Letters to Dead Authors
Part 2 out of 2
prayed, shall Spring, the thrice desirable, be with thee the whole year
through, where there is neither frost, nor is the heat so heavy on men, but
all is fruitful, and all sweet things blossom, and evenly meted are darkness
and dawn. Space is wide, and there be many worlds, and suns enow, and the
Sun-god surely has had a care of his own. Little didst thou need, in thy
native land, the isle of the three capes, little didst thou need but sunlight
on land and sea. Death can have shown thee naught dearer than the fragrant
shadow of the pines, where the dry needles of the fir are strewn, or glades
where feathered ferns make 'a couch more soft than Sleep.' The short grass of
the cliffs, too, thou didst love, where thou wouldst lie, and watch, with the
tunny watcher till the deep blue sea was broken by the burnished sides of the
tunny shoal, and afoam with their gambols in the brine. There the Muses met
thee, and the Nymphs, and there Apollo, remembering his old thraldom with
Admetus, would lead once more a mortal's flocks, and listen and learn,
Theocritus, while thou, like thine own Comatas, 'didst sweetly sing.'
There, methinks, I see thee as in thy happy days, 'reclined on deep beds of
fragrant lentisk, lowly strewn, and rejoicing in new stript leaves of the
vine, while far above thy head waved many a poplar, many an elm-tree, and
close at hand the sacred waters sang from the mouth of the cavern of the
nymphs.' And when night came, methinks thou wouldst flee from the merry
company and the dancing girls, from the fading crowds of roses or white
violets, from the cottabos, and the minstrelsy, and the Bibline wine, from
these thou wouldst slip away into the summer night. Then the beauty of life
and of the summer would keep thee from thy couch, and wandering away from
Syracuse by the sandhills and the sea, thou wouldst watch the low cabin,
roofed with grass, where the fishing-rods of reed were leaning against the
door, while the Mediterranean floated up her waves, and filled the waste with
sound. There didst thou see thine ancient fishermen rising ere the dawn from
their bed of dry sea-weed, and heardst them stirring, drowsy, among their
fishing gear, and heardst them tell their dreams.
Or again thou wouldst wander with dusty feet through the ways that the dust
makes silent, while the breath of the kine, as they were driven forth with the
morning, came fresh to thee, and the trailing dewy branch of honeysuckle
struck sudden on thy cheek. Thou wouldst see the Dawn awake in rose and
saffron across the waters, and Etna, grey and pale against the sky, and the
setting crescent would dip strangely in the glow, on her way to the sea. Then,
methinks, thou wouldst murmur, like thine own Simaetha, the love-lorn witch,
'Farewell, Selene, bright and fair; farewell, ye other stars, that follow the
wheels of the quiet Night.' Nay, surely it was in such an hour that thou didst
behold the girl as she burned the laurel leaves and the barley grain, and
melted the waxen image, and called on Selene to bring her lover home. Even so,
even now, in the islands of Greece, the setting Moon may listen to the prayers
of maidens. 'Bright golden Moon, that now art near the waters, go thou and
salute my lover, he that stole my love, and that kissed me, sayin;g "Never
will I leave thee." And lo, he hath left me as men leave a field reaped and
gleaned, like a church where none cometh to pray, like a city desolate.'
So the girls still sing in Greece, for though the Temples have fallen, and the
wandering shepherds sleep beneath the broken columns of the god's house in
Selinus, yet these ancient fires burn still to the old divinities in the
shrines of the hearths of the peasants. It is none of the new creeds that cry,
in the dirge of the Sicilian shepherds of our time, 'Ah, light of mine eyes,
what gift shall I send thee, what offering to the other world? The apple
fadeth, the quince decayeth, and one by one they perish, the petals of the
rose. I will send thee my tears shed on a napkin, and what though it burneth
in the flame, if my tears reach thee at the last.'
Yes, little is ahered, Theocritus, on these shores beneath the sun, where thou
didst wear a tawny skin stripped from the roughest of he-goats, and about thy
breast an old cloak buckled with a plaited belt. Thou wert happier there, in
Sicily, methinks, and among vines and shadowy lime-trees of Cos, than in the
dust, and heat, and noise of Alexandria. What love of fame, what lust of gold
tempted thee away from the red cliffs, and grey olives, and wells of black
water wreathed with maidenhair?
The music of thv rustic flute
Kept not for long its happy country tone;
Lost it too soon, and learned a stormy note
Of men contention tost, of men who groan,
Which tasked thy pipe too sore, and tired thy throat--
It failed, and thou wast mute!
What hadst _thou_ to make in cities, and what could Ptolemies and Princes
give thee better than the goat-milk cheese and the Ptelean wine? Thy Muses
were meant to be the delight of peaceful men, not of tyrants and wealthy
merchants, to whom they vainly went on a begging errand. 'Who will open his
door and gladly receive our Muses within his house, who is there that will not
send them back again without a gift? And they with naked feet and looks
askance come homewards, and sorely they upbraid me when they have gone on a
vain journey, and listless again in the bottom of their empty coffer they
dwell with heads bowed over their chilly knees, where is their drear abode,
when portionless they return.' How far happier was the prisoned goat-herd,
Comatas, in the fragrant cedar chest where the blunt-faced bees from the
meadow fed him with food of tender flowers, because still the Muse dropped
sweet nectar on his lips!
Thou didst leave the neat-herds and the kine, and the oaks of Himera, the
galingale hummed over by the bees, and the pine that dropped her cones, and
Amarvllis in her cave, and Bombyca with her feet of carven ivory. Thou
soughtest the City, and strife with other singers, and the learned write still
on thy quarrels with Apollonius and Callimachus, and Antagoras of Rhodes. So
ancient are the hatreds of poets, envy, jealousy, and all unkindness.
Not to the wits of Courts couldst thou teach thy rural song, though all these
centuries, more than two thousand years, they have laboured to vie with thee.
There has come no new pastoral poet, though Virgil copied thee, and Pope, and
Phillips, and all the buckram band of the teacup time; and all the modish
swains of France have sung against thee, as the _son_challenged_Athene_. They
never knew the shepherd's life, the long' winter nights on dried heather by
the fire, the long summer days, when over the dry grass all is quiet, and only
the insects hum, and the shrunken burn whispers a silver tune. Swains in
high-heeled shoon, and lace, shepherdesses in rouge and diamonds, the world is
weary of all concerning them, save their images in porcelain, effigies how
unlike the golden figures, dedicate to Aphrodite, of Bombyca and Battus.
Somewhat, Theocritus, thou hast to answer for, thou that first of men brought
the shepherd to Court, and made courtiers wild to go a Maying with the
To Edgar Allan Poe.
Sir,--Your English readers, better acquainted with your poems and romances
than with your criticisms, have long wondered at the indefatigable hatred
which pursues your memory. You, who knew the men, will not marvel that certain
microbes of letters, the survivors of your own generation, still harass your
name with their malevolence, while old women twitter out their incredible and
heeded slanders in the literary papers of New York. But their persistent
animosity does not quite suffice to explain the dislike with which many
American critics regard the greatest poet, perhaps the greatest literary
genius, of their country. With a commendable patriotism, they are not apt to
rate native merit too low; and you, I think, are the only example of an
American prophet almost without honour in his own country.
The recent publication of a cold, careful, and in many respects admirable
study of your career ('Edgar Allan Poe,' by George Woodberry: Houghton,
Mifflin and Co., Boston) reminds English readers who have forgotten it, and
teaches those who never knew it, that you were, unfortunately, a Reviewer. How
unhappy were the necessities, how deplorable the vein, that compelled or
seduced a man of your eminence into the dusty and stony ways of contemporary
criticism! About the writers of his own generation a leader of that generation
should hold his peace, he should neither praise nor blame nor defend his
equals; he should not strike one blow at the buzzing ephemerae of letters. The
breath of their life is in the columns of 'Literary Gossip;' and they should
be allowed to perish with the weekly advertisements on which they pasture.
Reviewing, of course, there must needs be; but great minds should only
criticise the great who have passed beyond the reach of eulogy or
Unhappily, taste and circumstances combined to make you a censor; you vexed a
continent, and you are still unforgiven. What 'irritation of a sensitive
nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong,' drove you (in Mr.
Longfellow's own words) to attack his pure and beneficent Muse we may never
ascertain. But Mr. Longfellow forgave you easily; for pardon comes easily to
the great. It was the smaller men, the Daweses, Griswolds, and the like, that
knew not how to forget. 'The New Yorkers never forgave him,' says your latest
biographer; and one scarcely marvels at the inveteracy of their malice. It was
not individual vanity alone, but the whole literary class that you assailed.
'As a literary people,' you wrote, 'we are one vast perambulating humbug.'
After that declaration of war you died, and left your reputation to the
vanities yet writhing beneath your scorn. They are writhing and writing still.
He who knows them need not linger over the attacks and defences of your
personal character; he will not waste time on calumnies, tale-bearing, private
letters, and all the noisome dust which takes so long in settling above your
For us it is enough to know that you were compelled to live by your pen, and
that in an age when the author of 'To Helen' and' The Cask of Amontillado' was
paid at the rate of a dollar a column. When such poverty was the mate of such
pride as yours, a misery more deep than that of Burns, an agony longer than
Chatterton's, were inevitable and assured. No man was less fortunate than you
in the moment of his birth--_infelix_opportunitate_vitae_. Had you lived a
generation later, honour, wealth, applause, success in Europe and at home,
would all have been yours. Within thirty years so great a change has passed
over the profession of letters in America; and it is impossible to estimate
the rewards which would have fallen to Edgar Poe, had chance made him the
contemporary of Mark Twain and of 'Called Back.' It may be that your
criticisms helped to bring in the new era, and to lift letters out of the
reach of quite unlettered scribblers. Though not a scholar, at least you had a
respect for scholarship. You might still marvel over such words as
'objectional' in the new biography of yourself, and might ask what is meant by
such a sentence as 'his connection with it had inured to his own benefit by
the frequent puffs of himself,' and so forth.
Best known in your own day as a critic, it is as a poet and a writer of short
tales that you must live. But to discuss your few and elaborate poems is a
waste of time, so completely does your own brief definition of poetry, 'the
rhythmic creation of the beautiful,' exhaust your theory, and so perfectly is
the theory illustrated by the poems. Natural bent, and reaction against the
example of Mr. Longfellow, combined to make you too intolerant of what you
call the 'didactic' element in verse. Even if morality be not seven-eighths of
our life (the exact proportion as at present estimated), there was a place
even on the Hellenic Parnassus for gnomic bards, and theirs in the nature of
the case must always be the largest public.
'Music is the perfection of the soul or the idea of poetry,' so you wrote;
'the vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be
indefinite and never too strongly suggestive), is precisely what we should aim
at in poetry.' You aimed at that mark, and struck it again and again, notably
in 'Helen, thy beauty is to me,' in 'The Haunted Palace,' 'The Valley of
Unrest,' and 'The City in the Sea.' But by some Nemesis which might, perhaps,
have been foreseen, you are, to the world, the poet of one poem--'The Raven:'
a piece in which the music is highly artificial, and the 'exaltation' (what
there is of it) by no means particularly 'vague.' So a portion of the public
know little of Shelley but the 'Skylark,' and those two incongruous birds, the
lark and the raven, bear each of them a poet's name _vivu'_per_ora_virum_.
Your theory of poetry, if accepted, would make you (after the author of 'Kubla
Khan') the foremost of the poets of the world; at no long distance would come
Mr. William Morris as he was when he wrote 'Golden Wings,' 'The Blue Closet,'
and 'The Sailing of the Sword ;' and, close up, Mr. Lear, the author of 'The
Yongi Bongi Bo,' and the lay of the 'Jumblies.'
On the other hand Homer would sink into the limbo to which you consigned
Molie're. If we may judge a theory by its results, when compared with the
deliberate verdict of the world, your aesthetic does not seem to hold water.
The 'Odyssey' is not really inferior to 'Ulalume,' as it ought to be if your
doctrine of poetry were correct, nor 'Le Festin de Pierre' to 'Undine.' Yet
you deserve the praise of having been constant, in your poetic practice, to
your poetic principles--principles commonly deserted by poets who, like
Wordsworth, have published their aesthetic system. Your pieces are few; and
Dr. Johnson would have called you, like Fielding, 'a barren rascal.' But how
can a writer's verses be numerous if with him, as with you, 'poetry is not a
pursuit but a passion. . . which cannot at will be excited with an eye to the
paltry compensations or the more paltry commendations of mankind!' Of you it
may be said, more truly than Shelley said it of himself, that 'to ask you for
anything human, is like asking at a gin-shop for a leg of mutton.'
Humanity must always be, to the majority of men, the true stuff of poetry; and
only a minority will thank you for that rare music which (like the strains of
the fiddler in the story) is touched on a single string, and on an instrument
fashioned from the spoils of the grave. You chose, or you were destined
To vary from the kindly race of men;
and the consequences, which wasted your life, pursue your reputation. For your
stories has been reserved a boundless popularity, and that highest success --
the success of a perfectly sympathetic translation. By this time, of course,
you have made the acquaintance of your translator, M. Charles Baudelaire, who
so strenuously shared your views about Mr. Emerson and the Transcendentalists,
and who so energetically resisted all those ideas of 'progress' which 'came
from Hell or Boston.' On this point, however, the world continues to differ
from you and M. Baudelaire, and perhaps there is only the choice between our
optimism and universal suicide or universal opium-eating. But to discuss your
ultimate ideas is perhaps a profitless digression from the topic of your prose
An English critic (probably a Northerner at heart) has described them as
'Hawthorne and delirium tremens.' I am not aware that extreme orderliness,
masterly elaboration, and unchecked progress towards a predetermined effect
are characteristics of the visions of delirium. If they be, then there is a
deal of truth in the criticism, and a good deal of delirium tremens in your
style. But your ingenuity, your completeness, your occasional luxuriance of
fancy and wealth of jewel-like words, are not, perhaps, gifts which Mr.
Hawthorne had at his command. He was a great writer--the greatest writer in
prose fiction whom America has produced. But you and he have not much in
common, except a certain mortuary turn of mind and a taste for gloomy
allegories about the workings of conscience.
I forbear to anticipate your verdict about the latest essays of American
fiction. These by no means folow in the lines which you laid down about
brevity and the steady working to one single effect. Probably you would not be
very tolerant (tolerance was not your leading virtue) of Mr. Roe, now your
countrymen's favourite novelist. He is long, he is didactic, he is eminently
uninspired. In the works of one who is, what you were called yourself, a
Bostonian, you would admire, at least, the acute observation, the subtlety,
and the unfailing distinction. But, destitute of humour as you unhappily but
undeniably were, you would miss, I fear, the charm of 'Daisy Miller.' You
would admit the unity of effect secured in 'Washington Square,' though that
effect is as remote as possible from the terror of 'The House of Usher' or the
vindictive triumph of 'The Cask of Amontillado.'
Farewell, farewell, thou sombre and solitary spirit: a genius tethered to the
hack-work of the press, a gentleman among _canaille_, a poet among poetasters,
dowered with a scholar's taste without a scholar's training, embittered by his
sensitive scorn, and all unsupported by his consolations.
To Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
Rodono, St. Mary's Loch:
Sept. 5, 1885.
Sir,--In your biography it is recorded that you not only won the favour of all
men and women; but that a domestic fowl conceived an affection for you, and
that a pig, by his will, had never been severed from your company. If some
Circe had repeated in my case her favourite miracle of turning mortals into
swine, and had given me a choice, into that fortunate pig, blessed among his
race, would I have been converted! You, almost alone among men of letters,
still, like a living friend, win and charm us out of the past; and if one
might call up a poet, as the scholiast tried to call Homer, from the shades,
who would not, out of all the rest, demand some hours of your society? Who
that ever meddled with letters, what child of the irritable race, possessed
even a tithe of your simple manliness, of the heart that never knew a touch of
jealousy, that envied no man his laurels, that took honour and wealth as they
came, but never would have deplored them had you missed both and remained but
the Border sportsman and the Border antiquary?
Were the word 'genial' not so much profaned, were it not misused in easy
good-nature, to extenuate lettered and sensual indolence, that worn old term
might be applied, above all men, to 'the Shirra.' But perhaps we scarcely need
a word (it would be seldom in use)for a character so rare, or rather so
lonely, in its nobility and charm as that of Walter Scott. Here, in the heart
of your own country, among your own grey round-shouldered hills (each so like
the other that the shadow of one falling on its neighbour exactly outlines
that neighbour's shape), it is of you and of your works that a native of the
Forest is most frequently brought in mind. All the spirits of the river and
the hill, all the dying refrains of ballad and the fading echoes of story, all
the memory of the wild past, each legend of burn and loch, seem to have
combined to inform your spirit, and to secure themselves an immortal life in
your song. It is through you that we remember them; and in recalling them, as
in treading each hillside in this land, we again remember you and bless you.
It is not 'Sixty Years Since' the echo of Tweed among his pebbles fell for the
last time on your ear; not sixty years since, and how much is altered! But two
generations have passed; the lad who used to ride from Edinburgh to
Abbotsford, carrying new books for you, and old, is still vending, in George
Street, old books and new. Of politics I have not the heart to speak. Little
joy would you have had in most that has befallen since the Reform Bill was
passed, to the chivalrous cry of 'burke Sir Walter.' We are still very Radical
in the Forest, and you were taken away from many evils to come. How would the
cheek of Walter Scott, or of Leyden, have blushed at the names of Majuba, The
Soudan, Maiwand, and many others that recall political cowardice or military
incapacity! On the other hand, who but you could have sung the dirge of
Gordon, or wedded with immortal verse the names of Hamilton (who fell with
Cavagnari), of the two Stewarts, of many another clansman, brave among the
bravest! Only he who told how
The stubborn spearmen still made good
Their dark impenetrable wood
could have fitly rhymed a score of feats of arms in which, as at M'Neill's
Zareeba and at Abu Klea,
Groom fought like noble, squire like knight,
As fearlessly and well.
Ah, Sir, the hearts of the rulers may wax faint, and the voting classes may
forget that they are Britons; but when it comes to blows our fighting men
might cry, with Leyden,
My name is little Jock Elliot,
And wha daur meddle wi' me!
Much is changed, in the country-side as well as in the country; but much
remains. The little towns of your time are populous and excessively black with
the smoke of factories--not, I fear, at present very flourishing. In
Galashiels you still see the little change-house and the cluster of cottages
round the Laird's lodge, like the clachan of Tully Veolan. But these plain
remnants of the old Scotch towns are almost buried in a multitude of 'smoky
dwarf houses'--a living poet, Mr. Matthew Arnold, has found the fitting phrase
for these dwellings, once for all. All over the Forest he waters are dirty and
poisoned: I think they are filthiest below Hawick; but this may be mere local
prejudice in a Selkirk man. To keep them clean costs money; and, though
improvements are often promised, I cannot see much change for the better.
Abbotsford, luckily, is above Galashiels, and only receives the dirt and dyes
of Selkirk, Peebles, Walkerburn, and Innerlethen. On the other hand, your
ill-omened later dwelling, 'the unhappy palace of your race,' is overlooked by
villas that prick a cockney ear among their larches, hotels of the future. Ah,
Sir, Scotland is a strange place. Whisky is exiled from some of our
caravanserais, and they have banished Sir John Barleycorn. It seems as if the
views of the excellent critic (who wrote your life lately, and said you had
left no descendants, _le_pauvre_homme_) were beginning to prevail. This pious
biographer was greatly shocked by that capital story about the keg of whisky
that arrived at the Liddesdale farmer's during family prayers. Your Toryism
also was an offence to him.
Among these vicissitudes of things and the overthrow of customs, let us be
thankful that, beyond the reach of the manufacturers, the Border country
remains as kind and homely as ever. I looked at Ashiestiel some days ago: the
house seemed just as it may have been when you left it for Abbotsford, only
there was a lawn-tennis net on the lawn, the hill on the opposite bank of the
Tweed was covered to the crest with turnips, and the burn did not sing below
the little bridge, for in this arid summer the burn was dry. But there was
still a grilse that rose to a big March brown in the shrunken stream below
Elibank. This may not interest you, who styled yourself
But a well-wisher
To the game!
Still, as when you were thinking over Marmion, a man might have 'grand gallops
among the hills'--those grave wastes of heather and bent that sever all the
watercourses and roll their sheep-covered pastures from Dollar Law to White
Combe, and from White Combe to the Three Brethren Cairn and the Windburg and
Skelf-hill Pen. Yes, Teviotdale is pleasant still, and there is not a drop of
dye in the water, _purior_electro_, of Yarrow. St. Mary's Loch lies beneath
me, smitten with wind and rain--the St. Mary's of North and of the Shepherd.
Only the trout, that see a myriad of artificial flies, are shyer than of yore.
The Shepherd could no longer fill a cart up Meggat with trout so much of a
size that the country people took them for herrings.
The grave of Piers Cockburn is still not desecrated: hard by it lies, within a
little wood; and beneath that slab of old sandstone, and the graven letters,
and the sword and shield, sleep 'Piers Cock-burn and Marjory his wife.' Not a
hundred yards off was the castle door where they hanged him; this is the tomb
of the ballad, and the lady that buried him rests now with her wild lord.
Oh, wat ye no my heart was sair,
When I happit the mouls on his yellow hair;
Oh, wat ye no my heart was wae,
When I turned about and went my way! (1)
Here too hearts have broken, and there is a sacredness in the shadow and
beneath these clustering berries of the rowan-trees. That sacredness, that
reverent memory of our old land, it is always and inextricably blended with
our memories, with our thoughts, with our love of you. Scotchmen, methinks,
who owe so much to you, owe you most for the example you gave of the beauty of
a life of honour, showing them what, by Heaven's blessing, a Scotchman still
(1) Lord Napier and Ettrick points out to me that, unluckily, the tradition is
erroneous. Piers was not executed at all. William Cockburn suffered in
Edinburgh. But the _Border_Minstrelsy_ overrides history.
_Criminal_Trials_in_Scotland_ by Robert Pitcairn, Esq. Vol. i. part I. p. 144,
A. D. 1530. 17 Jac. V.
May 16. William Cokburne of Henderland, convicted (in presence of the King) of
high treason committed by him in bringing Alexander Forestare and his son,
Englishmen, to the plundering of Archibald Somervile; and for treasunably
bringing certain Englishmen to the lands of Glenquhome; and for common theft,
common reset of theft, out-putting and in-putting thereof. Sentence. For which
causes and crimes he has forfeited his life, lands, and goods, movable and
immovable; which shall be escheated to the King. Beheaded.
Words, empty and unavailing--for what words of ours can speak our thoughts or
interpret our affections! From you first, as we followed the deer with King
James, or rode with William of Deloraine on his midnight errand, did we learn
what Poetry means and ali the happiness that is in the gift of song. This and
more than may be told you gave us, that are not forgetful, not ungrateful,
though our praise be unequal to our gratitude. _Fungor_inani_munere!_
To Eusebius of Caesarea.
(Concerning the Gods of the Heathen.)
Touching the Gods of the Heathen, most reverend Father, thou art not ignorant
that even now, as in the time of thy probation on earth, there is great
dissension. That these feigned Deities and idols, the work of men's hands, are
no longer worshipped thou knowest; neither do men eat meat offered to idols.
Even as spoke that last Oracle which murmured forth, the latest and the only
true voice from Delphi, even so 'the fair-wrought court divine hath fallen; no
more hath Phoebus his home, no more his laurel-bough, nor the singing well of
water; nay, the sweet-voiced water is silent.' The fane is ruinous, and the
images of men's idolatry are dust.
Nevertheless, most worshipful, men do still dispute about the beginnings of
those sinful Gods: such as Zeus, Athene, and Dionysus: and marvel how first
they won their dominion over the souls of the foolish peoples. Now, concerning
these things there is not one belief, but many; howbeit, there are two main
kinds of opinion. One sect of philosophers believes--as thyself, with heavenly
learning, didst not vainly persuade--that the Gods were the inventions of wild
and bestial folk, who, long before cities were builded or life was honourably
ordained, fashioned forth evil spirits in their own savage likeness; ay, or in
the likeness of the very beasts that perish. To this judgment, as it is set
forth in thy Book of the Preparation for the Gospel, I, humble as I am, do
give my consent. But on the other side are many and learned men, chiefly of
the tribes of the Alemanni, who have almost conquered the whole inhabited
world. These, being unwilling to suppose that the Hellenes were in bondage to
superstitions handed down from times of utter darkness and a bestial life, do
chiefly hold with the heathen philosophers, even with the writers whom thou,
most venerable, didst confound with thy wisdom and chasten with the scourge of
small cords of thy wit.
Thus, like the heathen, our doctors and teachers maintain that the Gods of the
nations were, in the beginning, such pure natural creatures as the blue sky,
the sun, the air, the bright dawn, and the fire; but, as time went on, men,
forgetting the meaning of their own speech and no longer understanding the
tongue of their own fathers, were misled and beguiled into fashioning all
those lamentable tales: as that Zeus, for love of mortal women, took the shape
of a bull, a ram, a serpent, an ant, an eagle, and sinned in such wise as it
is a shame even to speak of.
Behold, then, most worshipful, how these doctors and learned men argue, even
like the philosophers of the heathen whom thou didst confound. For they
declare the Gods to have been natural elements, sun and sky and storm, even as
did thy opponents; and, like them, as thou saidst, 'they are nowise at one
with each other in their explanations.' For of old some boasted that Hera was
the Air; and some that she signified the love of woman and man; and some that
she was the waters above the Earth; and others that she was the Earth beneath
the waters; and yet others that she was the Night, for that Night is the
shadow of Earth: as if, forsooth, the men who first worshipped Hera had
understanding of these things! And when Hera and Zeus quarrel unseemly (as
Homer declareth), this meant (said the learned in thy days) no more than the
strife and confusion of the elements, and was not in the beginning an idle
To all which, most worshipful, thou didst answer wisely: saying that Hera
could not be both night, and earth, and water, and air, and the love of sexes,
and the confusion of the elements ; but that all these opinions were vain
dreams, and the guesses of the learned. And why--thou saidst--even if the Gods
were pure natural creatures, are such foul things told of them in the
Mysteries as it is not fitting for me to declare. 'These wanderings, and
drinkings, and loves, and corruptions, that would be shameful in men, why,'
thou saidst, 'were they attributed to the natural elements; and wherefore did
the Gods constantly show themselves, like the sorcerers called were-wolves, in
the shape of the perishable beasts?' But, mainly, thou didst argue that, till
the philosophers of the heathen were agreed among themselves, not all
contradicting each the other, they had no semblance of a sure foundation for
To all this and more, most worshipful Father, I know not what the heathen
answered thee. But, in our time, the learned men who stand to it that the
heathen Gods were in the beginning the pure elements, and that the nations,
forgetting their first love and the significance of their own speech, became
confused and were betrayed into foul stories about the pure Gods--these
learned men, I say, agree no whit among themselves. Nay, they differ one from
another, not less than did Plutarch and Porphyry and Theagenes, and the rest
whom thou didst laugh to scorn. Bear with me, Father, while I tell thee how
the new Plutarchs and Porphyrys do contend among themselves; and yet these
differences of theirs they call 'Science'!
Consider the goddess Athene, who sprang armed from the head of Zeus, even
as--among the fables of the poor heathen folk of seas thou never knewest--
goddesses are fabled to leap out from the armpits or feet of their fathers.
Thou must know that what Plato, in the 'Cratylus,' made Socrates say in jest,
the learned among us practise in sad earnest. For, when they wish to explain
the nature of any God, they first examine his name, and torment the letters
thereof, arranging and altering them according to their will, and flying off
to the speech of the Indians and Medes and Chaldeans, and other Barbarians, if
Greek will not serve their turn. How saith Socrates? 'I bethink me of a very
new and ingenious idea that occurs to me; and, if I do not mind, I shall be
wiser than I should be by to-morrow's dawn. My notion is that we may put in
and pull out letters at pleasure and alter the accents.' Even so do our
learned--not at pleasure, maybe, but according to certain fixed laws (so they
declare); yet none the more do they agree among themselves. And I deny not
that they discover many things true and good to be known; but, as touching the
names of the Gods, their learning, as it standeth, is confusion. Look, then,
at the goddess Athene: taking one example out of hundreds. We have dwelling in
our coasts Muellerus, the most erudite of the doctors of the Alemanni, and the
most golden-mouthed. Concerning Athene, he saith that her name is none other
than, in the ancient tongue of the Brach-manae, _Ahana'_, which, being
interpreted, means the Dawn. 'And that the morning light,' saith he, 'offers
the best starting-point; for the later growth of Athene has been proved, I
believe, beyond the reach of doubt or even cavil.' (1)
(1) 'The Lesson of Jupiter.'--_Nineteenth_Century_, October, 1885.
Yet this same doctor candidly lets us know that another of his nation, the
witty Benfeius, hath devised another sense and origin of Athene, taken from
the speech of the old Medes. But Muellerus declares to us that whosoever shall
examine the contention of Benfeius 'will be bound, in common honesty, to
confess that it is untenable.' This, Father, is one for Benfeius, as the
saying goes. And as Muellerus holds that these matters 'admit of almost
mathematical precision,' it would seem that Benfeius is but a _Dummkopf_, as
the Alemanni say, in their own language, when they would be pleasant among
Now, wouldst thou credit it? despite the mathematical plainness of the facts,
other Alemanni agree neither with Muellerus, nor yet with Benfeius, and will
neither hear that Athene was the Dawn, nor yet that she is 'the feminine of
the Zend _Thra'eta'na_athwya'na_.' Lo, you! how Prellerus goes about to show
that her name is drawn not from _Ahana'_ and the old Brachmanae, nor
_athwya'na_ and the old Medes, but from 'the root _aith_*, whence _aither_*,
the air, or _ath_*, whence _anthos_*, a flower.' Yea, and Prellerus will have
it that no man knows the verity of this matter. None the less he is very bold,
and will none of the Dawn; but holds to it that Athene was, from the first,
'the clear pure height of the Air, which is exceeding pure in Attica.'
Now, Father, as if all this were not enough, comes one Roscherus in, with a
mighty great volume on the Gods, and Furtwaenglerus, among others, for his
ally. And these doctors will neither with Rueckertus and Hermannus, take
Athene for 'wisdom in person;' nor with Welckerus and Prellerus, for 'the
goddess of air;' nor even, with Muellerus and mathematical certainty, for 'the
Morning-Red:' but they say that Athene is the 'black thunder-cloud, and the
lightning that leapeth therefrom'! I make no doubt that other Alemanni are of
other minds: _quot_Alemanni_tot_sententiae_.
Yea, as thou saidst of the learned heathen, _Oude_gar_allelois_symphona_
_physiologousis_. Yet these disputes of theirs they call 'Science'! But if any
man says to the learned: 'Best of men, you are erudite, and laborious and
witty; but, till you are more of the same mind, your opinions cannot be styled
knowledge. Nay, they are at present of no avail whereon to found any doctrine
concerning the Gods'--that man is railed at for his 'mean' and 'weak'
*Transliterated from Greek.
Was it thus, Father, that the heathen railed against thee? But I must still
believe, with thee, that these evil tales of the Gods were invented 'when
man's life was yet brutish and wandering' (as is the life of many tribes that
even now tell like tales), and were maintained in honour of the later Greeks
'because none dared alter the ancient beliefs of his ancestors.' Farewell,
Father; and all good be with thee, wishes thy well-wisher and thy disciple.
To Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sir,--In your lifetime on earth you were not more than commonly curious as to
what was said by 'the herd of mankind,' if I may quote your own phrase. It was
that of one who loved his fellow-men, but did not in his less enthusiastic
moments overestimate their virtues and their discretion. Removed so far away
from our hubbub, and that world where, as you say, we 'pursue our serious
folly as of old,' you are, one may guess, but moderately concerned about the
fate of your writings and your reputation. As to the first, you have somewhere
said, in one of your letters, that the final judgment on your merits as a poet
is in the hands of posterity, and that you fear the verdict will be 'Guilty,'
and the sentence 'Death.' Such apprehensions cannot have been fixed or
frequent in the mind of one whose genius burned always with a clearer and
steadier flame to the last. The jury of which you spoke has met: a mixed jury
and a merciful. The verdict is 'Well done,' and the sentence Immortality of
Fame. There have been, there are, dissenters; yet probably they will be less
and less heard as the years go on.
One judge, or juryman, has made up his mind that prose was your true province,
and that your letters will outlive your lays. I know not whether it was the
same or an equally well-inspired critic, who spoke of your most perfect lyrics
(so Beau Brummell spoke of his ill-tied cravats) as 'a gallery of your
failures.' But the general voice does not echo these utterances of a too
subtle intellect. At a famous University (not your own) once existed a band of
men known as 'The Trinity Sniffers.' Perhaps the spirit of the sniffer may
still inspire some of the jurors who from time to time make themselves heard
in your case. The 'Quarterly Review', I fear, is still unreconciled. It
regards your attempts as tainted by the spirit of 'The Liberal Movement in
English Literature;' and it is impossible, alas! to maintain with any success
that you were a Throne and Altar Tory. At Oxford you are forgiven;and the old
rooms where you let the oysters burn (was not your founder, King Alfred, once
guilty of similar negligence?) are now shown to pious pilgrims.
But Conservatives, 't is rumoured, are still averse to your opinions, and are
believed to prefer to yours the works of the Reverend Mr. Keble, and, indeed,
of the clergy in general. But, in spite of all this, your poems, like the
affections of the true lovers in Theocritus, are still 'in the mouths of all,
and chiefly on the lips of the young.' It is in your lyrics that you live, and
I do not mean that every one could pass an examination in the plot of
'Prometheus Unbound" Talking of this piece, by the way, a Cambridge critic
finds that it reveals in you a hankering after life in a cave--doubtless an
unconsciously inherited memory from cave-man. Speaking of cave-man reminds me
that you once spoke of deserting song for prose, and of producing a history of
the moral, intellectual, and political elements in human society, which, we
now agree, began, as Asia would fain have ended, in a cave.
Fortunately you gave us 'Adonai, and 'Hellas' instead of this treatise, and we
have now successfully written the natural history of Man for ourselves.
Science tells us that before becoming cave-dweller he was a brute; Experience
daily proclaims that he constantly reverts to his original condition.
_L'homme_est_un_me'chant_animal_, in spite of your boyish efforts to add
pretty girls 'to the list of the good, the disinterested, and the free.'
Ah, not in the wastes of Speculation, nor the sterile din of Politics, were
'the haunts meet for thee.' Watching the yellow bees in the ivy bloom, and the
reflected pine forest in the water-pools, watching the sunset as it faded, and
the dawn as it fired, and weaving all fair and fleeting things into a tissue
where light and music were at one, that was the task of Shelley! 'To ask you
for anything human,' you said, 'was like asking for a leg of mutton at a
gin-shop.' Nay, rather, like asking Apollo and Hebe, in the Olympian abodes,
to give us beef for ambrosia, and port for nectar. Each poet gives what he
has, and what he can offer; you spread before us fairy bread, and enchanted
wine, and shall we turn away, with a sneer, because, out of all the multitudes
of singers, one is spiritual and strange, one has seen Artemis unveiled? One,
like Anchises, has been beloved of the Goddess, and his eyes, when he looks on
the common works of common men, are, like the eyes of Anchises, blind with
excess of light. Let Shelley sing of what he saw, what none saw but Shelley!
Notwithstanding the popularity of your poems (the most romantic of things
didactic), our world is no better than the world you knew. This will
disappoint you, who had 'a passion for reforming it.' Kings and priests are
very much where you left them. True, we have a poet who assails them, at
large, frequently and fearlessly; yet Mr. Swinburne has never, like 'kind
Hunt,' been in prison, nor do we fear for him a charge of treason. Moreover,
chemical science has discovered new and ingenious ways of destroying
principalities and powers. You would be interested in the methods, but your
peaceful Revolutionism, which disdained physical force, would regret their
Our foreign affairs are not in a state which even you would consider
satisfactory; for we have just had to contend with a Revolt of Islam, and we
still find in Russia exactly the qualities which you recognised and described.
We have a great statesman whose methods and eloquence somewhat resemble those
you attribute to Laon and Prince Athanase. Alas! he is a youth of more than
seventy summers; and not in his time will Prometheus retire to a cavern and
pass a peaceful millennium in twining buds and beams.
In domestic affairs most of the Reforms you desired to see have been carried.
Ireland has received Emancipation, and almost everytbing else she can ask for.
I regret to say that she is still unhappy; her wounds unstanched, her wrongs
unforgiven. At home we have enfranchised the paupers, and expect the most
happy results. Paupers (as Mr. Gladstone says) are 'our own flesh and blood,'
and, as we compel them to be vaccinated, so we should permit them to vote. Is
it a dream that Mr. Jesse Collings (how you would have loved that man!) has a
Bill for extending the priceless boon of the vote to inmates of Pauper Lunatic
Asylums? This may prove that last element in the Elixir of political happiness
which we have sought in vain. Atheists, you will re to hear, are still
unpopular; but the new Parliament has done something for Mr. Bradlaugh. You
should have known our Charles while you were in the 'Queen Mab' stage. I fear
you wandered, later, from his robust condition of intellectual development.
As to your private life, many biographers contrive to make public as much of
it as possible. Your name, even in life, was, alas! a kind of _ducdame_ to
bring people of no very great sense into your circle. This curious fascination
has attracted round your memory a feeble folk of commentators, biographers,
anecdotists, and others of the tribe. They swarm round you like carrion-flies
round a sensitive plant, like night-birds bewildered by the sun. Men of sense
and taste have written on you, indeed; but your weaker admirers are now
disputing as to whether it was your heart, or a less dignified and most
troublesome organ, which escaped the flames of the funeral pyre. These
biographers fight terribly among themselves, and vainly prolong the memory of
'old unhappy far-off things, and _sorrows_ long ago.' Let us leave them and
their squabbles over what is unessential, their raking up of old letters and
The town has lately yawned a weary laugh over an enemy of yours, who has
produced two heavy volumes, styled by him 'The Real Shelley.' The real
Shelley, it appears, was Shelley as conceived of by a worthy gentleman so
prejudiced and so skilled in taking up things by the wrong handle that I
wonder he has not made a name in the exact science of Comparative Mythology.
He criticises you in the spirit of that Christian Apologist, the Englishman
who called you 'a damned Atheist' in the post-office at Pisa. He finds that
you had 'a little turned-up nose,' a feature no less important in his system
than was the nose of Cleopatra (according to Pascal) in the history of the
world. To be in harmony with your nose, you were a 'phenomenal' liar, an
ill-bred, ill-born, profligate, partly insane, an evil-tempered monster, a
self-righteous person, full of self-approbation--in fact you were the Beast of
this pious Apocalypse. Your friend Dr. Lind was an embittered and scurrilous
apothecary, 'a bad old man.' But enough of this inopportune brawler. For
Humanity, of which you hoped such great things, Science predicts extinction in
a night of Frost. The sun will grow cold, slowly--as slowly as doom came on
Jupiter in your 'Prometheus,' but as surely. If this nightmare be fulfilled,
perhaps the Last Man, in some fetid hut on the ice-bound Equator, will read.
by a fading lamp charged with the dregs of the oil in his cruse, the poetry of
Shelley. So reading, he, the latest of his race, will not wholly be deprived
of those sights which alone (says the nameless Greek) make life worth
enduring. In your verse he will have sight of sky, and sea, and cloud, the
gold of dawn and the gloom of earthquake and eclipse, he will be face to face,
in fancy, with the great powers that are dead, sun, and ocean, and the
illimitable azure of the heavens. In Shelley's poetry, while Man endures, all
those will survive; for your 'voice is as the voice of winds and tides,' and
perhaps more deathless than all of these, and only perishable with the
perishing of the human spirit.
To Monsieur de Molie're, Valet de Chambre du Roi.
Monsieur,--With what awe does a writer venture into the presence of the great
Molie're! As a courtier in your time would scratch humbly (with his comb!) at
the door of the Grand Monarch, so I presume to draw near your dwelling among
the Immortals. You, like the king who, among all his titles, has now none so
proud as that of the friend of Molie're--you found your dominions small,
humble, and distracted; you raised them to the dignity of an empire: what
Louis XIV. did for France you achieved for French comedy; and the ba'ton of
Scapin still wields its sway though the sword of Louis was broken at Blenheim.
For the King the Pyrenees, or so he fancied, ceased to exist; by a more
magnificent conquest you overcame the Channel. If England vanquished your
country's arms, it was through you that France _ferum_victorem_cepit_, and
restored the dynasty of Comedy to the land whence she had been driven. Ever
since Dryden borrowed 'L'Etourdi,' our tardy apish nation has lived (in
matters theatrical) on the spoils of the wits of France.
In one respect, to be sure, times and manners have altered. While you lived,
taste kept the French drama pure; and it was the congenial business of English
playwrights to foist their rustic grossness and their large Fescennine jests
into the urban page of Molie're. Now they are diversely occupied; and it is
their affair to lend modesty where they borrow wit, and to spare a blush to
the cheek of the Lord Chamberlain. But still, as has ever been our wont since
Etherege saw, and envied, and imitated your successes--still we pilfer the
plays of France, and take our _bien_, as you said in your lordly manner,
wherever we can find it. We are the privateers of the stage; and it is rarely,
to be sure, that a comedy pleases the town which has not first been 'cut out'
from the countrymen of Molie're. Why this should be, and what 'tenebriferous
star' (as Paracelsus, your companion in the 'Dialogues des Morts,' would have
believed) thus darkens the sun of English humour, we know not; but certainly
our dependence on France is the sincerest tribute to you. Without you, neither
Rotrou, nor Corneille, nor 'a wilderness of monkeys' like Scarron, could ever
have given Comedy to France and restored her to Europe.
While we owe to you, Monsieur, the beautiful advent of Comedy, fair and
beneficent as Peace in the play of Aristophanes, it is still to you that we
must turn when of comedies we desire the best. If you studied with daily and
nightly care the works of Plautus and Terence, if you 'let no musty _bouquin_
escape you' (so your enemies declared), it was to some purpose that you
laboured. Shakespeare excepted, you eclipsed all who came before you; and from
those that follow, however fresh, we turn: we turn from Regnard and
Beaumarchais, from Sheridan: and Goldsmith, from Musset and Pailleron and
Labiche, to that crowded world of your creations. 'Creations' one may well
say, for you anticipated Nature herself: you gave us, before she did, in
Alceste a Rousseau who was a gentleman not a lacquey; in a _mot_ of Don
Juan's, the secret of the new Religion and the watchword of Comte,
Before you where can we find, save in Rabelais, a Frenchman with humour; and
where, unless it be in Montaigne, the wise philosophy of a secular
civilisalion? With a heart the most tender, delicate, loving, and generous, a
heart often in agony and torment, you had to make life endurable (we cannot
doubt it) without any whisper of promise, or hope, or warning from Religion.
Yes, in an age when the greatest mind of all, the mind of Pascal, proclaimed
that the only help was in voluntary blindness, that the only chance was to
hazard all on a bet at evens, you, Monsieur, refused to be blinded, or to
pretend to see what you found invisible.
In Religion you beheld no promise of help. When the Jesuits and Jansenists of
your time saw, each of them, in Tartufe the portrait of their rivals (as each
of the laughable Marquises in your play conceived that you were girding at his
neighbour), you all the while were mocking every credulous excess of Faith. In
the sermons preached to Agne's we surely hear your private laughter; in the
arguments for credulity which are presented to Don Juan by his valet we listen
to the eternal self-defence of superstition. Thus, desolate of belief, you
sought for the permanent element of life--precisely where Pascal recognised
all that was most fleeting and unsubstantial--in _divertissement_; in the
pleasure of looking on, a spectator of the accidents of existence, an observer
of the follies of mankind. Like the Gods of the Epicurean, you seem to regard
our life as a play that is played, as a comedy; yet how often the tragic note
comes in! What pity, and in the laughter what an accent of tears, as of rain
in the wind! No comedian has been so kindly and human as you; none has had a
heart, like you, to feel for his butts, and to leave them sometimes, in a
sense, superior to their tormentors. Sganarelle, M. de Pourceaugnac, George
Dandin, and the rest--our sympathy, somehow, is with them, after all; and M.
de Pourceaugnac is a gentleman, despite his misadventures.
Though triumphant Youth and malicious Love in your plays may batter and defeat
Jealousy and Old Age, yet they have not all the victory, or you did not mean
that they should win it. They go off with laughter, and their victim with a
grimace; but in him we, that are past our youth, behold an actor in an
unending tragedy, the defeat of a generation. Your sympathy is not wholly with
the dogs that are having their day; you can throw a bone or a crust to the dog
that has had his, and has been taught that it is over and ended. Yourself not
unlearned in shame, in jealousy, in endurance of the wanton pride of men (how
could the poor player and the husband of Ce'lime'ne be untaught in that
experience?), you never sided quite heartily, as other comedians have done,
with young prosperity and rank and power.
I am not the first who has dared to approach you in the Shades; for just after
your own death the author of 'Les Dialogues des Morts' gave you Paracelsus as
a companion, and the author of 'Le Jugement de Pluton' made the 'mighty
warder' decide that 'Molie're should not talk philosophy.' These writers, like
most of us, feel that, after all, the comedies of the _Contemplateur_, of the
translator of Lucretius, are a philosophy of life in themselves, and that in
them we read the lessons of human experience writ small and clear.
What comedian but Molie're has combined with such depths--with the indignation
of Alceste, the self-deception of Tartufe, the blasphemy of Don Juan--such
wildness of irresponsible mirth, such humour, such wit! Even now, when more
than two hundred years have sped by, when so much water has flowed under the
bridges and has borne away so many trifles of contemporary mirth (_cetera_
_fluminis_ritu_feruntur_), even now we never laugh so well as when Mascarille
and Vadius and M. Jourdain tread the boards in the Maison de Molie're. Since
those mobile dark brows of yours ceased to make men laugh, since your voice
denounced the 'demoniac' manner of contemporary tragedians, I take leave to
think that no player has been more worthy to wear the _canons_ of Mascarille
or the gown of Vadius than M. Coquelin of the Come'die Francaise. In him you
have a successor to your Mascarille so perfect, that the ghosts of play-goers
of your date might cry, could they see him, that Molie're had come again. But,
with all respect to the efforts of the fair, I doubt if Mdlle. Barthet, or
Mdme. Croizette herself, would reconcile the town to the loss of the fair De
Brie, and Madeleine, and the first, the true Ce'lime'ne, Armande. Yet had you
ever so merry a _soubrette_ as Mdme. Samary, so exquisite a Nicole?
Denounced, persecuted, and buried hugger-mugger two hundred years ago, you are
now not over-praised, but more worshipped, with more servility and
ostentation, studied with more prying curiosity than you may approve. :\re not
the Molie'ristes a body who carry adoration to fanaticism? Any scrap of your
handwriting (so few are these), any anecdote even remotely touching on your
life, any fact that may prove your house was numbered 15 not 22, is eagerly
seized and discussed by your too minute historians. Concerning your private
life, these men often write more like malicious enemies than friends;
repeating the fabulous scandals of Le Boulanger, and trying vainly to support
them by grubbing in dusty parish registers. It is most necessary to defend you
from your friends--from such friends as the veteran and inveterate M. Arse'ne
Houssaye, or the industrious but puzzle-headed M. Loiseleur. Truly they seek
the living among the dead, and the immortal Molie're among the sweepings of
attorneys' offices. As I regard them (for I have tarried in their tents) and
as I behold their trivialities--the exercises of men who neglect Molie're's
works to write about Molie're's great-grandmother's second-best bed--I
sometimes wish that Molie're were here to write on his devotees a new comedy,
'Les Molie'ristes.' How fortunate were they, Monsieur, who lived and worked
with you, who saw you day by day, who were attached, as Lagrange tells us, by
the kindest loyalty to the best and most honourable of men, the most
open-handed in friendship, in charity the most delicate, of the heartiest
sympathy! Ah, that for one day I could behold you, writing in the study,
rehearsing on the stage, musing in the lace-seller's shop, strolling through
the Palais, turning over the new books at Billaine's, dusting your ruffles
among the old volumes on the sunny stalls. Would that, through the ages, we
could hear you after supper, merry with Boileau, and with Racine,--not yet a
traitor,--laughing over Chapelain, combining to gird at him in an epigram, or
mocking at Cotin, or talking your favourite philosophy, mindful of Descartes.
Surely of all the wits none was ever so good a man, none ever made life so
rich with humour and friendship.
To Robert Burns.
Sir,--Among men of Genius, and especially among Poets, there are some to whom
we turn with a peculiar and unfeigned affection; there are others whom we
admire rather than love. By some we are won with our will, by others conquered
against our desire. It has been your peculiar fortune to capture the hearts of
a whole people--a people not usually prone to praise, but devoted with a
personal and patriotic loyalty to you and to your reputation. In you every
Scot who _is_ a Scot sees, admires, and compliments Himself, his ideal self--
independent, fond of whisky, fonder of the lassies; you are the true
representative of him and of his nation. Next year will be the hundredth since
the press of Kilmarnock brought to light its solitary masterpiece, your Poems;
and next year, therefore, methinks, the revenue will receive a welcome
accession from the abundance of whisky drunk in your honour. It is a cruel
thing for any of your countrymen to feel that, where all the rest love, he can
only admire; where all the rest are idolators, he may not bend the knee; but
stands apart and beats upon his breast, observing, not adoring--a critic. Yet
to some of us--petty souls, perhaps, and envious--that loud indiscriminating
praise of 'Robbie Burns' (for so they style you in their Change-house
familiarity) has long been ungrateful; and, among the treasures of your songs,
we venture to select and even to reject. So it must be! We cannot all love
Haggis, nor 'painch, tripe, and thairm,' and all those rural dainties which
you celebrate as 'warm-reekin, rich!' 'Rather too rich,' as the Young Lady
said on an occasion recorded by Sam Weller.
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
You _have_ given her a Haggis, with a vengeance, and her 'gratefu' prayer' is
yours for ever. But if even an eternity of partridge may pall on the epicure,
so of Haggis too, as of all earthly delights, cometh satiety at last. And yet
what a glorious Haggis it is--the more emphatically rustic and even Fescennine
part of your verse! We have had many a rural bard since Theocritus 'watched
the visionary flocks,' but you are the only one of them all who has spoken the
sincere Doric. Yours is the talk of the byre and the plough-tail; yours is
that large utterance of the early hinds. Even Theocritus minces matters, save
where Lacon and Comatas quite outdo the swains of Ayrshire. 'But thee,
Theocritus, wha matches?' you ask, and yourself out-match him in this wide
rude region, trodden only by the rural Muse.
'_Thy_ rural loves are nature's sel';' and the wooer of Jean Armour speaks
more like a true shepherd than the elegant Daphnis of the 'Oaristys.'
Indeed it is with this that moral critics of your life reproach you,
forgetting, perhaps, that in your amours you were but as other Scotch
ploughmen and shepherds of the past and present. Ettrick may still, with
Afghanistan, offer matter for idylls, as Mr. Carlyle (your antithesis, and the
complement of the Scotch character) supposed; but the morals of Ettrick are
those of rural Sicily in old days, or of Mossgiel in your days. Over these
matters the Kirk, with all her power, and the Free Kirk too, have had
absolutely no influence whatever. To leave so delicate a topic, you were but
as other swains, or, as 'that Birkie ca'd a lord,' Lord Byron; only you
combined (in certain of your letters) a libertine theory with your practice;
you poured out in song your audacious raptures, your half-hearted repentance,
your shame and your scorn. You spoke the truth about rural lives and loves. We
may like it or dislike it; but we cannot deny the verity.
Was it not as unhappy a thing, Sir, for you, as it was fortunate for Letters
and for Scotland, that you were born at the meeting of two ages and of two
worlds--precisely in the moment when bookish literature was beginning to reach
the people, and when Society was first learning to admit the low-born to her
Minor Mysteries? Before you how many singers not less truly poets than
yourself--though less versatile not less passionate, though less sensuous not
less simple--had been born and had died in poor men's cottages! There abides
not even the shadow of a name of the old Scotch song-smiths, of the old
ballad-makers. The authors of 'Clerk Saunders,' of 'The Wife of Usher's Well,'
of 'Fair Annie,' and 'Sir Patrick Spens,' and 'The Bonny Hind,' are as unknown
to us as Homer, whom in their directness and force they resemble. They never,
perhaps, gave their poems to writing; certainly they never gave them to the
press. On the lips and in the hearts of the people they have their lives; and
the singers, after a life obscure and untroubled by society or by fame, are
forgotten. 'The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth his Poppy.'
Had you been born some years earlier you would have been even as these unnamed
Immortals, leaving great verses to a little clan--verses retained only by
Memory. You would have been but the minstrel of your native valley: the wider
world would not have known you, nor you the world. Great thoughts of
independence and revolt would never have burned in you; indignation would not
have vexed you. Society would not have given and denied her caresses. You
would have been happy. Your songs would have lingered in all 'the circle of
the summer hills;' and your scorn, your satire, your narrative verse, would
have been unwritten or unknown. To the world what a loss! and what a gain to
you! We should have possessed but a few of your lyrics, as
When o'er the hill the eastern star
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo;
And owsen frae the furrowed field,
Return sae dowf and wearie 0!
How noble that is, how natural, how unconsciously Greek! You found, oddly, in
good Mrs. Barbauld, the merits of the Tenth Muse:
In thy sweet sang, Barbauld, survives
Even Sappho's flame!
But how unconsciously you remind us both of Sappho and of Homer in these
strains about the Evening Star and the hour when the Day _metenisseto_
_boulytoide_?* Had you lived and died the pastoral poet of some silent glen,
such lyrics could not but have survived; free, too, of all that in your songs
reminds us of the Poet's Corner in the 'Kirkcudbright Advertiser.' We should
not have read how
Phoebus, gilding the brow o' morning,
Banishes ilk darksome shade!
Still we might keep a love-poem unexcelled by Catullus,
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met--or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
But the letters to Clarinda would have been unwritten, and the thrush would
have been untaught in 'the style of the Bird of Paradise.'
*Transliterated from Greek.
A quiet life of song, _fallentis_semita_vitae_', was not to be yours. Fate
otherwise decreed it. The touch of a lettered society, the strife with the
Kirk, discontent with the State, poverty and pride, neglect and success, were
needed to make your Genius what it was, and to endow the world with 'Tam o'
Shanter,' the 'Jolly Beggars,' and 'Holy Willie's Prayer.' Who can praise them
too highly--who admire in them too much the humour, the scorn, the wisdom, the
unsurpassed energy and courage? So powerful, so commanding, is the movement of
that Beggars' Chorus, that, methinks, it unconsciously echoed in the brain of
our greatest living poet when he conceived the Vision of Sin. You shall judge
for yourself. Recall:
Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!
Here's to all the wandering train!
Here's our ragged bairns and callers!
One and all cry out, Amen!
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected!
Churches built to please the priest!
Then read this:
Drink to lofty hopes that cool
Visions of a perfect state:
Drink we, last, the public fool,
Frantic love and frantic hate.
Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance,
While we keep a little breath!
Drink to heavy Ignorance
Hob and nob with brother Death!
Is not the movement the same, though the modern speaks a wilder recklessness?
So in the best company we leave you, who were the life and soul of so much
company, good and bad. No poet, since the Psalmist of Israel, ever gave the
world more assurance of a man; none lived a life more strenuous, engaged in an
eternal conflict of the passions, and by them overcome--'mighty and mightily
fallen.' When we think of you, Byron seems, as Plato would have said, remote
by one degree from actual truth, and Musset by a degree more remote than
To Lord Byron.
(Do you remember how Leigh Hunt
Enraged you once by writing _My_dear_Byron_?)
Books have their fates,--as mortals have who punt,
And _yours_ have entered on an age of iron.
Critics there be who think your satin blunt,
Your pathos, fudge; such perils must environ
Poets who in their time were quite the rage,
Though now there's not a soul to turn their page.
Yes, there is much dispute about your worth,
And much is said which you might like to know
By modern poets here upon the earth,
Where poets live, and love each other so;
And, in Elysium, it may move your mirth
To hear of bards that pitch your praises low,
Though there be some that for your credit stickle,
As--Glorious Mat,--and not inglorious Nichol.
This kind of writing is my pet aversion,
I hate the slang, I hate the personalities,
I loathe the aimless, reckless, loose dispersion,
Of every rhyme that in the singer's wallet is,
I hate it as you hated the _Excursion_,
But, while no man a hero to his valet is,
The hero's still the model; I indite
The kind of rhymes that Byron oft would write.
There's a Swiss critic whom I cannot rhyme to,
One Scherer, dry as sawdust, grim and prim.
Of him there's much to say, if I had time to
Concern myself in any wise with him.
He seems to hate the heights he cannot climb to,
He thinks your poetry a coxcomb's whim,
A good deal of his sawdust he has spilt on
Shakspeare, and Molie're, and you, and Milton.
Ay, much his temper is like Vivien's mood,
Which found not Galahad pure, nor Lancelot brave;
Cold as a hailstorm on an April wood,
He buries poets in an icy grave,
His Essays--he of the Genevan hood!
Nothing so good, but better doth he crave.
So stupid and so solemn in his spite
He dares to print that Molie're could not write!
Enough of these excursions; I was saying
That half our English Bards are turned Reviewers,
And Arnold was discussing and assaying
The weight and value of that work of yours,
Examining and testing it and weighing,
And proved, the gems are pure, the gold endures.
While Swinburne cries with an exceeding joy,
the stones are paste, and half the gold, alloy.
In Byron, Arnold finds the greatest force,
Poetic, in this later age of ours
His song, a torrent from a mountain source,
Clear as the crystal, singing with the showers,
Sweeps to the sea in unrestricted course
Through banks o'erhung with rocks and sweet with flowers;
None of your brooks that modestly meander,
But swift as Awe along the Pass of Brander.
And when our century has clomb its crest,
And backward gazes o'er the plains of Time,
And counts its harvest, yours is still the best,
The richest garner in the field of rhyme
(The metaphoric mixture, 't is confest,
Is all my own, and is not quite sublime).
But fame's not yours alone; you must divide all
The plums and pudding with the Bard of Rydal!
WORDSWORTH and BYRON, these the lordly names
And these the gods to whom most incense burns.
'Absurd!' cries Swinburne, and in anger flames,
And in an AEschylean fury spurns
With impious foot your altar, and exclaims
And wreathes his laurels on the golden urns
Where Coleridge's and Shelley's ashes lie,
Deaf to the din and heedless of the cry.
For Byron (Swinburne shouts) has never woven
One honest thread of life within his song;
As Offenbach is to divine Beethoven
So Byron is to Shelley (_This_ is strong!),
And on Parnassus' peak, divinely cloven,
He may not stand, or stands by cruel wrong;
For Byron's rank (the Examiner has reckoned)
Is in the third class or a feeble second.
'A Bernesque poet' at the very most,
And never earnest save in politics--
The Pegasus that he was wont to boast
A blundering, floundering hackney, full of tricks,
A beast that must be driven to the post
By whips and spurs and oaths and kicks and sticks,
A gasping, ranting, broken-winded brute,
That any judge of Pegasi would shoot;
In sooth, a half-bred Pegasus, and far gone
In spavin, curb, and half a hundred woes.
And Byron's style is 'jolter-headed jargon ;'
His verse is 'only bearable in prose.'
So living poets write of those that are gone,
And o'er the Eagle thus the Bantam crows;
And Swinburne ends where Verisopht began,
By owning you 'a very clever man.'
Or rather does not end: he still must utter
A quantity of the unkindest things.
Ah! were you here, I marvel, would you flutter
O'er such a foe the tempest of your wings?
'T is 'rant and cant and glare and splash and splutter'
That rend the modest air when Byron sings.
There Swinburne stops: a critic rather fiery.
But whether he or Arnold in the right is,
Long is the argument, the quarrel long;
_Non_nobis_est_ to settle _tantas_lites_;
No poet I, to judge of right or wrong:
But of all things I always think a fight is
The most unpleasant in the lists of song;
When Marsyas of old was flayed, Apollo
Set an example which we need not follow.
The fashion changes! Maidens do not wear,
As once they wore, in necklaces and lockets
A curl ambrosial of Lord Byron's hair;
'Don Juan' is not always in our pockets
Nay, a NEW WRITER's readers do not care
Much for your verse, but are inclined to mock its
Manners and morals. Ay, and most young ladies
To yours prefer the 'Epic' called 'of Hades'!
I do not blame them; I'm inclined to think
That with the reigning taste 't is vain to quarrel,
And Burns might teach his votaries to drink,
And Byron never meant to make them moral.
You yet have lovers true, who will not shrink
From lauding you and giving you the laurel;
The Germans too, those men of blood and iron,
Of all our poets chiefly swear by Byron.
Farewell, thou Titan fairer than the gods!
Farewell, farewell, thou swift and lovely spirit,
Thou splendid warrior with the world at odds,
Unpraised, unpraisable, beyond thy merit;
Chased, like Oresres, by the furies' rods,
Like him at length thy peace dost thou inherit;
Beholding whom, men think how fairer far
Than all the steadfast stars the wandering star!
_Note_ Mr. Swlnburne's and Mr. Arnold's diverse views of Byron will be found
in the _Selections_ by Mr. Arnold and in the _Nineteenth_Century_.
To Omar Kha'yya'm.
Wise Omar, do the Southern Breezes fling
Above your Grave, at ending of the Spring,
The Snowdrift of the petals of the Rose,
The wild white Roses you were wont to sing?
Far in the South I know a Land divine, (1)
And there is many a Saint and many a Shrine,
And over all the shrines the Blossom blows
Of Roses that were dear to you as wine.
(1) The hills above San Remo, where rose-bushes are planted by the shrines.
Omar desired that his grave might be where the wind would scatter rose-leaves
You were a Saint of unbelieving days,
Liking your Life and happy in men's Praise;
Enough for you the Shade beneath the Bough,
Enough to watch the wild World go its Ways.
Dreadless and hopeless thou of Heaven or Hell,
Careless of Words thou hadst not Skill to spell,
Content to know not all thou knowest now,
What's Death? Doth any Pitcher dread the Well?
The Pitchers we, whose Maker makes them ill,
Shall He torment them if they chance to spill?
Nay, like the broken potsherds are we cast
Forth and forgotten,--and what will be will!
So still were we, before the Months began
That rounded us and shaped us into Man.
So still we shall be, surely, at the last,
Dreamless, untouched of Blessing or of Ban!
Ah, strange it seems that this thy common thought
How all things have been, ay, and shall be nought
Was ancient Wisdom in thine ancient East,
In those old Days when Senlac fight was fought,
Which gave our England for a captive Land
To pious Chiefs of a believing Band,
A gift to the Believer from the Priest,
Tossed from the holy to the blood-red Hand! (1)
(1) Omar was contemporary with the battle of Hastings.
Yea, thou wert singing when that Arrow clave
Through helm and brain of him who could not save
His England, even of Harold Godwin's son;
The high tide murmurs by the Hero's grave! (1)
(1) Per mandata Ducis, Rex hic, Heralde, quiescis,
Ut custos maneas littoris et pelagi.
And _thou_ wert wreathing Roses--who can tell?--
Or chanting for some girl that pleased thee well,
Or satst at wine in Nasha'pu'r, when dun
The twilight veiled the field where Harold fell!
The salt Sea-waves above him rage and roam!
Along the white Walls of his guarded Home
No Zephyr stirs the Rose, but o'er the wave
The wild Wind beats the Breakers into Foam!
And dear to him, as Roses were to thee,
Rings long the Roar of Onset of the Sea;
The _Swan's_Path_ of his Fathers is his grave:
His sleep, methinks, is sound as thine can be.
His was the Age of Faith, when all the West
Looked to the Priest for torment or for rest;
And thou wert living then, and didst not heed
The Saint who banned thee or the Saint who blessed!
Ages of Progress! These eight hundred years
Hath Europe shuddered with her hopes or fears,
And now!--she listens in the wilderness
To thee, and half believeth what she hears!
Hadst _thou_ THE SECRET? Ah, and who may tell?
'An hour we have,' thou saidst. 'Ah, waste it well!'
An hour we have, and yet Eternity
Looms o'er us, and the thought of Heaven or Hell!
Nay, we can never be as wise as thou,
O idle singer 'neath the blossomed bough.
Nay, and we cannot be content to die.
_We_ cannot shirk the questions ' Where?' and 'How?'
Ah, not from learned Peace and gay Content
Shall we of England go the way he went
The Singer of the Red Wine and the Rose
Nay, otherwise than his our Day is spent!
Serene he dwelt in fragrant Nasha'pu'r,
But we must wander while the Stars endure.
_He_ knew THE SECRET: we have none that knows,
No Man so sure as Omar once was sure!
To Q. Horatius Flaccus.
In what manner of Paradise are we to conceive that you, Horace, are dwelling,
or what region of immortality can give you such pleasures as this life
afforded? The country and the town, nature and men, who knew them so well as
you, or who ever so wisely made the best of those two worlds? Truly here you
had good things, nor do you ever, in all your poems, look for more delight in
the life beyond; you never expect consolation for present sorrow, and when you
once have shaken hands with a friend the parting seems to you eternal.
Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
Tam cari capitis?
So you sing, for the dear head you mourn has sunk for ever beneath the wave.
Virgil might wander forth bearing the golden branch 'the Sibyl doth to singing
men allow,' and might visit, as one not wholly without hope, the dim dwellings
of the dead and the unborn. To him was it permitted to see and sing 'mothers
and men, and the bodies out-worn of mighty heroes, boys and unwedded maids,
and young men borne to the funeral fire before their parents' eyes.' The
endless caravan swept past him--'many as fluttering leaves that drop and fall
in autumn woods when the first frost begins; many as birds that flock landward
from the great sea when now the chill year drives them o'er the deep and leads
them to sunnier lands.' Such things was it given to the sacred poet to behold,
and the happy seats and sweet pleasances of fortunate souls, where the larger
light clothes all the plains and dips them in a rosier gleam, plains with
their own new sun and stars before unknown. Ah, not _frustra_pius_ was Virgil,
as you say, Horace, in your melancholy song. In him, we fancy, there was a
happier mood than your melancholy patience. 'Not, though thou wert sweeter of
song than Thracian Orpheus, with that lyre whose lay led the dancing trees,
not so would the blood return to the empty shade of him whom once with dread
wand the inexorable god hath folded with his shadowy flocks; but patience
lighteneth what heaven forbids us to undo.'
It was all your philosophy in that last sad resort to which we are pushed so
'With close-lipped Patience for our only friend,
Sad Patience, too near neighbour of Despair.'
The Epicurean is at one with the Stoic at last, and Horace with Marcus
Aurelius. 'To go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be
afraid of; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about
human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid
An excellent philosophy, but easier to those for whom no Hope had dawn or
seemed to set. Yet it is harder than common, Horace, for us to think of you,
still glad somewhere, among rivers like Liris and plains and vine-clad hills,
Solemque suum, sua sidera borunt.
It is hard, for you looked for no such thing.
You could not tell Maecenas that you would meet him again; you could only
promise to tread the dark path with him.
Enough, Horace, of these mortuary musings. You loved the lesson of the roses,
and now and again would speak somewhat like a death's head over thy temperate
cups of Sabine _ordinaire_. Your melancholy moral was but meant to heighten
the joy of thy pleasant life, when wearied Italy, after all her wars and civic
bloodshed, had won a peaceful haven.The harbour might be treacherous; the
prince might turn to the tyrant;far away on the wide Roman marches might be
heard, as it were, the endless, ceaseless monotone of beating horses' hoofs
and marching feet of men. They were coming, they were nearing, like footsteps
heard on wool; there was a sound of multitudes and millions of barbarians, all
the North, _officina_gentium_, mustering and marshalling her peoples. But
their coming was not to be to-day, nor to-morrow; nor to-day was the budding
princely sway to blossom into the blood-red flower of Nero. In the hall
between the two tempests of Republic and Empire your odes sound 'like linnets
in the pauses of the wind.'
What joy there is in these songs! what delight of life, what an exquisite
Hellenic grace of art, what a manly nature to endure, what tenderness and
constancy of friendship, what a sense of all that is fair in the glittering
stream, the music of the waterfall, the hum of bees, the silvery grey of the
olive woods on the hillside! How human are all your verses, Horace! what a
pleasure is yours in the straining poplars, swaying in the wind! what gladness
you gain from the white crest of Soracte, beheld through the fluttering
snowflakes while the logs are being piled higher on the hearth. You sing of
women and wine--not all whole-hearted in your praise of them, perhaps, for
passion frightens you, and 't is pleasure more than love that you commend to
the young. Lydia and Glycera, and the others, are but passing guests of a
heart at ease in itself, and happy enough when their facile reign is ended.
You seem to me like a man who welcomes middle age, and is more glad than
Sophocles was to 'flee from these hard masters' the passions. In the 'fallow
leisure of life' you glance round contented, and find all very good save the
need to leave all behind. Even that you take with an Italian good-humour, as
the folk of your sunny country bear poverty and hunger.
To them, to you, the loveliness of your land is, and was, a thing to live for.
None of the Latin poets your fellows, or none but Virgil, seem to me to have
known so well as you, Horace, how happy and fortunate a thing it was to be
born in Italy. You do not say so, like your Virgil, in one splendid passage,
numbering the glories of the land as a lover might count the perfections of
his mistress. But the sentiment is ever in your heart and often on your lips.
Me nec tam patiens Lacedaemon,
Nec tam Larissae percussit campus opimae,
Quam domus Albuneae resonantis
Et praeceps Anio, ac Tiburni lucus, et uda
Mobilibus pomaria rivis. (1)
(1) 'Me neither resolute Sparta nor the rich Larissaean plain so enraptures as
the fane of echoing Albunea, the headlong Anio, the grove of Tibur, the
orchards watered by the wandering rills.
So a poet should speak, and to every singer his own land should be dearest.
Beautiful is Italy with the grave and delicate outlines of her sacred hills,
her dark groves, her little cities perched like eyries on the crags, her
rivers gliding under ancient walls; beautiful is Italy, her seas, and her
suns: but dearer to me the long grey wave that bites the rock below the
minster in the north; dearer is the barren moor and black peat-water swirling
in tanny foam, and the scent of bog myrtle and the bloom of heather, and,
watching over the lochs, the green round-shouldered hills.
In affection for your native land, Horace, certainly the pride in great Romans
dead and gone made part, and you were, in all senses, a lover of your country,
your country's heroes, your country's gods. None but a patriot could have sung
that ode on Regulus, who died, as our own hero died, on an evil day for the
honour of Rome, as Gordon for the honour of England.
Fertur pudicae conjujis osculum,
Parvosque natos, ut capitis minor,
Ab se removisse, et virilem
Torvus humi pusuisse voltum:
Donec labantes consilio patres
Firmaret auctor nunquam alias dato,
Interque maerentes amicos
Egregius properaret exul.
Atqui sciebat, quae sibi barbarus
Tortor pararet: non aliter tamen
Dimovit obstantes propinquos,
Et populum reditus morantem,
Quam si clientum longa negotia
Dijudicata lite relinqueret,
Tendens Venafranos in agros
Aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum. (1)
(1) 'They say he put aside from him the pure lips of his wife and his little
children, like a man unfree, and with his brave face bowed earthward sternly
he waited till with such counsel as never mortal gave he might strengthen the
hearts of the Fathers, and through his mourning friends go forth, a hero, into
exile. Yet well he knew what things were being prepared for him at the hands
of the tormenters, who, none the less, put aside the kinsmen that barred his
path and the people that would fain have held him back, passing through their
midst as he might have done, if, his retainers' weary business ended and the
suits adjudged, he were faring to his Venafran lands or to Dorian Tarentum.'
We talk of the Greeks as your teachers. Your teachers they were, but that poem
could only have been written by a Roman! The strength, the tenderness, the
noble and monumental resolution and resignation--these are the gift of the
lords of human things, the masters of the world. Your country's heroes are
dear to you, Horace, but you did not sing them better than your country's
Gods, the pious protecting spirits of the hearth, the farm, the field, kindly
ghosts, it may be, of Latin fathers dead or Gods framed in the image of these.
What you actually believed we know not, _you_ knew not. Who knows what he
believes? _Parcus_Deorum_cultor_ you bowed not often, it may be, in the
temples of the state religion and before the statues of the great Olympians;
but the pure and pious worship of rustic tradition, the faith handed down by
the homely elders, with that you never broke. Clean hands and a pure heart,
these, with a sacred cake and shining grains of salt, you could offer to the
Lares. It was a benignant religion, uniting old times and new, men living and
men long dead and gone, in a kind of service and sacrifice solemn yet
Te nihil attinet
Tentare multa caede bidentium
Parvos coronantem marino
Rore deos fragilique myrto.
Immunis aram si tetigit manus,
Non sumptuosa blandior hostia
Mollivit aversos Penates
Farre pio et salienta mica. (1)
(1) Thou, Phidyle, hast no need to besiege the gods with slaughter so great of
sheep, thou who crownest thy tiny deities with myrtle rare and rosemary. If
but the hand be clean that touches the altar, then richest sacrifice will not
more appease the angered Penates than the duteous cake and salt that crackles
in the blaze.'
Farewell, dear Horace; farewell, thou wise and kindly heathen; of mortals the
most human, the friend of my friends and of so many generations of men.
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