George Gilfillan: Literary Portraits.

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FROM

ESSAYS & BELLES-LETTRES.
A GALLERY OF LITERARY PORTRAITS

BY

GEORGE GILFILLAN.

GERALD MASSEY.


GERALD MASSEY has not the voluptuous tone, the felicitous and highly-wrought imagery, or the sustained music of Smith; nor the diffusive splendour [1] and rich general spirit of poetry in which all Bigg's verses are steeped; nor the amazing subtlety, depth, and pervasive purpose of Yendys's song.  His poetry is neither sustained as a whole, nor highly finished in almost any of its parts; its power lies in separate sparkles of intense brilliance, shining on what is generally a dark ground—like moonbeams gleaming on a midnight wave.   Whether it be from the extreme brightness of those sparkles, or from the gloom which they relieve, certain we are that we have never made so many marks in the same compass in any poem. Indeed, we have seldom followed any such practice; but in Massey's case we felt irresistibly compelled to it—his beauties had such a sudden and startling effect.  They rose at our feet like fluttered birds of game; they stood up in our path like rose-bushes amid groves of pine.  Before saying anything more of this poet's merits or faults, we shall transcribe some of these markings.

"In lonely loveliness she grew
     A shape all music, light and love,
     With startling looks so eloquent of
 The spirit burning into view.

Her brow—fit home for daintiest dreams—
     With such a dawn of light was crown'd,
     And reeling ringlets rippled round
 Like sunny sheaves of golden beams."

"The trees, like burden'd prophets yearn'd,
 Rapt in a wind of prophecy."

Hear this exquisite picture of a lover's heart, in the dark, rising to the image, of his mistress:—

"Heart will plead, 'Eyes cannot see her.   They are
         blind with tears of pain"
     And it climbeth up and straineth for dear life to look
         and hark 
While I call her once again; but there cometh no
         refrain,
     And it droppeth down and dieth, in the dark."

"I heard faith's low sweet singing in the night,
 And groping through the darkness touch'd God's hand."

"Some bird in sudden sparkles of fine sound
 Hurries its startled being into song."

"No star goes down, but climbs in other skies.
 The rose of sunset folds its glory up,
 To burst again from out the heart of dawn;
 And love is never lost, though hearts run waste,
 And sorrow makes the chasten'd heart a seer;
 The deepest dark reveals the starriest hope,
 And Faith can trust her heaven behind the veil."

"The sweetest swallow-dip of a tender smile
 Ran round your mouth in thrillings."

"A spirit feel is in the solemn air."

                                             "Unto dying eyes
The dark of death doth blossom into stars."

"Sweet eyes of starry tenderness, through which
 The soul of some immortal sorrow looks!"

"Sorrow hath reveal'd what we ne'er had known,
 With joy's wreath tumbled o'er our blinded eyes."

"Darks of diamonds, grand as nights of stars:"

" 'Tis the old story! ever the blind world
 Knows not its angels of deliverance,
 Till they stand glorified 'twixt earth and heaven."

"Ye sometimes lead my feet to walk the angel side of life."

"Come, worship beauty in the forest temple, dim and hush,
 Where stands magnificence dreaming! and God burneth in the bush."

"The murkiest midnight that frowns from the skies
 Is at heart a radiant morrow."

"The kingliest kings are crown'd with thorn."

"When will the world quicken for liberty's birth,
 Which she waiteth, with eager wings beating the dawn."

" Oh, but 'twill be a merry day, the world shall set apart,
 When strife's last brand is broken in the last crown'd tyrant's heart!"

"The herald of our coming Christ leaps in the womb of time;
 The poor's grand army treads the Age's march with step sublime."

"Yet she weeteth not I love her;
 Never dare I tell the sweet
 Tale, but to the stars above her,
 And the flowers that kiss her feet."

"And the maiden-meek voice of the womanly wife
 Still bringeth the heavens nigher,
 For it ring s like the voice of God o'er my life,
 Aye bidding me climb up higher."

"Merry as laughter 'mong the hills,
 Spring dances at my heart!"

"Where life bath climaxt like a wave
 That breaks in perfect rest."

    We might long persist at this pleasant task of plucking wild-flowers.  But we hasten to speak of some of the more prominent merits and defects of this remarkable volume.  One main merit of Massey is his intense earnestness, which reminds you almost of Ebenezer Elliott, with his red­hot poker pen.  Like him, he has "put his heart"—his big, burning heart—into his poems.  Mr Lewes, of the "Leader," opines that Massey wants the power of transmuting experience into poetic forms, and that nowhere does the real soul of the man utter itself: two most unfortunate assertions—for the evident effort, and often successful attainment, of this author, more than with most writers, are, to set his own life to music, and to express in verse all the poetry with which it has teemed.  He has been a sore struggler—with poverty, with a narrow sphere, with doubts and darkness; and you have this struggle echoed in his rugged and fiery song.  He has been a giant under Etna; and his voice is a suspirium de profundes.  Although still a very young man, he has undergone ages of experience; and, although we had not known all this from his preface and notes, we might have confidently concluded it from his poetry.

    In his earlier poems, we find his fire of earnestness burning in fierce, exaggerated, and volcanic forms. The poet appears an incarnation of the Evil Genius of poverty, and reminds you of Robert Burns in his wilder mood.  He sets Chartism to music.  He sings, with strange Variations "A man's a man for a' that."  But this springs from circumstances, not from the poet himself; and you are certain that progress and change of situation will elicit a finer and healthier frame, of spirit—and so it has proved.  Although his poems are not arranged in chronological order, internal evidence convinces us that those in which he is at once simplest and most subdued have been written last.  A change of the most benignant kind has come o'er the spirit of his dream, and has been, we beg leave to think , greatly owing to female influence.  He has found his better angel in that amiable wife, whose virtues he has so often celebrated in his song, and in whom he sees a tenth muse.

    The homage done by him to the domestic affections, his ardent worship of his own hearth, is one of the most pleasing characteristics of Gerald Massey's poetry, and has been noticed by more than one of his critics.  It comes out, not for the sake of ostentation, or artistic effect, but spontaneously and irresistibly in many parts of his poems.  We have great pleasure in transcribing words addressed to him by an eminent writer of the day, in which we cordially concur: " One everlasting subject of people's poetry is love, and you are at the age at which a man is bound to sing it.  The devil has had power over love-poems too long, because the tastes of the people were too gross to relish anything but indecency, because the married men left the love-singing to the unmarried ones.  Now, love before marriage is the tragedy of 'Hamlet' with the part of Hamlet left out!  Therefore the bachelor love-poets, being forced to make their subject complete, to go beyond mere sentiment, were driven into illicit love.  I say that is a shame.  I say that the highest joys of love are married joys, and that the married man ought to be the true love-poet.  Now God has given you, as I hear, in his great love and mercy, a charming wife and child.  There is your school.  There are your treasured ideas.  Sing about them, and the people will hear you, because you will be loving, and real, and honest, and practical, speaking from your heart straight to theirs.  But write simply what you do feel and see, not what you think you ought to feel and see.  The very simplest love-poet goes deepest.  Get to yourself, I beseech you, all that you can of English and Scotch ballads, and consider them as what they are—models.  Read 'Auld Robin Gray' twenty times over.  Study it word for word."

    The poem entitled the "Bridal" is hardly so simple as this writer would wish; but, as a rich marriage-dress, it challenges all admiration.

    We must quote some passages.

Alive with eyes, the village sees
The Bridal dawning from the trees,
And housewives swarm i' the sun like bees.

Silence sits i' the belfry-choir!
Up in the twinkling air the spire
Throbs, as it flutter'd wings of fire.

The winking windows, stained rare,
Blush with their gouts of glory, fair
As heaven's shower-arch had melted there.

But enter—lordlier splendours brim,
Such mists of gold and purple swim,
And the light falls so rich and dim.
            *             *             *             *
Even so doth love life's doors unbar,
Where all the hidden glories are,
That from the windows shone afar.
 *             *             *             *
Sumptuous as Iris, when she swims
With rainbow-robe on dainty limbs,
The bride's full beauty overbrims.

The gazers drink rare overflows,
Her cheek a lovelier damask glows,
And on his arm she leans more close.

A drunken joy reels in his blood,
His being doth so bud and bud,
He wanders an enchanted wood.

Last night with weddable white arms,
And thoughts that throng'd with quaint alarms,
She trembled o'er her mirror'd charms.

Like Eve first glassing her new life;
And the Maid startled at the Wife,
Heart-pained with a sweet warm strife.

The unknown sea moans on her shore
Of life
; she hears the breakers roar,
But, trusting him, she'll fear no more.

The blessing given, the ring is on;
And at God's altar radiant ran
The currents of two lives in one.

Husht with happiness, every sense
Is crowned at the heart intense,
And silence hath such eloquence!

Down to his feet her meek eyes stoop
As there her love should pour its cup;
But like a king, he lifts them up.
 *             *             *             *
Alone they hold their marriage-feast—
Fresh from the chrism of the priest,
He would not have the happiest jest

To storm her brows with a crimson fine;
And, sooth, they need no wings of wine
To float them into love's divine.

So Strength and Beauty, hand in hand,
Go forth into the honey'd land
Lit by the love-moon, golden-grand,

Where here God hath built their bridal bower,
And on the top of life they tower,
And taste the Eden's perfect hour.

No lewd eyes over my shoulder look!
They do but ope the blessed book
Of marriage in their hallow'd nook.

O, flowery be the paths they press;
And ruddiest human fruitage bless
Them with a lavish loveliness!

Melodious move their wedded life
Through shocks of time, and storms of strife,
Husband true, and perfect wife!

    How genius can glorify every object or incident!  Had Mr Massey been describing the marriage of two spirits who are to spend eternity together, or the nuptials of Philosophy and faith, he could not have expended more wealth and splendour of imagery, than he does upon what is substantially the story of two children driven by a foe or storm into a nook, where they fondle each other, or weep in concert, till the inevitable enemy comes up and removes them both.  What else is the happiest mortal marriage?  Still, the spirit of the strain is beautiful, and reminds us forcibly of the one song of poor Lapraik to his wife, of which Burns thus writes:—

There was ae sang amang the rest,
Aboon them a' it pleased me best,
Which some kind husband had address'd
              To some sweet wife.
It thirl'd the heart-strings through the breast,
              A' to the life.

    Massey has no elements of the epic or constructive poet about him.  He is simply and solely a true lyrist, and as such is both strong and sweet; but with sweetness in general, although not always, rejoicing over strength—sweetness, we mean, of thought, rather than of language and versification. Both of these are often sufficiently rugged.  His sentiment seldom halts, but his verse and language often do.  Some of his poems remind us of the dishevelled morning head of a beautiful child.  This, however, we greatly prefer to that affectation of style, that absurd elaborate jargon, which many true poets of the day are allowing to crust over their style.   Even our gifted friend Yendys must beware of a tendency he has lately exhibited in "Balder" to pedantry and far-fetched forms of speech.  Strong simple English can express any thought, however subtle; any imagination, however lofty; any reflection, however profound; any emotion, however warm; and any shade of fancy, however delicate.  Massey, in all his more earnest and loftier strains, shuns the faults of over­elaboration and daintiness, and throws out diamonds in the rough.  We may refer, as one of the best specimens of his stern and stalwart battle-axe manner, to "New Year's Eve in Exile."  Hear these lines, for instance:—

Men who had broken battle's burning lines,
Dealing life with their looks, death with their hands;
And strode like Salamanders through war's flame;
And in the last stern charge of desperate valour
On death's scythe dash'd with force that turn'd its edge.
*             *             *              *              *             *              *   
Earnest as fire they sate, and reverent
As though a God were present in their midst;
Stern, but serene and hopeful, prayerful, brave
As Cromwell's Ironsides on an eve of battle.
Each individual life as clench'd and knit,
As though beneath their robes their fingers clutch'd
The weapon sworn to strike a tyrant down;
Such proud belief lifted their kindling brows;
Such glowing purpose hunger'd in their eyes.
*             *             *              *              *             *              *   
The new year flashes on us sadly grand,
Leaps in our midst with ringing armour on,
Strikes a mail'd hand in ours, and bids us arm
Ere the first trumpet sound the hour of onset.
Dense darkness lies on Europe's winter world;
Stealthy and grim the Bear comes creeping on
Out of the North, and all the peoples sleep
By Freedom's smouldering watch-fire; there is none
To snatch the brand and dash it in his face.

    This is masculine writing; resembling thy first and best style, O dear author of "The Roman"—a style to which we trust to see thee returning in thy future works.  The grandest poetry has ever been, and shall ever be, written on rocks—like the stony handwriting traced by the tribes in their march through that great and terrible wilderness; or like the fiery lines which God's hand cut upon the two tables of the law.

    We notice in Massey, as in all young poets, occasional imitations of other writers; nay, one or two petty lar­cenies. For example, he says,

"She summers on heaven's hills of myrrh."

Aird had said, in his "Devil's Dream,"

"And thou shalt summer high in bliss upon the hills of God"

    Again, Massey says,

The flowers fold their cups like praying hands,
And with droop' d heads await the blessing Night
Gives with her silent magnanimity.

Aird in the same marvellous dream had used the words,

"The silent magnanimity of Nature and her God."

    In the same page Massey says,

How dear it is to mark th' immortal life
Deepen and darken in her large round eyes.

    In Aird's "Buy a Broom" we find the following lines, quoted, however, and from what author we forget:—

                             "Like Pandora's eye,
When first it darken'd with immortal life."

    In page 51 the following lines occur:—

"Wept glorious tears that telescope the soul,
 And bring heaven nearer to the eyes of Faith."

We ourselves had said, "the most powerful of all telescopes is a tear."  These, however, are really all the distinct instances of plagiarism we have noticed; and, besides being probably quite unintentional, they bear no proportion whatever to the numerous and splendid originalities of the volume.

    We have endeavoured to find out from Mr Massey's volume what his religious sentiments are; and think that, on the whole, he seems to have got little further, as yet, than the worship of Nature.  We can forewarn him that this will not long satisfy his heart.  Nature, to say the least of it, is a crude, imperfect process, not a complete and rounded result, far less a living cause.  No delusion is becoming more general, and none is more contemptibly false, than a certain Brahminical worship of this universe, as if it were anything more than a combination of brute matter, coloured by distance and fancy with poetic hues.  Carlyle has greatly aided our young poets to the pitiful con­clusion that Matter is God.  He cries out, "The Earth is my mother, and divine."  He says again, after sneering at the authority of the Bible, "There is one book, of the inspiration of which there cannot be any doubt," namely Nature; forgetting that all the difficulties, and far more, which beset the thought that God is the inspirer of the Bible, beset the notion that he is the Author of nature and that, if earth be as a whole divine, then its evils, imperfections, and unutterable woes must be divine, and consequently eternal too.  We must warn young poets against that excessive idolatry of light, heat, law, life, and their multitudinous effects, which are leading them so terribly astray, and sowing their pages with gross materialism, disguised under a transparent veil of Pantheistic mysticism. They see Silenus through a dream, and think him Pan, and make this Pan their only God.  Connected with this, is that worship which they say can be best performed without going to church, and the fittest altars of which are

The mountains and the ocean,
Earth, air, stars—all that springs from the Great Whole,
Who hath produced, and will receive, the soul;

forgetting that this worship, being that of the imagination, not of the heart, must be vague and cold; that energy , zeal, and piety have never in former times been long sustained without the aid of public as well as of personal devotion; that the most of those who have thus "worshipped they knew not what," in a manner they could hardly tell how, have been unhappy and morbid beings; that Milton, whose example they often quote, although he left his church, did not forsake his Bible; that Jesus Christ, whom they venerate, while he went up again and again to a mountain to pray, himself alone, far more frequently was found in the synagogues on the Sabbath-day; and that, even on merely artistic principles, no finer spectacle can be witnessed on earth than a man of genius not retiring into haughty isolation, and bowing the knee with greater pride than if he blasphemed, but mingling quietly with the common stream of the multitude which is pouring to the house of God, and uniting his voice with their psalmody, his heart with their thanksgiving, and his soul with their adoration.

    Since commencing this paper, we have read a book — attributed to Dr Whewell, and published by Parker on "The Plurality of Worlds." [2]  Years ago, we had reached all the leading conclusions in this remarkable volume.  Its merit is, that it bases what have long been our intuitions upon a solid foundation of logic and facts, proving, almost to a demonstration, that earth is the only part of the creation—at all events, of the solar system—which is yet inhabited.  Our object at present in mentioning it, is to proclaim its value as a deadly blow in the face of creation worship and Pantheism.  It demonstrates that the glory of the heavenly bodies is all illusion—that they are really in the crudest condition—that there is not the most distant probability that they shall ever be fit for the habitation of intelligent beings—that man is totally distinct from all other races of beings, and is absolutely, essentially, and for ever superior to, and distinct from, the lower animals—and that, besides, he shall, in all probability, be renewed and elevated by a supernatural intervention.  It hints, too, at our favourite thought (stated in our paper on Chalmers, in this volume), that, at death, we leave this material creation for ever, and enter on a spiritual sphere, disconnected from this, and where sun, moon, and stars are the "things invisible;" that, to use the words of MacIntosh to Hall, "we shall awake from this dream, and find ourselves in other spheres of existence."  And all these, and many similar ideas, are not thrown out as mere conjectures, nor even as bold gleams of insight, but are shown to be favoured by analogy—nay, some of them founded on fact.  We never read a book with more thorough conviction that we were reading what was true.  Had the author gone a step or two farther still, we could have followed him with confidence.  Had he predicted the absolute annihilation of matter, we could have substantiated his statement by the words of Scripture: "They shall perish, but Thou remainest ; yea, all of them shall be changed and folded up as a vesture; but Thou art the same, and Thy years fail not."  Again, we say that we deeply value this admirable book, as a tractate for the times.  It should be peculiarly useful to those poets who, like Mr Massey, are constantly raving about the beauty, the glory, the immensity, and the divinity of Matter, each and all being palpable delusions, since matter is neither beautiful, nor glorious, nor immense, nor divine.  It will show him that the glory of the moon, the planets, and the stars may be compared to the effects of morning or evening sunshine upon the towers of an infirmary, a prison, or some giant city of sin—lending a false lustre to objects which in themselves are horrible or foul.

    We must now take our leave of Mr Massey.  And, notwithstanding these concluding hints, we do so with every feeling of respect, admiration, and kindly feeling.  Probably since Burns, there has been no such instance of a strong untaught poet rising up from the ranks by a few strides, grasping eminence by the very mane, and vaulting into a seat so commanding with such ease and perfect mastery.  He has much yet, however, to do—to learn—and, it may be, to endure.  It is yet all morning with him.  Life's enchanted cup is sparkling at the brim.  From early sufferings he has passed into comfort, domestic happiness, and general fame.  Many veils are yet to drop from his eyes.  He has yet to learn the worthlessness of human nature as a whole, the impotence of human effort, the littleness of human life, and the delusive nature of all joy which is not connected with our duty to God and man.  His present sanguine hopes and notions of hu­manity will wither, just as the green earth and blue skies will by and by appear altogether insufficient to fill and satisfy his soul.  This process we regard inevitable to all genuine thinkers and lofty poets; but the great question is, Does it result in souring or in strengthening the man?  Carlyle and Foster both passed through this disenchanting process; but how different the results!  The one has become savage in his despair as a flayed wild beast.  The other became milder and calmer in proportion to the depth of his melancholy.  And the reason of this difference is very simple.  Carlyle believes in nothing but the universe.  Foster believed in a Father, a Saviour, and a future world.  If Mr Massey comes (as we trust he shall) to a true belief, it will corroborate him for every trial and every sad in­ternal or external experience, and he will stand like an Atlas above the ruins of a world, calm, firm, pensive, but pressing forwards, and looking on high.[3]

Endnotes.

1.

The Ballad of Babe Christabel, and other Lyrical Poems. With additional Pieces, and a Preface. By GERALD MASSEY.

2.

See our thoughts at greater length on this subject in a recent article in the "Eclectic Review," to which we are happy to say the author in his "Dialogue," a masterly reply to his opponents, newly Published, refers with satisfaction.

3.

Since this paper was written, we have read some specimens of Massey's prose, in his preface to his third edition, and in his review of "Balder" in the "Eclectic."  It is most excellent, clear, massive, masterly English, very refreshing in this age of mystical fudge.

 



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