Gerald Massey





Poetry - The Spasmodists


1. Poems, by the late THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES. London: William Pickering. 1851.

2. Festus: a Poem. By PHILIP JAMES BAILEY. (Fifth Edition.) London: Pickering. 1852.

3. The Mystic. By PHILIP JAMES BAILEY. Pickering. 1855.

4. The Roman: a Dramatic Poem . By SYDNEY YENDYS. London: Bentley. 1850.

5. Balder. Part the First . By the Author of "The Roman:" (Second Edition.) London: Smith, Elder, and Co. 1854.

6. England in Time of War . By SYDNEY DOBELL. London: Smith, Elder, and Co. 1856.

7. Poems . By ALEXANDER SMITH. (Fifth Edition.) London: David Bogue. 1855.

8. City Poems . By ALEXANDER SMITH. Cambridge: Macmillan and Co. 1857.

9. Night and the Soul: a Dramatic Poem . By J. STANYAN BIGG. London: Groombridge and Sons. 1854.


MOST disquisitions on poetry begin with an attempted definition of what poetry is, or a rejection of all definitions that have been previously attempted; in either case the result is generally unsatisfactory. A thousand hints have been given, each of which shadow forth a portion of truth; and no one definition can ever compass, and, as it were, crystallise an explanation into some sparkling epigram, any more than the meaning and mystery involved in the word Life could be thus briefly unriddled. Approximately, we can arrive at some understanding of the subject by watching the forces of poetry in operation. The poet is, or should be, more of a seer and translator of what God has already created, than a creator in the workshop of his own mind. The Mediævals called the poet a "finder," rather than a creator. He is a seeker and a finder of the truth and beauty that lie in realities around him, rather than a producer of beauty out of the deeps of his own personality; – which beauty, as many imagine, he confers on outer objects. And this has been the mental attitude of the greatest poets. They have sought for those things which are hidden from the mass of men by some dimness of sight, or film of familiarity; and, finding these, they become the translators to men of all this truth and loveliness, which is written in the hand-writing of the Creator everywhere throughout His creation, whether flaming on the walls of space, smiling in flowers from the green earth, or inscribed on the red leaves of the human heart. Hence it has been said, that the poet gives us apparent pictures of unapparent natures.

[232] There are two worlds in which human existence moves: the world of thought, and the world of feeling. The world of feeling is more or less common to all. The highest and the lowest can meet on this ground, and enter into this bond of human relationship. But it is different in the world of thought. Many cannot pass from the world of feeling into that of thought at will, and but few are fitted to translate their feeling into thought – which is the spiritual apparition of feeling – and thus reproduce any past experience in such shape as shall give pleasure to the beholder in the contemplation thereof. This is the work of the poet. He translates from the world of feeling into that of thought, and thus enables us to realise in thought what we may have once experienced in feeling. And often, when these reproductions are made by the greatest poets in their happiest moments, they seem quite familiar to us, because we have possessed them before in feeling, only we were unable to translate them into thought. When the poet has given us this new rendering of some old experience, it strikes us with the force of a greater reality than did that experience itself, when we were living it. Hence, we believe, has arisen one of the errors respecting the functions of the Imagination. We do not think that the poet adds to the reality, or transcends it in his translation of it, so much as that we ourselves are unaware of all that is contained in the reality, while we are passing through it in feeling. For this reason, while we are in a state of suffering, or enjoyment, we do not speculate upon it in thought; we live it in feeling. Indeed, the more perfect in feeling, the more unconscious are we in thought. But when, by the poet's aid, we come to re-live this feeling in thought, every faculty we turn upon it is now alive with consciousness; and this secondary phase of joy or sorrow often appears more real than the first, because we obtain a conscious interpretation of much that we before experienced unconsciously.

For the time being, then, we shall look upon the poet as a translator of realities which do already exist, and only a creator so far as he shapes an artistic body through which the life is operative; because, by looking upon him in this light we shall be able to see all the more clearly how poetry is coloured by the age in which it is produced, and takes its tints from the various influences that surround it, quickening its life, fostering its strength, or stunting its growth. For not only is the poet a translator of the inner life of man, with its wonder world of thoughts and feelings—its unspeakable love and sorrow, its hopes and aspirations, temptations and lonely wrestlings, darings and doubts, grim passions and gentle affections, its smiles and tears – which, in their changeful lights or gloomy grandeur, play out the great [233] drama of the human heart, but he also translates into his poetry and reflects for us the very spirit of his time. The poetry of every age and epoch comes to us with the likeness of that age or epoch stamped upon it, in features ranging from the heroic type of the noble Elizabethan time, to the sensual cast given by the Merry Monarch and his Circean Restoration. See how Chaucer gives us the inner life that men lived in his acre, and clothes it with external history! With what crystal clearness his poetry, in its simple heart-home directness and passionate sincerity, homely strength and contentedness with a few pleasures – its gaiety and gravity, both as of childhood – its overflows of animal spirits – its naïve way of getting at the truth, lying, as it does, nearer to nature – possessing perfect innocency of eye, and unperplexed in its frank expression,—with what crystal clearness, we say, his poetry images the freshness and sweetness of the morning time, and the lustihood of young life that was then filling England, and breaking into a new dawn of thought! In Chaucer's poetry we see the young unconscious strength of a people that would yet have a grand awakenment, and become conscious of its power and prowess in action, and that receptive condition of faith which was to embody the fresh spirit of freedom found in the purer truth of the Reformers, together with the conquering courage that would bear witness for it in the furnace-flames, and carry it in triumph over the world. In a time like that of Chaucer, when the life is simpler, and evolves itself in its happy, unconscious way – when there is not so much knowledge of life as boundless capacity for living, and life itself is a going forth in the very spirit that conquers, and in which all greatest things have been done, – then, the influences of the age which affect the poet, and colour his poetry, will be of good help to him; they will strengthen him with their strength, and make his verse vital with their silent surge of new vigour and affluent life.

It is the same in the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare walked every day among heroes and mighty men, and saw around him such magnificence of individual and national life – such constellated wit, lofty thought, and majesty, as have seldom been in this world in one country, and at the same time. He saw the very men who wrought the great deeds, bore the burthen of great events, and worked the grand deliverance for his own beloved land, when it was encompassed with perils, and made her tower again triumphantly over her enemies; and, high as she towered in her added strength and stature to look over the surrounding seas, she beheld no rival left upon them. The men that lived, and the life that was lived by a nation, and ran from its heart through arms and hands in tides of triumph, – these [234] were translated by Shakespeare and his play-fellows into those wonderful dramas, which, from that little Globe Theatre, have gone forth and filled the great globe theatre of the world. And here, again, we shall find the influences of the age in which the Elizabethan poets lived and wrote, with its tug of war, and wrestle of stern passions; its quickening spirit of enterprise called forth by the dazzling dawn of that New World which rose upon it, and bade Old England become supreme master over the seas that lay between them, offering itself as the prize of victory; – all these influences were mighty in helping to carry the poet out of himself, and all conscious cankering thoughts about self, – which is the greatest thing to be done. For the poet is a medium; and the most perfect condition for conveying the truest image of things, is that in which self is lost in a larger life, and all the spiritual pores are open portals for this larger life of the aggregate humanity. The greatest poet must feel most as others feel – draw most upon the common human heritage. The Elizabethan time, with its buoyant life and outlet of action, was a happy and fruitful time for poetry, and reacted on the poet in fresh forces of life that influenced him in many invisible ways.

Milton, again, has most assuredly gathered up the great­hearted efforts and solemn strength, the wasted bravery and the fiery fervour, of the Puritans, and treasured them for their earthly immortality in his Paradise Lost. How like is that work to the endeavours of the purged and purified heart, that has had its earthly tabernacles overthrown, and all its human efforts baffled, trying to build for itself a dwelling-place in the heavens, a house not made with hands, far above the shocks and storms of change, in which the soul can rest serenely, although the head lie down upon a prison pillow, or the tyrant's bloody block!

The play-wrights of the Restoration, too, translate certain influences of their time into their poetry; with what result we all know. Let us hope, however, for the honour of humanity, that no true poet can be the puppet and plaything of such outward circumstances; and that poetry indignantly scorned her wooers in verse, and took refuge with the great divines, who were also great poets, only they had not the musical faculty dominant, or else they despised the tricks of verse, because of the antic apes they saw around them. Still, there can be no doubt but that, in the absence of virtuous public life for poets to translate into their poetry, there will be found poetasters, who will translate courtly vices, and make a fashion of royal depravity; just as the courtiers of James the First went about, and stood in his presence as knock-kneed as they could, because their monarch was also knock-kneed, and thus art followed nature.

We cannot tell how far the life of courts or of nations influ[235]ence the poet himself; but it is noticeable that, in the following century – the Augustan age, which is one of the meanest and least natural in English history – the poetry of the time not only sharply defines its mean features, but it would also seem to show that the poet himself strove to reflect its manners and externals, its sharp selfishness, spite, and scandal, its envy and jealousies, barren artificiality, and utter want of generous heart and noble life.

In briefly noticing how the poet translates historical influences into poetry, we have now arrived at the great rebellion in poetry when Robert Burns strode in among the crowd of the self­enthroned, who sat trying to conjure up the spirit of beauty, by repeating the words of the grand magicians who had passed away, and carried the secret of their enchantment with them, and passed right through them, scattering their fluttering artificialities and sparkling shallownesses on his way back to unsophisticated Nature. With one or two wistful looks at Pope and Shenstone, he turned to the old ballads, with their sinewy strength, smiting tenderness, lilting music, and flashes of feeling. And Cowper, in England, went back all he could to the primal simplicities of Nature, for he had an out-of-doors heart; and when shut indoors from the garden, and fettered there so often by sickness, he would still feel his way back to the woods and fields, and the common human heart, which he touched with so natural a knack that it would be thought a rare feat of genius, had he not done it so easily.

Then came William Wordsworth, who said, Let us go back to Chaucer, sit down beside him and his darling daisy, and learn of him what wealth of meaning there is in the things that lie about our feet; what strength and savour there is in simple speech; and how the poet may rise, Antæus-like, invincible in strength, so long as he keeps his footing on the common earth. It will do poetry good, said Wordsworth, to take it back, so that it may breathe in new life from the native air of its childhood. Here, then, was a special appeal made to external nature, as a means of getting fresh food for the inner life of man. And a comparatively new influence emanates from this appeal, which mingles largely with all subsequent poetry. Wordsworth becomes the great translator of this influence into his poetry; and after the first flush of the red-rising dawn of the French Revolution, which dazzled his young eyes also, has deepened into blood, he seeks to bring himself and his readers more and more under this influence, and to get further and further away from the sound of the strife, and the smoke of the conflict; because, instead of the Goddess Liberty coming with healing to the nations, he sees a wild Virago dancing round a guillotine, to the sound [236] of the Carmagnole, in wet, red shoes; and he shrinks away, and seeks to dwell apart with a nature that is more beneficent and beautiful, in her grandeur of storm, or blessing of calm. And so, in comparative solitude, he falls back upon those elements which are the very ground-roots of poetry, and attains, in a confused and bewildering time, to that repose in which the bright particles of knowledge are slowly precipitated, and shaped into the larger growth and oneness of accumulated wisdom, instead of their being kept in constant whirl by many disturbing causes, and never becoming anything more than the bright particles of scattered knowledge.

The French Revolution had an incalculable influence in bringing forth the great band of poets that came into being, as it were, through the rents made by the outburst of that Revolution, and produced such a quickening motion of mind, as issued in a very, budding and flowering-time of poetry. But much of this influence had an effect on the ordinary current of human life, which runs through the poet's mind as well as through the mind of others, similar to that of the tributary torrents that rush down in thunder, and the swollen strength of storm, to the river, which they quicken in speed, and increase in size, but also make it muddy in colour, and heap it with driftage. In Shelley, for example, we see the disturbing influence at work most manifestly. He tries to translate the French Revolution into verse, and is so perplexed with the problem, that he nearly loses his wits. The power that he grappled with lifts him off his feet, and bears him away like a weak child, striking blindly with vain blows. The shock unsettles him for the rest of his life. Byron rises up from the smoke and ashes of that Revolution, not altogether unlike Milton's image of Satan, rising up from the fiery bed of the lower lake, towering with passion, distended with pride, and threatening high Heaven with future vengeance. He brings into poetry the wail of the wounded, the doubts of the sceptical, the defiance of the daring; he rises into blasphemy with the boldest, and sinks into bestiality with the most sensual. Byron does not translate these revolutionary influences, as Shelley did, from earliest sympathy of his soul with others' suffering, and real yearning of spirit for the reign of right, so much as from a desire to be seen fiddling while Rome is in flames, and from his love of astonishing people, and of frightening them now and then, which he knows is so easily done in such startling times. Keats laid himself down among the sweet wild English flowers, under the murmuring leafy trees, stopped his ears to the din of battles, shut his eyes on the struggles of politics and the shows of state­craft, and dreamed his dream of the old Greek Beauty. Tennyson, in his greatest song, sets himself to wrestle with the doubts, [237] bear the burden of the fears, and ring out clear in music the troubled hopes which were bequeathed to us by that time of mighty deeds, and mighty men, and mighty blunders; and this he does by a firm reliance on those few intuitions of feeling which were given us at the beginning. Tennyson's is the last song that rises up calmly, and rings out clearly with its melodious beauty, in spite of the pressure of our complex time, and the stress of its adverse influences. After him comes that deluge let loose upon us by what has been called the "Spasmodic School."

We fancy there is more meaning and applicability in the name of "Spasmodic," given to so much of the poetry which has been produced of late years, than the first givers of that name saw in it. It is frequently the special characteristic of a nickname, that it shall be too vague and intangible to be seized upon and proved to be false; and so it lives, just because it cannot be caught and put to death. Here, however, the name might be demonstrated as true to the nature. For what constitutes spasm, but weakness trying to be strong, and collapsing in the effort? And what result could be looked for more naturally, than that a good deal of current poetry should be spasmodic, if we carry on into the present time our consideration of the external causes that influence poetry? When the giants of genius shall free themselves from the Etna that now hides them, they may come and make it possible to transmute into poetry those influences which are at present only a hindrance to others, making their own new laws, and breaking old ones, surprising the whole world with most magical results; but, till then, poetry, in the hands of our present writers, is driven into narrower bounds, and left with more limited means of freeing itself. The greatest poetry, always finds its main source of sustenance in a few common universal elements, which are to it what the elementary substances are to chemistry. It deals with simple powers. Trust, for example, we would call one of the simple powers of poetry. Doubt, on the contrary, we should call a compound, made up of perplexed thought and uncertain feeling; and, being a compound, it can be divided and destroyed. Now, many tendencies of the time are at war with the simple powers, and are in favour of the compounds. The out-flowing tides of feeling are checked and forced back upon the poet, so that he feels compelled to turn his eyes within in self-analysis, until, instead of living, he gets bewildered at the mystery of life, which he cannot solve, and dazzled with the new knowledge, which he cannot assimilate; instead of telling us what time it is by the face of the clock, he pores over the problem of the wheels, and for every gain of curious insight he loses some intuition of more precious value, until at length the conscious intellect is enthroned [238] in the seat of that unconscious child-like spirit, in which all that is most human meets with what is most divine, even as the little children came near and were taken into the arms of Christ of old. Our spasmodists, in a great measure, are dealers in compounds. And not only are they driven out of the great poet's path by force of many outward circumstances, and have not sufficient knowledge or grasp of the simple powers by which poetry is brought home to our business and bosoms, but, in some instances, they wilfully turn from the simple powers to try their experiments with the compounds, and their only ambition appears to be how to puzzle us with the subtlety by which they can work for our perplexity and their remote result. Shelley, in the Cenci, says with great truth,

"It is a trick of this same family
 To analyse their own and other minds.
 Such self-anatomy shall teach the will
 Dangerous secrets, for it tempts our powers."

The first condition of being a poet, is to be a man speaking to men. He who is to image humanity, must at least be able to stand on a common level with it, and by his many sympathies enrich his special experience with all that is universal; thus losing the poverty of the individual in the wealth of the species. But it is the evident predilection of our spasmodists toward that "abstruse research'" among morbid phenomena, which "tends to steal from his own nature all the natural man," and the habit of their minds to move in the involution of thinking, instead or the evolution of thought. Also, it is their fatal fault to seek for that which is rare and peculiar, and to be afraid of that which is common, and timid of matter-of-fact and mere flesh and blood. If they do not do this intentionally, then so much the worse is it for the class of mind that is so limited and perverse as to take this direction instinctively. Either they seem not to share our ordinary feelings and plain humanities of thought and speech, or they cannot grasp ordinary realities; for the emotion to be sung, or the character to be painted, must have branched off far from the ordinary channel of human affairs, and run into an isolated and particular experience, before it is fitted for their poetic purpose. They refine upon reality till it becomes the faintest shadow, and only attempt to grasp it at the stage in which it cannot be laid hold of.

Now, if a poet possesses his manhood in common with the rest of us, shares our thoughts and has feelings in tune, and has truly a genius for transmuting and translating these into poetic forms, he cannot keep too much on broad human grounds. The charm will be in the common human experience being rendered [239] in his subtler light, and coloured in the prism of his own personality. If he have sufficient genius, it is in universal experience that he will find his greatest strength, – out of it he will draw the universal success; if he have not sufficient genius, then all the seeking in the world, or out of it, for that which is remote and uncommon, will be but of little avail in disguising his weakness. Our spasmodists appear to take for their text, and apply it at all times and in all places, the words of Ecclesiasticus, "A man's mind is sometimes wont to tell him more than seven watchmen that sit above in an high tower." They forget that this is only sometimes so, when the darkness of night shuts in the view, for example; and so they will not avail themselves of what the seven watchmen may see when the broad light of day lies on the land, and reveals the many features of the landscape. Hence their tendency to look with an introverted vision alone, instead of looking out with wide open eyes, and deriving advantage from the experience of others, as do the great objective writers. It is here, in this respect, as it is in the moral world, those who are wise will benefit by the lives and experience of others, and those who are foolish will only be taught by their own.

We admit the great difficulty, in dealing with much poetic material of the present time, deprived as the poet necessarily is of many resources open to the great poets of the past. There is so much more knowledge current among men; and this not only tends to lessen his authority and increase his personal difficulty, but it possibly leaves much less simple feeling among those who of old would have given themselves up with implicit faith and honest sympathy to his utterances. But, all the more reason why the poet should stedfastly, abide by the true elements of poetry, and all those positive influences which yet live in our human nature; and, holding fast by these, resist the negative and perplexing influences of our peculiar time, and bring poetry and the readers of poetry back to nature, by touching that nature which runs through the hearts of all.

The band of young poets who have come before the public during the last few years, have been called the "Spasmodic School," though there is not oneness of principle in their efforts sufficient to give consistency to them, and bind the writers together in any educational brotherhood. Certainly they include almost every variety of spasm; but there are many spasmodic writers, in both prose and verse, beside those who have been denominated as the Spasmodic School. On the other hand, it would be somewhat difficult to point out any great master as the founder of this school. It appears to us that Robert Browning is, in a sense, one of the greatest spasmodists, so far as a wilful [240] delight in remote and involved thinking, abrupt and jerking mental movements, and "pernickitieness" of expression, working, in the higher regions of genius, can constitute a spasmodist. And but for certain spasmodic peculiarities which seem inherent to Mrs Browning, "Aurora Leigh" might have been the greatest poem of our time. In her case, the spasm is manifested in her sudden transitions from thought to thought and from thing to thing. Descending to a very low point for illustration, we might also undertake to show in "Bothwell" some of the meanest possible specimens of Surrey-sublime spasm; all the meaner, because it is the spasm of weakness collapsing, without having to beat any burthen of thought or feeling. Going back as far as Byron, we shall find the spasmodic element in a large portion of his poetry. His punctuation was composed of the marks made by spasm, palpably as the dots made by a wooden leg on a soft soil. It was often by spasmodic affection that he astonished so many people, set their hair on end, and made them believe that the epilepsy of his Muse was the motion of the Pythoness when receiving her immortal messages, and shaking with the shocks of spiritual electricity. This love of astonishing and of exciting popular wonder constituted a great part of Byron's success with the multitude. The power to startle and surprise is always loudly welcomed in this world, because there are always so many waiting with mouths wide open to be startled and surprised, and these, in their ignorance, mistake the appeal to their wonderment for an appeal to their poetic sympathy; and so they wonder, and shout in their wonder, and make a nine days' jubilee on behalf of their wonder. As in Byron's case, this love of exciting wonder will degrade a writer, and make him descend to the lowest depths for food wherewith to sustain it, until every moral feeling is violated by the poet, and blasphemy is tolerated by the public, if not applauded.

Following Byron, it appears to us that Lovell Beddoes brings other spasmodic influences into modern verse of a different kind. Beddoes has much in common with the recent revival in poetry, which is somewhat akin to the latter renaissance in painting and architecture, and in which the bacchante is often dearer than the saint. There is, too, more luxuriance of foliage and bloom on their trees than redundancy of fruit. He has the same love of colour, and fondness for all that is striking; he sets upon the banquet-table the same rich feast of words, and his expression is mostly at the same pitch of extravagance. He also sprung into full blossom at an early period of youth, and went the way which other spasmodists have gone and are going; his spring blossoms fell in the frosts, and there was no autumn fruitage. His poetry largely possesses a quality which is, perhaps, the most common [241] feature of our spasmodists – it is rich in imagery. This is natural enough for youth, which apprehends life mostly on the sensational side, and is more flowery and fleshly than spiritual. But it is well to note that this imaginal tendency, unless it be the youthful efflorescence of a mind that is quite healthy and full of all manly vigour, is apt to sap the strength from maturer mental qualities, and let it run to waste in a rank luxuriance of undergrowth. Shakespeare, in his early leafing-time, was riotous in imagery; but there was such a rootage of thought, and such a girth of feeling, that the ample foliage waving above was only an outcome of abundant health and creative strength. In his later poetry, however, he is much less imaginal, because he can say what he wants to say in a manner more direct than by illustrations. Keats, also, one of the most affluent of imagery among modern poets, becomes far less so in his "Hyperion," which is chaster, nobler, and more sustained in consequence. His mind was growing in the direction of moral health, in spite of his bodily health failing. In Beddoes this imagery does not spring from a healthy mental condition: its roots were in the grave; and the over-hanging wealth of leaf and flower, with all their warmth of colour and lavish life, casts a shadow damp with death. Ever and anon, amidst all the fragrant spices and odorous balms, you smell the breath of the graveyard. Many of his passionate lines might have thrilled to the soul of Keats. Here and there they have the true tragic touch, stern or pathetic; and innumerable fine things might be quoted from his pages; but he had not the genius that should have made these subservient to great and worthy ends. How grandly he indicates the death suspended over the head of its victim in these lines! –

        "How still, how full, how lightly
I move, since this resolve, about the place,
Like to a murder-charged thunder cloud
Lurking about the starry streets of night,
Breathless and masked,
O'er a still city sleeping by the sea!"

Another character frantic for vengeance says –

                            "When I tread
His neck into the grave, I shall, methinks,
Fall into ashes with the mighty joy,
Or be transformed into a winged star:
That will be all eternal heaven distilled
Down to one thick rich minute.   This sounds madly,
But I am mad when I remember him."

This last quotation is very fine in its place, and so would the former one be; only it is said by the wrong person. It would [242] have been more in place if spoken by an observer of the gloomy man charged with murder, than given as a self-reflection. But, the obvious tendency of his poetry is mainly phrenetic in effect, rather than fine. The following examples will bear witness to his relationship with our Spasmodic School: –

"That frightful forest grows
 Under the darksome corner of the sky,
 Where death's scythe hangs: its murder-shading trees
 Are hairs upon hell's brow."
 .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      
"May I speak never more, but be struck dumb!
 May I be stripped of manhood and made devil,
 If I mean not as truly unto thee.
 But put me to the proof, say, 'Kill thyself,'
 I will outlabour Hercules in will.
 Shall I fight swordless with a youthful lion?
 Shall I do ought that I may die in doing?
 I almost wish thou hadst some impious task,
 That I might act it."

The peculiar nature of Beddoes' mind, which appeared to swarm with morbid instincts, made his end in poetry a melancholy warning. He gradually lost what hold he had upon the warm, rich world of human life, fed with common human affections, and filled with common human sympathies, in pursuit of unnatural mental anatomy, and in search of those mysteries which death renders up in the dissecting-room. For he became an anatomist literally. The poet, no longer satisfied with the beautiful instrument breathing its music, would take it in pieces to see whence the music came, which was a secret death could not reveal. To adapt an image of James Montgomery, he sought to grasp in his own hand the dew-drop, which, when touched, at once loses all its sparkling grace, its shape of beauty, its light from heaven, and is merely a little water, having the one quality of wetness. The gift was taken from him, and died out of him utterly. And little marvel that this should be so: after reducing the ethereal fire to ashes, in search of a mere earthly discovery, – somewhat analogous perhaps to the accidental discovery of glass-making, – it was too much to have expected that the radiant Phœnix of poetry would ever soar again from these ashes, when the fire was wilfully put out for so paltry a purpose. Beddoes, we say, became an anatomist; and is not this precisely what some of our recent writers in verse have become? They also are probing among the secrets of the skeleton which lies hidden beneath the rosy bloom of flesh, with speculations on bones and membranes, cells and blood-vessels. Oyster-like, they get their pearls from a state of disease. If we were asked [243] to indicate the poem which has been most harmful, and has wrought most evil to the young poetic mind of our time, we should unhesitatingly point to "Festus." Bailey's poem is a vast work, in which egotism is the presiding principle, as it was in building that Babel of old. In going through it, the reader feels as though he were witnessing a series of grand pyrotechnic displays of gorgeous but evanescent brilliance, until his aching eyes are so dazzled, that he feels himself in "a land of darkness." The writer's object throughout appears to be to strike us blind rather than to illumine us, and to leave us breathless rather than breathing. And at last the difficulty of reading the poem be comes bewildering. This comes of the author possessing some of the poetic faculties in full development, and almost, if not totally, lacking others which are quite as necessary, if not more so, for the completion of a poet, and the production of true poetry. The faculties that he does possess, are precisely those which need the reins of judgment and taste, and the curb of prudence; for without them he is borne, and hurried, and whirled away in a wild confusion, and a sublime disregard of all artistic and æsthetic proprieties, and all moral and religious associations. Indeed, the moral sense seems wrecked in a "sea of rich and ripe sensation." The earthy, the heavenly, and the diabolic mingle and dance over all boundary marks. There is no perception of the differences between small and great, the vague and the vast, the gigantic and the deformed, the boundless and the lawlessness that is without bounds.

"Festus" is not, what it has so often been called, a great poem, because it is altogether wanting in the welding oneness that moulds the great works of imagination. There is no magnet of sufficient purpose passing through its glittering filings of the fancy, and gathering them up into fitting form. And when we use the word "filings" here, we do not do so merely in a figurative sense; for the truth is, that poems of the "Festus" order are principally made up of filings from other men's works – hints and suggestions got while reading the writings of others, sometimes by reading between the lines, often by direct appropriation, however unconscious; thus making the result mainly a parasitic growth, based upon the beginnings of others, instead of an original creation, with the life that shapes into symmetry and oneness energetically running through it, from the lowest ground-root of strength with which it grasps the subject, to the topmost leaf wherewith it breaks into beauty. Here we shall find none of the suspended, poising strength, as of the mountainous repose which marks the climacteric expression of the highest powers in the world of mind, even as they are also the grandest expression of power in our physical world; for these [244] can only be attained by tbe creative mind, that under the dominant idea moves with all its powers at once, each keeping proper place and perfect time, harmoniously to one great end. It is thus the great poets work; and we perceive that they accomplish their great ends with such a repose of power, that, like the best generals, they appear to have won the battle, and only to have brought half their forces into the field. But here, all the forces are brought into action in hot haste, all parts of the subject are taken by storm, and every lurking place of fancy is at once sacked. "Festus" is full of fine things of the startlingly staring kind, which are so apt to be not so much original as the reflections of other fine things seen in a distorting mirror; and when such are original, they are used very sparingly by the great poets. Upon an average, there are a dozen illustrations for every thought; and thus the poverty of thought is gilded with a lavish wealth of imagery. The most imaginative poets use the fewest images: these belong more to the lower range and flight of fancy; and yet, with many recent writers in both prose and verse, these images appear to constitute the primal proof of poetry, and the power of producing them the distinguishing characteristic of the poet. "Festus" and its critics have done much to foster this fallacy.

"Festus" has also been fatally successful in leading astray, because all phenomena that cannot be explained by known laws open up at once a fresh field to work in; and so long as the phenomena cannot be classified, or the precise amount ot their truth ascer tained, there is but little fear of the sham and spurious imitation being known from what is true and real. This fact will account for much of the nying-off into space, which characterises recent verse, in order that it may avoid the verdict of an appeal to well-known laws, and not because the writers possess wings at will. If you cannot represent the world of reality, this plan of taking refuge in the impalpable affords a fine chance of fabricating a false world, which may float for a time as a beautiful bubble on the breath of those who puff it. False and futile, however, are all these attempts to create a world apart from that of human life, in which the poet shall be absolved from all known laws, and freed from ordinary conditions, in order that his idiosyncrasies may run riot without let or hindrance. Ordinary human beings cannot enter such a phantom world. Shut up in our house of the senses, with some half-a-dozen windows for outlooks into the infinite, we cannot follow, house and all, on pleasure-excursions into the spirit world, as "Festus" and others would have us, and mingle with its inhabitants on perfectly familiar terms. If Shakespeare, after mirroring so much of our human world so faithfully, had attempted to lead us into the invisible world, we might have followed with a [245] firmer reliance. But he was all too wise, and left that for Milton to do, when God had laid the shadow on his outer eyes, and freed the inner from earthly scales, contenting himself with giving those hints that flash upon us in the high and mystic moods of thought.

Of all the spasmodists, Mr Dobell is the most original thinker and coherent writer. In some high gifts of the poet, he is magnificently endowed. He gives us in his pages many glimpses of the most subtle loveliness ever opened up by the vision of poetry; much deep thought, expressed with a quiet majesty of speech; and often his poetry touches a depth of tenderness that reaches down to the hidden springs of tears. And yet, for want of a few common but very necessary qualities, Mr Dobell fails, and we fear will fail, to bring home his poetry to any considerable number of people. He possesses a large and shaping imagination, which often flows with such serious and subtle sweetness as to leave the reader only half aware of its tide of strength; only, this imagination is left without sufficient material to work upon, for want of action and character in the subject. This necessitates its working more apart in some peculiar domain of poetry. It is comparatively seldom that the pursuit of what is common leads the poet and the artist astray, it is this pursuit of what is uncommon and peculiar that becomes so fatal; and this, either from instinctive necessity or wilful choice, perhaps both, is the great bane of Mr Dobell. He appears to select his subject, and the point of treatment, for their remoteness from all ordinary reality, and then to refine upon these until they are intangible to us.

Given some genius, the great difficulty often still remains, how to bring it to bear upon the minds of men with simple power, without much wandering in useless ways, and waste of scattered effort. We often fancy that the difference betwixt a born poet and a born fool is quite as slight as the partition that is said to divide genius from madness. Frequently, from the undue prominence of some one faculty, or the want of another, years and lives are spent, and the anticipated result is never gained. The most striking cases of this kind occur in poetry, where there is considerable poetic faculty, so-called, power of fancy or imagination, with a lamentable want of the few qualities which may be found doing the business of the day and the ordinary work of the world, which are generally summed up as common sense. For, after all, this common sense is the main ground to begin on as a basis of higher operations. It is upon this ground that the mass of men can mingle; and if they can meet the poet here, they will trust him and try to follow him, when he leads them on, and lures them up into the higher regions of thought. As inhabitants of this earth, we must feel the ground under our feet if we are to walk. The common sense qualities constitute our intellectual [246] earth; and if you cut this ground from under the feet of those who have no wings, it is little wonder if they fall, and cannot follow. For lack of this common meeting ground, many, otherwise rarely gifted, fail in part, or altogether, to bring their gifts home to the mass of men. Beside which, we invariably recur to the works of the great creative minds to find how solid has been their common sense capacity, and how much of their life overflowed in universal feeling. They could go to market with Pegasus and bring back daily bread for us, as well as return with food from the loftiest realms of imagination. We find also that the poetry produced by these master minds will stand the test of value when the touchstone is the heart of the people. The greatest poets can stand this test; but there is a manifest desire in those who work in very limited and special regions to shun and to undervalue this standard of appeal, and to think too much of the "fit audience, though few." We would insist on this test, and apply it to the spasmodists, because of their evident tendency to avoid it, and in every way to overshoot the mark.

Peculiarity of choice and subtlety of treatment constitute Mr Dobell's spasmodic claim, else he is seldom, if ever, spasmodic in expression. But so peculiar is he in choice of subject, that he has written "Balder," a poem of some seven thousand lines, which nothing less than re-writing altogether, on a new and better plan, can make anything else of than a vast mistake. And so subtle is he, that he will hide the most precious gems of poetry where it is impossible that they can ever be found. With regard to "Balder" as a subject, we think that the more successful its treatment, according to the author's apparent idea, the more repulsive it must be; beside which, we doubt whether the poetic representation of such a character, which is intended as a warning, can be half so effective as an embodiment of a good example, because, for one reader who can go through this poem, and perceive its negative intention from intellectual insight, there are a hundred who might have been bettered unconsciously through their sympathy with what is good. It is past all human patience to feel a sustained interest in such a person; and long before the end of his self-exhibitory monologues, we wish him hanged in the whole seven thousand lines. Shakespeare, who could make a character unfold the secret of a life in an hour, when he gives us a self-involved and self-introverted one like Hamlet, even he can only afford to let him stand in the centre, think and soliloquise, because there is so much interest in the group of life that revolves around him in dramatic relationship; but Mr Dobell lets "Balder" go maundering on and on, with no variety of interest, and with no sense of the lapse of time. In the "Roman" he has a clearly conceived character, which has [247] something of a living embodiment in the life of Mazzini; and here, as well as in several of the lyrics in "England in time of war," he comes much nearer to the common understanding, and treads on broader human ground with greater success. There is more simple power of genius, more promise for the future, in such a ballad as the following, than in many magnificent pages of magniloquent blank verse: –

          HOW'S MY BOY?

"Ho, sailor of the sea!
How's my boy – my boy?"
"What's your boy's name, good-wife,
And in what good ship sail'd he?"

"My boy John –
He that went to sea –
What care I for the ship, sailor?
My boy's my boy to me.

"You come back from sea,
And not know my John?
I might as well have ask'd some landsman
Yonder down in the town.
There's not an ass in all the parish
But he knows my John.

"How's my boy – my boy?
And unless you let me know,
I'll swear you are no sailor,
Blue jacket or no,
Brass buttons or no, sailor,
Anchor and crown or no!
Sure his ship was the Jolly Briton."
"Speak low, woman, speak low!"

"And why should I speak low, sailor,
About my own boy, John?
If I was loud as I am proud,
I'd sing him over the town!
Why should I speak low, sailor?"
"That good ship went down."

"How's my boy – my boy?
What care I for the ship, sailor?
I was never aboard her.
Be she afloat or be she aground,
Sinking or swimming, I'll be bound
Her owners can afford her!
[248] I say, how's my John?"
"Every man on board went down,
Every man aboard her."

"How's my boy – my boy?
What care I for the men, sailor?
I'm not their mother –
How's my boy – my boy?
Tell me of him, and no other!
How's my boy – my boy?"

The way in which that poor mother wrestles down every suspicion with her love stronger than death, and in which her heart fights with such terrible earnestness to keep the fatal knowledge from her mental apprehension, as she pursues the old sailor question after question, and will not understand his answer, is surely very true and touching.

We might select from Mr Dobell's books many fine things, if that were desirable, and our space would permit, – not merely striking illustrations, but full and sustained descriptions, passages of exceeding power, images, of surpassing beauty, and flowers fragrant with a womanly purity; – many gentle touches like this, which expresses very happily the feeling of one whose hold on life has been so lovingly loosened, that the weariness glides easily into content: –

"I feel two worlds: one ends and one begins.
 Methinks I dwell in both; being much here,
 But more hereafter: even as when the nurse
 Doth give the babe into the mother's arms,
 And she who hath not quite resign'd, and she
 Who hath not all received, support in twain
 The single burden; nevertheless the babe
 Already tastes the mother."

And like that in which the poet speaks of standing by a death­bed "with such forgiveness as we bring to those who can offend no more."

The spasmodic character of much of the "Life Drama" is well known. Our readers will remember the full discussion of Mr Smith's claims in the thirth-eigth number of this Journal, and the advice then tendered to him on the score of ideal exaggeration. This makes it unnecessary that we should now devote much space to his works. In his second volume Mr Smith is much less exaggerated. He has, too, attained at times to a quiet continuity of thought, and sustained strength of coherent utterance, such as we could not find in the first book. He startles us less with the spasmodic sublime, and gives us [249] many passages that sound the deeps of feeling, and leave us satisfied with their sweetness. We see many signs that the author is trying to do his best; and if there is not much new growth, he has been shedding the old, so that the new may come in season. We are led to hope that his exaggerations were only a "passing spasm."

We see no reason for going further into detail on the subject of the "Spasmodic School," and we trust that some of our remarks may have gone near enough to the root of the matter, to obviate any necessity for our doing so. On the one hand, we can scarcely undertake to prescribe in the precise language of science for the specialties of the given disease, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual patients in each particular case; and, on the other, we have no wish to give an answer as ex cathedra. We urge a return to the lasting and true subject-matter of poetry, and a firmer reliance on primal truths; for it is this which has so often given fresh life to both poetry and painting in the past. Crowded as the ground may have been, there is still room for great poets to walk here. Anything that has in it a genuine human interest is sure to win its way to the heart, so irresistible is the touch of real truth. This is the vital and enduring element of the Dutch painters. Their genuine statement of truth is sufficient to keep alive their pictures, though that truth be never so obvious and commonplace. And this is why those books are so successful that treat of the coarser passions. They have in them a real human interest, because they make their appeal to feelings which do exist. We are not here arguing in favour of Dutch pictures or French novels; but for that realty which is the basis of all poetry, and that truth which is the basis of all beauty. As Realists, we do not forget that it is not in the vulgarity of common things, nor the mediocrity of average characters, nor the familiarity of familiar affairs, nor the everydayness of everyday lives, that the poetry consists, – not the commonnesses of a common man, but those universal powers and passions which he shares with heroes and martyrs, are the true subjects of poetry. Though we advocate that all beauty must be true, we are not responsible for the converse of the proposition, that assumes all truth therefore beautiful, and that, consequently, "twice two are four" constitutes poetry. Like the consecrated banner of a Cortez, wherein the enthusiastic churchman may see the cross, and the ambitious patriot the crown, but which, to the eyes of the rabble in their train, is merely a waving absolution, this cry for common sense, matter-of-fact, and everyday life, may be followed by some, not for the right in which it originates, but for the wrong to which it may be perverted; but if it be so, they can never arrive at results more lamentable than the crowd who have [250] followed the formulas of "high art" and the "ideal." And if poetry is to get home to us with its better influences, to hearten us in the struggles of life, beguile us of our glooms, take us gently from the dusty high-road, where we have borne the burden in the heat of the day, into the pastures where the grass is green and grateful to the tired feet, the air fragrant, and the shadows are refreshing, and draw us delicately up to loftier heights of being, we must have songs set to the music of the faithful heart, – we must have poetry for men who work, and think, and suffer, and whose hearts would feel faint and their souls grow lean if they fed on such fleeting deliciousness and confectionary trifle as the spasmodists too frequently offer them, – we must have poetry in which natural emotions flow, real passions move, in clash and conflict – in which our higher aims and aspiration are represented, with all that reality of daily life, which goes on around us, in its strength and sweetness, its sternness and softness, wearing the smiles of rejoicing, and weeping the bitter tears of pain – weaving the many-coloured woof of Time, and working out the hidden purposes of Him that "sitteth in the heavens."





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The North British Review.
Bd. 28, 1858, Nr. 55, Februar, S. 231-250.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The North British Review   online

The North British Review   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer