the verses quoted: 

The end to which the senses of man have been created 
is the making of Mind. If man were not blinded and 
deceived by his senses, he would know what Nature 
is, because the divine sight, perhaps the infinite vision, 
would be opened to him. But the time will come when 
he shall be able to know and to see. 

What time? 

The time when the selfishness of man shall have 
ceased, when he shall no longer think of life as given 


[362] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


to him only for the pursuit of pleasure; when he shall 
have learned that he must not desire to live too much, 
and that the body is only the shell of the mind; when 
crime and cruelty shall have become impossible—when 
this world shall have come to an end. 

But when the world shall have come to an end, will 
there still be man? Yes, in the poet’s faith; for man 
is part of the eternal, and the destruction of the uni- 
verse cannot affect his destiny. It is not, however, 
when this world shall have come to an end that man 
will know. The earth will go back to the sun, out of 
which it came, and the sun itself will burn out into 
ashes, and the universe will disappear, and there will 
thereafter be another universe, with other suns and 
worlds, and only then, after passing through the fires 
of the sun, perhaps of many suns, will man obtain the 
supreme knowledge. Never in this world can he be- 
come wise enough and good enough to be perfectly 
happy. But in some future universe, under the light 
of some sun not yet existing, he may become an almost 
perfect being. 

It may seem strange to you to hear such a predic- 
tion from an English poet, though the thought of the 
poem is very ancient in Indian philosophy. Yet Mere- 
dith did not reach this thought through the study of 
any Oriental teaching. He obtained it from the evolu- 
tional philosophy of the present century, adding, in- 
deed, a little fancy of his own, but nothing at all in 
antagonism to the opinions of science, so far as fact is 
concerned. 

What is the teaching of science in regard to the fu- 
ture and the past of the present universe? It is that 

[363 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


in the course of enormous periods of time this universe 
passes away into a nebulous condition, and out of that 
condition is reformed again. Mathematically it has 
been calculated that the forces regulating the universe 
must have in the past formed the same kind of universes 
millions of times, and will do the same thing in the fu- 
ture, millions of times. Every modern astronomer 
recognizes the studies upon which these calculations are 
based. It is certainly curious that when science tells 
us how the universe with its hundreds of millions of 
suns, and its trillions of worlds, regularly evolves and 
devolves alternately—it is curious, I repeat, that this 
science is telling us the very same thing that Indian 
philosophers were teaching thousands of years ago, be- 
fore there was any science. They taught that all 
worlds appear and disappear by turns in the infinite 
void, and they compared these worlds to the shadows 
of the dream of a god. When the Supreme awakens 
from his sleep, then all the worlds disappear, because 
they were only the shapes of his dream. 

Herbert Spencer would not go quite so far as that. 
But he would confirm Indian philosophy as to the ap- 
parition and disparition of the universes. There is an- 
other point upon which any Western man of science 
would also confirm the Oriental teaching—that the es- 
sence of life does not cease and cannot cease with the 
destruction of our world. Only the form dies. The 
forces that make life cannot die; they are the same 
forces that spin the suns. Remember that I am not 
talking about a soul or a ghost or anything of that 
kind; I am saying only that it is quite scientific to be- 
lieve that all the life which has been in this world will 

[364] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


be again in some future world, lighted by another sun. 
Meredith suggests perhaps more than this—only sug- 
gests. Take his poem, however, as it stands, and you 
will find it a very noble utterance of optimism, inspir- 
ing ideas astonishingly like the ideas of Eastern meta- 
physicians. 

I am going to conclude this lecture upon Meredith 
with one more example of his philosophy of social life. 
It is a poem treating especially of the questions of 
love and marriage, and it shows us how he looks at mat- 
ters which are much closer to us than problems about: 
suns and souls and universes. 

The name of the poem is “The Three Singers to 
Young Blood’’—that is to say, the three voices of the 
world that speak to youth. In order to understand this 
composition rightly, you must first know that in West- 
ern countries generally and in England particularly, 
the most important action of a man’s early life is mar- 
riage. A man’s marriage is likely to decide, not only 
his future happiness or misery, but his social position, 
his success in his profession, his ultimate place even 
in politics, if he happens to enter the service of the 
state. I am speaking of marriage among the upper 
classes, the educated classes, the professional classes. 
Among the working people, the tradesmen and me- 
chanics, most of whom marry quite young, marriage 
has not very much social significance. But among the 
moneyed classes it is all important, and a mistake in 
choosing a wife may ruin the whole career of the most 
gifted and clever man. This is what Meredith has in 
mind, when he speaks of the three voices that address 
youth. The first voice, simply the voice of healthy na- 

[365] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


ture, urges the young man to seek happiness by making 
a home for himself. The second voice is that of society, 
of worldly wisdom and calculating selfishness. The 
third voice is the voice of reckless passion, caring noth- 
ing about consequences. Which of the three shall the 
young man listen to? Let us hear the first voice. 


As the birds do, so do we, 

Bill our mate, and choose our tree. 
Swift to building work addressed, 
Any straw will help a nest. 

Mates are warm, and this is truth, 
Glad the young that come of youth. 
They have bloom i’ the blood and sap 
Chilling at no thunder-clap. 

Man and woman on the thorn, 

Trust not Earth, and have her scorn. 
They who in her lead confide, 
Wither me if they spread not wide! 
Look for aid to little things, 

You will get them quick as wings, 
Thick as feathers; would you feed, 
Take the leap that springs the need. 


In other words, the advice of this first voice is, Do 
not be afraid. Choose your companion as the bird 
does; make a home for yourself; do not be afraid to 
try, simply because you have no money. Do not wait 
to become rich. If you know how to be contented with 
little, you will find that you can make a small home 
very easily. A wife makes life more comfortable, and 
the children of young parents are the strongest and 
the happiest. Such children are healthy, and they 

[ 366 ] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


grow up brave and energetic. You must confide in 
Nature. Men and women who are afraid to trust to 
Nature, because they happen to be poor, lose all chance 
of ever finding real happiness. Nature turns from 
them in scorn. But those who trust to Nature—how 
they increase and multiply and prosper! Do not wait 
for somebody to help you. Watch for opportunities ; 
and you will find them, quickly, and in multitude. If 
you want anything in this world, do not wait for it to 
come to you; spring for it, as the bird springs from the 
tree to seize its food. 

There is nothing very bad about this advice, though 
it is opposed to the rules of social success. The ma- 
jority of young people act pretty much in the way 
indicated, and it is interesting to observe in this connec- 
tion that both Mr. Galton and Mr. Spencer have de- 
clared that if it were required to act otherwise, the 
consequences would be very unfortunate for the nation. 
It is not from cautious and long delayed marriages that 
a nation multiplies; on the contrary, it is from im- 
provident marriages by young people. Yet there is 
something to be said on the other side of the question. 
No doubt a great deal of unhappiness might be avoided 
if young men and women were somewhat less rash than 
they now are about entering into marriage. 

But let us listen to the second voice. Each of the 
three speaks in exactly the same number of lines— 
sixteen. 

Contemplate the rutted road; 

Life is both a lure and goad. 

Each to hold in measure just, 

Trample appetite to dust. 
[367 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Mark the fool and wanton spin: 
Keep to harness as a skin. 

Ere you follow nature’s lead, 

Of her powers in you have heed; 
Else a shiverer you will find 

You have challenged humankind. 
Mates are chosen marketwise: 
Coolest bargainer best buys. 
Leap not, nor let leap the heart: 
Trot your track, and drag your cart. 
So your end may be in wool, 
Honoured, and with manger full. 


This is the voice of worldly wisdom, of hard selfish- 
ness, and, I am sorry to say, of cunning hypocrisy; 
but it sounds very sensible indeed, and thousands of 
very successful men act upon the principles here laid 
down. Let us paraphrase: 

Take a good look at the road of life—see how rough 
it is! Understand that there are two opposite princi- 
ples of life; there are things that attract to danger, 
and there are powers that compel a man to make the 
greatest effort of which his strength is capable. Con- 
sider all pleasure as dangerous; if you want to be 
safe and sure, kill your passions, and master all your 
desires. Observe how hard foolish people and sensual 
people find life. Wrap yourself up in self-control, 
keep always on your guard against pleasure, keep on 
distrust as a suit of armour—no, rather as a skin, never 
to be taken off. Before you allow yourself to follow 
any natural impulse, remember how dangerous natural 
impulses are. Beware of Nature! Otherwise you will 


[368] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


soon find out, with trembling, that the whole world is 
against you, that human experience is against you, 
that you have become an enemy of society. And as for 
a wife, remember that you should choose a wife exactly 
as you would buy a horse, or as you would make any 
business purchase. In business bargaining, iieisethe 
man who keeps his temper the longest and conceals his 
feelings the most cunningly, that gets the best article. 
Never allow an impulse to guide you. Never follow the 
guidance of your heart. Life is hard, make up your 
mind to go steadily forward and bear your burden, 
and if you will do this while you are young, you will 
become comfortably rich when you get old, and will 
have the respect of society and the enjoyment of every- 
thing good in this world. I have said that this advice 
is very immoral, although it is in one way very sensible. 
I say that it is immoral only for this reason, that it 
tells people to act sensibly, not for the love of what is 
good and true, but merely for the sake of personal ad- 
vantages. I cannot believe that a man is good who 
lives virtuously only because he finds virtue a profitable 
business. All this is pure selfishness, but there is no 
doubt that a great many successful men live and act 
exactly according to these principles. Now let us con- 
sider the third voice, the voice ui mere passion, esthetic 
passion, which is especially strong with generous minds. 
It is not usually the dullard nor the hypocrite nor the 
egotist who goes to his ruin by following the impulses 
of such a passion as that here described. It is rather 
the man of the type of Byron, or still more of the type 
of Shelley. It is against danger of this voice that the 
artist and the poet must especially be on guard. 
[369 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


O the rosy light! it fleets, 

Dearer dying than all sweets. 
That is life: it waves and goes; 
Solely in that cherished Rose 
Palpitates, or else tis death. 

Call it love with all thy breath. 
Love! it lingers: Love! it nears: 
Love! O Love! the Rose appears, 
Blushful, magic, reddening air. 
Now the choice is on thee: dare! 
Mortal seems the touch, but makes 
Immortal the hand that takes. 

Feel what sea within thee shames 
Of its force all other claims, 
Drowns them. Clasp! the world will be 
Heavenly Rose to swelling sea. 


This will need a good deal of explanation, though I 
am sure that you can feel the general meaning without 
any explanation. The poet is making a reference to 
the rose of the alchemist’s dream—the strange old 
fairy-tale of the Rosicrucians. It was believed in the 
Middle Ages and even later, that an Elixir of Life 
might be formed by chemistry—that is to say, a magi- 
cal drink that would make old men young again, or 
prolong life through hundreds of years. It was said 
that whenever this wonderful drink was made in a 
laboratory, there would appear in the liquid the 
ghostly image of a luminous Rose. It would take 
much too long to go into the history of this curious 
and very poetical fancy. Suffice to say that the poet 
here uses the symbol of the rose of the alchemist to 
signify life itself—the essence of youth, and the es- 

[370] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


sence of passion and the worship of beauty. Now we 
can attempt to paraphrase: 

How wondrous beauty is! How wondrous life and 
love! Yet quickly these must pass away. Of what 
worth is life without love? Better to love and die 
quickly. The desire of the lover is, in its way, a desire 
for sacrifice; he is willing to give his life a thousand 
times over for the being he adores. He thinks that 
love is life, that there is nothing else worth existing for. 
His passion gives new and strange colour to all his 
thoughts, new intensity to all his senses; the world be- 
comes more beautiful for him. Even as if the colour 
of the sunlight were changed, so do all things appear 
changed to the vision of the man who is then bewitched. 
But, even during the bewitchment, he is faintly con- 
scious of duty, of right and wrong, of a voice within 
him warning against dangers. He knows, he fears, but 
he will not heed. He reasons against his conscience. 
Is not this attraction really divine? She is only a 
woman, yet merely to touch her hand gives a shock, 
as of something supernatural. Then the very strength 
of passion itself makes it seem more natural. The 
poet compares it to a sea—the tide of impulse could 
not be better described, because of its depth and force. 
And always the urging of this passion is “Take her! 
Do not care! That will be heaven for you!” 

The last stanza has a strange splendour, as well as 
a strange power; reckless passion has never been more 
wonderfully described in sixteen lines. And to which 
of the three voices does the poet give preference? Not 
to any of them. He says that all of them are deficient 
in true wisdom. The first he calls “liquid”—meaning 


[371] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


sweet, like the cry of a dove. But that does not mean 
that it is altogether commendable. The second voice 
he calls a “caw”—meaning that it is dismal and harsh, 
like the cry of a black crow. As for the last, he says 
only that it is “the cry that knows not law!” By this 
he means that which suffers no restraint, and which 
therefore is incomparably dangerous. Yet I suppose 
that it is better than the caw. What the poet thinks 
is that the three different voices united together, so 
that each makes harmony with the others, so that the 
good which is in each could make accord—would be 
“music of the sun!” 


Hark to the three. Chimed they in one, 
Life were music of the sun. 

Liquid first, and then the caw, 

Then the cry that knows not law. 


This utterance is not nearly so commonplace as we 
might think at first reading. There is a great deal of 
deep philosophy in it. Meredith means that all our 
impulses, all our passions, all our selfishness, and even 
our revolts against law, have their value in the eternal 
order of things. In a perfect man all these emotions 
and sentiments would still exist, but they would exist 
only in such form that they would beautifully counter- 
balance each other. But there is no such thing as 
human perfection, and the individual is therefore very 
likely to be dominated by selfishness if he acts cau- 
tiously, and dominated by passion when he acts without 
judgment. 

I think I have quoted enough of Meredith to give 

[372] 


The Poetry of George Meredith 


you some notion of his particular quality. At all 
events I hope that you may become interested in him. 
He is especially the poet of scholars; the poet of men 
of culture. Only a man of culture can really like him 
—just as only a man long accustomed to good living 
can appreciate the best kinds of wine. Give fine wine 
to a poor man accustomed only to drink coarse spirits, 
and he will not care about it. So the common reader 
cannot care about Meredith. He is what we call a 
“test-poet”—your culture, your capacity to think and 
feel, is tested by your ability to like such a poet. The 
question, “Do you like Meredith?” is now in English 
and even in French literary circles, a test. But re 
member that Meredith has great faults. If he did not 
have, he would rank at the very top of the Victorian 
poets. But he has the fault of obscurity, like Browning, 
he often tortures language into the most amazing forms, 
and he is about the most difficult of all English poets 
to read. His early work is much better than his later 
in this respect. But the difficulty of Meredith is not 
only a difficulty of language. No one can understand 
him who does not also understand the philosophical 
thought of the second half of the nineteenth century. 
He is especially the poet of a particular time, and for 
that reason it is very much to be regretted that he is 
less clear than almost any literary artist of his period. 


[373] 


CHAPTER VII 
“THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT” 


I wave spoken to you a great deal about the poetry of 
George Meredith, but I have not yet found an oppor- 
tunity to tell you about his having written what I be- 
lieve to be one of the greatest fables—certainly the 
greatest fable imagined during the nineteenth century. 
I imagine also that this fable will live, will even become 
a great classic,—after all his novels have been forgot- 
ten. For his novels, great as they are, deal almost en- 
tirely with contemporary pictures of highly complicated 
English and Italian aristocratic society. They pic- 
ture the mental and moral fashions of a generation, 
and all such fashions quickly change. But the great 
fable pictures something which is, which has been, and 
which always will be in human nature; it touches the 
key of eternal things, just as his poetry does—perhaps 
even better; for some of his poetry is terribly obscure. 
Mr. Gosse has written a charming essay upon the fable 
of which I am going to speak to you; but neither Mr. 
Gosse nor anybody else has ever attempted to explain 
it. If the book is less well known, less widely appre- 
ciated than it deserves, the fact is partly owing to the 
want of critical interpretation. Even to Mr. Gosse 
the book makes its appeal chiefly as a unique piece of 
literary art. But how many people in conservative 
England either care for literary art in itself, or are 


[374] 


“The Shaving of Shagpat” | 


capable of estimating it? So long as people think that 
such or such a book is only a fairy tale, they do not 
trouble themselves much to read it. But prove to them 
that the fairy tale is the emblem of a great moral fact, 
then it is different. The wonderful stories of Andersen 
owe their popularity as much to the fact that they teach 
moral fact, as to the fact that they please children. 
Meredith’s book was not written to please children; 
there is perhaps too much love-making in it for that. 
I do not even know whether it was written for a parti- 
cular purpose; I am inclined to think that there was 
no particular purpose. Books written with a purpose 
generally fail. Great moral stories are stories that have 
been written for art’s sake. Meredith took for model 
the manner of the Arabian story tellers. The language, 
the comparisons, the poetry, the whole structure of his 
story is in the style of the Arabian Nights. But as 
Mr. Gosse observes, the Arabian Nights seem to us 
cold and pale beside it. You can not find in the Arabian 
Nights a single page to compare with certain pages 
of “The Shaving of Shagpat”’; and this is all the more 
extraordinary because the English book is written in 
a tone of extravagant humour. You feel that the au- 
thor is playing with the subject, as a juggler plays with 
half a dozen balls at the same time, never letting one of 
them fall. And yet he has done much better than the 
Orientals who took their subject seriously. Even the 
title, the names of places or of persons, are jokes, 
—though they look very much like Arabian or Persian 
names. “Shagpat” is only the abbreviation of “shaggy 
pate,” “pate” being an old English word for head— 
so that the name means a very hairy and rough look- 


[375 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


ing head. When you begin to see jokes of this kind 
even in the names, you may be inclined to think that the 
book is trifling. I thought so myself before reading it; 
but now that I have read it at least half a dozen times, 
and hope to read it many times more, I can assure you 
that it is one of the most delightful books ever writ- 
ten, and that it can not fail to please you. With this 
introduction, I shall now begin to say something about 
the story itself, the fantastic plot of it. 

Who is Shagpat? Shagpat is a clothing merchant 
and the favourite of a king. Shagpat wears his hair 
very long, contrary to the custom of Mohammedan 
countries, where all men shave their heads, with the ex- 
ception of one tuft on the top of the head, by which 
tuft, after death, the true believer is to be lifted up by 
angels, and carried into Paradise. Mohammedans are 
as careful about this tuft as the Chinese are careful 
about their queues. How comes it that in a Moham- 
medan city a true believer should thus wear his hair 
long? It is because in his head there has been planted 
one magical hair taken out of the head of a Djinn or 
Genie; and this hair, called the Identical, has the power 
to make all men worship the person on whose head it 
grows. Therefore it is that the king reverences this 
clothing merchant, and that all the people bow down 
before him. Also an order is given that all men in that 
country must wear their hair long in the same manner, 
and that no barbers are to be allowed to exercise their 
trade in any of the cities. 

A barber, not knowing these regulations,—a_bar- 
ber of the name of Shibli Bagarag—comes to the prin- 
cipal city and actually proposes to shave Shagpat. He 

[376] 


“The Shaving of Shagpat” 


is at once seized by slaves, severely beaten, and ban- 
ished from the city. But outside the city he meets a 
horrible old woman, so ugly that it pains him to look 
at her; and she tells him that she can make his fortune 
for him if he will promise to marry her. Although he 
is in a very unhappy condition, the idea of marrying 
so hideous a woman terrifies him; nevertheless he plucks 
up courage and promises. She asks him then to kiss 
her. He has to shut his eyes before he can do that, 
but after he has done it she suddenly becomes young 
and handsome. She is the daughter of the chief minis- 
ter of the king, and she is ugly only because of an en- 
chantment cast upon her. This enchantment has been 
caused by the power of Shagpat, who desired to marry 
her. For her own sake and for the sake of the country 
and for the sake of all the people, she says that it is 
necessary that the head of Shagpat should be shaved. 
But to shave Shagpat requires extraordinary powers— 
magical powers. For the magical hair in that man’s 
head cannot be cut by any ordinary instrument. If 
approached with a knife or a razor, this hair suddenly 
develops tremendous power as of an electric shock, 
hurling far away all who approach it. It is only a hair 
to all appearances at ordinary times, but at extraor- 
dinary times it becomes luminous, and stands up like a 
pillar of fire reaching to the stars. And the daughter 
of the minister tells Bagarag that if he has courage 
she can .teach him the magic that shall help him to cut 
that hair,—to shave the shaggy pate of Shagpat. 

I have gone into details this far only to give you a 
general idea of the plan of the story. The greater part 
of the book deals with the obstacles and dangers of 


[377] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Shagpat, and recounts, in the most wonderful way, the 
struggle between the powers of magic used on both 
sides. For Shagpat is defended against barbers by evil 
spirits who use black magic; while Bagarag is assisted 
by his wife, and her knowledge of white magic. In his 
embraces she has become the most beautiful woman in 
the world, and the more he loves her the more beautiful 
she becomes. But he is given to understand that he must 
lose her if his courage fails in the fight against Shag- 
pat. To tell you here how his courage is tested, and 
how he triumphs over all tests, would only spoil your 
pleasure in the story when you come to read it. Here 
I shall only say that the grandest chapter in the part 
of the book recounting Bagarag’s adventures is the 
chapter on the Sword of Aklis, the magical sword with 
which the head of Shagpat at last is shaved. The 
imagining of this sword is one of the most wonderful 
things in any literature; for all the ancient descrip- 
tions of magical swords are dull and uninteresting com- 
pared with the description of the sword of Aklis. It 
can only be looked at by very strong eyes, so bright 
it is; it can be used as a bridge from earth to sky; it 
can be made so long that in order to use it one must 
look through a telescope; it can be made lighter than a 
moon beam, or so heavy that no strength could lift it, 
I want to quote to you a few sentences of the descrip- 
tion of the sword, because this description is very beau- 
tiful, and it will give you a good idea of Meredith’s 
coloured prose style. The passages which I am going 
to read describe the first appearance of the sword to 
Bagarag, after he has washed his eyes with magical 
water: 


[378] 


“The Shaving of Shagpat” 


His sight was strengthened to mark the glory of the 
Sword, where it hangs in slings, a little way from the wall. 
. Lo! the length of it was as the length of crimson 
across the sea when the sun is sideways on the wave, and 
it seemed full a mile long, the whole blade sheening like an 
arrested lightning from the end to the hilt; the hilt two 
large live serpents twined together, with eyes like sombre 
jewels, and sparkling spotted skins, points of fire in their 
folds, and reflections of the emerald and topaz and ruby 
stones, studded in the blood-stained haft. Then the seven 
young men, sons of Aklis, said to Shibli Bagarag, 
“Grasp the handle of the sword!” 

Now, he beheld the sword and the ripples of violet heat 
that were breathing down it, and those two venomous ser- 
pents twining together, and the size of it, its ponderousness ; 
and to essay lifting it appeared to him a madness, but he 
concealed his thought, and . . . went forward to it boldly, 
and piercing his right arm between the twists of the ser- 
pents, grasped the jewelled haft. Surely, the sword moved 
from the slings as if a giant had swayed it! But what 
amazed him was the marvel of the blade, for its sharpness 
was such that nothing stood in its way, and it slipped 
through everything, as we pass through still water,—the 
stone columns, blocks of granite by the walls, the walls of 
earth, and the thick solidity of the ground beneath his 
feet. They bade him say to the Sword, “Sleep!” and it 
was no longer than a knife in the girdle. Likewise, they 
bade him hiss on the heads of the serpents, and say, 
“Wake!’’ and while he held it lengthwise it shot lengthen- 
ing out. 


In fact, it lengthens across the world, if the owner 
so desires, to kill an enemy thousands of miles away. 
With this wonderful sword at last Shagpat is shaved. 

[379 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


But notwithstanding the power of thousands of good 
spirits who help the work, and the white magic of the 
beautiful Noorna, the shaving is an awfully difficult 
thing to do. The chapter describing it reads as mag- 
nificently as the description of the Judgment Day, and 
you will wonder at the splendour of it. 

What does all this mean, you may well ask. What 
is the magical hair? What is the sword? What is 
every impossible thing recounted in this romance? 
Really the author himself gives us the clue, and there- 
fore his meaning ought to have been long ago clearly 
perceived. At the end of the story is this clue, fur- 
nished by the words— 


The Sons of Aklis were now released from the toil of 
sharpening of the sword a half-cycle of years, to wander 
in delight on the fair surface of the flowery earth, breath- 
ing its roses, wooing its brides; for the mastery of an event 
lasteth among men the space of one cycle of years, and 
after that a fresh illusion springeth to befool mankind, and 
the Seven must expend the concluding half-cycle in pre- 
paring the edge of the Sword for a new mastery. 


From this it is quite evident to anybody who has read 
the book that the sword of Aklis is the sword of science, 
—the power of exact scientific knowledge, wielded 
against error, superstition, humbug, and convention of 
every injurious kind. 

Do not, however, imagine that this bit of interpreta- 
tion interprets all the story; you must read it more 
than once, and think about it a great deal, in order to 


[380] 


“The Shaving of Shagpat” 


perceive the application of its thousand incidents to 
real human nature. 

When Bagarag first, in his ignorance, offers to shave 
Shagpat, he has no idea whatever of the powers arrayed 
against him. What he wants is not at all in itself 
wrong; on the contrary it is in itself quite right. But 
what is quite right in one set of social conditions may 
seem to be quite wrong in another. Therefore the poor 
fellow is astonished to discover that the whole nation 
is against him, that the king is particularly offended 
with him, that all public opinion condemns him, would 
refuse him even the right to live in its midst. Is not 
Bagarag really the discoverer, the scientific man, the 
philosopher with a great desire to benefit other men, 
discovering that his kind wish arouses against him the 
laws of the government, the anger of religions, and all 
the prejudice of public opinion? Bagarag is the re- 
former who is not allowed to reform anything,—threat- 
ened with death if he persists. Reformers must be men 
of courage, and Bagarag has courage. But courage iS 
not enough to sustain the purpose of the philosopher, 
the reformer, the man with new ethical or other truth 
to tell mankind. Much more than courage is wanted— 
power. How is power to come? You remember about 
the horrible old woman who asks Bagarag to kiss her, 
and when he kisses her she becomes young and divinely 
beautiful. We may suppose that Noorna really repre-. 
sents Science. Scientific study seems very ugly, very 
difficult, very repellent at first sight, but if you have 
the courage and the capacity to master it, if you can 
bravely kiss it, as Bagarag kissed the old woman, it 

[381] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


becomes the most delightful mistress; nor is that all— 
it finds strange powers and forces for you. It can find 
for you even a sword of Aklis. 

Now‘ certain subjects. are supposed to be beneath the 
dignity of literary art; and some of the subjects in this 
extraordinary book might appear to you too trivial for 
genius to busy itself with. The use of a barber as 
hero is not at all inartistic; it is in strict accordance 
with the methods of the Arabian story-tellers to make 
barbers, fishermen, water-carriers, and other men of 
humble occupations, the leading characters in a tale. 
But that the whole plot of the narrative should turn 
upon the difficulty of cutting one hair; and that this 
single hair should be given so great an importance in 
the history—this might very well seem to you beneath 
the dignity of art—that is, until you read the book. 
Yet the manner in which the fancy is worked out thor- 
oughly excuses such triviality. The symbol of the hair 
is excellent. What is of less seeming importance than a 
hair? What is so frail and light and worthless as a 
hair? Now to many reformers and teachers the errors, 
social, moral, or religious, which they wish to destroy 
really appear to have less value, less resistance than a 
hair. But, as a great scientific teacher observed a few 
years ago, no man is able to conceive the strength in 
error, the force of error, the power of prejudice, until 
he has tried to attack it. Then all at once the illusion, 
the lie, that seems frail as a hair, and even of less worth, 
suddenly reveals itself as a terrible thing, reaching from 
Earth to Sky, radiating electricity and lightning in 
every direction. Observe in the course of modern Euro- 
pean history what an enormous effort has been required 


[382] 


“The Shaving of Shagpat”’ 


to destroy even very evident errors, injustices, or illu- 
sions. Think of the hundreds of years of sturdy en- 
deavour which we needed before even a partial degree 
of religious freedom could be obtained. Think of the 
astonishing fact that one hundred years ago the man 
risked his life who found the courage to say that witch- 
craft was an illusion. One might mention thousands of 
illustrations of the same truth. No intellectual progress 
can be effected within conservative countries by mere 
discovery, mere revelation of facts, nor by logic, nor 
by eloquence, nor even by individual courage. The dis- 
covery is ridiculed; the facts are denied; the logic is 
attacked ; the eloquence is met by greater eloquence on 
the side of untruth; the individual courage is astounded, 
if not defeated, by the armies of the enemies summoned 
against it. Progress, educational or otherwise, means 
hard fighting, not for one lifetime only but for genera- 
tions. You are well aware how many generations have 
elapsed since the educational system of the Middle Ages 
was acknowledged by all men of real intelligence as in- 
adequate to produce great results. One would have 
thought that the medieval fetish would have been thrown 
away in the nineteenth century, at least. But it is posi- 
tively true that in most English speaking universities, 
even at the present time, a great deal of the machinery 
of medieval education remains, and there is scarcely 
any hope of having it removed even within another 
hundred years. If you asked the wise men of those uni- 
versities what is the use of preserving certain forms of 
study and certain formalities of practice that can only 
serve to increase the obstacles to educational progress, 
they would answer you truthfully that it is of no use 
[383 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


at all, but they would also tell you something about the 
difficulty that would attend any attempted change; and 
you would be astonished to learn the extent and the im- 
mensity of those difficulties. 

Now you will perceive that the single hair in our 
study actually represents, perhaps, better than any 
more important object could do, the real story of any 
social illusion, any great popular error. ‘The error 
seems so utterly absurd that you cannot understand 
how any man in his senses can believe it, and yet men 
quite as intelligent as yourselves, perhaps even more so, 
speak of it with respect. They speak of it with respect 
simply because they perceive better than you do what 
enormous power would be needed to destroy it. It ap- 
pears to you something so light that even a breath 
would blow it away forever, or the touch of pain break 
it so easily that the breaking could not even be felt. 
You think of wisdom crushing it as an elephant might 
crush a fly, without knowing that the fly was there. 
But when you come to put forth your strength against 
this error, this gossamer of illusion, you will find that 
you might as well try to move a mountain with your 
hand. You must have help: you must have friends to 
furnish you with the sword of Aklis. Even with that 
mighty sword the cutting of the hair will prove no 
easy job. 

Afterwards what happens? Why, exactly the same 
thing that happens before. Men think that because 
the world has made one step forward in their time, all 
illusions are presently going to fade away. This is the 
greatest of social mistakes that a human being can pos- 
sibly make. The great sea of error immediately closes 


[384] 


“The Shaving of Shagpat” 


again behind the forms that find strength to break out 
of it. It is just the same as before. One illusion may 
indeed be eventually destroyed, but another illusion 
quickly forms behind it. The real truth is that wisdom 
will be reached when human individuals as well as hu- 
man society shall have become infinitely more perfect 
than they now are; and such perfection can scarcely be 
brought about before another million of years at least.’ 

These are the main truths symbolised in this wonder- 
ful story. But while you are reading the “Shaving of 
Shagpat,” you need not consider the moral meanings 
at all. You will think of them better after the reading. 
Indeed, I imagine that the story will so interest you 
that you will not be able to think of anything else until 
you have reached the end of it. Then you find yourself 
sorry that it is not just a little bit longer. 


[385] 


CHAPTER VIII 
A NOTE ON ROBERT BUCHANAN 


Amonc the minor poets of the Victorian period, Robert 
Buchanan cannot be passed over unnoticed. A con- 
temporary of all the great singers, he seems to have 
been always a little isolated; I mean that he formed no 
strong literary friendships within the great circle. 
Most great poets must live to a certain extent in soli- 
tude; the man who can at once mix freely in society 
and find time for the production of masterpieces is a 
rare phenomenon. George Meredith is said to be such 
a person. But Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, Brown- 
ing, Fitzgerald, were all very reserved and retired men, 
though they had little circles of their own, and a certain 
common sympathy. The case of Buchanan is different. 
His aloofness from the rest has been, not the result of 
any literary desire for quiet, but the result, on the con- 
trary, of a strong spirit of opposition. Not only did 
he have no real sympathy with the great poets, but he 
represented in himself the very prejudices against which 
they had to contend. Hard headed Scotchman as he 
was, he manifested in his attitude to his brother poets 
a good deal of the peculiar, harsh conservatism of which 
Scotchmen seemed to be particularly capable. And he 
did himself immense injury in his younger days by an 
anonymous attack upon the morals, or rather upon the 
moral tone, of such poets as Rossetti and Swinburne. 


[386] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


Swinburne’s reply to this attack was terrible and with- 
ering. That of Rossetti was very mild and gentle, but 
so effective that English literary circles almost unani- 
mously condemned Buchanan, and attributed his attack 
to mere jealousy. I think the attack was less due to 
jealousy than to character, to prejudice, to the harsh- 
ness of a mind insensible to particular forms of beauty. 
And for more than twenty years Buchanan has suffered 
extremely from the results of his own action. Thou- 
sands of people have ignored him and his books simply 
because it was remembered that he gave wanton pain 
to Rossetti, a poet much too sensitive to endure unjust 
criticism. I suppose that for many years to come 
Buchanan will still be remembered in this light, not- 
withstanding that he tried at a later day to make 
honourable amends to the memory of Rossetti, by 
dedicating to him, with a beautiful sonnet of apology, 
the definitive edition of his own works. 

But the time has now passed when Buchanan can be 
treated as an indifferent figure in English literature. 
In spite of all disadvantages he has been a successful 
poet, a successful novelist, and a very considerable 
influence in the literature of criticism. Besides, he has 
written at least one poem that will probably live as long 
as the English language, and he has an originality quite 
apart and quite extraordinary, though weaker than the 
originality of the greater singers of his time. As to 
his personal history, little need to be said. He was edu- 
cated at Glasgow University, and his literary efforts 
have always been somewhat coloured by Scotch senti- 
ment, in spite of his long life in literary London. 

Three volumes represent his poetical production. In 


[387] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


these are contained a remarkable variety of poems— 
narrative, mystical, fantastic, classical, romantic, rang- 
ing from the simplest form of ballad to the complex 
form of the sonnet and the ode. The narrative poems 
would, I think, interest you least; they are gloomy 
studies of human suffering, physical and moral, among 
the poor, and are not so good as the work of Crabbe in 
the same direction. The mystical poems, on the con- 
trary, are of a very curious kind; for Buchanan ac- 
tually made a religious philosophy of his own, and put 
it into the form of verse. It is a Christian mysticism, 
an extremely liberal Unitarianism forming the basis of 
it; but the author’s notions about the perpetual order 
of things are all his own. He has, moreover, put these 
queer fancies into a form of verse imitating the ancient 
Celtic poetry. We shall afterward briefly consider the 
mystical poetry. But the great production of Buchanan 
is a simple ballad, which you find very properly placed 
at the beginning of his collected poems. This is a beau- 
tiful and extraordinary thing, quite in accordance with 
the poet’s peculiar views of Christianity. It is called 
“The Ballad of Judas Iscariot.” If you know only this 
composition, you will know all that it is absolutely 
necessary to know of Robert Buchanan. It is by this 
poem that his place is marked in nineteenth century 
literature. 

Before we turn to the poem itself, I must explain to 
you something of the legend of Judas Iscariot. You 
know, of course, that Judas was the disciple of Christ 
who betrayed his master. He betrayed him for thirty 
pieces of silver, according to the tradition; and he be- 
trayed him with a kiss, for he said to the soldiers whom 


[388 ] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


he was guiding, “The man whom I shall kiss is the man 
you want.” So Judas went up to Christ, and kissed 
his face; and then the soldiers seized Christ. From this 
has come the proverbial phrase common to so many 
Western languages, a “Judas-kiss.” Afterwards Judas, 
being seized with remorse, is said to have hanged him- 
self; and there the Scriptural story ends. But in 
Church legends the fate of Judas continued to be dis-. 
cussed in the Middle Ages. As he was the betrayer of 
a person whom the Church considered to be God, it was: 
deemed that he was necessarily the greatest of all! 
traitors; and as he had indirectly helped to bring about 
the death of God, he was condemned as the greatest of 
all murderers. It was said that in hell the very lowest 
place was given to Judas, and that his tortures exceeded 
all other tortures. But once every year, it was said, 
Judas could leave hell, and go out to cool himself upon 
the ice of the Northern seas. That is the legend of the 
Middle Ages. 

Now Robert Buchanan perceived that the Church 
legends of the punishment of Judas might be strongly 
questioned from a moral point of view. Revenge is in- 
deed in the spirit of the Old Testament; but revenge is 
not exactly in the spirit of the teaching of Christ. 
The true question as to the fate of Judas ought to be 
answered by supposing what Christ himself would have 
wished in the matter. Would Christ have wished to see 
his betrayer burning for ever in the fires of hell? Or 
would he have shown to him some of that spirit mani- 
fested in his teachings, “Do good unto them that hate 
you; forgive your enemies”? As a result of thinking 
about the matter, Buchanan produced his ballad. All 

[ 389 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


that could be said against it from a religious point 
of view is that the spirit of it is even more Christian 
than Christianity itself. From the poetical point of 
view we must acknowledge it to be one of the grandest 
ballads produced in the whole period of Victorian litera- 
ture. You will not find so exquisite a finish here as in 
some of the ballads of Rossetti; but you will find a 
weirdness and a beauty and an emotional power that 
make up for slenderness in workmanship. 

In order to understand the beginning of the ballad 
clearly, you should know the particulars about another 
superstition concerning Judas. It is said that all the 
elements refused to suffer the body to be committed to 
them; fire would not burn it; water would not let it 
sink to rest; every time it was buried, the earth would 
spew it out again. Man could not bury that body, so 
the ghosts endeavoured to get rid of it. The Field of 
Blood referred to in the ballad is the Aceldama of 
Scriptural legend, the place where Judas hanged him- 
self. 


*T-was the body of Judas Iscariot 
Lay in the Field of Blood; 
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot 

Beside the body stood. 


Black was the earth by night, 
And black was the sky; 

Black, black were the broken clouds, 
Though the red Moon went by. 


Then the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Did make a gentle moan— 


[390] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


“T will bury underneath the ground 
My flesh and blood and bone. 


“‘The stones of the field are sharp as steel, 
And hard and bold, God wot; 

And I must bear my body hence 
Until I find a spot!” 


’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot 
So grim, and gaunt, and grey, 
Raised the body of Judas Iscariot 

And carried it away. 


And as he bare it from the field 
Its touch was cold as ice, 

And the ivory teeth within the jaw 
Rattled aloud, like dice. 


The use of the word “ivory” here has a double func- 
tion; dice are usually made of ivory; and the sugges- 
tion of whiteness heightens the weird effect. 


As the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Carried its load with pain, 

The Eye of Heaven, like a lanthorn’s eye, 
Opened and shut again. 


Half he walk’d, and half he seemed 
Lifted on the cold wind; 

He did not turn, for chilly hands 
Were pushing from behind. 


The first place that he came unto 
It was the open wold, 


[391] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


And underneath were pricky whins, 
And a wind that blew so cold. 


The next place that he came unto 
It was a stagnant pool, 

And when he threw the body in 
It floated light as wool. 


He drew the body on his back, 
And it was dripping chill, 

And the next place he came unto 
Was a Cross upon a hill. 


A Cross upon the windy hill, 
And a Cross on either side, 
Three skeletons that swing thereon, 
Who had been crucified. 


And on the middle cross-bar sat 
A white Dove slumbering; 
Dim it sat in the dim light, 
With its head beneath its wing. 


And underneath the middle Cross 
A grave yawned wide and vast, 

But the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Shiver’d, and glided past. 


We are not told what this hill was, but every reader 
knows that Calvary is meant, and the skeletons upon 
the crosses are those of Christ and the two thieves 
crucified with him. The ghostly hand had pushed Judas 
to the place of all placcs where he would have wished 
not to go. We need not mind the traditional discrep- 

[392] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


ancy suggested by the three skeletons; as a matter of 
fact, the bodies of malefactors were not commonly left 
upon the crosses long enough to become skeletons, and 
of course the legend is that Christ’s body was on the 
cross only for a short time. But we may suppose that 
the whole description is of a phantasm, purposely 
shaped to stir the remorse of Judas. The white dove 
sleeping upon the middle cross suggests the soul of 
Christ, and the great grave made below might have been 
prepared out of mercy for the body of Judas. If the 
dove had awoke and spoken to him, would it not have 
said, “You can put your body here, in my grave; no- 
body will torment you”? But the soul of Judas cannot 
even think of daring to approach the place of the cruci- 
fixion. 


The fourth place that he came unto, 
It was the Brig of Dread, 

And the great torrents rushing down 
Were deep, and swift, and red. 


He dared not fling the body in 
For fear of faces dim, 

And arms were waved in the wild water 
To thrust it back to him. 


There is here a poetical effect borrowed from sources 
having nothing to do with the Judas tradition. In old 
Northern folklore there is the legend of a River of 
Blood, in which all the blood ever shed in this world con- 
tinues to flow; and there is a reference to this river in 
the old Scotch ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer.” 

[393 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


It was mirk, mirk night, and there was nae light, 
And they waded in red blude up to the knee, 
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth, 

Rins through the springs o’ that countrie. 


Judas leaves the dreadful bridge and continues his 
wanderings over the mountain, through woods and 
through great desolate plains: 


For months and years, in grief and tears, 
He walked the silent night; 

Then the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Perceived a far-off light. 


A far-off light across the waste, 
As dim as dim might be, 

That came and went like a lighthouse gleam 
On a black night at sea. 


*Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Crawled to the distant gleam; 

And the rain came down, and the rain was blown 
Against him with a scream. 


*T was the soul of Judas Iscariot, 
Strange, and sad, and tall, 

Stood all alone at dead of night 
Before a lighted hall. 


And the wold was white with snow, 
And his foot-marks black and damp, 

And the ghost of the silver Moon arose 
Holding her yellow lamp. 


[394] 


3 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


And the icicles were on the eaves, 
And the walls were deep with white, 

And the shadows of the guests within 
Passed on the window light. 


The shadows of the wedding guests 
Did strangely come and go, 

And the body of Judas Iscariot 
Lay stretch’d along the snow. 


But only the body. The soul which has carried it 
does not lie down, but runs round and round the lighted 
hall, where the wedding guests are assembled. What 
wedding? What guests? This is the mystical banquet 
told of in the parable of the New Testament; the bride- 
groom is Christ himself; the guests are the twelve dis- 
ciples, or rather, the eleven, Judas himself having been 
once the twelfth. And the guests see the soul of Judas 
looking in at the window. 


’T was the Bridegroom sat at the table-head, 
And the lights burned bright and clear— 

“Oh, who is that,” the Bridegroom said, 
“Whose weary feet I hear?’ 


’Twas one look’d from the lighted hall, 
And answered soft and slow, 

“Tt is a wolf runs up and down 
With a black track in the snow.” 


The Bridegroom in his robe of white 
Sat at the table-head— 

“Oh, who is that who moans without?” 
The blessed Bridegroom said. 


[395] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


*T was one looked from the lighted hall, 
And answered fierce and low, 

“°-Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Gliding to and fro.” 


"Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Did hush itself and stand, 

And saw the Bridegroom at the door 
With a light in his hand. 


The Bridegroom stood in the open door, 
And he was clad in white, 

And far within the Lord’s Supper 
Was spread so long and bright. 


The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and looked, 
And his face was bright to see— 

“What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper 
With thy body’s sins?” said he. 


"Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot, 
Stood black, and sad, and bare— 

“T have wandered many nights and days; 
There is no light elsewhere.” 


*Twas the wedding guests cried out within, 
And their eyes were fierce and bright— 
“Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Away into the night!” 


The Bridegroom stood in the open door 
And he waved hands still and slow, 

And the third time that he waved his hands 
The air was thick with snow. 


[396] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


And of every flake of falling snow, 
Before it touched the ground, 

There came a dove, and a thousand doves 
Made sweet sound. 


’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot 
Floated away full fleet, 

And the wings of the doves that bare it off 
Were like its winding-sheet. 


’Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door, 
And beckon’d, smiling sweet; 

’T was the soul of Judas Iscariot 
Stole in, and fell at his feet. 


“The Holy Supper is spread within, 
And the many candles shine, 

And I have waited long for thee 
Before I poured the wine!” 


It would have been better, I think, to finish the bal- 
lad at this stanza; there is one more, but it does not 
add at all to the effect of what goes before. When the 
doves, emblems of divine love, have carried away the 
sinful body, and the Master comes to the soul, smiling 
and saying: “I have been waiting for you a long time, 
waiting for your coming before I poured the wine”’— 
there is nothing more to be said. We do not want to 
hear any more; we know that the Eleven had again be- 
come Twelve ; we do not require to be told that the wine 
is poured out, or that Judas repents his fault. The 
startling and beautiful thing is the loving call and the 

[397 } 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


welcome to the Divine Supper. You will find the whole 
of this poem in the “Victorian Anthology,” but I should 
advise any person who might think of making a Japa- 
nese translation to drop the final stanza and to leave 
out a few of the others, if his judgment agrees with 
mine. 

Read this again to yourselves, and see how beautiful 
it is. The beauty is chiefly in the central idea of for- 
giveness; but the workmanship of this composition has 
also a very remarkable beauty, a Celtic beauty of weird- 
ness, such as we seldom find in a modern composition 
touching religious tradition. It were interesting to 
know how the poet was able to imagine such a piece of 
work. I think I can tell a little of the secret. Only a 
man with a great knowledge and love of old ballads 
could have written it. Having once decided upon the 
skeleton of the story, he must have gone to his old Celtic 
literature and to old Northern ballads for further in- 
spiration. I have already suggested that the ballad 
of “Thomas the Rhymer” was one source of his inspira- 
tion, with its strange story of the River of Blood. 
Thomas was sitting under a tree, the legend goes, when 
he saw a woman approaching so beautiful that he 
thought she was an angel or the Virgin Mary, and he 
addressed her on his knees. But she sat down beside 
him, and said, “I am no angel nor saint; I am only a 
fairy. But if you think that I am so beautiful, take 
care that you do not kiss me, for if you do, then I 
shall have power over you.” Thomas immediately did 
much more than kiss her, and he therefore became her 
slave. She took him at once to fairy land, and on their 


[398] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


way they passed through strange wild countries, much 
like those described in Robert Buchanan’s ballad; they 
passed the River of Blood; they passed dark trees 
laden with magical food; and they saw the road that 
reaches Heaven and the road that reaches Hell. But 
Buchanan could take only a few ideas from this poem. 
Other ideas I think were inspired by a ballad of Goethe’s, 
or at least by Sir Walter Scott’s version of it, “Fred- 
erick and Alice.” Frederick is a handsome young soldier 
who seduces a girl called Alice under promise of mar- 
riage, and then leaves her. He rides to join the army in 
France. The girl becomes insane with grief and shame; 
and the second day later she dies at four o’clock in the 
morning. Meantime Frederick unexpectedly loses his 
way ; the rest I may best tell in the original weird form. 
The horse has been frightened by the sound of a church 
bell striking the hour of four. 


Heard ye not the boding sound, 

As the tongue of yonder tower, 
Slowly, to the hills around, 

Told the fourth, the fated hour? 


Starts the steed, and snuffs the air, 
Yet no cause of dread appears; 
Bristles high the rider’s hair, 
Struck with strange mysterious fears. 


Desperate, as his terrors rise, 
In the steed the spur he hides; 
From himself in vain he flies; 
Anxious, restless, on he rides. 


[399] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Seven long days, and seven long nights, 
Wild he wandered, woe the while! 

Ceaseless care, and causeless fright, 
Urge his footsteps many a mile. 


Dark the seventh sad night descends; 
Rivers swell, and rain-streams pour; 
While the deafening thunder lends 
All the terrors of its roar. 


At the worst part of his dreary wandering over an 
unknown and gloomy country, Frederick suddenly sees 
a light far away. This seems to him, as it seemed in 
Buchanan’s ballad to the soul of Judas, a hight of hope. 
He goes to the light, and finds himself in front of a vast 
and ruinous looking church. Inside there is a light; 
he leaps down from his horse, descends some steps, and 
enters the building. Suddenly all is darkness again; 
he has to feel his way. 


Long drear vaults before him lie! 
Glimmering lights are seen to glide !— 
“Blessed Mary, hear my cry! 
Deign a sinner’s steps to guide!” 


Often lost their quivering beam, 
Still the lights move slow before, 

Till they rest their ghastly gleam 
Right against an iron door. 


He is really in the underground burial place of a 
church, in the vaults of the dead, but he does not know 
it. He hears voices. 


[400] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


Thundering voices from within, 
Mixed with peals of laughter, rose; 
As they fell, a solemn strain 
Lent its wild and wondrous close! 


’Midst the din, he seem’d to hear 

Voice of friends, by death removed ;— 
Well he knew that solemn air, 

’Twas the lay that Alice loved. 


Suddenly a great bell booms four times, and the iron 
door opens. He sees within a strange banquet; the 
seats are coffins, the tables are draped with black, and 
the dead are the guests. 


Alice, in her grave-clothes bound, 
Ghastly smiling, points a seat; 
All arose, with thundering sound; 
All the expected stranger greet. 


High their meagre arms they wave, 
Wild their notes of welcome swell; 

“Welcome, traitor, to the grave! 
Perjured, bid the light farewell!” 


I have given the greater part of this strange ballad 
because of its intrinsic value and the celebrity of its 
German author. But the part that may have inspired 
Buchanan is only the part concerning the wandering 
over the black moor, the light seen in the distance, the 
ghostly banquet of the dead, and the ruined vaults. A 
great poet would have easily found in these details the 
suggestion which Buchanan found for the wandering of 


[401] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Judas to the light and the unexpected vision of the 
dead assembling to a banquet with him—but only this. 
The complete transformation of the fancy, the trans- 
mutation of the purely horrible into a ghostly beauty 
and tenderness, is the wonderful thing. After all, this is 
the chief duty of the poet in this world, to discover 
beauty even in the ugly, suggestions of beauty even in 
the cruel and terrible. This Buchanan did once so very 
well that his work will never be forgotten, but he re- 
ceived thereafter no equal inspiration, and the “Ballad 
of Judas” remains, alone of its kind, his only real claim 
to high distinction. 

The poetry of Robert Buchanan is not great enough 
as poetry to justify many quotations, but as thinking 
it demands some attention. His third volume is espe- 
cially of interest in this respect, because it contains a 
curious exposition of his religious idealism. Buchanan 
is a mystic; there is no doubt that he has been very 
much influenced by the mysticism of Blake. The whole 
of the poems collectively entitled “The Devil’s Mystics,” 
must have been suggested by Blake’s nomenclature. 
This collection belongs to “The Book of Orm,” which 
might have been well called “The Book of Robert 
Buchanan.” Orm ought to be a familiar name to stu- 
dents of English literature, one of the old English 
books also being called “The Ormulum,” because it was 
written by a man named Orm. Buchanan’s Orm is rep- 
resented to be an ancient Celt, who has visions and 
dreams about the mystery of the universe, and who 
puts these visions and dreams, which are Buchanan’s, 
into old-fashioned verse. 

The great Ernest Renan said in his “Dialogues Phi- 

[ 402 ] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


losophiques” that if everybody in the world who had 
thought much about the mystery of things were to 
write down his ideas regarding the Infinite, some great 
truth might be discovered or deduced from the result. 
Buchanan has tried to follow this suggestion; for he 
has very boldly put down all his thoughts about the 
world and man and God. As to results, however, I can 
find nothing particularly original except two or three 
queer fancies, none of which relates to the deeper rid- 
dles of being. In a preface in verse, the author further 
tells us that when he speaks of God he does not mean 
the Christian God or the God of India nor any particu- 
lar God, but only the all-including Spirit of Life. Be 
that as it may, we find his imagery to be certainly bor- 
rowed from old Hebrew and old Christian thinkers; 
here he has not fulfilled expectations. But the imagery 
is used to express some ideas which I think you will find 
rather new—not exactly philosophical ideas, but moral 
parables. 

One of these is a parable about the possible conse- 
quences of seeing or knowing the divine power which is 
behind the shadows of things. Suppose that there were 
an omnipotent God whom we could see; what would be 
the consequences of seeing him? Orm discovered that 
the blue of the sky was a blue veil drawn across Im- 
mensity to hide the face of God. One day, in answer 
to prayer, God drew aside the blue veil. Then all 
mankind were terrified because they saw, by day and by 
night, an awful face looking down upon them out of the 
sky, the sleepless eyes of the face seeming to watch 
each person constantly wherever he was. Did this make 
men happy? Not at all. They became tired of life, 

[403] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


finding themselves perpetually watched; they covered 
their cities with roofs, and lived by lamp light only, in 
order to avoid being looked at by the face, God. This 
queer parable, recounted in the form of a dream, has a 
meaning worth thinking about. The ultimate sugges- 
tion, of course, is that we do not know and see many 
things because it would make us very unhappy to know 
them. 

An equally curious parable, also related in the form 
of a dream, treats of the consolations of death. What 
would become of mankind if there were no death? I 
think you will remember that I told you how the young 
poet William Watson took up the same subject a few 
years ago, in his remarkable poem, “A Dream of Man.” 
Watson’s supposition is that men became so wise, so 
scientific, that they were able to make themselves im- 
mortal and to conquer death. But at last they became 
frightfully unhappy, unutterably tired of life, and were 
obliged to beg God to give them back death again. And 
God said to them, “You are happier than I am. You 
can die; I cannot. The only happiness of existence is 
effort. Now you can have your friend death back 
again.” Buchanan’s idea was quite different from this. 
His poem is called “The Dream of the World without 
Death.” Men prayed to God that there might be no 
more death or decay of the body; and the prayer was 
granted. People continued to disappear from the 
world, but they did not die. They simply vanished, 
when their time came, as ghosts. A child goes out to 
play in the field, for example, and never comes back 
again; the mother finds only the empty clothes of her 
darling. Or a peasant goes to the fields to work, and 

[404] 


A Note on Robert Buchanan 


his body is never seen again. People found that this 
was a much worse condition of things than had been 
before. For the consolation of knowledge, of cer- 
tainty, was not given them. The dead body is a 
certificate of death; nature uses corruption as a scal, 
an official exhibit and proof of the certainty of death. 
But when there is no body, no corpse, no possible sign, 
how horrible is the disappearance of the persons we 
love. The mystery of it is a much worse pain than 
the certain knowledge of death. Doubt is the worst 
form of torture. Well, when mankind had this ex- 
perience, they began to think, that, after all, death was 
a beautiful and good thing, and they prayed most fer- 
vently that they might again have the privilege of dying 
in the old way, of putting the bodies of their dead into 
beautiful tombs, of being able to visit the graves of 
their beloved from time to time. So God took pity on 
them and gave them back death, and the poet sings his 
gratitude thus: 


And I cried, ““O unseen Sender of Corruption, 
I bless thee for the wonder of Thy mercy, 
Which softeneth the mystery and the parting. 


“T bless Thee for the change and for the comfort, 
The bloomless face, shut eyes, and waxen fingers,— 
For Sleeping, and for Silence, and Corruption.” 


This idea is worth something, if only as a vivid 
teaching of the necessity of things as they are. The 
two fantasies thus commented upon are the most origi- 
nal things in the range of this mystical book. I could 

[ 405 ] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


not recommend any further reading or study of the 
poet, except perhaps of his “Vision of the Man Ac- 
curst.” But even this has not the true stamp of origi- 
nality ; and only the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is cer- 
tain not to be soon forgotten. 


[406] 


CHAPTER IX 
ROBERT BRIDGES 


Tus poet, one of the greatest of the English minor 
poets of our time, and represented in literature by a 
very considerable bulk of work, happens to be one of 
the least known. He was never popular; and even to- 
day, when recognition is coming to him slowly, almost 
as slowly as it came to George Meredith, he is chiefly 
read by the cultivated classes. There are several rea- 
sons for this. One is that he is altogether an old-fash- 
ioned poet, writing with the feeling of the eighteenth 
rather than of the nineteenth century, so that persons 
in search of novelty are not likely to look at him. Then 
again he is not a thinker, except at the rarest moments, 
not touched at all by the scientific ideas of the nine- 
teenth century. For that reason a great many people, 
accustomed to look for philosophy in poetry, do not 
care about his verse. I must confess that I myself 
should not have read him, had it not been for a beauti- 
ful criticism of his work published some five years ago. 
That tempted me to study him, with pleasant results. 
But I then found a third reason for his unpopularity— 
want of passion. When everything else is missing that 
attracts intellectual attention to a poet, everything 
strange, novel, and philosophical, he may still become 
popular if he has strong emotion, deep feeling. But 
Robert Bridges has neither. He is somewhat cool, even 


[407] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


when he is not cold; his colours are never strong, 
though they are always natural; and there is something 
faint about his music that makes you think of the music 
of insects, of night crickets or locusts. You may there- 
fore begin to wonder that I should speak about him at 
all. If a poet has no philosophy, no originality, and 
no passion, what can there be in him? Well, a great 
deal. It is not necessary to be original in order to be a 
poet; it is only necessary to say old things somewhat 
better than they have been said before. Such a non- 
original poet of excellence may be a great lover of na- 
ture; for nature has been described in a million ways, 
and we are not tired of the descriptions. Again, the 
feeling need not be very strong; it is not strong in 
Wordsworth, except at moments. I think that the 
charm of Robert Bridges, who is especially a nature- 
poet, lies in his love of quiet effects, pale colours, small 
soft sounds, all the dreaminess and all the gentleness 
of still and beautiful days. Some of us like strong 
sounds, blazing colours, heavy scents of flowers and 
fruits; but some of us do not—we prefer rest 
and coolness and quiet tones. And I think that to 
Japanese feeling Robert Bridges ought to make an 
appeal. Much of his work makes me think of the 
old Japanese colour prints of spring, summer, 
autumn, and winter landscapes. He is particularly 
fond of painting these; perhaps half of his poetry, 
certainly a third of it, deals with descriptions of the 
seasons. ‘There is nothing tropical in these descrip- 
tions, because they are true to English landscape, the 
only landscape that he knows well. Now there is a 
good deal in English landscape, in the colours of the 
[ 408 | 


Robert Bridges 


English seasons, that resembles what is familiar to us 
in the aspects of Japanese nature. 

I cannot tell you very much about the poet him- 
self; he has left his personality out of the reach of 
public curiosity. I can only tell you that he was 
born in 1844 and that he is a country doctor, which 
is very interesting, for it is not often that a man can 
follow the busy duties of a country physician and 
find time to make poetry. But Dr. Bridges has been 
able to make two volumes of poetry which take very 
high rank; and a whole school of minor poets has 
been classed under the head of “Robert Bridges and 
his followers” in the new Encyclopedia of English 
poets. 

I do not intend at once to tire you by quoting this 
poet’s descriptions of the seasons; I only want to 
interest you in him, and if I can do that, you will 
be apt to read these descriptions for yourselves. I am 
going to pick out bits, here and there, which seem 
to me beautiful in themselves, independently of their 
subjects. Indeed, I think this is the way that Robert 
Bridges wants us to read him. At the beginning of 
Book IV, of the shorter poems (you will be interested 
to know that most of his poems have no titles), he 
himself tells us what his whole purpose is, in these 
pretty stanzas: 


I love all beauteous things, 
I seek and adore them; 
God hath no better praise, 
And man in his hasty days 

Is honored for them. 


[409] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


I too will something make, 
And joy in the making; 
Although to-morrow it seem 
Like the empty words of a dream 
Remembered on waking. 


With this hint I have no hesitation in beginning 
this lecture on Robert Bridges by picking out what 
seems to me almost the only philosophical poem in the 
whole of his work. The philosophy is not very deep, 
but the poem is haunting. 


EROS 


Why hast thou nothing in thy face? 
Thou idol of the human race, 

Thou tyrant of the human heart, 
The flower of lovely youth that art; 
Yea, and that standest in thy youth 
An image of eternal Truth, 

With thy exuberant flesh so fair, 
That only Pheidias might compare, 
Ere from his chaste marmoreal form 
Time had decayed the colours warm; 
Like to his gods in thy proud dress, 
Thy starry sheen of nakedness. 


Surely thy body is thy mind, 

For in thy face is nought to find, 

Only thy soft unchristen’d smile 

That shadows neither love nor guile, 
But shameless will and power immense, 
In secret sensuous innocence. 


[410] 


Robert Bridges 


O king of joy, what is thy thought? 

I dream thou knowest it is nought, 

And wouldst in darkness come, but thou 
Makest the light where’er thou go. 

Ah yet no victim of thy grace, 

None who e’er longed for thy embrace, 
Hath cared to look upon thy face. 


The divinity here described is not the infant but 
the more mature form of the god of Love, Eros (from 
whose name is derived the adjective “erotic,” used in 
such terms as “erotic poetry’). This Eros was rep- 
resented as a beautiful naked boy about twelve or thir- 
teen years old. Several statues of him are among the 
most beautiful works of Greek art. It is one of these 
statues that the poet refers to. And you must under- 
stand his poem, first of all, as treating of physical 
love, physical passion, as distinguished from love which 
belongs rather to the mind and heart and which is 
alone real and enduring. There is always a certain 
amount of delusion in physical attraction, in mere bod- 
ily beauty; but about the deeper love, which is perfect 
friendship between the sexes, there is no delusion, and 
it only grows with time. Now the god Eros repre- 
sented only the power of physical passion, the charm 
of youth. Looking at the face of the beautiful statue, 
the poet is startled by something which has been from 
ancient times noticed by all critics of Greek art, but 
which appears to him strange in another way—there 
is no expression in that face. It is beautiful, but it 
is also impersonal. So the faces of all the Greek gods 
were impersonal ; they represented ideals, not realities. 


[411] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


They were moved neither by deep love nor by deep 
hate—not at least in the conception of the artist 
and sculptor. They were above humanity, above affec- 
tion, therefore above pity. Here it is worth while to 
remark the contrast between the highest Eastern ideals 
in sculpture and the highest Western ideals. In the 
art of the Far East the Buddha is also impersonal; 
he smiles, but the smile is of infinite pity, compassion, 
tenderness. He represents a supreme ideal of virtue. 
Nevertheless he is, though impersonal, warmly human 
for this very reason. The more beautiful Greek divinity 
smiles deliciously, but there is no tenderness, no com- 
passion, no affection in that smile. It is not human; 
it is superhuman. Looking at the features of a Greek 
Aphrodite, an Eros, a Dionysius, you feel that they 
could smile with the same beautiful smile at the destruc- 
tion of the world. What does the smile mean? You 
are charmed by it, yet it is mysterious, almost awful. 
It represents nothing but supreme content, supreme 
happiness—not happiness in the spiritual sense of 
rest, but happiness of perfect youth and innocence of 
pain. That is why there is something terrible about 
it to the modern thinker. It is without sympathy; it 
is only joy. 

Now you will see the poem in its inner meaning. Let 
us paraphrase it: 

“Why is there no expression in that divinely beauti- 
ful face of thine, O fair god, who art forever wor- 
shipped by the race of men, forever ruling the hearts 
of its youth without pity, without compassion! Thou 
who art the perfect image of the loveliness of youth, 
and the symbol of some eternal and universal law, so 


[412] 


Robert Bridges 


fair, so lovely that only the great Greek sculptor 
Pheidias could represent thee in pure marble, thou 
white as that marble itself, before time had faded the 
fresh colour with which thy statue had been painted! 
Truly thou art as one of his gods in the pride of thy 
nakedness—which becomes thee more than any robe, 
being itself luminous, a light of stars. But why is 
there no expression in thy face? 

“Tt must be that thy body represents thy mind. Yet 
thy mind is not reflected in thy face like the mind of 
man. There I see only the beautiful old pagan smile, 
the smile of the years before the Religion of Sorrow 
came into this world. And that smile of thine shows 
neither love nor hate nor shame, but power incalculable 
and the innocence of sensuous pleasure. 

“Thou king of Joy, of what dost thou think? For 
thy face no-wise betrays thy thought. Truly I be- 
lieve thou dost not think of anything which troubles 
the minds of sorrowing men; thou thinkest of nothing. 
Thou art Joy, not thought. And I imagine that thou 
wouldst prefer not to be seen by men, to come to them 
in darkness only, or invisibly, as thou didst to Psyche 
in other years. But thou canst not remain invisible, 
since thy body is made of light, and forever makes a 
great shining about thee. For uncounted time thou 
hast moved the hearts of millions of men and of women; 
all have known thy presence, felt thy power. But none, 
even of those who most longed for thee, has ever de- 
sired to look into thy beautiful face, because it is not 
the face of humanity but of divinity, and because there 
is in it nothing of human love.” 

There is a good deal to think about in this poem, but 

[413 | 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


to feel the beauty of it you ought to have before your 
eyes, when studying it, a good engraving of the statue. 
However, even without any illustration you will easily 
perceive the moral of the thought in it, that beauty and 
youth alone do not signify affection, nor even anything 
dear to the inner nature of man. 

Now I shall turn to another part of the poet’s work. 
Here is a little verse about a grown man looking at the 
picture of himself when he was a little child. I think 
that it is a very charming sonnet, and it will give you 
something to think about. 


A man that sees by chance his picture, made 

As once a child he was, handling some toy, 

Will gaze to find his spirit within the boy, 

Yet hath no secret with the soul portray’d: 

He cannot think the simple thought which play’d 
Upon those features then so frank and coy; 

‘Tis his, yet oh! not his: and o’er the joy 

His fatherly pity bends in tears dismay’d. 


There is indeed no topic which Robert Bridges has 
treated more exquisitely and touchingly than certain 
phases of childhood, the poetry of childhood, the purity 
of childhood, the pathos of childhood. I do not think 
that any one except Patmore, and Patmore only in one 
poem, “The Toys,” has even approached him. "Take 
this little poem for example, on the death of a little 
boy. It is the father who is speaking. 


[414] 


Robert Bridges 


ON A DEAD CHILD 


Perfect little body, without fault or stain on thee, 
With promise of strength and manhood full and fair! 
Though cold and stark and bare, 
The bloom and the charm of life doth awhile remain on thee. 


Thy mother’s treasure wert thou;—alas! no longer 
To visit her heart with wondrous joy; to be 
Thy father’s pride ;—ah, he 
Must gather his faith together, and his strength make 
stronger. 


To me, as I move thee now in the last duty, 
Dost thou with a turn or gesture anon respond; 
Startling my fancy fond 
With a chance attitude of the head, a freak of beauty. 


Thy hand clasps, as *twas wont, my finger, and holds it: 
But the grasp is the clasp of Death, heartbreaking and 
stiff ; 
Yet feels my hand as if 
Twas still thy will, thy pleasure and trust that enfolds it. 


So I lay thee there, thy sunken eyelids closing,— 
Go lie thou there in thy coffin, thy last little bed ;— 
Propping thy wise, sad head, 
Thy firm, pale hands across thy chest disposing. 


So quiet !—doth the change content thee ?—Death, whither 
hath he taken thee? 
To a world, do I think, that rights the disaster of this? 
The vision of which I miss, 
Who weep for the body, and wish but to warm thee and 
awaken thee? 


[415] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Ah! little at best can all our hopes avail us 
To lift this sorrow, or cheer us, when in the dark 
Unwilling, alone we embark, 
And the things we have seen and have known and have 
heard of, fail us! 


You will see the exquisiteness of this more fully after 
a little explanation. The father is performing the 
last duty to his little dead son: washing the body with 
his own hands, closing the eyes, and placing the little 
corpse in the coffin, rather than trust this work to 
any less loving hands. The Western coffin, you must 
know, is long, and the body is placed in it lying at 
full length as upon a bed, with a little pillow to support 
the head. Then the hands are closed upon the heart 
in the attitude of prayer. The poem describes more 
than the feelings of a father, during these tender offices. 
As he turns the little body to wash it, the small head 
changes its position now and then, and the motion is 
so much like the pretty motions made by that little 
head during life, that it is very difficult to believe there is 
now no life there. In all modern English poetry there 
is nothing more touching than the lines: 


Startling my fancy fond 
With a chance attitude of the head, a freak of beauty. 


The word “freak” is incomparably beautiful in this 

line, for it has a sense of playfulness; it means often 

a childish fancy or whim or pretty mischievous action. 

The turning of the dead head seems so like the motion 

of the living head in play. Then as the hands were 

washed by the father, the relaxed muscles caused the 
[416] 


Robert Bridges 


opened fingers to close upon the father’s finger, just as 
in other days when the two walked about together, the 
little boy’s hands were too small to hold the great hands 
of the father, and therefore clasped one finger only. 
Then observe the very effective use of two most simple 
adjectives to picture the face of the dead child—“wise”’ 
and “sad.”? Have you ever seen the face of a dead 
child? If you have, you will remember how its calm- 
ness gives one the suggestion of strange knowledge; 
the wise smile little, and fond fancy for thousands of 
years has looked into the faces of the unsmiling dead 
in search of some expression of supreme knowledge. 
Also there is an expression of sadness in the face of 
death, even in the faces of children asleep, although 
relaxation of muscles is the real explanation of the 
fact. All these fancies are very powerfully presented 
in the first five verses. 

In the last two verses the sincerity of grief uniquely 
shows itself. “Where do you think the little life has 
gone?” the father asks. “Do you want me to say that 
I think it has gone to a happier world than this, to 
what you call Heaven? Ah, I must tell you the truth. 
I do not know; I doubt, I fear. When a grief like 
this comes to us, all our religious imaginations and 
hopes can serve us little.” 

You must read that over and over again to know 
the beauty of it. Here is another piece of very touch- 
ing poetry about a boy, perhaps about the same boy 
who afterward died. It will require some explanation, 
for it is much deeper in a way than the previous piece. 
It is called “Pater Filio,” meaning “the father to the 


son.” 


[417] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Sense with keenest edge unused, 
Yet unsteel’d by scathing fire; 
Lovely feet as yet unbruiséd 
On the ways of dark desire; 
Sweetest hope that lookest smiling 
O’er the wilderness defiling! 


Why such beauty, to be blighted 
By the swarm of foul destruction? 
Why such innocence delighted, 
When sin stalks to thy seduction? 
All the litanies e’er chaunted 
Shall not keep thy faith undaunted. 


te! e e e . 


Me too once unthinking Nature, 
—Whence Love’s timeless mockery took me,— 
Fashion’d so divine a creature, 
Yea, and like a beast forsook me. 
I forgave, but tell the measure 
Of her crime in thee, my treasure. 


The father is suffering the great pain of fathers 
when he speaks thus, the pain of fearing for the future 
of his child; and the mystery of things oppresses him, 
as it oppresses everybody who knows what it is to be 
afraid for the sake of another. He wonders at the 
beautiful fresh senses of the boy, “yet unsteeled by 
scathing fire’—that is, not yet hardened by experience 
of pain. He admires the beauty of the little feet tot- 
tering happily about; but in the same moment dark 
thoughts come to him, for he remembers how blood- 
stained those little feet must yet become on the ways 
of the world, in the streets of cities, in the struggle 
of life. And he delights in the smile of the child, full 

[418] 


Robert Bridges 


of hope that knows nothing of the great foul wilder- 
ness of the world, in which envy and malice and pas- 
sions of many kinds make it difficult to remain either 
good or hopeful. And he asks, “Why should a child 
be made so beautiful, only to lose that beauty at a 
later day, through sickness and grief and pain of a 
thousand kinds? Why should a child come into the 
world so charmingly innocent and joyful, only to lose 
that innocence and happiness later on through the en- 
countering of passion and temptation? Why should 
a child believe so deeply in the gods and in human 
nature? Later on, no matter how much he grieves, the 
time will come when that faith in the powers unseen 
must be sadly warped.” 

And lastly the father remembers his own childhood, 
thinking, “I too was once a divine little creature like 
that. Love, the eternal illusion, brought me into the 
world, and Nature made me as innocent and trustful 
as this little boy. Later on, however, the same Nature 
abandoned me, like the animal that forsakes her young 
as soon as they grow a little strong. I forgave Nature 
for that abandonment,” the father says, turning to 
the child, “but it is only when I look at you, my treas- 
ure, that I understand how much I lost with the van- 
ishing of my own childhood.” 

Nobody in the whole range of English literature has 
written anything more tender than that. It is out of 
the poet’s heart. 

One would expect, on reading delicacies of this kind, 
that the poet would express himself not less beautifully 
than tenderly in regard to woman. As a matter of 
fact, he certainly ranks next to Rossetti as a love poet, 


[419] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


even in point of workmanship. I am also inclined to 
think, and I believe that critics will later recognise 
this, that his feeling in regard to the deeper and nobler 
qualities of love can only be compared to the work 
of Browning in the same direction. It has not Brown- 
ing’s force, nor the occasional sturdiness that ap- 
proaches roughness. It is altogether softer and 
finer, and it has none of Browning’s eccentricities. A 
collection of sonnets, fifty-nine in number, entitled “The 
Growth of Love” may very well be compared with Ros- 
setti’s sonnet-sequence, “The House of Life.” But it 
is altogether unlike Rossetti’s work; it deals with 
thought more than sensation, and with joy more than 
sorrow. But before we give an example of these, let 
me quote a little fancy of a very simple kind, that gives 
the character of Robert Bridges as a love poet quite 
as well as any long or elaborate poem could do. 


Long are the hours the sun is above, 
But when evening comes I go home to my love. 


I’m away the daylight hours and more, 
Yet she comes not down to open the door. 


She does not meet me upon the stair,— 
She sits in my chamber and waits for me there. 


As I enter the room she does not move; 
I always walk straight up to my love; 


And she lets me take my wonted place 
At her side, and gaze in her dear dear face. 


[420] 


Robert Bridges 


There as I sit, from her head thrown back: 
Her hair falls straight in a shadow black. 


Aching and hot as my tired eyes be, 
She is all that I wish to see. 


And in my wearied and toil-dinned ear, 
She says all things that I wish to hear, 


Dusky and duskier grows-the room, 
Yet I see her best in the darker gloom. 


When the winter eves are early andkcold, 
The firelight hours are a dream of gold. 


And so I sit here night by night, 
In rest and enjoyment of love’s delight. 


But a knock at the door, a step on the stair 
Will startle, alas, my love from her chair. 


If a stranger comes she will not stay: 
At the first alarm she is off and away. 


And he wonders, my guest, usurping her throne, 
That I sit so much by myself alone. 


You feel the mystery of the thing beginning at the 
second stanza, but not until you get to the sixth stanza 
do you begin to perceive it. This is not a living woman, 
but a ghost. The whole poetry of the composition is 
here. What does the poet mean? He has not told 
us anywhere, and it is better that he should not have 
told us, because we can imagine so many things, so 


[421] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


many different circumstances, which the poem would 
equally well illustrate. Were this the fancy of a young 
man, we might say that the phantom love means the 
ideal wife, the unknown bride of the future, the beautiful 
dream that every young man makes for himself about 
a perfectly happy home. Again, we might suppose that 
the spirit bride is not really related at all to love in 
the common sense, but figures or symbolises only the 
devotion of the poet to poetry, in which case the spirit 
bride is art. But the poet is not a young man; he is 
an old country doctor, coming home late every night 
from visiting his patients, tired, weary, but with plenty 
of work to do in his private study. Who, then, may 
be the shadowy woman with the long black hair always 
waiting for him alone? Perhaps art, perhaps a mem- 
ory, most likely the memory of a dead wife, and we may 
even imagine, the mother of the little boy about whose 
death the poet has so beautifully written elsewhere. 
I do not pretend to explain; I do not want to explain; 
I am only anxious to show you that this composition 
fulfils one of the finest conditions of poetry, by its sug- 
gestiveness. It leaves many questions to be answered 
in fancy, and all of them are beautiful. 

Let me now take a little piece about the singing of 
the nightingale. I think you remember that I read to 
you, and commented upon Keats’s poem about the night- 
ingale. That is the greatest English poem, the most 
perfect, the most unapproachable of poems upon the 
nightingale. And after that, only a very, very skilful 
poet dare write seriously about the nightingale, for his 
work, if at all imperfect, must suffer terribly by com- 
parsion with the verses of Keats. But Robert Bridges 

[422 | 


Robert Bridges 


has actually come very near to the height of Keats in 
a three stanza poem upon the same subject. The treat- 
ment of the theme is curiously different. The poem of 
Keats represents supreme delight, the delight which is 
so great that it becomes sad. The poem of Bridges is 
slightly dark. The mystery of the bird song is the 
fact that he chiefly considers; and he considers it in a 
way that leaves you thinking a long time after the 
reading of the verses. The suggestions of the compo- 
sition, however, can best be considered after we have 
read the verses. 


NIGHTINGALES 


Beautiful must be the mountains whence ye come, 
And bright in the fruitful valleys the streams, wherefrom 
Ye learn your song: 
Where are those starry woods? O might I wander there, 
Among the flowers, which in that heavenly air 
Bloom the year long! 


Nay, barren are those mountains and spent the streams: 
Our song is the voice of desire, that haunts our dreams, 
A throe of the heart, é 
Whose pining visions dim, forbidden hopes profound, 
No dying cadence nor long sigh can sound, 
For all our art. 


Alone, aloud in the raptured ear of men 
We pour our dark nocturnal secret; and then, 
As night is withdrawn 
From these sweet-springing meads and bursting boughs of 
May, 
Dream, while the innumerable choir of day 
Welcome the dawn. 


[423] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Other poets, following the popular notion that birds 
are happy when they sing, often speak of the nightin- 
gale as an especially happy bird because of the extraor- 
dinary sweetness of its song. The Greek poets thought 
otherwise ; to them it seemed that the song of the birds 
was the cry of infinite sorrow and regret, and one of 
the most horrible of all the Greek myths is the story 
of Philomela, transformed into a nightingale. Matthew 
Arnold, you may remember, takes the Greek view. So 
in a way does Robert Bridges, but there are other sug- 
gestions in his verse, purely human. Paraphrased, the 
meaning is this (a man speaks first) : 

“When I listen to your song, I feel sure that the 
country from which you come must be very beautiful; 
and very sweet the warbling music of the stream, whose 
sound may have taught you how to sing. O how much 
I wish that I could go to your wonderful world, your 
tropical world, where summer never dies, and where 
flowers are all the year in bloom.” But the birds an- 
swer: “You are in error. Desolate is the country from 
which we come; and in that country the mountains 
are naked and barren, and the rivers are dried up. If 
we sing, it is because of the pain that we feel in our 
hearts, the pain of great desire for happier things. 
But that which we desire without knowing it by sight, 
that which we hope for in vain, these are more beautiful 
than any song of ours can express. Skilful we are, 
but not skilful enough to utter all that we feel. At 
night we sing, trying to speak our secret of pain to 
men; but when all the other birds awake and salute the 
sun with happy song, while all the flowers open their 


[424] 


Robert Bridges 


leaves to the light, then we do not sing, but dream on 
in silence and shadow.” 

Is there not in this beautiful verse the suggestion 
of the condition of the soul in the artist and the poet, 
in those whose works are beautiful or seem beautiful, 
not because of joy, but because of pain—the pain of 
larger knowledge and deeper perception? I think it is 
particularly this that makes the superior beauty of the 
stanzas. You soon find yourself thinking, not about 
the nightingale, but about the human heart and the 
human soul. 

Here and there on almost every page of Bridges are 
to be found queer little beauties, little things that re- 
veal the personality of the writer. Can you describe 
an April sky, and clouds in the sky, and the light and 
the colour of the day, all in two lines? It is not an 
easy thing to do; but there are two lines that seem to 
do it in a poem, which is the sixth of the fourth book: 


On high the hot sun smiles, and banks of cloud uptower 
In bulging heads that crowd for miles the dazzling South. 


Notice the phrase “bulging heads.” Nothing is so 
difficult to describe in words, as to form, than ordinary 
clouds, because the form is indefinite. Yet the great 
rounding masses do dimly suggest giant heads, not nec- 
essarily the heads of persons, much oftener heads of 
trees. The word “bulging” means not only a swelling 
outwards but a soft baggy kind of swelling. No other 
adjective in the English language could better express 
the roundish form here alluded to. And we know that 
they are white, simply by the poet’s use of the word 

[425] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


dazzling that completes the picture. But there is more 
to notice; the poet has called these clouds banks of 
cloud, and has spoken of them as crowding the sky for 
miles. Remember that a bank of clouds always implies 
masses of cloud joined together below. Now on a 
beautiful clear day you must have often noticed in 
the sky that a clear space, straight as any line upon 
a map, marks off the lower part of the cloud. Between 
the horizon and this line there is only clear blue; then 
the clouds, all lined and joined together at the bottom, 
are all rounded, bulgy at the top. This is what the 
two lines which I have quoted picture to us. 

In the simplest fancies, however, the same truth to 
Nature is observable, and comes to us in like surprises. 
Here is a little bit about a new moon shining on the 
sea at night—the fourth poem in the fourth book: 


She lightens on the comb 
Of leaden waves, that roar 
And thrust their hurried foam 
Up on the dusky shore. 


Behind the Western bars 
The shrouded day retreats, 

And unperceived the stars 
Steal to their sovran seats. 


And whiter grows the foam, 

The small moon lightens more; 
And as I turn me home, 

My shadow walks before. 


You feel that this has been seen and felt, that it is 
not merely the imagination of a man sitting down to 


[426] 


Robert Bridges 


manufacture poetry at his desk. I imagine that you 
have not seen the word “comb” used of wave motion 
very often, though it is now coming more and more 
into poetical use. The comb of the wave is its crest, 
and the term is used just as we use the word comb 
in speaking of the crest of a cock. But there is also 
the verb “to comb”; and this refers especially to the 
curling over of the crest of the wave, just before it 
breaks, when the appearance of the crest-edge resembles 
that of wool being pulled through a comb (kushz). 
Thus the word gives us two distinct and picturesque 
ideas, whether used as noun or as adjective. Notice 
too the use of “leaden” in relation to the colour of 
waves where not touched by moonlight; the dull grey 
could not be better described by any other word. Also 
observe that as night advances, though the sea becomes 
dark, the form appears to become whiter and whiter. 
In a phosphorescent sea the foam lines appear very 
beautiful in darkness. 

I shall quote but one more poem by Robert Bridges, 
choosing it merely to illustrate how modern things ap- 
pear to this charming dreamer of old-fashioned dreams. 
One would think that he could not care much about 
such matters as machinery, telegraphs, railroads, steam- 
ships. But he has written a very fine sonnet about 
a steamship; and the curious thing is that this poem 
appears in the middle of a collection of love poems: 


The fabled sea-snake, old Leviathan, 

Or else what grisly beast of scaly chine 

That champ’d the ocean-wracksandsswash’d the brine, 
Before the new and milder days of man, 


[427] 


Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets 


Had never rib nor bray nor swingeing fan 
Like his iron swimmer of the Clyde or Tyne, 
Late-born of golden seed to breed a line 
Of offspring swifter and more huge of plan. 


Straight is her going, for upon the sun 

When once she hath look’d, her path and place are 
plain; 

With tireless speed she smiteth one by one 

The shuddering seas and foams along the main; 

And her eased breath, when her wild race is run, 

Roars through her nostrils like a hurricane. 


While this is true to fact, it is also fine fancy; the 
only true way in which the practical and mechanical 
can appeal to the poet is in the sensation of life and 
power that it produces. 

I think we have read together enough of Robert 
Bridges to excite some interest in such of his poetry 
as we have not read. But you will have perceived that 
this poet is in his own way quite different from other 
poets of the time, and that he cannot appeal to com- 
mon-place minds. His poetry is like fine old wine, mild, 
mellowed wine, that only the delicate palate will be able 
to appreciate properly. 


THE END 


[428] 


INDEX 


“Abt Vogler,” 209-214 

A@schylus, 258, 259 

“After Death,” 174-176 

“Agamemnon,” 258 

“Alkestis,” 259 

“Ancien Régime,” 235-237 

“Appreciations of Poetry,” In- 
tro. 

“Arabian 
311, 375 

“Archduchess Anne,” 324-329 

“Armada, The,” 177-179 

“Atalanta in Calydon,” 123, 177 


Nights, The,” 135, 


“Balaustian’s Adventure,” 259 

“Ballad of Dead Ladies, The,” 
105 

“Ballad of Judas Iscariot, The,” 
388-398, 405 

“Ballads and Poems of Tragic 
Life,” 312, 314 

Baudelaire, Charles, 128, 135 

“Birth Bond, The,” 14, 100 

“Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” 
253 

“Bishop Orders His Tomb, The,” 
253 

Blake, William, 402 

“Blessed Damozel, The,” 16, 21- 
35 

“Blot on the ’Secutcheon, The,” 
257 

“Blue Closet, The,” 281, 282 

“Body’s Beauty,” 104 

“Book of Orm, The,” 402 

“Bride’s Prelude, The,” 90-98, 
109 

Bridges, Robert, Intro., 407-428 

Browning, Robert, Intro., 1, 123, 
124, 125, 179, 180-261, 275, 
283, 312, 386 

Buchanan, Robert, 386-406 


“Burgraves, Les,” 105 

Byron, Lord George Gordon, 
107, 122, 125, 126 

“By the North Sea,” 137 


“Caliban Upon Setebus,” 255 

“Canterbury Tales, The,” 266 

“Card Dealer, The,” 76 

Carlyle, Thomas, 107, 182 

“Carmen,” 75, 76 

“Cavalier Tunes,” 228-233 

“Cenci, The,” 123 

Chaucer, Geoffrey, 255, 265, 266, 
267 

“Christabel,” 87, 107, 291 

“Cloud Confines, The,” 6 

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 83, 
87, 109, 291 

Comte, Auguste, 131 

“Confessional, The,” 234 

“Corpus Poeticum Boreale,” 
284, 294 

“Count Gismond,” 233, 275 

“Cristina and Monaldeschi,” 
234 


Dante, 2, 21, 22, 104, 107, 255 

“Dante and His Circle,” 104 

“Defense of Guinevere, The,” 
268 

“De l’Intelligence,” 116 

De Maupassant, Guy, 280 

De Musset, Alfred, 22 

‘Devil’s Mystics, The,” 402 

‘Dialogues Philosophiques,” 
402, 403 

“Dolores,” 168-171 

“Don Juan,” 125 

“Dramatic Idyls,” 256, 259 

“Dramatis Persone,” 256 

“Dream of Man, A,” 404 


[429] 


Index 


“Dream of the World Without 
Death,” 404 


“HKarth and Man,” 349, 354-365 
“Hden Bower,” 16, 19, 73-74 
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 180 
“Hros,” 410 

Euripides, 259 

“Eve of Crecy, The,” 281, 282 


Fitzgerald, Edward, 386 

“Folk-Mote by the River, The,” 
291 

“Frederick and Alice,” 399-401 


Gautier, Théophile, 135 

“Give a Rouse,” 229-230 

“Goldilocks and Goldilocks,” 
291 

Gosse, Edmund, 374, 375 

“Grammarian’s Funeral, 
218-223 

“Growth of Love, The,” 420 


> 
A, 


“Hafnur & Signy,” 291 

“Hand and Soul,” 109-113 

Harrison, Frederic, 131 

“Haystack in the Flood, The,” 
269-274, 284 

“Heretic’s Tragedy, The,” 233 

“Hesperia,” 161 

Homer, 267, 295 

“Honeysuckle, The,” 3 

“House of Life, The,” 14, 98- 
104, 420 

Hugo, Victor, 105 

“Hymn to Proserpine,” 152-160 


“Idylls of the King, The,” 84 

“In a Gondola,” 214-218 

“In Memoriam,” 93 

“In Prison,” 281 

“Interpretations of Literature,” 
Intro. 

“Ttylus,” 176 

“Tvan Ivanovitch,” 204-208 


“Jenny,” 76-82 
“Judgment of God, The,” 275- 
280 


Keats, John, 422, 423 

“King Harold’s Trance,” 314- 
324 

“King of Denmark’s Sons, The,” 
289, 290 

Kingsley, Charles, 6, 309 

“King’s Quhair, The,’ 73 

“King’s Tragedy, The,” 73 

“Knight Aagen and Maiden 
Else,” 291 


“Laboratory, The,” 233 

“Last Confession, The,” 74-76 

“Last Contention, The,” 347 

“Laus Veneris,” 165-168 

“Lay of the Last Minstrel, The,” 
8 


7 
“Life and Death of Jason, The,” 
309 
“Life and Literature,” Intro. 
“Light Woman, A,” 183-190 
“Litany, A,” 170-174 
“Little Tower, The,” 281 
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 
267 
“Lost on Both Sides,” 102 
“Love is Enough,” 268 
“Turia,” 257 


“Mademoiselle de Maupin,” 135 
Maeterlinck, Maurice, 282 
Malory, Sir Thomas, 283 
“Marching Along,” 230, 231, 232 
“Masque of Queen Bersabe, 
The,” 141-145 
“Men and Women,” 256 
Meredith, George, Intro., 130, 
131, 311-385, 386, 407 
Merimée, Prosper, 75 
Milton, John, 123, 124 
“Mirror, The,” 2 
“Modern Love,” 312 
Morris, William, Intro., 
262-310 
“Mr. Sludge, the Medium,” 254 
“My Father’s Close,” 106 
“My Last Duchess,” 191-198 


148, 


[430] 


Index 


“Nightingales,” 423 
‘Nuptials of Attila, The,” 334- 
347 


“Off Shore,” 139 

“On a Dead Child,” 415 
“On the Downs,” 133 
O’Shaughnessy, Arthur, 9 


“Paracelsus,” 254 
“Parleyings with Certain Peo- 
le of Importance in Their 

Day,” 256 

“Passing of Arthur, The,” 121 

“Pater Filio,” 417 

Patmore, Coventry, 99, 414 

“Patriot, The,” 223-228 

Poe, Edgar Allan, 108, 109 

“Poems and Ballads,” 130, 161 

“Poems and Lyrics of the Joy 
of Earth,” 312 

“Poems by the Way,” 268, 284 

“Portrait, The,” 35, 36 

“Prick of Conscience,” 176 

“Prometheus Unbound,” 123 


“Rapunzel,” 291 

“Raven and the King’s Daugh- 
ter, The,” 291 

“Ravenshoe,” 6 

“Reading of Earth, A,” 312 

Renan, Ernest, 402 

“Return of the Druses, The,” 


257 

“Ring and the Book, The,” 182, 
238-253 

“Rose Mary,” 83-90 

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, Intro., 
1-121, 122, 123, 125, 144, 148, 
255, 261, 264, 386, 387 390, 
420 

Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 132 

Buskin, John, 109, 150 


“St. Agnes of Intercession,” 


113-115 
Scott, Sir Walter, 87, 262, 265, 


399 


“Sea-Limits,” 12, 13 

Shakespeare, William, 182, 192, 
237, 250, 255, 256, 283 

“Shaving of Shagpat, The,” In- 
tro., 311, 374-385 

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, 122, 123 

“Silence,” 109 

“Sir Peter Harpdon’s End,” 281 

“Sister Helen,” 53-69 

Smart, Christopher, 256 

“Sony of Roland, The,” 23, 294 

“Songs Before Sunrise,” 132 

“Sordello,” 182, 255 

“Soul’s Tragedy, A,” 257-258 

£pencer, Herbert, 131, 198, 295, 
359, 364 

“Staff and Scrip, The,” Intro., 
16, 20, 37-51 : 

“Statue and the Bust, The,” 
199-204 

“Story of Sigurd, The,” 293-309 

“Strafford,” 257 

“Stratton Water,” 52 

“Sudden Light,” 9 

Swinburne, Algernon Charles, 
Intro., 52, 105, 107, 122-179, 
255, 261, 386, 387 


Taine, Henri, 116, 235 

“Tales of a Wayside Inn,” 267 

Tennyson, Alfred, 1, 8, 13, 84, 
88, 93, 121, 122, 123, 125, 144, 
255, 257, 261, 283, 329, 386 

“Thalassius,” 161-164 : 

“Thomas the Rhymer,” 393,394, 
398 

“Three Singers to Young Blood, 
The,” 365-372 

“Toys, The,” 414 

“Triumph of Time, The,” 139, 
176 

“Troy Town,” 16-20 


Villon, Francois, 105, 135 

Virgil, 267 

“Vision of the Man Accurst, 
The,” 405 


[431] 


Index 


Watson, William, 404 “Wind, The,” 281 

“Which ?,” 234 “Woods of Westermain, The,” 
“White Ship, The,” 58, 69-73 349-354 

Whitman, Walt, 135 “Woodspurge, The,” 5 


“Willowwood,” 100, 101 


[432] 


rAteterpete 
ee ee ee ed 


bebe 


beereaee 


Weletede! Mabel Ri ay) 


thee hee 
pee brbend 


Aras eeree 


berenenbe 


aeneber 


#eeenae 


veeaee 
ORS COMO HEL Or resaeeee 


ire ari) te eegetee dy ee ty 
tee hener Sit GMP @ bia! blatwcibeis 6 Lek 
wWROW Ved e » we 
sOOREDAN tA AAS 
i AeA? 
mew ear iiah 
PPP eae eee * 


ee eric ee et i 
Pe bine ety eden ese bie 
oben nt hiee web ie ae 
pebarten eae - (Ras + ge 
NAP Ot benee : + pep hs bP golly 
f gales 
aaah bee 
et eee ee ee ee 


Se ree ted Sitar) 
0.4-ale bla pierce’ 
sere sdas 


rete hee 
Cer) 


See sistas base. “ f 
co cic rere erin a eraPans y ; iv isrtys 
eee * eae 4 4 of ae jes 
er er ewrerir ine) toe Hage PAC e/ staneee 
SAITR OO DD Reseach et 
ae As Vaca 
Citebase a nig 
Y anti g 
ara thane 


ea bien t} 


VitiA'$ © ehelda dialels aby 
Peet isa begeeteees 
Cn ree ee) 
rae 


+10 )0e 6 eet bbe 
ce ee ries hort 
ae ed E, 
nig Uebel Soe are 
ocr bebs ee hege 
Sinticien 
sna cenit ote t . RATS NS 
"HP Pes tr Reine eet eye wre. 
eon he oak enon : oe 
Hrebee was ¢ s 
ee we j 
torae &e 
sate raph 
nage aie? 
24d ba leg ace 


bt 


brag 
biaclalace bsititikw ds 1a ; i ay 
Meid eer ey . ’ i 4 v ie fa 
tesP Peds e ae : F Z Beas edilageps 
2 tee eae d Bye H 4 bibgelh las 


ie : ERS Se, 98 
soda ey 43 : y U 
+h ee a 


eee he cae 


. ae 
de be a 95 


PER ETN 
seeaene 
* 


‘ 


otra koa tes 


oe owe ee 


‘id x 
iste ee $ aaah « 

§ igh) r Lae Sea yi 

¢ : Mteen \ a 

ti 880.8 ‘ teaidinatee ae 
set Dad acens ae 


Dordt 
PSD eel ee 


Hessety 


yea neh 
sa 


* 
* 


iene 
58) 


me 


a) 
i 


Gaucuan 


#1 1% 
pa 


: 
si 


oe 


5 


a